Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

Steampunk setting?

Started by Elysium, January 02, 2007, 08:34:11 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


A friend of mine was looking to get into a steampunk game, and I got to thinking about using Sorcerer to do it. Gadgets, vehicles and steam and gear robots would replace demons in this. Humanity would be how human vs. how robotic and cold a person is... somewhat like empathy with a specific flavor to it.

The only thing that I can't see working is the demon Need and Desires, in this context. I'd be loath to drop them, but I can't think of how to work it into such a setting. I know some of the supplements deal with non-demon type of demons, but I don't have them to take a look at how it's done, and none of them out there seem to fit for steampunk anyway.

Anyone have advice on how to handle that part of the game in such a setting, using Sorcerer? Or is it something that couldn't handle this well, and I should be looking at other systems?



Ron Edwards


That's funny. I see Desires and Needs operating exactly as usual for this setting. I don't see the stumbling block you seem to have encountered.

Why don't you describe a potential demon in terms of type, scores, and abilities, and I'll lay out some Desire/Need concepts for you?

Best, Ron


Hi Ron,

The stumbling block I'm having is that I'm having trouble conceptualizing these clockwork and steam powered 'demons' as anything more than objects who have the Need of keeping clear of sand and grit and being well oiled.

Examples would range from the simple brass clockwork goggles to let the wearer see in the dark, or a steamwork zepplin, plane or helicopter (Perception and Transport, respectively), to the higher powered difference engine (about the only thing in the steampunk genre that I could see having Hint).

Here's stats for the first of these:
Clockwork Goggles: Object demon. Perception (Dark sight), Perception (Smoke and haze),
Perception (Extreme Magnification).  Lore 3, Stamina 3, Will 4, Power 4.




David, would it help to think of these, not as material objects, but as 'narrative objects'?  Something that, once it falls into a character's possession, fills him or her with strange, uncharacteristic thoughts?  I'm thinking maybe of the  One Ring from Tolkien, or the Giant Soldier in Nausicaa--just having these things around makes people act funny.  Need and Desire, then, wouldn't be literal, but rather expressions of the demon's effect on the story... 

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

The problem with dialogues of this sort is that merely stating my outlook as "do this, do that" will not actually translate into functional and fun play for you. Maybe it will help to re-state what Needs and Desires actually are, and in particular, how they relate to Object demons. I'm suspecting that the latter issue is the real one, whether we're talking about swords, computers, or clanking steam-things. So I'll start there.

First point

In a setting of this kind, just because something is a common trope or gadget found in the setting doesn't mean it has to be a demon. I like to use the example in apocalyptic fantasy of the ever-present face-mask air-filter thing. You know, the one that the hero is wearing in the first scene and then takes off to reveal his or her face.

For something to be a demon, it should have elements of personality ... even if it's purely in thematic terms rather than literal in-setting terms. One of my favorite Sorcerer demon concepts is a coin. It doesn't literally think, say stuff, or even have a mind in terms of the setting itself, but in thematic, story terms, it "runs away," "says things," "shows up," and otherwise takes action. Have you ever felt that a particular object jumped away from you or fell (went) somewhere especially inconvenient? Do you have any objects which you simply like to have with you, not for practical but for emotional reasons?

Most Object demons fall somewhere in between this wholly-thematic concept and the fully personality-driven "talking sword." (This is what James is talking about.)  If the goggles you describe can be conceived in this fashion, such that the character may be said to have a relationship with them, then they can be a demon by the rules. The thing that Object demons do not represent, however, is merely a device that does useful stuff. If the goggles you describe are merely an object or device, then they aren't a demon, no matter how nifty their functions are. They can and should be in the game and in the setting and provide some mechanical benefit, without using the demon rules.

I will proceed as if those goggles are a relationship and do "act" on their own, in any way that legitimately falls along the spectrum of the Object demon concept. (If you have not, yourself, thought of them in that fashion, then the rest of this post should be disregarded, so we can stay with this point alone.) So we should think of them as very special goggles, not to be replaced, with a particular "personality" through their "actions" (in any given scene, are they trying to be found? trying to stay lost? refusing to operate properly? caring about what action their wearer is trying to do?)

Second point

Demons are about opportunity and conflict. That's what they do in Sorcerer play. Looking at your goggles, what opportunity and conflict do I see? Nothing, really. You could say, "Oh, this is fine work, so you need magnification," and then the player could say "I use my goggles!", but that is a circle, adding up only to Color, not a conflict and not of any thematic weight.

