- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Troy’s Crock Pot: The Skeletons Wore Top Hats and Tails

During a break at the Saturday Gaming Group’s last session, I brought up the notion of doing a steampunk campaign when the current Steffenhold campaign reached a natural stopping point.*

Save for one other member of the table, I got a round of quizzical expressions. “Steampunk? What’s that?”

I was surprised. I really thought the genre of brass goggle-wearing adventurers and steam-chugging flying contraptions was more widely understood. No matter, it was an excellent chance to share with them, by example, what steampunk can be.**

It’s Sherlock Holmes meets mad scientist.

(I picked that example first, because one the group members is well-known for his collection of the great consulting detective’s adventures in book and DVD).

It’s also …
… the electrified gothic horror of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein.”
… Jules Verne’s Nautilus from “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
… the “Wild, Wild West” TV series and motion picture.

And the other member of the table familiar with it piped in with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s “Girl Genius” and China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station,” both excellent examples, and then pointed out the steampunk aspects of Eberron and Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

And to help out, he even used the Facebook messaging system to share even more examples with the group.

Of course, steampunk is all of that and more — or if your tastes differ — just some of that. But it appears that the players are willing to give a game of gears and gothic horror a go.

Venturing into the Known World

Settling on a setting has been a process.

Initially, I’d given thought to the party being the Baker Street Irregulars — but mostly grown up — and taking up the departed Holmes’ legacy under Watson’s patronage. While that would have been a cool one-shot, it didn’t have the scope of adventure I thought would appeal to my players. Victorian London, while very cool, might prove to be a bit daunting.

Next, I considered using Eberron as a base — but with the volume turned way up on its steampunk aspects. There is a lot of material to work with. Anyone who wants to give D&D Fourth Edition a workout would find Eberron to be the perfect vehicle. Eberron’s kitchen sink approach fits 4E hand in glove.

But I’m not sure the group’s teeth will sink neatly into Eberron’s cog. When I introduced the steampunk option — the group’s affection for Steffenhold really came through in the ensuing discussion. True, my little medieval frontier town holds a lot of charm — and untold stories. How do I mesh a desire to continue that with an infusion of steampunk?

Do I dare turn the clock ahead 500 to 600 years, and see how steam technology and magic have transformed the history and landscape of the region?

Ultimately, that’s what I may end up doing. But the most important element, the setting narrative, is missing.

One of my players observed that the narrative of Steffenhold is the clash (or intrusion) of the old and the new. The lines of conflict in every adventure have been the faiths and traditions of the classical world (Olympian gods and monsters) and established feudalism against the emerging faith of the Shepherd (a Christian analog), town economics (and crime) and emerging nationalism. It sounds like a mouthful (and a bit pretentious) for a game whose central adventures have been dispatching goblins, but there it is.

The question now — which I haven’t answered — is: What will the narrative of Steampunk Steffenhold be?

The inner conflict of dark and light (“Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde,” “Frankenstein”) comes immediately to mind. There is also the very dirty, stinking, concrete reality of industry compared to the pristine, fanciful fascination with mysticism, magic and spiritualism. In that same vein, there is the tension between social classes, the widening gap between labor and luxury.

Or do you turn it on its head (the way Eberron did)? The big machines (trains and airships) don’t represent the gritty (and flawed) progress of steam technology — they are the epitome of clean, colorful magic given a practical purpose.

I have a lot to think about before presenting a steampunk campaign on the table. But one thing I know for certain:

The first adventure will have animated skeletons wearing tops and tails, and brandishing large wrenchess. Very victoriana, very creepy — and very steampunk.

*—Isn’t every GM thinking about the next two or three games down the road? It must be in a GM’s DNA, I suppose.
**—It was actually one of those quaint and special moments that takes me back to the early days of D&D, when you’d try to explain to people what this game is all about. Invariable, you’d end up saying, “it’s a game where you’re a hero, like Robin Hood or Lancelot or Merlin, and you’re adventuring in a land out of Grimm fairy tales, of ogres and trolls, black knights and dragons.” Because, if you’d said instead: “It’s a roleplaying game inspired by the pulp-era fantasy and horror stories of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft in which you challenge street-wise thieves guilds and kill monstrous nightmares in underground caverns so you can take their stuff and level up,” you’d get a completely different reaction — and probably not the buy-in you were hoping for.
18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: The Skeletons Wore Top Hats and Tails"

#1 Comment By Razjah On July 20, 2010 @ 7:56 am

I think that you can really make the narrative whatever you feel best fits the group. If your group like the light vs dark ideals or the issues with class struggles, you can easily make that those the main narrative elements of the campaign. A world that is struggling with the new power that the machines bring, how should it be used, what is the moral action with this new way of life? Are the machines sentient- then evil or good or either?

You can also take class struggles to fun new heights. The rich and life of luxury with machines doing everything while the poor live in the old times of manual labor and barely have enough to put food on a table. You may even take it as far as a caste system that is extremely rigid- you own machines, maintain machines, build machines, build pieces of machines, or have nothing to do with machines.

