Monday, December 14, 2015

Steam Cleaning

Today we're going to direct our attention to "steampunk."

Wait, what? Smash it? Oh no no no no no! We're going to clean it up! And we might brush the excess verdigris off some other related genres while we're at it.

It Leaves a Coppery Taste In Your Moth, Doesn't It?

Let's face it, a lot of people are sick of hearing about "steampunk". And yeah, it's been everywhere. it's been pastiched in popular culture, fercryinoutloud. It feels about as played out as "cyberpunk" did by the early 2000s.

Overused ≠ Dead

That doesn't mean it's ready for history's junk pile just yet.

I mentioned "cyberpunk" as a style that had (supposedly) played out some time back, but that doesn't mean people have given up planning computer crimes or kitbashing together peculiar bits of technology for nefarious purposes. Nor have all those people capable of such feats of techno-wizardry been accepted and greeted with open arms into society at large.

There is still cyber-; technology is never a static dealie. The sphere of what we know is always expanding, and what we can do with it expands some distance behind it. (I'll get into that below.)

And there is still -punk; any sort of social inequality means that some people will be in control and others will be rebelling against or sneaking quietly around that power.


Restoke the Boilers and Take to the Skies!

Played out it may be, but I assert there are swaths of the genre that are worth revisiting, reliving, and can still contain a lot of fun. It's just a matter of picking through the rubble and salvaging the bits and bobs that will lift the thing off the ground and soar to new heights. Or at least those heights that you once knew and could love again.

The Moving Parts

Until you know where you were, you don't really have a place to get back to, do you?

Let's strip off the gingerbread, peel away the paint, and get down to brass tacks. Then we can see what we've got to work with.

Steam, Cyber, what's the difference?

The level of sophistication is obviously very different, but the category of thing represented... that hasn't changed a bit, really. Whether the technology represented in the techno-wizardry is a search engine, a difference engine, a piston engine, or just a bronze smelting apparatus1, it's still a technology of some form. That's not to say you can't replace it with something else2 that makes unbalancing changes within society at large, but ideally we're talking the realm of machinery and physical applications of science here.

Tech Level Up!

Remember the analogy I used above when talking up the cyber- prefix? How our knowledge expands, and our application expands behind that? Social acceptance of technology expands just behind both of them.

So knowledge on the forefront is technology in its "infancy." Knowledge that is socially accepted is "matured." And the stuff between the application front and the acceptance front, that's—Just spitballing here—"adolescent?" It represents the stuff that we can technically do, but are not necessarily ready for as a people.

And that leading edge of the technology wave, where the "can" is answered but the "should" raises nothing but questions, that's where the drama comes from. That's where a lot of the morality play aspects of the [tech]-[style] genre plays out.

But this part of the equation was never truly in doubt, was it?

Some Peoples' Application of "Punk" Raises a Black Flag

In my opinion so not-humble I'm actually writing about it, this is the weak link. Technology will always have that deliciously uncomfortable gap between ability and acceptance. But the punk part? That's damned hard to get right!

Peoples' interpretation and application of the style will shift, slip, be pushed, pulled, and sometimes just plain subverted by other desires. It may start out as "properly" punk, but given time and a lack of pressure not to conform, it'll morph into something else.

Punk + Time = Establishment

Consider the all-too-common profile of the average Shadowrun or Cyberpunk player: They start the campaign with the clothes on their back, a few small arms, a little bit of freaky tech... A dozen scenarios and missions later and they're in charge of their own megacorp, command a small army, and have an array of gadgets that would make Q3 blush and say "Seriously, how am I supposed to top that?"

The problem here should be obvious: They might have started out Sticking it to the Man, but somewhere along the line they decided if you can't beat 'em then join 'em, and just became Different Men themselves. I don't think it's really possible to move up the ladder and still claim that you've got your feet on the ground. Whether it's selling out or buying in is irrelevant; when that much money changes hands, you've changed yourself in the process.

The "punk" part is supposed, in some sense, to represent someone on the outs with society, who is looking in from the outside and sees how stupidly they're all behaving. Usually someone lower in the social strata looking up at the apathetic-at-best, shameful-at-worst behavior of those above.

Like much of comedy, this works better as a genre if the players are punching upwards. Punching someone on the same level just doesn't have that same desperate urgency. It loses impact, so to speak. And punching downward? Bad enough on its own, but if you find yourself enjoying it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Many aren't, though, which is just another thing to be ashamed of.)

