Vaguely Victorian

Marcus L. Rowland

Copyright © Marcus L. Rowland 1997

Role playing games with a Victorian setting have been popular for several years. To a large extent their success stems from the popularity of steampunk fiction, and most are firmly in the SF / steampunk camp, with weird gadgetry and complex intrigue as essential plot elements.

Despite the claims of its authors, steampunk isn't truly representative of Victorian SF; it strip-mines Victorian settings and characters, and uses them to disguise essentially modern plots. Some elements bear a limited resemblance to scientific romance, the Victorian equivalent of SF, but where scientific romances generally tried to stretch the reader's imagination, and push the ideas of science to their limits, steampunk often deliberately limits its horizons to a parody of the Victorian idea of science; most simply comes across as cyberpunk with steam and Babbage engines replacing computers. I sometimes have the impression that steampunk authors check off little boxes for each chapter; one for rivets, one for steam, a Babbage engine reference, some sex, a less than flattering portrayal of an eminent Victorian, an ageing alchemist, and so on. These days a touch of fantasy and a guest appearance by Tesla are obligatory plot tokens.

I'm still waiting to see a couple of obvious steampunk scenes; one has to feature Queen Victoria having cybersex - perhaps we should call it pneumatosex - with a steam automaton programmed by Ada Lovelace, the other one will show daring plumbers committing an immense fraud by hack-sawing into the pneumatic tubes linking the Bank of England and Stock Exchange Babbage-engines. Apologies if I'm pre-empting the climax of someone's forthcoming masterpiece here.

Real scientific romances have a very different feel. Today the term is generally used to describe a type of science fiction that was peculiarly British; more contemplative and pessimistic, and often less action-packed than what we now regard as mainstream SF. Some works are still written in this style. Excellent examples include Stapledon's Last And First Men and Sirius, most of Wells, Clarke's The City and the Stars, and Baxter's The Time Ships.

It's a grave error to think that this genre sums up all of Victorian literature; there is a much larger body of fantasy works, which are now largely forgotten and have never been used for any game, as well as endless short stories and novels in other genres. An obvious example is Peter Pan, which could make a splendid fantasy campaign, but the closest thing I've ever seen to it is a resource management scenario, published in the fantasy/SF wargames fanzine Ragnarok, in which the player was commander of a UN peacekeeping force in Never-Never land.

Before beginning a comparative review I have to declare an interest; I've written for several of the games mentioned below, and publish one of them, so my opinions may not be entirely unbiased. That said, I'll do my best to keep things fair. Well, fairish...

Space 1889 (Game Designer's Workshop) is probably the Victorian game most people have heard of. It's set in an alternate universe where the "Luminiferous Ether" exists and Edison invented a space drive. There are forgotten civilisations on Mars, the Moon, and Venus, flying ships, and plenty of weird science and inventions. A lot of material was printed, but the system went out of production in 1994, and GDW ceased trading last year. However, many items can still be found, and some new material is being printed by another company, Heliogram. The game had a nice background but badly written rules. It also suffered from an odd flaw, which is common to several of the games I'll discuss, and almost unavoidable in an industry that's dominated by Americans; most of the scenarios were written for British characters and against a background of the British Empire on Mars, but British characterisation was poor and none of the scenarios ever visited the UK. With one exception, myself, all the authors were American, which may account for it. I wrote one adventure, Canal Priests Of Mars, with roughly its first third set in London; fifteen thousand words were cut, to begin the story en route to Mars! I'm delighted to say that there is a happy ending to this story; Heliogram's magazine Heliograph will serialise the full text later this year.

A game that's often used for a Victorian setting is Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium Inc), one of the all-time classic RPGs. The problem here is that the system is designed for horror campaigns, so players will always expect something very nasty to happen; if you can work around that there are some excellent Victorian adventures and a campaign book, Cthulhu By Gaslight. If you already own Call of Cthulhu it's an ideal way to get into Victorian role playing.

GURPS Horror (Steve Jackson Games) also suggests a Victorian setting, and has some material on the era. But there has been no support for the Victorian part of this supplement, making it less useful than its rivals. That said, I've evidence that many Space 1889 players use the GURPS rules in preference to those originally written for the game, and conversion details are readily available from various sources. A GURPS version of Space 1889 has been rumoured, but doesn't seem to be happening.

