Sorcery and Steam



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Sorcery and Steam (.pdf)

Author: Various
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Publish Date: 08/2003
ISBN: 1-58994-115-2
Pages: 178
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $24.95
($4.99 .pdf)

 

This 178-page supplement from Fantasy Flight Games is the work of writers Mark Chance, Gareth Hanrahan, Lizard, Brian Patterson, and Ross Watson, edited by Greg Benage. A 2003 publication, it is subtitled "A Resource for Steampunk Fantasy Adventure" and appears, visually speaking, as if it has been scanned into .pdf format from a paper product, judging by the segment of the lower half of the front cover that has been "snipped" off at the bottom of the on-screen page, and belongs to FFG's Legends and Lairs line. A quick browse of its catalogue entry at www.drivethrurpg.com shows that this impression is absolutely correct. It should also be noted that this e-book was published before the release of the 3.5 System Reference Document, and that it is therefore a 3.0 product.

Because of the initially questionable aesthetics of the product, it was with some trepidation that I continued on to read and consider the contents of the volume. Since I have already discussed the aesthetics of the book, I'll finish that discussion before I go on to write about the gaming content itself. Sorcery and Steam is a black and white product, and this includes its interior illustrations, which are greyscale images with a gritty or hazy feel to them which I think is nicely evocative of the ambiance of a Dickens novel. So they do a good job of reinforcing the "steampunk" flavor of this sourcebook. My favorite illustration is the one associated with the Brawler prestige class in Chapter Two; it reminds me of The Quiet Man, a film that featured John Wayne as a retired American boxer in rural Ireland of the early 20th century.

Having disposed of the matter of the product's appearance, we can now move on to a detailed review of the contents. The book consists of five chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of running a D&D game with an Industrial Age or "steampunk" flavor. The first chapter, in fact, is devoted entirely to a detailed discussion of what steampunk is, where the term came from, and what might be the consequences of including steampunk elements in a D&D campaign. There is only minimal "crunchy" material in this chapter, but it is nevertheless my favorite part of the book because it urges the reader to consider the premises on which he or she will be running or participating in "steampunk." On the one hand, as the chapter points out, steampunk can equate to a fantasy setting with the addition of Victorian mores, technology, and social class as motifs for the campaign. On the other hand, it can also encompass a more Wild West or pulp action feel, in the same vein as the motion pictures League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Wild Wild West.

Similarly, steampunk can include wryly humorous but depressing social commentary like a Dickens novel, filled with criminals, beggars, and the working poor, or it can be boisterous high adventure, or anywhere in between. The chapter acknowledges these possibilities, and then proceeds into a discussion of the real difficulties associated with steampunk -unlike more traditional sub-genres of fantasy, it invites the players not to suspend disbelief with regard to details about daily life. Whereas the activities of peasants in traditional sword and sorcery gaming are of minimal importance to most players, in a game setting in which mass production can account for floods of black-market weapons the players are actively encouraged to question the effects of the possible intersection between magic and technology. The reason why I like the chapter is that it leaves it up to the individual reader to determine which flavor is desired, and merely provides a discussion of the likely consequences of an attempt to include such elements in a campaign—It encourages the DM or player to ask important questions about these concerns before they crop up as actual problems.

Chapter Two focuses on character classes, whether they are core classes from the classic D&D game as presented in the 3.0 SRD, or the new core classes presented in the book, or prestige classes. The discussion of core classes is really quite interesting, given that the book offers suggestions for interesting variants like an urban druid who receives modified class abilities to reflect their association with "the urban jungle." Even where there is no variant offered, there is a largely useful discussion of how a given class is likely to fit into a steampunk setting with growing industry, urban centers, and the social structures that rise from these innovations. The barbarian, for example, is subject to difficulties in a steampunk campaign because they represent a distinctly "uncivilized" approach to life, and may even live in tribal societies which fall prey to unprincipled members of industrial cultures. A goodly number of the core classes also receive additions to their class skill lists in order to bring them into line with a selection of mechanics delineated later in the book.

