Wednesday, June 5, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Seven 2011)

I’ve been running a fantasy setting with steampunk elements for about six years now; the previous campaign in that setting lasted four. I’ve also run and played in a handful of other Victoriana and steampunk games. I’ll admit that probably love the historical bits and references more than most of my players. I enjoy reworking rw facts and details for the campaigns. Lifting makes the world feel richer with minimal effort on my part. But I love reading history books and campaign building gives me an excuse to do that. Most modern Victoriana RPGs provide a bibliography of some kind- many extensive and overwhelming. Here are the five books I’ve returned to when working on Victorian-style games.
  • Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana: Jess Nevins gives us the roots of steampunk, pulp adventure, fantasy, and modern sci-fi. A great sourcebook for characters, stories, and ideas. Filled with tons of weird concepts. Also worth reading are his annotations of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.
  • The Making of Victorian Values: This book considers the attitudes and philosophies of the English of the era. More importantly, it shows how they developed and came about. That’s important for getting inside the heads of NPCs and characters. I’ve gone back to this book again and again.
  • What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: There’s a reason this appears on just about every list of references. It offers a fun and easy to read collection of details on life in the era. Probably the first book any GM should read before tackling a Victorian game.
  • Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870: Author Liza Picard has a formula and it works for her. She gives a thorough presentation of city life in the period. If you want a resource to pull details from, this is it. There are other “everyday life” books, but this remains one of the easiest to find and work through.
  • The Birth of the Modern: Sets up the origins of the Victorian era and shows how later events spun out of crucial developments in this period. A solid and fun read- worth picking up anywhere just to browse through. Makes a case for running a game in the often neglected earlier part of Victoria’s reign. Paul Johnson has a political philosophy which some object to and feel comes through too strongly in some of his later work. I didn’t really feel that in this volume.

Sidebar: I should also mention the current Kickstarter for The Ministry Initiative, a steampunk RPG based on The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not as interested in the fiction portion of the Kickstarter- but I do want to see the actual rpg. I’ve backed the project. If you like steampunk, you can find a lot to love in the various backer levels.

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. To keep the lists manageable, I don’t list exclusive self-published or free pdf rpgs (with some exceptions). Some not listed below include Steampunkfitters, Brave the Impossible, or Newsies & Bootblacks. 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.

(2011, Steampunk) I have to admit I'd never heard of Abney Park before, but I was unsurprised that there's a Steampunk band. I was surprised that there would be an rpg based on their body of work, but stranger games have happened. The premise has the band transported back to 1906, where they cause a calamity to the timeline. They then arrive in 2150 to find a post-apocalyptic, steampunk, neo-Victorian world with dinosaurs. Like Etherscope and Unhallowed Metropolis it sustains the Victorian tropes into the far future. I haven't had a chance to look through the full book, but I trust Peter Cakebread & Ken Walton, who've done amazing things with Clockwork & Chivalry.

Instead of going with a variation on BRP, Airship Pirates uses a variation on Victoriana's mechanics, the Heresy Engine. This is an simplier, d6-based system. The game itself seems pitched to gamers hunting for a lighter system to do wacky steampunk-flavored adventuring. Imagine Gamma World meets Steampunk. The complete core book comes with an adventure, and Cakebread & Walton have also released an adventure for the system- Ruined Empires- and a setting sourcebook- Underneath the Lamplight. As wacky as this looks, it might actually be appealing to my ahistorical group.

(2011, Victoriana/Steampunk) A game set in an alternate reality with weird tech and magic. New substances define the tech. Hotaether offers an energetic steam, Slack a non-flammable light-than-air gas, Physicane a restorative, and so on. I like the definition of the tech through pseudo alchemical/scientific materials. The setting also offers magic of varying powers, called Arcanism and Lucid dreaming for explorations of the unconscious. The world itself still appears Victoriana, despite the set date of 1905. In this world, the strengthened British, with other allies, is set to embark on a conflict with Germany and its allies. The game system itself is custom- using a mix of d20 resolution and tarot cards. It is notable for being built as a hybrid tabletop and LARP game. That's a nice touch and makes it stand out from the crowd. There's a free quickstart adventure, Brass & Steel Quickstart, available for those want to check it out.

(2011, Steampunk-esque) “A Role Playing Game of Alchemical Fantasy.” I recently picked this up through the Tabletop Drop promotion. Carmine offers a stand-alone fantasy rpg system clearly inspired by d20. I've seen the setting mentioned elsewhere in steampunk round-ups and it comes in as a corner case. Subtitled "A role-playing game of alchemical fantasy," the game offers a little bit of magically based pseudo-tech. It has some lost developments, firearms, and ariships, but generally feels like a classic fantasy setting.

