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A Believable Lie about Steampunk

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On May 10, 2011 @ 1:23 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Steampunk is all the rage these days, but have you ever considered the etymology of the word? The term Steampunk is clearly derived from Cyberpunk, with the major difference being one features ubiquitous steam tech, the other  ubiquitous cyber tech.  Aside from that, the titles say they’re not supposed to be all that different. Which is to say that they share the “punk” aspect, which carries the entire flavor of the Cyberpunk genre: the dystopian, filthy cities, the squalor for the common man, the  abject poverty and overcrowding despite technology capable of bringing in a new golden age. Even more than the cyber, the punk is what Cyberpunk is all about, and yet despite being as integral a part of Steampunk, you rarely see it there. So where has it gone? Why do we ignore the gritty underbelly of Steampunk while embracing the same culture in cyberpunk?

Well, mainly it’s because the above connection, which certainly seems to make sense, isn’t true. Steampunk is a tongue in cheek name given to the genre by one of a crop of 1980s authors precisely because it wasn’t punk at all, in contrast to the cyberpunk movement which was a rising star at the time, in the same fashion as you calling your tallest friend “shorty” and your shortest friend “big guy”. Of course, the joke isn’t quite as obvious 30 years later, but that’s just the way history works sometimes isn’t it?  (At least, this is correct as far as one can tell from wikipedia, but for all I really know, I was right the first time, so anyone out there who claims I’m wrong the first time, second time or both, feel free to educate me)

But… admit it. There for a minute, I had you hooked. What? Dystopian Steampunk? With powerful industrialists and jaded high society, the lower class forced to work in sweatshop like conditions for pennies a day, the PCs as steam-powered rebels and freedom fighters, striving to overthrow the yoke of opression or Shadowrun-esque fixit men quashing rebellion and committing acts of industrial sabotage?  That’s fully awesome stuff.

And that’s the point of today’s article: all it takes is a little shift in genre to make it fresh and new again. You don’t have to completely change genre, all you have to change is a component of genre.  For the purpose of this article, we’ll consider the following things as components of genre:

  • Technology/magic/powers
  • Time frame
  •  Setting
  • Culture
  • Theme
  • Anything else you care to define

So by taking your usual genre and switching up one of these components, even for a few sessions, you can add new life to your campaign.  Let’s look at a few examples grabbed at random from Eureka’s master sub-genre list:

  • Western: Generally a western game (as opposed to a fantasy western game) depends on irons, horses, and grit for your abilities, but running a short story arc in which your PCs become haunted by unbound spirits, have to use totems obtained from the local medicine man, or something similar, can introduce a bit of fantasy into your game. When the story arc is over, the ghost is laid to rest, to totems are spent, whatever, and it’s back to the game as normal. the entire Deadlands setting uses this combination of genre elements.
  • Supers: Supers campaigns are normally set in the modern day, or close to it, but what if you ran a stone aged supers game, either by trapping the heros in the past or in a low tech alternate dimension and forcing them to survive and find a way home, or simply run a comedic mini campaign with super cavemen (Why not? It’s been done before.)
  • Space Opera: Usually action packed and bigger than life, what about trading the common themes of action, and exploration for one of horror.  Used to excellent effect in the classic sci-fi series Alien, and the 2008 video game Dead Space and it’s sequel, space opera and horror marry particularly well because of isolation, a hostile environment, and unclear physical laws. So while you may not want to run an entire Star Wars campaign based on zombie survival horror, a few sessions would probably be awesome.

By altering a component of your genre permenently or for a few sessions, you can add some new life or a t least a new perspective to your game without making many fundamental changes, so go out and give it a try.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "A Believable Lie about Steampunk"

#1 Comment By Jon Wake On May 10, 2011 @ 1:54 am

I have to take issue with this post, if only because living in Seattle puts me smack in the middle of the Steampunk thing, and quite a few of my friends make their living in it.

The ‘punk’ part of steampunk is well alive, it just isn’t easily recognized as such by the general audience because it doesn’t tend to go to gaming conventions or Steamcon. It also is less of a ‘smash the state’ attitude than a ‘screw you, we’re doing it ourselves’. I’d reference Steampunk Magazine, the GreyShade Estate, Jake von Slatt, Lastwear Clothes and Datamancer as people who live the lifestyle by repurposing old technologies and styles to comment on the modern era.

