Steam-Punk: A Difference Perspective

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For over a year now I’ve organized a weekly Dungeons & Dragons Campaign set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting. One of the story arcs in this year-plus campaign has involved the group journeying through the Astral Sea, a combination of the players’ desire to role-play pirate personas and my own predilection towards a fantastic-fantasy setting involving otherworldly encounters. In fleshing out this tangent adventure I began to see that I had been adding elements from this divergent subplot to the main story long before the arc had begun. Things like automatons, ‘golem-armies’ and an uprising beneath the City streets based loosely on the American Revolution complete with early functioning muskets were somehow making their way into a pre-industrial society of myth and magic.

Taking a step back and seeing all these little factors organizing themselves in my world, seemingly of their own volition, it became apparent that I was clearly looking for a way to experience, and run, a more modern Home Campaign than the one I was currently Game-mastering. And what also became pretty clear to me was the fact that I was looking for a distinctive feel to this setting; a Steam-punk feel.

Once I was able to understand what tone I had been pushing for, I soon got the mechanical itch to invent a new world, a Steam-punk one, with new players and a whole new story to watch unfold. Eventually after deciding that even though my schedule left little room to run, let alone plan, write and explore such a World I none-the-less decided to try and set up a second, Steam-punkesque weekly Home Campaign.  And by the grace of the Internet and all things Science, I did.

And as tough as it was to find my new Steam-punk players, it was an even harder decision for me to finally inform my first group about this ‘other’ party. With assurances that I wasn’t leaving them, I mentioned to my players that this new group would be a Campaign of the Steam-punk variety. As for reply, one of the two budding comedian’s in the group gave me a surprising though not entirely unexpected, grumble-grumble-grumble-Steam-punk!-grumble-grumble-grumble!

An outspoken bloke and one of the original members of the party, when it came to Steam-punk, his thoughts on the setting were that it was nothing more than English narcissism. It’s also, as he expounded further, a rather exclusionary setting being that it takes place in England during the time of colonization, technological Darwinianism and European elitism. All valid points as well, and ones that to his eyes, given to him by his Dominican parents just to clue you in on his own background, leaves it a bit difficult to immerse oneself in. Again, a good point.

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Where his and my opinions diverge regarding Steam-punk is when it comes to context. As a literary form, Steam-punk derives its attitude from an alternate history put forth where computers arrive much earlier. In this parallel time-line, electricity is replaced by steam and Victorian style often trumps form. With Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine the bisecting point along this alternate history there is a fascination in the genre for things which push the boundaries of what has happened into the area of what could have happened, often subversively, hence speculative fiction at its finest. And like most speculative settings it’s really the essence and spirit of the genre that appeals to me and I imagine to the vast majority of other admirers as well of Steam-punk.

This essence is that of a sense of wonder with technology, a wonder that is expressed in gadgetry accessible by a populace using an almost mystical basis to develop these gadgets. It’s the idea of the sole inventor creating new ‘gear’ amidst a back-drop of rapid technological change. Change which is none-the-less welcomed. And change that is counter to what came before, hence the ‘punk’.

This welcoming attitude towards technology combined with the liberating aspect of its application is perhaps best expressed by comparison to its parent genre of cyber-punk. Whereas cyberpunk displays an oppressive intrusive and disillusioned view of technology, the detached scientist whose work filters in through forcible consumption, Steam-punk seeks to empower the individual through a straightforward unblinking eye of the wonders that technology engenders. It’s a technology of the engaged, hammered out in the sweat of a forge instead of designed by committee in a sterilized lab-room. And yes it is a genre that may have been birthed in Victorian corsets and top-hats but its spirit can don the trappings of any industrializing culture one may choose.

And much like traditional Dungeons and Dragons, where the fighter, the wizard, the thief and the cleric have expanded to include formerly exotic but now quintessential base archetypes like the monk, the gunslinger, the barbarian, and the ninja, the troupes of a genre can be adopted to fit whatever world you’re looking to enter, or create. Heck, who wouldn’t get a kick out of a Japanese Steam-punk during the Shogun-era with spring-loaded shurikens and Samurai tech alongside Geisha’s who recline behind paper-walls as clock-work birds sit perched on their night-stands. (It’s already been done!)

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The spirit of Steam-punk, like any good genre, transcends its own origins to encompass all types of cultural icons and personas. And for Steam-punk it is a belief in the individual, and how that individual incorporates technology into their life, through adaptation, wonder and a rebellious attitude that makes it easily skinnable towards any Campaign world you create. And so much to my funny-man player’s distain, I myself have no problems grafting the ideas of Steam-punk, with or without Victorian styles and British sensibilities to my own Campaign world, where the ‘future’ may hold mechanical dragons, Eastern or Western.

Because ultimately, Steam-punk is fantasy.  At its most pure, unapologetic face, a face hiding clock-worked gears and beneath a shade of skin, whatever color or nationality we choose it to be, that reflects a mechanical, accessible and intimately familiar desire to tame the wonders of technology however we so desire.

Want more Steam-punk? Check out the links below and,

Game Forth!


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