Etherscope, by Goodman Games, is one of the steampunk settings on my Special Shelf, and a game I never actually played – I prepared a campaign, I read and re-read the Second Printing Revised rulesbook, but I was never able to get the players around the table long enough to actually properly play it.
And yet, I like it a lot.
The game is set in a transformed 1984, in a world in which the discovery of “Etherspace” (sort of like a parallel dimension than can be tapped through technology) has caused a great leap forward in technology.
The tone of the game is fairly dystopian, but the authors, Nigel McClelland and Ben Redmond, have placed all the right bits on the map.
What I particularly like is the fact that they have imagined some very Victorian developments.
Eugenics, for instance – which was something the Victorians were pretty keen about – has given rise to different classes of human beings, so that in the world of Etherscope social status depends on the genes… literally on the (perceived) quality of one’s genetic makeup.
And this also leads to hybrid races, of course, in line with stories like Island of Doctor Moreau.
The game also calls into play a Fey race of Lemurians – and if the elven-like fey are not exactly to my tastes (but hey, that’s just me, right?), I like the idea of Lost Lemuria a lot: everything’s better with a few lost cities and ancient artifacts waiting in the wings, and once again the concept of a lost civilization is in line with Victorian views and expectations, .
So are spiritualism and, yes, rampant technocracy.
While being pretty standard in its depiction of the post-Victorian society, in line with the consensus steampunk look & feel, the setting is very deep, and I’m not surprised this game was nominated as best D20 product for the 2006 ENnies.
Yes, because this is a D20 game.
Which you might like or not, depending on your views.
I am not particularly hot for the D20, and in fact I think that’s the reason why we never actually played this otherwise great game – D20 is time-consuming in terms of set-up and character creation, and with a team of old tired gamers with little free time, it can really bog the game down.
Apart from the system, the only other pet peeve might be with the artwork, that is fair and adequate, but sometimes lets down the game.
Certainly, what counts is the contents of the 300-pages handbook, and the contents are quite good.
But certainly the adoption of striking visual would have contributed in bringing the world to life.
Once again, I like very much the idea of building a technology and a whole scientific paradigm based on what the Victorians considered to be hard science, or even simply in the field of the possible.
That’s why – for instance – there will be mammoths and saber-tooth tigers in GreyWorld… because the Victorian world view considered it possible for prehistoric animals to still be around somewhere.
As for Lemuria… ah, that would be telling!
To me, Etherscope remains a great read and a missed opportunity for play.
I even toyed with the idea of a Radical System Transplant1, but right now, the work and the effort are better be directed to the development of my own setting. Etherscope will remain a great read and a great source of inspiration, and a missed opportunity.
And what about you out there?
Is there a game you love, and yet never played?
- which, you will agree, sounds quite Victorian and extremely pulp-ish, as a concept ↩