Monday, April 22, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Two 1997-2003)

This list continues tracing the development of Victoriana and Steampunk rpgs. There's an odd gap between this list and the previous one. We don't see multiple games in either genre appear until 2001; we have several dead years. I suspect several reasons account for that, but these are simply hypotheses. First, we had three visible game lines which put these elements at the forefront: Deadlands, Space 1889, and Castle Falkenstein. Publishers may have felt the market had already served- especially since only the first of these had done well and sustained itself. Second, we saw a shift in game publishing- with many smaller companies collapsing in the 1990's and others focusing on core products. Problems with TSR meant problems with the industry as a whole. That could be tied to changes in the hobby industry- the expansion and collapse of the collectible comic market affected many game stores. That also shifted distribution and put additional pressures on publishers. Third, two serious competitors pinched the rpg market. On the one hand, CCGs continued to grow and draw attention and money away. Several publishers threw cash after ill-advised card games, rather than developing new rpg products. On the other, we finally saw accessible and excellent computer games, especially MMORPGs. Those stole share from games. Fourth, more specifically to these genres, we didn't have a large volume of source media until the end of this period. We obviously had Verne, Wells, and Gothic & Victorian authors, but steampunk was only beginning to develop 'classics' and go in new directions. RPGs more often follow rather than lead pop culture ideas- and need a larger supply of innovative approaches and junk versions to lift from. It is worth considering what steampunk sources were available before or during this period, essentially up through 2003.


In modern literature, Blaylock, Jeter, and Moorcock set the stage for steampunk. Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine hits the mass market and brings it to the forefront. 1995 sees the publication of Stephenson's The Diamond Age, Paul Di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy, and Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass. I believe even more importantly, in 2000 we get China Miéville's Perdido Street Station which announces a new approach to steampunk with a gritty fantastic. In graphic literature, DC leads the way with Gotham by Gaslight in 1989 (the first Elseworld). In 2003 they took another approach with JLA: Age of Wonder aka Superman meets Tesla. Chris Bachalo and Joe Kelly created the blandly named Steampunk mini-series. The short-lived Ruse from Cross-Gen added steampunk elements to a pseudo-Victorian setting. Warren Ellis' Planetary borrows from everything, including steampunk. Two authors, however, significantly impact the development of these ideas narratively and visually. Kaja & Phil Foglio's Girl Genius remains amazing and interesting, a wild ride that feels like a great and complex campaign. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for all of its weaknesses, adds steampunk chic to fan-service team-ups.

Outside of literature, we see several key appearances of steampunk. Brisco County (1993) used some gadgets and boilertech elements, but these feel more like an homage to the classic Wild, Wild West TV show (1965). Then there was the awful film adaptation of Wild, Wild West (1999). One could also read Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and Baron Munchausen (1988) as offering some steampunk visual elements. The French films City of Lost Children (1995) and Vidocq (2001) offer striking new takes on steampunk images. Atlantis the Lost Empire (2001), with designs by Hellboy's Mike Mignola, leans heavily on these ideas. Some syndicated TV shows also began to lift from these genres directly or indirectly- The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000), The Lost World (1999), and Jack of All Trades (2000). Steampunk also appeared as a key element in several video games during this time: Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, Thief: The Dark Project, and EverQuest

A question I haven't yet figured out is if there's any relation between the decline of cyberpunk as a genre and the rise of steampunk.

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 also tried to stick with publications from companies as opposed to homebrews or free PDFs. In some cases I make an exception where the product’s gained attention, offered something unique, or generated a line. 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 hope to put out a new list bi-weekly. I’ll break the time periods down arbitrarily, trying to keep 20 items or less per list.
(1998, Victoriana) Do I lose my Geek Card if I admit that Terry Pratchett has never really grabbed me? I've tried a half-dozen of the Discworld novels and never gotten more than halfway through any of them. The same with the movie/miniseries adaptations. Several elements of the presentation suggest a kind of amalgam Victoriana- a Dickensian backdrop more in that the setting mixes together so many elements. I suspect your impression of the series will depend on your point of entry and which sub-line appeals most to you. Off the top of my head, I'd say the Moist von Lipwig books are probably the closest- with the focus on societal institutions, their development, and their impact. GURPS Discworld's one of those interesting products from Steve Jackson which combines the rules with the setting sourcebook. There's an additional supplement, GURPS Discworld Also.

