Dungeons and Dickens: How I steampunked Middle-earth - Part 1

When I first sent my two academic panel proposals to Steamcon 2009, Alisa Green requested a third: she anticipated that Steamcon attendees would likely be interested in hearing more about Steam Lords, the blog for my gaming group. Specifically, she wanted me to speak on how to steampunk an RPG. The following series of blog posts are the result of that presentation at Steamcon 2009. Sadly, while I was able to transcribe the the first portion of the session nearly word-for-word, my digital recorder literally went into the drink, performing a double-somersault off the top shelf of my desk before landing in my coffee to die a liquid death. Along with my Dungeons and Dickens presentation, I lost the entire Tim Powers session, which I know many of you were looking forward to. My apologies - I hope to redeem myself at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition. 

I've been a long-time geek, but having grown up going to church with Baptists, I had to keep my geek largely in the closet. I played Dungeons and Dragons back in the 1980s, when it was still the geek version of bad-ass to do so. That was back in the days of Patricia Pulling and Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters, when admitting you played Dungeons and Dragons was tantamount to saying you had not only conjured up some infernal denizen of the abyss, but that you brought him to school regularly in your backpack. In the conservative church environment I grew up in, D&D was evil. But I played. I played at church game nights in Sunday School rooms in the dark recesses of the church basement, I played with youth leaders, and when I became a youth leader, I played with youth. I nearly lost my first job as a minister because of it. So I went deep-underground with my playing, and didn't really come out of the geek closet until a few years ago. As an academic, I'm free to be proud to play D&D. And if this sounds strangely like some other coming out of the closet stories, that's because in the 1980s, playing D&D was considered as bad as being gay.

At any rate, I spent a lot of my time gaming in my spare time, and going to church-oriented conventions. I have a lot of geek-convention attendance to make up for! And to be asked to speak on this very topic, which is exceedingly dear to my heart (I can wax eloquent on the benefits of pen-and-paper tabletop roleplaying) put me into a state of geek ecstasy.

So I started out gaming in the 80s, when D&D was evil. I played with the original red basic set, back when elves were a class, not a race. But because I was living in the time of the 80s' evangelical witch-hunts, I ended up getting rid of my D&D books. All of them. I relate these anecdotes, only to situate why I ended up playing I.C.E.'s Middle-earth Roleplaying. It wasn't because it was a superior rules system. It was because I knew Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and that meant that I'd be able to defend gaming in his world. It was effectively "safer" in the eyes of the church.

Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP) is to ICE what Basic Dungeons and Dragons was to TSR in the '80s. ICE's answer to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons remains Rolemaster. To use another analogy, Dungeons and Dragons is Windows: they have the monopoly on the gaming world, and through their OGL, have more user-friendly software. Rolemaster is Linux: a massive toolbox of rules and charts, simulating nearly every contigency a campaign could demand. Everything from the Stone Age to the Space Age is covered under Rolemaster's rulebooks and companion supplements. I say this, not to sell anyone on the Rolemaster gaming system, but to suggest that steampunking a campaign requires these sorts of resources--if you have no means of determining the outcome of introducing black powder into your campaign, that's going to be a problem.
Further, I'm not interested in advocating for a particular steampunk rule system, like Castle Falkenstein or one of the many OGL supplements available in PDF form at RPGNow.com. To me, that's the gaming equivalent of buying your entire steampunk outfit from Gentlemen's Emporium. Steampunk is about transformation. I effectively "modded" my current system with brass and gears. My goal with the presentation at Steamcon became one of inspiring the attendees to do the same with their own systems and campaigns. While the  expectation might be for me to lay out the best steampunk roleplaying games, sourcebooks, or miniatures, I thought it best to start out the way many steampunk sessions do. When you attend a panel on "How to Steampunk a Nerf Gun," the presenter will tell you "how they did it." Rather than tell you how to do it, I'm going to tell you how I did it, and hope you are in some way inspired to do likewise.
My own inspiration for steampunking our game began with Castle Falkenstein's Victorian randomizing element: instead of dice, Falkenstein uses a deck of standard playing cards. I personally have an attachment to my dice approaching something of a religious fervor, so rather than replace dice entirely, I incorporated a deck of Victorian Tarot cards to help determine Rolemaster's infamous 66 result, which demands a random event, something exceedingly left field. When my mind goes blank, I use the Tarot deck to fill in the gap, and provide some inspiration. Touches like these are among the first that brought a steampunk flavor to the campaign.   

But the steampunking of my long-running Middle-Earth campaign was about more than just flavor. The cardinal sin for a Tolkien fan is to bring steam and industry to Middle-Earth. Consider this image of Gandalf, walking through a verdant landscape filled with lush green fauna - Tolkien loved trees - the Elves lived in trees, the Ents were sentient trees - and industry threatens the health of this landscape. That's what Saruman did during the War of the Ring; it's what I did when I steampunked Middle-Earth. I realized however, that I had loved Verne before I discovered Tolkien: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Grade Two, The Hobbit in Grade Four. By running a steampunk Middle-Earth campaign, I would effectively be bringing two of my favorite worlds together, with both authors likely rolling over in their graves.

