Monday, March 14, 2011

Creative Writing - Steampunk

I'm working on a project that I'm finding very fun. That project is a little different than things I've done, but not so different from things I've considered in the past. 2 of my favorite classes in college (and this was something of a surprise at the time) were writing classes - one was the dumb-ass class you have to take if you don't pass the Upper Division Writing Proficiency Exam, and the other was a Creative Writing class I took in my last semester for something to do alongside the single required class I had to take. My current project is a creative writing one.

What's that, Seth? ANOTHER project? Aren't you an engineer, a board game designer, a board game developer, helping your friend with a board game publishing business, and still playing frisbee a couple times a week (plus traveling to tournaments)? Well, this one is related - I'm writing a background story for an upcoming Tasty Minstrel release, and I'm having a really good time doing it!

It's not set in stone yet, but it's highly likely we've found a game to release for Essen/BGG.con 2012, and I wanted to apply a Steampunk theme to it. Steampunk, for those unfamiliar, is really not a theme so much as a setting - generally speaking it's like "retro sci-fi." Often alternative history, with today's advances powered by Victorian era technology. Like a steam powered rocket ship for example, or a clockwork robot. Based on the time frame, and because they are cool, you often see dirigibles, pilots with goggles, and mechanics with over-sized wrenches. Here are some pictures showing the typical Steampunk look:

(Taken from Google Image Search)

I like the idea of the genre in general, and I thought it would be a good fit/excuse to explain some of the mechanisms of this game. Like most Science Fiction, it gives a plausible excuse for anachronistic technology in a realistic setting. In the Fantasy genre just about anything can be justified via magic. While I have no problem with that, I kinda like how Sci Fi and Steampunk attempt to describe things in a way that could actually happen in our world.

In short, the game in question is about using your Airship to pick up goods from factories and drop them off at your depots, then using virtual trains to ship the goods along rail lines to cities that want them. This 2-stage delivery process, and how you orchestrate your Airship movement, is something I found fun and interesting, but thematically it didn't make a lot of sense. It's been fun writing a story that justifies the game action:

The game takes place at the beginning of the second industrial revolution in the US, about the same time frame as Railroad Tycoon - as rail barons were laying track across the eastern U.S. - only in the game world, the British won the war of 1812, so instead of the "United States of America," it's "British Colonial America," and the style of Victorian England spread throughout the country. Airships were used (like in real life), but they were not fast enough nor maneuverable enough to replace trains for the shipping industry. Our story begins with an inventor named Samuel Diamond, and his invention, the Diamond Engine. It's an engine which can increase the speed and mobility of an airship. Though it works, the design is imperfect, and if not handled carefully the engine can overheat, potentially causing catastrophic failure (like, the airship exploding), so laws quickly disallowed the use of the Diamond Engine in cities. The engines became somewhat widely used on the underground Airship Race circuit, but due to their sketchy nature they had not been used for commercial purposes until years later.

Which brings us back to the second industrial revolution and the Railroad Tycoon -esque track building. As a handful of rail barons laid rail across the country, cities sprang up along the tracks, and for them to thrive they were going to need industry to supply them. One baron was ambitious, and while the rest laid infrastructure, Lawrence Golding (I would like to find a better name for this guy) sought out an Airship outfitted with a Diamond Engine and began using it to deliver goods. Because he couldn't enter the cities with his airship, Golding built depots along the rail lines, dropped the goods off there, and used trains on the existing lines to deliver the goods. This turned out to work very well, and while his competitors tried to follow suit, Golding had already dominated the shipping industry. The Golding Empire was strong and prosperous, but eventually Lawrence grew old and died, leaving his company to his eldest son. Caring little for the family business, decided to make a quick buck by dissolving the company and selling it off part by part. This is where the players come in - each player is one of 12 characters (6 pairs) who is trying to make a name for themselves now that the Golding Empire has fallen.

I've also enjoyed writing back stories for the characters...
 * Golding's other son and his business partner, who didn't want to see the company crumble, so their trying to salvage it.
* A retired Airship racing champion and his mechanic, who have taken up this opportunity to put their Airship piloting skills to good use.
* A rival shipping magnate who has always been in Golding's shadow, and now wants to claim their "rightful" throne as the Kings of Air and Steam.
* A pair of Mafiosos. Even the Mafia couldn't touch Golding's empire, but now that it's fallen they want in on the lucrative shipping business.
[Edit: I think these guys might be too directly interactive for this game, so they will be a promotional item if anything. They are replaced by an inventor and his (her?) clockwork assistant ISAAC (Intelligent Steam-Automated Airship Captain)]
* A shady gambler and his partner, a con man, looking for a decent payday, and this opportunity promises to pay off.
* A brother and sister who's father was a rail baron, trying to augment their rail line business with an airship and a chunk of Golding's empire.

Some of these back-stories are better developed than others, and some are better than others to begin with, but I've enjoyed coming up with each one. The player boards will depict 1 of the characters on one side and their partner/teammate on the other. Each team will have a specific airship, and some have slightly different than average stats. Each team will also have a movement deck for their airship, which contains a standard set of cards plus a special card that is unique to their team. And finally, each character has a special ability which will give them some benefit in some aspect of the game. I think the variety of these abilities and differences from character to character will add a lot of fun and replay value to the game, as well as adding to the theme.

That's about it so far. If you know a legitimate Steampunk author who might like to help with this story, please let me know. Also, if you know a graphic novelist who might like to translate this story into a graphic novel, let me know that too - I'd be interested to see how much that would cost.

And finally, all of this story is nice, but I think this game will really shine if the artwork stands out. Does anybody know a great artist that works in the style of the pictures above (especially the second one, with the little robot guy), and who might be interested in illustrating a board game, please let me know that too!

Hope you enjoyed this different-than-usual blog post!


Rick Holzgrafe said...

One of the best steampunk writing-and-illustration teams in the world are Phil and Kaja Foglio. They are the creators of the amazing (and Hugo Award-winning) Girl Genius graphic novel. Phil and Kaja have also done illustrations for a number of board and card games. Go to BGG and search the Artist category for "Foglio" to see some of their work, and see to read Girl Genius itself (which I highly recommend).

tomg said...

I agree with Rick on the Foglios. Excellent art.
Steampunk is the new hotness. You are poised to ride the crest. This game sounds cool.

Anonymous said...

You may want to check out the artists who do the Gearsmith faction from the Spoils TCG. It's very similar to the style in your 2nd picture.