(2000, Steampunk/Victoriana) The first RPG sourcebook to present Steampunk as a variable genre element. It remains impressive and superior sourcebook for the genre. It focuses on Victorian steampunk, with author William H. Stoddard crafting at least as much a sourcebook for that era. It presents one of clearest overviews of the 19th century, with a focus on game-able material. At the same time the construction rules provide an interesting resource. GURPS has has a crunchy approach to this, but GMs could use the guidelines elsewhere. It offers a handful of alternate campaign settings for Steampunk at the end (and the GURPS Alternate Earths adds a few).

GURPS Steampunk won the 2000 Origins Award for Best RPG Supplement. Steve Jackson Games would eventually expand the line with three other products. GURPS Steam-Tech is an amazing sourcebook full of ideas for gadgets, machines, and devices of the period. It covers a number of different tech-levels and sources of power which makes it useful for many different campaigns. GURPS Screampunk is a mini-supplement looking at how to combine the Gothic with Steampunk. Finally SJG also produced a set of Steampunk miniatures which were merely OK. It did give me hope that we might see a Steampunk Ogre game.

(2001, Steampunk) While the steampunk in this game is secondary element, it is interesting to see some of the early games which blended alternate history with fantastic elements. This is a setting where magic dominates, but new and potent technologies have begun to compete with them. It feels a little like an unpolished American version of Castle Falkenstein, with an emphasis on sorcery and set somewhat earlier. Generally I skip self-published games for these lists, but in this case it comes at time when the genre's just starting to gather steam. It can also be read as a precursor to other fantastic Americana games like Northern Crown: New World Adventures and Colonial Gothic.

(2001, Steampunk) While Warmachine wouldn't appear until 2003 and Iron Kingdoms for d20 until 2004, Privateer Press released the Witchfire Trilogy in 2001. This unique module did a good deal of world building. It established the Iron Kingdoms as a place mixing high fantasy and arcane steampunk. Right away Privateer demonstrated they had a handle on the look and feel of the genre: gritty, worn, lumbering. Its worth noting this is the first substantial use of steampunk in the d20/OGL line. Several products would follow- some generic and some also trying to establish their own line. Witchfire did well and certainly helped establish the line and get gamers excited for the rpg material which followed. Warmachine also established the largest and most hearty line of steampunk miniatures. They weren't the first, Pinnacle had Deadlands minis in '97 and Soldiers & Swords produced Castle Falkenstein figures around the same time. Those lines have not survived. A new edition was released last year, using a new system. I'll talk more about that on a later list.

(2001, Steampunk) Terra Incognita offers an alternate history setting with a tight campaign frame. Players are members of the National Archaeological, Geographic, and Submarine Society aka NAGS. They are explorers of mysteries in the great Vernian, Pulp, and Planetary tradition. This offers a highly structured and tightly defined patron group and purpose. Fantastic technology is called NAGtech in the setting, with a complexity dependent on its 'era' (Edwardian, Deco, or Modern). That serves as a meta-structure, allowing GMs to set the actual Terra Incognita campaign anywhere from the Victorian era to pre-WW2. There's some fun stuff here, but because the game wants to be so open-ended, it works much more as a campaign frame than a world resource. There's some material there, but I suspect GMs will want to supplement that with other resources. The game's core engine is FUDGE, making it highly adaptable.

(2001, Steampunk) Another Japanese RPG from FarEast Amusement Research (F.E.A.R.). Wikipedia describes it as a game which, "...takes place in Terra, a fictional continent modeled after North America during the American Old West. Its theme is frontier spirit. The setting is fictitious, but actual historical Americans also appear as non-player characters. They include Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jesse James and Belle Starr. There are guns and steampunk items representing lost technologies (for example, phlogiston generators or aetheric drives). Players face monsters called the Dark. Player characters may be automata, bounty hunters, gunslingers, preachers, saloon girls, steam-mages, U.S. marshals and other archetypes as they ride the transcontinental railroad on their way to the far western frontier."

