Steamworks and Dragons – 5 d20 Steampunk Books
Machines of magic and steam, from personal clockwork enhancements to massive steampowered medieval mecha. Steampunk brings an awesome neo-victorian feel to any event – from goth clubs to computer geek casemods. And of course to my D&D games. This month, the RPG Blog Carnival is stationed over at MadBrew Labs, with the theme of Steampunk and Clockworks.
With the interest in the Steampunk theme ramped up to fever pitch a few years ago, it should come as no surprise that quite a number of books for the d20 system focused on this theme. In this article, I’m focusing on the steampunk and clockworks books in my collection from that era.
Steam & Steel – A Guide to Fantasy Steamworks
In the grand scheme of things, this is the keynote of steampunk crunch for Dungeons & Dragons. Based on the success of this volume, E.N. Publishing went on to publish several other excellent works combining magic and technology, but Steam & Steel is more in line for the purists, with more emphasis on clockworks and magically generated steam power, not magically powered constructs. I don’t know if they still offer it in print, but you can get the PDF from RPGnow. Steam & Steel has rules for just about everything from prostheses to giant mecha and everything in between. The volume is also supported by two mini-releases from Ronin Arts that are worth picking up at the same time – Steam & Steel Diseases and Steam and Steel Expanded Prosthetics.
1984 in a world where the Victorian age is still dominant thanks to the discovery of Etherspace. This is a full game using the d20 system set in a masterfully crafted steampunk world based on our own. The setting is an amazing amalgamation of steamtech and cyberpunk ethos. For me this was the absolute surprise hit of the end of the d20 blitz – one that had me completely relook at how I saw the publisher, Goodman Games. There’s a reason this also appeared in my “5 Cool Games from the d20 Bubble” post. If you haven’t read it, grab a copy and go through it – this is a top-notch steampunk setting.
The Iron Kingdoms setting from Privateer Press (the d20 setting based on their miniature combat game) is an excellent “steamtech” environment. It feels a bit more wild wild west than neo-victorian, and the average adventurer is more likely to be wearing a heavily armored leather longcoat than a fancy suit and hat from Etherscope. The setting screams out for adventure and conflict in a more traditional D&D sense than Etherscope with it’s urban cyberpunk feel. On top of everything else, the art in these books is gorgeous and inspiring. Definitely a must-have, even if just to have massive trains and firearms for your D&D game like an uber-gritty Eberron.
Mechamancy – The Clockwork Magic
Further from the true steampunk feel we come to E.N. Publishing’s other D&D-Tech offering. Mechamancy is a set of two PDFs that are about combining technology and magic – again more in line with the technologies of Eberron than the steampunk feel of Etherscope and the Iron Kingdoms. These books are crunch-intensive and obviously designed by someone who enjoys rules engineering. The core of the books is a system to build your own mechamancy tools, armor, vehicles, prosthetics and even creatures. Worth having if you are into a construction system almost reminiscent of GURPS vehicles in complexity and completeness.
Sorcery & Steam
The Legends & Lairs hardcover series from Fantasy Flight games had a lot of excellent content for d20 games, and I use many of the volumes from this library in my own games. Sorcery & Steam, unfortunately, is one of the weaker volumes. As with most of the books in the set, it’s a toolkit. And as such, the best material in the book is the introduction on setting up your own steampunk campaign setting, what to use, what to toss, and how to make it work – but really, what questions to ask yourself as you assemble the setting before letting your players loose in it. The rules content is unfortunately pretty weak, and the classes in particular seem to wander all over the spectrum without actually seeming to be steampunk at all in many cases (I’m looking at you – detective, brawler and animal master). And the steamcraft rules themselves play a distant second fiddle to the ones in Steam & Steel.