Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: The King is Dead Collection

I really wanted to produce some awesome Halloween content this year, but writing for Savage Insider, running a new The King is Dead campaign, promoting Steamscapes: Asia, and drinking my way through Texas Wine Month have kind of gotten in the way.  In lieu of new material, I present the following annotated list from the Wine and Savages archives. 

The King is Dead
My longest-running project here is The King is Dead, a gonzo Gothic 18th century revolutionary setting where the aristocrats are vampires so you don’t have to feel guilty about slaughtering them all.  As much as there is on the blog, there’s even more unpublished.  It will – eventually – get published, but paying writing work is too tempting to resist right now.

The original post that started it all is a fictitious quote from another world’s Declaration of Independence.
The King is Dead: What does that mean?
An explanation of the setting concepts and themes.
A new version of the introduction that brings it more up to date with ongoing development.

The King is Dead: A Vampire History
The vampire history of the world.
The King is Dead: I Never Drink… Wine
Being a “wineaux,” I like to work wine into every setting.  I spun Bela Lugosi’s famous line into a whole wacky mechanic (that I have since redacted).
The King is Dead: I Have Changed My Mind About Vampire Boners
On dhampyres (herein called “dunpeals” because I thought that was funny).
The King is Dead: The Blood is the Life (Revised)
Ghouls, thralls, Renfields…
Vampire mechanics and bloodlines.
The King is Dead: Thank you, Hellsing.
Thoughts on toning down minor vampires and powering up the important ones.

The game is set in Malleus, an island nation with elements of 18th century Britain, France, and Germany.  Admittedly, it tends to be more Britain than anything else.
The King is Dead: This Grim, Unpleasant Land
The eastern coast and the capital of Hammerstadt.
The King is Dead: This Grim, Unpleasant Land Part 2
The wider reach of the “England” part of the island.
The King is Dead: There May (or May Not) Be Monsters in the Lochs
The “Scotland” section of the setting.
The King is Dead: A Glorious Thing To Be the Scarecrow King
“Cornwall,” smugglers, and a redacted secret society.
The King is Dead: The Colonies
As in “America.”
The brutality of the Mallean "justice" system.

The King is Dead: Hollywood History
The King is Dead: Son of Hollywood History
An inspirational filmography; it’s funny to realize that this is already out of date.  I really need to watch Outlander and Turn.
The King is Dead: Assassin's Creed III
Inspirational art.  I have never played an Assassin’s Creed game.  Seriously.  I suck at video games.
Things I Need to Own: Le Scorpion
I still haven’t bought this.  I am so dumb.
The King is Dead: Need Some Figure Flats?
A bunch of Assassin's Creed pictures that would make awesome paper minis.

The King is Dead: Give Me Gonzo or Give Me Death
Thoughts on Arcane Backgrounds; includes example characters.
The King is Dead: Savage Worlds Character Creation
Includes the skill bonuses attached to each secret society.
The King is Dead: Some Edges
I forgot that I used to think it was important to have no body odor in this setting…
The King is Dead: Names in Malleus
How to name your character.
The King is Dead: New Trapping -- Vehicle
A new Weird Science trapping!

NPC Archetypes
The King is Dead: Mallean Ladies of Good Breeding
The King is Dead: Gentlemen of Malleus
The King is Dead: Churchmen of Malleus
The King is Dead: Some Dunpeals
A quartet of generic stat block entries.
The King is Dead: Bestiary - Lady's Maid
An experiment in less generic stats.
The King is Dead: The Neo-Gothic Society
The King is Dead: The Rest of the Neo-Gothic Society
A secret society of discontented vampires (who are still bad guys).
Creepy Housekeeper (Gothic Tropes NPC)
This did not work out as intended.

