Writing for A Steampunk Universe

As the creative writer for Heavy Steam, I am the creator of an entire world. Does that sound amazingly awesome to you? It did to me, but then I had to put in the work. You know what Uncle Ben said about having great power? He wasn’t wrong. Read on to hear about it.


I attended PAX East 2013, and was lucky enough to play a few of the unpublished games developers brought for us to look at. However, I did not get to play the mech game a designer named Scott had brought to show us. After PAX I heard Jeff and Zach talk about how much fun it was, what a great idea it would be to publish… all it needed was a theme. “I’m thinking steampunk,” Jeff said. “Julie?”

Immediately I had to play the game so that I would know what I was writing for. We had a game session, and I really loved the elegance of the mechanics, even in that early session. I’m a fan of Flash Point and Pandemic, so I really appreciate when a resource management game has a theme that reflects the mechanics.

As for making our mechs work in a steampunk universe, you have to first understand the underlying fact of steampunk. In the world of steampunk, there’s a pivotal moment when the reality as we know it shifts from our timeline to the alternate one that takes us to a universe that could have happened.

To brainstorm what that shift was I turned to Zach. He is my first resource for throwing out ideas and thinking about the ramifications of them in a quick-think-aloud-no-idea-is-sacred kind of way. It makes for some intense conversations. We have created and destroyed several cosmos in the blink of an eye at this point. I wanted an energy/matter source that would redefine the industrial revolution. Zach posed the idea that for it to have impact in a timely fashion; our pivotal moment should take place around the time of the American Revolution. Then he threw out this postulation, “I would love it if North America blew up from a comet and just destroyed it.”

There it was: my reason for having a new element introduced, and the cause for a monumental shift in history. With no United States to become a heavy hitter during the industrial revolution, what might have happened? Little did I know what I was getting myself into.


Then began the dark days…. When writing for Zpocalypse my research involved re-watching Night of the Living Dead, and re-reading The Walking Dead. Even the CDC videos about preparing for a “zombie attack” are geared towards making kids aware of how disease spreads. Watching them is helpful and fun at the same time. Nothing prepared me for the hours upon hours of researching the European Industrial Revolution.

I love history, I really do. Also, I am a firm believer in filling your brain with as much information as you can so that your tank is always full for writing. However, I can say that the weeks of time I spent, reading the biographies of minor players in history, who could have become major players in our alternate history were not the best weeks of my life.

Why? For one thing, there is no visible output for the rest of the company to see.  I knew they realized I was working, but it’s hard to quantify. I feel for wizards. All that studying over a tiny candle in the wee hours of the night for that one firebolt… is it really worth it?

For another, you get a lot of eye rolling when someone casually names something a “Gatling Gun” and you freak out because that American inventor was never born.

Nevertheless, research is a necessary evil. It’s vital to the process if you are going to make an alternate history. History is no joke, it’s a complex tapestry of the lives of humanity, and “winging it” makes for terrible writing. I know because I have written some, and read others. However, finally I had a rough draft of a timeline. The first part of which can be seen on our BGG forums here. Go look, and comment at will.

Whose eyes are on this?

Once I (finally) was able to start writing, I needed feedback. Writing in a bubble is lovely. You can create lots of fun words all thrown together without interruption. It does not help you grow as a writer. It’s a painful lesson I have to relearn all the time. However, I do like to have feedback one critique at a time. For each project I pick specific people. This time, my go-to person was ‎Neil Remiesiewicz, the primary writer for Hull Breach! If you don’t know Hull Breach, it’s a sci-fy card game where you play different factions vying for power using your military bases and ships manned with marines out in space. The man knows a little something about alternate storylines with a military focus. He’s also an awesome writer.

Every time he had a comment that started with “Military Rant:” I breathed a sigh of relief. As a military history buff, I knew he would see things I would not. It also meant when showing my writing to the team after, I felt FAR more confident yelling at them for the Gatling Gun.

Heavy Steam: The Longest Night

The tension in the room was palpable.