(2002, Steampunk-esque) Here's a game which taught me a valuable lesson: production quality and art don't necessarily make a good game. I was sold on the pitch at Origins one year and bought it because it looked cool. I started reading it in the car on the way home and hated it, but by then it was too late.

Children of the Sun calls itself "dieselpunk," but that's a jacket catchphrase. It is pretty firmly steampunk. it is fantasy clumsily attached to a extensive history that's kind of an analogue for 20th Century Europe, I think. It is tech jammed into a fantasy setting, but weirdly and loosely. It reminds me a little of the old Flintloque miniatures game which essentially was Sharpe's Rifles with Orcs. That at least was tongue in cheek, this takes itself super-seriously. At times it comes across like a chaotic and long-running house campaign that never came together. The world building isn't coherent, compelling, or novel. Beyond that, the actual mechanics are a mess.

(2002, Steampunk-esque) One of the things I appreciate about the '90's in rpgs is that they spawned a set of really strange rpgs, oddball and even surrealist games (Psychosis: Ship of Fools, Sandman, Over the Edge, Whispering Vault, Pandemonium!. Some have called this The New Weird, and Jeff & Ann Vandermeer edited an anthology of the same name. PK Dick's the spiritual grandfather of this for me- asking questions about identity, madness, and personal relationships with technology. it doesn't suprise me that there's a stong cross-over between steampunk and the weird. Paul DiFillipo, James Blaylock, and the highly political China Mieville demonstrate how these can be blended.

Mechanical Dream's one of those truly weird games. The core book’s divided into two sections, the Mechanical side with the rules and the Dream side with the setting. The book's designed to flip, so that you're almost facing a new volume for each. The setting background's dense and, IMHO, incredibly difficult to get through. It bats around dozens of new terms and names presenting a bizarre distant world. I can't imagine trying to bring players into it. The look borrows from steampunk to create a strange world of dream physics populated by almost a dozen weird races. WHAT DO WE ACTUALLY DO IN THE GAME?

(2002, Victoriana) From time to time I read an RPG sourcebook that was clearly someone's obscure and obsessive project. They loved something and knew it well enough to craft a sourcebook or game from it. That explains some of the early GURPS licensed products, Tibet: The Roleplaying Game, and even The Golden Dawn from the previous list. These often pop up in big and expansive lines that can handle niche projects- Call of Cthulhu, d20 guides, and World of Darkness for example. I suspect the shift to pdf publishing has made these projects simultaneously more viable and less visible. Both Steve Jackson and Chaosium now have pdf-only and/or PoD micro-supplements.

Sunset Empires puts the colonized and conquered of the Victorian era at the center. There are only a few other books I can think of that do this (perhaps Mysteries of the Raj which considers Cthulhu by Gaslight-era India). It covers the lands of Kindred of the East, China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia, during the period. The book offers rich and clearly presented history, with a focus on the oppressed. What makes the concept more powerful is that the PCs themselves are also a form of oppression. They represent a portion of the supernatural overlords who help sway in these lands, now facing new domination from foreigners. Sunset Empires offers a campaign approach to areas not often directly considered in gaming. It suggests interesting ideas for other fantasy games which use steampunk and the spread of technology.

(2002, Victoriana) From the beginning, the vampires of Vampire the Masquerade have always had a victorian feel- or at least that's a set of common imagery. One can blame that on the Gothic source materials or perhaps more importantly on that era as a touchstone for Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire series. White Wolf has always done an interesting job with their historical material. However sometimes it can focus too much on the Vampiric side over the general background. The "vampirization" of historical events feels shaky after a while. Victorian Age Vampire, on the other hand, manages to maintain a balance. Storytellers looking for general Victorian ideas and information will find much to love here.

The extensions of the line- Victorian Age Vampire: Companion and London by Night are equally strong and readable. The latter especially does a nice job of presenting the city while at the same time offering interesting dynamics for the players. This remains one of my favorite series from WW.