(2011, Steampunk) This actually dates to 2008 when it was a Runner Up for Most Innovative Game in the Indie RPG Awards. It had an electronic edition released in 2011, but that's no longer available from RPGNow. The site for the publisher, Amagi Games, appears to have vanished. The game takes place in the city of Tiran, with a more exotic world hinted at beyond. The city has machine men, called Cogs, and Mad Scientists, called Masterminds. The city's vast and varied, a wonderland of pulp adventure. Players fight against the forces of villainy as a Kid, Geezer, or Cog. The setting sounds fun and interesting- if you can find a copy. There's an excellent and incredibly thorough review of this on RPGNet.

(2011, Victoriana/Steampunk-esque) You'd be forgiven for mistaking Dark Harvest for the earlier game Rippers. Both have a Victorian-era setting, alt-history trappings, and the idea of grafted body parts as a key element. In DH those parts are what keeps the elite in power in an alternate Romania (called Promethea) ruled by Victor Frankenstein. The publisher's blurbs and materials focus on setting description (and the fact that the book includes an anthology of stories set there). The default campaign frame has the players acting as a resistance to Frankenstein's rule- internally or sponsored by foreign governments. That's a great concept. The timeline's interesting in that it sets itself in 1910, a little after classic Victorian era and just before the Pulp. The rules are also compatible with Victoriana (2nd Edition). An extensive supplement, Resistance, more fully details the struggle between the players and Frankenstein, both political and physical.

(2011, Steampunk) A setting supplement for QAGS (Quick-Ass Gaming System). It bears no connection to the movie of the same name. Instead it takes place in the early 1900's with various industrial barons teaming up to fight off weird-science threats. It reminds me more than a little of Matt Fraction's Five Fists of Science from 2006. I'm also a little weirded out with Edison as a heroic figure, given his treatment in other popular media like The Prestige and Atomic Robo. That's not even to mention Henry Ford's antisemitism. As I've mentioned before in connection with Victoriana gaming in general, when you start digging into the period you often ending up looking at some hidden (and not-so-hidden) awfulness.

(2011, Victoriana/Steampunk) A German-language rpg. The title seems to translate as Dark Country or Dark Land. The Google-translated publisher blurb states,

"The old Emperor is dead, the new young and inexperienced, the electors are greedy for power. The civil war has left the country Finster in a chaotic state. The common people cling to their old values, but also below the increasingly rapid technological development forward. The corset of social pressures threaten to shatter, while new forms of society come into fashion. Huge airships and the smoke of the factories darken the sky. Powerful mages, greedy politicians and secret conspirators - each faction trying to get the biggest piece of the pie. In the darkness awakens an ancient evil. This time needs heroes!

Play dramatic hussars or jaded veterans, brilliant detectives or cracked master thieves, mysterious mage or talented engineers, charming dilettante, dazzling robbers or bizarre Machinatoren! Create a character and let them enjoy an epic adventure! Dark Land is a newly published role-playing game for three players, and more. It takes place in a world that the Europe of the 19th and 20 Century is similar, but includes magic, monsters and revolutionary technologies."

The core book has two supplements- a magic and a technology sourcebook.

(2011, Steampunk-esque) A fantasy alternate history with magic, diverse races, and steampunk. Noggle Stones is based on a novel series currently celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year. It also has a board game, audiocast books, and a range of archery products. I have to admit I'd never, ever heard of this before. It has a lighter, almost anthropomorphic look to some of the art. The game itself is apparently equally light and intended for new players. It comes from some of the design team behind Ironclaw and Albedo. If you like cartoon-y rpgs, this might be one to pick up or at least check out the preview for.

(2011, Steampunk) Steamfunk's an interesting product with a great name. On the one hand it is designed to be used with Untold, a card-based rpg. But it is also offered as a mechanics-minimal setting for use with most rpg systems. Steamfunk takes place on another world, called Daedelus, where great Civilization Engines crafted centuries ago have begun to collapse. As these engines bicker, decay and collapse threatens the world. Yet individual brilliance and invention has begun to battle against that. The world itself is a close analogue for our own Victorian century despite the vastly different backstory (with its own Tesla and like figures). There's an odd mixture of terminology in the book where they use the term "Titan" to refer to great deceased figures and to the Civilization Engines. The book jumps around quite a bit, making it hard to follow. Despite that the idea of a steampunk world buckling under technological breakdown, smog, and pollution has an appeal and could be easily adapted elsewhere.

