Ideas for a Steampunk Campaign Setting
This week on the Campaign Trail I’m back looking at campaign settings that go beyond the typical fantasy worlds most of us play in each week. In each article in the series I’ll provide notes on running a campaign (or adventure) in a campaign setting inspired by less typical D&D settings and genres such as lost world, ancient mythology, pirates, gun fu, sci-fi, wild west, fairy tales and more. My weekly game in the Seas of Vodari has some steampunk aspects introduced by Rock Gnomes. I thought that this week we could look at Ideas for a Steampunk Campaign Setting.
Fairy Tale | Prehistoric/Lost World | Steampunk | The Planes | Wild West
What is Steampunk?
Steampunk is a sub-genre of both fantasy and science fiction set in our industrialized 19th century or a “Victorian” inspired world. In the real world, the Victorian era saw the development of key aspects that are still part of our modern world such as mass production, urbanization and telecommunications. A steampunk setting takes the Victorian world and pushes the technology to imagine a 19th century world full of steam-powered and mechanical wonders such as automatons (robots), aeroplanes and difference engines (computers).
Getting the Setting Right
Fantasy, Swashbuckling, Intrigue, Romance, Horror and Mystery all can work well in a steampunk setting. Regardless of which style of play your want to run, if you want to really enjoy a steampunk setting you should try to keep the following in mind:
- Use steam driven technology (or an alternative such as diesel or magic) and make it big, loud and steamy with clanking gears and pounding pistons.
- Coal burning is dirty and smoky and steampunk cities are often foggy, damp and muddy.
- Present nineteenth century styles and fashions, attitudes and politics. Make sure to differentiate between the fringe and polite society. If you just want to go full brass googles and mechanical arms then go for it.
- Don’t get too caught up in how your steam powered machines work, steampunk is usually soft science fiction.
- Construct your world where steam technology has an important place in your society’s transportation, communication, politics, war, etc.
- Use lots of wood, brass and fancy adornments. Don’t be afraid to push fashion over function a little bit.
- Make use of urban settings, especially if they are London, Paris or New York or inspired by.
- Don’t forget the steamboats, airships/dirigibles, trains and even automobiles and submersibles.
- If you are going to use real world locations, carefully construct your alternative history. If you are not a history buff, swap out real countries for some made up countries that thematically match (for example Pax Brittania could be a large empire that includes Great Britain and most of North America or use a random name generator).
- Don’t be afraid to visit to the colonies (Pirate) or frontier (Wild West) to mix-up things up.
Which rules are the best fit for running a game in this setting? There are lots of good matches out there for a “steampunk” set adventure or campaign.
- Dungeons & Dragons has a magic powered steampunk inspired world called Eberron created by Keith Baker. With materials released for 3.5e, 4e and 5e (just an Unearthed Arcana article so far). I have used Warforged (sentient constructs) and Artificers in my games.
- 3.5/Pathfinder has:
- Pure Steam Campaign Setting
- OGL Steampunk
- The core rules have classes that would fit nicely into this setting such as Swashbuckler, Alchemist, Gunslinger and more
- FATE has some settings such as:
- Castle Falkenstein
- Smoke & Glass (Phoenix Outlaw) is a Fate Core setting about crime, punishment, and the difference between what’s legal and what’s right. It takes place in Kroy, a steam powered industrial city of factories and skyscrapers built on the wreckage of a magical kingdom. This setting was successfully funded on Kickstarter.
- Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies is not a perfect match, but how can you go wrong with airships and pirates?
- Iron Kingdoms (Privateer Press) is high fantasy combined with steampunk or ‘Full Metal Fantasy’
- Space: 1889 is a Victorian era space-faring adventure setting
- Tephra: The Steampunk RPG
- EABA Verne provides Victorian science fiction and steampunk for EABA.
- Airship Pirates
- Brass & Steel: A Game of Steampunk Adventure v1.5
Classes & Races
- If you are going to try to run steampunk in a fantasy system with set classes like D&D/Pathfinder, you’ll need to modernize weapons to be pistols, rapiers and steam-tech versus traditional broadswords and bows.
- Rogues of any flavor are a great fit. Especially assassins and swashbucklers.
- My D&D 5e world is a god filled, magical fantasy world with some steampunk. All the classes work fine in my own setting.
- With some creative thinking and re-skinning any class can fit well.
- Arcane tricksters who are magicians (sleight of hand) or actual illusionists fit well in this setting.
