Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part One: Äther, Dampf und Stahlgiganten to Owl Hoot Trail)

RUNNING TO THE LIMIT
How will we know when steampunk has drowned the mainstream? I suspect this may be the answer. How will we know when steampunk has crossed into absurdity? I suspect some may feel that link also demonstrates that. I'm not sure- I still enjoy the ideas and imagery of this aesthetic. Consider this as well- Time Magazine did a story on Steampunk in 2013. Does that mean anything- maybe just the irony of a dying print publisher trying to find content? Or perhaps actually spotting something interesting. Note that they link to a previous story on the topic from 2009. Is that movement a dilution, does it render the trappings less interesting? I don’t know- but generally steampunk Willem Dafoe renders your argument null. I believe there remains a vast swathe of imaginative territory which can be explored, either investigating the implications of these trappings or else using them as a sly way to get at other issues. Consider this thread over at RPGNet. Are there games which seriously consider the punk idea or the political implications?

FEEDING THE FURNACE
As you'll see from this list, Steampunk rpgs did well in 2013. At least publishers big and small put out new material for existing lines, generally a good sign. It wasn’t as strongly supported as evergreen genres like fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or even supers, but it did respectably. Victoriana came in second, but still had a couple of striking new products. It think the real test comes when we see which publishers continue support after the initial core release. We’ve seen more than enough key products arrive and then fade away despite some fan enthusiasm. The year saw four new complete new rules systems, plus four revised editions of games or systems. The remaining publications split between adventures and setting materials.

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

In reading through Designers & Dragons: The 70s I'm struck by how out of the blue Space 1889 seems. There's some precedent with GDW connection to military games and things like The Sword and the Flame. But based on the other product lines at GDW and the focus of rpgs in general in 1988, I wouldn't have expected it. Space 1889 also fits with a trend on display in the first two volumes of the "Des & Drag" series: games which disappear here, but end up in the hands of foreign publishers. In some cases they vanish, but in others they reappear there and thrive.

That's what's happened with Space 1889. The German edition uses the Ubiquity engine, rather than the original GDW mechanics. Right now the most available English-language version remains the minor "Red Sands" supplement for Savage Worlds. There's some talk of bringing this German version back over into the US in translation. 2013 saw three German Space 1889 adventure supplements: Äther, Dampf und StahlgigantenDer Zeitreisende; and Unter Hochdruck. The year also witnessed some releases of some non-game Space 1889 material as Untreed Reads Publications continued their line of fiction in the setting.

The actual full game for Clockwork: Empire funded via Kickstarter in late 2013. The stated drop date for that is August '14- which oddly schedules it to appear the same time as PC game Clockwork Empires (no connection). Clockwork: Empire is "Steampunk Roleplaying in a Victorian World of Gothic Horror". Adventurers face the growing threat of "The Pontus" a force of chaos slowly eroding the world. Clockwork: Empire Quick Start gives an overview of the rules, the world, and also provides a short adventure with pre-made characters. It's a little hard to judge, but looking at the character sheet and outlines, the game appears a little crunchy. It has a ton of different dials but nicely puts social combat front and center with physical combat. The sheet looks more than a little like WoD, but that may just be a layout choice. The game however uses random card draw for resolution- and not just ordinary cards. Instead Clockwork: Empire has a special deck, and each card has a base value, a tie-breaker score, and a "condition" which the card can generate in resolution. That's cool and quite different from other card-based mechanics (i.e. no hand management). The quick start rules are hefty, solid, and free. I recommend them to anyone interested in the genre or novel rpg mechanics.

How can anyone resist a game with a teapot on the cover? CC&S focuses on being a simple game (a single d6 resolution) with a pulp twist. I like the emphasis on fun adventure. Characters only have three stats: the Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks of the title. Damage simply reduces all of these stats. Despite the game's short length, 48 pages in print, the layout's dense and filled with detail. About a third of the book details new setting this game kicks off, "The Empire of Steam." The main book includes a sample adventure. Modiphius has supported CC&S with a sourcebook Atlantis: City In the Clouds. This details a flying city and includes an adventure and sample characters. It will be interesting to see if they do anything else with the line or leave it at that. One would guess the success of Achtung! Cthulhu has probably monopolized their attention.

A full-sized adventure for the indie rpg Brass & Steel. It has one of my favorite premises- a competing dash against the plot of a rival. For me, steampunk, travel, and races go together. And of course adding in ancient archaeology and travels in the Middle East only makes it better. I'd be curious to check if perhaps something like Masks of Nyarlathotep could be integrated with this. I should note that I wanted to call out this book because its nice to see smaller lines support and expand their product. That's especially true for a game which tries to serve two masters- simultaneously a tabletop rpg and a LARP.

This rpg offers a fantasy setting with a mix of steampunk and horror elements. But...wait, wait...I have to stop here. I have to tell you something. I hate Papyrus as a font. It absolutely drives me insane. I know some people loathe Comic Sans, but Papyrus- or anything that looks like it- kicks off a blinding red rage behind my eyes. Some of the fiction text of this game is done using that font. Also "Enjineers"?...

