This months Blog Carnival, housed at Mad Brew Labs, is about Steampunk, something that I never really got into. I consider Steampunk more of a direction in visual arts then I do for RPGs. My table does not use figurines unless there is no other option, and to date, there have always been other options. At first I thought of opting out, but over my vacation I got to thinking how Steampunk-like devices are in my game. On the surface, there aren’t any. I hardly ever use steam-powered devices, but I do use strange apparatuses and bizarre devices. It is my opinion that the characters will have no idea how these things work, be it steam-powered, crank driven, battery operated, or what have you. Therefore it really doesn’t matter how I think that an object or device works.
The facts of the discussion is that there are devices and apparatuses which were created by the ancients that we have no idea how they worked or what function that they served. Most archeologists are hung up on this idea that our ancestors were superstitious hicks obsessed with gods, and if something turns up which could possibly say otherwise then it is covered up and hidden away, or discounted as a hoax.
Not all scientists are like this, and I really don’t want to get into my theories on the subject because I doubt that anybody cares, and this isn’t that kind of forum. I know in my games, we typically play in totally made up worlds which are, in many ways, less advanced then our own. I, however, do like to throw some mystery into my games, and one of the ways that I go about doing it is by throwing in a device which doesn’t belong.
There are some hard rules about devices, the most important one being that a PC can’t invent them. Just because the player knows the principals behind the engine, he isn’t allowed to effect the world like that, only the Dungeon Master can. However, DMs must be aware that if they put the wrong kind of technology out there, then the players can use it against you.
In my own version of World of Greyhawk, I am seriously considering placing a Gunpowder mine within the realm, just so that the Pirates can have cannon and some areas have access to simple arms. The price will be the regulator, the cost of gunpowder is astronomical and used only by royalty, and stolen by pirates, because lets face it, pirates forced to used great big crossbows are sad pirates L. And we don’t want any sad pirates roaming the seas, we want them to be big and mean and scary! With big loud cannons, and cutlasses and smoking pistols, and bombs shaped like bowling balls! They don’t really care about the cost, because they steal it! Heck, by this point they may even control it, forcing slaves to produce it for them. I am willing to live with the consequences of my actions, and I do know how to do it, which might make an interesting post later on down the road once I’ve finished fine-tuning it.
Technology is a bizarre thing! And that is what I consider Steampunk to be. Bizarre technology. Probably the finest example of Steampunk is “10,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, this story was written years before the invention of a Submarine. It’s impact upon Sci-Fi is lost to most people who don’t know this. This story was written back in the day when our Oceans and Seas were just as mysterious to us as Outerspace is today. Only in the last century have we been able to explore these watery depths, and the great thing is that the exploration is still only in its infancy.
I see nothing wrong with inventing fabulous devices to take the characters to places where they normally wouldn’t be able to go. An ancient submarine is the perfect example. A flying boat, castles in the clouds, all are wonderful ideas that if used sparingly, really bring a world to life!
As you know, there is a large movement whose goal it is to make goblins scary and relevant. And one of the best ways to do this, is to allow them to do what they truly capable of. What I’m talking about here is Goblin-Powered-Siege-Engines. Goblins possess devious and dangerous minds. Their traps and devices are both brilliant and deadly! Inventing new goblin powered devices isn’t as tough as what you think, all you need to know is what the thing does, and to make sure that it is just as dangerous to others as it is to the users. To a goblin, this is a fair trade-off. Inventing a large mobile cannon which sprays Greek Fire is a marvelous idea! Who cares if they blow up most of the time, just think of all of the damage that you can dish out with the thing!
Greek Fire Cannon: Causes 3d10 in damage, unless saving-throw vs. Breath Weapon is successful, however each additional round causes 1d10 in damage from heat. All combustibles must make save vs. fire or burst into flames. Attack is automatic, however an attack roll is still checked every round, if a 1 or a 20 is rolled, the device blows up instantly killing all of the operators. The Greek fire cannon requires 3 to 5 operators to make it function properly. 1 operator raises and lowers the cannon with a crank, 1 operator swivels the cannon left and right with a crank, one operator directs the aim and the flow of the greek fire, and two operators are required to move the device via a pedaling system, to hold the fire, the greek cannon can be operated by one goblin, but the jet of flame will slowly move off of the target in 1d4 rounds. Any attack done against the cannon is considered to strike the cannon itself unless the attacker makes a called shot at a specific point, such as a tube (-10 to attack) or to a goblin operator (-4 to attack) If the lead operator (the goblin directing the flow) is slain, there is a 50% chance of the goblin’s body to open the valves all the way open, which will cause the device to blow up in a spectacular explosion which may cause structural damage if in a stone hallway or cave system.
We also have some devices that have other uses, such as intelligence. Imagine finding an odd black spool tied to the collar of a dog which ran close to your camp one night. What if this device was placed into a strange wooden and copper box with strange runes that said EDISON? What if by placing the spool in the device, and turning a crank and placing a needle upon the spool that you could hear a disembodied voice issue from the horn on the side? What then? What does the voice say? Did you accidentally intercept a message intended for your King’s ears only? Who is to say, but this device could fuel ones imagination for a lot of games.
It isn’t always important to know how a device works, it could be magic . . . or at least seem like magic. What would a 10th level fighter think of a lightbulb? It would be up to us DMs to properly describe what the fighter is seeing. We wouldn’t just blurt out that the hall is lit by lightbulbs, but by some bizarre magic trapped in a delicate flask of clear glass, and tied together by strange ropes covered in cloth.
Science may or may not exist in your world. Wizards can do some pretty odd experiments, who is to say what kind of forces that they are actually tapping into, be it natural or occult. I think that when we define too much of this, then we are ruining much of the fun associated with odd devices.
Of course we also have to be careful not to get to carried away. I remember one of my players who wanted to invent a crank operated, wooden-stake pitching tommy-gun. Now that just sounds cool, but I wasn’t willing to allow this kind of thing into my world . . . not invented by a PC anyway. It just didn’t fit the genre that I wanted to play. Cool yes! But sensible? No.
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