Monday, April 29, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Three 2004-2006)

I’d like to address the Babar in the room.

I’m always wary of considering political dimensions within role-playing games. Classic fantasy rpgs have a certain amount of baggage. I’ve talked about questions of Ethnicity before and Ken & Robin covered the perennial problem of Orcs in a recent podcast. But with Victorian Era games we consider real world history. I’d argue it is a history close enough to our modern age, that we can really see ourselves in those times. The distance of time creates a certain amount of insulation. Despite the incidents of awfulness and inhumanity, events of the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern world don’t raise my hackles in the same way as those of the Colonial era.

There’s much to love with the Victorian Era, but it is also a time of exploitation, racism, and sexism. How do we consider those in our games? Some games, such as GURPS, have a mechanical aspect to that. Players can take second-class citizen status for being ethnic or a woman. Kerberos Club, one of my favorite treatments of the era, doesn’t shy away from the difficulties facing exotic, female, or foreign characters. That approach acknowledges the situation, but doesn’t necessarily make running any easier. As my wife put it, given a choice between playing in a setting where I’m inherently penalized as a female and one where I’m not, I’m always going to pick the latter. Moving Victorian tropes into other times or adding fantasy elements offers one solution- though some might read that as white-washing the essential problem.

I’m more bothered where games romanticize those elements of the era which are most problematic. Some present an unquestioning nostalgia for colonialism and empire. I’m willing to acknowledge that we wouldn’t have the same modern world without that period, but the horrors dispensed to expand and sustain the Imperial ambitions of many nations take the shine off of that. Some games deal with those questions head on- Victoriana for example takes some heat for its class-based ideology. Sunset Empires is a good example of taking those issues seriously. Do these questions have a role at the table? I’m not sure. I know some people have a serious problem with the inherent racism in Lovecraft’s writing and how that translates into Call of Cthulhu. But that wasn’t something I’d really thought about until I saw several posts about it in the last year. I don’t think it impacts how I see that. On the other hand, I was a little thrown off when I saw the original marketing materials for Achtung Cthulhu which had this line, “classic wartime heroes such as Russian political officers, German U-Boat commanders…”  So what’s my response? I don’t want to present a lecture or polemic in game form, but at the same time I’d like to avoid idealizing these concepts. I think that actually offers a richer approach to the period. I admire Castle Falkenstein for managing to create a balance. In part it does that by adding fantasy and in part by creating a set of concrete bad guys in the form of mustache-twirling industrialists and Masons. But more that the narrator, as someone from our world and era, has some perspective on questions of colonialism and discrimination.

For this list, I opted to leave off several items which fell right on the margins. The Secret of Zir'An looks a little steampunky, but doesn't describe itself that way. It seems closer to pulp, but honestly after looking through the book, I'm not sure what it is. The art, marketing, and actual text don't feel like they sync up at all into a coherent whole. I left off Cadwallon as well. A couple of the races (Goblins, Dwarves) have some steampunky bits but those are so minor in the scheme of things. The excellent In Harm's Way (and In Harm's Way: Dragons!) don't appear as they fall before this period. I also left off a really interesting Norwegian game, Draug. It seems to fall within the time frame for Victoriana a little, but covers people in the Norwegian back-country of the early 19th century dealing with leftover folktales and monsters.

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.

(2004, Steampunk-esque) Giant fighting suits and massive robots in a fantasy setting. The explosion of d20 products made this kind of book inevitable. It doesn’t present a fully detailed world, but instead ideas and elements for a campaign setting. Some of the designs and images in the volume have a steampunk feel, but that's not necessarily reflected in the rules and text which don't address non-magical tech or steam power. Instead, Doom Striders offers an arcano-tech approach. It feels closer to an anime conception of mecha and robots. It is more Escaflowne than Sakura Wars. Things look steampunky, but that's down to the illustrators’ decisions. The books split 50/50 between mechanics and the campaign frame detailing mercenary groups battling in a fantasy world.

(2004, Steampunk-esque) I love the idea of mecha, but I've only once had them as a major campaign element. They're cool but introduce a split in the game between human and mecha-scale interactions. By definition, players have to all have a mech or participate in the actions of one. Otherwise you get the problems which plague specialist characters like Netrunners; either the game slows down to accommodate your solo fun or (more likely) the GM handwaves or skips your side of things.

