RogerBW's Blog

GURPS Steampunk 1: Settings and Style, Phil Masters 13 November 2016

The original GURPS Steampunk was published in 2000: both GURPS and steampunk have moved on since then. This first of what's planned to be a new series of PDF supplements does not replace that book, but "updates and extends" the GURPS treatment of this genre.

Disclaimer: I received playtest credit in this book and therefore did not pay for it.

Modern steampunk fandom is an unusual phenomenon. Most fannish movements start from a canon: a particular series of books, TV shows, etc., mutual interest in which is an excuse for getting people together. But there is no canon of steampunk (though there are popular books): the fandom has room for costumers who don't read at all, as well as people who just like wearing brass and leather. So the task here is to try to pin down just what is steampunk, and how it can work in a role-playing context.

The first chapter, therefore, is essentially a review of sources, starting with actual Victorian fiction, passing through scientific romances and dime novels, on to Jeter's invention of the term "steampunk" and the modern day. (And of course London Labour and the London Poor.) Each major style that's contributed to steampunk is considered in terms of the sort of game that it would logically inspire, and thus the elements that the prospective GM can most usefully steal from it.

The second chapter examines the real-world history of the Steam Age, spreading a little to encompass the time from the French Revolution to the early Edwardian era. The main subdivisions are Romantic Science (before the accession of Victoria), the Early Victorian era (with railway-building and imperial expansion), and the Long Afternoon (from 1870 or so to the death of Victoria, with higher technology and African adventures). Side notes include the uses of Ruritanias, and how to use Prussians as the villains without making them mere proto-Nazis. The primary emphasis is on Europe and the USA, though other places are mentioned too.

Chapter three… well, its vignette alone makes me want to run the adventure that would follow. But this is the chapter that deals with the crunchy bits of storytelling technique, with modes, moods, and themes; it then moves into the technological basis for the setting (do you have faster technology growth along the historical path, or push it sideways with better steam or mad biology?) A box for which I take some credit explains why airships didn't last in the face of powered flight: it's not just that they're slow, it's that they need a massive and at least moderately skilled crew, which in the real world drives up costs beyond what can be borne. There are notes on inventing steam technology and keeping it more-or-less plausible, for example by borrowing stats from similar real-world devices, and on magic and psychic powers (not really distinguished at this date). A final section looks at how disparate elements can effectively be joined together to make a reasonably cohesive campaign; this does several of the same jobs as the recent GURPS Adaptations and is similarly a welcome delve into the mechanics of campaign and narrative design.

The final chapter looks at society and characters, first considering how problematic elements such as sex and race prejudice can be effectively ignored, made part of the background against which player characters rebel, or kept in place as components of a dystopia; a box considers how social style can be given primacy over social substance and the nineteenth century can be re-run as it ought to have been ("In fact, any PC with positive Status should be permitted to have any title that the player thinks is cool, without NPCs questioning this or treating him as a parvenu or poseur.")

For those sticking slightly more closely to the real world, social class and the GURPS Status advantage are given detailed consideration, including the practical standard of living typical at each level. There's more detail on the role of servants (inside vs outside, and how to make a game based on PC servants interesting: keep the master mostly off-stage, or if you have a mixed party have the servants going off to do their own things). A fine section deals with hysteria and fainting: it's in-genre, so it needs to be able to happen, but what causes can make it interesting? Not just monsters, but social disorder, including gross lapses in etiquette; a new Shocking Revelations table provides in-genre consequences of failed Fright Checks in such situations. Further notes cover costume through the period (including Rational Dress), etiquette, and the importance of an array of Savoir-Faire skills.

Phil's writing is always a joy to read, and while there's plenty of useful detail here I'd recommend the book not just to gamers but to anyone with an interest in perceptions of the nineteenth century. Certainly it makes me want to dust off some of my steampunk campaign ideas, and perhaps come up with an entirely new setting; usually a sign of a good RPG book is that I want to run a campaign based on it, but here I want to run so many campaigns that I'm having trouble which ones to develop into fuller ideas. GURPS Steampunk 1 is available from Warehouse 23.

See also:
GURPS Adaptations, William H. Stoddard

  1. Posted by Phil Masters at 07:33pm on 14 November 2016

    Many thanks for the kind words.

    Honesty compels me to note that I can't take much credit for the Shocking Revelations table and associated rules; that's an update of material in GURPS Screampunk, so the credit goes to Jo Ramsay.

  2. Posted by Shimmin at 09:19pm on 10 January 2017

    You sell this one quite well! It sounds like a thorough piece of work, and usefully one that delves into a lot of the GMing and setting niggles that can vaguely put you off actually using something. I'm definitely adding this to my wishlist.

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