The conceit of my steampunk MERP campaign was that if Saruman had made an alliance with the Witch King approximately 1000 years before the War of the Ring, then he might have succeeded. There are a number of reasons for this, but I was essentially playing off of Treebeard's concession that he wondered if Saruman had not already been "turning to evil ways" when the White Council was formed. Along with the statement that Saruman "has a mind of metal and wheels," I had found my perfect point of departure from the history of Middle-Earth as penned by Tolkien in the Appendices to Return of the King. Suddenly, there is no canon. I don't have to wait for the War of the Ring for a Really Big Thing to happen in Middle Earth. I don't have to consult the timelines anymore. I don't even need Sauron or the One Ring. Industry in Middle-Earth is a nightmare all on its own. It is the "Second Darkness" Gandalf spoke of to Frodo.

I decided right away I would have to kill off all the Elves. They live in the trees, after all, and tree dwellers have no place in a steampunk world - they would both be opposed to the changes industry would bring to their world, and would also be the only race capable of doing anything to stop it. So I bombed them immediately, with flights of Dragons from the Grey Mountains carrying explosives. After all, if Saruman had stepped up his plans for industrialization, he'd have utilized the explosive element used at Helm's Deep sooner as well. So the Grey Havens and Lothlorien were razed to the ground in surprise attacks, and the power of the Elves rapidly diminished.

Here's the original post I made at my gaming blog about this campaign:

Imagine Saruman making the decision to abdicate his responsibilities as one of the Istari 1000 years earlier than the War of the Ring, when the Witch King of Angmar was finishing off the kingdom of Arnor. Imagine an alliance, not between Sauron and Saruman, but between the Witch King and Saruman. Imagine that it succeeds, not because of superior magic, but because of two technological innovations; the discovery of the steam engine, and the invention of gunpowder.

Arnor falls, and in its wake, so does Gondor. The men of Westernesse are scattered to the wind. The elves of Lothlorien, Rivendell and the Grey Havens prepare to leave Middle-earth, but as the Swan ships prepare to depart, they are engulfed in a firestorm. A flight of dragons, awakened from the Grey Mountains, descend on the Havens with teams of Uruk-Hai bombadiers and "pilots" (taking a page from Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon where dragons are literally like B-52 bombers, with full crews). The elves of Thranduil's kingdom are the last safe haven for elves in Middle Earth. Mirkwood, not yet the abode of darkness it will become with the growth of the "Necromancer's" power, becomes a place for free peoples to hide. The Dwarves make their peace with the new world order, becoming unwilling servants of the Shadow who retain their customs, traditions, and even methods of warfare fiercely, believing their radical traditionalism to be a form of resistance.

The famed underground citadel of Khazad-dum is the last bastion of Dwarves to become servile. While they were able to hold out against exterior assault, there is nothing that can save the Dwarves of Khazad-dum when they delve deeply, uncovering the Balrog of Moria in T.A. 1981. The underground kingdom falls, and the victory Sauron would seek in 1000 years at the War of the Ring is won.

But beneath the surface of occupied obedience, a desire for resistance begins to grow in the hearts of the oppressed people of Middle-earth. And in T.A. 2008, nearly 400 years after Saruman and the Witch-King first made their alliance, the opportunity to strike back has finally come.
Here's the entry point for my adventurous heroes: they are the resistance. Like Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, the premise isn't to stop the evil megalomaniacs from taking over the world, because they've already done it. This isn't necessarily a new concept, but it seems to be fairly common in steampunk literature: consider S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, or Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, or the dystopic worlds of Mieville's Bas-Lag, or Stirling and Gibson's Difference-Engine-London. The world has gone to hell, and it's the adventurer's job to set things right, to oppose the might of an evil Empire. A familiar tale, made somewhat new with a steampunk aesthetic. I chose Moria as the starting point because of the dwarves: many supplements recommending how to steampunk your RPG comment on how the dwarves are already halfway there -- they have a love for technology, and Making. The following images are some Photoshop work I did for inspiration, placing an oncoming freight train in an Edge of Twilight wallpaper that reminded me of Moria. It had the immediate result of my concluding that a central rail had been built along the main artery that runs from East to West, underground through Moria.

Part Two of Dungeons and Dickens


  1. Sounds... AWESOME!... While watching The Fellowship of the Ring, I figured it would be a million times better with A) a competent director and B) giant steam-powered robots!

  2. That's really cool. Every time I read your writing concerning RPG's, it makes me want to get involved in one.

  3. Calvin: if you ever get serious about it, I recommend going with either the new D&D (simply because then it's easy to find everything for it) or Pathfinder. Pathfinder is everything the last edition of D&D was, with a little more. It's a great rule-set.

  4. Actually at this point, it is much likely that instead of a resistance, it might be a civil war. To heck with Sauron, we have the Ring and we are keeping Middle Earth! Says Saruman. He makes Uruk-Hi and enlists black Numenorians and Pirates and assaults Mordor with a host of undead from across the west that he has dug up. Also, he uses many machines he has developed over the last 1000 years...


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