I love the subtitle on DragonMech, "Medieval Fantasy Mechs Powered by Steam, Magic, or the Labor of a Thousand Slaves." OK- well that's pretty clear then. This d20 setting from the Sword & Sorcery line establishes a fantasy setting with depth and backstory. The world is heavily mechanical, with gear forests atop city mechs scouted by Cogwork rangers. I'd glanced at the game in the past, but hadn't really dived in because d20 isn't my thing. However I'm taken with this- I love how far the game pushes those mechanistic ideas. I like the idea of differences in power sources and the vast range of scales these things operate in. White Wolf published a total of eight books in the DragonMech line- suggesting it did fairly well. This may be one of those games I'll have to track down and collect.

(2004, Steampunk-esque) One of WotC’s tentpole settings for D&D. I've heard Eberron described as arcano-fantasy, as pulp adventure, and as steampunk. I think it manages to be all of these things, at least as far as I can tell. I love the concept of the Warforged and some of the other details present, but it remains the D&D setting which seems least coherent. At least reading through the original book, I had a hard time telling what the key pitch was and how I would enter into it. There's an overwhelming number of concepts at play here. I've seen the argument over whether Eberron is or isn't steampunk rage on the internet before. I think at the very least it wants to be and borrows imagery from it. On the other hand Baker, the creator, has said that it isn't- but I think we're talking in the strictest sense of the genre. For purposes of this list it fits in the corner because of some of those appropriated aesthetics.

(2004, Steampunk) Mongoose took an interesting step with their OGL series. I'd assumed that this was a sourcebook for bringing steampunk into standard d20 games. Instead this offers a stand-alone game, using the OGL rules with a distinct setting. That does mean that a good deal of the book's given over to explaining rules and mechanics. It also means the source material presented is keyed to a particular campaign world. That setting's contradictory. On the one hand, it is fairly bland. Fantasy, magic, and steamtech mixed together loosely and allowed to rise. That fits with the cover. On the other hand, it has a number of specific concepts: hybrid races from experimentation, revenants as PCs, the nature of the automata, etc. It might have been better served by going the distance and developing the unique world to make it stand out or else stripping the specific information in favor of an even more generic approach. I suspect it is most useful as a resource for GMs hoping to run steampunk with a d20 system. GMs using other mechanics will not find as much here.

I should also not the definition at the beginning of the book doesn't quite sit right with me. The authors suggest that, "Above all, the feeling that dominates Steampunk is a sense of despair, a certainty that while any challenge can doubtless be defeated through ingenuity, this will always be achieved at a terrible cost." That's an element I've seen in some steampunk approaches, but it isn't one I consider definitional. I'm curious what others think.

(2004, Steampunk) So apparently 2004 was the year of steampunk d20. Unlike most of the other supplements, Steam & Steel doesn't try to create a world background. Instead it offers a toolkit for adding steamtech to existing d20 campaigns. It assumes a fantasy backdrop. The book opens with general discussion of the implications of this for a setting, but gets quickly to the gritty and crunchy bits. There's new feats and a new skill of course (Craft: Steamworks). The other associated rules for malfunctions and construction follow. I'm not a d20 savant, so I can't tell exactly how well these fit together- they seem very "shopping list." There are several sections of creations- from gadgets to prosthetics to automatons. The book ends with new prestige classes. All in all, it focuses on the mechanical side of things. Later EN Publishing created several other "steampunk-esque" d20 supplements: The Fantastic Science: A Technologist Sourcebook, Mechamancy: The Clockwork Magic, and Mechamancy II: Living Machines.

(2005, Steampunk-esque) Generally for these lists I leave off free pdf-only products. However I've seen Broken Gears cited and discussed several places. I actually first heard about it when my niece said someone was running a campaign of it on her campus. The game book is complete, with a fairly simple set of rules at the end. In this alternate history setting machinery operates via bound spirits, a concept discovered by Francis Bacon. Increasing complexity of machines means an increasing sentience to them. Though I'm a little skeptical, Broken Gears has history flowing much the same even with that change up through World War Two. Then a new war emerged between thinking machines and humanity, nearly destroying the world. Nearly a hundred years after that, advanced machines and devices have been forbidden, creating a future world relying on simple, often steam-powered machinery. About half of the book's given over to history and world-building. That's less about how life is lived and more about the political situation. The section on Chaomancy, the art of binding spirits into machines, is quite good. The academic tone works especially well there.

