What is it about Steampunk...
That makes us want to actually experience all the gadgets and wonderful alternate history for real?
Is it the gadgets, the fearsome weapons and monsters, the complexity of clockwork mechanisms, the power of steam, the elegance of a beribboned bustle, the intriguing glimpse of a lace edged corset?
As you know, if you have been following my posts on Airship design, I am a member of a role playing group that is the crew and passengers of an exotic airship in the service of her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria.
According to Wikipedia:
A role-playing game (RPG and sometimes roleplaying game) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.Our group is not a game in the sense of the last line of that quote, rather it is a shared storyline that we are participants in. The story gives our characters a common history, and a chance to play in the alternate world we have created. We have created a complex story with intrigue, action, boredom, danger, humour, travel, and good companionship. The main purpose of the group is really to have fun with a set of Steampunk characters. Since we all enjoy the costuming and gadgets that Steampunk is famous for, we also have a chance to wear our characters "out in public" so to speak.
Now having a group of like minded people building gadgets and sewing costumes is certainly not new or unique. In fact there are many airship crews, military units, expeditions, and such like out there. The Neo-Victorian world is a world of exploration and adventure after all.
Here are three things our group does that we find helps to increase our enjoyment.
First thing is the "Story" of course.
Originally the group was simply the crew of an airship, with a minimal setting in which to place our characters mostly for costuming purposes. Eventually people began to add back stories to their characters. Since we wanted to share the world, we tried to place the back stories in a common context. That meant that we needed to settle some details of the world so that we all knew where and when our characters were supposed to be.
This was surprisingly hard to do, we didn't want to be too detailed in respect to the alternate history in which our characters lived (mainly because we couldn't agree!) and because we didn't want to be too limiting. We eventually settled on not having a specific date but rather that we would simply be "sometime" in the late 19th c. with Queen Victoria still ruling the vast British Empire. We decided that there were some changes from real history to liven things up. For example the South won the Civil War and North America consists of five countries. The Union, the Confederacy, Texas, the British Colony of Canada and the Spanish provinces of Mexico and California.
The Royal Navy now has an Airship component of which our airship is a part. The military side of our world is that of the Victorian Royal Navy and Army. The civil world is pretty much that of the Neo-Victorian Steampunk worlds we all know and love.
So far so good.
When we weren't getting together for drinks in our costumes we all hung out online, and it was a natural extension to roleplay interactions between the characters. As time went on it became apparent that as we did so a story line began to develop too. A realtime history began to appear recorded in the conversations and roleplay.
One of us suggested that, since we were an airship crew, why not have the airship arrive somewhere and then we could get together in costume as if we were actually at that place. So when we went to London we went to see "Gaslight" and when we went to Venice we had dinner in an Italian restaurant before going to see Gilbert and Sullivan's "Gondoliers". Of course it helped to have the story follow along with reasons for being in these places.
My wife is a mystery writer as well as a member of our group and she volunteered to keep track of the story and help to move it along. Essentially she became what in a normal RPG is known as the Dungeon Master. We have had some really interesting twists and turns in the story which has seen our crew involved in corporate intrigues, spies, sabotage, battles, and storms.
Not everyone in the group participates in the online roleplay which is fine because really the roleplay is just adding colour to our character's shared history.
Second thing is the "Technology".
We are an airship crew and consequently the airship itself becomes a major character in the story.
My Practical Airship Design posts cover how I see our fine ship, being her Chief Engineer and all. But this is an alternate history and a Steampunk one so our airship isn't the only exotic technology we have to play with.
Personally I like Steampunk tech to be close to real tech (see my first article on Airship Design) but not everybody in the group thinks like that of course.
The trick is to make the technologies "appropriate" to the world, so for example we have complex semi intelligent machines but they appear to be clockwork driven mechanisms. Fiendishly complex but still clockwork. If someone wants to add a new piece of tech we try to decide how it fits in, because the nature of our roleplay means once introduced it becomes part of the world. So far nearly everything has fit, mechanical rats, ornithopters, mechanical augmentation, and even "brass bound blasters" for our detachment of Royal Airship Marines.
Third is Non Player Characters (NPCs)
This has turned out to be one of the most interesting aspects of our story, because not all our members are active in the roleplay, often it is necessary to have other characters involved in the action. What is a crew without crew members? So we have added NPCs as other members of the crew and other people in the World that can help to move the story along. For example as Chief Engineer I have a "Black Gang", as the engine room crew of a Victorian Royal Navy ship was known, of six men each slightly different characters useful as other points of view from my main character. When used judiciously the NPCs can really help to flesh out the action, and keep the story moving even if most of the other members are busy doing real life things.
Plus if a "Red Shirt" is ever needed...
These three elements, a real time story, appropriate technology, and NPCs, have really helped to add life and colour to the shared story that our characters inhabit. When we do get together in our costumed finery we have a shared history of adventures, dangers, excitement and travel.
And a finer bunch of shipmates a man could not hope for.
Keep your sight glass full, your fiebox trimmed and your water iced.