This is as good a point as any to mention my own RPG, Forgotten Futures, which is based on Victorian / Edwardian scientific romances and published on disk as computer shareware. Collections to date have been based on Kipling's scientific romances, the space opera Honeymoon in Space, Doyle's Professor Challenger stories, and Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost Finder. I have to admit that there have been a few lapses into steampunk, not to mention bad taste and appalling puns, but I include some authentic period stories with every release, and do my best to get the history accurate. You can try the game by downloading it from my web page, http:\\\, so draw your own conclusions.

A game you may not have heard of is For Faery, Queen, And Country (TSR), a supplement for the Amazing Engine RPG. It was a Victorian fantasy campaign with faerie and magic everyday facts of life. Unfortunately TSR don't support the game any more, and never did publish any additional adventures for this setting. There are a few oddities, such as decimalised British currency in the mid-nineteenth century, and I can't say I ever much took to the way it was presented, but it can sometimes be found very cheaply, and it's well worth a look.

TSR also published Masque Of The Red Death, a Victorian horror supplement for AD&D, which contains a lot of useful information on period characters and locations. It's very heavily biased towards horror, but the presentation is good, and it covers a generalised Victorian background in great detail. But it's a bit expensive, especially since you need a lot of support material to make it work. Advantages have to include the AD&D game system, which most players know. They've bolted on rules for firearms and it works surprisingly well. But TSR are about to be taken over by Wizards of the Coast, and it seems likely that some of the less profitable lines will be cut; my guess is that this will be one of them.

Castle Falkenstein, published by R. Talsorian Games, is a freewheeling Victorian fantasy game; the background has many similarities to "For Faery, Queen, and Country", but emphasises weird science, the "technology" of magic, and magic/science hybrids, with a swashbuckling approach to adventures. My problem with this game is that they've deliberately taken a kitchen-sink approach, and piled in anachronisms; it's a world where faerie co-exist with weird science, Verne's giant gun, Nemo, Robur, invading Martians, and anything else you can possibly think of from Victorian fiction. They don't really explain this, but the game has immense style and explanations are rarely a problem. If you can live with the rather chaotic background it's a lot of fun. Several supplements are available; one, Comme il Faut, is a largely rules-free guide to mid-Victorian styles, manners, and culture which should be compulsory reading for anyone designing this type of game.

I somehow doubt that it was read by the authors of a more recent game, Age of Empire (Epitaph Studios), which may be in limited circulation in the UK. It seems to have been written by someone who thought "Steampunk games are good, so let's nick all the best bits from three or four and we'll have a best seller." It's got a background that throws in even more elements than Castle Falkenstein, without any hint of a rationale and about as much style as a dead buffalo. Some elements of the rules seem to be "borrowed", for want of a better word, from my game, others resemble the Star Wars role playing game to an uncanny extent. The only hint of a campaign rationale is a club modelled in all respects on Conan Doyle's Diogenes club, which is actually a cover for Victoria's secret service. The background details are riddled with errors and anachronisms, and not just ones that have been thrown in for the fun of it; this is the game that made a tuppeny tube journey cost five shillings, and got the date of The Lost World wrong by fifteen years. In short, it's a turkey.

Where do we go from here? A GURPS supplement based on The Difference Engine was announced several years ago, and seemed likely to be the really big seller in this field, but the author died while the supplement was still in development, nobody really wanted to carry on, and by now the popularity of the Difference Engine has probably waned so much it wouldn't be viable. At the moment the general mood of the genre is fairly up-beat; cheerful anachronism is the rule rather than the exception. Eventually someone will probably react to this by writing a game with a very serious theme; again this might have been the Difference Engine, but something very grim and working class is a strong possibility. So far the best anyone has come up with is GURPS Goblins, a rather peculiar Georgian RPG in which all the characters are asexual humanoids who dislike their children, so that all the characters begin as despised proles, thrown out into the gutter by their parents, and have to make their own way in life. It's wonderful for adventures with a Dickensian feel, but a million miles away from scientific romance.

Finally, anyone running any sort of Victorian game should do some basic research on the era. I buy old magazines and books when I find them, and recently picked up most of the early run of the Strand magazine. If you can't find period material, a good one-stop substitute is What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool (Simon & Schuster 1993), a useful guide to period customs and interests. But don't assume that this or any other single source is always correct!

Marcus L. Rowland

Note: between writing and publication TSR was finally taken over by WOTC. I somehow managed to neglect to mention that despite the apparent grimness of its setting, GURPS Goblins is a humorous game! Finally, I've recently come across a 1940s Batman strip which uses almost exactly the pneumatic tube robbery scene I described in this article