However one thing about this supplement bugs me. I love page layout and design- I desperately wish I was better at it. When I see a crafted page that mixes inventive ideas and clarity of presentation, it makes me smile. I'd point to much of Chris Huth's work, especially Night's Black Agents. Then there's the amateur or rough presentation of products I often see with pdf-only products from first time publishers. I can forgive those even as they make reading the books a chore rather than a delight. This book...holy cow. If you've read most modern rpg books, especially White Wolf products, you're familiar with page border graphic elements. These should be subtle and enhance the atmosphere; they shouldn't distract or close in the text. Steamfunk has dense intrusive border graphics which go in two inches from the top and bottom of each page, and an inch and a half from each side. The text is constrained to about a 5"x 6" area on the page, if I'm being generous. Honestly my first reaction was that they were trying to fill space.

(2011, Steampunk) An interesting product- offering a new game system tied to a generic sourcebook for running steampunk campaigns. It doesn't come with a specific setting, but rather notes and ideas building building a steampunk world from various elements. The Uber RPG system is clearly positioned as an engine to use in other games, though the publishers have kept their focus on this UR: Steampunk line. The system itself is relatively simple and d6 based. It includes rules for using it as a LARP System. The game has been expanded by several products: Urban Steampunk, a steampunk city guide; Uncharted Steampunk, a sourcebook for the wild places; Über LARP: Steampunk, a fully LARP version; Universal Airship Combat System; and Umbrage of the Automoton, an adventure. While I like rpg toolkits, I also like to see the kind of world-building which other gamers do. The price point on these products in pdf format is a little higher than other games- a consideration when I'm thinking about how to spend my steambucks. I'm also not taken with the cover art style which looks weirdly emo to me.

11. Verne
(2011, Victoriana/Steampunk) Verne's a steampunk setting for the EABA system that borrows elements from most of the great scientific romances to create a new world. I'm not as familiar with EABA as I ought to be. For a long time I'd assumed it was a direct successor to CORPS and like systems from BTRC. In the early days I associated that company with crunchy gun love and detail (based on the supplements GMs brought into other games). EABA's a generic game engine based on d6s. Verne is a detailed supplement, with plenty of additional rules for the system. While it offers something of a setting, suggesting how ether and strange tech might affect things, it is more a toolkit for building a Victoriana game with these weird science elements. There's a nice electronic character generator for it, as well as a collection of city maps for the period useful for anyone running in this genre.

(2011, Victoriana) In a somewhat refreshing changes from most games in this genre, Victoria offers a straight and historical take on the Victorian era. There's obviously fiction at play here, with references to Holmes and Dickens, but generally it offers a way to play out classic narratives in this world- specifically in England itself. Victoria's a complete and custom rpg, with fairly simple mechanics. More importantly it offers a rich and detailed look at Victorian Great Britain. The GM section provides a great summary of the events and people of the era. But other concepts- like clubs and city neighborhoods- also get excellent treatment. GMs wanting to run classic gaslight romances will find a good deal to like here. There's some small material on bringing the supernatural into the game (and a few words on 'Steam Punk') but it is generally historical. That makes it a little odd that the adventure at the back uses some weirdness that doesn't quite fit with the tone of the rest of the book. While I like the book overall, a few things bother me. The author has done a great job of making things feel authentic. The choices of classic art fit and look great here- where in other books they've looked slapdash. But the pseudo-authentic typography wears on me quickly. I have a hard time reading more than a couple of pages without gritting my teeth. YRMV.

(2011, Steampunk) A steampunk setting sourcebook for HERO 6th, in particular Star HERO 6e. It presents a full developed alternate history running from the mid-19th century through WW1. That history includes supernatural elements in addition to the technological changes. Despite an unsuccessful IndieGoGo campaign, BlackWyrm published The Widening Gyre. I've enjoyed a number of their other setting sourcebooks, especially The Algernon Files series. Beyond the setting, The Widening Gyre offers a rich steampunk sourcebook for anyone wanting to use HERO to run a campaign like this. Since we're never going to see a Steampunk HERO, this serves as a worthy option.

(2011, Steampunk-esque) An adventure path and campaign setting for Pathfinder and D&D 4e. Subtitled "The Gears of Revolution." It presents a world torn between the old magical powers of the Unseen Court and the new industrial centers of steel and slums. Players take the role of agents in the Homeland Constabulary of the nation of Risur. They battle conspiracies at home and abroad even as the mysteries deepen. I love the threat suggested by dark old powers beyond the walls and new monstrous dangers arising from the nature of the new cities. It looks to be a well-developed steampunk fantasy world, rather than one of drop-ins and mish-mashes. It comes from the developers of the well-regarded War of the Burning Sky series.

1 comment:

  1. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is, well, Fantastic. I wish I had something like that when I Was running my Victorian games more.