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Back on February 24th, I revealed that I’ve been contracted to write the Japan chapter for the upcoming Asian expansion of the Steamscapessetting from Four-in-Hand Games. Around that same time, I took on a new project at work that’s given me less time to write, and I’ve been trying to figure out the right way to balance my commitment to Steamscapes: Asia with development of The King is Dead. What I’ve concluded is that I’m going to have to alternate work on both settings, so April is going to be dedicated to Steamscapes. I’m winding down the latest playtest of The King is Dead anyway, so perhaps Robin and I will try our hand at exploring (a very tentative and completely unofficial version of) Steamscapes’ Japan and see what we discover. Posting will continue to be light, but maybe I can manage more brief posts rather than fewer long posts; I can’t share the material I’m writing for +Eric Simon, but I can share some of my musings on my research and inspirations.
I don’t usually think of myself as a fan of steampunk, but that’s demonstrably false when I just stop and think about it for ten seconds. I may not have drunk the steampunk Kool-Aid – I don’t own a begoggled top hat or a pneumatic corset --but there’s quite a bit I enjoy that belongs to the steampunk über-genre. More importantly, I admire what Eric Simon and his team are trying to build: an inclusive setting that confronts real-life issues but still has plenty of room for uncomplicated fun.
The main steampunk franchise I enjoy is Sakura Taisen (AKA Sakura Wars), the story of an elite unit of mecha pilots in an anachronistic steampunk Taishō era Japan(1912 – 1926) who also happen to be a musical theater troupe in the mold of theTakarazuka Revue. Beginning as a video game that was part dating simulator and part action-adventure, Sakura Taisen expanded out across all media in Japan before it lost its bloom; there were anime, concerts, manga, toys, and even a café dedicated to the series. The various anime series were the only part of the phenomenon that made an impact stateside; I own all the American releases of the anime, a few soundtrack albums, and a handful of chibi figurines. Eric has confided in me that Sakura Taisen is also what kicked off his interest in steampunk.
It makes for an interesting contrast with Steamscapes. Despite the fact that it is a series about a primarily female cast and features frequent musical theater performances, it’s definitely aimed at a straight male audience. The Teikoku Kagekidan (Imperial Assault Force) are a team of cute girls –seriously, seriously cute girls -- designed by Kōsuke Fujishima (creator of the seminal harem comedy Oh My Goddess!) who are literally romanced into fighting trim by the player’s avatar, the only man capable of piloting one of the series’ soul-powered demon-fighting mecha. Yeah, demon-fighting; the purpose of the Teikoku Kagekidan is to defend the Imperial Capital from an invasion of winged xenomorph clones. Oh, and the girls are only capable of piloting the mecha until their maidenly spirit energy fades and they are forced to retire in their early 20s.
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So it’s kinda exploitative and undeniably a steampunk mash-up. Admittedly, in practice, the anime passes the Bechdel test with plotlines about intra-troupe friendships and rivalries that have nothing to do with the one guy in the room, but the franchise did begin as a quasi-dating sim. Meanwhile, the mystical side of things is prominent and prevalent.
Steamscapes, on the other hand, is social science fiction set in the past. Steam-powered carriages and airships have brought rapid transportation to a rapidly-changing world. The Babbage Engine has led to advanced automatons (the closest the setting gets to outright fantasy) while the alternate history of the United States of America has led to a fractured North America where the Plains Indians still resist westward expansion. The setting has more than a little bit of Fix Fic to it – seeDev Notes 3 – Alternative History as Social Justice – but I think we can all agree that the writer of a setting about re-enacting the revolutions of the 18th century through the lens of gothic horror isn’t likely to complain about social justice in a campaign setting.
As Eric points out in Dev Notes 1 – Another Steampunk Game?, the whole point of Steamscapes is to do a straight steampunk setting: a world where steam-powered advances in technology have caused an alternate history. It is not Sundered Skies, mixing skyships and firearms with a fantasy setting (and why does DrivethruRPG label Sundered Skiesas steampunk anyway?). It is not RunePunk, with its combination of pseudo-Victorian squalor and low fantasy, or Clockwork Dreams, with its gears-and-fairies vibe . It is not Space 1889: Red Sands, the closest thing to straightforward steampunk previously published for Savage Worlds, but which still mixes in planetary romance. Steamscapes offers players the weirdest, best-developed, most unbelievable game setting – the real world – with the twist of steampunk.
It’s still the 19th century, after all, and that was an astonishingly tumultuous time; all the RPG murderhobo tropes actually come from 19th century social dynamism rather than the familiar medieval gloss. Japan changes from an isolated feudal state with Renaissance-level technology to a modernized, mechanized nation capable of competing with the Western powers. The nation’s whole way of life is thrown into chaos and the people must struggle to find a new identity. Hokkaido is opened for exploration for the first time (and that leads into competition with Russia), while the dispossessed samurai turn to crime and attempted revolution. Yojimbo, the second most-famous samurai movie in the history of filmmaking, is set in 1860!
|Look! The bad guy has a pistol! It's totally steampunk!|
But all that is kind of the opposite of a 20thcentury set steampunk/urban fantasy mashup, isn’t it? We’re even trying to steer clear of mecha (this isn’t Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin). There isn’t much I can lift from Sakura Taisen, except for the vibrant, omnipresent steamtech (which is mainly present in the background) and the Shinto belief that everything has a soul. That’s OK, though, because sometimes what you need is an example of what not to do.
I want grit, not gloss. I want confrontation, not titillation. I want automatons, not mecha.
Hmm… The campaign idea that pops into my head is a wandering samurai’s widow, forced to make her living as a gambler and bodyguard, guarded only by her shamisen-playing automaton and her secret sword skills. It looks like Yojimbo should be my next topic of discussion.