Friday, January 16, 2015

Pulp Age: American Steampunk

Machinists preparing a rocket for Thomas Edison.
When most folks think of Steampunk, they think primarily of the work of European (particularly British) writers such as H.G. Wells, George Griffith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and others. And while I am a fan of many of the works of these esteemed gentlemen, I feel that the many American writers are too often short-changed in this regard.
Science Fiction in 19th and early 20th century was not enormously successful, and was often dominated by European writers, however there was plenty of homegrown talent that greatly influenced the genre.
In the Pulp Age setting (which has a number of Steampunk elements in it) America is front and center in the affairs of the world, churning out adventurers, industrialist inventors, and all manner of wild gadgetry. And so I will be incorporating the concepts of American writers of wild adventure stories and Edisonade elements.

Below is a list of some American authors whose work could be considered Steampunk in many regards, and excellent examples of early Science Fiction. The science involved ran the whole gamut of plausibility and implausibility, but were thoroughly American in caste.

Frank L. Baum
Everyone has heard of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but this knowledge rarely goes beyond the 1939 film. As fun as that classic was, it hardly represents the weird and wonderful world that was churned out of this mans mind. In the Oz Books, we find all manner of strange creatures, more than a few of whom are mechanical beings of one kind or another. Though not Steampunk per se, the strange devices found throughout Oz are excellent fodder for inventions. If nothing else, the Oz books would be something that Pulp Age Adventurers would be aware of and can supply some useful flavour text to an adventure of backstory.

Edward Bellamy 
Though known primarily for his much more famous after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur, Edward Bellamy also wrote a nifty Science Fiction novel cammed Looking Backward. The novel is primarily an overview of a Socialist Utopia that is naieve from modern views. Still the book handily predicts telephones, credit cards and modern warehouse club like BJ's, Costco, or Sam's Club. Though not Steampunk in the normal sense, Looking Backwards along with Charlotte Gilman's Herland (see below) present the "forward" thinking views of a great many people at the time.

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Though known primarily for his Tarzan novels (and the many sad movie attempts of this character), Edgar Rice Burroughs initially came on the scene with Under the Moons of Mars (1912) which inaugurated the Barsoom series (ala John Carter of Mars). These novels, along with the primordial strangeness of the Hollow Earth of Pelucidar and the Amtor (Venus) novels, make his work IDEAL for Steampunk adventures. The Land That Time Forgot is another gem worth digging up for lovers of wild implausible adventures, this one set in WWI. Not only are the works of Burroughs excellent for tidbits for GMs, but are damn fun to read. I recommend them highly!

Charlotte Gilman
The efforts of the early feminists in America are certainly noteworthy and should be required reading in all schools (but are NOT). Charlotte Gilman was a powerful voice during her lifetime (1860-1935) being a novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform.Though perhaps not Steampunk, she wrote a novel involving weird bio-science called Herland. Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination.

Edward Everett Hale
Edward Everett Hale was an American author, historian and Unitarian minister. Though primarily known as a Historian, he also wrote an excellent short story called The Brick Moon, published serially in The Atlantic Monthly starting in 1869. It describes the construction and launch into orbit of a sphere, 200 ft. in diameter, built of bricks. It is intended as a navigational aid, but is accidentally launched with people aboard. They survive, and so the story also provides the first known fictional description of a space station.

Will Harben (Land of the Changing Sun)
Considered a minor author today, Will Harben was one of the most popular novelists in America during the first two decades of the twentieth century.  In 1894 he wrote Land of the Changing Sun, his only science fiction novel. The story concerns a voyage to the center of the earth where they find a technologically advanced civilization. He incorporates number of interesting concepts such as super-foods in the form of a liquor and wireless power much like that proposed by Tesla. The book is a bit dense (being Victorian in language) but very interesting in concept.