The section detailing new core classes is, in my opinion, distinctly less interesting and useful. Three core classes are presented in all; they the Animal Lord, the Artificer, and the Musketeer. Of the three, I am least impressed with the Animal Lord, which is a sort of totemic/nature character and fills a niche, which I think is better and more interestingly filled by the barbarian and/or the druid. I can only speculate that this class was meant to recall the old Tarzan pulp novels. The remaining two core classes are fine, though I also harbor doubts as to their necessity and flavor. The Artificer focuses on producing steam technology via the Craft skill, and gains rogue-like abilities to sabotage mechanical traps and the like. On the whole, I think a rogue can do the Artificer's job, and do it better and with greater versatility. The Musketeer is, predictably enough, a class focused on the use of gunpowder weapons. It has a few interesting class features, but on the whole I think that a fighter or ranger can easily do the same job. It would have made a good prestige class.

Finally, we come to the prestige classes. There are about a dozen of these, and my favorite is definitely the Gun Glyph, a nice option for wizards or fighter/wizards who like firearms. The keynote ability for the class is a reduction to arcane spell failure chances, coupled with the power to charge a specially-constructed firearm with the energy of a spell, ultimately of up to fourth level, which then affects a target struck by the bullet fired from the weapon. Along with each of the prestige classes in the section, there is a detailed description of an organization which includes a high proportion of members of the prestige class. This struck me as a nice touch, and could be useful as a source for adventure hooks and homebrewed organizations. Not all of the prestige classes fired my imagination; the Physician in particular seemed unsuited as a class for a PC, since it is lacking in combat skills and relegated to the role of a non-magical healer. Members of this class might be more interesting and useful in a low-magic campaign.

"Chapter Three: Skills, Feats, and Spells" introduces new uses for several existing skills, including creation DCs for two new kinds of alchemical item via the Alchemy skill, and other interesting new mechanics, like the use of the Appraise skill to determine an individual's social rank by his or her clothing. The chapter also offers a handful of new skills -- Drive (for steering mechanical vehicles), Munitions (for dealing with explosives and the like), and Use Steamcraft Device (for using mechanical items that don't fall under the Drive skill). Following new skills, the chapter puts forth new feats. Most of them are interesting, at the least. There is a chain of parry/riposte feats for duelists, which I don't care for because they bog down the conduct of the game, and I don't think that they improve the game sufficiently to be worth the extra dice rolls they call for.

On the other hand, there are some very nice feats here, too. My favorite is the Brew Injection feat, which functions similarly to the core books' Brew Potion feat. The nifty thing is that an injection is delivered via a hypodermic syringe, and can be administered to a hostile creature. It can also be used on an unconscious ally as a standard action instead of a full-round action. There is also a new feat descriptor - [Heritage]. Heritage feats are basically feat chains which must be started at 1st level, and build on each other to offer a series of unusually high skill bonuses to a selection of important skills. Most of these chains also grant some sort of special ability, as well, if they are pursued to their capstone feat. For example, the Industrial Upbringing chain starts with bonuses to Appraise and Craft skill checks. It proceeds up to the Industrial Master feat, which cuts crafting times in half for the Craft skill. The balance of the Heritage feat chains is haphazard. I probably would not use them in my own games.

Finally, there's s lengthy spells section to end the chapter. It's not very good; most of the spells are decidedly on the weak side, and a lot of them are mechanically awkward. A handful of them are basically revisions of core spells, like wall of lightning instead of wall of fire. This spell would actually be very nice, if it were sor/wiz 4 instead of sor/wiz 5. I am not sure why the authors of this section decided to give it a level hike, either -they offer a level 1 spell that is basically the same as magic missile, except that it deals 1d6+1 electrical damage and does not scale up with level. I was distinctly disappointed in the section as a whole. Not much of what you'll find here is likely to be worth using without some intervention by the DM.

"Chapter Four: Steamcraft and Black Powder" is notably more useful for someone who's interested in steampunk gaming. There is a plethora of new items here, divided into classifications like, "Scholars' Tools" and “Rogues' Tools." My favorite scholar's tool is the arcane flux detector, which basically acts like a Geiger counter for the detection of magical auras, and which also proves very helpful to rogues who're searching for magical traps and the like. It’s very nice. Also worth mention is the super-cool "steam portal." Essentially this is a very heavy solid iron gate, raised and lowered by a powerful steam engine that can only be activated by pressing a complicated series of buttons, or flipping an array of switches. It offers the solidity of a heavy fortress gate with the subtlety of the best dwarf-made locksmithing. Again, it’s very nice.

