Silk, Steam, and Steel is a Steampunk-Wuxia tabletop RPG set in an alternate history version of 19th Century China wherein China industrialized earlier and more rapidly than Western Europe.
Wait. What's Steampunk?
Steampunk is a genre of historical science fiction based around re-imaging the past with higher levels of technology.
Okay. What's Wuxia?
Wuxia is a genre of Chinese swashbuckling fiction, literally translated as "Martial Chivalry." Wuxia tends to revolve around isolated heroes fighting against corruption in a lawless world, much like the American Western.
Cool. What's a tabletop RPG?
A tabletop RPG (role-playing game) is an interactive storytelling game in which a group of people collaborate on a piece of fiction, usually set in some kind of exotic or fantastical setting. One person (The Narrator) provides exposition, and the world in which the story is set; the others (the players) take on the role of the heroes of that story.
But you probably knew all that.
Silk, Steam, And SteelEdit
So now that we've established all that, let's get to what makes this Steampunk Wuxia RPG so different from all the other Steampunk Wuxia RPG's. The main difference, of course, being that this one exists.
As mentioned above, Silk, Steam, and Steel takes place in an alternate history version of 19th century China. Whereas actual China was an empire in decay by the time the late 19th century rolled around, this game imagines one wherein China is the global industrial capital of the world in that time period (much like it actually is today).
To achieve this, we have reconstructed approximately 200 years of Chinese history. Our "splitting off point" from real history is 1644 - the fateful year that the ethnically Chinese Ming Dynasty collapsed, and China was overtaken by the Manchurian Qing destiny.
In real history, the Manchus launched a brutal conquest of China, completely eradicating the Ming by the late 17th century. In our timeline, there is a key difference: the Manchu's still conquered China, but only 'down to the line of the Yangtze River, which traditionally partitions China into north and South. The Ming dynasty survives in the South, while the Qing rule in the North (we have seen this pattern several times in actual Chinese history, such as when the Jin dyansty ruled Northern China and the Southern Song dynasty the South).
The two dyansties eventually settle into a state of cold war, which - just like the Russo-American Cold War of the 20th century - leads to an arms race and an industrial race. Each dynasty wants to be richer and more powerful than the other, to be ready for the day when one tries to re-conquer the other. During this same time period, the high demand for Chinese and Indian manufactured goods had already launched the European Age of Exploration. As Europeans and their colonies are establish maritime trade routes to East Asia, the international market for Chinese silk, porcelean, tea, and other goods expands exponentially. The two dynasties use their European buyers to fund their own military-industrial expansion.
As the demand for Chinese manufactured goods grow, more and more of the populace moves away from the countryside to the city, leaving behind grueling farm jobs for slightly less grueling manufacturing jobs. This leads to a cycle of industrialization and urbanization, kickstarting the Chinese Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century century, slightly before the actual Industrial Revolution would begin in England.
This rapid movement from the countryside to the cities leads to an explosive growth in urban populations. Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities expand at incredible speeds: far faster than civil administration can keep up with.
These newly-risen industrial megacities give rise to an "urban jungle" environment, plagued by corruption, violence, and crime. Thus enter the heroes - "urban knight errants", in the tradition of the wandering swordsmen who would travel from town to town, solving other people's problems with violence - but now transposed to the new frontier of the big city. The heroes are members of the Liang Shan Hui (Mount Liang Society), a secret society devoted to the cause of doing the right thing, regaldless of whether or not it's the legal thing.
The Urban JianghuEdit
The term jianghu literally translates as "Rivers and Lakes". It refers to the world in which wuxia fiction exists; the world of outlaws, smugglers, mecenaries, bodyguards, and bad men with enemies. It is the criminal underworld and the margins of society. Traditionally, the jianghu exists within the physical edges of society as well; the greenwood and the backwater, far from the cities that have traditionally been the centers of civilization.
Conversely, in Silk, Steam, and Steel, the jianghu exists within the underbelly of the massive industrial megacities that have grown up around traditional urban centers. The Urban Jianghu brings it's own sets of perils; street gangs, industrial sabotage, corrupt officials, human trafficking, labor conflicts, religious cults, and more.
There is saying in China: "Fear not officials, except those who officate over you."
It is not that the governments of the Qing and Ming dynasties are riddled with corruption, and every official is a greedy villain. Like all nations, there is good, and there is bad. In many ways, their sense of civics is far more advanced than the tyrannical aristocacies of Westerners.
That said, it is the corrupt and tyrannical officials with whom the heroes are most likely to come in conflict with, and thus, they are the most apparent ones to knight-errants.
While appointments of governance are theoretically meritocratic, nepotism and cronyism creeps in. Most industries are state-run enterprises, and officials are pressured to squeeze everything they can from overworked and underpaid laborers. Virtuous and empathetic scholars are likely to be eclipsed by vicious and exploitative officials, who's lust for power draws them ever towards higher positions of authority.
