Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I have gotten really tired of the word "Steampunk." Really really tired of it. Because it's come to mean, "Gears + Red Velour or Velvet + Goggles." It has completely lost the punk aspect to it.

See, Victorian Fantasy is all well and good, and most supposedly Steampunk fiction (and games) are actually Steam-Driven Victorian Fantasy as opposed to Steampunk. But that's such a mouthful that people just call it Steampunk out of laziness.

The key component to any "-punk" game is one of rebellion against the existing order - and Steampunk is ripe for this sort of thing. The Victorian era was one of the most racist, classist, and sexist periods of recorded history. There was a lot to rebel against - poverty was rampant and child labor was common. Vast swaths of the non-European world was held by Europeans, and the natives had few (if any) rights.

It was also an era where technology continued to put people out of jobs as the cottage industries which had dominated manufacturing continued to be replaced by (unsafe) factories - the actual Luddite riots occurred roughly twenty years before the beginning of the Victorian era, but the problems that caused the riots were not remedied during the era.

It was the era in which the infamous London Fog - caused by a blend of actual fog and coal smoke - caused thousands of deaths. And - in the real world - the Fog continued until the 1950's. How much worse would this have been in a Steampunk setting?

In short, it's a setting ripe for rebellion.

But you don't see it in most of the game fiction out there.  Space: 1889 is widely regarded as the first "Steampunk" RPG, but it lacks that sense of rebellion. Instead, it's more of a pulp-style adventure game with steam technology with occasional hints at Victorian classism. It could be because gaming tended to shy away from genuine social issues in the eighties (having said that, now, someone will inevitably point out a game or two which is all about their pet issue). My friend Geoff reminds me that the Steampunk billing, by the way, is from its fans, not its publisher or press. Which is a fair comment.

But I have friends who are huge "Steampunk" buffs. The way I figure it is this: If I want to add punk to steampunk, I could choose a fairly vanilla game and introduce whatever story elements I needed in order to make it work.

So I ordered Victoriana. I'd heard a few good things here and there, and, in general, I have liked Cubicle 7's products. So it was worth a shot.

Now, the first thing I look at when I have a new game book in my hands is the character sheet. That sheet can tell you a lot about what the designers thought was important about the game.

At the very top of the page is the non-stat information - character name, player name, all that sort of thing. For me, this is half of the reason to look at a character sheet. Victoriana had a few surprises for me.

Social Class, for example. Social ... Ethics?

At that point, I hoped I had - in my hands - the first Steampunk game that hadn't left the punk up to the GM and players. And, on reading the book, I was not disappointed.

I continued to read the introductory fiction, which featured class conflict between different levels of society. A good sign, but al too often, game fiction is an idealized version of the rest of the book. Then I got to page 33.
Some readers may be wondering why we're putting all this stuff about sexism and racism in the game. It's possibly controversial and certainly politically unpopular - that's why it's here. Victoriana is a game about revolution; corrupt laws and the bitter taste of a corrupt society's values. Player characters are among the rare individuals who see society for what it is. Without all this stuff about sexism, exploitation, class stigma and poverty there isn't much to fight against - so use it as intended and fight the good fight against it!
The first time I read that paragraph, I was floored. In one short paragraph, they had highlighted what had bothered me about nearly every -punk game I have ever read. While I love Cyberpunk in all of its incarnations, it always seemed be more about looking cool than about true revolution. Shadowrun had potential to look past that with its persistent theme of racism, but I never had a GM who got it (and it was never explicitly spelled out in the book).

Victoriana has a chapter on religion. It's not a long chapter, but it discusses the main faiths of the setting with enough detail that a GM could hang a good plot hook off of them - a failing of most RPGs.

And there's a section on social ethics, along with some political factions and what they think of the various ethics (as opposed to their thoughts on one another).

I really like the flavor of the book. I like the setting and how it is detailed. And I like the layout - they give you a (brief) overview of the system before you start making characters, so you have a rough idea of how things work.

Unfortunately, I'm not that fond of the system.

It's a d6-based die pool number-of-successes system. Starting characters will roll 3-4 dice in their strong skills (depending on their race/social class/etc). The game is also level-based, allowing the designers to limit how many dice characters at each stage of their career will roll. It's possible for a starting character to roll up to seven dice (again, depending on race/social class).

When I'm playing a die pool game which counts successes, I like "roll high" or "roll low."  Victoriana is ... weird. It uses the d6, but that's not the odd part. The odd part is what determines a success: Ones and sixes are successes. Sixes "explode" - meaning you can re-roll them and hope for more successes.

So your average starting character on a roll at the typical difficulty (more on this later) will get one success more often than not.

Because it's not a set High/Low roll, the difficulty adjustment is weird, too. Most games can just say, "+1 Target Number" to make things harder. Or they reduce the number of dice being rolled. Unfortunately, the number of dice starting characters have is so low that rolling fewer dice will cripple them. Instead, as the difficulty increases, players add "black dice" to their pool. Black Dice which roll a one or a six remove successes from the player's pool. So moving from standard difficulty to the next step up adds 3 Black Dice. So your average starting character will tend to get 1 success ... and that will probably be gobbled by the Black Dice.

Black Dice appear in combat, too. When you take damage, you add Black Dice to your next roll. When you take enough damage, it reduces your die pool for all actions. Until, of course, you die.

I don't actively dislike the system. I just don't actively like the system, either. It's weird, but seems functional. Running a couple of sample combats with the included sample characters, it seemed to work.

Victoriana has a number of supplements available, too. In both print and PDF.

The system used for Victoriana is called the "Heresy Engine," and it's also in use in at least two other games - Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein, and Airship Pirates (based on the music of Abney Park).  All of the Victoriana supplements are compatible with the other games. I particularly recommend Faulkner's Millinery and Miscellanea - a book of steam-powered gear and gadgets.

Do I recommend the game?

Yes, actually, I do. Even though the system doesn't grab me, the attitude and the setting did. While I'm sure there are internal inconsistencies, I haven't spotted them, yet. The fact that there are three games with the same system means that there is a lot of support with a variety of supplements.

All in all, I think it was absolutely worth my gaming dollar.


  1. What if we took the setting and just replaced or modified the system? Like, houseruled that 5s and 6s are successes.

    On the surface, I like the idea of damage causing black dice. Hey, look, damage actually does something bad to you before you die!

  2. It's not just damage that causes black dice - Higher degrees of difficulty also add black dice.

    It means that a wounded character attempting a difficult task has to roll a large handful of dice. And then sort them by success/not success.

    I just wonder why they chose 1 & 6 as 'success' values rather than 5+.