By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 15 May 2019
It is no small secret that I absolutely love the concept of steampunk, and will jump at an opportunity to read in on a steampunk setting. When I met the guys behind Pure Steam at CharCon earlier this month, we got to talking and they were kind enough to send me a copy of their newly released D&D 5th Edition version of Pure Steam. I was pretty stoked with what I was told about it, and knew I had to see it for myself.
Now that I’ve had a chance to check it out, let’s take to the skies and get right to it!
Reviewer’s Note: A copy of the PDF was provided for review. This has in no way influenced the critical analysis of the work, nor has it positively benefited the score. Artwork has been pulled directly from the book, with credit to the artists Alejandro Lee and Mates Laurentiu.
Pure Steam was pitched to me as a unique steampunk setting that could stand alone or be dropped into any D&D-powered fantasy setting as-is. It was touted as fully compatible with D&D 5th Edition (with a Pathfinder version available), and that the setting alone was a worthwhile read.
From the intro of the book itself, “Pure Steam isn’t your grandma’s steampunk.”
==What You Get==
Pure Steam for 5e weighs in at 147 pages, two of which are dedicated to the cover of the book. Within these pages, we are given the setting, a United States fantasy analog called the Federated States of Ullera, in addition to two new classes, a collection of abilities with a different view of magic, new monsters, new equipment, and how all of them can be used as a stand-alone setting or interjected into your own Dungeons and Dragons game at home.
It is hard to begin by not addressing the elephant in the room: this is literally a 5e and Pathfinder compatible steampunk setting. We get all of the races we see in these games, with a setting that is familiar yet exotic, written in a way to allow all of these races to coexist, and then we get all of the trappings of steampunk: airships, steam-powered stagecoaches, firearms, augmented limbs, and more! That alone is worth the price of admission if you want this in your game!
There’s also some great details for the Federated States of Ullera (FSU), the setting provided in Pure Steam. In addition to the timeline we are provided and a brief lexicon of terms (like what the Orcs call themselves), we are given entries for each of the major parts of the FSU. Each entry includes not only the obligatory racial makeup and languages spoken, but also includes faces (my only complaint being only one or two get statted at a time), but include imports, exports, and an abbreviated history of the land and its people. To me, having a face and showing how they are alike (or different!) from the locale speaks volumes for it, and the added details can help with making the game session feel alive.
With that in mind, the artwork we have is wonderful. While nothing is in color beyond the cover, the designs are highly detailed, and almost everything we have, including NPC designs, images of money, creatures, and the various bits of equipment are all wonderfully done. While I find the lack of cityscapes, additional maps, and “group shots” a disappointment (as they can really bring things together and help visualize locales), there’s enough art here to be interesting and get some points across.
Living in West Virginia, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inclusion of Mothman, and the role that cryptids fill within the game. Yes, we get the classic “monsters” you can battle it out with, but you also get lore additions by invoking a name like this. The writer has informed me that we will be seeing more cryptids as time goes on, including stats, so I am curious what will happen there!
Finally, as a 5e supplement, I have to say I am fond with what’s been added here. The bestiary is a blast and adds some wonderful, worthwhile content to a 5e game, ranging from the steam dragon to automated battle sentry, and my personal favorite (and arguably the most original addition): the cadaver cactus. We are given two new classes, as well as a set of Archetypes for each of the original core classes. Rules for airships and airship combat are provided, as are the necessary items for any steampunk setting from gadgets to firearms. There’s a functional setting, plot hooks, NPCs, and organizations to borrow from as needed, regardless of if you are using the setting as written or not. As the book was written with 5e in mind, all of the abilities can be linked to something in the core rulebook, such as technological items replacing magical items, or tech replacing magical effects, making balance and compatibility and easy objective to attain.
I’ll start with one that is obvious to me and is sadly becoming a standard in the industry: this book has some quality issues. Sporadic typos caught my eye, whether they were misspelled words, added (or missing!) punctuation, or odd spacing (putting a space between a letter and the rest of the word it belongs to, no spacing between words, etc). I also had an issue with loading some of the bigger images on my tablet, including my HP Envy in tablet mode. Not sure what causes that sort of glitch, but it is frustrating.
On a note related to “standard in the industry,” I’m slightly irked that g*psy is unabashedly used in this book. Considering its history as a racial slur, and how often the discussion of its status as a racial slur has been appearing over the last few years, I find this usage problematic, but this is doubly so when one considered the number of other name changes made to our world history for this setting (names of tribes changed and the peoples shifted to different fantasy races, for example), yet we still get the stereotype of “wandering, superstitious, and magical people.”
