The What and the Why of Steamscapes

As we rebuild this website and consider the future of Steamscapes, this seems like a good time to revisit the core philosophies of the setting – what we’re trying to do with it and why that’s important.

Ultimately, Steamscapes is my heartbreaker. I fully admit that. It was the thing that drove me into game design, and the setting that calls to me as a creator even if it doesn’t seem to have a huge audience. But I also think it’s doing something important, something that can serve as example and inspiration in an area that desperately needs it.

Post-Colonial Steampunk

The thing that differentiates Steamscapes the most is its focus on post-colonialism.

Steampunk RPGs almost always fall into one of two categories: the ones that are subtly (or not so subtly) pro-imperialist in tone, and the ones that try to wash out all of the classism and racism with highly fantastical settings. The first type of game is obviously problematic in its celebration of a period of massive oppression, exploitation, and military conquest. But the second is also a problem because it’s never quite successful. In attempting divorce the aesthetic from its source, creators almost always reveal their unconscious biases, and they then end up reinforcing many of the problems of the genre anyway.

By being consciously post-colonial, Steamscapes attempts to interrogate the very issues that make steampunk problematic. Instead of trying to sweep the imperialism under the rug, the setting raises up the cultures and nations that were affected by it and offers them the opportunity to fight back. One of the phrases I sometimes use to describe it is “historical fix-fic.”

The Play Experience

But of course, the question is – what does this feel like to play? Why is this setting fun?

The simplest answer is that the possibilities are much broader in Steamscapes than in most steampunk settings. You can run an exploratory campaign, or an investigative one, or a political one, or a military one. And because there are so many background options (far beyond “we’re all from London”), the potential character motivations are equally broad. You might be in the Philippines supporting the fledgling independent government against the Spanish counterinsurgency. You might be a group of Pinkertons investigating international smuggling on the railroads of North America. You might even take part in the escalating conflict between China and Japan during the invasion of Manchuria.

The published adventures – both in the books and on DriveThruRPG – show this variety, and also some of the moral ambiguity that the setting offers. No nation or group is necessarily “right” or “wrong,” just different. And because all of those nations and groups are richly developed with full historical backgrounds, the setting avoids the “fantasy tourism” problem that so many games fall into – the feeling that only the main factions and locations are developed and everything else is just a collection of tropes.

So I think that Steamscapes brings something unique to steampunk, and maybe even to alt-history games in general. I would like to see it inspire more consideration about what we are saying with our setting and genre choices.

I’ll be talking in more specifics as we move forward, but I wanted to recap where we are and why we’ve made the choices we’ve made so far.

-Eric “Fairman Rogers” Simon

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