11. A|State
(2003, Steampunk-esque) This year saw the release of the 'lite' version of A|State, the follow year would see release of the actual full book and a few supplements. This game draws from the atmosphere of Perdido Street Station, a book which IMHO really pushed some of the more speculative and bizarre steampunk-esque books (like Jay Lake's The City Imperishable and S.M. Peter's awful Whitechapel Gods). A|State's a chaotic and patchwork setting, mixing steampunk, horror, strangely anime tech, cyberpunk, and the kitchen sink. It takes place in The City, dirty and topsy-turvy mixed-tech melting pot that at times feels like Dickens' London and at other times seems like something out of F-Zero. Humans, non-humans, uncertain history, ghosts- I have a hard time unraveling the background which feels more impressionistic than coherent. I have a hard time imagining how you'd pitch this to player who hadn't read through some of the material.

Like some of the most daring products, that actually makes it hard to get through to the core of it. Beyond the strangeness of The City- I don't know what the hook of the setting is. Not that everything has to be clear, open, and accessible, but games with these kinds of barriers to entry often lose out. We're in an age with many rpg options and products have to vie for a attention. The problem is that I don't know what the players do in the game- anything? What's the expected campaign frame and why is that cool? There's almost no sense of that given in the book, even in the end section. On the other hand as a book of ideas and images to be lifted and borrowed, you really can't beat this. The book's evocative and striking.

(2003, Steampunk-esque) A French RPG from the Le Lab group. It is a free pdf product, but one I thought worth mentioning for its atmosphere and early appearance in the genre. it seems to combine magic, surrealism, and steampunk imagery. A portion of the publisher's blurb (translated via Google and cleaned up slightly) reads:

"Hello dear people, my name is Mab, the sole holder of forbidden secrets. You are here in the anteroom of the section reserved for roleplaying Absinthe. Behind me you see two doors. The first, soberly entitled Scénars, you will discover new and exciting adventures in the World Mirror to play your friends. The second named Shards invites you to tours World Mirror but also various thematic analyzes." The Faërie then leans over the coffee table, revealing two wings bluish black feathers and suddenly fixes you in the eye. You look around you and you realize that you are alone in the room, the other spectators who mysteriously disappeared without a sound. You suddenly feel ill at comfortable. "Since we are talking about it, a very expensive glass of Absinthe Royale, is not it?" asks the Faerie with a smile, revealing thereby sharp teeth like knives. You do not really feel able to refuse this invitation... In an atmosphere of swashbuckling, steampunk technology and magic psychotropic Absinthe invites you to embody human becoming double agents in a dispute PLCs Grand calculator (barricaded in the austere city of Horlogeuse) Two courses in faeries schizophrenics (who run Land-flashing). This confrontation has a major Artifact, the Mirror, intimately linked to the essence the world."

(2003, Steampunk/Victoriana) "Glorious Adventures in Science, Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times." This is a smallish game, created as a sideline for a set of Victoriana miniatures rules. That's a pretty awesome idea- very cool and something I haven't looked into that closely. There are some great galleries of figures and battles from that to be found here. The rpg itself is a bit under a hundred pages, with a fairly simple system. Players take up the roles of classic Victoriana adventurers, with the usual steampunk tech at their disposal. Simon Crowe has a review of it, "Spiffing Adventures," which offers the essentials.

(2003, Pre-Victoriana) The two time periods preceding and just after the Victorian era (1837-1901) represent significant touchstones as well. The former helps set up the world of Victoria's Empire- with the collapse of France, American expansion, and the brushfire wars which popped up across Europe. The latter for the fallout from the development of technology and industrialization. In general, I'll keep away from Napoleonic Period books on this list, except where they explicitly embrace Steampunk elements. There are several worth considering- Duty & Honour, Krutrök & sägner, and Beat to Quarters. However for gamers working in the earlier period of the Victorian era, these games could be important resources. Several offer interesting ideas for military campaigns which could be adapted easily to the later era.

