Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2014

My first impression was that steampunk had begun to wane in 2014, at least in rpgs. But looking through the list, that's not true. We saw several completely new systems and settings arrive, as well as elements used as an accent elsewhere. It's also the year that brought us the nadir of genres which annoy my wife: Steampunk Cthulhu. If there's a theme here, it might be the way steampunk and Victorian trappings have been blended. They're an important visual and fictional motif in some of these games, but aren't necessarily central. That means some of my picks for this list may be arguable. 

But if it stayed strong in rpgs, it dropped off in other kinds of games. In videogames we got a reboot of Thief, Warmachine: Tactics, Skyborn, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, and a bunch of app games with loose themes. On the other hand in boardgaming we saw Deadlands: Reloaded, Dogs of War, Onward to Venus, Machina Arcana, Ars Alchima, and Steam Donkey. That's a far cry from previous years. Have the days of steampunk as a pasted-on theme gone away? We'll see. 

If you’re a podcaster or blogger and want to talk with me about these series, drop me a line. I got nominated for an ENnie last year, so that’s something…maybe. If you’re a designer for games I’ve mentioned on any of these lists and want to talk about your work and thoughts about the genre in general, I’d love to have a chance to do that.

I focus mostly on core books here. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I’ve consolidated a ton of material into several ”Miscellaneous” items at the end. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

This Finnish rpg appears steampunk in the loosest sense. Astraterra has a brightly colored sci-fi look. But the setting does offer a steam-powered society. That’s within a post-apocalyptic science fantasy where civilization has only just begun rediscovering this technology. Astraterra’s another one I missed on my Post-Apocalyptic list (too many games!). In it characters use once-lost teleporters to explore their strange and fallen ringworld. I place Astraterra on the list because the authors themselves describe it as steampunk. The game's aimed at younger players and has been modestly supported with a GM screen and character pack. A Kickstarter supported an English translation slated for 2015, but that has not yet released.

An Italian rpg focused on detective stories in Victorian England with a dash of steampunk. Players take the role of agents of the Diogenes Club from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The core game actually came out in 2013, so the core book belongs on that list. But 2014 saw the release of two supplements. Brass Age America is a large volume offering new mechanical and career options, as well as material on the United States in the setting. On the other hand, I Doni di Mabon has a lengthy set of adventures for Brass Age set in London.

It took me a bit to piece together City Hall, which I first saw mentioned on GROG (Guide du Roliste Galactique). The game's based on a French manga called City Hall. In this world a strange phenomenon creates persons from written-word descriptions. The more detailed and skillful the description, the more vivid, powerful, and independent the creation. Fully realized fiction characters become real and dangerous. This changes history, resulting in a steam-powered world which tries to ban the written-word. There's a mix of authors and fictional characters in the stories. In the rpg players take the role of Nostromo Agents, dealing with and hunting down these simulacra. The art looks striking and they've done a nice job of tightly tying it to the manga. City Hall has been supported with a couple of supplements. It reminds me a little of the '06 game, Passages, where characters can enter into the worlds of novels.

A Savage Worlds setting book, offering Mechadia, a realm from the Suzerian setting. It gets its own entry because it seems intended to stand on its own. While it could fit within a Savage Suzerian campaign, the book approaches it as an independent setting with new character options, extensive rules for inventions & devices, a lengthy plot point campaign, and a series of smaller Savage Tales. We've seen some other steampunk Savage World lines, and this complements them nicely- adding a fantasy-hybrid version to the choices. The setting’s key conceit are fey who connect themselves to the dreams of invention. That interaction drives the creation of further steampunk developments. That's a cool idea and one worth adapting for other games. Clockwork Dreams looks solid and excellent, aside from the odd cover. There's a free 16-page primer availablefor the curious.

Angelus Morningstar has produced some of the most amazing online work for Changeling the Lost. His Eidolon: The Electrodyne Opera is a project which he's been developing for some time. It shows. The result is a huge, strikingly illustrated, stand-alone rpg.

The introduction describes Eidolon as a “gaslamp fantasy setting, set in the year 1900.” That year’s just a touchstone for the reader’s thinking. The game takes place in a fantastic realm called Eidolon where powers human and inhuman struggle for mastery. The names of things, people, and places echo the real world, but this is clearly another realm. I can’t do justice to the dream-like quality here, a world set in clockwork with different firmaments and levels. It reminds me of Nobilis, Houses of the Blooded, and Changeling the Dreaming.

It also contradicts my usual grousing about info dumping rpg readers. I’ve complained before (on this very list in fact) about weighing the reader down with cosmology and history before making clear what the game’s about. Because there isn’t a game here. Instead this is a deep, rich, and seriously intense sourcebook for this setting.