Secret Societies
The King is Dead: Plotters and Rebels
Introducing the secret societies that form the core of the setting.
The King is Dead: Libertines and Liberated
Wow.  I just realized this entry is almost completely apocryphal now.  I originally thought that I’d portray vampires as anti-sex because I’m a sex-positive feminist, but then I realized no man would choose eternal life over his penis.  Then I realized that making a good guy secret society in the vein of the Hellfire Club was just wrong-headed.
The King is Dead: Secrets of the Bloodstained Blade
Dumb puns inform the history of the setting’s “Christians.”
The King is Dead: The Benevolent Association
The "thieves' guild."
The King is Dead: An Illuminated Example
Expanded information on the setting's "Freemasons."
Update on the Manis and Hawkeyes.
Revising the feminist society.
Correcting a horrible error on my part.

The King is Dead: Questions? Comments?
I have no idea why this post is in my top ten most popular.  Is it the picture?
The King is Dead: What I have learned from actual play
I have learned I can’t stop making puns.
The King is Dead: I'm Stumped
I was stumped.
The King is Dead: What Lurks in the Shadows?
Considering whether there should be other monsters in the setting besides vampires.
The King is Dead: Taking it seriously
In which I remember to not take things too seriously.
The King is Dead: Recent Revelations from Actual Play
Vampires have secret societies too!
The King is Dead: This Will Not Be In The Book
The sci-fi at the setting’s secret heart.
The King is Dead: Plot "Points"
Theorizing a way to tie player character advancement directly into achievements for their secret societies.  It sounds like The Rise of Tiamat actually has something like this. 
The King is Dead: A Gothic 18th Century that Never Was
The deliberate use of anachronism in the setting.
The King is Dead: Progress Update
The King is Dead: Progress!
I am so far behind...
The King is Dead: Angels and Demons
Vampires have great PR,

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: The Accursed Fan Five

I really wanted to produce some awesome Halloween content this year, but writing for Savage Insider, running a new The King is Dead campaign, promoting Steamscapes: Asia, and drinking my way through Texas Wine Month have kind of gotten in the way.  In lieu of new material, I present the following annotated list from the Wine and Savages archives. 

Accursed Fan Five
The guys at Melior Via were kind enough to reach out to Wine and Savages when they were promoting Accursed, their Savage Worlds action-horror setting.  I was going through a period of experimenting with journalism and doing some interviews with them allowed me to scratch that itch.  When I received the playtest package, I immediately noticed how closely most of the basic Accursed character “races” (or “Witchbreeds”) mapped onto the main Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolf-Man), so I was inspired to try to expand the available character types to cover the rest of those classic monsters.

In which I first sketched out the concept.  Contains Frank Frazetta art.

Accursed: Ayesha the Timeless
Accursed: Banes of Ayesha
The series leads off with the Devolved Men, a Witchbreed inspired by King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and all the brutes and cave men of the silver screen.  The Witch who created them is the savage jungle goddess Ayesha, and her servitor monsters (“Banes”) are dinosaurs and other prehistoric (or is it futuristic?) beasts.  More Frazetta art.

Accursed: Sycorax the Sea Hag
Accursed: Banes of Sycorax
The Calibanoids take their inspiration from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, while Sycorax takes her inspiration from Shakespeare and Popeye.  There are also allusions to the work of Junji Ito, which might make you recoil in loathing.

Accursed: O-Koroshi-hime
Accursed: Banes of O-Koroshi-hime
I jumped the gun on creating a Phantom of the Opera/Friday the Thirteenth-style slasher Witchbreed and went back later to bring them more in line with Accursed.  Playing off of some hints in the core setting, I gave the Witch and her Banes a very Japanese flavor, playing off of cultural affinities for masks.

Accursed: Loki the Warlock-Witch
Accursed: Banes of Loki
The homage to Jekyll and Hyde spills over into a bunch of Avengers jokes as things get just plain weird.  I’m actually perversely proud of the absurd Marcher Hares.

Accursed: The Eyeless
Accursed: Banes of the Eyeless
I was getting pretty burnt out by the end, so the entry on the Banes is just a joke.  The rest of it’s pretty good, though…

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween 2014: The Essential Regency/Gothic

I really wanted to produce some awesome Halloween content this year, but writing for Savage Insider, running a new The King is Dead campaign, promoting Steamscapes: Asia, and drinking my way through Texas Wine Month have kind of gotten in the way.  In lieu of new material, I present the following annotated list from the Wine and Savages archives.  Note that this is not a list of all of the Regency/Gothic posts, only the ones worth re-reading.