OK, where was I? Enjin Obscura presents a world of magic which is just now beginning to experience a technological revolution. I like that initial premise. Those transitional periods are great places to set stories. Rather than having the steampunk trappings in place, we can see how they evolve and challenge the existing status quo. In this case, one based on magic. The game itself present a straightforward system- players select from archetypes and can tune those. Characters have stats, advantages, flaws, and skills. Resolution uses a simple d10 versus a target number. The core book is pretty substantial (just under 250 pages). At least at this time you can pick it up "pay what you want" through RPGNow. It has some problems- weak illustrations, too many fonts, clunky editing & layout- but it has a number of intriguing ideas which make it worth picking up. If you're thinking about a game which mixes fantasy, magic, and steam you should take a look. Mutant Ink Press supported this with Keddis: City Sourcebook, a city backdrop for the setting. 

A revised version of the Gaslight setting for Savage Worlds or OGL. The previous edition landed in '09. To paraphrase my earlier overview, this feels like a solid house campaign expanded and detailed. Gaslight gives 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. The timeline and background's directed to the particular alt history, so it isn't as useful for general reference. It is nice to see products released in multiple systems. What's changed in this edition? According to the publisher, "This version of Gaslight contains new content, including new classes, new organizations and a reliquary detailing artifacts found on Gaslight Earth."

I really want to love the Iron Kingdoms material. The basics of the setting seem interesting, I dig the combination of magic & machines, and they have amazing model. But I'll admit I find the rules and the background impenetrable. I think that's two distinct issues. The rules I can probably eventually work around, either by porting it over to a system I have a handle on or finding an experienced GM to walk me through the game mechanics. At least as it stands, I don't quite get exactly how it works. I fear that it is as crunchy and mechanically dense as it looks at first glance.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how to get a good grasp of the forces and politics of the setting. There's just so many factions, competing interests, and tangled histories. I suspect I need to graph or outline the material from the main book. I certainly need to do that before I pick up Kings, Nations, and Gods, a massive hardcover which extends and expands that material. Why would I pick that up when I don't yet have a handle on the main material? Have you seen these books? They're gorgeous. Take a look at the two other 2013 rpg products from Privateer Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy Game Master Toolkit and Iron Kingdoms: Full Metal Fantasy Token Set, both of which are lovely art objects.

8. Miscellaneous: Anthology
A few games with setting collections offer steampunk and Victoriana material. The two volumes of DramaSystem, Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow, contained a few series pitches which fit in (or close by) these genres. In Hillfolk we see "Mad Scientists Anonymous" which isn't either, but I could easily work with a few simple shifts. "Under Hollow Hills" has a variable fae background, but specific connections to Victorian ideas are mentioned. Directly on target is "Clockwork Revolver" a steampunk western powered by a new fuel called lucifer. On the Victoriana side we find "Teatime for Elephants" which concerns itself with chaos under the colonial Raj. 

Blood on the Snow offers more. "To End All Wars" concerns itself with magi and WW1, but the period's connections to Victoriana could be stressed. "Vice & Virtue" likewise falls just outside the time period, being focused on the Regency. "The Shadow of Napoleon" just begins to hit Victoria's reign in a series built on revolutionary students in early 19th century Russia. "Grave New World" has vampires arriving in 1866 New York and starting new unlives. It bears more than a passing resemblance to New Amsterdam. On the other hand "Rust" has a crumbling and fantastical steampunk empire at its heart.

Fate only gives us one new steampunk setting, "Wild Blue" from Fate Worlds, Volume One: Worlds on Fire has western-esque fantasy superheroes.

9. Miscellaneous: Shorter Items
This year saw a number of interesting small-scale supplements for these genres:
Advanced Races 03: Gearforged presents a Pathfinder take on the warforged. Or if it isn't, it could be easily mistaken for one. Still that's one of my favorite races, so I'm glad to see it. Wake the Dead is an introductory adventure for SteamCraft. I'm pleased to see companies putting out solid scenarios designer to bring new players into a complex game world. Hooks Throughout History 4: SteamPunk Alternate History offers a system-generic set of story seeds. Clockwork Dreams Magic and Clockwork Dreams Primer both lay out more material for SuzerainGeister der Vergangenheit is an adventure for the German mystery rpg, Private Eye.

2012's The Demolished Ones is surreal adventure in a dystopian steampunk city. That Fate-based adventure has amnesiac characters trying to figure out what has happened to them. It's a kind of brilliant and complete campaign book. It presents a fairly dark take on steampunk, blending in more than a little Lovecraftian horror. This year's Amnesia supplement adds more material for the GM. That includes new memories for the characters and connected aspects. It also provides a host of new stunts for the system.

This is an overlooked and under-appreciated gem. Owl Hoot Trail has six-guns, bounty-hunting Orcs, and gadgeteer Elves. The game's complete and offers an almost OSR slim and cool d20 resolution system. I like the balance of flavor and simplicity here. It feels like a Western setting which has evolved with fantasy races. While some of the other fantasy/Western versions patch together elements, this game comes across as an organic whole. It reminds me a little of later Shadowrun, where the game have finally come to terms with the implications of the races in the setting. It is borderline steampunk, with the gadgets pushing it over the line. I've run a one-shot of it and really had a great time. If I liked Westerns more, I'd be seriously tempted to build a campaign based on this. 

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

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron.