Posted on September 7, 2011 by Ray Frazee
Available at RPGNow.com
As the Wiki sez, Steampunk “is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, and speculative fiction that involves a setting where steam power is still widely used—usually Victorian era Britain—that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy, and often features anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them.”
Steampunk is wild and funky; it is innovative and adventurous; it offers us with a glimpse of a world that never was but could have been. These days there is no shortage of steampunk novels and stories; Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter was my first real exposure to it, but one can go all the way back to 1967 and Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W. Clark to get your fix. And, yes, I know Agatha Heterodyne is part of a “gaslight fantasy”, but she’s too cute to omit.
In games, however, it becomes a little more difficult to get your steamy fix. I’m not talking video games–we all know there are some out there with the true vibe. But tabletop has always been a little lacking.
Not any more.
Brass & Steel, a tabletop game by Pamean Games, brings 1905 Not-Quite-Earth to the table and not only gives you a well thought out world in which to play, you get Mad Science, Magic, and Dreaming! Oh, and Tarot Cards, too, but later for that–
Character creation is a very simple 12 step process–13 if you want to work on your costume for LARPing.
It’s all done with character points: 300 for a “humble” character, 600 for a competent one, and 900 for your elite Monster of the Air People. Those might sound like a lot of points to play with, but once you start factoring in Advantages, Attributes, Skills and the like, they burn up quickly–as can be gauged by one handy chart showing the costs skills and attributes. There are many good Archetypes to pick from if you’re looking to get into the game quick and not interested in munchkining up Sir Hardcore Kickbuttus, but even without one it appears that building a character might not take more than an hour or two.
There is a very nice humor that permeates this whole section. Attributes are Might, Vitality, Reason, Agility, Willpower, Wit, and Fate to which there is a note that players use the helpful acronym “MVRAWWF,” pronounced “mmmvarwoof,” to help remember the attributes. Skills go by names of Bash and Stab; Devious Devices; Olympian Spirit; and Clarity of the Self. Advantages can be No Fate But What We Make and, probably one of the best, Smarter Than The Player for those times when your character can figure out things you, the player, can’t. Gimpy Leg is a great Disadvantage (it can still be eaten, you see), and Parasites are a Disadvantage every player should have. One weapon is the “Humble Prison Shiv” and another is the “Little Friend”, which, unfortunately, does not involve a cannon slung under your rifle and an outrageous accent.
By far the best line in the book is in the section on damage, found in the paragraph on “Fire”, and states, “Characters who are on fire should put themselves out, or have someone else do it for them.”
But . . . can’t I be Johnny Storm?
Task resolution is all D20s with rolling under the target number, with a 1 being You Bringing The Critical and a 20 being an Epic Fail. Combat is much the same, though with Initiatives you have the guys failing the worst stating what they are going to do first–which may seem wrong, but since the rules state that a person with a higher Initiative can declare their actions last, it truly does leave the poor suckers to get their butts handed to them in a major way.
Magic (or Arcanism as it’s called in the game) and Dreaming add an element to the game that might not be seen elsewhere. Magic can be performed by most anyone who gets into the study of such things, but the “inoculation” of “Alchemical Salts” can make you an even more kick ass mage–with the inevitable side effects of making your eyes glow, your skin crawl and, eventually, your brain leaking out of your ears. But, hey–major fireballs until then.
Dreaming is a bit like the astral state, but can be entered only while dreaming–duh! There are realms that one can visit, information that can be gathered by invading the dreams of others, ideas that can be passed along to alter another’s thinking, and even fighting. (Totems not included.) A Dreamer can’t directly affect the real world, but while in the Dream Realms they can look for and capture Ephemera to bring back, and that can be used to create limited illusions while waking–and if your idea of fun is creating a purple bulldog that tells stories like Eddie Izzard with a Welsh accent right before he appears to chew someone’s leg off, then you’re gonna need some Ephemera.
Fate Cards are used to change the course of the game for a player. The cards in question are Tarot Cards, and while the game shows how one could use regular playing cards to achieve the same effects, use the Tarot. It’s gonna be more fun, and who knows? Maybe between Cheetos runs someone can learn enough to be able to do fortunes on the side. The minor arcana are used to modify skill tests, and suit is associated with a particular set of skills (as another chart shows), while the major arcana are used to affect game play in a major way–though “major” is a definition set by the GM, ’cause the last thing a GM wants is a bunch of throttle heads ripping though the game version of the Ottoman Empire laying waste to everything because they somehow managed to load up on major arcana cards.
The tips on gaming philosophy are short but important. Too many times a GM can get lost in the idea that it’s their story and the Players are but characters on a stage to be sucker punched and mutilated at the GM’s leisure. And the first bullet point of “Be a Good Loser” is something GMs and gamers alike should take to heart.
And lastly, the world. It’s a rich one; Euro-centric (Britannia rules the waves with a very spry Queen Victoria on the throne–no word if she’s a werewolf, though) with Germans and Russians ready to cause trouble, and a British-controlled Ottoman Empire and a weak Austria-Hungary and pint-sized United States that still can’t get west of the Miss Hip because of those magical natives (or “aboriginal tribes” as they’re called in the book) kicked into the mix, along with the Aztlan and Inka Empires waiting in the wings to turn everything into a three-ring circus. There is a very nice time line of how the world got to the present era (and you wanna make me happy? Timelines. I love them) as well as a quick run through Constantinople to get everyone in the mood for the Steamy and Punky. If there is anything I could fault, it would be some maps of the world, but otherwise–the world is a wonderful, living thing.
Yes, there are few typos here and there, but nothing that would make me throw the book across the room (and since I do everything on PDFs I don’t know that I’d want to send my Seagate through a wall), and the combination of detail of the world with the simplicity of character creation and game play make this one game I would put at the top of a list to play. It has it all: adventure, romance, the world as a stage–and mad science! The steampunk heart is worn on the sleeve here–so what more are you looking for?
Pack your bags; I hear your airship getting ready to depart.
Review by Ray Frazee