One of my earliest projects on this blog was an attempt to write a supplement covering regency romances in the vein of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and innumerable paperback authors.  I tried to Savage it up a bit by combining the Regency setting with the Gothic novels popular during the period. 

An introduction to the project and its themes.

My all-time most popular post (probably because of the pictures).  Contains Savage Worlds stats for Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and George Wickham.

NPC archetype stats for a variety of women.

NPC archetype stats for a variety of men.

Getting into the actual “Gothic” aspect of Regency/Gothic, this is my attempt to define the Gothic.

Some discussion of the use of the Persuasion skill in a campaign concentrating on social conflict.

One of Robin’s rare contributions to the blog; a definition of Romanticism in the Byron/Keats/Shelley sense vs. the modern definition of romance.

Savage Worlds stats for George Gordon, Lord Byron.
A micro-setting for Regency/Gothic.  Put Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in a blender with a bunch of random tables from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and voila!

Regency/Gothic: Thornshire
An introduction to the setting, laying out geography, several of the haunted families of Thornshire, and influences.

Detailing more of the haunted families of the shire.

Not actually about the families of Thornshire, but instead a secret cabal of white magicians who hold back the darkness.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Free Adventure with Every Order!

Pledge even just $1 to the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter and you will get a free adventure! 
It will have eccentric inventors and beer-loving Scotsmen. It will have beautiful assassins and equally beautiful robot geisha. It will have rock ‘n’ roll cultists and shadowy spies. It will have ninjas. It will have m*****-f****** Saitō Hajime, the badass survivor of the Shinsengumi seen in Rurouni Kenshin, Peacemaker Kurogane, Kaze Hikaru, Hakuoki, and many other films and anime. You can count on delivery by no later than Thanksgiving.
I promise you that because I’m writing it. Because I’m writing it, you can be guaranteed that it will be wild and wooly, that it will be gonzo, that it will be bonkers. It will show you just how “alternate” that “alternate history” can get.

(Rock 'n' roll cultists may or may not bear a suspicious resemblance to Wagakki Band)
And because it's going to be so stark raving mad, I'll even throw in conversion notes for Deadlands: Reloaded and any other steampunk setting you demand!
Contributing even $1 gets you this adventure – but only if the Kickstarter funds. It’s the last week for the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter and it’s less than a thousand dollars from its goal. Please help us reach that goal.
(And remember that I’m using my pay from this project to help fund The King is Dead!)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia -- The Eric Simon Interview

We're in the home stretch for the Kickstarter to fund Steamscapes: Asia from Four-in-Hand Games -- for which I'm writing a significant section!

I readily admit that I'm not an impartial party, but I never would have signed on to write the Japanese section of Steamscapes: Asia if I didn't like the setting in the first place... And that's the result of the care and conscience Eric Simon (AKA Fairman Rogers) has put into the setting.  We chatted on Google+ today about the upcoming book and the Kickstarter.

Sean Bircher: Fairman Rogers is your steampunk alter ego, named after a historical figure perhaps most famed for being the subject of the painting "The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand."  What is a steampunk alter ego and why Fairman Rogers?

Eris Simon: So in the steampunk community, there is a common practice of developing a persona. This is true in club scenes, conventions, and even on forums.

Typically, that persona is going to be something fictional but distinctive, like "Lady Clankington" (a well-known steampunk costumer). [Link is NSFW.]

In developing my persona, I decided I wanted something more historical, so I started looking for real people that I could use. I had a year in mind, and I specifically wanted to play up the Philadelphia connection. So I ended up settling on Fairman Rogers, who was a professor of natural philosophy (i.e. - science) at Penn.

He was exactly the kind of Renaissance man I was looking for.

Sean Bircher: Aha! So, for those of us with more of a fantasy background, it's not unlike the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Interesting... I'd like to get back to that, but I have a question (or maybe just an observation) about the painting.

