Dev Notes 1 - Another Steampunk Game?

Almost three years ago, the core concept behind Steamscapes was born in long conversations on the drive back from GenCon. At the time, we would be forgiven for presuming that the genre of "steampunk RPG" was largely unrepresented. Frankly, it was. In the intervening time, a number of games have appeared to try to fill this gap with varied success. However, our commitment to bringing Steamscapes to completion has not wavered, largely because those offerings have failed to provide what we think Steamscapes provides.

So to answer the question we have posed ourselves rhetorically, we believe we can confidently say, "No. Steamscapes is not just another steampunk game."

Now, let's be clear - this will not be a set of targeted criticisms of the many available games that fall under the steampunk heading. Those various products have many positive aspects. More importantly, we believe in expanding choice for the player, which means providing as many options as possible so each group can find a game that suits them. However, there is a certain set of common problems the currently available steampunk RPGs all share. By listing them, we can explain how Steamscapes is indeed something unique.

  • Problem 1: Steampunk plus...

The vast majority of RPG settings that promote themselves as steampunk are not pure genre settings. They are steampunk combined with other things: fantasy, time/space travel, alternative physics, and so on. This is a very common habit of steampunk games, largely because the surrounding culture tends to focus on the aesthetic more than the explanation. In other words, to many people steampunk is a look, and that look can be grafted onto just about anything. And so by and large that's what designers have done, which brings us to the next issue.

  • Problem 2: Style before substance

This is not a complaint about quality of writing. Rather, we wish to point out the tendency of steampunk RPGs to go about their design somewhat backwards. In most modern game development, the initial concept begins with a setting and/or story. From there, an aesthetic arises that supports this. For instance, say you wanted to create an Arthurian game. Your setting and story become very quickly evident. From there, you can begin to make other choices, such as whether magic, fae, and other mysticism are "real" for the purposes of your game. The choices you make will determine the final aesthetic. However, those choices are informed by the setting and ultimately serve the setting. If they do not, they must be discarded, because the setting is the most important element.

In steampunk games, the opposite happens. When you begin by saying, "Let's write a steampunk RPG," you are automatically beginning with aesthetic rather than setting. There is no universal setting for this thing called "steampunk," and our shared understanding of the genre is merely how it looks, not how we describe the world that surrounds it. And that brings up our final difficulty.

  • Problem 3: Steampunk as the glue

Too often, steampunk RPGs rely on that aesthetic as both draw and motivation for players to continue to play in the provided worlds. The setting may be strange and unfamiliar, but the player is expected to be kept occupied by various nods to the steampunk aesthetic. It's almost an offensive assumption - that you as the steampunk fan will automatically prefer games that merely look like steampunk, no matter what the gameplay or story behind them may be.


How Steamscapes differs:

First of all, Steamscapes presents a pure genre steampunk setting. There are no dwarves, no floating rock worlds, no time travel. The world of Steamscapes is Earth of 1871. There are changes, but they are as realistic as possible, using real events and real historical figures. The Victorian era was itself sufficiently full of wonders to inspire writers like Jules Verne to imagine technologies not too far beyond the real. Why casually abandon such fertile and familiar ground?

Because Steamscapes is set in an alternate-historical Earth, that familiarity pervades the entire setting. More importantly, this brings an inherent depth to the setting that is often missing from purely fictional settings - players and GMs can easily fill in the gaps with their own background knowledge, extrapolating the effects of the described alternative events onto other locations and personages.

And finally, because of both the realistic setting and the flexibility of the Savage Worlds rules themselves, Steamscapes is a steampunk setting that nevertheless does not demand that players engage constantly with a steampunk aesthetic. The setting contains conflict and motivation beyond mere technology. It presents a geopolitical reality that offers a wide range of narratives and plot hooks.

We hope that Steamscapes will appeal to steampunk fans, alternative history fans, and general adventure gamers alike. Keep watching this space for more information!

-Fairman Rogers