Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part Two: Pure Steam to World of Steamfortress Victory)

As I said on the previous list, 2013 turned out to be a decent year for Steampunk and Victoriana rpgs. We saw several adaptations to existing systems, some new editions, and a few completely new games. So how did these genres look in other kinds of gaming?

In video gaming we saw a several new games with a steam theme: Bioshock Infinite,  Ironclad Tactics, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, and SteamWorld Dig to cite a few examples. On the Victoriana side we saw Victoria II: Heart of Darkness. If we cast our net back further, say five years, to 2009 we can see that these genres have been even more prolific Resonance of Fate, Dishonored , Crimson: Steam Pirates, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, God Eater, Victoria II, Pride of Nations, EastIndia Company and more.

That’s pretty impressive.

I've left some games off this list- some smaller, self-published, or pdf-only products. If I've missed something big, please give me a heads up. I've opted to mention products during they're year of physical release, rather than Kickstarter success or pdf preview. 

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. 

I wonder if there will come a time when not going through crowd-funding will be considered a knock against a game? Pure Steam successfully completed a KS campaign in 2012 and released a beta-version and then a final version in 2013. That resulted in a large (226 page) campaign book, as plus a couple of striking miniatures as stretch goals. This product gives a complete setting for Pathfinder, as well as the various mechanical bits and bobs you'd expect from such a sourcebook. About half the book consists of presentation of the setting's races, the two new classes (Chaplain and Gearhead), ten new archetypes for existing classes, feats, equipment, and science & technology.

A little less than 70 pages presents the world. This is a fantasy world with strong analogues to the real world. Rather than focusing on Victorian tropes, it instead opts to offer a more Mytho-American approach. So that's why we get a barefoot hillbilly dwarf on the cover firing off an arcane shotgun. The base book, "focuses on the Federated States of Ullera, a relatively young nation born out of the Abolition War, founded on freedom from oppression and learning to handle its newfound economic prosperity and political power." Pure Steam also includes some monsters and a sample scenario. This book may be of special interest to Pathfinder GMs looking build a new campaign or introduce steampunk elements into an existing one.

12. Slawia
Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy received a English language edition in 2012. I had a chance to look at the printed book at Gen Con and its pretty nice: a full-flavored and rich new setting which embraces the steam elements. We have yet to see other materials for the line translated. It's not clear if that's on the table or if that isn't viable. Slawia presents a hefty setting book for the Polish-language original game. Interestingly this book covers the analogue for Poland itself in this pseudo-European setting. Ironically Slawia is also known as "The Cursed Republic"...

The publisher Starbright released a wave of genre and setting-specific books powered by Fate in the wake of Evil Hat's open license to the system. In some cases, like Extreme Future: Fate Edition, this took an earlier product and reworked it. I had a chance to look through some of the Starbright products, in particular Future Heroes and was struck by problems with art, layout, and coherence. Steampunk Fate is, as far as I can tell, simply a set of genre tools- tacked on to the base Fate Core rules. It has a setting, but not deeply developed. The reviews for the line of products seem quite bad, as illustrated by the collected reviews here. That's too bad. I think there's a potential market for a company to offer some interesting genre frames or toolkits for Fate. These could be generic, with perhaps three or more distinct world frames (ala Fate Worlds) to show how these ideas could be applied.

Steampunking up the Western seems to be a theme in 2013. While we'd seen some of that before (notably with Deadlands and Six-Guns & Sorcery) its nice to see gamers going back and reconsidering how to play with those elements, both the actual American West and the idea of the Western. Steamscapes provides a Savage World setting based in a divided steampunk 1870's North America. At about 90 pages (including the covers, index, & supplementary materials) it gives a mix of stuff- beginning with the obligatory new professions, edges, and other mechanical material for SW. The next third of the book presents a quick history and overviews of the four major nations of the setting (American Consolidated Union, Confederation of Texas, Rocky Mountain Republic, Plains Tribal Federation). The last dozen and a half pages give a GMing overview plus a couple of scenarios. The layout and presentation's good- except for the annoying page backgrounds. I admire the designers for taking on this genre with a system already heavily associated with another big Western game. They have several free previews available as well as a substantial player's supplement, Steamscapes: Gunslinger's Guide, released this year.

