RPG Reviews – The City of the Steam Sun

Designed for the Savage Worlds system, The City of the Steam Sun is a fantasy-steamtech game set in a close-but-not-quite version of our world in the late 1800s. It is composed of two books, the Book of Mortals, which is player-facing, and the Book of Creator, which covers GM material and contains some introductory adventures. The two books were provided for review purposes.

The Book of Mortals presents a slightly different world than ours, an “Age of Reason” where the First French Republic survived, the British and Russians engage in economic conflict rather than open war, and pagan Scandinavia is welcomed back into Europe after an economic blockade. In the interest of international cooperation, the various countries come together to create “The City of the Sun” on the Krk island in the Adriatic. It becomes a center of scientific and technological development until an event known as “Eclipse” disappears the island. Three years later the city reappears, home to survivors and the discovery of a new mineral that burns hotter and longer than coal, which they dub “brimstone.” The city had been moved into a gloomy alternate dimension, which they have dubbed “Limbo” after the upper level of Hell. By the game start, the city now known as “the Web” is again a scientific and cultural center creating strange and new technology that operates on the slightly different laws of reality that exist in Limbo. The city has a mechanical sun to provide light, steam train networks, and copious numbers of…demons?

Limbo itself is not particularly hospitable. While one can venture beyond the confines of the Web, the winds of Limbo are harmful to those without protective equipment. As a trade-off, it seems those who dwell within the Web do not suffer from disease or aging.

Considering it is the focal point for adventures in the game, the city is pretty well described. The overview of the districts and areas puts a clear image in your head of how they look or appear. There’s information on the city government and who’s in charge, as well as how law & order is handled. Interestingly enough, since upon its initial disappearance the Web did not have a wealth of trained guards, those that exist now are mainly for patrols and maintaining public order. As a result, a wealth of independent detective agencies have sprung up to handle more in-depth crimes (good PC group concept there!). If detectives aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other suggestions, such as bored aristocrats, mercenaries, members of secret societies, and more. Each of these provide a game framework and if you want more, there’s the Guard, the Expeditionary Force that explores Limbo, the Church, and a number of other factions that may need individuals of the Player Character variety to help them achieve their aims. There are a lot of potential games that can be played in The City of the Steam Sun.

The book covers changes to Savage Worlds character creation, which Edges aren’t available and a presents a wealth of new ones – Big Dandy may be my favorite, which allows a character to create a decent outfit from rags, granting a bonus to Persuasion rolls. The “Tarot of the New Time” Edge is also pretty cool, though there is a warning about game balance, so it should be included with discretion. Essentially it allows the character to select a specialized Edge based off the new Tarot deck of Limbo. Among these are “The Spiritualist”, who can talk to the dead; the “Sentinel” who is a perfect defender; or “Galvanism”, which can bring creatures back from the dead. New Hindrances are also available, cursing PCs with debts to Demons, or too refined palates (causing illness when eating the mushrooms and rats that are part of the staple diet of the Web).

It wouldn’t be a steamtech setting without some steamtech, would it? So an overview of technology and science in Limbo is provided. Standard Earth combustibles don’t work well in this world, so to compensate, engineers have developed more sophisticated pressurized air technology, allowing advanced air pistols and rifles, literal steam technology using “brimstone” instead of coal, and technomagic devices like pistols and prosthetics. Steam trains and cabs are available, pneumatic mail crosses the city, and minor automation has begun. That being said, the Gadgeteer Edge in the core Savage Worlds book has been replaced with a setting-specific one. There are some nicely detailed rules for creating Inventions and Automatons, which should be fun to play with.

There’s a fair bit of magic going on in The City of the Steam Sun, with Arcane Backgrounds to support the different styles. There are technomages, who channel arcane energy through gear rather than ritual; dark mages, who use human sacrifice; and the Blessed, who channel the power of the divine. There’s a list of unavailable powers and the remaining ones are divided among the three Arcane Backgrounds. What’s nice is that each of them provide trappings and how the power can manifest through each method. “Invisibility” allows a Technomage to take on aspects like a chameleon and a Dark Mage merges with the shadows – nice and flavorful. Some new Powers are present – “Processing of inanimate matter” lets a technomage prepare materials for magemechanical inventions and “Treatment of Living Matter” allows the same for biological material. Both assist in Repair and Healing checks, respectively.

