Many Shades of Polish Steampunk

Milosz K. Cybowski received his PhD at the University of Southampton. His thesis (The Polish Questions in British Politics and Beyond, 1830-1847) discussed political and public reactions to the widely defined questions of Polish independence and Polish refugees who started arriving in Britain after the failed anti-Russian November Uprising (1830-31). Currently, he is an independent researcher working on a series of articles devoted to reaction of British press and public opinion to Poland in the long nineteenth century.

When not reading and writing about nineteenth century history, Milosz enjoys board games, tabletop role-playing games and good literature. He is also an editor of a Polish cultural e-zine “Esensja” and a review editor of Pol-Int platform.

You can contact him on mkcybowski@zoho.com

Welcome to the Fantastic 19th Century! Under the sky crowded with airships, steam-powered cars race the streets. The marriage of magic and science gave birth to mechanical golems, cabalistic thinking machines and fearsome iron dragons. Yet most of the world is still unexplored – who knows what treasures and mysteries await deep in the jungles and high on the mountain tops. In the dark corners of the earth the undead lurk (a terrible reminder of the Great War) while villains and evil masterminds plot their deranged plans.
 These daring times demand extraordinary heroes.
And sometimes ‘extraordinary’ is just not enough! 
[1]

***

My first contact with Wolsung took place on a convention in Cracow in autumn 2003. The whole event, taking place in an old school not far from the train station, was organised under the common theme of steampunk – years before that genre became as popular as it is today.

Five years later, in 2008, the first game from Wolsung universe came out of print. Disappointingly, however, it was not long-awaited and expected RPG setting, but a board game. Apart from the steampunk background and graphics, the game itself was a rather typical, worker-placement eurogame. The players, as the leaders of teams working in a massive factory, had to gather resources and build particular, steampunky inventions (cars, automatons, zeppelins etc.) for which they gained points. The game, though not particularly innovative, was a sign that the authors did not abandon their rich universe and that sooner or later the long-awaited RPG would appear.

wolsung board game

It happened a year later, in 2009, and the game was received with warm welcome by Polish gamers. Over the years, when the authors had toyed with the idea of using different rulesets (including d20) to flesh out their setting, the fans’ expectations had grown higher and higher. The final result was very satisfying and the creators did, indeed, create a setting written by players for players.

The uniqueness of Wolsung RPG lays in its ruleset and colourful and multifaceted world (it was, after all, the setting itself which had attracted fans many years before the game came out of print). As almost every tabletop RPG, Wolsung uses dices in order to determine character’s success or failure. However, it also adds more cinematic effects by allowing the players to play cards and counters in order to increase their chances of success – and giving them an opportunity to have a greater impact on the story itself.

The core of Wolsung’s success lays in the setting itself, a unique mixture of Victorian period, fin de siècle and more modern, twentieth century elements (including the interwar period and both World Wars). The name of the setting comes from an in-game corporation specialising in creating the most advanced technologies in the world.

Based in Wotany, the setting’s equivalent of Germany, Wolsung Inc. is the symbol of the rapid development and commercial, as well as financial, success. What may seem striking, the authors do not even try to hide their inspirations and every book (core rulebook as well as a number of sourcebooks) is full of small ‘behind the scenes’ parts where the authors tell us directly which popcultural, historical and literary tropes and motifs inspired them. We can read, for example, that Wolsung’s elves are a mixture of those know from Tolkien, traditional British fae and typical, nineteenth century aristocrats. ‘If Lord Byron lived in Wanadia, he would be an elf’.[2]

wolsung cover

In 2014 the English version of the game was published under the title Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy. A game of cinematic action and it was followed by a translation of Extraordinary Voyages sourcebook. published only in English a set of several adventures titled The Day Urda Sank. Although the English version had to fight with a wide range of other steampunk RPGs available out there (to mention titles such as Etherscope, Victoriana and many others), it nevertheless attracted gamers’ attention.

The last instalment of the franchise was Wolsung Steampunk Skirmish Game, a skirmish miniature game. Developed by Micro Art Studios, the game offers the players a chance to control one of five factions known from the RPG which take part in skirmishes across Lyonesse, the capital of Alfheim (equivalent of Britain).

Over the last two years two collections of short stories set in the Wolsung setting has been published. Both included stories written by well-known Polish fantasy writers as well as those written by the fans. Although it has been a while since the last publication of any news sourcebook to Wolsung RPG, rich and unique character of the universe created by the authors continues to inspire.

 

Works Cited:

[1] http://www.steampulpfantasy.com/?page_id=10.

[2] A. Ganszyniec, Wolsung. Magia Wieku Pary (Kraków, 2009), p. 22.

Images © http://www.steampulpfantasy.com/

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