With a system as popular as Pathfinder, you'd expect companies to spin out games and worlds using it. But Pathfinder feels much tighter to me than the old OGL/d20 material- it has such an identity tied to its sources that I have a hard time picturing adaptations. But we've seen them across genres, including supers (Heroes Wear Masks), cyberpunk (NeuroSpasta), and modern (Modern Adventures). Terah brings steampunk to Pathfinder and also funded through a Kickstarter in 2012 and released in 2013. The 200 page book opens with the world background and setting. It appears to be a conventional fantasy setting, but with steampunk elements. For me the problem is the lack of clear info or selling points in the company materials. You have to hunt through to put something together- and there's almost nothing saying "this is what makes us different from other steampunk fantasy games." Years ago you could simply lay claim to doing that genre and it would be enough. But that ground's been plowed thoroughly.

And that's not to say that Terah's bad- far from it. It just needs to really sell what's cool and unique about it- beyond new classes and feats. What makes this world some place worth exploring and playing in? I see there's some mention of psychic powers- that's potentially intriguing and different. Perhaps it brings psionics into the setting- if so what does that make the world look like? I should also mention that Rossi Publishing has done better than some companies in supporting their game. 2013 also saw the release of Pebble inthe Pond: Within Wheels. This is a 100 page adventure that aims to use time-travel to introduce the world to the players. Its also the first adventure of an arc (ala Pathfinder Adventure Paths) so that's promising.

Airship Pirates remains top on my wish list of games. I just haven't yet swung back to pick it up with so many excellent products released in the last few years. The game's built on the work of a steampunk band, Abney Park. They're transported back to 1906, where they cause a calamity to the timeline. They arrive in 2150 to find a post-apocalyptic, steampunk, neo-Victorian world with dinosaurs. I've compared it to Etherscope and Unhallowed Metropolis which also combine Victorian tropes with the far future. Underneath the Lamplight is the first supplement for the game since 2011, but it is a doozy- clocking in at almost 250 pages. This is a massive world-building book detailing the lives, cultures, cities, and peoples of the Neovictorian society. It includes new mechanics and options for the game as well as a deeper view of the different social and cultural castes. You have to dig any game with Ministries of Truth, Legacy, Hope, Diligence and Defence. The GM section deals with some of the mysteries and plot hooks of the setting. It looks quite cool and I'll be moving this up on my 'to do' list for the future. 

The venerable Victorian RPG Victoriana got a fresh new third edition in 2013. I'm glad to see games in this genre continue to evolve. Rather than completely change the base system (as they did when moving from 1st to 2nd edition), Victoriana 3rd keeps the Heresy Game Engine which uses a dice pool for resolution. An obstacle dice pool, called the "Black Dice Pool" can actually cancel successes. Airship Pirates uses the HGE system as well. This edition makes some notable changes, especially the shift to an 1856 date for the game, rather than the previous 1867. It also apparently integrates more technology into the setting. Where before sorcery and the fantastic had been the prime mover, now mechanisms and weird science have a stronger role. That seems a smart move to me. Given the kinds of supplements we saw for 2nd edition it probably answers fan's needs and positions it as a viable Victoriana and steampunk game.

Keeping the base system meant that previous supplements and adventures can still be used with this edition. That's another smart move and allows them to keep selling and pushing those products in pdf form. At the same time Cubicle 7 supported the line strongly in 2013, releasing two adventures- The Spring-Heeled Menace and TheDevil in the Dark, as well as longer connected campaign collection Streets of Shadow (Victoriana). Some of that material has been presented before, but these versions revise and expand them.