(2005, Victoriana) WotC expanded the d20 line with d20 Modern and supported it anemically compared to standard 3.0/3.5 material. Three years after the publication of the original d20 Modern, they finally released a sourcebook offering ideas for how to run these campaigns in historical (and pseudo-historical) settings. I suppose that makes some sense, in that doing so put them in direct competition with d20 publishers who had quickly latched on and produced quality (and not-so-quality) products. Regardless d20 Past feels pretty thin. Only 98 pages, one third of that is new rules and the remaining two-thirds are three campaign settings. The second of these is a heroes against supernatural invaders frame set in 1872. At sixteen pages, there isn't much there. It read more like a lengthy article from Dragon Magazine than a substantial resource.

8. Exil
(2005, Steampunk) A French rpg with a fantastical setting, more dreamlike than swords and sorcery. The campaign city lies on an isolated moon- distant and with the sense of fading glory and collapse. It merges noir and steampunk with fatalism. I've had a hard time finding a good solid description of the game beyond that. Reviews I've read don't give great insight into the setting, but all universally agree that the game's graphic design is rich and evocative.

(2005, Victoriana/Steampunk-esque) A solid and unique take on Victoriana horror, Rippers manages to smartly combine the Gothic horror tradition with the trappings and worries of steampunk. Here science offers new ways to combat the darkness facing the world, but at a horrible cost to mind and body. Biotech and implants of a cyberpunk style game become limbs and organs harvested from monsters and implanted into hunters. The whole thing is well developed and presented. It has some material on the Victorian world, but mostly sets up the campaign ideas and concepts. Best used with some other resources on the period. You can see my full review of it here- A Whole New Meaning to "I Loot the Corpse".

(2006, Steampunk) I'm about to say something stupid. I can handle Elves, the fae, Elder Gods, etc. in my games. However certain approaches to alternate history get a little under my skin. Sometimes these are assumptions that seem really wrong-headed. Once you suggest that you're doing alt-history, you buy into certain kinds of logic. One concept that bothers me is a kind of "stasis" for art and style. In the case of Etherscope (and Unhallowed Metropolis with its Neo-Victorian approach) I have a hard time accepting that we're nearly 100+ years after the era, but everything still looks Victorian. I don't understand the logic. Why not simply set the games at the end of the Victorian era and make the changes and technological advancements occur earlier? It shouldn't bother me- but it does.

is a d20-based steampunk and pseudo-Victorian setting in the year 1984. It has many ideas worth borrowing and tons of great material. Probably the most striking is the addition of cyberpunk concepts to the setting. In particular, the titular Etherscope is a virtual reality space- a parallel plane which can be manipulated by human will. Effectively this creates the internet and the full-on hackable Net of cyberpunk novels and games. In that respect it is pretty brilliant. Technology runs wild here with genetically engineered beings and consciousness transfers. The authors cite Dark City, In the Mouth of Madness, and The Adventures of Luther Arkwright as inspirations. In some ways Etherscope's as close as any game to being Perdido Street Station, while still being alternate history. The game also includes occult and magic, but with a Lovecraftian feel. High recommended to anyone running a steampunk game; full of interesting concepts.

(2006, Steampunk/Victoriana) In a time when steampunk gone in some fairly dark directions, it's refreshing to see a game take a hopeful and lighter approach. Full Light, Full Steam aims for heroic drama. The British Empire exists in space and the players take the role of crewmembers on a ship travelling it. Her Majesty's Royal Astronomical Navy wants you! The game gives a highly romanticized view on the era, with women permitted within the military service, though still suffering a little in status. The alternate history presented in the volume really works to justify the ideas of the game. It has a nice tongue-in-cheek approach which turns aside pedants.

In some ways, FL,FS is what I originally imagined Space 1889 would be- Victorian Traveller. There's more than a little touch of Star Trek here as well. None of it is particularly crunchy or "hard sci-fi" however. About half the book’s given to the background, and the other half to a fairly simple point-buy system. A neat game and one well worth looking at as a resource.