- You could have magic be a psychic power and remove arcane and divine powered classes. Or you could emphasize elemental power like in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
- You might want to look at adding in more Victorian era flavored classes/backgrounds such as mystics, explorers, pilots, spies, diplomats and nobles.
- Humans. They are a must have in this setting and you should consider going human only for this setting. Humans could be the inventors of steam-power or people who are adaptable enough to start to use new technology, but would be unlikely to embrace it as strongly as gnomes or dwarves might.
- Dragonborn. 19th century people were fascinated by the newly discovered dinosaurs (formerly mythical dragons) and placing their bones as the centerpiece in a museum are a good Victorian fit. If you want to allow dragonborn, I might say they are descended from dinosaurs and were discovered in a lost world by “civilized” people on expedition. They could be tribal or be civilized and have their own alternative technology.
- Halflings. Halflings might suffer as their peaceful country way of life is consumed by urbanization.
- Tinker/Rock Gnomes: These little guys are the most steampunk ready of any race. In my world gnomes combine steam and magic to create mechanical wonders that sometimes explode
- Dwarves. They should be able to adapt to a steampunk style of doing things if it makes mining easier. Dwarves could act as the builders of a vast steampunk city above or even under the surface.
- Warforged. Perhaps artificial lifeforms were created through magic or technology to fight as soldiers in a great war. These inorganic lifeforms are people just like everyone else, except they don’t need to eat or breathe.
- Changlings. If you are going to run an espionage heavy campaign, a race with the ability to shape change can be an awesome addition.
- Shifters (or Weretouched). If you want to bring in some gothic elements, then shifters could be a nice addition allowing PCs to hide a terrible secret that comes out in the moonlight (or at will).
- Forest Gnomes and Elves. With such a high affinity for magic and love of nature it is hard to imagine them using steam as a power source. These people can be used to represent the steamless or even be opposed to technology.
- Other Races. You could try introducing Kitsune, bear people, frog people or other animal influenced races. Why? I have no idea, but you wouldn’t be the first to throw them into a steampunk setting.
- Giants apes (to get a King Kong feel) or anything exotic and giant in size.
- Automatons (or robots) and other mechanical monstrosities. You can have them walk, fly, move on rollers or treads. They can come in any size and power level too. They could be used for surveillance, guards and more.
- Take any monster and add some steam tech to it.
- Psychic powered monsters such as Mind Flayers or even go full Lovecraftian.
- Spies from a foreign nation
- People in mechanical suits that allow them to punch hard, fly and more
- Evil industrialists
- A captain who takes over the airship navy
- Floating castles or cities are attacking/being attacked by raiders
- A mad inventor whose invention is set to destroy the city
- Vampires and other Gothic themed enemies
- A necromancer creating their own Frankenstein’s monster
- Sky Pirates/Raiders
- I would personally avoid the common use of traveling caravan people/bandits, but this is a common theme too
- Go Wild West or Gothic. Put your steampunk into the Wild West. Add some gothic elements such as vampires and werewolves.
- Go Diesel or Atomic. Bring your campaign into an alternative 20th century with dieselpunk inspired airplanes, blimps, giant automatons and mechanical computers in the era from WWI to WWII. Bring in baddies like gangsters and Nazis.
- Go Atomic. Try out an alternative 1950s with atomic powered personal computers, flying cars and spacecraft and a cold war backdrop.
- Go Magic. Swap out the steam power for magical powered machines like the D&D campaign setting of Eberron.
Sources for More Steampunk/Victorian Inspired Ideas
- TV. The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, The Wild, Wild West, Doctor Snuggles, Jack of All Trades, Fullmetal Alchemist (anime)
- Movies. Some of these are a little outside of the core definition (such as dieselpunk or atomicpunk), but check out Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), The Three Musketeers (2011), Sucker Punch (2011), Hugo (2011), Sherlock Holmes (2009), City of Ember (2008), Stardust (2007), The Golden Compass (2007), The Prestige (2006), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Hellboy (2004), Van Helsing (2004), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Wild Wild West (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), The Great Race (1965), Brazil (1985), Steamboy (2004), Metropolis (1927), Around the World in 80 Days (2004).
- Video Games. Countless video games are set in steampunk inspired worlds. Here are some of my favorites:
Final Fantasy Series, Bioshock Infinite, Chrono Trigger, Wild Arms and Professor Layton. There is also a game called Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. that was released this year that I have not tried out yet.
- Books. The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Morlock Night, City of Ember, The Anubis Gates, Homunculus, Infernal Devices, The Difference Engine, Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Amulet Series
- TV Tropes
- What is Steampunk?