Tuesday, May 28, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Six 2010)

Here’s my question: what does the Punk in Steampunk mean? For some genres built from that phrasing- Cyberpunk and Splatterpunk for example- I see that element at the forefront. I can read that 'punk' as about creating disquiet or disturbing the audience and society. Often there’s an additional dystopian quality. The characters are often marginal, pushed there by the forces of corporatism and technology, but embracing those means to attack the system. They’re anti-authoritarian. That punk's both a response to the broader culture and to the narrower culture of parallel literatures. The work of Gibson and others kicks at conventional sci-fi approaches.

So what’s the punk in steampunk for rpgs? An argument could be made that in many steampunk games, the players fight against authority or stand outside it. But that’s simply a general trend in rpgs. More often than not PCs (and players) fight against societal structures or stand against them. As well many classic steampunk games have you actually serving as agents of order or supporting the status quo. Consider Castle Falkenstien. Victorian approaches seem to represent a flip side- a polar opposite of punk- with an acceptance of authority, superiority over the marginal, and the inevitable triumph of technology. Some games buy into the romance of the period, such that steampunk becomes a set of trappings to wear. There are a few games which embrace the punk of steampunk: a/state, for example. I almost wonder if we need another genre title, like Steamtech or Steampop? Engines and Empires and Brass, Blood & Steam, listed below, make cases for a new approach like this.

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. Chaosium had two interesting supplements worth mentioning that don’t quite fit. Mysteries of the Raj covers India for Cthulhu by Gaslight and Devil's Gulch presents a weird Western city with supernatural elements. This year also saw a number of excellent free pdf rpgs in this genre: Watchmen, Ring of Changes, Newsies & Pickpockets, After the Fall, and For King and Country. To keep the lists manageable, I leave those off. 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.

(2010, Steampunk, Victoriana) A steampunk campaign sourcebook based on the Spirit of the Century SRD. It comes in at about 48-pages. The first quarter has a general discussion of steampunk. On the one hand, this material isn't that useful for enthusiasts of the genre. On the other, the author does consider specific elements- like Ruskin's work and the Victorian sense of purity. The history of the genre feels more like padding. But it makes an interesting argument about the concept of 'punk' representing counter-culture in the broadest sense. About twelve pages cover the rules additions to SotC- skills and gadgets mostly. This feels a little underdeveloped. The rest of the book offers a sample campaign frame and adventure. The author's enthusiasm and skill come through in the product. It could be useful for those playing some form of FATE. I'd like to see more- perhaps with a different art style and graphics. I'm not a big fan of computer model images.

(2010, Steampunk-esque) A French RPG based on a comic book series. This is probably a edge-case for inclusion on the list, but it was so weird I had to add it. Wikipedia describes the source series thusly (translated by Google from the French with some clean up): "The series is an allegory fantasy (and not an alternate history as the parallel story joins our historical reality in 1939). Born on the battlefields of WW1, in the breath of gas and X-ray weapons, superheroes took over the "gentlemen-vigilantes" of the late 19th century and the control of large European capitals. The (public) made them icons. Scientists are fascinated by their power. Yet somewhere in the Austrian Alps, a city sprung out of nowhere announced a threat that may erase even the memory of their existence."

"The authors faithfully authors bring to life the situation in Europe before the war as well as actual "primitive" superhero characters from European folk literature and geopolitical context of the 20th century, in a gesture both archaeological and critical whose ambition is to allow us to reconnect with a repressed collective imagination, and dispel the historical fallacy of thinking that the figure of the superhero is a uniquely American invention. The universe, which also stages vehicles and imaginary technology is called "radiumpunk" by its creators. The word is derived from the term steampunk (which refers to the fictional universe whose technologies are based on steam) and highlights the fact that the technology of the Brigade Chimeric world massively employs radium, whose discovery by Marie Curie serves as a historical divergence."

(2010, Steampunk-esque) An alternate history of the English Civil War. In this world, the clash between Royalists and Parliamentarian forces come to a head at the Battle of Nasby. The Royalists represent the privilege of the nobility and the rights of the King. But they’re also dedicated to stability and turning back radical innovation, especially in the Church. In this world they bring to bear the forces of magic, in the form of alchemy. Against them stands the Parliament, also known as Roundheads, an amalgam of legalists, Puritans, religious minorities, social radicals and the like. They have harnessed the power of Clockwork devices and war-machines, crafted and managed by Mechanic Preachers. Both sides find themselves forced into alliances with old enemies. At Nasby, the horrific battle ends with the execution of the King and a sea change in the nature of society. Clockwork & Chivalry begins six months after those events. The players can work to make the world a better place or plunge it further into chaos.

