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

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Pure Steam logoThere’s a collective sigh of relief and that figurative, though often literal, fist-pump when you’ve hit a milestone creating something you love. That’s how we at ICOSA Entertainment felt when we finally shipped our initial RPG offering, the Pure Steam™ Campaign Setting. But the holiday pounds were already melting away as our feverish brains began plotting our next venture.

By the end of January, we already had a solid plan for the year: a 128-page western expansion supplement complete with everything from “gunslinging paladin cowboys” and “radical old world magocracies” populating the desert, to “hobgoblin cattle rustlers” and “competing nations’ rail-sped races” to crisscross the continent. It’s a lot to digest, and our problem was clear: how to streamline our development process even more without stifling creative impulses. And as for content generation—what to use and why—we developed a few approaches that we found helpful.

Modeling and organizing information into nested categories is a must. We started by identifying how we wanted to move forward with the four “wards”: Downward, Seaward, Skyward, and Westward—titles for each projected work load. Rather than assign each to a single member, we tackled them as a team; avoiding what I like to call the pride and gluttony of cool ideas. Sometimes, we’re so taken with an idea we stop developing new ones to compare it against. That, or we have so many cool ideas we try developing them all at once without great effect.

Next, we installed two categories for each work load by which to model our ideas before completion: “Brainstorming,” and “In Development.” Brainstorming is where we shotgunned our ideas onto the page, and In Development is where we took those scattered thoughts and found them homes in prefab layouts we designed using Google Drive (a vast improvement in time and effort as we had struggled with file sharing compatibility across systems). We tempered the shotgun spread of ideas with weekly summaries which identified priorities and general progress. Abiding this structure, we were free to alternately bounce between items and focus intently on them without succumbing to the pride and gluttony of cool ideas.

Earlier still, we had each other answer key questionnaires about the origins, relationships, economies, and outlooks of the people and places we were going to detail. We each came at this from a different angle, even irrespective of precedent or game rules. This gave us the creative freedom to develop a region, race, or technical or magical tradition along its own lines first, only later would it naturally or necessarily intersect with the rest. Ultimately, we found this gave our material a more organic feel, with cultures and technology from disparate parts of the world that felt truly unique rather than reverse engineered to fit the previous.

Assigning thematic overtures helps you stay on point when world-building. What are thematic overtures? They’re basically simple phrasing, like mission statements or slogans, that act as guiding principles. Example: “the pious human nation of Rausch opposes the libertine nation of Mazan.” We always planned to introduce the holy nation of Rausch, and already knew that Mazan was the fertile crescent of humanity, but had yet to reconcile the two. The above theme put it all into perspective. Now we could suppose that Rausch had broken away from Mazan in the past over moral disagreement about Mazan’s practices. Also, this provided a convenient means to divide the nations on fundamentals like class (clerical vs. druidic), and practice (Rausch reluctant to use nature/magic to alter the body vs. Mazan thoroughly embracing it).

> And finally: Let your thematic decisions dictate how to apply your genre. Our genre is steampunk, with its reliance on science over magic. By sticking to the above theme, Rausch, and its focus on bodily purity, became a pioneer in advanced medicine. And how might it have carved out and protected its holy realm without developing sanctified firearms for its paladin marshals to wield? Mazan’s focus became augmenting the body through alchemy and animal body grafts; partnering with nature rather than defending against it. Thus, our genre shines through in original ways, saving us from applying a vanilla steampunk veneer to everything.

I’m reminded of what we said last year: “Limit yourself.” It’s easy to overwrite a thing, be it an RPG or an article about one :-P. The limited approach is the balanced approach, and that’s the point here. A game product will always be better off the more balanced it is, in the game mechanics or in the lore behind it.


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