1879: Adventure in the Gilded Age

One of the things that sets 1879 apart from most other steampunk games is the time period in which it is set. By placing the start of the game era in the calendar year of 1879, we’ve put the game well past the Industrial Revolution, at the border between the Age of Steam and the Age of Electricity. We’ve also put it past the era most people usually think of as the Victorian age, the time of Dickens, and into an era of conspicuous consumption and moral decline among the wealthy known as the Gilded Age.

Now, the term “Gilded Age” actually comes from the United States, and from a work by Sam Clemens, possibly one of the more scathing satires from a man who wrote with a scalpel to begin with. This was a time when the United States was experiencing a flood of immigrants, who provided cheap labor, but were reviled by citizens whose own parents had been immigrants just a generation before. The boom to the economy, finally recovering from the Civil War a generation previous, sent capital upwards to the wealthy in a torrent of cash, resulting not in further investment but instead in lavish parties, expensive clothing, and massive expansion of business empires. This age saw the rise of the railroad barons, the creation of dynasties in the United States that persist to this day, thriving on the inherited wealth from seven generations back or so.

Does any of this sound familiar?

One of the founding assumptions of the FASA cosmology, one that is more overtly discussed in Earthdawn, is that history is cyclical, that the Great Patterns repeat themselves. Thus, in the Earthdawn world, in the Age of Legend, we have a land called Indrisa, that looks very much like a mythical age version of India, albeit one viewed through a heavy Western filter. (1879 is bringing in a writer from India to do the Raj sourcebook, so that we can hear the story from the Indian perspective.) If history is cyclical, and the same stories get told over and over in new interpretations, then what we, you and I, the line developer and the reader of this blog, are now experiencing is a repeat of the Gilded Age. A reflection, a new story cycle recycling the same plotline, and that can go backward as well as forward.

One of the founding premises of 1879 is that we could have done better. When designing the alternate history of the game world, we, the developers, looked at pivotal events in history, and said, what if humanity had been better, what if we had made the more difficult but morally more sound choice? What if we had taken the high ground instead of the easy road? In many cases, single events, choices by individuals, one person choosing to take a different route steered the course of history down another road. This ties in to the precepts of Earthdawn, that the right people making the tough decisions and doing the right thing can in fact alter the course of history. Adepts in Earthdawn can change the path of nations. Adventurers in a morally corrupt age, where the super-wealthy live an existence of total indulgence and supreme greed, where the average person exhausts themselves each day for barely enough to eat and a roof over their head in a slum with no indoor plumbing, can perhaps make things better.

Surrounded by the luxury of the Gilded Age, will you be distracted by the shiny toys of new technology, the gleam of brass and the hiss of microsteam, enchanted by the lure of the newly awakened magic of the world, or will you find a path through that supports a fair society? If all you’re after is a rollicking adventure, well, sure, you can do that, the game is set up to be played that way, but if you want adventures that lead to social change, there’s the Levellers, the Nightingale Sisters, the Reasonable Men, and so many other organizations that you could work with. You could even found your own.

What decisions will you make? Will you join the party at the Gilded Society Ball, and enjoy yourself with no care for tomorrow, or will you explore how we could, in fact, have done better?