The Steampunk Empire

The Crossroads of the Aether

I've collected a number of steampunk themed RPGs and I've noticed something odd. Despite the sheer number of games, none of them have been "hits" (well Airship Pirates is not out yet, so it's too early to tell on that one). By "not a hit" I mean I have never found anyone who played in an extended campaign or even has much desire to. 

 

Etherscope: http://www.goodman-games.com/WW17620preview.html

Tephra: http://www.crackedmonocle.com/

Airship Pirates: http://airshippirates.abneypark.com/index.html

Victoriana: http://www.flamesrising.com/victoriana-2nd-edition-review/

Oz Dark and Terrible: http://emeraldcityexpeditions.com/news/

Iron Kingdoms: http://privateerpress.com/iron-kingdoms

 

As an RPG fan, this is puzzling and fascinating. 

None of these games are "bad' but they dont' seem to excite people either, not the way D&D, Pathfinder (which is arguably still D&D), Dark Heresy, and Shadowrun do. 

So what is missing?

What is it we as steampunk RPGers want but aren't getting?

What would be exciting about a steampunk RPG?

 

Being one that believes in full disclosure, I admit that my interest in not idle, it's professional. Though it's been as one of countless, invisible freelancers from the 90's, I intend be around until either they turn the lights off on the entire hobby, or me.

 

With that said, when I think of steampunk, I think of a flair for the dramatic that most of the current crop of RPGs lack. They seem to be primarily about stats and math. In other words, they feel like games from the late 80's. But with that said, using the more free form drama based systems of the 90's (Vampire, Mage, etc.) doesn't feel right either. Niether (oddly enough) do games like Spirit of the Century  Steampunk, with it's gears, cogs, and goggles, seems to call out for something more orderly. 

 

It seems to me that an entirely new design aesthetic is needed. One that encourages the dramatic, but can be broken down into simple, understandable parts. A type of well working engine which has a "Do something unexpected" function. 

 

What would you want the rules to let you do if you were playing  a steampunk RPG?

 

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I play Savage Worlds. I haven't really been in a "Steampunk" setting, but I enjoy the system. It is incredibly versatile.

 

I think you could do a good Steampunk setting in "Spirit of the Century" as well.

To be perfectly honest I'd not heard of any of those games to begin with. It could be a lack of advertising hurting them to start with. D&D has longevity on it's side. For those in their early 40's and younger it has always been there and has spread itself into nearly every media.

 

 Perhaps what these games need are a good base story. Something that captures not only the imagination of the players but gets them emotionally involved with their characters and what's happening to them. That is one of the things that held my attention for both D&D and White Wolf's games. The depth of the characters, the ability to not only create something excellent but to continue to develop the character through the role play.

To be perfectly honest I'd not heard of any of those games to begin with. It could be a lack of advertising hurting them to start with.

You know how I found them? I had to dig (somewhat deeply I might add). They failed to get our attention, but even having found them, I feel only luke warm about them. Though it's possible, I have to dismiss the idea that we as a sub-culture don't care about RPGs. After all, I'll bet 80% of everyone on this forum plays a regular RPG of some sort (probably good ole' D&D). Top that off with the fact that the RPG world is where most of us come from, and it becomes even less likely.   

Perhaps what these games need are a good base story. Something that captures not only the imagination of the players but gets them emotionally involved with their characters and what's happening to them. That is one of the things that held my attention for both D&D and White Wolf's games. The depth of the characters, the ability to not only create something excellent but to continue to develop the character through the role play.

I think we're getting into the meat of it right here. Perhaps the real problem is that these games have opaque settings and next to no support (supplements, etc). This makes opportunities for advancement less satisfying than they could be. That is something the memorable games all have: a clear advancement scheme. 

 

You also touched on White Wolf's original WoD. That was when I entered the field (albeit as a kid) and there was a great feeling that the player could could effect the outcome of the metanarrative by simply playing the game and creating a compelling story for your friends. I wish I could bottle that. 

 

But what are steampunky things that people might actually like to do?

What would inspire that desire?

What would a system that encouraged that look like?

Bear in mind RPGs are dead.  World of Darkness almost killed themselves by getting RID of the WoD and radically changing the rules.  It only lives because players still use the original rules.  White Wolf even made a definitive Laws of Night (the larp) by reprinting the original rules, thus ensuring it's survival. 

 

D&D 3rd and 3.5 were wildly successful!  And then came 4th edition.  So it wasn't selling well.  The solution?  WotC in one year came out with so many supplements for it, it almost ruined the company (thank you Hasbro).  They were also stupid enough to drop the Star Wars license.

 

This isn't the 80s or even the d20 days of the early 2000s.  Not everyone can make a popular rpg anymore, and d20 open license stuff showed that not everyone SHOULD.

Bear in mind RPGs are dead.  World of Darkness almost killed themselves by getting RID of the WoD and radically changing the rules.

You're late to the party man, Micheal Stackpole was declaring RPGs dead in the early 90's. He was handing out black armbands and everything (for real!).

