Dev Notes 12 - How to Run (and Tinker With) a Steamscapes Game

We have a rare moment of "betweenness" here at Four-in-Hand, so I would like to take this opportunity to step back and talk about design and GMing goals.

Phil Vecchione, the notable Gnome and cocaster of The Misdirected Mark podcast, has said on several occasions that he would like every game to include a section that describes how the designers envision games being run, and also how one might hack or alter that game. He feels that by bringing readers of a game under the hood, a designer can make the game more effective and more satisfying. I think this is a reasonable request, so this DevNote is dedicated to Phil.


The Flavor of a Steamscapes Game

Steamscapes is definitely a Savage setting. I have addressed in previous DevNotes why we chose Savage Worlds as our core system, and what that means to us. But just to be clear - we believe any Steamscapes game should be fast, furious, and fun. We believe the player characters should be heroes, even if they are scoundrels. We believe that sometimes there should be a named villain, who might even manage to get away and return later with an even bigger army of minions.

However, a large part of Steamscapes is also the exploration and discovery of the world. This can include actual geographical discovery as well as social and cultural discovery. In this aspect of the game, we want to especially emphasize historical accuracy and plausibility. We discourage stereotypes of race, gender, culture, or language, as those are not accurate but instead perpetuate misperceptions of history. In addition, we believe that the world is not and never has been clearly divided between good and evil. Thus, any nation, group, or individual may have their supporters and opponents, and no one is definitively right or wrong. A Steamscapes campaign will sometimes throw the heroes' loyalties into question and even offer them opportunities to change sides.


Guidelines of Play

For those of you familiar with Apocalypse World, I would like to say that many of the Principles it presents are not unique to that game or its derivatives - they're just good GMing. Principles like "Be a fan of the characters." or "Ask questions and use the answers." are absolutely Principles that we consider important. If you haven't read them, I do strongly recommend browsing your way through a copy, especially the section on running the game. In addition, we have a few guidelines that we would add specifically for Steamscapes:

  • Reward Innovation - Steamscapes is a world of invention and clever thinking. Your players should feel encouraged and supported whenever they come up with a clever way to use a skill, device, person, or environmental element. Bennies, roll bonuses, and even occasional guaranteed success should accompany any particularly interesting idea.
  • Let the Characters Go Anywhere - Travel is a fundamental part of the Steamscapes experience, and if the party happens to include an Aviator, they should be allowed to enjoy the freedom of flight. Even if it doesn't, the party should still get to go where they choose. And if you're not sure what should be there, see the next guideline:
  • Learn and Use History - Part of the fun in writing and running Steamscapes has been the inclusion of real historical figures, places, and events. Think of the history and background of the setting as frameworks on which you can mold those people, places, and events. If there's nothing in our books about the place your players want to go, take a break between sessions to read the history of that region around 1865 to 1875. Use what you find and change it based on what you know of the Steamscapes world. Throw in some electricity, automatons, or steam-powered machinery, and then let the player characters discover what's important to them.


Under the Hood and Hacking

Hacking the mechanics for Steamscapes should be relatively easy for a couple of reasons. First, the setting (we hope) refrains from adding an unwieldy amount of rules to the core Savage Worlds system. We have even removed a few things (particularly Arcane Edges) with the goal of focusing the flavor of the world on a historical and realistic steampunk rather than a fantastical one.

However, the second reason is that we have designed the rules additions to be as modular as possible. For the most part, new rules are "unlocked" by taking an initial Professional Edge. Doing so provides access to a new unique skill, and in some cases some new rules and Edges. The Professions and their accompanying rules are intended to be internally balanced (or balanced against other existing Savage Worlds Edges) rather than balanced in comparison to each other. Because of this, it is entirely possible to grab any individual module and reskin it for a completely different setting. (You are free to add Saboteurs and the Sabotage skill to your Day After Ragnarok game.) It is also possible to simply remove one of the modules if you do not want it in your version of our setting. This modularity also allows for the possibility of new Professions (or other types of plug-ins) to be created and added as you like. You will see more examples of this as we begin to reveal our plans for Steamscapes: Asia.

If you do want to create your own Professions, consider including the other design element we have introduced: the Edge Tree. (In case you were wondering, yes this is absolutely a direct nod to Feng Shui, the classic cinematic kung fu game by the great Robin Laws.) We wanted Edge Trees to offer something beyond simple prerequisites for some of the more scientific Professions. They also help us to slow down the progression of those Professions and give the characters something to work towards. The size of each tree is very intentional - the Steamhand has a short tree because those Edges are less likely to be immediately necessary. By contrast, the Gearsmith has a tree so large that even a very advanced character will have difficulty taking all of it, and that is because the Edges a Gearsmith takes directly affect her Automaton companion. When considering new Professions, you may want to aim for a tree that looks something like the Spark Wrangler's, which encourages a gradual progression of abilities so that players can get used to managing the variety of options available. 


We hope this look behind the scenes is helpful to GMs, players, and perhaps even other designers. We especially hope that Phil enjoys the fact that we took his request to heart. Keep up the good work, Phil!

-Fairman Rogers