The power struggle had been going on for decades, before any of the leaders in the room had been alive. Once long ago, France and England had fought for superiority through colonization; as each amassed more land they had more power. Everything changed with The Great Blight, a meteor that hit North America during the start of the American Revolution with enough force to scourge the land. The rippling effects shrouded the planet in darkness. These two great powers were thrown into chaos.

From the wreckage of what was once a beautiful continent came stories of horror… but also a cache of zenjin- so named by DaVinci during his experiments with the exotic stone found in small pockets all over Asia. This wondrous compound could be used as a cleaner more efficient fuel or tempered with metals to make materials stronger than steel. England saw this as its opportunity to rise from the ashes. It began testing and refining the use of zenjin for the purpose of becoming the great nation it once was. Re-shifting focus meant aligning themselves with their former colonies and conquered lands in a more diplomatic and commercially beneficial manner. Thus the UK Alliance was formed. Many of the countries of Europe were approached to join this group. Some politely declined…others were less diplomatic. Of those in the latter category, France was seen as the greatest threat.

The alliance used its wide-spread resources to begin building a mechanized man, taller than a giant, and more powerful than any weapon ever dreamed of. The great hope was that one day this mech would help prevent any non-allied countries from invading England.

Then, over forty years ago rumors began that France had prioritized their mechanical weapons’ program. The UK Alliance, working on their own “Stewpots” as they were affectionately called, were not in a position to force France to stop. This uneasy dance around each other escalated when the technological know-how of France and mechanical application of Germany combined forces as the Central Europe Trust. The UK Alliance realised immediately that the C.E.T. also intended to make an automated vehicular assault weapons of superior firepower and incredible strength.

Still the “peace” held even when Glasgow University hawas leveled by “The Hideous Monster of the Mist.” This location had been the hub of all the UK Alliance’s new technology. It’s true purpose was known only by the scientists who worked there, the spy who had relayed the information and had met her untimely demise for it, and a handful of leaders.  Its destruction forced the UK Alliance to make The Great Reveal.  When the mechs of the UK became public knowledge, there was an immediate outcry for attack against the mainland. This pressure only subsided with the naval encounter that left both sides bereft of one of their Steam Titans and the brave men and women who piloted them. In the backlash of sentiment, both sides agreed to a peace treatise. Once it was signed, the silent struggle began anew.

From that moment on, when each new facet of their power struggle revealed itself, they quietly gathered information, stockpiled their engineering feats of wonder, and bided their time until they were sure of victory.

Time had run out.

Since the General’s spies had learned of the C.E.T.’snew schematic, the countdown to war was inevitable.

“We need to take action!” said General Stuffit. “Our moment has come! Dash it all, our moment has past, and we may be too late!”

“You have no way of knowing that!” replied Colonel Snidely. “We haven’t verification on these builds coming to fruition. For all we know the information was false in the first place!”

“You ignorant pup. You have enjoyed the fruits of our hard-won peace all these years and have never cut your teeth in real battle. How can one expect you to understand that this kind of thing takes action! Swift decisive action!”

A calm voice cut through the debate: “We cannot move without knowing where the Titans are located. And make no mistake Colonel, they do exist. We wait to make the precision attack of a surgeon rather than the sweeping attack of a brawler at the local gentlemen’s club. If we can eliminate their power source, we will win the war in a fortnight. Otherwise….” and General Smith lapsed into silence. The room collectively contemplated the toll of a long war, and the tension resumed.

They heard the clicking of footsteps at the end of the hall. As gentlemen it was unseemly to rush to meet them, but several stood and braced for the news.

The messenger burst in through the heavy oak doors. His composure shot, and in a most ungentlemanly fashion he burst out, “It is true! All of it! Our informant died in the attempt to give me the proof, but proof we have! They’ve done it. They’ve successfully tested the German Heavy Mech and are assembling several and readying for attack! God have mercy on us!”

“How long until it’s ready?” asked General Smith.

“One month. Two if there are setbacks, Sir.”

“There won’t be setbacks. They have been planning this moment since I was a much younger man. We can strike now or we can have blood on English soil before summer arrives.”

The leaders of a great nation stared into the uncertain abyss in an uncomfortable silence.

“Gentlemen, it has begun. Tomorrow we go to war.”