There’s a lot of background in the book, which really helps position you in the setting. It’s spread out pretty well and is brief when brief is needed, more expansive when detail is required. Of great use are the intermittent “What You Know” sections – bullet point lists detailing what the layperson knows of Limbo, or the Web, or the Supernatural in the Web, etc. These are great player handouts to help them digest the setting. There are a lot of background characters mentioned and they can make for good benefactors or opponents, depending on the PCs inclinations. I especially like the secret societies, from the surreal “North-West Society”, who can maneuver through a city which occasionally changes in subtle ways (yes, the Web can shift around, which I find delightful); to the workers’ rights, luddite Clappers; to the demon-hunting Order of St. Germain. A number of them receive specific Edges, others are just narrative forces.

There’s also some good info and mechanics on the dangerous wastelands surrounding the Web, with more plot seeds in the form of ruined civilizations.

While all of the above is set up to provide information for the players, the Book of Creator is the “behind-the-scenes” content for the GM. It also gives character creation rules for the beings dubbed “demons” and “angels” [did I say angels? No angels here… No really, they are present but not as public as the demons], who receive their own Arcane Backgrounds and don’t seem overpowered (like their names might suggest).

I’m going to try to avoid spoilers in this review since both books are being covered together. We learn about the First City of Limbo and a history of this alternate dimension, which in turn provides a less-ephemeral and grounded (inasmuch as it can be) explanation for our own Abrahamic war of Heaven and Hell, of the fall from Grace, and why the beings of the Abyss and Heaven might be interested in our own world. Demon society is given a little more of an overview, showing how they’ve interacted across dimensions for millenia.

NPCs introduced in the Book of Mortals are given more depth here and we learn about the canny and tough City Chancellor, Ottavio Cornaro, and his theories and schemes about the nature of Limbo. Both Wild Card and regular NPCs receive statistic writeups for use in your game.

There’s more background on the Secret Societies and their ambitions and aims, as well as the secrets they know – all providing helpful story seeds and providing the GM with much to draw on for their own plotlines.

The specific GM guidelines are also really helpful. The City of the Steam Sun is explicitly designed to support three major genres: detective, horror, and adventure. Advice is provided on how to create atmosphere and construct successful stories within those genres. A healthy number of NPC archetypes are statted out, including various types of Criminal, Cultist, Combatant, Demon, and some of the bizarre inhabitants of Limbo (like the Homo Odonatus nomads – humanoids with the head of a dragonfly).

The Book of Creator concludes with three sample adventures, each one set in one of the setting genres. A sample group of PCs is provided to help you get right into the action and though you don’t need to use them, the adventures are presented as a trilogy intended for the members of a detective agency. Newspaper headlines are displayed throughout this section, which can provide background and insight on the events of the scenarios.

The first scenario involves the PCs being hired to observe a house for burglars and covers a bit of the “mystery” portion of the The City of the Steam Sun triad. It requires some thinking and fast decision-making and sets things up for the other two parts.

The second scenario is a haunted-house story rooted in the history of the Web and the influence of Limbo. It’s pretty well-constructed and the goals are clear. A number of ghosts are present for the players to interact with/overcome, and the ways of putting them to rest (as well as what happens when they get angry), are well-defined.

The conclusion leads into the third scenario – “the adventure.” Featuring classic elements of the great dungeon crawls, there are traps, puzzles, and definitely hits the “Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown” mark the authors aim for.

The layout and design elements of the two books are quite good. They flow easily and the typeface and borders help emphasize the setting. The art is really good and evocative, with some very cool pieces that highlight the mystery and strangeness of the world.

Throughout the text, I was occasionally tripped up due to the language. While there wasn’t a situation where I found myself unable to decipher a meaning, it is jarring to have certain articles like “The” missing and there were some parts I had to reread once or twice to make sure I understood what was going on. But overall I enjoyed The City of the Steam Sun books. They present a really interesting setting and cosmology very vividly, with a lot of content angled towards being gameable, and not just interesting to read.

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DriveThruRPG (PDF)

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