That said, as much as I like the attention to detail in this book, I feel like there’s gaps in the picture. While we are given something equal to the eastern portion of the United States, with hints (and a book!) regarding the Western Territories, the rest of the world is left open without anything more than a vague hint. This trend continues on, as we are given names of NPCs, but little else, as well as a note of a major potential plot hook that is ignored for the rest of the book (a leader possessed by the ghost of the founder? How is this not a plot hook?!). As it stands, Pure Steam brings a side dish to the table but left the main course at home.
Part of this comment, while harsh, comes about due to trying to track terms, history, and organizations. We are given names of groups, such as the Dominion, but nothing about them beyond their conquering using slaves, their outlawing of magic, and eventual defeat. We get a small “lexicon” at the beginning of the book for certain names used, such as the in-world name for Orcs, or what the Feral Expanse is, but it doesn’t quite cover everything and leaves me with more questions than answers.
Finally, as a setting, I’m just not entirely into it. To me, it feels like what every other steampunk setting has done: borrow elements from the real world, add in some fantasy elements, and go from there. I walked in expecting Shadowrun meets Deadlands and Victoriana, and instead I got steam-powered Dungeons and Dragons. We are given hints of things that could make this more than that, such as the concept of “pure steam”, and the book even states “Pure Steam isn’t your grandma’s steampunk.” At the end of the day, I’m just not finding enough beyond a revised US history with fantasy races and coal-powered steam, so the pitch I was fed just falls short for me.
Maybe I’m not the target audience here with my background and experiences, but it was lacking for me. I think part of this disappointment stems from the author mentioning that this was going to be a new experience, even for an old hand like me. If anything, it feels more like an “intro to steampunk”
I find that using the United States as a template is a double-edged sword for this product. On one hand, it makes it familiar territory for players living here in the U.S., and there’s already a number of allusions one can make to draw players in. For example, a big sales pitch at CharCon was the emphasis on cryptids and the idea of Harmonia being an analogue of Appalachia. While reading it, I absolutely see the various references to West Virginia history, culture, and myths, and I see subtle nods to other parts of the country as well as I read.
While this can absolutely be used to draw people in, it can be bothersome for some who want to have more fantasy to their games. One of the issues I often faced with running anything remotely similar to a real place was the arguments at the table about whether or not the place/people/culture was actually like that. Another is just the desire to have that disconnect. Your mileage may vary depending on your own game and preferences, of course.
I’m not sure if it’s due to trademark issues, but we never see “Dungeons and Dragons,” but often see appearances of “the 5th edition of the world’s most popular pen and paper RPG”, which just becomes awkward after the second time it shows up.
I do have some minor concerns with the balance in the game. On one hand, the mechanics here are pretty solid and have been based on D&D 5e: healing items and drugs all have logical in-game effects, the wondrous technological marvels are well-balanced and have counterparts with magical items, and the classes all have inspirations from existing classes; it all works.
Sadly, I’m worried about some of the gear elements, as there are clear advantages to the firearms here (double damage compared to equally prices crossbow), as well as the general technological aspects available in the setting. It’s all compatible, but the idea of just dropping Ullera into a fantasy setting as-is might destabilize a few aspects of some games thanks to technology. This might not be an issue at all for your games, but I know a few min-maxers that want to get their hands on the firearms of this book, even if the ammunition costs more than a crossbow bolt, as well as some other tech like gas masks and the like.
Finally, I’m wondering just how much of my concerns is caused by system changes. The Pathfinder version of this book is 226 pages, while this is only 147; what was lost when nearly eighty pages were cut? Were they setting? Mechanics? Explanations? I am not a Pathfinder player, so I won’t know what was cut for this, but it does make me wonder what, if anything, was snipped from one edition and the other, which may have lead to more problems than expected. Just speculating here, of course, but it does leave me questioning if we lost something useful or good.
Even with the boilers going at full capacity, Pure Steam has to fight to earn the 2.5 buns I am giving it. I believe if I were more the target audience of a 5e player that didn’t have the same background in steampunk, it could climb as high as a 3.5, but not much more than that.
The idea of bringing compatible steampunk to the popular fantasy elements of D&D is a wonderful idea, and by including new (and balanced!) classes to go with it while utilizing already existing rulesets to ensure the new additions remain balanced it well done. Sadly, the game doesn’t live up to its promise of being a new and original steampunk setting, but rather just feels like a generic setting with fantasy elements (or a fantasy setting with steampunk elements).
If you have a love of steampunk, fun creatures, familiar notes in your fantasy setting, and want all of this to be brought to your D&D game, then absolutely pick up a copy of Pure Steam!
If you aren’t a fan of crossing the streams of fantasy and steampunk, have enough steampunk settings to work with, and/or aren’t too keen on more D&D rules on your shelf, then give this a pass.
Pure Steam was published by ICOSA Entertainment, LLC, and is available for purchase as a PDF on DriveThruRPG for $9.95 as of this writing. The Pathfinder version is also available for the same price, and print copies can be purchased by your local game store according to the Pure Steam website.