Monday, May 20, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Five 2009)

For this point forward, the lists go by year. I could have consolidated them a little, but they become a little unwieldy and over 4K words. 2009’s significant as there’s a groundswell of independently created and freely distributed rpgs, not only in steampunk, but other genres. Some of these are modest, the result of creation competitions. But others are impressive demonstrations of their creator’s skills. From these emerge all kinds of new creative directions.

Steampunk itself is a kind of splinter, arising during a rebirth in exciting speculative-fiction. I’ve written about Cyberpunk and rpgs before. Steampunk’s a neologism apparently coined by K.W. Jeter to echo cyberpunk. It has grown and become a loose amalgam of ideas- as you can see by these crazy and diverse lists. I think what’s interesting is to consider the other variant forms which also spun out. I’d argue these grew more out of steampunk than cyberpunk- and we’ve seen many of them pop up in rpgs:
  • Dieselpunk: Gas and engines- usually hitting in the period between the two wars. I’ve left several of these games of the lists as they’re often more pulp-oriented. But the awful Children of the Sun described itself as dieselpunk. 
  • Radiumpunk: Radiation and breakdown seems to be the theme of this. The game Warsaw on this list reflects that, but there are others. 
  • Clockpunk: Clockwork and wind-up devices- often associated with Da Vinci. The excellent Clockwork and Chivalry’s the best example of this. 
  • Electropunk: Weird electricity- sometimes associated with Teslapunk as well. The recent Ghost Lines calls itself electropunk. 
And of course there are many, many more. You can see a partial list at the Wikipedia entry on Cyberpunk derivatives. My favorite of these is Decopunk- I have to figure out how to build a game in that genre.

I left off several interesting products. Beat to Quarters and Krutrök & sägner are both cool products close to this period, but just outside. The latter’s a Swedish game which translates to “Gunpowder & Fairytales.” It deals with the clash of myth and man as the Napoleonic Wars spread to Sweden. Scarrport: City of Secrets is an interesting product, but the steampunk elements seem to be pretty marginal. Likewise the excellent The Day after Ragnarok has some of the cobble-tech feel of steampunk, but is more focused on pulp adventure. I also left off several interesting free rpg products. Cloudship Atlantis, Doom and Cookies, and Genius: The Transgression. The latter’s an amazing and complete new line book for nWoD featuring Mad Science. I also left off the Polish rpg Trójca which appears to be solely self-published.

You can find an explanation of my arbitrary labels on the first list entry. I’ve focused on core game lines or supplements offering a significant shift or change to the setting. So if one module offers some steampunk bits, I’ve left it off the list. I welcome discussions and suggestions as I work through these lists. I've arranged the items chronologically and then alphabetically within the year of publication. I break the time periods down arbitrarily, trying to keep the lists manageable.

(2009, Victoriana) A Victorian-era superhero supplement for Basic Roleplaying. It suffers a little in coming out the same year as The Kerberos Club (IMHO). This campaign setting borrows liberally from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The players serve as super-powered operatives for the British Crown. The volume’s fairly light, but would be at least a good starting point for GMs thinking about doing supers in the period. Has the added advantage of using the BRP system which many players know through Call of Cthulhu.

(2009, Victoriana) Available in both OGL and Savage Worlds flavors, Gaslight Victorian Fantasy offers a pretty basic alternate Earth backdrop. It feels like a solid house campaign expanded and detailed for others' use. The presentation is fairly basic with heavy use of period stock art that doesn't necessarily fit with the text. Essentially it offers a classic Victoriana backdrop with a little magic and some non-human races thrown into the mix. Secret Societies get the bulk of the background and discussion. That's an interesting concept and one worth developing. The timeline and background's directed to the particular alt history, so it isn't as useful for general reference.

(2009, Victoriana/Steampunk) Ironically, a supplement in which Queen Victoria wasn't born. Instead the Crown ends up in a massive mess of aristocratic lines and factions. It includes copious amounts of weird steamtech. One of themes seems to be that kind of engineering taken to 11. This supplement's aimed, at least in part, towards Infinity Agents trying to figure out how to work within the cultural structures. It did get me thinking about why we haven't seen a GURPS Steampunk for 4th edition. Wouldn't it be relatively easy to slam together the 3e products GURPS Steampunk, Steamtech, and even Screampunk into a single hardcover volume. But then I realized that having those products available as pdfs in some ways negates the need for a new edition. Given the relative closeness of 3e and 4e (with the exception of some combat tweaks and the character creation bits), you don't need a new edition unless you bring something really new to the table, as they did with GURPS Horror 4e.

(2009, Victoriana) One of my favorite settings, The Kerberos Club presents incredibly well thought out Victorian superheroes. The set-up offered has an internal consistency missing from other games. The Kerberos Club of the title is the patron group which brings together people with unique talents and abilities. They stand outside society, protecting it. There's a nice dynamic of cooperation and opposition between the club and the powers-that-be. The book offers ideas and background for running a campaign in the early, middle, or late Victorian era.

I highly recommend this book and a readable resource on the era. It may not be as detailed as some others, but it is a pleasure to work through. The world-building on display here is excellent- and really wrestles with some of the implications of having women, non-humans, and "ethnics" with powers operating in this culture. The FATE version of this is especially good (and complete), but there's also a Wild Talents and a Savage Worlds version you can buy. You can read my full review here and some further thoughts here.

(2009, Steampunk) Here again I violate my rules and include another free pdf. However, I've seen Lady Blackbird discussed, played, and adapted in multiple posts, so it has some legs. Done in just ten pages, LB offers a simple resolution system and sketches out a premise: flight from a marriage, a secret smuggler, and capture by an imperial vessel. The story begins with a ticking clock putting the events into motion. The world is writ lightly as steampunk with skyships and a tech aesthetic. MJ Harnish has a review of Lady Blackbord that lays out the essentials, Dare I say the perfect one-shot game?.

