This series will describe a world - “Alternate-Earth” - suitable for role-playing in a dystopian Steam-punk game. Each article will focus on some aspect - geographic, cultural, or institutional - of the world, introducing new aspects that can be used in your gameplay.
Alternate-Earth, or “Alt-Earth” if you prefer, is a world of Steampunk and High Magick. “Steam” means bizarre anachronistic technologies, “punk” means dystopian society with totalitarian rule by a shadowy government who seeks to control all. “Magic” means forces beyond reasoning and mortal ken, and when a “k” has been added to the end, you know that blood will be shed at some point in dark mystical rituals seeking to bring power to the wicked, corrupt and powerful.
Alternate Earth presents a world in which role-playing can take place. It was designed with a home-brew system of mechanics which was abandoned after some experimentation, as there are existing role-playing games which provide excellent systems to support the “fluffy” world.
This author would personally recommend, depending on the tone of the game, World of Darkness (particularly in it's “vanilla” flavour, without any templates added to a normal mortal) if the game focuses on the “punk” aspect of Steampunk. World of Darkness facilitates game atmosphere, and the world of Alternate-Earth is certainly dark and oppressive enough to suit the system.
If the game is going to revel more in the the “steam” parts of Steampunk, with a focus on the inventions, time period and good cultural aspects of the game, then “Mutants & Masterminds” would be better suited to mechanically describing many aspects of characters or NPCs which other games would avoid due to “balance issues”. In “Worlds of Freedom”, the chapter entitled “Freedom by Gaslight” already introduces some mechanics and flavours which would help support a Steampunk game.
Some other mechanical systems may also work, especially if liberal use is made of “relabelling” concepts from other systems. The cyber-punk world of “Shadowrun” could be changed, with some effort, to describe the fantastic science-fiction weapons, vehicles and body-modifications with a clockwork-and-steam flavour. “Call of Cthulhu”, especially in the earlier time-settings and with the oppressive atmosphere, could also be well suited to Alternate-Earth, and Lovecraft's horrors could be incorporated into the world easily (more on this in a later article about the shadowy University).
There are three major forces vying for control of Earth, and each has carved out it's own territory to fuel the continual wars which rage.
Victoria, “the Queen's England”, is the most stereotypical Steampunk setting, with an added helping of totalitarianism and dystopia. High English society mixed with fantastical devices and inventions. The
Queen herself is far less than a figurehead - she is now practically a captive of the political system which requires her as a symbol - though in recent years, she has become worshipped as a deity. The bureaucracy which keeps society from toppling over is so corrupt that the only thing keeping the system stable is every crooked politician, minor noble and successful businessman pulling equally hard on the same ill-gotten gains.
Lower-class Victorian society is found in the slums and ghettos, where many are forced to take up increasingly unpleasant tasks as previous gainful employment is replaced by automatons. Opium dens and prostitution are becoming an increasing concern, while gangs, rape and violence rule the night in many large cities.
Victoria covers all of Europe, up to the Ural Mountains, and has colonies in North Africa and North America.
The Eternal Oriental Empire is a dark and shadowy culture, where slavery and blood-magick is rife, and control is centralised on the Emperor - a person/creature so powerful that merely uttering his name is punishable by execution of the blasphemer and his family, to the third consanguinity.
Magickal daemons and fantastical creatures abound, powered by an ambient magickal field which is kept strong by the sacrifice of thousands of slaves - but a two thousand are born the following day, from oppressed women forced to continually produce children or fear fierce beatings, or from prisoners of war who are treated far, far worse.
The Oriental Empire ranges from the Philippines and Japan on the East to the Urals on the West.
The University is a faction which has existed, in some measure, for hundreds of years - possibly many more, before being revealed. They trade arms to both sides in the war, in exchange for knowledge, technology and magickal lore. They then put this knowledge to practical use, producing ever-more destructive arms to sell. They are incredibly xenophobic (with a few notable exceptions), and will never share knowledge itself.
The University has no Imperial goals further than holding it's own territories. Unlike Victoria and the Oriental Empire, the University does not engage in warfare - and if either faction were to challenge the lands the University holds, they would quickly find that their armament supplies ran dry and could not be replaced.
The University controls Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic.
Southern America has successfully repelled all invasions from both the University and the Victorian factions which have tried to claim it. The native tribes (aesthetically Incan and Mayan) have used their own forms of blood magick and ancient technologies, combined with accurate prophecy tied to an alien form of calendar, to destroy any non-Americans from entering their lands.
Sub-Saharan Africa is infected with a plague, causing any who do not engage in a local form of shamanistic magic to attract vast quantities of walking dead, who consume their flesh. Particularly worrisome are a tribe of cannibal midgets, the tokolosh who carry the weak and infirm away in the night, never to be seen again. If the Saharan deserts didn't rip the flesh from the bones of these horrors and the dead, they might be powerful enough to challenge Victoria itself.
Australia is without inhabitants. A meteor which struck Tunguska burrowed through the Earth, emerging in the Australian outback. It was discovered to be a portal to the land of the dead - and it worked in both directions. Spirits and wild chaos magic abound in Australia, and both the Victorian and Oriental empires send their most violent convicts to Australia's shore for abandonment as a form of terrible capital punishment.
Weapons of Warfare
The war between Victoria and the Imperial Empire has stretched back further than histories record, but modern warfare on either side illustrates their diversity:
Victoria uses massive land-ships powered by steam, technological “steam-gents”, humanoids of brass and cogs and gears, and gigantic cannons, the size of cities. Flying machines and firearms complement these line-breaking constructs. Enormous smoke-belching factories packed with children and the infirm work continuously to provide the arms and equipment that the elite military forces of Victoria use to force back the heathen Oriental armies.
The Oriental Empire uses fantastical creatures from myth and legend. Dragons, gryphons, fox- and turtle-spirits are used on the battlefield to terrible effect. And these great creatures need blood to be spilled to remain in this world - which the Empire gladly provides in a never-ending army of slaves, spears and swords pressed into their untrained hands, forced forward by the weight of slaves behind them fleeing the monsters who would gleefully consume them. They are complemented by explosives, fireworks and manned kites.
Alternate-Earth is a rich Steampunk settings that has been developed with a focus primarily on three forms of gameplay:
Victorian Intrigue, wherein a group of bold individuals perform services for those agencies still loyal to the Queen.
War Stories, wherein groups of adventurers perform missions on the frontlines of the Long War.
Explorations, wherein a party of adventurers brave the jungles of South America, the unknowns of the Dark Continent, or even try to covertly explore the great island-fortress-laboratories of the University.
Though this series will explore the world of Alternate-Earth, these three adventure-styles have prompted the impetus to construct the world, and so are the most well-developed.
Next article: London, The Works and Grandfather!