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This book is about science, and fantasy, and what you can do when you put the two together. The text of this chapter is closed content. The engine of this transformation is traditionally steam power, which worked so many changes in history during the Industrial Revolution, but the underlying technology is really irrelevant.
The machine, too, is a symbol of greater change. Other great constructions, like castles or monuments, can exist in something of a vacuum: Their mere existence implies comparatively little about the society that built them. Machines, however, require a significant infrastructure. A gigantic steam-powered factory implies the existence of dozens of foundries and brass-works to make the parts, implies a caste of craftsmen and engineers to build and run the engines, a civilization whose vast demands can be sated only by mass production—such industry does not happen in isolation.
Once the steam genie is out of its cast-iron bottle, progress will keep racing ahead. The Difference Engine puts clockwork supercomputers, complete with digital imaging and artificial intelligence, into a Victorian London greatly changed by the presence of such technology. Steam, then, is an agent that suspends disbelief and advances technology, a plot device for including plot devices. Instead of merely building on existing devices of the time, steam takes modern-day technology and recasts it with brass rivets and bubbling boilers in a new setting.
Victorian steampunk is the most common expression of the genre. The Victorian age was the time of the great factories, of great strides in industry and technology, of railways and science and workhouses. Titanic smokestacks belched the fumes of thousands of furnaces into the gray skies, and technology did transform the world. Once Wells enters the field, the genre runs into the border of the pulp series of the s and 30s.
Beyond pulp and the ivory-tower science fiction of the 50s and 60s, we can dimly glimpse the seeds of cyberpunk, which brings us full circle on this whistle-stop tour of the history of steampunk. Pulp and steampunk share a similar attitude towards science. Science and technology have moved from the province of mystery and alchemy, and are becoming much more familiar, much more optimistic. Steam is the new frontier of the Empire, the great accomplishment of sci- ence and industry.
Of course, all that relates to the common setting of steampunk fiction, which is an alternate-history version of Earth. Magic and its practioners may be opposed to steam and see it as a terribly common and clumsy method for the masses to get what should be reserved for the learned masters of the arcane. Alternatively, both magic and steam can be yoked together by brute industry, where the spells and mysteries of magic are broken down, analyzed, and massproduced.
It was steam power that triggered and drove the historical revolution, a change that swept away the old orders more efficiently and completely than any philosophy or Renaissance. Steam is change, movement towards the unfamiliar and the wonderful. Obviously, the trappings and mechanisms of steam power—cogs, pipes, boilers, lightning rods, valves and the like—are everywhere, but even things not improved by technology have traces of steam.
A suit of plate armor might have brass rivets, or a shield might be shaped like a cog. The architecture of steampunk draws from the vast buildings of the Victorian era, looming gothic strucutures decked with chimneys and gargoyles, baroque monstrosities of metal and stone rising into the sooty clouds.
Things in steampunk tend to be either absolutely filthy thanks to all the smoke, soot, and trash produced by industry, or else scrubbed bright and shiny, every rivet and plate shining proud- 6 CHAPTER ONE: Steampunk Campaigns ly. Similarly, steampunk characters tend to extremes of being either despicable, backstabbing guttersnipes written by Charles Dickens on absinthe, or else heroic, honorable scientistheroes out of Jules Verne.
As many works in the genre are alternate-histories, steampunk is commonly associated with Victoriana. Society is more genteel, more concerned with manners and propriety, but possibly more complex and deceitful from the perspective of humble wandering adventurers.
Titles—both noble titles and the names of products—are emphasized. Steampunk can, however, be added to the classic medieval fantasy setting without adding any Victorian mannerisms. The Renaissance is close enough to work, and that time brought forth the steampunk imaginings of Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched steam tanks and helicopters and other devices in his famous notebooks.
Fantasy steampunk can feature the technology of the 20th century built with the materials of the 19th by the scientists of the 16th.
The Science of Fantasy In the steampunk setting, new technologies are taming all the natural phenomena that once seemed so frightful. Steam power makes machines seem to live. A key on a kite inspires the first glimmers of electricity as a tool. Formerly inaccessible regions, such as the widest oceans, ice-choked seas, or even the upper reaches of the firmament are conquered by steam-powered machines. In most fantasy settings, though, many of these wonders have already been accomplished.
The widest ocean can be crossed in a moment with a teleportation spell, and white dragons or snow elves make their way across ice-choked seas. Rather than letting steam take second place and merely replicate what magic and fantastic creatures have already accomplished, steam should go further and open up new vistas to explore.
If magical flying skyships already sail the clouds in your game, then a steam-filled balloon is not going to add much.
However, if steam technologies can be used to hugely increase the range of a skyship, and an iron hull used to hold in the air and ward off the cold of 7 space, then steam can open up other worlds for adventuring. There are always new wonders to be found. Its underlying rules change from setting to setting and often from instance to instance. If the prayers of clerics can effectively cure diseases and wizards can teleport across the world in a heartbeat, how can plagues and unexplored regions still exist?
