Steampunk is a genre of literature, movies, and RPGs made popular by (among other things) William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine. It usually features the following:
- Brass and iron
- More gears
Some steampunk runs the more realistic gamut, looking at things which were being developed in the 19th century and expanding on them, like steam-powered road vehicles and Babbage's Analytical Engine. Others go for the blatantly fantastic with steam-powered mechs, guns that shoot lightning, and colonies on Mars; this mirrors the works of Jules Verne and the high-flying boys' adventure novels published before the turn of the 20th century.
The typical setting has many of the trappings of Victorian England, such as top hats, monocles, and parasols. It may also be reminiscent of the American Old West. Basically, anything between 1840 and 1900 is fair game.
Steampunk works often depict things like a society with a thin facade of civility overlying the worship of science, which in turn is just a cover for the cold, ugly, and messy reality; or an aristocracy supported by technology maintained and operated by the poor. Sometimes Steampunk works are post-apocalyptic, incorporating period parody tropes used in settings like Fallout but tuned to Victorian society and ideology, or edging into Industrial Gothic ideals of inevitable ecological disaster brought about by the Industrial Revolution or the horrors of industrial warfare.
Steampunk is closely related to Clockpunk, as both make heavy uses of gears, levers and other such gubbinz and the two come from fairly closely linked time-periods. The difference is that Clockpunk rarely has anything explaining where the power for the clockwork comes from, whilst Steampunk makes use of, obviously, steam-powered engines, meaning there's a furnace somewhere burning something to boil water (or blood, or devil's ichor, or god's tears, or whatever) to create steam and generative motive force.
A closely related genre, only named in the 2000s with the Girl Genius webcomic, is Gaslamp Fantasy. Like Steampunk, this takes blatantly Victoriana-themed settings and throws something odd into the mix to make it different - with Steampunk, it's technology that we simply couldn't develop in real life due to pesky physics, whilst with Gaslamp Fantasy, it's magic. When Jack the Ripper is a doppelganger, when Queen Victoria is an undying lich-queen, when gunslingers duke it out with werewolves, then it's Gaslamp Fantasy. Of course, as magitek shows us, the two can and do often cross over.
Dieselpunk, in comparison, uses WW1 to WW2 tier technology as its basis - diesel generators, vaccum-tube computers, and the like. Atompunk bases itself off of 1950s America's view of atomic energy and its limitless potential to solve the world's woes; the Jetsons, or Walt Disney's original vision of EPCOT are the archetypal model of an Atompunk world.
In the Beginning there was Mary Shelly with Frankenstein. Then there was Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and a few others in a time of Scientific Romance in which they put pen to paper and wrote of the wonders and horrors that science and industry might achieve. They imagined the dead reanimated by electricity, submarines navigating the oceans, cannons sending men to the moon, a world eight hundreds of thousands of years hence and intelligent beings from another world coming to the earth and told the world of them. Since these were writing and illustration was expensive, the fine details of aesthetic and functional mechanical design was not a high priority in their work. A few illustrators and really old timey movies were thrown in with various additions and occasionally you'd have a few things like Postcards. Never the less, a few of them stayed in print continuously.
Then came the Pulp Era starting in the 1920s. Beforehand, you had a few writers making a few books here and there. Afterward you have a lot of regular sci-fi writers with an expanded audience as well as artists giving form to words, usually in an Art Deco style (itself a futurist artistic movement). Thus the first wave of Sci-Fi art was born. Sci-Fi movies would follow in the footsteps of the pulps as much as they could, given the shoestring budget they operated on. Gradually the Art Deco influence would give way to Modernism as the design of choice after WWII and going into the fifties and sixties in various permutations. Compare pulp magazine Spaceships from the 1940s with the original Starship Enterprise, then compare the Starship Enterprise with the Millenium Falcon. In short, what people saw as the aesthetics of the future evolved.
Then came two movies based on Old Victorian sci-fi Novels Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and MGM's The Time Machine (1960). Where others would update the basic story to modern times these film kept the period piece settings along with mechanisms which were designed with Victorian sensibilities, which helped them stand among the crowd of sci-fi movies which were being churned out at the time. From there the basic idea would be used here and there by a variety of guys from the 1960s to 90s.
The name comes from an Alternate History book written by William Gibson (creator of Cyberpunk literature) about a world in which the Analytical Engine (a proposed programmable mechanical computer designed by Charlse Babbage in the 19th century) was built, leading to a computer Revolution in Victorian Era.