An important thing that you have not mentioned- what system would you use to support your steampunk world? That system may give you a new direction or even answers to your problem with the narrative of the setting.

#2 Comment By unwinder On July 20, 2010 @ 8:30 am

I’ve just started up a Steampunk campaign that takes place (with a very, very loose timeline) in the Civil War era, and has the PCs traveling around North America seeking adventure in a tricked-out experimental train.

I am really enjoying it. I’m trying to bring any American history and folklore that I can into it. One day the PCs will fight the Jersey Devil and the Snallygaster, the next day they’ll be trying to survive the Great Chicago fire, then it’s off to the North Woods to encounter Paul Bunyan, and down to California, the domain of Emperor Norton.

Anyway, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but the point is, it’s really, really fun to be able to do a campaign where you take real places and times and turn them on their heads.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2010 @ 8:53 am

[1] – I popped on to brainstorm on the theme of the campaign, but Early Americana Steampunk sounds frickin’ awesome! I’m not a steampunk fan, but I’d definitely be interested in that. It would be a great way to teach history to some rugrats, as well. I’m already seeing the soundtrack…

Troy – A couple of themes jump right out. If these newfangled contraptions are recent, then the theme could be the ramifications of the introduction of radically powerful technology (see: Industrial Revolution, current tech revolution, etc). Gibson & Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” studies the difference between technology in the hands of large nation-states vs. technology in the hands of people (a good tension, that the PCs can help manipulate, and see the effects of).

If you have sentient constructs a la Warforged, then they will be just like their creators, good and evil and everything in between. The bigger question is, how will they be perceived? Will they become the next slave race? Will they create their own liberation mythology (and in a world where belief leads to reality, will new gods spring into being)?

Will you have magic and steam and religion, or just one or two? Lots of questions, and it’d be great if you give us updates on your decisions and rationale for them.

#4 Comment By llondra On July 20, 2010 @ 9:02 am

If you’re not already familiar with Gregory Keyes “The Age of Unreason” series, I’d suggest checking that out for some history on its ear a’la steampunk inspiration.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On July 20, 2010 @ 9:23 am

Hmm, interesting milieu, but not as interesting as the phenomenon of Perdido St. Station which has people more interested in arguing over which genre it is than discussing the plot itself.

For the record, it emphatically *isn’t* steampunk. There is no retro-impossitech there at all, and therefore fails the steampunk test at the first hurdle. Not one pair of brass goggles either. It owes more to “Gormenghast” than to “The Difference Engine”.

I class PSS as a fairly standard Gothic Fantasy. There really isn’t much new behind the scenery – check out Delany’s “The Einstein Intersection” for a sixties era take on much the same theme – it’s just darker than most is all. But what it *is* is a damned good read and everyone should buy two copies, one to read and one to give as a gift to a newly post-goth relative.

I did, and went from being the Weird Uncle to the Cool Uncle in the space of about five minutes.

I think the tone of a Steampunk-themed game would be set more by the game mechanic used than anything else. If you want to use the PSS backdrop you’d need something like BRP Call of Cthulhu to properly handle the atmospherics. If you went more Baron Munchhausen you’d be better off with D20 for the hardiness of the characters when the mechanicals go boom-boom or Savage Worlds for the shear exhilaration of it all. If you were doing it “Difference Engine” style, I’d say D20 for the vast array of specializations possible for a character. Personally, if I were attempting Steampunk with no other idea about where to take the action, I’d go with Savage Worlds. A cartoon system for a cartoon milieu. (Cartoon as in “no relation to the laws of reality”, not “childish with low production values”).

Then, of course, you need to construct a suitably steampunk GM screen. I’ve built a themed screen for Call of Cthulhu and would have a field day building one for a Steampunk campaign, encrusting the thing with “brass” gears, cogs and wheels till the whole thing looked like the insides of some demented oblong watch. In fact, if I were doing a long campaign I’d finally get off my fat behind and try some actual custom etched brass to achieve the appliques for this project. Ooh! Ooh! and fold-up plexi “windshields” atop each panel for me to look at the players through, at least one with a ranging reticule marked prominently on it (in brass paint). Ooh! and a swiveling brass clip for attaching pictures, maps etc and swinging them out for the players to see in a properly steampunk way. Ooh, and an integral, cog-encrusted dice tumbler with moving parts and planetary gears!

I’m NOT larping! I just likes my toys.

#6 Comment By DMN On July 20, 2010 @ 10:04 am

Second shoutout to Gregory Keyes “The Age of Unreason” series.

Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series also fits the bill for Steampunk genre.

Love the idea of “animated skeletons wearing tops and tails, and brandishing large wrenches.” Love it!

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 20, 2010 @ 11:04 am

Raz — Does setting matter? Interesting question. It’s one I know Uncle Bear has been tackling from different angles for several years. My inclination is to get the group’s preferences for system, and go from there.

Unwider — Killer Angels meets Northern Crown. Sounds like a blast.

Roxy — etched brass? Wow! That display would be really, really neat.

Kurt — Addressing the suffrage of metal men would be a way to slide the pressing civil rights issues of the Victorian era into the setting without addressing race directly or having racial discrimination be a game killer.