Even when an author attempts to reconcile magic and realism, the results are often unsatisfying. The abilities, limits, and amount of magic are poorly defined. Everyone has their own conception about how magic works, and creating a common framework that can be agreed upon and handles all eventualities is difficult.
Technology, on the other hand, exists and is understood to some degree by everyone. Adding or changing technology to create an alternate-history is much more workable, because common assumptions can easily be made about technology.
No one is quite sure how the presence of magic would affect a period of history, but a much better guess can be made about the presence of technology. Steampunk alternate-history therefore can make huge changes to history, while alternate histories involving magic are much more cautious and keep magic hidden and mysterious. Steam encourages logical extrapolation towards big ideas. Players obviously are much more familiar with these things than with the intricacies of feudalism or medieval theology, and can interact with them much more easily.
A scenario that hinges on some aspect of medieval life requires the DM to laboriously fill details in for the players, which can break the flow of the game. Using an element familiar to the players requires no such explication. However, because of the novelty of the context of the technology, the players may find a new sense of wonder. Introducing Steampunk Adding steam technology to an existing campaign world takes more work than adding a new type of magic or a new race. New magic can be introduced by a handful of secretive practitioners, and there are always unknown monsters lurking in the forest.
A new technology, however, requires an infrastructure. It cannot spring from nothing. Once the concept of steamcraft has been introduced into a world, the technology needs time to grow. As each plotline assumes that steamcraft is being introduced into an existing campaign, suggestions are given for adventures that give the players a place in these momentous changes. Fragments of familiar things— aspects of technology, attitudes, ideas—are presented in strange new forms and in unlikely places, and are contrasted with the historical culture.
Steampunk can give computers to the Victorians or telegraphs to the crusaders. In fantasy games, then, the players can be given familiar tools to work with, like telephones 8 New Development Assuming the setting has the late-medieval technology level common to most fantasy games, steam technology can develop naturally.
Bell-forging towns start to produce boilers and cannons while goldsmiths turn from fine jewelry to clockworks. Ideally, the DM should mention the growing industries and new buildings many sessions in advance of the introduction of functional steamcraft. A new air of enthusiasm and industry washes over the land. A sneaky way to add necessary infrastructure is to make whatever region or city the PCs never visit into the center of the burgeoning industrial revolution.
If the PCs have never laid eyes on the place, the DM can drop in a vast foundry and a college of engineers, necessary seeds from which steamcraft can grow. This sort of development can be glossed over in most situations—few games bother with details of agriculture or trade—but the steampunk genre virtually demands attention to its foundations. Furthermore, if steam technology is a new invention, the characters need to know where to go to get the newest and best devices.
New developments require money, and the nobles or organizations that fund the invention of steamcraft will become hugely influential and powerful as the technology grows. For every invention that changes the world, though, there are a thousand that end up as dead-end money pits. Deciding who develops steamcraft will determine what sort of steampunk evolves in the campaign.
Steamcraft as a new development can happen in the background, but adventures revolving around steam technology need not wait for the technology to mature. Characters may find themselves retrieving stolen prototypes or rescuing the absent-minded inventor who alone knows the secret of steam. Rumors of diabolical experiments and demon-summoning may conceal hidden laboratories. If the players do not know what all the mysterious activity is leading towards, the final unveiling of steamcraft will be both surprising and satisfying.
Perhaps thousands of years ago, the ancients conquered the world with mechanical warriors and advanced technologies. Now they are gone, but their legacies remain in a thousand underground vaults and dungeons. In this method for introducing steam technology, there are initially, anyway no vast factories. All the wonders are ancient ones, dragged out of the earth to be rebuilt and repaired.
The vaults of the ancients are, of course, filled with lethal steam-powered traps and still-active mechanical guardians. Adventuring parties become heavily armed archaeologists, making their fortunes by retrieving ancient devices. Eventually, the steam technology revolution will take hold.
Engineers and sages pull the machines of the ancients apart, divining from the brass entrails how to copy or make new devices. Until then, steam devices are another form of magic; each device is unique and cannot be understood or repaired easily. If the DM wants a single, campaign-shaking artifact, such as an intelligent analytical engine or an airship that can defeat whole armies, it can be introduced without all the previous generations of technology that would normally lead up to such a wonder.
Ancient steam technology need not be found only in dungeons. A fleet of ironclad ships, crewed by golems and constructs, might have been sent off to fight a war overseas in ages past. On its return journey, the fleet became trapped in a magical whirlpool for centuries. Now, the fleet is returning to its home port—or the city that now stands on the ruins of the ancient home port.
Alternatively, one of the deities of the setting might secretly be a living construct, tapping geothermal power from deep underground and converting it into granted divine spells. Uncovering the secret of this great and powerful being might force it to reveal the secrets of steam.
Until the industrial base to produce new machines is developed, recovered steam technology will be extremely valuable.
Legends & Lairs
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Sorcery and Steam (Legends & Lairs, d20 System)