Like many things, Steampunk can be awesome if executed with care, attention to detail and the the nature of the technology and time frame that it is drawing upon. Alas, much of modern Steampunk work gets a lot of well-deserved hate for being only skin-deep, as lamented in the semi-viral music video, "Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk)". Some fa/tg/uys have declared that we should dub this debris of the steampunk genre "cog fop" and move on to Dieselpunk, though there are risks of the process happening again to dieselpunk as well should it go mainstream.
This likely happened as Steampunk was formed from the top down, rather than the bottom up. Science Fiction (in general terms) started in the 19th century, as people began to see how science and technology were beginning to reshape the world and asked themselves "what would happen if someone found a way of using electricity to rebuild and reanimate the dead" or "what if someone invented a ship that could sail around the world underwater" or "what if we could fly to the moon", with their various spins based around their experiences and beliefs. Modern Fantasy has its origin with people who studied folklore and history and used it to make their own mythologies and histories. Either way, both these ideas started with broad general concepts onto which various ideas were built. The aesthetic trappings generally associated with both (Laser pistols, spaceships, flying cars, robot buddies, cyborgs/dragons, dwarves, ancient named swords, recreations of the English Countryside/Feudal Japan/whatever) emerged naturally as people told those sorts of tales.
Steampunk, in contrast, emerged from a combination of some of that older sci-fi, but in particular the aesthetics thereof. Some people were interested in making use of Victorian/Wild West settings, but far more were interested in the surface details of old fashioned brass machinery with overtly mechanical gears and all that, as well as fashion which looks like someone ran through the costume department for a theater company that does a lot of Jane Austin and then fell into a pile of old clock parts.
This sort of stuff is important, especially in visual fiction, but as a general rule it's supposed to be there to build upon a central theme or otherwise contribute to the story. Star Trek would still be Star Trek if the Enterprise was an art-deco rocketship with everyone dressed as Chicago gangsters (nevermind that Star Trek actually did a Chicago gangsters episode and a Flash Gordon episode) but the scripts, actors and direction was all the same (though it might be a bit wonky due to clashing themes), but it would not be Star Trek if you got all the aesthetic details down as they were in the show but it's episodes were about a bunch of imperialistic assholes who shoot innocent aliens for the Emperor (and they did that too a few times). So much of steampunk ends up being just generic adventures in a setting with some psuedo-Victorian backdrops. There is nothing wrong with that, but it's running entirely on novelty and novelty (for most people at least) has a limited shelf life.
Steampunk and /tg/
Some RPG settings that may be considered steampunk include the following:
- Eberron (although it describes itself as "Dungeonpunk" and is based on industrialized magic rather than steam)
- Sorcery & Steam
- Inland Empire
- Airship Pirates
- Iron Kingdoms
- Some elements of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game setting, notably the Mana Wastes
- Many units and vehicles in the Adeptus Mechanicus have a steampunk vibe, which is odd considering they used more advanced tech than the broader Imperium
At least three steampunk-inspired tabletop skirmish games exist:
Gaslamp Fantasy and /tg/
Because Steampunk's not the only game in town for mystical Victorian-ish settings.
- Masque of the Red Death is the Gaslamp Fantasy setting for Dungeons & Dragons, being set in the late 1800s of our world but with real magic and monsters hiding behind the shadows of everything.
- The domain of Paridon in Ravenloft is pure Gaslamp Fantasy, being a mock-up of Victorian London with standard D&D races (plus Calibans) but secretly controlled by doppelgangers, complete with a Jack the Ripper expy who shows up every seven years to murder people in order to fuel a blood magic ritual for the lord of the doppelgangers.
- Deadlands is a Gaslamp Fantasy/Steampunk hybrid, being set in the Wild West in a world where poker players are warlocks, mad scientists build hyper-tech fueled by burning the crystalized souls of the damned, and things go bump in the night until a band of desperadoes with itchy trigger fingers decide to bump back.
- Castle Falkenstein
- Call of Cthulhu has the "Cthulhu by Gaslight" expansion, which lets you add the Cthulhu Mythos to the Victorian Era.
- The Sons of Ether from Mage: The Ascension have this as their entire theme, since although it can overlap visually with Steampunk, their "magitek" is really nothing but pure magic wearing a skin of pseudo-Victorian technology.
- Unhallowed Metropolis
- Rippers, a game about playing monster hunters in the Victorian Era.
- The plane of Ravnica in Magic: The Gathering has some Gaslamp Fantasy regions. Kaladesh twists the aesthetic toward "India-without-colonial-Britain," with some interesting results.
- Broken Gears is a post-apocalyptic setting in a world that was roughly "steampunk with animistic magitek", after a devil-possessed Difference Engine caused a world-shattering war.
- Victoriana RPG is all about this, although with aspects of Steampunk as well.