WW: How to WorldBuild for a SteamPunk Setting

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Tabletop games don’t always take place in a medieval setting. There are so many games out there that are slice-of-life based or even set in the future. One favorite setting that many players love to explore time and time again is Steampunk.

Briefly put, you can design a Steampunk universe by implementing its aesthetics, culture, and universe-friendly conflicts into your tabletop campaign, book, or video game. This particular worldbuilding blog post will focus on tabletop campaigns. Read on to find out more.

1. Understanding Steampunk Aesthetics

According to Historians.org, Steampunk is a “neo-Victorian” culture and universe with an emphasis on futurism. As its name might suggest, it involves a lot of steam-powered inventions and wild machines. Yet there are many niches within Steampunk and even sub-categories. Some Steampunk universes focus more on the introduction of electricity, Tesla-style, then steam-powered machines.

Whatever your particular interest may be, it’s crucial that you understand the right aesthetics to use in your campaign, book, or video game. For traditional Steampunk, this means a whole lot of brass and steam.

If you’re making terrain for your Steampunk world or dungeon, then you’re going to want to do away with medieval stones and moss. Instead, you’ll want copper and rust. It’s all about metal. That might make creating terrain seem difficult, but it’s really just about changing the kind of paints you’re using.

You can find plenty of metallic paints that can give your scenes the dose of life it needs. Cogs, gears, and any mechanical device that moves is also essential. It doesn’t even need to have a real purpose. Steampunk loves gratuitous bolts and gears.

2. Research Victorian Culture

To bring your Steampunk campaign to life, the characters with which your players interact need to seem like they come from that world. This is where understanding history can be a real benefit. Steampunk revisits the Victorian era of the world. The British Empire was shining gloriously. America was suffering from a civil war, and then reforming and rebuilding after the catastrophic losses it had endured. Several political and social changes were happening in India, Russia, and China as well.

Just on its own, the Victorian Era was a time of change. The Steampunk version imagines what that era would have been like if modernity and industrialization had occurred just a few decades earlier. It isn’t quite as glorious though you can certainly change that up in your own campaign if you so wish. Instead, there’s typically an emphasis on class divides. The poor are extremely poor and the rich are extremely rich.

Because Steampunk bases its foundation on the Victorian Era, you need to know how society was in that time. This includes common dress, the sort of organizations or activities that those individuals took part in, the manner of speech and vernacular that people used (across economic divides), and the kind of music that was the most popular.

Then put a Steampunk twist on it. It may help to first divide your city into regions. Within each district, you can start to map out how they wear, the kind of accents or syntax they use, and the kind of activities available to them. Once each district is made, you can then decide how each district interacts or perceives the other.

When your players travel from district to district, you can present them with a large spectrum of Steampunk lifestyles. Each area will feel both similar and different from one another and can refresh the storytelling.

3. Use Steampunk Tropes to Create Original Conflicts

There are a few common tropes that you can subvert to create engaging and fresh conflicts for your players. Some of them include:

  • New Technology is Evil
  • Retro Cyberpunk
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment
  • Floating Cities

Steampunk was originally created in response to the dystopian futures presented by Cyberpunk. Whereas Cyberpunk focuses on technology inherently being bad or used for evil intentions, Steampunk strove to show that technology could improve the world and the lives of those who lived in such a world.

Obviously, if you’re making a tabletop campaign, placing your characters in a happy and problem-free setting isn’t going to be all that much fun. Yet there’s so many different stories you can tell within a Steampunk universe.

Why not dig into the class divides that the steam-powered world is only separated further? You can always take some ideas from We Happy Few as well. The world presented in the game is ripe for inspiring ideas. Drugs that place characters in a state of malleable consciousness, a heavy police presence, and mysterious abounding of the world as a whole, this game provides you a great recipe or formula for a potential Steampunk campaign.

The Victorian Era wasn’t without its conflicts either. It was a time of conquest and imperial expansion. Perhaps your characters are part of a city of region that was just overtaken by an imperialistic country. Maybe they don’t enjoy some of the changes and advances that are happening, especially since it erases much of their existing culture. There’s nothing quite like poetic justice than using the very weapons that the invaders introduced to your people in the first place.

Start Researching Today

The culture and world that makes up Steampunk requires some research to ensure you’re pulling it off right. Like any great storyteller, you need to make sure that you understand the basics first. The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer is a great way to quickly dip your toes into the world. Full of inspirational pictures, it can be help you design dungeons and cities for your next exciting campaign. And if your players love to dress as their characters, then finding the right steampunk clothing is paramount.

Let us know in the comments how your Steampunk worldbuilding is going!

4 thoughts on “WW: How to WorldBuild for a SteamPunk Setting

    1. That sounds like an amazing campaign that could potentially be chock-full of lore! To answer your question, I could definitely see dwarves as the tinkerers of the world. They’ve abandoned stone and instead work with copper and steam to create intricate pieces of art and weapons. You may want to lean into the sub-genre of steampunk like Valvepunk or Teslapunk that incorporates pioneer electrical work. There’s also a sub-genre of steampunk called Gaslamp Fantasy that could be useful to look at. In regards to Gaslamp Fantasy, one of the most common examples is the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. But to offer other ideas for your fantasy-based characters, elves are often displayed in fantasy as either the downtrodden and hard-pressed into slavery folk, or the reclusive clans that live in the woods. A steampunk twist on them may be to make them the haughty nobles that rule your cities. Perhaps, due to their long lifespan, they’re rich with vices and political corruption. They may be the ones behind the imperialistic pushing of taking over other regions, cities, countries, etc. Yet those who do the fighting may be other races like half-orcs, humans, etc. Finally, on the topic of magic, it depends on how integrated you want it to be in the steampunk universe you’re creating. Perhaps the magic is steam or machine-based? Perhaps it involves the necessity of “recharging” their magical ability by taking some sort of serum or literally being charged by some sort of electric valve system. As for how magic fits into society, you could play in two main ways. The first is that magic is coveted. Perhaps it’s a rare thing and those who are capable of it are heralded as gods or powerful politicians. Nothing could go wrong with that, right? The flipside is that maybe magic is feared because it clashes against the scientific advancements being made in society. So, those who are capable of magic are persecuted. I hope these ideas steer you in some direction! Let me know if you need more help! Otherwise, I hope you let us know how your campaign goes! It sounds extremely interesting!

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