In other words, if we are to treat those goggles as a demon, then their use as goggles during ordinary steampunk tinkering really isn't very important. In fact, I'd put all their perception abilities into the same category: "steampunk tinkering," with the stated assumption that smoke, magnification, and so on are all involved. Why? Because the conflicts of the game probably aren't going to parse into separate issues of magnification, seeing through smoke, and other sundry details of the tinkering. We'll just say the goggles are very good at all of that using just one perception ability.

What else, then? It's time to think of abilities that actually mean something to make these goggles the precious relationship for the sorcerer that they are. After all, why use demon goggles when you can use normal ones that cause no trouble? Without answering this, and without coming up with meaningful abilities for purposes of that specific relationship (i.e. the character concept), then again, there's no demon to be discussed and no point in treating them as anything but plain old goggles.

Third point

A demon's Need is something inconvenient, or potentially inconvenient, that the sorcerer must regularly provide. Note as well that it comes into play during actual conflicts, in the sense that the demon suddenly really needs it and expresses that need. The coin simply needs to be taken out and flipped, or its abilities won't work. The computer needs you to pound out 52 chat-room posts. It is not merely maintenance like filling a gas tank. It's an addiction and it becomes stronger and immediate when the demon does stuff, puts itself (or is put) at risk, or is utilized in some way it doesn't like much.

Keeping machinery clear of sand and grit sounds to me like maintenance. It applies to any clanking device, not to a specific demon. Or to put it a different way, if the demon is to have the Need of being cleaned, you can expect that its requirements along these lines are far more frequent and far more relevant to the sorcerer's immediate conflict-situations than they would be for any plain old machine.

See what I mean? A Need is not only a requirement, it's a behavior on the part of the demon - what it Needs, right now, you owe me, you promised, and after all I've done for you. It's a guarantee that this particular item or action (the Need) will show up as an obligation.

So the sand/grit thing can work as a Need, but only in that context of the demon as a personality and a relationship (yes, even if in-setting it's only a dumb device with no literal personality or emotions) - only if it operates in the terms I'm describing here.

Fourth point

Desires are not like Needs at all. The sorcerer has no obligation to fulfil them, they are general rather than specific, and they are never satisfied. A demon whose Desire is mayhem simply likes to be around it, likes to instigate it, likes to do it, and (if the demon can communicate verbally) likes to talk about it. Without it, the demon gets bored (as opposed to strung-out).

It seems to me that although Desires are less mechanically immediate than Needs, that you would do well to consider whether the machines in this whole setting, as you see it in play, can be considered in terms of Desires. If not, then the machines are pure setting, like the trees and vines in a jungle setting, and not demons at all - you'd have to find other stuff to be demons.

Whew! That was a lot of stuff. I really think that we should go point by point, starting only with the first one, confirming or clarifying whatever we can. If you could take the first point and respond just to that, then this will turn out to be a good discussion for you.

Best, Ron



As usual it helps for me to stand my assumptions on their head and get a new perspective.

I'll try to keep this to just things you mentioned in your 'First point' for now.

Everything that I thought of as example 'demons' were just a device that does stuff. That's not too interesting. Hooking in the interesting Needs/Desires stuff to these objects something I'd definitely want to do. We're definitely on the same page about that... I want them to be 'demons' and not just tools, because that makes them good tools to help create interesting conflicts and stories.

I haven't ever felt that a particular object jumped away or fell from me purposefully, no. That's pretty alien to how I feel and think about things... something like that wouldn't have occurred to me. Thinking about it thematically is a bit easier for me in concept, but still hard for me to get my head around when thinking of specifics.

For something 'trying to be found' or 'trying to stay lost' etc, my natural thought is to ask 'how?'. Presupposing that an object 'wants' to be found, because that makes an interesting bit of the story, how does something go about trying to be found? I can only think of a couple ways, and both are bad. Either remove player control and make choices for their character for the player (oh, you must have forgot and took them with you), or have an NPC find them (hey, you forgot these!) which wouldn't work more than once and then would get old.

So let me shake up my viewpoint and try and take this from a different perspective. *bangs head on wall* I could tell the player that it's time for their object to show up, since it 'wants' to. The player could then narrate how that happens. That works better. I think perhaps narrativist techniques are slowly getting through my head... I only had to hit it a couple times this time. That's much better than a few months ago.



Not to interrupt Ron's excellent train of thought...but do remember that all demons are NPCs controlled by the GM and not the players.  There's no removing of control involved in having the demons do stuff that you think they ought to...

As for the objects behaving've never had one of those days where the computer frags right in the middle of something important, the toaster burns your bagel, and then your car won't start and you think "gah...the world hates me today"?  And what's the first thing everybody does when their car doesn't to it of course..."come on baby...turn over...that's can do it..." 

