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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If your character wants a sniper rifle, then I would recommend a Whitworth, which was used by the Confederacy in the Civil War to great effect (there is an authenticated instance of a Confederate sharpshooter [they were not called "snipers" in the U.S. until after the War, generally speaking] knocking a Union officer off of his horse, while the horse was in motion, at 1300 yards, but of course, there was an element of luck, like any extended-range shots). I highly recommend The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters by John A. Morrow for a description of the Whitworth and its capabilities (and limitations).  Alternatively, the performance of the Sharps rifle is well-known (surely you have seen Quigley Down Under...), and telescopic sights were available for them, and it was developed into a cartridge rifle, while the Whitworth was a muzzle loader.  But for game balance you may prefer to have the player use something that takes as long to reload as the Whitworth.
What about a tophat cannon?
A tophat cannon might be used by a sniper as a close-in self-defense weapon (see http://www.weirduniverse.net/blog/comments/2269/), but it would not be of any use for the sniper's main mission, as there would be no way to control it precisely to hit anything at long range.  And a honkin' big pistol, such as a Lancaster, which were available in calibers up to .577 Boxer (there is nothing as Victorian as a Lancaster...)(http://www.deactivated-guns.co.uk/deactivated-guns/allied-deactivat...), would be a much better choice for close-range defense.

always sort of liked the artificer class in later editions of DnD.

even 4th didn't handle it too badly

Castle Falkenstein, it's a card driven steampunk-fantasy from the 90's. I found it on a shelf in a San Diego game store and fell in love.

 

Deadlands has been around since the 90's as well, in different guises.

 

I would say I disagree with you a little: I think Spirit is probably one of the best games for playing steampunk adventures in. It allows actual story telling that's driven by the characters. FATE is, in my opinion, one of the best systems for getting the emphasis from rolling dice to role playing.

 

I like systems that allow us to actually tell stories with characters that are both have realistic drives, and are larger than life.

Castle Falkenstein, it's a card driven steampunk-fantasy from the 90's. I found it on a shelf in a San Diego game store and fell in love.

In my opinion Castle Falkenstein was too limited by the cards. The setting was fantastic, but the game (as an unintended consequence of the card system) inhibited dramatic actions. When I ran it, the players all looked extremely frustrated (particularly the sorcerer). At the time I figured they just weren't into it and we started a D&D game instead. 

It wasn't until I played CF for myself (as a player) that I realized what the problem was: The cards told you whether or not you were going to fail before you got to take the action. So if you had a bad hand, the tendency was to try to get rid of your cards by taking actions it was safe to fail at. No one wanted to do anything risky unless they had Face Cards or Aces. If you got a pair of twos you were screwed, cause that meant guaranteed failure at least once. So they stayed in your hand, giving you fewer chances to get better cards, because you were waiting to be able to discard them safely. 

As a result, most players were gun shy and would stew in frustration. The important thing about dice, was not that it's any more random or fair, but player will not know what will happen BEFORE they take the action. Every player knows they might roll a "20". A player with a bad hand of cards in CF knows they are going to fail ahead of time.

I would say I disagree with you a little: I think Spirit is probably one of the best games for playing steampunk adventures in. It allows actual story telling that's driven by the characters. FATE is, in my opinion, one of the best systems for getting the emphasis from rolling dice to role playing.

Spirit may be the best we have right now, but it's so free form that it doesn't feel like a "game." It feels like a improv exercise. Which is cool, but not what I'm interested in. 

Some friends of mine and I played an extended campaign of Space:1889 in the 1980s; on one expedition we restarted the flow of the Martian canals (you would not believe the size of that ball valve..!).  We liked the RP environment, but found the combat system oversimplified to the point of unusability; we substituted a better combat system and forged ahead ;)  I had the opportunity to talk with Frank Chadwick about it at a Convention, and he said that they had had that complaint from just about everyone that had talked about the game.  They had planned to release a new version with GDW's house combat system, but GDW folded before it happened.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space:_1889

What combat system did you substitute that made the game work better?
I am sorry, but I honestly do not remember :(  It's been nearly a quarter century, after all...  Whatever system you are comfortable with that can deal with firearms should work, if you want to try your hand at adapting it yourself.

I've always wondered why firearms seemed to be so hard in tabletop RPGs. I remember huge discussions on how to bring guns into D&D, long discussions on stopping power and accuracy. Did a gun constitute an "honorable weapon" and other nonsense. 

To me, from a game design standpoint, guns are basically crossbows that do more damage and go BANG! Victorian age firearms have about the same effective range as a crossbow and can be loaded about as quickly once you get to the age of the hammer and firing pin.

4th ed. DnD may not of killed DnD, but it killed it for me.  my group's mostly moved on to Rogue Trader, and talking about Pathfinder, as it has what we liked about 3.5, without what we hated with 4th

It's funny about that: I've played on and off since '83. I'll actually play 4E, I won't touch 3.5 or Pathfinder.

 

I'd rather play a ton of other games anyway though, for fantasy I suggest Legends of Anglerre. It's a FATE based fantasy game, easily the most fun fantasy itch scratcher for me.

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