A steampunk western RPG funded through Kickstarter. It ended up coming out about a year after the estimated date. It managed to commit one of the cardinal sins of Kickstarting (from a backer's point of view,) putting the game out into retail distribution and selling it at conventions before delivering copies to those who supported the project. I know that created some bad blood and I watched several excited gamers shift from enthusiasm to apathy (and anger in some cases).

Westward offers a complete rpg system, built on a D6 System (OpenD6) base. Rather than being a Victorian or even alternate Earth, Westward takes place in the future. The setting opens over three centuries after human colonists crash-landed on a new world. The ongoing battle against a hostile environment has decayed technology and society to steam and gunslinger levels. That’s a cool concept, and it does seem to open things up for play (i.e. not having to hold to conventional analogues). However I’m not sure the game really does anything with that futuristic or alien planet premise. In practics and as presented it simply feels like an alt-world steampunk setting. The GM advice and discussion focuses on that side of things.

Regardless, the book’s really well done. The layout’s excellent- and concepts are clearly presented. There’s a ton of equipment and tech, if that’s your thing. The art ranges from excellent (for character illos and pieces) to weak (for the equipment just mentioned). World background takes up about 100 pages of the book, with half of that made up of beasts and NPC write ups. There’s a sample adventure at the end. My only knock would be the weird “graffiti” bits they use to fill some of the space on the pages. These just look dumb and detract from the overall presentation. I hope Wicked North Games opts to do more with this game line.

A couple steampunk-esque games have built a larger story for themselves, a meta-plot that moves the setting forward and allows for new material. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand I enjoy how those events upset the status quo and introduce new concepts. On the other hand, I see those things at a distance, rarely integrating them into the games I run (like my various old World of Darkness games). That mean games present a chunk of material I'm not interested in or going to use. But more importantly it can box designers into a corner- they have to move forward. That can lead to backlash and collapse, as with the third edition of Cyberpunk or to burning everything to the ground, as with the old World of Darkness. So I'm wary when I see tnew games come right out of the gate with an evolving arc. That isn't a selling point for me.

The World Beneath the Clouds is a sourcebook for Venus in 1883 for Stars of Empire. It moves away from the focus of the evolving Hive War in the main part of SoE. It funded through a Kickstarter project and reflects the game's focus on crowd-sourcing and creating a open world for the players. While the material has a little of the look of John Carter, there's a definite focus on what the designers call "Hard Science Victorian Science Fiction." That's a smart niche- and one only a few other games (notably some of the earliest) have focused on. The book itself it 312 pages, standard size, but I haven't seen any previews of the final product. I suspect it is a must-buy for fans of the original game and a useful purchase for GMs looking to do 'other-worldly' exploration in an alternate Victorian setting. 

Steamfortress Victory released in parts over several years, with a quick-start product (A Day at the Fair) and a player book (The Player's Workshop) in 2010, followed by a GM guide (Engineer's Manual) in 2012. The game offers an interesting premise; in an alternate 1900, the discovery of "Bloodore" in Georgia leads to advanced steamtech. And in turn, the assault of the airship Victory lays waste to Chicago on the first day of the World's Columbian Exposition. This shatters 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.

2013 saw the company further expand the line...a little. They release Core Mechanix which revises the earlier Players Workshop. That's available (at the moment) for a cheap price on RPGNow, so anyone interested might want to cheak it out. The World of Steamfortress Victory came out next- a volume which offered details on the setting, world, and the metaplot they've developed, called the "Timewelder Schism." I have no clue what that means but it sounds good. However WoSFV isn't available any longer, at least in pdf format. I suspect that's because they then published CompleteCore Rules: Year 1901, which bundles together the Core Mechanix, WoSFV, and the Engineer's Manual into one book. So the long way around is to say that if you're looking for a 'done-in-one' version of this game, that's the one to pick up.

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. 

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

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