LIGHTING THE BOILER
This list begins to trace the history and development of Victoriana and Steampunk RPGs. I did this earlier with Horror RPGs. I focus on tabletop games, though many video games could easily fall into this category (the classics Thief: The Dark Project, Arcanum and Final Fantasy VI). Because these two concepts have been tied closely, I opted to link them for this list. I could have presented them individually, but the lists would overlap heavily. Victoriana’s reasonably easy to spot, but Steampunk offers more of a challenge.
There’s a good deal of debate about what constitutes Steampunk - resulting in many argument panels at various conventions. I think of it generally as a set of design and aesthetic elements - generally recognizable symbols. If it had a political or social content at the start, that’s been streamlined away in favor of “the look.” Like other subjective genre elements it has a continuum, with some books, movies, games and TV shows embracing it fully and others just throwing in some knobs and goggles.
- Victoriana: Material set in the Victorian period and in England or greater Europe. Alternately referencing the British Colonial Experience. Also where a game explicitly embraces the culture despite not being of the period or place (i.e. Unhallowed Metropolis’ Neo-Victorian setting). This includes games which focus on the imagery and society, but perhaps without the technology.
- Steampunk: Games which call themselves steampunk and reference the ideas and aesthetics of it.
- Steampunk-esque: The most subjective of the definitions. Games which borrow or rework the images and concepts of Steampunk. Reasonable persons may disagree about this categorization. Something like Children of the Sun’s Dieselpunk or Eberron’s background material owe a debt to the style.
I welcome discussions and suggestions as I work through these lists. I've arranged the items chronologically and then alphabetically within the year of publication. I hope to put out a new list bi-weekly. I’ll break the time periods down arbitrarily, trying to keep 20 items or less per list (editor's note: still too many). For references I’ll point to Ann & Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk which has some short but decent essays on the topic at the back. Jess Nevins’ Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is also worth reading (as well as his annotations of the LXG books). I was aided in my research by several different websites, notably the Victorian Adventure Enthusiast. I've seen several different blogs and posts trying to compile a complete list of the genre, I hope this supplements and expands those.
(1983, Victoriana) The first Victorian RPG, but one which never reached a wide-audience. While this lacks a full entry in the RPG Geek database, it offers some information, "A British RPG set in 19th century England at the height of the Empire. The first edition rules (1983) were fairly simple but included a large amount of background information on the setting and times. The second edition (1985) expanded the rules considerably." The notes I've seen on this suggest it was a purely historical game, something of an oddity in the early days of the hobby.
2. London by Night
(1984, Victoriana): From RPGNet, "A backgroudn (sic) setting for To Challenge Tomorrow, depicting Victorian London with an occult tinge. Contains a 20-page scenario book, a 12-page guidebook, and four 8-1/2x11" maps." Seems to have had a revised edition in 1991.
(1986, Victoriana) Just as Call of Cthulhu kicked off Horror games, CoC led in bringing Victoriana to the mainstream tabletop. It certainly makes sense given the late Victorian-era horror influences on Lovecraft: Stoker, Poe, Machen and Blackwood. Beyond that there's the general tone of the Gothic which had great success and impact during the period. It offers the terrible figure of Jack the Ripper and the prototypical detective of Sherlock Holmes. Cthulhu by Gaslight's the first real "reskinning" of Call of Cthulhu. It came out the same year as Dreamlands, which could argued to be an expansion rather than a new frame.
Cthulhu by Gaslight has had three editions, the most recent in 2012. The original volume focuses exclusively on 1890's England, including a pull out map of London of the period. More than anything it offers a solid and distinct sourcebook for the era- somewhat useful for other rpgs as well (if you're interested in London). Eric Dodd has an excellent and throughout review of the first edition set, British Empire Cthulhu - Holmes v. the Mythos, which suggests gamers should hunt down the most recent edition if they want a wide-ranging and more complete product.
4. Holmes & Company
(1986, Victoriana): From the RPG Encyclopedia "An Italian-language investigation RPG, in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The original game was focused on pure investigation. The second edition added rules for action investigations including firearms, car and foot chases, and more. The second edition also shortened the title to "Holmes & Co."
