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Steam Punk 1920

by Mark Clark

"The British Empire is not just a political creation; it is the true guardian of Western Civilization. The defeat of Germany in 1914 by the British Fleet was a blow struck for the preservation of order and of the Anglo-Saxon race. The commercial and political lessons we are teaching to the native peoples of three worlds could only be taught by we English, with our native talent for bearing the White Man's Burden. Keep the fleet strong, and our Empire will last a thousand years!"

Sir Reginald Smyth-Hamster in his naval appropriations speech to the House of Lords, 1919.

"The only reason that the sun never sets on the British Empire is that God doesn't trust the English in the dark."



The heady years of imperialism in the Space: 1889 universe have to come to an end sometime. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the combination of rediscovered Martian technology and the unrestrained influence of European conquest have brought about a dark and sinister future. England is an industrialized nightmare, the rich living on their huge estates supported by the sweat of the poor of three planets. Most Englishmen never see the sun, working all day in dark satanic mills. New technology abounds, fresh from the high-tech workshops of the United States, but only the rich can afford those new toys. It's a scary, dark and depressing time the perfect setting for Steam Punk 1920.

Steam Punk 1920 is a cyberpunk style game setting. Unlike other cyberpunk games, which are set in the depressing near future, this game is set in a depressing alternate past. However, all of the other elements of cyberpunk fiction are here: huge multinational corporations, perverse high technology that alters the human body, rampant crime, an all-pervasive computer network, and reflective sun glasses. This article starts with a short history of events up to 1920, goes on to describe the state of the solar system in that year, and then gives a few examples of weapons and equipment appropriate to the game setting.


The history of the Steam Punk 1920 world is rather similar to our own up until 1914, with that minor(?!) difference of the exploration of Mars and Venus detailed in the Space: 1889 rulebook. As compared to our own history, there has been rather less exploration and exploitation of native peoples on Earth, especially Africa, since Mars and Venus are much more profitable. The money from those planets has fostered the growth of huge corporations, the most notorious of which is the Hysperian Basin Trading Company, more commonly known as HyBay. Hybay's control of the manufacturing of a variety of recovered Martian artifacts has led to a powerful political position for the company.

There are two other differences. The first is that President McKinley was not shot, and so Teddy Roosevelt didn't become President of the United States. As a result, the 1895 decision in the case of United States vs. E. C. Knight Company limiting the power of the Sherman Antitrust Act went unchallenged. The great American industrial trusts were never busted, and so survive into 1920 in much larger form. The business of America is business, and businessmen control all aspects of American political life.

The second difference is the discovery of computer technology in ancient Martian records. Thomas Edison and Lee de Forrest combined those Martian ideas with the designs of Charles Babbage to create a world-wide computer network linked by telegraph. High speed telegraph transmitters built by German precision machinery companies are the choice of computer hackers worldwide.

In 1914, the Great War broke out, just as it did in our own past. The solar system-wide plotting of the German secret service finally proved too much for the rest of Europe to bear. The assassination of the Martian Takala Somnitzar, the Vomact of the French Protectorate of Idaeus Fons, by German agents on June 28, 1914 was the spark that ignited the flame. German troops crossed the French and Belgian borders in a surprise attack led by Zeppelin-borne commandos. Unlike our war, the campaign in the Steam Punk 1920 universe was over in months, not years. The British Navy's new aerial dreadnoughts made short work of the German zeppelin flotillas. The Kaiser, his armies destroyed and his cities vulnerable to bombardment, was forced to abdicate.

To prevent the continuation of the policies that had led to war, the victorious allies split the German and Austrian empires into their component parts. There is no Germany; there is only Prussia, Bavaria, and all the other little princedoms that existed before Bismarck's great unification of 1871. France reclaimed Alsace-Loraine, and the other allies (Russia, Italy, and the Balkan states) all seized parts of the former German and Austrian Empires.

The Solar System in 1920

The power of the English Empire is unchallenged throughout the solar system. The French Army is larger than the British; the American Navy is more technologically advanced than its British counterpart; the Japanese secret service is more devious by far. Yet, the ether dreadnoughts of the British aerial service rule the space lanes, and that is what really counts. The British flag flies over most of the explored solar system; more individuals look to London for their political guidance than to any other capital. This power has had its price, however. The vast majority of British subjects live lives of abject poverty, toiling in the dark satanic mills of industry or dying slowly in the vast colonial plantations.

