During a break at the Saturday Gaming Group’s last session, I brought up the notion of doing a steampunk campaign when the current Steffenhold campaign reached a natural stopping point.*

Save for one other member of the table, I got a round of quizzical expressions. “Steampunk? What’s that?”

I was surprised. I really thought the genre of brass goggle-wearing adventurers and steam-chugging flying contraptions was more widely understood. No matter, it was an excellent chance to share with them, by example, what steampunk can be.**

It’s Sherlock Holmes meets mad scientist.

(I picked that example first, because one the group members is well-known for his collection of the great consulting detective’s adventures in book and DVD).

It’s also …
… the electrified gothic horror of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein.”
… Jules Verne’s Nautilus from “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
… the “Wild, Wild West” TV series and motion picture.

And the other member of the table familiar with it piped in with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s “Girl Genius” and China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station,” both excellent examples, and then pointed out the steampunk aspects of Eberron and Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

And to help out, he even used the Facebook messaging system to share even more examples with the group.

Of course, steampunk is all of that and more — or if your tastes differ — just some of that. But it appears that the players are willing to give a game of gears and gothic horror a go.

Venturing into the Known World

Settling on a setting has been a process.

Initially, I’d given thought to the party being the Baker Street Irregulars — but mostly grown up — and taking up the departed Holmes’ legacy under Watson’s patronage. While that would have been a cool one-shot, it didn’t have the scope of adventure I thought would appeal to my players. Victorian London, while very cool, might prove to be a bit daunting.

Next, I considered using Eberron as a base — but with the volume turned way up on its steampunk aspects. There is a lot of material to work with. Anyone who wants to give D&D Fourth Edition a workout would find Eberron to be the perfect vehicle. Eberron’s kitchen sink approach fits 4E hand in glove.

But I’m not sure the group’s teeth will sink neatly into Eberron’s cog. When I introduced the steampunk option — the group’s affection for Steffenhold really came through in the ensuing discussion. True, my little medieval frontier town holds a lot of charm — and untold stories. How do I mesh a desire to continue that with an infusion of steampunk?

Do I dare turn the clock ahead 500 to 600 years, and see how steam technology and magic have transformed the history and landscape of the region?

Ultimately, that’s what I may end up doing. But the most important element, the setting narrative, is missing.

One of my players observed that the narrative of Steffenhold is the clash (or intrusion) of the old and the new. The lines of conflict in every adventure have been the faiths and traditions of the classical world (Olympian gods and monsters) and established feudalism against the emerging faith of the Shepherd (a Christian analog), town economics (and crime) and emerging nationalism. It sounds like a mouthful (and a bit pretentious) for a game whose central adventures have been dispatching goblins, but there it is.

The question now — which I haven’t answered — is: What will the narrative of Steampunk Steffenhold be?

The inner conflict of dark and light (“Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde,” “Frankenstein”) comes immediately to mind. There is also the very dirty, stinking, concrete reality of industry compared to the pristine, fanciful fascination with mysticism, magic and spiritualism. In that same vein, there is the tension between social classes, the widening gap between labor and luxury.

Or do you turn it on its head (the way Eberron did)? The big machines (trains and airships) don’t represent the gritty (and flawed) progress of steam technology — they are the epitome of clean, colorful magic given a practical purpose.

I have a lot to think about before presenting a steampunk campaign on the table. But one thing I know for certain:

The first adventure will have animated skeletons wearing tops and tails, and brandishing large wrenchess. Very victoriana, very creepy — and very steampunk.

*—Isn’t every GM thinking about the next two or three games down the road? It must be in a GM’s DNA, I suppose.
**—It was actually one of those quaint and special moments that takes me back to the early days of D&D, when you’d try to explain to people what this game is all about. Invariable, you’d end up saying, “it’s a game where you’re a hero, like Robin Hood or Lancelot or Merlin, and you’re adventuring in a land out of Grimm fairy tales, of ogres and trolls, black knights and dragons.” Because, if you’d said instead: “It’s a roleplaying game inspired by the pulp-era fantasy and horror stories of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft in which you challenge street-wise thieves guilds and kill monstrous nightmares in underground caverns so you can take their stuff and level up,” you’d get a completely different reaction — and probably not the buy-in you were hoping for.