Police and Thieves: Law Enforcement and Organized CrimeEdit
When dealing with gangsters and criminals, the players may frequently be tempted to simply report the problems to the police or a higher authority, and let them handle it.
This, unfortunately, makes for rather boring gameplay. Fortunately, day-to-day law enforcement is as corrupt as it is inadequate in the urban jianghu. As far as the heroes are concerned, legal authority comes in two varieties: those who are unable to deal with the problem, and those who are part of the problem.
Should a hero stumble across, say, a human trafficking ring or a murderous cult and report it to the the authorities, typically one of three things will happen: either the police will shrug and say they're incapable of dealing with it, deputize the heroes and tell them to deal with it, or have the heroes thrown in jail before they can tell anyone else.
Indeed, most city officials have some sort of tacit arrangement with the criminal kingpins in their locale. Why fight when they can scratch each other's backs? In Shanghai, Governor Wu Chaoran and crimelord JIn Baiyu are known to be co-conspirators. The autocycle gangs that rule the outskirts of Beijing have an unspoken non-agression pact with the city Bannermen, and are often used as pawns by Manchu princes.
The Mount Liang Society Edit
By default, the heroes are members of the Lianghshanhui; literally, "Mount Liang Society." Named for a mountain where heroic outlaws gathered to fight against tyranny during the Song dynasty,the Liangshanhui is a band of peers dedicated to fighting against the injustices of the modern world. Membership in the Liangshanhui is volitional, non-hierarchal, and cellular: that is to say, there are no leaders, there is no admission process, and there is no one keeping track of who is and isn't a member. One becomes a member of the Liangshanhui by declaring oneself a member.
Membership in the Society is varied; men and women, young and old, outlaws and officials, Buddhists and Taoists, staunch Confucians and radical Mohists. The only thing binding them together is a cause: doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. A sense of personal justice that outshines fear, self interest, or propriety.
Industry and TechnologyEdit
The past decades have witnessed the transformation of China from a primarily rural and agrarian society or a primarily urban and industrial one. Every day, thousands of people leave the countryside behind to seek their fortune in the big city.
At the heart of much of this change is the harnessing of the simple power of boiling water to drive turbines. Steam engines allow factories to keep up with the high demand for Chinese manufactured goods abroad, as well as allowing a shrinking agrarian population to continue to produce enough food to feed the growing cities. Steam powered mills and tractors have changed the face of agriculture in China.
Small, high efficiency steam engines have allowed for all manner of miraculous inventions, from the steam-powered autocycles used to get around big cities to steam-driven pneumatic power armor worn by heavy infantry.
Silk is one of the driving factors in the Chinese economy, with the seemingly bottomless demand for high-quality silk garments abroad powering China's transformation into the global industrial center of the world.
Given it's relevance, silkworm breeding has been taken to new levels, leading to specialized breeds that can produce higher-abundance and higher tensile strength strands.
As far as adventurers and outlaws go, high tensile-strength silk forms the basis of modern body armor, with densely layered silks capable of stopping a bullet.
Metallurgy has also gone through many advances in the past decades, with steel becoming stronger and lighter with each passing year. Stronger steel has allowed for the small, high pressure boilers which operate many personal steam engines, as well as the composite armor and collapsing swords of modern urban outlaw.
Air travel has connected the world as never before. Initially created in the mid 18th century, airships have come a long way. Modern airships are lifted by large non-flammable helium balloons, doing away with the dangers of their flammable hydrogen forebearers. Most airship balloons are constructed via a series of one-way valves, so even if a section of the balloon is punctured, the majority of the gas will not escape.
Tinkerers and artisans have been able to create clockwork automatons, programmed with elaborate series of switches. Such automatons are capable of simple tasks: playing a zither and so on.
However, such switch arrays could never create a machine with the capacity of the human mind - that requires a human brain.
And in the darkest dungeons of Nanjing, this is what has been created: fully functional automatons, powered by human brains surgically transplanted into mechanical bodies. "Automatization" is reserved for treason and political prisoners, as a way to repay their betrayal of the Empire. Imperial Automatons are fed a cocktail of drugs that soften the mind and collapse the will, leaving the brain as a mere piloting mechanism, completely subservient to their masters.
Of course, it doesn't always work. Many a rogue automaton enters the jianghu, often with a renewed commitment to whatever rebellion stripped him of his fleshly body.
Ideologies, Schools of Thought, and Intellectual ClimateEdit
Since the bronze age, China has had an exceptional emphasis on scholarship, philosophy, and the science of morality and statecraft. For the past thousand years, China has been dominated by what are called the Three Teachings: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
However, the rise of industrialization and the split between the Qing and the Ming has led to massive changes in the daily lives of the people, which has in turn led to changes in the intellectual climate. Below is an overview of some of the major schools of thought and morality in modern China.
Since the Han dynasty, Confucianism has been the de facto orthodoxy of Chinese Imperial Government. Confucianism emphasizes order within society, seeing each individual as having a specific role within the greater whole, and society functioning best when everyone is functioning in their role. Familial relationships are at the center of these social structures, and the nation is an extension of the family. Contrary to much of Western philosophy, people are viewed as inherently good, and morality is as the result of cultivating virtue through education rather than avoiding sin.
