Postcolonial Steampunk RPGs NOW!

Okay, that does it. I’m changing my attitude.

For the past couple of years, I have watched a variety of steampunk settings appear, some for existing systems and a few with their own systems. Each time a new one showed up, I have breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that they were doing the same old ahistorical, pro-colonial claptrap with magic (or sometimes horror) thrown into it, because it meant that Steamscapes remained unique.

But no more.

I am here not only to encourage but to demand more postcolonial steampunk RPGs as soon as possible.

This week, the actual play podcast She’s a Super Geek posted their first episode in a new series trying out Fantasy Flight’s new generic system, Genesys. To explore this system, they are playing a steampunk game run by Katrina Ostrander, who also wrote the sample steampunk setting, Sovereigns of Steam.

I absolutely encourage you to take a listen for yourself, because the SASGeek folks are awesome and you should support them. But I have to admit that I had a few issues with the episode.

Here’s a short list that doesn’t give too much away:

  1. It takes place in Steelhearth, the setting’s London equivalent. Please stop telling stories about fake-London by default, or anywhere in fake-Europe for that matter. (I am also not super-interested in real London or real Europe, but those are slightly less likely to be romanticized.)
  2. The primary action involves class-based interactions at a high-society party. This is not automatically a problem, but class divisions are played more for laughs than interrogated for their effects on individuals or on society as a whole. Please stop bland-washing class-based hierarchies.
  3. There is a “Colonial Governor” and a dismissive reference to “the colonies,” again without any interrogation of these attitudes and structures. Please stop defaulting to imperialism.

Now, I don’t want to fault SASGeek or Ostrander specifically. It’s entirely possible that Fantasy Flight wanted a very generic sample steampunk setting for their system. They may have decided that they didn’t want to push any boundaries – they just wanted to make something that would sell to a predictable audience. And SASGeek is just there to play the game as it’s presented. Their focus is more on women in gaming, and the episode does just fine in that respect.

I don’t know the details of how this setting came about, so I’m not here to criticize it. Rather, I am here to ask for more from the rest of the RPG industry and design community.

Steamscapes is my ongoing attempt at a strongly historical and realistic postcolonial steampunk setting. It has its flaws, largely because I’m learning a lot myself as I write it. I have to work to fix those issues as I become aware of them. I know my style is not the only way to approach postcolonial steampunk, and it’s certainly not perfect, but right now it’s the only game in town.

So here’s what I want from other game designers:

Do better than me.

I want you to beat the pants off of me in terms of representation with your setting, staff, art…everything. I want you to take me to school on postcolonialism. It’ll be a few years before I try to write Steamscapes: Africa – can you do African steampunk before I get there? Awesome, I want to see it. Can you get Diana Pho to write for you? Do it. Because that’ll blow my books away.

I am tired of telling people that steampunk can be much more than they think but seeing so many RPGs trot out the same worn-out tropes. Be the example I can point to. I would be thrilled to raise up someone else’s game that’s doing it right.

Because I don’t want Steamscapes to be unique anymore. I want to be part of an entire movement of postcolonial steampunk RPGs.

So grab your goggles, and let’s go.

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