It’s so rich, complicated, and elaborate I can’t even imagine where I’d begin if I wanted to run it. A system exists, provided for free if you buy the book. But fundamentally Eidolon’s so complex I don’t think anyone but the author could run the setting. Or perhaps they could, but with the soul stripped out or by putting in so much effort they’d be better off crafting their own personal world.

But this is still a solid product which does what it sets out to do: paint a world. Every page has interesting ideas. It’s worth picking up for any fan of the fantastic and for GMs who like to build wonder into their world. Eidolon’s a fun read, it hits on the kind of weird, uncanny, and fantastic I like. YRMV.

Cthulhu by Gaslight first appeared in '86, with a 3rd edition in 2012. But that’s always been the least supported of the CoC settings. That’s why this is a huge German hardcover edition released by Pegasus Spiele surprises me. It revises and expands on earlier versions, and adds three new adventures. I would have simply placed this under revisions, but it's such a striking product. It's also one that makes me wonder about the transition from Call of Cthulhu 6th to 7th edition. European editions of CoC products, especially German and French ones, have continually broken new ground for the rpg. They've created amazing and beautiful products. But will they follow Chaosium into the future and accept CoC 7th? What will that mean for their backlist? Might we see a splintering of systems as we have with BRP?

A wuxia/steampunk hybrid using a smart adaptation of Fate Accelerated. Jadepunk most feels like Legend of Korra. It has that same mix of late 19th Century technology, magic, and martial arts. While the game centers on Kausao City, it offers quick but rich world-building: sketching out the nations and peoples. The city itself as a crossroads, bringing cultures together from across the world. Black jade, the rarest of the magical jades, comes from Kausao. Those jades power everything, and the colors have different properties. Craftsmen carefully work these into wondrous blades, guns, and engines. Jadepunk sets the players as revolutionaries within the city, fighting against corruption, tyranny, and banditry. It core book is playable on its own. Overall it's a smart and easy system, supported with several supplements. Highly recommended.

I read a post suggesting the term "Fantasy Heartbreaker" has problems. Gamers use it too much and apply it to negate work. Some have suggested they're a actually form of subversive art. I don't know. Sometimes I start reading through a game and my stomach sinks. Maybe it’s the kitchen sink approach, the bizarre order of information, or the desperate rebuilding of the wheel.

Anyway, I'm not sure why I mention that here.

Kromore offers a new role-playing setting and system intended to cover multiple genres in a single world. Players can take the role of heroes from fantasy, sci-fi, medieval, modern, and- relevant to our interests- steampunk eras. Then they can "Explore a massive setting over Kromore's 10,000 year timeline." So in some ways that’s a non-generic, generic game; a strange mix of polar opposites. The core book's about 350 pages and oddly doesn't open what the game’s about. Instead it begins with lengthy 'what is an rpg,' storyteller advice, and example of combat sections. That strangeness continues in character creation. The game offers distinct profession picks for the 10K year history. (Sci-Priest, Ferrian Vanquisher, Knight Agent). Kromore mixes simple and complex approaches: small feat-like options, a tight skill list, a flow chart lifepath, S.A.S.F.A.F.F. (Falling Damage), Height & Bullet Degradation and so on.

I have to give the game credit: it has ambition. The 10,000 year history's covered in about a 100 pages, broken into several eras. Publisher RAEX Games have supported the line modestly, releasing a screen, module, and loot cards. Kromore came about through a Kickstarter that delivered in a timely fashion.Reviews for Kromore look mixed. I'm always a little cautious when I only see one glowing review on IPR, Amazon, or DriveThru. I'd recommend some Google hunting and checking the preview out. But if you're particularly looking for a steampunk game, that's only a small slice of the whole here.

Cakebread & Walton released two linked steampunk products in 2014. The first, OneDice Steampunk, turned out to be the beginning of an extensive series of genre-book versions of their new OneDice system. As you can imagine, it requires only a d6 for each player. OneDice Steampunk offers the rules, thirty pages of setting & GM advice, plus three "skins" new worlds involving for Machine Worlds, Lost Worlds, and Gothic Horrors. The tightness of the skill-based system means that you don't need an additional core book (OneDice Universal). The book’s light, with slightly cartoony line art. But if you're just dabbling in steampunk and just want to get a game to the table, this might be it.

OneDice Abney Park's Airship Pirates takes the OneDice system and applies it to the publisher's licensed line. Previously done with Victoriana's Heresy engine, this stripped down version is still a hefty 172 pages. A little over half of that's given to the setting and sample adventures. So who might be the audience? Players of the previous version who want a light system or new gamers who didn't invest in the earlier line and sourcebooks.

