GURPS Steampunk
by William H. Stoddard

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

edited by Alain H. Dawson

Steve Jackson Games
Austin, Texas, 2000; 144 pages

October 2001

Gaming with Victorians, plus extensions

The Generalized Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS), developed by Steve Jackson Games, consists of "One set of rules that works for all genres." Of course there is much elaboration and extension for genres of role-playing games within this system, and for individual game scenarios, players' roles, and specialized interests.

GURPS Steampunk by William H. Stoddard is a sourcebook for gamers and game-masters who want a Nineteenth Century setting for a role-playing game. But the book also is quite interesting as an imaginative idea-book, or stimulus to alternate-history speculations for the "long Nineteenth Century" — between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, 1815 to 1914. Stoddard also ventures before and after this central period for intriguing causes and consequences.

GURPS Steampunk cover GURPS Steampunk has all sorts of fascinating bits about the real Victorian Age: inventions and explorations, concepts and sciences, wars and trends. Stoddard's erudition is always impressive, and his sense of the inter-connectedness of so many odd chances and main events goes far to convey the richness of the age. There is much minutiae provided for defining characters for role-playing games, but one need not be a gamer to appreciate this sourcebook.

There are lots of illustrations, some period and others drawn for the sourcebook. The original drawings are often speculative, of mechanical men and other oddities.

In addition to all sorts of history, we have strong measures of science fiction applied backwards, as it were. So rather than setting out from London or Chicago for the veldt or the prairie, we might choose to lift off via etheric engines for colonies in space, but Nineteenth Century style, and with steam-clockwork assistants.

Victorian energies transform the world

The Victorian Age is also the grand Steam Age, replete with energies and potentials to transform the world. Punk is an Elizabethan term for harlot, since extended into low-life or counter-cultural endeavors. This idea also has converged somewhat with a term for decayed wood — a substance useful for fire-starting. So Steampunk may be a jumping-off point for alternate ways to see our near past: energetic and unconventional.

When we see the Nineteenth Century simply in terms of kings and wars, we do its intricate people a disservice. Role-playing in these Victorian active scenarios, or campaigns, lets us walk a few steps in their shoes — or in Seven-League Boots of which they now and then dreamed.

I'll add a few Victorian glimpses to Stoddard's:

Has not your Lordship treasure? There is your moral steam which can work the world.

Benjamin Disraeli  (1826)

By the application of steam, we have diminished space.

Henry Thomas Buckle  (before 1862)

The fickle herd, the perjured punk,
Fall off.

W. E. Gladstone (translating Horace)  (1894)

Etheria & Iron, Qabala & Providence

Stoddard's factual survey often sparkles into exotic and humdrum extensions and little What-Ifs, and thus into sample role-playing embodiments of these ideas and places in society. At a higher level, the author sketches four alternate histories that might spring from this period:

Etheria: In which science, mastery of the luminiferous ether that pervades space, allows space travel to other Solar planets during the period of European colonization; the planets are habitable adventure-lands in this alternate reality. The campaign year — the current date or target time for a scenario — for Etheria is 1890.

The year of divergence is 1824. The critical event is Lord Byron's surviving to see the Greeks win independence from the Ottoman Empire — and, two years later, to accept the Greek throne as King Giorghios.

In 1834, Augusta Ada, Byron's daughter by his first (English) wife, visited her father in Athens. She spoke often of her friend Charles Babbage. Byron found Babbage's ideas on the collection of social statistics and the improvement of manufactures interesting; he offered him an advisory position and later a ministry. Babbage's work created a precision machine industry that gave Greece industry and advanced weapons. In the Balkan War of 1863-1865, Russian manpower and Greek automatic weapons overwhelmed the Ottoman Empire. Byron's son Giorghios II was crowned in Constantinople in 1866.

In 1875, a student at the University of Athens, Nikola Tesla, showed that an electromagnetic device could exert force against the luminiferous ether. Six years later Tesla made the first interplanetary voyage to Venus and back. Tropical forests on Venus and mineral deposits on Mercury became the focus of colonialism, leaving Africa largely forgotten. ...

Iron: A grimly heavy Marxist-Nationalist timeline, diverging from our timeline in 1843 when the manufacturer Friedrich Engels visits Charles Babbage; the campaign year is 1925.

Qabala: A timeline in which golems serve in lieu of slaves and industrial machinery, diverging in 1600 when Rabbi Loew in Prague animates a golem; the campaign year is 1850.

Providence: A timeline which may be our own, in which a secret branch of the Jesuits manages the world, diverging in 1605. "The campaign year is the referee's choice — in the past for a historical campaign, in the present for an investigation of secret histories."

Subtle & exotic assemblages

Fun stuff to think about! Stoddard's range and subtlety is quite evident in these campaigns developed in GURPS Steampunk. Magic, calculating engines, social engineering, solar colonialism, secret societies, and practical economics and technologies all are touched on here. His GURPS Steam-Tech provides even more exotic assemblages that were among us not so long ago, or might have been.

And more than fun: a great and serious value of such speculations is to give us some of the perspective of our ancestors, reminding us that historical events as they happened were not inevitable to their participants, that landscapes off the edge of the map were not obvious to their explorers.

Not only is the past a different country, there still is much unexplored terrain there, many scarcely-understood people and landscapes and movements and events. — Very much, in fact, like our own manifold time and place.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

William H. Stoddard's
GURPS Steam-Tech
A Compendium of Marvelous Devices
for the Age of Steam
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