(1988, Victoriana) The British Empire extends its colonial reach to Mars. Well, actually all of the colonial powers do - creating a space race combined with the deadliness of the Great Game in Afghanistan. Space 1889 could be read a little as steampunk - there's the strange alternate science of luminiferous aether and the proclivity for flying ships. But those feel more like set up and background elements. The game focuses on a celebration of a certain idea of high romance and the Imperial Age. There's little in the way of soot and grime in this presentation. There's some late 20th century questioning about the politics of colonialization, the concept of the "noble savage," and so on. But GMs can decide how much of that they want to play up. In my mind I always associated this with enthusiasts of The Sword and the Flame especially after GDW published miniatures rules for the setting.
For an oddball game from a defunct company, Space: 1889 has had an impressive lifespan. GDW published 20+ products for the line. In 2000 Heliograph picked up and began to reprint everything. Then in February of 2013 Chronicle City announced that they would be doing an all-new English language version of the game. I'm curious what that will look like. Given the development and expansion of steampunk as a genre, will they incorporate more elements of that (art and otherwise) into the new product? Or will they maintain the feeling of scientific romance and nostalgia for empire?
6. Dark Continents: Adventures in a Colonial World
(1989, Victoriana) Another setting supplement for To Challenge Tomorrow. This has the players exploring ancient and hidden lands. It draws on Haggard and Burroughs for inspiration. It appears to be something like a Colonial Hexcrawl, with players unsure about what's over the next ridge. Just as classic D&D drew on the boardgame Outdoor Survival, this one seems to draw on The Source of the Nile. A revised edition appeared in 1991, and a heavily revamped one in 2000.
(1990, Steampunk) A setting sourcebook for the French generic RPG SimulacreS. It presents a distinctly Verne-ian backdrop set in the late 19th Century. I love seeing these non-English language games. Arguably this would be the first stand-alone steampunk rpg sourcebook. 1990's an important year for Steampunk. While there had been some important precursors (Moorcock, Blaylock, Jeter, Roberts), that year saw the publication of The Difference Engine. Gibson and Sterling's novel is arguably the first explicitly steampunk novel to reach a mass audience.
8. Gear Antique
(1991, Steampunk) from Wikipedia, "is one of the earliest steampunk role-playing games, created by Kenji Fushimi and originally published by Tsukuda Hobby in 1991 in Japan…The game is set in the world of Machiloney that is similar to Europe in the 19th century. There are not only steam-driven machines but also magic, monsters, the evil empire named Valmon and a mysterious ancient civilization. It's setting resembles Castle Falkenstein to some degree, but Gear Antique was published 3 years earlier…The game has the special feature in its life-path charts. In the Renaissance Edition, player characters decide their entire life from the cradle to the grave during character creation by using life-path charts. For example, history of schooling, the person who to marry, number of their children and cause of death are all already decided before starting the game."
(1993, Victoriana) A setting sourcebook for TSR's ill-fated Amazing Engine rpg line. It offers an alternate history with magic and the fae as a vital and prominent force. It has a distinct magic system and extensive notes on the faerie of the period. There's a focus on the players solving problems and fighting crime, ala Holmes. Players can play non-humans as well as humans. It has a very cool and garish map of England. I lost my copy in the fire, but I recall this as a brief and interesting sourcebook. it had many cool ideas, but desperately needed to be expanded and developed. The core concept could easily be reworked into any number of more modern Victoriana games. Perhaps we'll eventually see a pdf reprint of it. (Note: we did. This can be found on DTRPG)
10. Forgotten Futures
(1993, Victoriana/Steampunk) A shareware rpg which has been evolving since 1993. The brainchild of Marcus Rowland, author of Diana: Warrior Princess, Forgotten Futures and its various supplements can be found online. It focuses on the late Victorian period and scientific romances ala Verne and his emulators. FF offers a core game engine for many different worlds. Most of these have been drawn specifically from authors of the period - Doyle's Challenger series, George Griffiths' Honeymoon in Space, E. Nesbit's fantastical settings, and several others. FF has the feel of a well-loved and well-tended house game system. The available material's hugely useful as a background resource or to mine for ideas. Worth checking out if you're interested in the period.
(Continued Next Week)