Note that this is another game which could appear on both the Post-Apocalyptic and Steampunk lists.

Disclosure: I backed this Kickstarter. The Ministry Initiative offers a Fate-based adaptation of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. They’re novels of steampunk agents defending the Victorian Empire. The Ministry Initiative has complete rules, adapting the Fate to the setting with a tailored skill list, new stunts, and vehicle mechanics. I've come to appreciate how well Fate works for adapted material. Licensed games can swing wildly between mechanics draped in a thin layer of setting and more sourcebook-y versions, where the game’s an afterthought. Like Atomic Robo, The Ministry Initiative, offers a complete product that feels like it grew up alongside the novels. The writing, presentation, and mechanics click with the setting. Keep in mind I've never read the novels, but I came away confident enough to run in this world. If you're hunting for a steampunk-flavored Fate game, you should check this out. If you're just a fan of the novels, you'll find this an excellent resource to adapt it to another system.

11. Through the Breach
Through the Breach is the long awaited RPG set in the Malifaux universe. My experience with Malifaux remains limited to trying to assemble one of their plastic figures, discovering the back cover illo had been flipped, and trying to pry it apart. Tiny pieces, fat fingers. Grumble, grumble. Anyway, the first book for this The Fated Alamanac (sic), landed the year before. But 2014 saw the release of the The Fate Master's Almanac and The Fatemaster's Kit (again, sic).* This line came out of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign ($250K).

So what's the deal with Malifaux in general and Through the Breach in particular?

Malifaux appears to be a Gothic Horror Steampunk Western Dimensional Rift world. Maybe like a cross between Deadlands and Warmachine? Malifaux refers to both a weird decaying city and a parallel dimension. Magical workings in the 18th Century resulted in a breach leading to this new, apparently empty, realm. Soon explorers, prospectors, and settlers went through, beginning a trade in "Soulstone" and magical power. Then the breach collapsed, reopening a century later. The game takes place a few years after that with our world encountering the transformed survivors. Several factions battle for control of Malifaux including sorcerers, magical engineers, necromancers, monsters, and a weird orientalist hybrid Asian faction. It's a bit of a kitchen sink setting with wizardry, non-humans, gunsligners, steam-mecha, and wushu.

Through the Breach's system parallels the miniatures game's mechanics (much as Iron Kingdoms does to Warmachine). But apparently both games use playing cards rather than dice, an interesting twist. Character creation actually begins with a tarot-like spread. There's a great article on that process here. Through the Breach doesn't look quick, but I have a hard time judging the rule density from the review. But overall this seems fairly crunchy. Maybe it isn’t that complex once you get the system, but it derives from a miniatures system. That means TtB models actions and events with granularity. If that's your bag and the setting concepts grabs you, consider checking it out.

*Note that they cleaned up these cover typos.

12. Victoriana
Victoriana stands as one of the evergreen games of this genre, having gone through three distinct editions. The latest from Cubicle 7 had some support, but that seems to have dropped off. While the second edition had a host of striking sourcebooks, this one only saw two in 2014 (and none in 2015). The first, Liber Magica, presents a sourcebook for magic in the setting (something we never saw for 2e). It contains spells, rituals, and background for five forms of magic, notes on item creation, and the history & personalities associated with five magical societies. Liber Magica is mechanics-rich, but also offers a ton of interesting setting ideas and concepts. That makes it useful for GM looking to model or add depth to mystical arts in a Victorian setting.

The other release, The Concert in Flames, has a weak title. That obscures the volume’s role as the Europe sourcebook for Victoriana. Its 160 pages splits even between setting material and module. The first half details the history and locales of continental Europe. There's a nice focus on the urban centers of various nations. The second half presents a five-part adventure set on the continent. Again the writing and presentation make this a useful resource for GMs of Victoriana or similar games.

13. Wyrd
I don't know if I can do justice to this setting’s crazy complexity. As I mentioned elsewhere I'd first assumed that this was the Malifaux RPG, since that comes from Wyrd Miniatures. But no, this is a completely different thing. It can best be described as a kitchen-sink fantasy setting. Unlike Kromore above, this puts it all in at once. Lovecraftian elements, steam machines, battle armor, British mythos, multiple new races, strange names for everything. Reading the rules requires slogging through a massive history. It feels like an extended campaign world run by a GM in love with their backstory. Wyrd also uses its own unique mechanics, the Elderune Multidice System. There's a free pdf version of the setting and system book. That's worth reading (and looking at the character sheet) if you're interested in the genre or elaborate setting designs.

