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Steamworks RPG Review

Posted on April 23, 2008 by Flames

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Reviewing OGL/D20 products is a bit overshadowed at the moment by the raging controversy over what’s been hinted about the 4th Edition D&D STL license system, which could mean that products like this won’t be on sale for very long or might not be produced in the future. That’s a bit of a pity as I think this product is one of many good examples of the nice things to come out of open gaming and the approachable aspect of d20-as-was.

Steamworks presents a setting-neutral array of fantastical technology rules for use in d20 fantasy games. I say setting neutral but it does rather seem to assume a high fantasy setting where magic is the norm and the technological devices present are more techno-magic than steampunk per se. The overall feel is of something a little more fantastical than the Iron Kingdoms setting, though the results are somewhat similar and the text is somewhat the same in feel the approach is distinct and the mechanics are sufficiently different to not feel that this is a repeat of Liber Mechanika.

This is a tightly presented 165 page PDF in two column format in a fair imitation of much of Wizard’s own presentation, it cover PC and NPC character clases, prestige classes, mechanical devices and effects, the interaction of magic and technology, automations, skills, feats and everything else. Basically this is one entire plug-in to bring technology and its users into the game, along with brief discussions on the affect technological change might have on a society and the means by which it might be introduced. To my mind there wasn’t enough material on this side of things, doubtless to make room for all the mechanical crunch.

The cover is pretty good work but is a little soft and ‘flat’ looking for a technological book. I would have thought something a little more hard edged and provocative or something evoking the current rising steampunk movement – even a retouched photograph – might have been a little more effective. In the interior there are sepia toned sketches, which look like parchment blueprints in some cases and these are more effective than the cover in my opinion, though the work could probably have done with a couple more of them.

The writing is mostly workmanlike exposition on rules terminology and the role and scope of the classes. There’s not a great deal of room to gauge writing style or effectiveness in such sections but the parts that talk about the role and impact of technology show a bit more flare and personality and are engaging and thought provoking. These sections could have done with being a bit longer in my opinion and giving more specific examples to work with but overall they bring the product up from average to good as a resource.

The basis of these rules, unlike many other technology systems, is not to create an entirely new structure of rules to support technology but rather to use the scaffolding of the existing magic system to bolt in technology, treating it more as though it were an item-heavy school of magic, on par with arcane or divine magic. This has the advantage of simplicity and familiarity but loses points on uniqueness and on tailoring to the specific needs of a technology based agenda. Because of this I believe that these rules are best suiting to incorporating technology and technologists into an ongoing game of more conventional high fantasy type, rather than in worldbuilding something from the ground up. Specifically the book provides two new character classes, technologist (the technology wizard equivalent) and inventor (more of a sorcerer equivalent), a rash of new skills and interpretations of old skills, feats – some of which may be familiar from other OGL works, and a great deal of technological devices, draughts, widgets and doodads, all of which are well done, mechanically competent and seem balanced on several read-throughs.

Excellent for incorporating technology into an existing game.
Good sections on how technology can interact with and change a setting.
Sound, readable presentation.

Non-specialized technology system is a compromise between ease of play and specific technological rules systems.
Front cover doesn’t really evoke the right feel – I concede that this is a matter of personal taste.
The ole’ magic and technology in opposition thing is a bit hackneyed, this is indulged but is countered by inclusion of tech specific spells.

Style: 3
Substance: 5
Overall: 4

Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough

Also available at RPGNow: Steamworks Deluxe edition.

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