Retreads for those Punk Boots

So how do you keep the punkness in your -punk campaign?


The author is about as whitebread milquetoast as they come. Take any advice from him on what is or isn't "punk" with a grain of salt the size of a deer lick.

He is working a "common sense" "thought exercise" here, so technically he's trying. But still...

...punkiness? Punctuality?

The point is, however street-level "punk" the campaign may start out, whether due to greed or escalation, that "punk" will be pressured to change into something else. You'll want to control that with time.

1. Remember why it's "punk" in the first place.

One word: Cynicism. The establishment isn't trusted because the establishment can't be trusted. If an enterprising group of PCs attempt to gain some sort of legitimacy, or even a small measure of power, that establishment will act first either to destroy them (on the assumption that they're competition) or co-opt them (on the assumption that they'll play along as tools).

No matter what, the nail that sticks out gets attention. Either it'll be hammered down, or bent up and used as a hanger.

2. When you sell out, the cred is the first to go

Whether or not your PCs are cynics, everyone else at each social level will be, and for obvious reasons. If a group of PCs gets enterprising and starts making big financial gains for themselves, what will everyone around them think?

(Hint: See point 1B above, that they're working for the Man and therefore can't be trusted.)

However little power there may be at the bottom of the latter, it starts getting really lonely one or two steps up. Former contacts might not trust them, thinking that they might be sold out for more cred. Sources that they once used might go into hiding or act like total strangers to them. If they start rising fast enough, they might find themselves attacked by former associates who want to maintain a safe distance from the potential future enemy.

The establishment loves it when that happens. To them it's not a tragedy, it's an opportunity (and likely a damn funny one at that). They reaffirm that the PCs really are alone, won't get help from their former allies, and that Those in Control really do have their best interests at heart. The price for the help they offer, well, that can be discussed later. The PCs need help now.

Naturally, that help has strings attached. And if they accept that help, then so do they.

3. The Opposite of Selfishness is...?

I put it to you: [tech]-punk is, as a rule, supposed to be an altruistic genre.

I mean, consider: What's being revolted against isn't the control aspects of society. Those will exist no matter what. No, what's being revolted against here is the abusively greedy aspects of society, those parts that use the control structures of the society to amass power and wealth for its own sole interests, and then leave the common man to do without.

(Note: If this makes [tech]-punk sound "socialist," and you see that as a bad thing, then congratulations, you may already be part of the problem.)

The only reason Robin Hood isn't heralded as a [tech]-punk icon is that he doesn't work with any particularly fancy [tech]. He's on more or less the same footing as the people they fight, and on about the same level. Add in some externality which he and King John control but the rest of the people don't, and it starts to get [tech]y.

(Hmm. Does this mean Robin Hood is "punk?")

Hey, do you know who did this right?

And no, I'm not going to say Dungeons & Dragons. That would be silly.

I was thinking instead of Airship Pirates, which is based on the Victoriana system and has a lot of freak-out world-building tacked onto it. Airships, a literally walled-in establishment that exercises draconian control over its population and which can be trusted about as far as you could comfortably spit a racid (a 12' tall flightless bird with a razor-sharp beak) and literal outcast classes that have their own societies (but which all naturally hate the establishment, and the feeling's mutual). And an element of technology that nobody really has any good control of, and whether it's in the right hands or not remains to be seen.

Can't we just, you know, leave out the Punk?

Yeah, you could do that too.

No, really, that's all right. If you strip the "punk" out of the "steampunk," you're still left with a valid genre. A Victorian-era sitting-room science-fantasy setting could seriously rock (or the Victorian equivalent). You'd have to remember to strip out the cynicism, the nobility and church and high-muckety-muck capitalists wouldn't be out to get the PCs, and they could be ordinary clean-cut folk working on crazy-fantastic contraptions that make life easier (or inadvertently harder).

And that's totally cool.

Likewise, a "cyberpunk" setting without the "punk" would be much more light-hearted, the PCs could be respectable and working with mind-blowing freaky-tech to good effect, and the world could be a nice place. But not too nice; it needs some conflict to remain gameable. In fact I'm doing that for a certain game I run online. Not having the "punk" in the way means I can explore other parts of the world, and that has been a blast.

  1. "Bronzepunk." Just mull that over in your head a bit.
  2. "Magepunk." Mull that one over a little too.
  3. And no, I won't say whether I'm talking about James Bond's or Captain Picard's.

1 comment:

  1. I love the way you spell this out, that Robin Hood is "Arrowpunk."