"The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand" is notable as one of the earliest paintings to correctly depict the movement of horses' legs. Prior to the invention of photography, horses were always depicted rather oddly, but then this new science came along and revealed the truth of the world.

Imperial Inventor from the site of James Ng
(Not one of the pieces for Steamscapes: Asia, but perfectly capturing the setting.)

Steamscapes is a setting that tries to get back to the science -- the steam -- behind steampunk.  It aggressively attacks history, and makes us reconsider our approach to the genre.  Was that in your mind when you chose Fairman Rogers and Four-in-Hand, or am I just babbling?

Eric Simon: No, it definitely was. There has been quite a bit of serendipity in how we have chosen our logos and representations, and this was definitely one of them. And of course the "Four-in-Hand" name also represents the idea that I am trying to drive this whole thing all by myself. So it's also a bit of an in-joke for me.

Sean Bircher: I definitely understand trying to do it all yourself. I’ve been trying to do The King is Dead all on my own and I’ve realized that the publishing side is getting away from me.  What made you decide to take on contributors for Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: Well, my goal from the beginning was to make this project bigger than Steamscapes: North America. And I knew that I *could* do that myself if I had to, but I wanted to bring in more people to broaden the viewpoints. I had kind of hoped at the outset that I could get enough writers that I could sit back and just design and edit, but I am not yet well-known enough to draw in that many people.

Also, part of my goal as a game designer is to get more people out there into the industry, both artists and writers.

I enjoy being a collaborator, and my hope is to bring in people from all over for each project.

Sean Bircher: Speaking of collaborators, what should we know about the authors who are contributing the setting fiction?  You did a compelling post about why setting fiction is important, but what makes these authors the right people for the job?

Eric Simon: When I was first starting to look for people, I knew that one thing I wanted to do was bring in another prominent Chicago-area designer. Steve Townshend filled that role so well in the North America book, and I was very excited to be able to bring in Will Hindmarch [of Project: Dark] for this one. Will is one of the best storytellers out there, in both fiction and games, and I am excited to see what he will come up with.

Kevin Andrew Murphy was one of those serendipity moments. I started talking to him at the Pinnacle panel, and really enjoyed that conversation. When I very tentatively offered to bring him on, he jumped at it. Kevin has done a lot of short fiction in and out of the game industry, including one of the Wendigo Tales for Weird War I [No Man’s Land], so I know he has a strong sense of the historical.

And then it was Kevin who introduced me to William F Wu, one of his fellow Wild Cards writers, and also someone who has written a fair bit of alternate history himself, specifically as it relates to the 19th century Chinese experience. When I asked him, he even told me he is working on a steampunk story as well, set about 20 years later than Steamscapes, and we are planning to cross-promote.

Sean Bircher: Cool!  I look forward to reading their work!

Abruptly dragging the questions back to gaming itself, what do you say to GMs and players who are worried about having to do a bunch of research before running a Steamscapes game?

(I personally would just say "Dude, it's alternate history. Go nuts!")

Eric Simon: I say they should be listening to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Seriously, Ken Hite has talked numerous times about running historical games, and he likes to point out that the GM only has to know more than the most knowledgeable person at the table. And if that person is cool, not even that much. If you are running a historical campaign, the key is to have some overall themes and even tropes that you want to hit, and then just do your research for each specific game. End each session by finding out where your group wants to go next, and then do enough research to throw in some interesting references.

Sean Bircher: That seems like good advice to me.

It sometimes seems that would-be players get paralyzed by history, but we play these games set in these intricate worlds mapped out by others and it doesn't bother us. 

Eric Simon: Honestly, I would be much more intimidated about running Edge of the Empire than a historical game.

Sean Bircher: Ha!  Exactly!  It seems to me that running a historical game -- especially an alternate history game -- is no more difficult than running the Forgotten Realms.  If you don't like something, don't use it.  (I personally never use any Realms stuff past the second boxed set.)