Illondra — Age of Reason. Check. Next time I go to the library I’ll be sure to look into it. Thanks.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 20, 2010 @ 11:09 am

Doh! Age of Un-Reason!

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On July 20, 2010 @ 11:35 am

Animated Skels a-la steampunk could also be achieved using *The Game Company Which Must Never Be Mentioned*’s Necron warriors. The Plastruct company also makes neon plastic rod that can be used to replace the green rod in the guns with blue or red too. A friend once did this for a tourney. Looked fab.

If you have any of those tiny cylinders that contain dessicating granules you sometimes find in various things like camera parts or medication bottles, you could add backpack boilers with brass/plastic tube chimneys and guitar string steam piping (use the lower “E” string for best results).

Top hats? You could make ’em from greenstuff if you have mad sculpting skilz but I would probably try making them from two different diameters of plastic rod. Shave the large rod with a single edge razor blade for the brim and razor saw the smaller for the “stovepipe”, glued up with solvent-type glue. Watch your fingers though.

The best part is that with a bottle of brass (antique brass works best) another of bright brass or gold for highlighting edges (drybrush is good enough), black paint for everything not brass and some black india ink/alcohol wash you can get bloody good looking gothic mechs with little actual effort with the right choice of mini.

Damn! Now I wanna do a steampunk game!

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 20, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

Roxy — Warhammer 40K. great ideas for minis construction.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On July 20, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

Steampunk has gained a lot of footholds into traditional fantasy gaming. I think this is partially due to the desire for a few more modern options to mix with our swords and sorcery. I like steampunk settings on there own, but I really like mixing elements of them into traditional worlds. It opens up so many more options. I hope you keep us updated with some play reports.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 20, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

This is a meaty article, Troy — I love the way you broken down Steampunk, and you came up with examples I’d never really thought of as Steampunk before.

I also dig that you’re deconstructing it before reconstructing it for your own game. That would work equally well for just about any question framed as “What is [genre]?”

Ask “What is fantasy?” and you could find yourself in an unexpected place.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On July 20, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

If you haven’t read it, [2] is a great YA book with a great steampunk conflict. It pits Darwinists (using basically early genetic engineering) versus Clankers (using early steampunk mechs).

If nothing else, it has great illustrations you can steal!

#14 Comment By unwinder On July 20, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

While I’m here, I’m just going to repeat my oft-recited assertion that if you’re doing Steampunk, you can never go wrong with steam-powered motorcycles in place of traditional mounts.

#15 Comment By Omnus On July 21, 2010 @ 12:19 am

You can use mechanical horses for steeds as well, unwinder. Great, chugging steam-belching mechanical mules and bulls or horses. Fun times!

One thing I like about the steampunk genre is that it gives an opportunity to examine class in a game society (no, I’m not talking fighters and mages). Oftentimes, the poor get poorer and more desperate, even if the newfangled machines are supposed to make life easier for everyone. The PCs are privileged to be able to rise out of the common masses, where life is dirty and brutish. They embrace the technology rather than fall victim to it.

If you keep magic in the world, the tension gets greater, as magic-using types have to reconcile the diffusion of power, for now any man can pick up a steam-gun and kill another, what was once the sole province of a mage to wiggle his finger and make someone go Boom! Does religion condemn or embrace the new god of technology? You have so many avenues to draw from for conflict without looking for anything deeper.

#16 Comment By Nojo On July 21, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

You could mine Castle Falkenstein for ideas, even if you don’t use the game system.

For a cool civil war steampunk setting, I recomend Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Steampunk zombies, airships, and goggles, oh my!

#17 Comment By Sunyaku On July 22, 2010 @ 12:37 am

As soon as you said “turn the clocks forward and see how steam affected the landscape”, my mind immediately jumped to widespread weapons development and arms races, new political groups vying for power (and annexing resources) with their newfound technological might, late adopters getting pummeled into dust, and rogue/rebel factions stealing whatever toys they can get from the greater powers whenever they have the chance. Maybe even consider using pre WWI or WWI political/military activity as potential conflict models? Steam tanks, trains, attack boats, cars, zeppelins… etc.

The old ways are all but dead, and these days any low-level peasant can potentially do a great deal of damage if handed the right weapon– so I would imagine if you’re running 4e, you might want to encourage higher reflex defenses, and make attacks against that more often than AC. You definitely don’t want to just “take” a bullet against armor like you would a blow from a sword or arrow… unless maybe it’s plate mail. Not sure of the best way to handle this issue.

But anyways, from that setting you could run the story all sorts of ways… anyone want to assassinate Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini or Hitler? Or ALL of them? Or the players could even get sucked into propaganda and end up going after a Woodrow Wilson or Winston Churchill? The possibilities are endless.

In fact I may have to propose something like this after our current campaign runs its course… muah ha ha…

#18 Comment By Tanliel On July 25, 2010 @ 7:42 am

Something else for ideas would be Phil and Kaja Foglio’s comic, Girl Genius ( [3] ). Lot’s of steam-punk flavor there and a great story.