1879: Mechanics: Clockworks Vs. Weird Science

What is the point where clockwork devices shade over in to Weird Science? This question arises frequently, from players of Brassmen and Herons, from Gamemasters, from people who have read the rules and see a sort of grey, muddy area between the two. Well, this is the British Empire. A great deal of the UK is grey and muddy. No wonder they set out for the Gruv so readily. Yes, it’s got scorpions the size of steam-coaches, but the sun is bright and warm. Let’s see if we can shed a bit of that light on this subject.

First, we need to define our terms. “Clockwork” refers to mechanisms that regulate effort. These range from the escapement in a beam engine that opens and closes the valves as the beam rocks to and fro, to the Differential Engine at an automated lighthouse that turns the carbon-arc lamps on and off according to the time of day and telegraphic signals sent from the weather service. The key to clockworks lies in “mechanism” and “regulate”. Here’s part of the text of the Clockwork Skill definition from the 1879 Players Guide:

The character may design and build complex mechanical objects that operate by gears in an automatic fashion, using a physical source of energy such as weights, springs, or steam. These devices may range from pocket watches to wind-up musicians, as long as they operate according to a regular movement of interlocking machinery. Devices may be restricted to a single function, or may have multiple functions using cam-based programming, and perform complex operations in each.

Clockworks are regular, predictable, and can be built by anyone with the training and the proper tools. While it may take many years to become a skilled horologist, given the time, the steadiness of hand, sufficient visual acuity, and enough determination, anyone can learn to repair a watch.

Weird Science devices, on the other hand, do not always involve mechanisms. They may or may not provide any form of regulation of effort. The work done is inherently magical, ranging from guns that throw lightning bolts, to space heaters that tap the True nature of Fire and need no ordinary fuel, to tricycles that ascend into the air when pedaled. Again, let’s go to the 1879 Players Guide, and look at the Craft Device Skill, which is used to create these items:

This ability is not considered magical in-game. People in the game world believe that device crafting is an application of poorly understood scientific principles by fringe scientists, whose work for reasons not immediately understood cannot be replicated except by other fringe scientists of the same School. From a game mechanic standpoint, use of this Skill falls under Enchanting (pg.411). From an in-character standpoint, it falls under Weird Science. The character may create and repair complex devices, and incorporate spell effects, special powers, or abilities into them.

Building the device is just the foundation. The key is the incorporation of non-mechanical effects. The Weird Scientist, whether a Heron putting together a clockwork that will do things no clockwork could ever do on its own, a Promethean breeding a new form of creature that might or might not breach the boundaries of propriety, or a Newtonian bottling up the concept of time in their laboratory, goes well beyond the capabilities of their base field (engineering, biology, chemistry) and out into the far reaches where magic takes over.

As a rule of thumb, if the device can be built with a Skill Test out of ordinary parts lying about by a mundane craftsman, it’s Clockwork. If it takes an Enchanter doing arcane things in a specially equipped laboratory, it’s Weird Science.

Tally Ho!