<squints eyes> Micheal, is that you man? Remember me? We worked on Shadowrun together! I was that kid in the back row. Sure I didn't work on it the same actual years you did...and I was a freelancer on his first paying gig so we never actually worked together. But I was there man! 

Anyway, just because the industry is in somewhat disarray, doesn't mean it's dead. The computer industry was considered to be dying back in the late 80s (because IBM was faltering). But then two companies called Apple and Microsoft rose to prominence.  

Hollywood was having a terrible time in the 70s. You know what came out of that? STAR WARS. Not to mention Jaws (which created a whole new movie business model around the idea of releasing big movies in the summer). 

D&D 3rd and 3.5 were wildly successful!  And then came 4th edition.So it wasn't selling well.  The solution?  WotC in one year came out with so many supplements for it, it almost ruined the company (thank you Hasbro). 

I think you might want to recheck the facts here, despite widespread rumor, I'm pretty sure D&D 4th didn't almost ruin the company.  

This isn't the 80s or even the d20 days of the early 2000s.  Not everyone can make a popular rpg anymore, and d20 open license stuff showed that not everyone SHOULD

You're cracking me up, not everyone could make could make a popular rpg...ever. There was never a time when doing this work was considered a "smart move" That's not why its done. It's done for the sake of entertainment, that's what needs to be focused on: is this game entertaining

And for the sake of clarity, it wasn't the D20 open license that harmed the industry, it was D&D 3.5. Because 3.5 made the previous D20 open license products seem obsolete, stores suddenly had product that was moving quite briskly before, sit on the shelves unsold for months. 

And as for "not everyone SHOULD" my friend, that is a very self sabotaging attitude. Good steampunk is about sifting through the ruins of the past to find keys to the future.

I have been tinkering with the D20 Futures rules to create a steampunk adventure.  D20 futures also includes rules for Airships, i mean starships :)

 

generally depending on how complex you want to get D20 Futures makes for a great rule system.  Includes rules for Cybernetics aka steam apendages, as mentioned above airships, as well as a nice gadget system for weapons and armor.  for my games i basicly take out anything that references things way out of scope like aliens or nanotechnology, and replace computer use with decipher script (for reading blueprints and schematics rather then computer screens)

I'll have to check D20 Futures, and mine it for system ideas. Particularly the gadget system. Thanks Volta!
BTW that's a good steampunk last name...it's also good for Warhammer 40K.

Thanks, wanted to be named for someone having to do with electricity but not overused like Tesla.  After looking for period scientists I found Alessandro Volta.

 

The gadget basicly works like most RPG videogames work, where adding something will increase a skill or a stat but usualy also offers a negative, mostly in the form of weight.  Futures really was made for science fiction type stuff, but alot of things are relatable.  Theres also a pack for D20 Past, which has a wealth of weapon stats for actual victorian weapons.

 

although i would really like an easier combat system.  D20 modern, past, and futures was based on D&D 3.5, and for fun adventures the combat system is kinda clunky but manageable.

I checked out D20 Future, it's not bad, but I keep wondering if this kind of item creation system is actually fun to use in game.

Do you think that item creation is more a GM joy than a player one?

Cause I remember the one system I actually enjoyed creating items for was BESM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Eyes,_Small_Mouth). But it wasn’t the countless ray guns and tech devices that the players enjoyed. No, the biggest hit was a piece of standard armor called "Cool Looking Armor" that allowed you to pose dramatically. There was absolutely NO game effect, but every player HAD to have it.

Eventually I felt it was boring to have everyone’s armor be “cool looking” so I created "Cute Looking Armor", "Sexy Looking Armor," "Fabulous Looking Armor," etc. Each one got more detailed as it went on. For instance, sexy armor was gender based. If you were female your skin glistened as if you had been sweating, and if you were male you had bishounen sparkles. Eventually, they demanded the armor have a game effect. One player wanted to use his bishounen sparkles as a weapon.

It’s the only time I’ve watched people be excited over equipment. But it seems to be the same thrill that steampunk has for vintage tech. Maybe the key is that it must look cool, to be an object that in and of itself resonates with the player. After all, I’ve seen countless Vorpal Swords and Holy Avengers tossed aside in D&D, but in that BESM game the fate of the world hung in the balance, and they HAD stop to figure out who got to wear the armor that gave them Bishounen Sparkle Attack. 

Item Creation seemed to be a big deal in D&D, however most of my players want to create their own signature items that they rely on every adventure.  I have made a few specialty items that are story driven, but most of the items my players use are either stock from D20 Past or items customized using gadgets based on D20 past weapons.
Hmm...the sort of "This is MY Holy Avenger, there are many like it, but this one is MINE!" kinda thing?
well more along the lines of making generic guns more tailored to their characters, like one of my players wanted to have a sniper rifle, so its like a winchester rifle with an optical scope, where as another one of my players is more cowboy, so he has a winchester, but uses 2 colt pistols more often and will likely be adding some kind of hair trigger enhancement

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