Now, calm down. It’s not as bad as you think. Last time, we took a look at the Cyberpunk genre. Since its inception, it has spawned a massive selection of often odd sub genres (stonepunk, anyone?). While I don’t intend to dissect every ‘-punk genre’ a few of them are worth taking a detour into to see what makes them ‘not cyberpunky’ and how they create mood. Of all of the ‘spin-off’ divisions none have generate as much interest and expanded as quickly as Steampunk. Given that for some years it looked like it would eat Cyberpunk alive and feed it to its gears, let’s unpack what makes it tick.
Through a mirror, brightly
While it might at first glance be easy to define Steampunk as ‘Cyberpunk with 1800’s technology’ there is more going on here. Perhaps a hint of hope missing from progenitor? An optimism that technology can save rather than damn us. A chance to redo our past in a better, brighter way.
While steampunk settings are hardly utopias, they tend to embrace a different approach to heroic deeds than Cyberpunk. Here, the heroes can make a difference and technology is a thing to be embraced. Steampunk is partially about the sheer joy of invention both in technology and setting. It’s this differential that has given the Steampunk a way to connect with us. In an era where technology is ubiquitous, a genre that tells us science is progress but takes care to marry it to the past is very welcome. It’s here that the ‘punk’ comes in to. The rebellion is against the aesthetic of the modern. It’s a ‘more is more’ approach, where everything goes large or goes home. Overdone steam-limbs, hulking constructs, vast blimp cities. All held together by the power of belief and potential explosive energy. If we are to ape Steampunk, it’s this madness we must embrace.
Examples in RPG
Victoriana: To steampunk what Shadowrun is to cyberpunk, Victoriana has slowly crept into a position of frontrunner when discussing Steampunk RPGs. The engine it uses is very much a like it or lump it situation but the setting is vast and joyful blend of fantasy and steam.
Abney Park’s Airship Pirates: Less straight steampunk and more post-apocalyptic-pirate-time travel-steampunk, Abney Park burst onto the scene as an unapologetic ramshackle juggernaut. The setting takes the ‘more is more’ ideology and turns it up to eleven.
Leagues Of Adventure: Steampunk adventures in the pulp mode, Leagues offers an action packed tales of daring do. It’s a game with a number of different modes as well, with sourcebooks offering a chance to add gothic horror or Cthulhu outings to your game.
Fuel For The Boiler Room
To add an air of steampunk to your game, as well as sprinkling in some obvious boilertech, consider adding these ideas to the schematics-
The Joy Of Invention
Technology here is ramshackle, unique and often overblown. Allow people to create whatever they’d like but make sure it can – and will – have disastrous results that maximise the fun. Never have these haphazard results be fatal, but definitely add humour and excitement. Anyway you can make being on the cutting edge of steamtech seem like the most wonderful adventure.
Make everything four times bigger than it needs to be. Stuff all locations full of ballrooms and glass ceilings. Take that fight scene you were planning and find a more exciting backdrop. In a clocktower? On a Bridge? On top of a zepplin? Good. Now it’s a bit more punk.
When describing items and clothing, over describe. Give everything a multitude of finishes or tubes. Make sure that the details here pop and the players can really buy into the aesthetic that you are attempting to deliver. The focused descriptive can transport them to another place. In this telling, the devil is in the details.
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It’s not really steampunk if you don’t meet Tesla. Some of the joy of steampunk stories is the ‘alternate timeline’ thrill. Do research into historical figures and luminaries of the time and use them. Imagine the difference in impact when they find out the half-steamborg pirate captain who is raiding the Thames with his submersible is not just any old idiot but a disgraced and vengeful Isambard Kingdom Brunel! Things like this afford the setting a weird verisimilitude. If the setting doesn’t have these characters, steal them wholesale. Don’t be shy about it.
Part of the charm of steampunk is the ‘Victorian Values’. Historically accurate or not, this creates important power dynamics and conflict. After checking with your players, it might be interesting to introduce a system of class and reputation mechanics and have players punished for breaking such taboos as ‘listening to a woman’ or ‘hanging with the wrong people’. Just make sure you check first. Some people who face oppression in the real world come to a table to escape it and don’t want it to follow them. For more on this take a look at ‘No Way Out’ in the Cyberpunk entry.
Individualism IS power: As opposed to Cyberpunk where the fight for individualism is a fight at the ends of survival, in Steampunk, it is the route to freedom. Create choices where players have to stand outside of the system and take their knocks but make sure that doing so eventually reaps massive rewards. The point here is that steampunk is like a history lesson: it’s important to understand we have to learn from the lessons of our past and create a more open future – or we end up in a cyberpunk future. Here those that learn those lessons early can shape the future.
Next time we will round out the ‘punks’ by looking at something a little darker and starting by struggling to even define it. Because I like a challenge.
Ben Jackson-Ellery is a freelance writer with experience in the fields of drama, education and RPGs which means he has always been poor. He has also designed an escape room, built a grand piano and curated a castle because what’s life without whimsy?