Richard Adams Locke
Richard Adams Locke was a reporter who was working for The Sun when he wrote "The Great Moon Hoax" in 1835 under the false name of Sir John Herschel (a widely respected astronomer). The Great Moon Hoax was a series of articles about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon.
The articles described fantastic animals on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids ("Vespertilio-homo") who built temples. There were trees, oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."
Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. He became annoyed later when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.
Though not technically a Steampunk tale, the Moon Hoax articles are excellent fodder for adventure. In most Steampunk tales of the Moon there certainly is life.

Edward Page Mitchell (An American H.G. Wells)
Edward Page Mitchell (1852–1927) was an American editorial and short story writer for The Sun, a daily newspaper in New York City. Mitchell was a prolific writer of Steampunk/Science Fiction, and was more than a little ahead of European contemporaries. Mitchell wrote fiction about a man rendered invisible by scientific means ("The Crystal Man", published in 1881) before H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, wrote about a time-travel machine ("The Clock that Went Backward") before Wells's The Time Machine, wrote about faster-than-light travel ("The Tachypomp"; now perhaps his best-known work) in 1874, a thinking computer and a cyborg in 1879 ("The Ablest Man in the World"), and also wrote the earliest known stories about matter transmission or teleportation ("The Man without a Body", 1877) and a superior mutant ("Old Squids and Little Speller"). "Exchanging Their Souls" (1877) is one of the earliest fictional accounts of mind transfer.
A collection of his works can be found here.

Luis Senarens
Luis was an American dime novel writer specializing in science fiction, once called "the American Jules Verne". He grew up in a Cuban-American family in Brooklyn. Senarens wrote elaborate and entertaining "inventor" themed stories incorporating all manner of wild devices. Helicopter like flying "ironclads" are widely represented in his work, and predated all other such fictional devizes by a wide margin. If you would like to read up on his work the Reade Family and particularly Boilerplate are presently available in print. For a free view of his work the book Jack Wright and His Electric Stagecoach is a good place to start.

Garrett Putman Serviss
Garrett Putnam Serviss was an American astronomer, popularizer of astronomy, and early science fiction writer. His scientific papers are very interesting in their own right, and present some very interesting thoughts on the possibilities of life within our own solar system. However on the concept of Steampunk, it would be hard to do better than Edison's Conquest of Mars. In this novel, a force from Earth, composed of troops from around the world (and under the leadership of Thomas Edison) set out in Earth-made spaceships to attack Mars. This is in retaliation of the Martian assault in H.G. Wells War of The Worlds.
The Martians in this version are not like the squid-like Martians described in H.G. Wells's story. These Martians are more humanoid with arms, legs and an enormous head with projector-like eyes and bad looking faces. When they rise, they are 15 feet high (4.572 meters). However this is only the male, for the species exhibits sexual dimorphism. To Earthlings, they appear unpleasant. The Martian women, however, are (of course) graceful and beautiful.
The book contains some notable "firsts" in science fiction: alien abductions, spacesuits (called "air-tight suits"), aliens building the Pyramids, space battles, oxygen pills, asteroid mining and disintegrator rays. Steampunk Space Opera is a wonderful concept.

George Tucker
George Tucker was a United States attorney, author, educator and politician. His literary works include the first fiction of colonial life in Virginia and a second which is one of America's earliest science fictions, A Voyage to the Moon. In this novel we see the first known depiction of antigravity, as well as some novel views of utopian societies in the denizens of the Moon. The novel is more of a review of utopian concepts rather than speculations on science, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Pulp Age: Sarmak Martians

Sarmak (Martians)
Type: Aberration
Size: Medium
Intelligence: Genius (16-18)
Hit Dice: 4 (12-16 hp)
Movement: 10 (40 on Mars)
Armor Class: 16
Attacks: 4 slams (1d4) or Heat Ray (2d6 fire)
Saving Throws: F14, R14, W11
Special: Immune to bludgeoning weapons, resistance to cold
Psychic Powers: At will—Sensitivity to psychic impressions, mind link, suspend life.
Environment: Any
No. Appearing: Tripod crew (1d4)
XP Value: 400 (CL 5)