The rest of Europe is under the political domination of England. Only France still retains its independence, but its influence is declining, in large part because of the poverty of its colonies. As mentioned above, there is no Germany, only independent states. All of these states are hotbeds of nationalist sentiment, the perfect sort of place for adventurers. Russia, though on the winning side of the war, has since turned inwards because of the internal disorder brought about by Anarchist attacks on the Tsarist state. It is rumored that it was the British Secret Service that helped Vladimir Lenin and his fellow Communists return to St. Petersburg in 1917, hoping the uproar they created would distract the Tsar and his ministers from their designs on India.

If Britain is the world's political center, the United States is the economic center. American trusts control technological progress, as the genius of Edison has been imitated by thousands of others in their workshops and laboratories. America is a technological paradise, for those with the money, and workers are well paid and pampered. The rest of the world can only wonder at such luxury, as the strict immigration controls the American congress has imposed keeps out all but the already rich.

The rest of the Earth is under the domination of the European powers, with the notable exception of Japan. Japan was an ally of the British during the Great War, and moved immediately to seize all of Germany's colonies in the Far East. Though still nominally allies with England, the Japanese are increasingly at odds with their former friends. Japan is pursuing a policy of expansion into the former Chinese empire, which has collapsed into warring states controlled by warlords. India continues to be a thorn in the side of the British, as American corporations make investments that disturb the social fabric and new leaders preach Indian Nationalism. Africa has remained a mysterious place. The continent has been mapped from space, but there are still large areas that are unexplored the rewards of Mars and Venus have made Africa less attractive.

The rest of the solar system is in the grip of the British, with a few exceptions. Mars is a patchwork of British colonies and protectorates, with a few cities under the control of the Japanese and French. The Belgian Coprates enjoyed a brief period of independence between 1914 and 1916. Rebels were able to take control of the colony after troops were withdrawn for the Great War, and though the Belgian government declared victory in 1916, in 1920 their effective control extends only to the area around the cities of New Amsterdam and Mela; the rest of the Coprates is under rebel control. Only the Tossian Empire is still politically independent, largely because of the aid of American companies in the form of a steady supply of modern arms.

Venus has become the British version of Vietnam. The German colonies there were taken over by the British after the Great War, but the German colonists and their lizardman allies have never cooperated. Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the commander of the German forces, has not recognized the Kaiser's surrender. He continues a campaign of partisan warfare, aided by Venus' climate and aid smuggled in by German sympathizers and the Japanese government. The British are hoping that their new air-conditioned combat tripods will turn the tide in the war.

As to the other parts of the solar system, they have become the playground of American and Japanese corporations. Mercury is a major source of raw materials, metals from the hot side, pure gasses from the dark. Thomas Edison's latest project is a vast solar-powered manufacturing complex located along the world river. The Moon has become a popular vacation spot for the rich, who pay large fees to see the wonders of the City of Light and Science and to meet Moon Men. Exploration ships are routinely searching the asteroid belt for artifacts left from the destruction of the planet Vulcan. Finally, the Royal Geographical Society is sponsoring the first expedition to Jupiter, made possible by the development of an experimental prolonged hibernation device. It will leave Earth orbit in early 1921 under computer control, and the crew will be automatically awakened when the ship reaches its destination.

Roleplaying in Steam Punk 1920

As mentioned above, this is a Cyberpunk style game system. The gamemaster should strive to convey the proper sense of the helplessness of the player characters in the face of giant corporations and sinister governments. The Steam Punk universe does have a few twists not found in other Cyberpunk games, however. Remember that technology here is a strange mix of the futuristic and the archaic. Men may fly from planet to planet, but there is still no such thing as a transistor. Computers are huge assemblies of gears and relays, programed with punch cards. The cities of Mars are better known than the heart of Africa. It is important to emphasize this contrast in technologies to the players; see the list of equipment at the end of the article for ideas.

The Steam Punk world also differs in that colonialism has not been discredited in the same way it was in our world after World War One. The mass slaughter of white people by other white people went a long way towards convincing non-Europeans that their masters did not have all the answers. When Ghandi was asked what he thought of English civilization, he said that it was an interesting idea that ought to be tried out someday. It was World War One that made that comment intelligible to his listeners. Thus, racism and the white man's burden should be an integral part of the Steam Punk 1920 world. These people believe in colonialism in a way that we never will again.


Use the standard Space: 1889 rules, with the following modifications:

New Skills

Telegraphy (under Agility). This skill is required to use the computer network.

Hacking (cascade under Crime). This skill is required to break computer security systems

Clacking (under Intellect). This skill allows the programing of computers.

Driving (replaces Riding). This skill allows the operation of ground vehicles. Cascade skill; select from automobile, motorcycle, bicycle, train, liftcar.