It’s become quite popular, especially amongst gamers, to disparage Steampunk. I suspect it is because the typical ‘steampunk’ that shows up at a gaming con is essentially cosplaying. Not that they’re not lovely people–but don’t make assumptions based on an unrepresentative sample.

Anyway, love the site. Cheers!

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 10, 2011 @ 5:46 am

@Jon Wake – See? I KNEW someone would come and set me straight. I just didn’t expect it to be quite that fast.

Interestingly, I’ve never actually seen anyone disparage Steampunk. I personally think it’s three shades of awesome, and I have yet to meet a gamer who disagrees, but I think the nature of the gamer beast leads to everyone eventually encountering someone quite opinionated about why their favorite theme/setting/game system/whatever sucks, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there IS a rabid anti-Steampunk movement out there. I just haven’t seen it yet.

#3 Comment By steamcrow On May 10, 2011 @ 5:58 am

Exactly! I love my steampunk dirty and dystopian!

Often, when you’re talking about a dystopian steampunk, you’re often talking about it’s offshoot “Dieselpunk.” (A few years later, a lot darker, dystopian and more noir-gritty.)

I know, I know… punk this and punk that. But dieselpunk is a fairly distinct genre.
http://www.dieselpunks.org/

And yeah, I think that it is a very valid genre to roleplay in. For a lot of folks though, steampunk *means* cosplay, so there are some challenges there.

On a side-note, I’m working on an rpg (based on Fudge) for my monster-in-a-dieselpunk-world-comic; Monster Commute.
http://www.monstercommute.com

I’ll share it with you guys when it’s done.

#4 Comment By Padre On May 10, 2011 @ 6:14 am

I’ve been kicking around an elemental-punk campaign world. I’ve got the details over on Obsidian Portal: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/bloodmoon/wikis/main-page. In short, it is a post-apocalyptical world that is ravaged by elemental, necrotic and demonic energies. In the wake of this disaster the land is filled with new sources of energy that provide for the development of tech. Thanks for the post.

#5 Comment By Sporkchop On May 10, 2011 @ 9:24 am

I definitely agree with the above statements. Also, there are plenty of dystopian undertones in steampunk. Gibson and Sterling’s London in The Difference Engine is rife with social discord, and you would be hard pressed to call Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker anything but dystopian.

#6 Comment By SavageTheDM On May 10, 2011 @ 10:34 am

man I love the Gnomestew so much for things just like this. I had completely forgotten to do something like this but I have done this before. I once had a town in my DnD 4th edition campaign be steampunk and the players ate it up. I am now currently (after reading this article) wondering about all the different themes you can add into your games. Just last week I played a Halloween themed game with monster pumpkins and a festival. Are there any idea’s of great themes to mix in to your game other then steampunk or maybe some really crazy mixed themes out there?

#7 Comment By John Quixote On May 10, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

Phil Foglio, writer of the comic “Girl Genius”, is said to have coined the term “gaslamp fantasy” for magical steampunk settings that lack the punk or dystopia element.

There’s also an OD&D setting out there called “Engines & Empires” that looks like a mix of gaslamp fantasy and “Arcanum” style steampunk.

#8 Comment By razorwise On May 12, 2011 @ 10:47 am

RunePunk is steampunk. I started working on it back in 2004 before the sudden rise of steampunk. It debuted at Con on the Cob in 2006, so it’s rapidly approaching its five year anniversary.

You gnomes seemed to have liked it. :)

http://www.gnomestew.com/reviews/runepunk-review

#9 Comment By ProfGreyshade On May 12, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

Thank you Mr Wake for mentioning my blog in your comment. Since Greyshade Estate is only about six months old I periodically seach the web to see if anyone is talking about it and my somewhat extreme interpretation of steampunk.

Personally I don’t “take issue with this post” I would stay though that it is inaccurate to say that genre of steampunk doesn’t contain distopian elements. Crime, disease, poverty, trips into the sewers of London etc all feature prominatly in the works of Jeter, Blaylock and Powers which gave steampunk its name. Even before the American trio invented steampunk by name Micheal Moorcock gave us an airship full of alternate history oppression and revolution in 1971s Warlord of the Air. So if you’re looking for the gritty, nasty side of steampunk, its always been there.


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