(2006, Victoriana/Steampunk) The Imperial Age is a series of supplements, originally for d20, covering all aspects of the Victoriana era. It offers a modular approach- allowing a gamemaster to pick and choose what to use to construct their take on the world. There's a ton of great resources available here from idea books like Anarchism to location books like British India to game resources like Fisticuffs & Swordplay. Some products in the series are better than others, but most can be bought as reasonably-priced pdfs. In 2009 Adamant published the Omnibus edition which collects together the 700+ pages of material. There's also True20 collected version assembling the most essential material along with mechanics for that system.

(2006, Steampunk-esque) A Swedish rpg which lifts a little from Victorian images and pop fantasy. The title seems to translate as "October Country: Troll & Hammer. The Octoberland: The Hammer & the Magic Wand  " As far as I can tell it presents a fantasy/European History mash-up. The publisher's blurb, translated from by Google and cleaned up a little, reads, "In Octoberland you will meet Elvish Boyars, agitational traveling, pompous centaurs and nymphs chain-smoking - all in a tale of class struggle and revolution! You explore a modern fairytale landscape where gas and silent film competes with ruins and gravkumlar (???). As one of fey folk expected you ally yourself with the Red or the White Court. Maybe you are an agent of the Tsar's secret police, the dreaded gnome mage from the Urals or orcish anarchist…The age-old struggle for the means of production continues, and you are one of the fighters! Hammer the Magic Wand is a role playing game in steampunk." Edit: user Bagelson on Reddit suggested a better translation of the title. It makes more sense and is more evocative.

(2006, Victoriana) Subtitled: "Adventures Penned by Literary Giants." There's an interesting meta-conceit presented by this game which sees the great fictions of the Victorian Era as "travelogues." One of the game’s problems is that it doesn't make clear what it is doing for quite some time. The introduction suggests literary explorations, the cover suggests Alice in Wonderland with guns, and the player's section hints at a straight Victorian game. It seems to most be that first concept- with a patron organization allowing travel to the various pages of the Book Without End, a Victorian literary multiverse. The players take the role of Passengers, moving through these books. There's more than a little suggestion of the Thursday Next series and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The system itself is a simplified d20 engine. Players who enjoy the literature of the time will find a good deal to like here. However it may take several readings to put together a decent picture of the setting and how it operates.

15. Perfect
(2006, Victoriana) A dystopian world governed by a rigid social order and stylistically echoing the Victorian era. Here love and feelings are outlawed. The players take the role of those dedicated to evading or even overcoming that system. The PCs are criminals within that world- creating a tense game. There are lifts from other classic British treatments of dystopias- A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, and 1984. The original versions was fairly modest; a revised and expanded version Perfect, Unrevised appeared in 2011.

(2006, Steampunk) A setting sourcebook for Savage Worlds. Runepunk presents a fantasy city mixing dark magics and worrying steamtech. It feels a little like a Hammer version of these ideas. The designer cites Mieville, Lieber, Peake, and Gaiman as influences. I'm fond of settings that focus on a city and ScatterPoint feels pretty messy and organic. The author also cites Judge Dredd as an inspiration. It is massive- of a scale that I'd probably dial down if I ran something set here. The city exists in the aftermath of an arcane disaster, the last remaining settlement. The setting has plenty of detail and history, and just borders on being a little too extensive and indulgent. I like that magic is dangerous and contradictory- the storms which threaten the city also power it. Steam and Runetech exist side by side. if you're thinking of running fantasy steampunk, this is a decent resource. It has unique ideas and concepts which could easily be adapted.

(2006, Steampunk) If nothing else, this game offers the term "Victoriental" which will stick with me. Steampunk Musha began life as a section of the world for the Iron Gauntlets rpg. It offered an isolated island with steampunk technology, Victorian-esque trappings, and hodge-podge East Asian culture. Much like Legend of the Five Rings and other "Oriental" fantasy settings, the Asian material here blends cultural influences- primarily Chinese and Japanese pop fantasy. There's some interesting stuff going on here- with gunsmiths and clockwork ronin.

Last year Fat Goblin Games successful funded a Kickstarter for a new and enlarged version of this game. However, despite s Sept/Oct 2012 delivery date, that does not seem to have been released as of this writing. That version will be Pathfinder Compatible

(2006, Steampunk-esque) There comes a certain point in the evolution of a genre when I start asking: what new spin does this game bring to the table? For example, we have at least a dozen zombie survival horror rpgs. What's the new take they offer? That ought to be a selling point right out of the gate for these games. Simply using a different game engine isn't enough- unless that engine has been especially tuned for the setting. Game designers need to know their hook- and as important- communicate that hook to the audience quickly and clearly.