The Sarmak Martians are the Invaders that brought so much calamity to Earth in 1898-1901 (see here for details). These creatures live primarily in the Nodus Gordii region of Mars and are greatly feared by the other peoples of the Red Planet. The Sarmak Martians are similar in appearance to an octopus, with long ropy tentacles, bulging eyes and a v shaped mouth. Though on Earth they can only crawl along the ground, on lighter worlds such as Mars they can walk upright. The Sarmak Martians feed on the bodily fluids of other species (particularly humanoids), draining them much like a lamprey or leech.
Technologically advanced, the Sarmak made much use of their perverted science to eke out the meager resources of Mars and launch their failed invasion of Earth. Their susceptibility to the chemical weapons, initially used by the French, is well reported but the impact of these chemical weapons on the Red Planet has been less dramatic. Whether this is due to atmospheric peculiarities of the Martian atmosphere or the a new development in Sarmak technology has not been ascertained.
Sarmak Martians have rubbery bodies that are immune to bludgeoning attacks. They can stretch and alter their bodies as well, allowing them to get into places that should be too small for them to access. They have no language beyond a hooting sound, using their mind link power to communicate with one another. Selenite Workers (see here for details) are kept as slaves and as food.

Martian Tripod
Huge-X Construct (Tank)
HD 31 (109 hp)
AC 22
SPD 10 mph (140)
ATK 1 heat ray (10d6 fire) and black smoke* projector
MVR +1
CP 1/0
WT 20,000 lb
The Fighting Machine (also known as a Tripod) is a favored weapon of the Sarmak. It is a fast-moving, three-legged walker, reported to be 100 feet tall, with multiple whip-like tentacles used for grasping, and two lethal weapons: the Heat-Ray and a gun-like tube used for discharging canisters of a poisonous chemical Black Smoke that kills humans and animals. It is the primary machine the Martians use when they invaded Earth in 1898, along with the handling machine, the flying machine, and the embankment machine (to be detailed in future articles).
Their tentacles are used as probes and to grasp objects and humans; the fighting machines sometimes carry a large metal cage or basket, used to hold captives. Martian Fighting Machines also have spotlights that grant their pilots vision out to 500 feet in otherwise dark conditions.
*Black Smoke: When a Martian Tripod uses the Black Smoke Dispenser, foul and poisonous vapors boil from the thin air, forming a cloud 15 ft. in radius. The cloud moves directly forward at a speed of 6 ft. per minute unless its direction or speed is affected by winds. Unusually strong gusts of wind can dissipate and destroy it. Poison-laden, the horrid mist is heavier than air, and thus sinks down any pits or stairs in its path. Even touching the cloud (much less breathing it) requires a Fortitude saving throw to avoid immediate death.

This article is using the Grit and Vigor RPG playtest rules devised by John Stater (over at The Land of NOD). If you want to know more, stay tuned for further articles. And make sure to BUY a copy for yourself when the game is ready.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pulp Age: Grit and Vigor is GO!

Roald Amundsen Approves!
As I mentioned in some past posts (here and here), I have been developing a basic setting for the up and coming Grit & Vigor RPG by John Stater. Well, I have recieved my playtest version of the game, from which I and a few stalwart fellows (ie my gaming group), will be running it through the paces. The adventures of the characters and our thoughts on the game will be noted here on this blog.
So far, from what I have read the Grit and Vigor RPG is LOADED with potential. Pulp Adventure, Steampunk, Horror, War Stories, Wild West, Space Opera or any combination thereof are all possible. I look forward to seeing what our fevered brains come up with.

Pulp Age Overview 
This is a setting where the real world and a number of fictional events all happened, though not always in the manner presented in the printed accounts. As a general rule, many of the wild stories of Arthur Conan DoyleH.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling, George Griffith and Jules Verne are all more-or-less true. This means that several types of Alien are REAL, the Earth has been invaded, and wealthy persons and governments have access to higher technology than the rest of the world.
Otherwise, the world as we know it is chugging along, with the greater weirdness being generally ignored, not noticed or relegated to the wild stories of old soldiers and sailors. Not all that different from today really.

