Why I'm here...

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

As our roleplay group has evolved, and our participation in it has changed over time, I thought I would try to put down into words why I'm playing this game.

These are my own reasons and certainly don't apply to anyone else. Perhaps a bit of musing on what I hope to get out of our playing around will at least help you to understand where I am coming from.
(This is necessarily a self absorbed post so if you are not interested feel free to ignore it. smile)

Hopefully some of it is informative and at least a bit entertaining.

I am a technical kind of guy. I love figuring out how things work, and how to keep them working, that is also my day job. I love to delve into the structures of things and how the parts fit together. I enjoy the beauty of mechanisms in action, how a machine or device is suited for its purpose, and how the elements of a design fit together to make the whole thing work. Perhaps that is a bit of a failing in that I would prefer an elegant, interesting, and simple, design over a modern, complex, even totally functional one.

I also love the Sea and ships. Having sailed on a traditional square rigger, on large and small yachts, and on small sail boats, I like to think I have some idea of the world of the old seafarers in their wind driven vessels. To face the harsh environment of the open sea, with none of the modern safety equipment and rescue services of today, is something hard for most people in today's overly safety conscious world to imagine. To actually want to face such an environment is even harder to understand.

As a sailor I see myself not as an officer, but more a common "Foremast Jack" in Napoleonic Royal Navy parlance. Poorly fed, abused by arbitrary authority, treated as a necessary evil by the system, a common sailor was a "cost" that needed to be minimized. Whether in the Navy or Civilian ships, the lot of the common seaman was never an easy one. However, his life was generally better than many men ashore during the whole of the 19th century. With the exception of that scourge of bad diets, known as scurvy, which afflicted people ashore as well as at sea well into the 20th century, the common sailor was healthier than many living in crowded, unsanitary cities and working in dangerous factories for minimal wages. Life at sea is tough and dangerous, and one mechanical failure, accident, or act of bad navigation away from simply disappearing off the face of the planet to become another statistic, a notice at Lloyds in London "Posted Missing Presumed Lost".

I enjoy being in that position for real and I like to imagine myself in such a "one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship" environment.

So to be blunt, I have a bit of a split personality. One side is technical, interested in the details of how things work, mechanically inclined and always ready (I like to think at least) to play with new technologies. The other side is simply happy to be a cog in the working of the primitive, but elegant, machine that is a sailing ship or early steam ship, whether commercial or naval. One side looks to the future the other side looks back to the past.

This is perhaps why I find Steampunk so compelling, there is a forward looking element, the great "what ifs" we play with, and a necessarily conservative and backwards looking element, that finds beauty in the old ways of the Victorian era. The later part of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th, saw an amazing explosion of new technologies, technologies that also had a profound impact on the society of the day. The impacts were far reaching, contained as they were in one of the largest empires in the history of the world.

How does a society handle having the very basis on which it developed so radically changed in so short a time?

Our modern world has NOT faced such a change, despite our great technological advances, simply because we were already past that hurdle. From our jaded perspective in the first decade of the 21st century, the changes wrought upon the newly industrialized societiess of Europe, while staggering in scale, are considered "quaint", occuring a they were within the apparently straightlaced and conservative Victorian era.

Which brings me to Airships, and OUR Airship in particular.

There were no practical airships in the Victorian era. Until the first few years of the 20th century, engines of sufficient power and lightness simply didn't exist. Balloons were highly developed and many people were experimenting, but really until the work of Santos Dumont in France and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Germany, nobody had much success. However, the first few years of the 20th century brought airships to the stage of working practical machines. Thirty years later the great rigid airships were, if only briefly, the lords of the sky.

So why are airships such a part of Steampunk, since Victorians could only have dreamt about them?

I think it is simply because they WERE a dream. In hindsight it would have been possible to build them in late Victorian times, had a couple of developments in engine technology been developed earlier. Combined with the vast increase in mathematical capabilities that a working Babbage Analytical Engine might have given engineers and inventors, all kinds of technological developments might have been accelerated. This acceleration would have resulted simply because the analysis of design changes could have been made without the expense and risk of physical prototyping. That is the jumping off point for Steampunk in my opinion.

Hence in the Steampunk world of "what ifs" it is not a great stretch to envision airships as being the logical extension of the tethered and free balloons that had existed for almost 100 years already. It is also logical that they would have been treated as "ships" due to their size, complexity and need for significant numbers of crewmen to man and handle them.

Our airship, the one we are roleplaying on, allows me to indulge both parts of my personality. We are a military airship, essentially the aerial version of the Royal Navy, plus we are a technological marvel of the time, one of the most advanced airships ever built AND an untested one at that. There is an element of risk associated with any new and untested technology. What better way to add spice to our roleplay than to also have to work around and survive the unexpected results of using such untested machines.
Our primary mission is not military however. Exactly what it is remains to be seen, so the crew is made up of military personnel and civilians, a very interesting mix. The possibilities for interesting roleplay in such a crew are fantastic.

As part of that roleplay I have chosen to be an old(ish) Royal Navy engineer who has worked his way up from a stoker and common sailor to an officer, a Lieutenant Commander (Engineering) or Lt Cmdr(E) for short, to be exact. He is in charge of the engineering "department" on our Airship, which is in the service of the Empire of Her Royal Britannic Majesty. He has seen many changes, from wind power to steam power on surface ships, from surface ships to airships, and other marvels he could never have dreamed of. Now in the latter part of an alternate 19th century he is surrounded by the wonders of technological "what ifs", magic, imagination and alternate history.

Steampunk is giving him (and therefore me) a chance to play in both a technological and historical fanstasy. It is letting me look at this amazing new world through the eyes of someone who has watched it all develop. He is not always happy about the changes he sees and he is not afraid of telling people about it either.

He is also a sailor, duty bound to, and enamored of, his ship as all true sailors are.

Being the engineering officer I want to play with the technical side of our airship, as much as I want to roleplay my position in the crew. I realize that the technical details are not of interest to many of my shipmates, any more than my real life shipmates cared how aerodynamics and fluid dynamics combined to make our ship sail across the Atlantic. But to me they are a large part of the fun.

As we prepare to take off and head out on our adventures, I am looking forward to keeping our ship in the air and flying towards our exotic destinations. Please forgive me if I occasionally get lost in the technical arcana of working on this new and untested technological marvel that is our fine ship, our home in the skies.


Laura Morrigan says:
at: January 10, 2013 at 4:29 AM said...

A very interesting and thought provoking post. One of the first things I found that I loved about Steampunk was that ability to play with reality, to change things up. Before that, I had always loved the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but I like to be able to play with facts, especially in my own writing, so this was very exciting for me. I love how fantasy and science fiction are combined with the past, and with altered social and gender roles. I am fascinated by, while not really having a huge grasp on the technical stuff. I am always impressed by those who really understand the mechanics. I love the idea of airships!

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