(2009, Victoriana) A Czech RPG, which might be read as "Tales of the Empire" and is based on FATE. The translated publisher blurb reads, "This book contains the rules of the game Tales of the Empire and everything needed to play. This is a role-playing game from the environment fantastic Victorian 19th century where magic still flows through the country. This fully illustrated book contains a detailed description of the environment as the Victorian era, a system with a strong emphasis on storytelling and weaving stories, sample adventure or perhaps ready-made characters for the game. The game is fully playable without expansion manuals."

The wikipedia entry adds, "The game world is based on the historic Victorian world of the nineteenth century, when the streets of London filled choking smoke of factories and forges, while steam engines powered the industrial revolution. But it added to the charm and the line on which the authors argue that there are in addition to technology. English nocturnal streets and in the game through wizards, goblins and elves and among people living in coats and hats dwarfs, fauns and other strange creatures.

In this game are rampant murders, mysterious disappearances, strange rituals, evil magic and strange creatures, which bypasses the streets and ancient English forests. Powerful houses mages here lead their disputes and sometimes struggle in the bleak British streets in a world of magic and Feria. Various factions in Parliament and House of Lords are trying to influence and enforce their intentions and often hiding behind policy deadly and dangerous intrigue and conspiracy. The world itself is described in the manual, supplementary books it then expanded to other features and options. The basic book is a large section devoted to the British Empire , which is the focus of the game, but the next section describe the environment and other parts of the world."

(2009, Steampunk) In his screenwriting book Save the Cat! Blake Snyder presents one of my favorite phrases, "Double Mumbo Jumbo." This refers to anytime a story already has one bizarre or weird premise and then adds a completely different second one. Like if Godzilla were attacking and the only solution was to travel to the Court of the High Queen of Faerie...

Of course many role-playing games do this and manage to work just fine. Consider how many steampunk games on these lists add in Elves, Magic, and other fantastic elements. Shadowrun's the poster-child for this actually working and surviving. Which brings us to Queensguard. This is a setting monograph for Call of Cthulhu which functions as an adventure or mini-campaign, but to get to that it sets up an entirely new world. It is an alternate history America in the mid 1800's where steam-technology serves as the lifeblood of industry. And America has royalty, like the Queen of Manhattan. The characters, in service to that Queen, have to battle against forces of the Mythos. For me, this is a little too much, I like my Call of Cthulhu a little more straight. But on the other hand, it might serve as a nice bridge for CoC gamers over into a more steampunk fantastic setting. Eric Dodd has a nice review of this, American Cthulhu Steampunk.

(2009, Victoriana...?) OK, this one's something of a reach, but worth putting on the list. From time to time I'll read a campaign idea that blows my mind and yet I can't imagine actually running it. This Favored Land is one of those. A sourcebook for Wild Talents, it presents secret superheroes during the American Civil War. In the same way that Godlike really considers the implications of supers for wartime, TFL puts them in the context of this period. The designers present solid and rich material, worth reading for anyone interested in running a game in this era and place. Like everything I've seen from Arc Dream, you can dive into this book and mine all kinds of ideas.

9. Warsaw
(2009, Steampunk-esque) A strange looking French rpg which covers a later period, but has a weirdly broken-down steampunk vibe to it. The publisher's blurb (as translated on RPG Geek) reads: "Warsaw, 1964, the conflict which began in 1914 has not ended in 1918. After half a century of war, belligerents have mostly withdrawn from the conflict. Two totalitarian empires remain: the Komingrad (last incarnation of the USSR) and the NeuReich (the legacy of William II's Empire) facing each other relentlessly and without mercy. These two blocks, engaged in a destructive war of attrition, are now fighting in Poland, especially in Warsaw. The country is locked, surrounded by huge walls. Poland has become a vast no man's land between the two armies. A no man's land populated by civilians, resistance fighters, a forgotten population and prisoners of war.

This confrontation has led to terrible pioneering innovations. Zombie soldiers, insane with superhuman abilities, gun wrapped Zeppelins which ravage the last sections of wall still standing in the martyr city. Completely isolated, the city has been forgotten by the rest of the world, which simply waits cautiously for the end of the conflict….People have joined a faction (resistance patriots, smugglers, anarchists or deserters) and try to survive. You're one of them.

Warsaw is uchronian pulp, a kind of battle of Stalingrad with degenerated inventions and mechanical monsters. A city in ruins, inhabited by packs of cannibals and soldiers altered by rusty prosthetics. In this metropolis surrounded and besieged by foreign armies, what are your choices? Simply survive, fight the invader, enrich the black market or try to bring peace, that peace which now exists only in banned history books?"

There's an interesting article on this and other French rpgs on Wired.

(2009, Steampunk/Victoriana) A Polish rpg, aka Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy. This is part of a fairly large line which includes many supplements and at least one board game. In 2012, Studio 2 published an English translation of this massive core book (512 pages in digest format). The game has a well-developed backdrop of a highly alternate Earth which mixed steamtech and magic. In some ways it looks like an archetypal approach to that mix. They have two free introductory pdfs available- one presenting the general ideas and the other the world itself. Worth taking a look at if you want to easily set up a steampunk campaign that contains multitudes. The blog Bring Your A Game has a pretty thorough and favorable review of the English edition which you can read here.

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Three 2004-2006)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Four 2007-2008)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Five 2009)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Eight 2012)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part One: Äther, Dampf und Stahlgiganten to Owl Hoot Trail)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part Two: Pure Steam to World of Steamfortress Victory)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2014
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs
History of Horror RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Wild West RPGs
History of Universal RPGs