Behind the Gear-spun Curtain: A Purely Steampunk Look at Game Design

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Pure Steam is first and foremost a campaign setting. Settings are important to films, TV, comics, radio plays, novels, and books of all sorts. Settings are places, but settings are also more important than that. Settings are populated by heroes and villains, filled with wondrous and dangerous locales, and form the backdrops for our imaginations when we’re roleplaying. But how might you put a setting together when designing your own game? Read what we did, then comment below with your reactions and own ideas!

Original vs. Rewritten History
One of the core conceits of the steampunk genre is that of a recent past retrofitted by our then-dreams of the future. The objects, fashions, and activities of those in a steampunk world would all take on this retrofit: not completely taken out of the period in which they were set, but clearly showing signs of a forward thinking aesthetic and design. So you could speculate that wondrous flying machines, man-sized robots, and ray guns existed—anachronistic objects of a certain future—but all dressed in everyday materials of the period and given that otherworldly veneer from a time that never quite did.

As a game designer, all these decisions about your setting flow from how you approach its history. An original history gives you license to say virtually anything about how your setting grew up, but places the onus of believability and continuity squarely on your approach. A rewritten history asks you to follow a pre-rendered course, but helps to ground the setting in world-building ideas the GM and player already understand while guiding continuity. We chose a combination of original and rewritten history in developing our current work, “Westward.” It features a wild west setting (complete with warring rail tycoons, lawless prairie towns, and land-hungry profit barons) married to a robust fantasy milieu (insufferable native kobold and lizardfolk populations, and inscrutable foreign land claimants from the far east [Elves] and the neighboring south [an Aztec-like shamanistic culture]). Already you can see where we blended the two, thus creating an alternate Earth reality set during the late 19th century. Geographically even, we mapped our continent of Northern Ullera onto that of North America (minus a sunken Florida—sorry Floridians, but if global warming has its way, that too will cease to be fiction).

Whether you choose “original recipe or extra crispy” … er, I mean … original or rewritten history, the mantra remains the same: limit yourself. Though our world is set during an alternate Earth 19th century, we decided to avoid the issue of slavery (for obvious reasons). Instead, we made the issue of civil war one less about the ownership of people and more about the ownership of the land they were on, and, to a lesser degree, the removal or relocation of people (i.e. the Native Americans; no less a painful nor dramatic topic from our shared history).

Many times when you’re designing a setting, you have to ask yourself: “What inspires me?” For us, it was about creating a setting that portrayed steampunk in a unique but popular light, while at the same opening the genre up to be enjoyed by a wider audience. An early inspiration for us was to encapsulate the heroic cowboy sheriffs of wild west lore by making them into the mounted paladins of our setting. The fit was a natural one: both strapped to a horse, sworn to police the bad to protect the meek, and honor-bound to use their trusty arms only in the defense of good. But just putting them into the book for the sake of having them wasn’t enough. The setting had to be made to support such an individual. We had already established that our home nation of Ullera wasn’t god-fearing, but inspired by science, and so we developed the pious nation of Rausch as a feasible home for our paladin-sheriffs. Of course, there was a place out west in our rewritten history for that too!—in Utah, the land that Mormons built.

It’s quite liberating to limit yourself. You follow a single idea, instead of being swamped by so many, develop all that comes out of it to the Nth-degree, and let it take you where it will. Take a single race, class, or a piece of signature equipment. How does the language they speak, the way they look, the goods they trade, or the manner in which that thing is made inform you about your setting? Do this, and you’ll often be surprised at how easy the creative process can really be.

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