As of this moment, the Ministry Initiative Kickstarter (a steampunk FATE-powered RPG and fiction project) has raised about 15k $, with 5k $ to go in the next 5 days. If you’ve been on the fence, or if this is the first time you hear about it, here’s an interview with the authors. J.R. Blackwell and PJ Schnyder talked to us about some of the themes dearest to our hearts – steampunk, costuming, suffragettes, Victorian dildoes and the game design process.
Kira: I’ve been a Steampunk fan ever since I read the Difference Engine many years back. The culture has gone through a lot of shifts since then, regaining popularity in the past ten years. William Gibson has posited that this renewed of interest in Steampunk is because our current age is very similar to the Victorian age. They had bursts of technological advancement that radically changed their lives (steam trains) just like we do (the internet). How does The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences engage with these concepts?
J.R.: The first time I went to a steampunk convention, I was amazed by how polite everyone was there. Everyone looked magnificent in their tailored outfits and people smelled great!
We live in an increasingly casual world. This is really great in some ways, but there is a longing for a formal past. I don’t think we actually WANT the past, with it’s classism and sexism and racism, and all it’s other ism’s that still hang on us today. Steampunk, in some ways, is a method of having our cake and eating it too – having the lovely etiquette and technology without having to accept the ism’s that roll along with it.
The Ministry allows us to create that setting, to roll technology and that formal manner and the outfits all together into a setting that fits our values. The Ministry is in love with gadgets. Weapons, analytical engines, weird transportation, all of that. Since The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences focuses on secret agents, gadgets, especially cutting edge gadgets are a big part of their lives. The Agents are on the cutting edge, and they are dealing with adversaries who are often using cutting edge technology to execute their plots, so the Agents are often dealing with technology that is new, untested and sometimes dangerous.
Kira: What have you written before in the Steampunk genre?
J.R.: I wrote “Women of the Empire”, a short piece of fiction in The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences world. It’s about dildos. I wrote my thesis in psychology on Hysteria, and some of my research focused on the Victorian era. I got to look at many dildo designs from the era as a part of that research. I integrated that into a story. It’s very silly. You have been warned.
PJ: In the world of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, I wrote “A Swan in Siam” set in Thailand in 1863. It references my favorite folktale from Thai mythology, the legendary kinaree and the story of Manora.
Fun fact: I studied traditional Thai Dance and performed the dance of รำมโนราห์ บูชายันต์ (Manora: Into the Fire) in college. I took to wearing weights on my wrists in practice to be able to lift the heavily embroidered wings of the costume. Weight training and Thai dance. Yup.
Also, things go boom in “A Swan in Siam.” What’s steampunk and gadgetry without a few explosions?
My other steampunk short story, “Evie’s Gift,” was originally published as a holiday short. It is now being revamped as the prequel to a much longer trilogy
Kira: How would you describe The Ministry RPG setting and characters? (Are there combat corsets and dirigibles?)
J.R.: It’s character-driven steampunk secret agents. There are reinforced corsets, airships, weird weaponry and all sorts of steam powered devices. We’re powered by Fate (with a few modifications) which we adore because of the simplicity and flexibility in the system. It was important to us that fans of the novels could enjoy the game, even if they were new to gaming.
Kira: Women in Steampunk can be a little tricky, because they’re situated in a setting that has the potential to be very oppressive toward women (alternate Victorian England). How do you plan on making women interesting, three dimensional characters?
J.R.: In the novels on which our setting is based, the Suffragette movement plays a large part in the plot, so we are already primed to integrate that into the RPG. In our world, women are secret agents just as often as men are, and character creation is the same for both genders. Galileo Games actually has strict guidelines about the roles of women in it’s products, all of which are focused on presenting women as fully developed characters. I feel very fortunate to work with a feminist publisher. With the two writers of the game being women, this is a very important topic to us both.
I think this is an important element for gaming groups to discuss before they begin play. Sometimes a group will want to really engage with difficult issues, explore sexism as a theme? Or do they just want to have a fun adventure? I don’t see it as a betrayal of the genre to say that you are going to exclude sexism as a theme from your game. Sometimes, after a day of dealing with sexism, you really don’t want to engage with it in your game. Groups need to have up front- honest conversations about that before they play the game. This is mentioned in the book because we both think it’s important that people who play the game enjoy the experience, if it’s engaging with these issues, or saying “it’s just not a problem in our world” and having a nice, egalitarian world to play in.
Kira: Will costuming be a big part of the game? I can picture people dressing up for tea and a sit down with their favorite Steampunk rpg.
J.R.: It’s a tabletop game, so costuming isn’t necessary for players, but it’s certainly encouraged! Costuming is great for getting everyone in the mood. However, characters may have gadgets that are integrated into their clothing (bullet-proof corsets) and, with steampunk, what you wear is especially important, so we plan on having a section for that on your character sheet.
Giulia: How does your development process as a design team work? Both from the perspective of the overarching approach to managing a group, to lessons learned in playtesting and feedback loops.
PJ: J.R. and I are working very closely as we develop The Ministry Initiative RPG. We’re taking a component based authoring approach where we’ve created an outline and separate component documents on a shared drive location. Sections are assigned to a primary author (either me or J.R.) for first draft. The secondary author (whichever of us wasn’t the primary) adds detail or dependent information once the initial draft is written. There are many sections throughout the RPG that are interdependent, so J.R. and I are live-editing each of the components continually as opposed to emailing the entire book back and forth. Reviews are conducted by Brennan from the overall game perspective, and consultation occurs with Tee and Pip for continuity with The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel series and Tales from the Archives.
We’re very happy with the results thus far and feel this approach allows us to create a cohesive game with a strong steampunk aesthetic throughout setting, world building, and game mechanics. Gamers unfamiliar with the series will be able to pick up this RPG and run a fun steampunk adventure, while fans of the series will recognize many elements they love from The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels.
In terms of feedback, we are releasing a preview sample of the first 3 chapters to Backers of the Kickstarter very soon. Those with suggestions, questions, or errors identified will be able to fill out a quick form to let us know so that we can dynamically incorporate changes during the revision process. The full draft will be circulated in a similar way for feedback prior to final revisions. Plans for playtesting are in the works and Backers will be the first to know how and when.
J.R.: We are all fans of the novels, The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, and we have been working with the novelists to ensure that the RPG is accurate to the novels. We are also working together to makes sure that the RPG has appeal to people who have never read the novels before, but would enjoy stepping into a rich steampunk setting.
PJ and I are writing the RPG. I am responsible for mechanics, adjusting Fate Core to work in our particular setting, and PJ is responsible for the setting itself. Exhaustive outlining has been a great help to us as we writing together, assigning specific sections that are sometimes as small as a paragraph.
Brennan Taylor, author of How We Came to Live Here (among many other games) is responsible for editing the game. Since we are located far from each other, most work and meetings take place online. One thing that has been great in this process is how much we all trust each other to accomplish what we need to get done, and we trust that everyone wants to make the best game possible.