SteamWorks is a fantasy steampunk campaign using the Omni System rules. There's lots of world-building here, with many nations and races. However that feels more like an encyclopedia than a living, breathing setting. It takes the kitchen-sink approach with tons of PCs options and the hopes that just having them all together will create something new and novel


  1. This has been an interesting series so far. I had no idea there were so many Steampunk rpgs out there!

  2. Did you ever read Sweet Chariot, Lowell? The first edition came out in 2003, second in 2008. I can send you a copy if you like.


    1. I haven't- I have it on my list for 2008 as I wasn't sure what the pub date was on the first edition. I'd love to take a love at it.

    2. Meant to add I've been reading and really enjoying this, Lowell! It's amazing how many Steam Punk games there are out there! :D


    3. Email me at clashUNDERSCOREbowleyATyahooDOTcom and I'll send a pdf by return email, and a print book if you send your address too. :D


  3. classic wartime heroes such as Russian political officers, German U-Boat commanders

    Achtung Cthulhu comes from a British publisher, and the British outlook on World War II -- at least in terms of associated fiction -- is a bit different to that of the average American, I think. We've got less of a problem with the Russians, for example, and the idea of the honourable, non-Nazi German officer holds a lot of weight.

    1. Hmmm....that's an interesting point. I can certainly see that. I imagine that Victoriana as a concept may also have different connotations/value in Britain. I don't want to sound too down on Modiphus with that comment. I like the general idea of WW2 Cthulhu. But as you say, the concept of the heroic German officer isn't one I fall back to or consider. I'm a little leery when we get Lovecraft's problematic racial ideas put up next to the Nazis and their eugenics. I know that isn't what's happening in the game, but it was certainly my first thought when I read that blurb. I know our group of American CoC players were distinctly turned off by it. I also worry when real world horrors are put next to cosmic horrors. One of the problems I had with VtM was the insertion of their fiction into history, seemingly diminishing the impact and tragedy of awful events by showing their source was inhuman. But AC's going for a pulp and not a historical audience with their material so what I'm saying isn't a fair comparison.

      You're right, Kelvin, and I certainly hadn't thought about it from that direction- that cultural perspectives would consider those tropes differently. It does suggest something I hadn't considered: how might Victoriana or games which celebrate the colonial empire or era be taken in those countries with a bloody colonial history? India, Algeria, Libya, China, and South Africa for example. I hadn't really considered that perspective until your comment.

    2. I think sometimes we get to hung up on who is good and bad in the sense of historical gaming. I know there were lots of heroic Germans and Romanians fighting the evils of communism and defending thier homelands, just as there were patrotic Russiand fighting to keep their lands. People almost never set out to do evil things, they are almost alwayts thing they are working for the greater good. Even colonialism has its good and bad side, the Belgian Congo was horrid, but having worked in Congo DRC I can say today it is hellish. One the ground alot of people talk about vhow bad it was but then can say it at least kept their caln or city safe from the people over the hill or down the river.

    3. Ah, I didn't mean it as a criticism, more as a bit of useful data.

      I too sometimes find the "the Mythos did it" approach that often creeps up in Cthulhoid games and fiction undermines one of the best aspects of Call of Cthulhu, its basis in the real world. If every local forest spirit is a dark young of Shub-Niggurath, it tends to cheapen things; making Nyarlathotep the secret force behind the Nazis is even worse, unless you're going for something pulpy.

    4. No, no- and I didn't take it as such. You suggested a necessary complication in thinking about my reaction to these tropes. It made me cause to take a hard think about the cultural constructs attached.

  4. Sorry forgot to sign in for my comment.

  5. Glad you put Broken Gears in there. I know why you shouldn't go crazy with free pdfs in lists like this, but it is actually a pretty solid game to run.

  6. 'gravkumlar' should probably be 'gravkummel' both in singular and plural. My dictionary suggests cairn and barrow as translation for 'kummel'. It's some kind of burial site based on stones, standing in line or sometimes with one megalith on top. In Scandinavia they are sometimes found in mounds as well as free standing on hills.

  7. This is a great article. Each part seems to be covering a shorter period of time. :(