So why put it on this list? Because it represents the best of the steampunk spin-off genre Clockpunk. But more than that, it brings into focus some of the concepts of the clash of technology and society. I think those questions- usually posed as good vs. bad uses of technology- make for the most interesting steampunk approaches. Plus this is just an awesome rules set. I've written reviews of the original core book and the Divers & Sundry supplement. I also have a couple of posts thinking more about those here and here. Since then Cakebread & Walton have published a revised and even stronger version of the game.

(2010, Victoriana/Steampunk) A sourcebook for Labyrinth Lord or any other OSR game. The author plots out some interesting definitions at the start. He reads steampunk as a genre where "...science and technology are malignant forces which have been let loose upon the world to pollute and despoil nature, to enslave the free-willed individual, and to help the greedy few to line their pockets at the expense of the starving many." I'm not sure I entirely agree with that given the range of interpretations. This he contrasts with Gaslight Romance, a form with a more positive ethos. Engines & Empire he calls a 'Gaslight Fantasy' which asks questions like "what happens to a magical world—a world sitting at the center of a supernatural struggle between good and evil—when it advances to the point of Industrial Revolution?"

E&E itself offers solid material in a serious package- 254 pages trade. In addition to the racial classes, you get Boxers, Experts, Fighters, Mages, Scholars, and Techs. Rules, Monsters, and other mechanical details take up about 60% of the book. The rest is given over to detailed world-building for Gaia and the nations of Arcadia. This is given a classic OSR presentation, with lots of history and political detail. The material's evocative, the maps excellent, and the use of classic clipart some of the best I've seen. I like the echoes the real world in the naming conventions. It left me wanting more- greater discussion of society and daily life, more resources for presenting this world at the ground level to the players. If you're thinking of doing a fantasy world with a dash of tech, I'd recommend this as a resource.

(2010, Steampunk) An explicitly steampunk game setting that also calls itself Steam-noir. While still embracing pulp, it places and emphasis on the steamtech elements of the setting. Technology and life revolve around the needs the these machines (harvesting vapor from the clouds for example). Steam-pulp might actually be the best way to describe this. HH&FF uses the Realistic Advanced Roleplaying Engine or RARE System. This is a class and level-based game. Beyond that I've had a hard time finding much out about the game. It appears to be stand-alone; no other products have been produced for it. The core book's fairly chunky, coming in at 293 pages for one version, and half that for another (which I think covers another game engine).

(2010, Steampunk) This is an odd rpg product which came out of nowhere. Flightless Terror Games released this in three separate volumes (perhaps echoing D&D): Adventure Codex, Character Codex, and Equipment Codex. It seemed to be part of a multi-part program, with rpg as a precursor for a video game product called City of Steam. These were announced simultaneously, with TNE pitched as a means of whetting people's appetite for the game.

However some kind of shift in approach occurred later. The video game's forum states, "we thought it only fair to let you all know that Dave (the writer, David Lindsay) does not intend to pursue writing the series. The three core books...will remain available as-is, and you are free to roleplay using the rules within, but further editions or installments will not be released. Rather, Dave will be focusing on the development of City of Steam and any subsequent game titles...Furthermore, much of the content and lore found in the books can and will not be featured in City of Steam, as so much has been changed or dropped already to fit the video game medium. As such, please be aware that much of what you find in the books may not apply to City of Steam itself despite the shared setting."

The original system for The New Epoch was d20-based; the published verison apparently uses a house-developed COPG system which I believe is d30 based. It still appears to be close to OGL with classes and a like approach. The setting itself is a fully mechanical world, with a steampunk vibe. It includes magic as well. I like the sense of everything being built on top of the past, leaving that history as a mystery to be explored.

(2010, Steampunk-esque) This may be a more marginal entry on the list, but I've seen it mentioned on a few others' steampunk lists. I'll admit that the cover has a little of that look to it. We've seen a number of revisions of Oz in recent years- on television (Tin Man), movies (Great and Powerful Oz), toys (McFarlane's Twisted Land of Oz), comics (The Oz/Wonderland Chronicles), and other rpgs (Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road). As many others have, this game goes for a grim-dark approach to the classic setting. The steampunk elements seem to come from the aesthetics (the look of some of the automata) and the conflict between tech and magic in this version of the setting. The Witches are engaged in an ongoing conflict, with border zones where tech and magic operate differently. The Emerald City is described as a dystopian steampunk metropolis. I haven't picked this up, but I am curious.