In Sorcerer its not the world that hates you...your demon's just pissed off and letting you know about it.  And if its need is to be cajoled...then all that talking to your car to get it to start...might just actually work.



The bit about the demons being NPCs and such isn't particularly fitting in that context of my problem with it. The question was: how would something that 'wants to be found' turn up? Say an object that wants to be found is left behind, and a PC suddenly finds it in their pocket. How did it get there? Leaving it unanswered would be pretty unsatisfying in the extreme. Deciding that the PC must have took it and wasn't paying attention is pretty break-y of the social conventions that I usually play under (the PCs actions are controlled by the player, not the GM or other players... they can only suggest actions, which is encouraged). Having another NPC pick it up and slip it into the PCs pocket because 'they must have forgot it' would work for me... once.

For why an object demon suddenly stops working, sure, I have no problem having control over that. For an object that 'wants to be found' or similar action, I can have some troubles.

As for what 'everyone' does to objects that don't work, I guess I'm odd. I just get frustrated, curse, and figure it's broken. Malice from the car, thinking that it hates me or such, doesn't really occur to me.


Ron Edwards

Hi David,

We need to talk about stories, not reality. I don't think Ralph or I ever really think our car (respectively) is being malicious. It's a kind of story one tells in one's head.

Now, let's look at a story like a novel or a film. In the very same way that the malicious car doesn't really exist, the characters in that story are not really living in a world, encountering situations, or making decisions. They are physical artifacts of an artistic/technological process performed by entirely different, real people.

Sorcerer as a game is built on the logic of that process. It is not built upon the logic of setting up a virtual-world in which things happen for causal reasons in an independent, self-motorized way. People and objects in Sorcerer go where they go, do what they do, say what they say, and suffer what they suffer for the same reasons that characters and objects in stories do - because they are contrived to do so by the story's creators. (The dice operate to keep this process vibrant rather than dull and flaccid.)

With that in mind, we can discuss plausibility, which is a necessary sort of presentation for those contrived actions and events, without which they are unsatisfying to either author or audience. A good story must have plausibility, indeed, and to a given group of people playing Sorcerer, their desired degree of plausibility must be established for and by themselves. To one group, not asking or ever knowing how the coin got into one's pocket ("I knew I put it into the drawer!")  is all right. To another, that is not acceptable, for their story/play/experience.

If you're in that latter group, then well and good. Yet you want to play Sorcerer, which must be about dealing with entities which operate with wills of their own, or what appear to be and function as wills of their own. All right - to be happy playing Sorcerer, you will have to state that things like the goggles are not demons, but merely utilitarian devices which operate according to the Cover dice of their makers or perhaps some score of their users. Think of the weapon-damage rules and adapt them to non-weapon functions of such devices, if you want. You'll have to find the demons elsewhere in the setting.

That's pretty much my response to your take on my "part one," and also moves on to my "part two." Given that response, there's no point in going on to the next parts, because the objects/inventions as you want them to be in your game cannot be demons.

This next part is important - I am not dismissing you and your inquiry. I'm saying, I'd like to stick with this steampunk setting idea for you, because you've got nifty Color in mind and that's always a good start for Sorcerer. The next question is whether you can come up with anything in your setting that qualifies as demonic. My relatively unimaginative, but functional suggestion is to specify a kind of invention which does have cognitive and motor abilities, such as a robot. I'd suggest that you use the Immanent rules from Sorcerer & Sword, and not have Object or other demon Types at all (maybe Passers, maybe). Although driven by steam and clockworks, these beings would be more than just the typical inventions - they would do stuff, be capable of profound services, and generally offer the kind of opportunity and risks that I was talking about.

How does that sound?

Best, Ron


I think it's worth emphasizing the distinction between the social contract, the game mechanics, and the setting.

So, say a PC is in the middle of a situation, and looks down to realize his death-ray (with a Desire to Kill) is in his hand, and not in his holster.  If the player asks in-character how it got there, you say 'your character doesn't know.'  If he asks out of character, you say 'the gun did it.'  It is not the PC's action, it is the death-ray's action.  The game mechanics give the character that is the death-ray that kind of authority.  Just because the setting says the death-ray is inanimate doesn't remove that authority, it only adds the requirement of an in-setting explanation.

Now, if the player is uncomfortable with the explanation of 'the PC did it without thinking,' a little discussion to come up with another explanation is warranted.  Maybe a new description is needed, maybe it's just that his jacket flaps open to reveal the holstered weapon, or that the weapon falls out of the holster onto the floor.  That depends on what the death-ray's intent for the action was, whether it's suggesting it's own use, or announcing itself to other people present, or whatever.
-My real name is Jules

"Now that we know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, how do we determine how many angels are dancing, at a given time, on the head of a given pin?"
"What if angels from another pin engaged them in melee combat?"


