Steamscapes Asia Review

Published by Four-In-Hand Games and written by Eric Simon after a successful KickStarter in October 2014 .  Steamscapes Asia is a Savage Worlds licenced product, the second in the Steamscapes steampunk setting after Steamscapes North America.  Both products are source books only so you’ll need the Savage Worlds core books to play.

Content

The setting is an Asia that is experiencing its own steampunk industrial revolution, independent from the Europeans and driven by internal innovation.  This is a design decision the authors make an explicit point of.  Steamscapes Asia is not a game about Europeans going about the place being awesome at other cultures.  It’s not a game about imperial steampunk characters having adventures in Asia.  It is, instead, a game about Asian characters. Asia in this place being from the Khyber Pass to the Solomon Sea and one that has shrugged off European dominance.

After an introductory chapter, the second chapter of the book is twenty three pages of in setting fiction.  The intention here is to help the reader immerse themselves in the setting’s steampunk Asia.  The writing in the first story is solid but suffers slightly in comparison to the better prose in the second and third stories.  All three stories showcase two important things – the cultures of the characters in the setting and how steampunk technology has affected that culture.  All three stories are however focused on China when perhaps they could have been of more use spread out across other cultures, like India.  The stories also illustrated the high complexity of the technology on offer in the setting.  Clockwork cybernetics, two-stage water to surface missiles and robotic submarines all feature.  This is pushing the limit of what could be called historical steam tech and drifting into a modern world that merely lacks electronics and electromagnetic communications.

The bulk of the book comprises the alternate history of the world up to the play era of the 1870s.  History diverges around 1740 as the Asian nations use their own steampunk technology and cohesiveness to avoid being dominated by Europeans.  This section has been given a great deal of care and attention.  The histories presented are logical and rational possible outcomes of changes to technology and the snowballing of past events.  Cultures are built upon their histories, so knowing this information will help players with immersion but it is not enough.

What is lacking is information on a character’s immediate experience of life.  As one of the stated goals of the project is to encourage non-euro-centric steampunk I would have preferred to have seen much more information about culture.  How someone greets a fellow or enemy in the street varies a lot across a geography as broad as Asia.  What do they eat, what’s the etiquette for greeting your social betters, how is society organised, is there a particular honour code here? This information is highly helpful in building a game world and encouraging immersion.

Mechanics

As a setting book there is not a large amount of new mechanics added.  The bulk of the significant additions are one new profession and a rebuild of the martial arts profession.  The new profession is the apothecary.  It’s a mix of alchemy and medicine common in traditional Chinese medicine.  Ten new edges are added in the categories of healing, chemical engineering and equipment.  A lot of flexibility is on offer as there are no prerequisites or ordering to the edges once the starting profession edge is taken.  There are six pages of supporting material that gives a selected history of notable apothecary achievements from the alternate history.  This seems a little confused as if it can’t decide whether to focus on things an apothecary can do or to provide more general history.

With are only eight new martial art edges, you could be mistaken for thinking this profession in under served, despite there being specialisations of each edge for weapon, hand and foot.  Instead, Steamscapes Asia uses the new edges as part of a near complete rebuild of martial arts for Savage Worlds.  Fifteen real world Asian martial arts are narratively described and represented by trees of edges.  It’s a significant upgrade on the flat profession in the core mechanics and guides a character through their development as an expert of a particular martial art.  This is important in a game dedicated to exploring Asian culture.

Layout

The cover art is an amazing piece of work that aptly captures the ethos and style of Steamscapes Asia.  The artwork inside the book doesn’t meet the same level of quality but is good nonetheless. It’s a mix of commissioned figure pieces and stock art from the period and region used to highlight and illustrate.  Two pieces of internal art I want to highlight are the full colour map of the region in a classic victorian style and the page background art.  In fact I was, for a change, disappointed not to find an empty splash page that showed off the background art without a text overlay.  The layout is a consistent two columns using a clear font but with plain and dull headings.  The flow charts for the martial art trees aren’t pretty as they look like they’ve been built with business software rather than designed. Detailed contents, a lengthy index and bookmarks in the pdf version under review make for a well organised book.

The final chapter of the book deals with game master support.  Amongst the generic advice there is specific guidance on how to encourage players to immerse more with a culture far outside their own.  A set of seven sample characters are provided but they are just artwork and ability values.  This could have been an opportunity to provide some detailed character backgrounds as guides and templates for character creation.  The pair of five page sample adventures are solid starting stories that use local politics as plot hooks to bring the players into the game world.  Both have a selection of dangling story threads for building further adventures on.  There are a few Steamscapes Asia specific NPCs in the adventures for the gamemaster to use though more would be appreciated.  There is no list or set of sample plots to aid campaign building.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for steampunk mechanics for savage worlds, you’ll only need a third of the book.  But that’s not the intent of the book.  The intent of the book is to enjoy yourself reading an alternate history textbook and tour guide complete with in setting fictional primary sources. In this it succeeds.

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