I have an odd quirk as a gamer where fantasy is concerned.
While I really enjoy traditional medieval/renaissance fantasy as a player, a reader, and even as a writer, when I GM, I prefer to throw a significant amount of extra technological “stuff” in. My most successful fantasy game drew heavily on material from the DragonMech and Iron Kingdoms line – there was a lot of fantastical steam technology, including mechs, trains, firearms, and so on. This type of campaign setting seems to run counter so some fantasy “conventional wisdom” – a lot of people say they don’t want gunpowder in their fantasy, despite the co-existence of primitive firearms and armored knights on the same battlefields for a significant chunk of history. But it’s not even really guns that make the mix interesting to me.
While a lot of folks enjoy the absence of things like rapid transportation and rapid communication in their fantasy settings, and again, as a player, I tend to like that, too, as a GM, I find the absence of those things to be somewhat irksome. I have really come to appreciate the modern world and its conveniences, and that has bled into my GMing. So for the next few hundred words, I’m going to make my case for this niche style of fantasy.
One thing the “everything but the kitchen sink” style lends itself to particularly well is some interesting set pieces. For example: the train fight. Everybody knows that fighting on top of a moving train is a pulpy classic, but it gets a lot more interesting with magic involved. In most versions, getting knocked or thrown off the train may not be a death sentence (depending on the height and speed of the train and what’s next to the tracks) but it does take someone out of the fight, left behind by the moving train. In a fantasy game, that’s not necessarily the case – there are any number of flight powers, items, or spells available, to say nothing of teleportation magic, and that guy who got knocked off the train might be back a few rounds later. Speaking of things that fly, the presence of flying mounts also opens up new avenues of attack and can make the flight much more three-dimensional. Magic also means the train itself can get affected in various ways – suppressing the fire in the engine with magic will stop it in a hurry, and conjuring things like boulders onto the tracks can cause a derailment.
The more industrialized world also opens up new types of locations. Factories and the machinery and chemicals that come with them are the obvious pull, and even though things like dockyards exist long before anything resembling an engine is invented, once you get up to a steampunk level of tech, you’ve got big ol’ cranes to run along, truly massive ships, submarines, rail cars, and other cool stuff to hide in or behind, get on top of, swoop down from, collapse, or animate. However, think broader than that. Industrialization means paved roads, dams, taller buildings, and more dense and diverse market places, all of which can be interesting to fight through or visit in social and/or investigative scenes.
But more than the new weapons and set pieces, I think the thing that really pushes me toward at least a Victorian level of tech in my games is the way that level of advancement shapes the societies that achieve it. Soldiers on patrol for threats turn into legitimate, professional police forces, complete with detectives. Medicine goes to real, true hospitals potentially with anesthesia and definitely with sanitation, but country doctors making house calls still exist. Printing presses mean that journalism becomes a viable career path for both adventuring PCs and interesting NPCs that can support or annoy them. Or even both, for that matter. Mass printed news can also convey world events and adventure hooks in ways that feel believable. And interesting news stories can be a fantastic source of revenue for a freelance journalist PC, as one of my former PCs would no doubt attest to – selling news stories makes the adventure itself into treasure, in a sense. For example: the party got a significant amount of cash for publishing the story of how they found a lost civilization and reunited them with the rest of the world that they’d been cut off from for so long.
Non-fighting locations like telegraph offices also become important – and it bears mentioning that while the telegraph system may seem redundant with things like the sending spell, anyone can use a telegraph, not just a magic user of some kind. On the other hand, if you have a magic user, you can still get word out from the middle of nowhere.
All of this gives the GM additional narrative levers to pull on, and in my case, I enjoy them a great deal. The nice thing about stopping some time before automatic weapons and electronics
None of this, of course, is to say that traditional fantasy is bad or doesn’t work. As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy those settings as a player. But if you’ve been leery of trying a more modern and technological fantasy campaign, it can work, and furthermore, it can be a lot of fun.