This raises the question, though, of what cool things might the prospective GM and players find in Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: So many things. With North America, we wanted to present a sandbox (steambox?) with many different ways into steampunk. However, with a few notable exceptions, North America in 1871 has a strong European influence. Because of that, traveling from nation to nation is usually not that difficult, and there are even communities of European and African descendants in the Plains Tribal Federation.


Asia is different. There is no homogeneity there. Rather, there are even more disparate factions, and unlike in North America, their rivalries are much more established. Because of that, there is even more opportunity to choose the type of setting you want for your game, and that choice is going to influence how you interact with the many other nations and kingdoms. Exploring is still a prime consideration, but you are going to have to step a little more carefully if you are Japanese gearsmith trying to sell goods in mainland China.

Sean Bircher: Something I remember from my research was how some Japanese factions before the Meiji Restoration had this conspiracy theory that all Europeans were actually one country because they didn't have their own unique national styles of dress (as opposed to the Asians who all had their own national costumes),

Eric Simon: Right! And one of the effects of that is that it will be even more difficult to play European or North American characters in Asia. Because many people have reason to be suspicious of you.

Sean Bircher: It just occurred to me that Steamscapes: Asia is something of an antidote to the classic Oriental Adventures and Legend of the Five Rings because it deliberately rejects homogenizing Asian cultures.

Eric Simon: Indeed. That is *very* intentional. That's part of the goal across the whole line.

Sean Bircher: You can see that rejection of received values in the way that Steamscapes: North America rejected corsets on the outside (amongst other things).

Without giving away too much, what's your favorite surprise or revelation or just cool gamable thing that's coming up in Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: Wow. That one's hard to pick. I think one of the more interesting things for me will be to show how all of our existing professions get reinterpreted in Asia. Unlike North America, where most of the scientists are from the East Coast and most of saboteurs are from the Plains, the roles are a lot more jumbled up in Asia. Japan, for instance, has a mix of pro- and anti-technology factions. China isn't as interested in railroads as India, but they are much more interested in air power. Things like that.

Sean Bircher: And now there's going to be a martial arts Edge tree too, right?

Eric Simon: That is true. The big Edge trees are going to be the Apothecary and the martial arts. But we're working on developing the martial arts in a way that respects differences across the different disciplines. You won't be able to suddenly access Aikido because you know Tai Chi, for instance. Those are completely different styles.

Sean Bircher: Keeping true to the desire to not homogenize the Asian experience.

Eric Simon: Exactly. And also the desire to give credit where credit is due. We would like Korea to feel well represented, and making Taekwando just like any other martial art would be disrespectful.

(Of course, that's a more recent example, but you see what I mean.)

Sean Bircher: I know the section on Korea is going to be smaller than China, India, and Japan, but I'm really looking forward to it. The diversity available for player characters in a historical setting is just as fascinating as all the elves and dwarves and hobbitses in a fantasy setting.

Eric Simon: I agree. And Korea is going to be an important bulwark against Chinese expansionism, since they will be the other country that has advanced rocketry. The Apothecary will be available to a variety of nations, but China and Korea are the two most important.

Sean Bircher: It's a good thing for Korea that Japan is hampered by its own divisions this time. [As backers already know, Steamscapes: Asia’s Japan is divided between the Japanese Empire and the Republic of Ezo.]

Eric Simon: Indeed. And China is probably going to be looking at Japan first instead, partially because of their collaboration with the English.

Sean Bircher: Just a thought, but are we living in the perfect time to run a late 19th century Asian setting or what?

There's a profusion of Asian-made TV and film to draw on.

Netflix and Hulu are full of Korean dramas set during the period, the Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero movies are practically the setting come to life, and every time I turn around there's another anime set in the Bakumatsu or early Meiji.  It's great!

Eric Simon: Definitely! There is plenty of inspirational material available made by the people who we are trying to represent, and that's awesome. It is always important when doing a respectful historical game to consider original source material, and we certainly have plenty of that. This is why I love Lagaan - it looks at first like it's going to include a British savior, but then it turns that on its head.