Mo Zi was a contemporary of Confucious, but his teachings fell out of favor by the end of the warring states period over two thousand years ago.
However, Mohism has seen a resurgence in modern 19th century China. Mohism's core principle is the Jian Ai, ("Universal Love"), a philosophy that emphasizes equality and the welfare of the common people. As common folk aggregate into larger and denser communities, Mohism has been resurrected as a form of universeralist populism that rejects the hierarchical rigidity of Confucian society and the clannishness of Confucian family values.
In SIlk, Steam, and Steel, Confucianism can be seen as the ethos of the conservatives, the traditionalists, and the entrenched elite, and Mohism as the ethos of liberals, reformers, and populists.
Chivalry (Xia) in the Chinese sense is somewhat different from the Western use of the word. Chivalry refers to the loosely codified beliefs of knight-errants, who, by default, are the protagonists of the game. Whereas Western knights were part of an entrenched ruling class dedicated to maintaining the status quo, Chinese knights are typically outsiders fighting against the status quo. While it borrows the virtue-ethics of Confucianism and populist sentiment of Mohism, Chivalry is ultimately about an individual's sense of justice, rahter than the will of society as a whole.
Buddhism is one of the most widespread religions in East Asia, and has been a part of Chinese thought for the better part of the past two millenia. Buddhist monks are something of outsiders in the Chinese social order, fitting into none of the traditional Four Social Classes (Merchant, Artisan, Peasant, and Gentry), which pushes them towards the margins of society. Furthermore, Chinese Buddhist monasteries have a tradition of accepting all supplicants; this had the unfortunate side affect of making entering monasticism a common tactic for outlaws and rebels to escape from their pasts. As such, Buddhist monasticism is deeply intertwined with the jianghu and the underworld.
Daoism (which Westerners call Taoism) is primarily a mixture of the teachings of Zhaung Zi, Lao Zi (who Westerners call Lao Tzu) and a variety of esoteric mystical practices. Daoism emphasizes finding happiness through living harmoniously with nature, and rejecting the pursuit of wealth and social status.
Daoist temples have always been centers of scientific learning, and Daoism is deeply intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine and chemistry. Gunpowder, notably, a substance which would come to change the world, was invented by Taoist alchemists in the 9th century.
In the modern era, Daoism has become even more interwoven with science. with many Daoists seeking to harmonize with nature through study and observation of natural processes. Many of the greatest astronomers, biologists, chemists, and physicists of the world today are Daoist ascetics.
The Role of Women in Society and in the JianghuEdit
Traditionally, China has been an extremely patriarchal society, with women being considered subservient first to their fathers in youth, then to their husbands in mid-life, and then to their sons in old age.
However, the times are changing. The rise of an industrial working class has led to a whole new segment of women who are typcially young, unmarried, and financially self-sufficient. Light industry - such as textiles and clockwork - typically favor female employees over males, as they are seen as having greater manual dexterity. As silk exports are one of the cornerstones of the modern Chinese economy, this has led to a surge in the population of such working women.
As such, both the Qing and Ming are in the midst of what contemporary readers would refer to as first-wave feminism. Working class women are forming communities and demanding to be treated with equality, much to the discomfort of traditionalists. Mohist reformers and labor unions are a major part of this push for change.
In the jianghu, in particular, social norms are already in question, and as such, there is much less of a sense of "a woman's place" than in mainstream society. By entering the jianghu, one is already rejecting the rules of society; rejecting gender norms is just one more broken rule on top of a pile of broken rules. Female pirates, outlaws, and knight-errants have always been part of the jianghu, and always will be.
As such, players should be overly concerned with challenging social norms when making female characters; by default, they are already challenging them.
Magic, Religion and the SupernaturalEdit
Magic and ReligionEdit
Mystical skills are overwhelmingly tied to religion in Silk, Steam, and Steel. Most mystics are going to be monks, priests, shamans, or otherwise religious ascetics; and even amongst those who aren't, their understanding of their own mystical abilities are going to be informed by their own sense of religion. Thus, a Muslim cleric, a Shinto priest, and a Siberian shaman may all be able to consult divine authority and cast out evil spirits via the same Shamanism talents, but their understanding of how they do so, what that divine authority is, and who those evil spirits are all going to be quite different. For more information of indivudal mystical skills, see Mystical Skills.
The Natural and the SupernaturalEdit
Throughout history, and also in the present day, there have been individuals who have made claims to extraordinary abilities: to be able to speak the dead, to lay down curses and hexes, to interpret the will of the heavens, to see the future, to exert control over the forces of nature - and so on.
Let us presume, for the sake of this game, that at least some of them were on the level, and could actually do what they claimed. That there are, and always have been, sorcerers and shamans and diviners. Thus, magic in Silk, Steam, and Steel is not about introducing new forces to the world, but rather about our outlook on how we interact with existing forces.