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:
- Time frame
- 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.