For the Playtest group, all of the characters will be members or employees of The Explorers Club of New York, an American-based international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research. Towards this end, this club sends explorers to all manner of wild expeditions. In a world where Martians really DID invade in 1898, this can mean very strange adventures indeed.

So stay tuned!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Aetherverse: A Steampunk Campaign Setting Blood & Treasure

The Aetherverse setting is to be a short series of blog posts dedicated to a space-going universe with a definite Steampunk feel to it. The setting is inspired by the Larklight Series by Philip Reeve, The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfield, as well as numerous Sword and Planet and Steampunk novels, short stories, comics and films. I will be borrowing heavily from Larklight, as it is a well thought out setting with a great deal of room for expansion. Note: This is a campaign setting designed to be used with the Blood and Treasure RPG by John Stater

It is the 19th century, Queen Victoria sits upon the throne of Britain. Yes, the history of this setting took something of a detour from our own when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the secret of space travel. Thanks to him, the British Empire has expanded across the solar system, borne on flapping wooden ships powered by mysterious alchemical reactions. Space itself is also a bit different, what with vestigial amounts of atmosphere suffusing the near-void, fish taxonomically dubbed Aetheric Icythyomorphs that swim through the emptiness, and native populations on Venus, Mars and many of the moons of Jupiter.

The Empire is every bit as dreadful in space as it was in our own world. Entire planets, some with eons-old civilizations on them, have been conquered by the British Empire. At present, the Empire has subjugated The Moon, Mars, Venus (though it is a wild frontier) and has more-or-less dominated the Jovian Moons through economic means. The cruelty instigated by White Mans Burden is expanded to include alien races. Player characters might consider this process as GOD intended, or they might be revolutionaries.
Needless to say that the British Empire is surrounded by enemies both on and off the planet. Even a nation as mighty and devious as Britain, cannot protect all of Her borders at the same time. Of course that is is where plucky adventurers come in!
Other Earth Nations: These are in the background, but still relevant. The American Revolution never happened due to the existence of British Airships. Other European powers exist, but are somewhat behind Britain in the building and manning of Aetherships. However various Empires have their own technologies and alchemy such as Tsarist Russia, The Chinese Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More on these in later articles.

The physics of Aetherverse setting operates in nearly the same manner as that found in the classic setting of Spelljammer and my Voidjammer setting with only minor changes. Basically it follows the basic rules imagined in Aristotelian physics, particularly that concerning the Luminiferous Aether. For the most part, Gravity is either nonexistent, light or normal (Earth-like). Without a gravity pump, ships and space monsters have no gravity. Aetherverse uses the "Heliocentric Sphere" option found in Crystal Sphere Layout article AND the option found in Another Cosmology for the Aetherverse setting.

Aether: This refers to both Wildspace and the Etheric Plane (see Another Cosmology).
British Standard Gravity (BSG): This refers to gravity similar to that on Earth, and to a lesser extent- Mars and Venus.
First Ones: A hostile race of giant spiders that dwell among the icy moons and rings of Saturn.
Georgium Sidus: Proper name for the Seventh Planet from the Sun. Vulgar people know it as Uranus.
Golden Roads, The: The Astral Plane (see Another Cosmology).
Goblin/Hobgoblin: Generic term for the denizens of the outer moons and asteroids near Jupiter.
Io: Major moon of Jupiter and home to the world-city of Farpoo and to the stocky, trustworthy Ionians.
Jupiter: Vast Gas Giant (Elemental Air) ruled by immensely powerful air elementals. Jupiter gives off enough light and heat to nurture life to its moons.
Jupiter System: The Moons and Planetoids that circle Jupiter, forming their own solar system.
Mars: Cold desert world and fourth planet from the Sun. Home to an ancient race of humanity or human-kin who are decidedly "Elfin" in appearance.
Mercury: First planet from the sun. A dry, desert world where many strange ruins can be found.
Venus: Second planet from the sun. A steamy jungle world dominated by dangerous plant creatures.

Character Creation, Ships and Creatures!

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light
-- Henry Vaughan