Sean Bircher: We've talked about the history in Steamscapes: Asia but we shouldn't give people the wrong idea. Steamscapes is still a wild ride. There's spark wranglers with electricity wands, steam tanks, automatons, explosions.  All the craziness people expect out of steampunk is there -- it's just tied to this deeper, more diverse world.

Eric Simon: Yes, thank you for bringing us back. Like I said, there's a lot of exploration to be done. And I really think the Asia setting is a much bigger world for that than North America.

Sean Bircher: Are there any announcements about the Kickstarter that you would like to make?  (Hint, hint.)

Eric Simon: Sure! I actually have two - one that you know of and one that I haven't mentioned to you yet. First of all, we're going to be offering a free preview adventure to everyone who backs at any level. That will be set in Japan and written by our very own Sean Bircher. We know that we've asked people to wait a while for the book itself, so we want to give them some more immediate rewards.

Sean Bircher: Hooray me! [Saitō Hajime will be in the adventure! And a robot geisha!  And Wagakki Band – sort of.]

Eric Simon: Secondly, I am happy to announce that James Ng is going to be making his Dragon Airship art available as a 10x14 print. We will be providing more details about that in the next day or two, but I can definitely say that it will be an addon for any level, and also that it will be available immediately after the campaign.

Sean Bircher: Awesome!  That is some very, very pretty art; it is practically all the inspiration you need summed up in one image.

Eric Simon: My thoughts exactly. Every detail is exactly what I think of when I think of Steamscapes, right down to the Qing Dynasty sigil on the forward rocket launcher door.

Imperial Airship by James Ng
(Again, not from Steamscapes: Asia, but darned close.) 

Sean Bircher: Going all the way back to the beginning of the interview, I noticed a thank you on one of the updates to Iowa Steampunk, a steampunk.. um... gathering?  (I don't know what to call them. Club?)  Is Steamscapes beginning to generate some heat in the larger world of steampunk?

Eric Simon: That's my hope! It's tricky, because there are a lot of steampunks who don't care for gaming. So mostly it's among gamers who are also steampunks. But I have been happy to get positive mentions by both Diana Pho (Beyond Victoriana) and Suna Dasi (Steampunk India). I think that the non-Euro steampunk set is much more willing to support our efforts, if only because it's so hard to find positive representations of more diverse cultures in steampunk.

Sean Bircher: Cool, it's nice to know that the people you're trying to represent appreciate your efforts.  Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

Eric Simon: I just want to remind people that our two starter backer levels can also be used as addons, and they are great ways to get into Steamscapes if you are new to the setting. They allow you to pick up our existing books at sharp discounts while supporting our current campaign.

Sean Bircher: Yeah, I can easily see adapting the Gunslinger's Guide for any 19th century setting (like Deadlands).  Heck, I'm one of the writers on Steamscapes:Asia and I pledged just to get the Gunslinger's Guide!

Eric Simon: That was our hope. And of course everyone who pledges will get to be part of the votes on what comes next.

Sean Bircher: This is just the beginning of the adventure!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Karakuri (Rerun)

Tea-serving karakuri ningyo
Originally published April 4, 2014

The images above are of a karakuri ningyo: a doll-sized robot that walks when you place a cup of tea in its tray. These were used as an entertaining way of serving guests by the merchant class in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is but one example of karakuri: mechanized puppets and wooden robots that were used in religious festivals, theatre, and as household entertainment during the Edo period.

When I first started working on Steamscapes: Asia, I did a Google search for the phrase "Edo Era Robots" and discovered multiple articles about this amazing extrapolation of the clockwork technology Western explorers and missionaries brought to Japan during the Sengoku Jidai. Since I have less time today than I'd like (but I want to keep building momentum), here's some links:

The First Japanese Robots: Karakuri Ningyo

Japan's First Robots Are Older Than You Think

Edo-period “robot” returns to life in Japan

And here's an awkwardly-subtitled piece about a tiny robot THAT DRAWS ARROWS FROM A QUIVER AND SHOOTS THEM! It doesn't just pull back on the string once you put the arrow in its hand -- it draws the arrows from the quiver itself and then shoots them!!!
Support the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter!