The purely mechanical devices of the chapter are followed by a decent selection of explosive devices -grenades, bombs, and the like. My biggest complaint is that none of these items offers a Reflex save to avoid or reduce their effects -if you're hit with one or end up in its splash radius, you simply take damage. This needs to be addressed if you use this gear. I suggest simply applying the save DCs associated with alchemist's fire, tanglefoot bags, and acid flasks.

The next section is very interesting indeed -it offers "steamcraft" armor. This is essentially the next step up from full plate. It's so heavy that a steam engine is incorporated into its structure to help make it possible to move in the stuff. For an additional price, this armor can then be fitted with assorted gizmos and gadgets -my favorite is the “firesprayer,” which is a very large flamethrower fed by an on-board fuel tank that holds enough juice for five blasts of alchemist's fire in a 30ft. cone. Owing to the delivery method, the fire deals more initial damage to affected creatures, which then run the risk of catching fire. If the fuel tank is ruptured, the entire contents ignite, however, and the wearer of the armor is likely to be roasted alive. I thought it was very cool.

There's also a rule set for handling malfunctions in clockwork, firearms, and steam technology. It's very complicated, though, and I think I would prefer to strip it down to something simpler -the malfunction system detailed in this source relies on d100 tables, and is therefore extensive and clunky, requiring consultation of a chart whenever a malfunction occurs.

The chapter closes out with a lengthy section on firearms. There are plenty of rules here, covering everything from reload times on muskets, to artillery, to bayonets. I'll pass over that in silence except to say that it's there, and that I might even use some of it. The coolest thing in the chapter is a nifty alchemical/magical fusion called alchemical gunpowder. It's expensive stuff, starting at 3 gp/musket or pistol shot, and working up to 80 gp per shot for powder that allows a bullet to pierce through a 3.0 outsider's damage reduction, up to DR/+5. Other effects include powder that fires even underwater or when damp, powder that adds fire or electrical damage, and powder that strikes incorporeal undead as if with a ghost touch property.

Finally, there's the fifth chapter, which deals with steam-powered vehicles and the application of the Drive skill. The rules for this are complicated, but I have yet to see a rule set for piloting or steering vehicles which was not. So it's serviceable, and I'd probably use it once I've had a chance to really pick it apart and see how it works in detail. It does require lots of dice rolls, though. I can tell that just from reading through it. There is also a listing of different sorts of vehicle, which is a fine thing if you want to drop vehicles into your game. If you're looking for rules on creating new vehicles, or modifying the examples provided, though, you're out of luck. I was disappointed about that.

Finally, I'll give my comments on the book as a whole. It ran for 24 dollars through DriveThruRPG when I bought it. To be very blunt, it was grossly overpriced, and not worth what I paid for it. It now sells for $4.99 in US funds, but on the whole I think that I wouldn't buy it, if I had it to do over. There are no bookmarks in this .pdf; there's an index, but you have to scroll all the way down to it, find what you want, and then scroll back up. It's really annoying, and there's no reasonable excuse for a professional publication in .pdf format to be without bookmarks. I'd rather pay 40 dollars for a print publication by Wizards of the Coast, even with their remarkably shoddy editing and playtesting on Player's Guide to Faerûn and Complete Divine, or pay 7 dollars a pop for Malhavoc Press's more recent publications.

There's some usable mechanical content, and there's a lot of commentary on the how of running a steampunk campaign, from a DM's perspective. But the majority of the mechanical stuff is confusing, badly edited, or haphazardly balanced, and it makes up the majority of the book. Someone might be able to use it, but I'm not interested in rewriting half the book. I'd rather buy something that I can use almost straight out of the box. Overall, the book it worth having because of the ideas in it, but the publication values are so lackluster that I think poorly of those who published it -it’s not of professional quality.