Designer's Notes: GURPS Screampunk

by Jo Ramsay

"More Swooning, and Less Regurgitation!"

From the outset, GURPS Screampunk was intended to be an unholy mixture of gothic horror and steampunk. Mixing genres has a lot in common with cooking; when it works, the results look spectacular and taste great! When it doesn't, you can add more spices and turn it into a curry ("What if we added characters from childrens' TV series?"), and if it fails spectacularly then there's always the option of calling out for a pizza (in gaming terms, this probably means playing Star Trek instead). To string the metaphor out, if the mix works, then the individual "taste" of each of the ingredients is detectable in the results, and they subtly enhance each other, creating a much more exotic dish than either alone.

I looked hard at the themes behind the component genres, cutting them back to basics and trying to work out which pieces were most compatible, or most incompatible. What is it that gives steampunk/gothic horror its distinctive "feel"? Do they share any assumptions? Are they set in the same world/country/time period? Do the themes coincide on any level?

In this case, they are both based on literatures from similar periods. The overlap isn't perfect, because the classic period for gothic novels was 1750-1820, whereas steampunk isn't really a genre (or even subgenre) but the Victorian idiom is rooted in the 1838-1910 period. Having said that, the cinematic GM is free to pick and mix elements from all over the 18th-19th century, turning them into one glorious melodramatic whole! There is precedent.

Gothic horror is a genre so well known and understood that almost everything about it has become a cliche. This might be a bad thing if the aim was to win prizes for originality, but for roleplaying it is a gift. A major communication barrier in setting up a successful game is in both players and GM sharing an understanding about the nature and assumptions behind the game world. Any GM who has ever tried to run a game in a particularly exotic or unusual backdrop with players who weren't interested in absorbing pages of game-history will be familiar with the problem. Traditionally, the solution is to introduce the players/PCs to the game world slowly, one small piece at a time.

A Victorian game is set in a world that is both like and unlike our own. But the classic plots, characters, and atmosphere of gothic horror are so familiar that players have a head start in understanding "in their bones" what the game is all about, without needing to do extra research (i.e. work). One of the objects of screampunk was to break down gothic horror into sets of common themes, locations, plots, and NPCs, to help GMs to put together scenarios that hit all the right cliches. But what about the steampunk? There's no real conflict between the genres in terms of atmosphere or theme, because steampunk stories can just as easily be dark and gloomy as they can be optimistic. Gothic steampunk is therefore a darkly painted vision . . .

Invariably, with such a tight word-limit, there were fragments of stillborn text-boxes that were excised before their time. The paragraph below, about the nefarious ways in which experimenters acquired human corpses, was prompted by the death fetish that infuses a lot of gothic work. Much of this stems from the "graveyard poets" who wrote morbid, lyrical verse about the futility of life towards the end of the 18th century.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

From renaissance times, dissection of cadavers became a regular feature of medical schools. Legal ways to acquire corpses involved paupers selling their physical remains to medical schools before they died, and the acquisition of the corpses of criminals who had either been sentenced to capital punishment or died in prison. There were never enough corpses to meet demand, and eager researchers traditionally paid various unsavory characters to visit cemeteries and abscond with the bodies of the recently deceased. In the late 18th century, public anatomy lectures became very popular, and the demand for bodies in good condition rose. Grave robbing was a profitable and widespread phenomenon -- to combat this, people added extra security features and traps to their tombs, as well as employing security guards in graveyards.

The laws of demand and supply meant that in the case of some poor people, they were literally worth more dead than alive, and criminals moved in to take advantage of them. The most notorious body snatchers of all were Burke and Hare, who became procurers for Edinburgh's medical school. They murdered people (carefully, to keep the bodies in good condition) and sold corpses to the local medical schools on a no questions asked basis. At least 16 people were killed before they were apprehended, in 1829.

The gothic fascination with death meant that grave robbing became firmly established in fiction of the time, either directly (as in Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body Snatchers"), or implied as a way for an inventor to acquire human parts (as in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein.")

Scientific Societies from the Victorian World

To give characters more real world grounding, scientific societies of the time were also discussed. The Royal Society and the SPR made it into the final cut. The two institutions below ended up in the great recycling bin in the sky because they are limited to professional engineers, whereas any interested members of the public could feasibly attend the ones that ended up in the book.

The Institute of Civil Engineers

Founded to raise standards of education among engineers, the ICE was (and is) a learned society that only allowed membership to professionals (as opposed to any interested member of the public). It quickly built up a library, and catered to members with technical meetings, journals, and regular transactions, as well as being involved in the development of standards. Practitioners gathered to discuss "best practice" and to investigate civil engineering projects that had failed in interesting and educational ways. Initially, the society was not a great success, but its fortunes improved when Thomas Telford, the Scottish engineer who built the Menai Bridge, and a man of many influential contacts, was able to secure a royal charter. By the end of the Victorian era, the Institution had become a wealthy organization, maintaining a plush headquarters in London that included conference rooms that could hold 600 people.