14. Miscellaneous: Revisions
Games and supplements which received significant revisions.

15. Miscellaneous: Other RPGs
Smaller smaller or pdf only games.
  • Aonir Roolipeli has a user summary on RPG Geek I cannot hope to top. "Aonir is a fantasy RPG created and published by Teemu Suontaka in 2014 as part of his master's thesis on degree of business economics used as a case example of getting from idea to product. In Aonir a fantasy world is invaded by alien tzerads, which causes steampunk technology development and appearance of mutated, green skinned orc race."
  • The Great Game in the middle of the 19th Century, the discovery of ancient megaliths releases Aetheric Energy across the world. Strikingly the rpg focuses on the struggle for these sources in Afghanistan. While publisher released this preliminary version to elicit feedback, they have not yet published anything further.
  • Romance in the Air is part of Evil Hat's excellent monthly series of new settings for Fate Core and Accelerated. It offers a drama set in an alternate fin de siècle Europe. Romance in the Air blends genre elements into the story of a great floating manor travelling across Europe. If you want a structure to explore social and romantic elements of this genre, pick this up. Highly recommended.
  • Steam & Fog comes from Italy. It presents a gothic-horror alt-history of the 19th Century. The Google-translate of the publisher's page suggests it focuses on some of the ethical themes of steampunk (?): cosmic nihilism, responsibility for actions, and class discrimination. The core rules detail Paris in the period.
  • Steam & Spectacles: The Steampunk Q•RPG Game is a 2 page steampunk rpg for the Q*RPG. It goes for $3 on RPGNow.

16. Miscellaneous: Modules
Modules for existing Steampunk/Victoriana rpgs or related adventures for generic systems.
  • Aethersaur Island offers a new steampunk pocket world for Lords of Gossamer & Shadow.
  • Bitter Medicine is the first module for Iron Kingdoms. Privateer seems to be smartly going digital only for these. This one's set in Cygnar, mixing train robberies & a deadly plague.
  • Crypta Hereticarum and Diaspora came out for the Zeitgeist setting. The latter is the 8th in an ongoing adventure path.
  • Wolsung: Steampulp Fantasy still hasn't gotten much traction in its English translation. The Day Urda Sank, a mini-campaign, remains the only other release in the line.
  • Pelgrane released two released series pitches for DramaSystem. Hold the Chain presents life in a flying dystopian steampunk city. Iron Tsar falls a little on the margins and might be more dieselpunk. In an alternate 1920's engineers from the magical Imperial Russian Court battle zombies overwhelming the country.
  • Kronocalypse Prelude: We've Got a T. Rex is part of a series of independent adventures involving time-travel and different tech levels. Written for Savage Worlds, this one has steampunk heroes trying to stop a prehistoric incursion at a technological fair.
  • The Machine King is a rediscovered Call of Cthulhu scenario from the 1990's. It has industrial technology run amok in a gaslit London.
  • The Naked Painting offers a generic steampunk agent chase-adventure using Basic Role-Play.
  • Spur ins Dunkel an adventure for the latest edition of the German Private Eye rpg. This one takes the investigators from London to Vienna.
  • The second and third parts of the Wake the Dead adventures for Steamcraft landed. These link up but could probably be run independently.
  • A World Gone Mad serves as a teaser for the still unreleased Victorious steampunk rpg. It's written generically and so could be easily adapted to other games.

17. Miscellaneous: Sourcebooks
Supplements expanding existing lines.
  • The City of Faymouth a fantasy-steampunk sandbox setting for Fate Core. DramaScape released a companion poster map of the city.
  • Compendium der Curiositäten covers the capital of the Finsterland setting. It assembles website articles and new material for this German RPG into a 212 page volume.
  • Die Venus is a massive resource covering Venus in the Space 1889 setting. It’s unclear if we'll see a translation of this German-language edition.
  • Monsternomicon a revised and reworked version of Privateer's classic Iron Kingdoms bestiary. Keyed for use with the original IK as well as the more recent IK Unleashed, it has great monsters and is worth picking up.
  • Steam Powered: Devices of the Mechanical Age offers a set of general "steam-powered" rules for use with Pathfinder. Mostly covers items and vehicles.
  • Steamscapes: Gunslinger's Guide focuses on character options for this Savage Worlds setting. This nicely complements the previous year's Steamscapes:North America.
  • Weird Science Compendium offers a short guide to strange devices in the marginally steampunk Leagues of Adventure setting for Ubiquity.
  • EN publishing released a few important items for the Zeitgeist setting, including the expanded editions of the Zeitgeist Campaign Guide and Player's Guide (for both 4e and Pathfinder). As well Seas of Zeitgeist offered naval rules.

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