David, depending on how Victorian your steampunk world might be, there might also be a category of demon that exists as a disturbance in the luminferous aether, which might work for Inconspicuous demons.  Another choice for Inconspicuous demons might be ghosts--the 19th Century was mad about them--and these might even involve the Necromancy rules in Sorcerer & Sword if you're inclined to go down that way.  There's also the possibility of clockwork or steam-driven implants--Parasite demons--though that might be a little too kooky.  Obviously I don't know the details of your setting, but those are some idle thoughts.



Agreed, we need to talk about stories, not reality. My only point with bringing up things was breaking suspension of disbelief, which is a story ruiner for me. Everything that I mentioned was pointed towards the direction of story telling.

As for looking at this like a novel or film, that's what I was trying to do. A novel or film with _shared_ authorship. Having an object that 'wants to be found' show up is something I can't figure out how to do, without breaking the shared component of the story. This is no problem for some people, I realize, but it is for me. Having an object break down at a dramatic point? No problem with that, as I mentioned.

As I also mentioned, putting the 'how' of those certain things into the player's hands seems to fix the problem. The rules only cover that it happens, not how it happens (with the exception of using a Travel power, of course). If it Needs to be found and used, well the player can either figure a way (with suggestions from the group), or choose to let it sit there with the Need unmet. It's a game of 'what will you do to get what you want?' and that puts the question directly on the player.  If they want to leave the object behind for whatever reason, it's on them to deal with the consequences.

As for the robot suggestion, it is a bit more high tech than I was imagining, but it does make the Need/Desire component a lot easier to deal with. The premise also takes a shift in focus, with more emphasis on the 'human vs. mechanistic' aspect. Can a robot be as 'human' as a human? It's a different direction than I was thinking of, but that's not a bad thing.

James, thanks for the comments! Yes, I do imagine clockwork cyborg types, Jekyll/Hyde style drug injections, as well as the clockwork gizmos. I'd as of yet only given passing thoughts to aether beings, and had not yet considered ghosts. Certainly something to think about.



Quote from: Elysium on January 05, 2007, 08:09:50 PMHaving an object that 'wants to be found' show up is something I can't figure out how to do...Having an object break down at a dramatic point? No problem...

David, these two situations are handled the exact same way.

The only "difference" is that we have ascribed a personality and motives to the objects in question for the purpose of understanding how they fit into the story: that is, to determine what the "dramatic points" are and what to do with the object at them.

As such, they aren't "real" personalities or desires: they are guidelines for the object's interaction with the story, but it is easier to handle them and treat them, for story purposes, like real NPCs who want things.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Quote from: greyorm on January 05, 2007, 09:37:21 PM
David, these two situations are handled the exact same way.

Um... not that I see. It might be for you, if you play that way. Please refer back to Ron's message on the difference. He nailed it.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 05, 2007, 01:56:11 PM
To one group, not asking or ever knowing how the coin got into one's pocket ("I knew I put it into the drawer!")  is all right. To another, that is not acceptable, for their story/play/experience.

I'm definitely currently in that second group. There's more to the game than the rules, of course. The rules of the game says that happens, fine. But when the rules of the game come up against the combined social contract expectations of internal game consistency (it's not able to move on it's own, so _something_ must have moved it), plus never taking actions which take control of a player's character... well I have to side with what myself and my gaming group have fun with.

Others don't have that problem... great, super. They have different groups and different expectations and play style. That's cool.

Ok, lot of people have pretty much said the same thing on this. I'm not sure what the difficulty is understanding where I'm coming from, but I do understand what you all are saying. Can we drop it for now?

Anyway, I don't mean to sound negative there or anything, just trying to explain. This thread has given me a good bit to chew over, and I've a few new directions to go in with it. Lots of possibilities with humanistic difference engine AIs, steamwork necromancy (binding aether creatures or ghosts into machines), etc. It's more over the top than I was looking for at first, but it adds the Sorcerer's edge that I was looking for.



Ron Edwards

Hey guys,

There's a dogpile effect occurring through no one's fault. In fact, all the comments that just showed up are great and accurate, but look at it from David's point of view - right when he says, and is about to post, "yeah, I get it," wham, a ton of posts descend upon him to help him get it. So let's lay off a bit.

I do want to say that the various responses are really excellent and I'll probably be referring to them in future threads as they nail it so well. In fact, David, looking at it from the other guys' point of view, I hope you can see that your questions led to a bunch of people saying it for themselves, which is extremely valuable as a community outcome. So instead of thinking of them as jumping on you, try to think of a bunch of lightbulbs going on (or brighter) because of you.

Best, Ron