Friday, August 7, 2015

GURPS Screampunk

Jo Ramsay’s GURPS Screampunk (2001) is one of those books I wouldn’t have known existed unless someone had
mentioned it to me. The book is a supplement that aims to combine elements of Gothic Horror with Steampunk–a
mash-up of Victorian terror and Victorian-inspired science fiction. The book itself is quite small; it’s 32 pages long and
the form factor is about the size of a comic book instead of a full-sized or digest-sized book.

Before I go further, I’d like to preface this review by stating for the record that I am extraordinarily tough on the way
role-playing games present ideas drawn from Gothic literature. It drives me absolutely mad the way many game authors simply get the basic ideas of the Gothic so horribly wrong. 

That said, GURPS Screampunk has left me precious little to moan about. Ramsay’s presentation of the Gothic’s history,
its themes, its use of locations, its metonymy, etc. are all absolutely spot on. Now, perhaps I’m being the typical
academic and only saying that because her view of the Gothic matches my own conclusions, but the explanation of what the Gothic is and what it does as a conventional mode strike me as being extremely well researched. I’m particularly impressed by the Shocking Revelations Table, a useful tool for determining how a character responds to social disorder. I’ll definitely be hacking that into my own games at some point.

The second chapter deals with bringing the Gothic to bear on steampunk. In many ways, steampunk initially seems like a bad fit for a Gothic makeover; it is, generally speaking, often techno-euphoric in character and ”Tut, tut, cheerio!” in attitude. However, Ramsay makes a good case for the ways in which the conventions and tropes that define steampunk can be subverted and mined for Gothic Horror. Indeed, since one of the big criticisms often levied at steampunk media is that it effaces or obscures the worst parts of the 19th century (such as the poverty of the industrialized working classes, the dark side of scientific progress, systemic sexism, etc.), Ramsay sees the potential to delve into all the messiness of that historical period and make it gameable through a Gothic lens. 
For example, she suggests that the typical Gothic mob can be refigured as Luddite or Chartist mass violence.

I can’t speak to the mechanical bits in the character chapter as I’ve never played GURPS, but the discussion of
archetypes drawn from Gothic literature and the Victorian era is a nice primer. (I can’t be the only one who thought
of Gomez Addams and Lurch when reading the Eccentric Aristocrat and Sinister Servant entries.) Similarly, the section on plot hooks and scenario ”layout” make good use of the source material as well as one could in such a brief chapter. The bibliography at the end is particularly pleasing: it deserves bonus points for citing Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis as leading lights of the mode; the modern authors are quite well-chosen (nice to see Ligotti and Morrison listed); the author managed to spell Edgar Allan Poe’s name correctly (a problem which has plagued Ravenloft and  Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, among others).

All in all, this slim book is a stunner. I genuinely wish Steve Jackson Games had put out more slim volumes of this caliber back in GURPS’ heyday. It does a lot with very few pages.

As a bonus, here's some designer commentary and excised bits that didn't make it into the book.