Operating the computer network is a Telegraphy skill (see new skill list above). Getting information is a task; referee assigns difficulty level and the player rolls dice equal to his or her skill. If the information is protected by a security system, Hacking skill applies.


Treat all inventions in the Space: 1889 rulebook with a research level of 25 or less as being already invented and in common use. Normal invention rules still apply to inventing and perfecting the rest of the inventions listed.

Steam Punk 1920 Equipment

by Matt Ruane

Weapons and equipment appropriate to our own 1920s period may be used; the rules for Call of Cthulhu have a list that is fairly complete in terms of what adventurers would want. The only major change from the Space: 1889 weaponry is the availability of small machine guns and even submachine guns. Just treat these as rifles or pistols with a higher rate of fire, with some appropriate lowered chance to hit when they are fired on full automatic.

Since this is a cyberpunk style game, be sure to include lots of cyberpunk style equipment. Space prevents us from going into detail here, but if you use any of the commercially available cyberpunk games it's easy to come up with a list of appropriate hardware, like artificial arms or implanted weapons. Keep in mind the steam punk dictum, however: the more cast iron and big shiny gears it has, the better. Unlike cyberpunk, steam punk gear should be large, elaborate, clunky, and steam-powered if possible. Think the Tin Woodsman in the Wizard of Oz. The following two examples should give you some idea of what we're talking about.

Beasely's Phonetic Harmonizer

Developed by Dr. Hugo Beasely in 1906, the Phonetic Harmonizer amplifies ambient background sounds, allowing the wearer to overhear conversations over greater distances than is normal for the human ear. The apparently clumsy looking device is actually a miracle of micro electronic circuits, chemically treated sound amplification baffles, and gyro stabilization. Consisting of a large black box attached to either the right or left sides of the head, centered on the ear, and secured with several straps, the Beasely Phonetic Harmonizer is then modified by the wearer for current operating conditions. Attached to the opposite side of the head from the Harmonizer is a smaller box containing a ether gyro resting in artificial inner ear fluids and light weight lubricants. The harmonizer itself has an attached external sound collector resembling an old gramophone horn (built under license by HMV in the UK and RCA/Victor in the US), which transmits sound into the harmonizer itself. Inside the harmonizer, sounds are reflected off chemically treated baffles amplifying the sound to levels understandable to the wearer. If the sound is still too indistinct, more baffles are inserted or a larger external sound collector is attached. The ear has a range of approximately one kilometer on clear days, about half that in rainy or snowy weather. Special baffle inserts to filter out weather noises or the sound of the wind are available directly from the manufacturer for a small additional fee.

Carswell-Babbage Analytical Enumerator (CBAE)

When Dr. Hiram Carswell perfected Charles Babbage's analytical engine in 1892, it quickly revolutionized aerial travel and made ether travel safe and respectable. Several experiments were conducted to see if the Carswell-Babbage Engine (CBE) could remotely pilot an ether vessel, but the computations were found to be too immense and the number of punch cards required (estimated about five million) prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, the CBE found hundreds of uses in business, government and the military. In 1904, Dr. Carswell and several assistants perfected a portable analytical engine, again revolutionizing the field of clacking. Scientists in New York took the portable analytical engine into the hospital and began experiments to see if electrical stimulus directed by an analytical engine could reproduce human actions. They hoped to develop a means for the paralyzed to walk again, but they were ultimately unsuccessful due to the weight limitations of the analytical engine, and the whole line of inquiry dropped. By 1910, however, the New York experiments were being resumed by Herr Goethe von Hochwalder and his team at the Berlin Institute for the Disabled, this time using an experimental, smaller model Carswell Babbage Analytical Enumerator. The von Hochwalder experiments produced the first working muscular actuator, which in turn allowed the analytical enumerator to send signals to the human body. Together, the two could make the paralyzed walk again or use their arms. Quickly adopted for use, the CBAE with HMA revolutionized rehabilitative medicine, yet it also introduced the world to new possibilities. Want to box like the Marquis of Queensbury? Never learned to swim? Well with a CBAE/HMA all this became possible.

The Carswell Babbage Analytical Enumerator is a twenty pound sealed black box with harness straps attached to it. On the top of the box is a collapsible punch card holder, and on the bottom, a series of covered holes and a folding pole with an attached wheel. The pole and wheel can be lowered to provide additional support for the CBAE, and the covered ports are where the von Hochwalder Muscular Actuators are attached. Punch cards drop into the top slot, telling the CBAE to generate electrical charges and send them out through the muscular actuators to the respective muscle groups. The actuators stimulate the muscle groups necessary to perform the required action. Because of the punch card limitation, no action can be performed more than ten times without stopping and reinserting the punch cards in the proper order.

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