 The only arguably fantastical element in Steamscapes is the presence of artificially-intelligent automata. Powered by miniaturized Babbage Engines, clockworks, and steam, the automatons have become so ubiquitous that they have been granted citizenship in some of the North American nations. In Japan, I'm going to assume that Western automata have been paralleled by improvements to the historical Japanese karakuri.
Now imagine what could be if those robots could be built at human size? That tea-serving karakuri doll becomes something like this...

Karakuri by Keith Thompson

The exact place of automatons in the society of Steamscapes' Japan is something we're still working out. Given the ubiquity of karakuri in real life, I'm inclined to think that they would be more common and prominent than many Western visitors would expect. Perhaps bunraku puppet theatre has become the stage for karakuri actors? Perhaps the geisha never developed because robot musicians played for the oiran instead? Perhaps those little arrow-shooting dudes have been upscaled to shoot cannons? And perhaps big-ass oni automata guard the land?
"Oni Grunt" by Emerson Tung

Friday, October 10, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Flashman (Rerun)

Support the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter!

Originally posted April 2, 2014
I wish I could have used Frank Frazetta's cover for Flashman at the Charge.

Wait?! What?

What do the Flashman Papers -- that series of historical adventure novels about the cowardly, jingoistic, womanizing bully Sir Harry Flashman VC KCB KCIE by the curmudgeonly conservative George MacDonald Fraser -- possibly have to do with Steamscapes? Aren't the Flashman Papers' celebration of Playboy-style bed-hopping and Victorian empire-building contrary to the tone and intent of the social justice alternate history I'm supposed to be writing? Didn't I say I was going to write about Yojimbo next?

First, the Flashman Papers are a perfect example of the adage "history is stranger than fiction." While Flashman himself is fictional, the vast majority of people he meets and interacts with are not and reading these novels opened my eyes to just how colorful and bizarre the real world can be. Lola Montez? James Brooke? The Taiping Rebellion? I wouldn't know about any of them without Flashy. I'm sure many gamers read the description of Steamscapes as "a pure genre steampunk setting" and think it must be boring. The Flashman Papers long ago proved to me that the real world is a setting as wild and wooly as any that exists.

Second, I can hardly recommend that everyone read the Flashman novels (especially the first one), but the fact of the matter is that Harry Flashman's brutally honest and self-deprecating narration takes to task the worst aspects of both British leaders and those of the foreign lands he visits. One of the design concepts for Steamscapes is that every nation in the setting should have both its positive and negative aspects, that it can be both hero and villain. I'm too much a student of history to be entirely supportive of either the ishin shishi or the shogunate, and Japan's success in resisting Western domination must always be measured against its own aggression toward the rest of Asia. I'd say the Flashman Papers have helped with maintaining perspective.

Third, I haven't had the time to re-watch Yojimbo yet. (For the first time in my life, I am having the unholy wish that I could watch it dubbed so I could follow the dialogue without having to watch the screen, and thereby multitask.) What I have had time for was to browse Hulu Plus for inspirational material, which led in a roundabout way to this post.

One of the half-dozen or so anime available on Hulu Plus that are set in and around the time period I'm working on is Intrigue in the Bakumatsu - Irohanihoheto, the story of a mysterious ronin and an equally mysterious theater company that get involved in a crazy occult conspiracy involved in the fall of the shogunate. (Or something like that; I haven't made it past the first episode yet.) Browsing the Wikipedia entry for the show told me that one of the characters in the show is the historical figure Thomas Blake Glover: a Scotsman who defied English law to sell arms to the anti-foreigner(!) pro-Imperial faction and later went on to help found Mitsubishi and Kirin.

Cripes, history really is crazier than fiction. And when you add in steam-powered robots and make it an alternate history you can go nuts in, then why wouldn't you want to play?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Sakura Taisen (Rerun)

Support the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter!
Originally posted March 30th, 2014

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.
We love you, Sumire!
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.

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...