(2003, Steampunk) Probably a bit of a reach to put on the list, but a potential resource for gamemasters looking to create steam-mecha. This is a substantial toolkit for creating and running mecha in a d20 game. It offers design and combat rules for these behemoths across several genres and time periods. You'll recognize series classic series and ideas here. The example steampunk setting, Cities and Empire, has non-magical robots as a tools of the oppressed fighting back against sorcerer overlords. Called "coalsuits" here, the look and feel is actually pretty clever. This is only a small slice of a larger product, but one worth looking at.

(2003, Steampunk) Another d20 steampunk sourcebook,this one focused on bringing that to a standard fantasy campaign. Sorcery & Steam offers a decent overview of the genre. More importantly it begins with a number of solid and varied suggestions for how 'steamcraft' can become part of a campaign or shape it from the start. It offers idea on the global implications of such technology, as well as concrete examples. There's a steam technobabble chart- we need more of those kinds of things.

After that we get to the usual d20 far. There's a chapter on character classes. It opens with a discussion of how core classes might be affected in this setting (the Barbarian gets a Rage against technology, for example). The new classes are a little odd- the Animal Lord for example while modeling Tarzan, seems like it could be in any standard fantasy book. Beyond that you get two other core classes plus some be prestige ones. These have organizations tied to them, a nice campaign touch. There's a section with new skills, feats, and spells. The book ends with a chapter covering equipment and one on vehicles. Everything's well-presented and illustrated, making this one of the more readable d20 supplements.

(2003, Steampunk/Victoriana) Oddly, though I'm fond of the genre, I never picked up this game. Our group had a bad experience with the Fuzion system, and I avoided games which used it. Victoriana's an interesting game and one which generates a good deal of reaction. It presents an alternate history setting- squarely in the middle of the period, 1867, with steampunk tech, magic, and various fantasy races. However it also focuses on inequalities, class tensions, and the dehumanizing power of industry. To quote the introduction, "Regardless of your character’s origins, or their goals, we assume that you will all have one thing in common – desire for change, fuelled by a firm knowledge that the social structure your characters live in is corrupt and wrong." That's pretty strong tea and a far cry from the nostalgic vision often presented in these games. I've seen the game criticized as dimestore Marxist. regardless, there's a great deal of interesting material here, although badly organized in this original edition.

A second edition of the game appeared in 2007, cutting out the Fuzion rules in favor of a native game engine. The graphic design and presentation of this material has been more classic and less cartoony. It has been fairly well supported with a number of supplements, including adventures, equipment books, and topic sourcebooks. One of the more interesting is the Faces in the Smoke series which offers many NPCs and plot hooks. This year should also see the release of the first "Victoriana Shattered" books presenting alternate campaign frames. This one will cover The War of the Worlds.

(2003, Victoriana) Growing up my first vivid memories of The War of the Worlds was the 1953 film, which indelibly set my image for the book and the Martians themselves. It wasn't actually until I heard Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds that I had some sense of the original novel. Wells comes at the tail end of the Victorian period, and there's a certain fascination to seeing how he envisioned an alien invasion taking place versus the high technology of the time. (There's actually a computer game Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds oddly based on the album rather than the book). This particular sourcebook offers a way to game the novel. The rulebook actually includes the full text of the book. At the time of publication that might have been a nice incentive, but now with Project Guttenberg books I'm not sure that's value added- especially since it eats up 65 pages of a 112 page book. The actual sourcebook for the Action! system focuses heavily on simulating events from tWotW, with some room for alternate approaches and new materials.


  1. You clearly did your homework, thanks for the article. Well written and informative! Added a few titles to my reading list :D

  2. Great list! If a|state, Iron Kingdoms, or Victoriana sound interesting to any of your readers, I recommend all three. Lowell is spot on, for my money, on all three (and the only three I have read).

  3. Seems like I am waiting on Part 3 :D

  4. Iron Kingdom is a massive game! I just regret never being able to find players as interested in it as myself. I ended up ebaying my rule books last year after having them do nowt but gather dust for far too long. If you have a copy of the rules, do everything you can to get agame, it looks like it'd be amazing.