(2010, Victoriana) A setting for the Quick-Ass Game System (QAGS). The players take the role of gentlemen adventurers in the service of the Crown. Only 50 pages long, the supplement is about half rules adaptations and character building and half the background. A good deal of that latter half is given over to a sample adventure. I like the idea of a club background- that's a classic framing device and a useful patron. The Kerberos Club and Castle Falkenstein both go into more detail about these concepts, though for a more fantastical setting.

(2010, Victoriana/Steampunk) Space 1889 got new life in reprint form after GDW went under, but even that finally ran out. I was suprised, then, to see it reappear as a core setting for the most recent version of Savage Worlds. It appears prominently in the Savage Worlds Deluxe. But the presentation differs slightly from the original. The earlier Space 1889 focused on crisp lines and the romance of the British Empire on Mars. This version definitely sells the action, with fast, furious action and steampunk dames on the front cover. I haven't had a chance to see how much this actually shifts the tone and approach of the original. If you believe that system matters then powering this with Savage Worlds has an impact. To add to the complication, there's a slightly later German version of the setting, using the Ubiquity Roleplaying System. It is my understanding that an English-language version of that edition will be published soon.

(2010, Steampunk/Victoriana) The original Kandris Seal is a setting for HERO 5, later done for d20 Modern, created by Lisa Hartjes. That offers a modern battle between sinister supernatural overlords and a secret society dedicated to fighting them off. Steam, Savants, and The Kandris Seal offers another take on the setting: an alternate history filled with fantastical steamtech and other inventions. The same basic conceit remains with the players usually operating as agents of the Thaumaturgia in a perpetual struggle with the Keepers of the Broken Circle. Despite the dark battle, SS&tKS offers a kind of triumphal tone to the technology, closer to Victorian romance than later dystopian readings.

The sourcebook itself covers a good deal of ground. It spends several pages arguing the various genre distinctions before moving on to a dozen+ pages on elements of the age. The actual Kandris Seal timeline and set-up covers a little under thirty pages and runs through the end of the great war. Mechanics, from characters to gadgets takes up another forty pages. It wraps up with a sample adventure and bibliography.

(2010, Steampunk) Publication of the Steamfortress Victory began with a sample adventure, A Day at the Fair in 2010. That established the basic premise and described the setting. In an alternate 1900, the discovery of "Bloodore" in Georgia leads advanced steamtech. In turn, the assault of the airship Victory which lays waste to Chicago on the first day of the World's Columbian Exposition, leads to the shattering of America into five nation-states. Players are thrown into the middle of the Great Steam War. It is a neat idea, and it is nice to see a steampunk game which focuses on the United States and has a compelling backstory.

SV seems to have originally been published by Industrial Dream Mills, but now comes from 20 Eyes Entertainment. The core book, The Player's Workshop, came out the same year as a Day at the Fair. A few other publications have expanded the material. The Engineer's Manual offers GM advice and additional rules, A Steampunk Christmas Carol presents another adventure, while Core Mechanix offers an overview of the basic rules of the game. The most recent publication (just a few weeks or so ago) is World of Steamfortress Victory. This offers a mechanic-less look at the setting and moves the meta-plot forward. For those most interested in world-building and the ideas on offer here, it might be the best place to start.


  1. Hi -- author of Engines & Empires here. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the retrospective. And to add that when I first wrote my introduction to the book in 2009, the idea that steampunk leaned dystopic, like cyberpunk, was probably a bit more true than it is today. Since then, the tone of the genre has definitely expanded, if only because such a diversity of writers are filling the sci-fi/fantasy section of bookstores with steampunk novels these days. =)

    Anyhow, regarding E&E, I had always intended to follow it up some supplements detailing each of the nations and adding expanded character options and such. But life happened -- I was still an undergratuate while writing the original book; and now, well, I'm still a grad student, so Arcadia's probably going to take a few years to flesh out properly.

    1. It is really well put together- and I've been recommending it to the various OSR people I know. I appreciate the clean and smart design in it.