Vulcania is a fantasy steampunk roleplaying game by Gear Games. I’ve hardback, and it’s colourful and gorgeous. There’s plenty of art, especially at the front when we’re dealing with classes and cultures, and it has a strong anime vibe.
Almost immediately, Gear Box sets to work to set out the feeling of Vulcania, and beyond the anime visual, there’s a cosmopolitan collection. Take that steampunk aesthetic of an Industrial Revolution and apply it to a fantasy world of magic.
Next, layer that aesthetic to various imaginary but familiar cultures – each represented by some sort of geographical power and associated lineage in the game. So there’s the Victorian European shard, the Wild West steampunk shard, the gothic horror steampunk sliver, the Far East steampunk area, the Middle Eastern shard, and even a post-apocalyptic sub-setting.
The approach is intriguing and dangerous. Let’s tackle the danger first. There will be some readers who worry that Vulcania is built on awkward racial tropes. Some of that is true; the Balast tend to be religious (the Middle Eastern-inspired area), the Ketniv are contemplative and disciplined (the Far East inspired people), and the Itteghi are a nation of independent islands of curious entrepreneurs.
You may find a culture you identify with being drawn on by Vulcania for one of their fantasy realms, and it is equally possible you may not like the characteristics picked.
If that bothers you, Vulcania is not the game for you.
It wasn’t a showstopper for me. I kept reading, and, speaking from a position of white guy privilege, I felt that all the various fantasy cultural mashups were treated equally. No one is better than the other. While the inspiration was clear, I also thought that all of the steampunk cultures had moved far enough into the realm of fantasy.
Gear Games are Italian. I don’t know enough about contemporary Italian culture to comment on how much of a hot issue cultural sensitivity is. I can say that I can imagine people could read through the whole book without ever once realising it is a translation. I think it’s an exceptional job.
A d12 is rolled for skill tests in Vulcania, and the math is straightforward. To pass a test, players have to equal or beat a difficulty number set by the Narrator, and they add their character’s skill to that 1d12 roll.
Characters start the game with Gears of Fate tokens which can be used to retake those rolls.
There’s at least a 25% something extra will happen if a dice is rolled. On an 11 or 12, the player scores an Opportunity for their character, akin to a critical success. For these Opportunities, players can suggest something that happens in the game to help out, with the Narrator’s approval or bank a +1 for the next roll. On a 1, it’s a Catastrophic Failure, and something unhelpful happens, or there’s a lurking -1 for the next roll.
Vulcania gets surprisingly crunchy with skills despite that simple mechanic. The skills chapter includes dozens of tables and suggestions for what skills can be used and rules for each. For example, the strength skill (there is no strength skill, but there are stamina and dexterity) has additional rule tables for brute force and carrying, lifting and pushing.
The approach works for me, and I usually lean more towards abstraction. I’ve found the level of detail in the Vulcania skills to be just about perfect to describe what a skill is, how it can be used, and guidance to the Narrator to get the game balance right.
Combat is similar; a light framework and detail when you need it, should you need it. It’s a phased approach; Surprise, Initiative and then To Arms!
There’s even a paragraph on underwater combat. That feels like a sign the game has been thoroughly playtested.
Equipment and gear gets some attention for this steampunk too. Characters can invest in crafting. But what stands out for me is how damage is indicated on weapons.
Each weapon has a colourful d12 track with up to four colours on it blank (white), green, yellow and red. A 10 for a scimitar is coloured green, but for a zweihander, it is yellow. If your d12 roll is in a blank section, you’ve done 1 damage; if it’s green, you’ve done 2, yellow is 3 and red 4.
The practical effect of all this is that not all weapons deal damage equally. Axes, for example, are blank until 11 and 12, which are yellow and red. So you’ll probably make 1 point of damage with an axe unless it’s a big hit, and you’ll do much more. That contrasts to a saber which turns green at 8 but gets no higher.
I predict some players will love this as it gives them a real strategy in how they arm their characters.
I think that’s a fair summary of the whole system. This RPG makes tweaks and clever changes to the familiar. It takes us off the beaten path with just one or two steps. I’m sure this won’t appeal to everyone, no system does, but my hunch is that it’ll strongly appeal to some.
The Setting of Vulcania begins in chapter seven, but you will already have a good idea of the world by the time you get there. That’s a success for the writers.
For me, it’s the illustrations that have the most impact. The combination of steampunk and anime is somewhat odd – but it works. Anime tends to be bright and bold, even dramatic at times. However, steampunk is more sombre, muted, and while the characters can be outlandish, they don’t automatically suggest action stars.
Vulcania is set on a series of volcanic archipelagos. Archipelagos are technically land masses clustered together to make sort of “meta islands”. I like them in RPGs because they act as a dungeon for the outside, putting walls around relatively small geographic areas.
I’m not sure the Vulcania lands feel like archipelagos to me. I think they’re more like islands. What does come across clearly is that land is scarce, and water is everywhere else. This is perhaps the main reason for such diverse cultures.
All this water, all the difficulty in getting from one nation to another, means that players and their characters will undoubtedly be interested in airships. Where would steampunk be without its airships?
Vulcania goes big with its Airships. Resisting the urge to throw them into a supplement as an upsell, Gear Games give us plenty of stats, designs, illustrations and options.
The next time a player says, “I want to play in an RPG with airships”, then I think the response could well be, “Vulcania it is!”
Gear Games also know what looks cool. The core rules also contain rules for Rotodarts and Steamcycles. These are badass motorcycles powered by steam so your adventurers can thunder around the countryside. The Rotodarts are one-wheel contraptions that rotate around a single seat. It’s another example of steampunk meets anime.
Reagents add another flare, an alchemical flare in this case. If Rotodarts sound like mad science to you, then reagents are another aspect of the same fringe.
Lastly, there’s world tension. The different isles aren’t just used to weave in as many mini-settings as possible. The various nations have only just stepped back from a bitter war, and there’s the sense that it could erupt again.
You will have a good idea of what Vulcania feels like by the time you get to the Word section. The chapter isn’t redundant; it uses its space wisely to offer up as many of the setting’s strengths as possible.
It’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but Vulcania had my attention from the first glance. When I first opened the robust hardback, it was 3am, and I was in bed. Too tired to read, I just flicked through the pages to enjoy the art and discovered that it was easy to stop and read parts. I contrast that to those RPGs designed, sometimes with retro-intent, as Tetris squares of text or essay like blocks.
The pages of Vulcania are decorated. I’m glad I have a physical book as if I only had the PDF, I’d want to print it out, and then I’d wrestle with whether I printed out the coloured background textures for the pages.
Sometimes killing page textures, when the publisher allows is, is a no-brainer because it gets in the way of text clarity. Not here. Vulcania didn’t just have a layout person and some illustrators; it had an art director, there was a vision, and it was respected.
Successful Kickstarters sometimes curse RPGs with pages to fill. That wasn’t the case here. Vulcania is a big book, but it uses that page count wisely, nothing is crammed, and everything has room to breathe.
I’ve played a one-shot with Vulcania to test the system, and it works for me. A few scenes aren’t enough for the game, though. A game like this demands a long-lasting campaign that involves touring the fractious world via airship.
Steampunk is a genre, an aesthetic, and it is worked pretty hard here, stretched across islands and turned into an adventure. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Gear Games use the word “anime” to describe the game, but it’s clear to me. Strangely, the two fit.
Vulcania gets one grease smeared thumbs up for me. I see brewing Kickstarters on Gear Games’ page and they have my attention.
My copy of Vulcania was provided for review.
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