The International Telegraph Union

The first telegraph message was sent by Samuel Morse in 1844 between Baltimore and Washington -- less than ten years later, the technology was available to the general public. At this time, different countries used their own systems and telegraph codes, so the lines could not cross national boundaries without being decoded, transcribed, and formally handed over at frontiers. It became obvious that interconnection agreements between countries were required. On 17th May, 1865, the first International Telegraph Convention was signed by 20 participating European countries after long and arduous debates. It laid down rules for standardized equipment to guarantee interconnection, and standard tariff and accounting rules. An International Telegraph Union (ITU) was set up to allow amendments to the convention to be discussed and agreed upon. The ITU was an international forum, holding conferences across the globe where experts from many states could meet and discuss common issues. During the 20th century, it evolved into the most prominent telecommunication standards body in the world.

Character Types

As well as the classic hero and villain types, there are a host of minor figures, familiar through countless novels and films, who "belong" in gothic stories. After all, where would the genre be without the pale innocent heroine, the sinister servant, the debauched aristocrat, or the vengeful scientist? Others were added to better support the industrial and scientific side of steampunk. Originally I considered using templates to present the supporting cast, but this was quickly dropped for two reasons.

  1. They take up valuable space.
  2. GURPS Steampunk already includes templates for many of the common Victorian character types.

Instead, the NPC stereotypes had a much shorter format, with a brief description, suggested advantages and disadvantages, and a typical quote. This one was cut for space, and because we weren't entirely sure whether it was too English an idiom. In cases like this where there is already a relevant template in GURPS Steampunk, it has been referenced. But there should be enough information in the text for readers who don't own GS to fill in the blanks themselves.

The Corrupt Industrialist

He may be a multi-millionaire but the corrupt industrialist is morally bankrupt. He uses and abuses the men who work his factories, and cares for nothing except the bottom line, and his own excesses. He has no breeding, no gentility, and no understanding of noblesse oblige -- in short, despite his business success, he is no gentleman and will likely never be accepted by decent society.
Template: Captain of Industry (p. STM32)
Customization Notes: Disadvantages include Reputation (nouveau riche), Sadism, Enemy (business rivals) and Megalomania, and common quirks are "Speaks with a strong regional accent", and "no fashion sense." Skills include Intimidation and Accounting. Other than this, the Captain of Industry template fits very closely. As a gothic villain, he may also have Unnatural Feature, or a Disturbing Voice.
Most likely to say: "Where there's muck, there's brass!" (in a Yorkshire accent)

Plot Seeds

At the end of the day, someone has to bring the plot elements, locations, ideas, and characters together, and the hope with plot seeds is that they provide quick examples of how the elements of screampunk may be combined. Again, space was tight, and this seed was cut for space.

Plot Seed: The Dead Man's Hand

Hook: One or more characters receives telegrams from friends or business contacts in Scotland, with unusual footnotes appended to them. Telegrams may be from different people, but the footnotes are all in the same style, either purporting to be from someone known to be dead, or referring to events that happen after the note has been received. In each case, the sender knows nothing about the footnote. Messages in the newspapers indicate that at least one other person has received similar footnotes, and is looking for other people in the same situation.

Background: Thomas Blandell, a criminal mastermind, plots to intercept the main London-Newcastle telegraph line, so as to send false information to Scotland Yard. This will allow him to carry out a series of increasingly daring thefts, including that of official information that he will sell to the French! Unfortunately, skilled telegraph operators can easily recognize each other by their "fists," which makes it difficult to effect a substitution, or "tap" messages partway along the line.

One of the telegraph operators from a remote station was kidnapped and blackmailed into agreeing to substitute messages. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a drunk who had to be quickly dispatched before he revealed the plan to his drinking friends. Desperate not to lose track of his plan, Blandell arranged for a disreputable surgeon friend to transplant one of the man's hands onto Pine, a minion who believed he was getting "new fingerprints." The surgeon swore that this experimental procedure would result in the hands being "as good as if they were still attached to the original owner", and was well rewarded for his pains. The transplant took very well, and as hoped, the right hand's new possessor had inherited the previous owner's skill at telegraphy. And, of course, his "fist."

Pine was able to substitute himself for the dead operator, having excused his absence on a grandmother's funeral, and began to intercept messages. However, the hand is having a dreadful effect on his mental state. He suffers terrible nightmares, and hallucinations, as well as memory lapses in which he has become convinced that he goes on murderous rampages. In addition, the hand adds footnotes to telegrams of its own accord, some of which actually point obliquely to Blandell as his murderer.

The writer of the newspaper advert is a private detective whose client has shown him the odd footnotes. He is curious to investigate, but needs more information . . .

Article publication date: July 27, 2001

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