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How to Use Magic in a Steampunk Roleplaying Campaign

Updated on June 2, 2011

The stereotypical role playing campaign involves the paranormal in some way, whether the characters have access to it or not. Dungeons and Dragons, the first real role-playing game, was practically built on a foundation of magic. Other games use psionics of some kind (ESP, telekinesis, etc.), the Force, or even “sufficiently advanced technology,” as Arthur C. Clarke would have it. Even Game Designers' Workshop’s ultra-hard-science-fiction game Traveller has optional rules for psionically adept characters. But a few settings don’t use magic at all. Steve Jackson’s Car Wars setting and Game Designers' Workshop's Twilight 2000 come to mind. Of course, there are also those GMs (history buffs, mostly) that create their own campaign settings that don’t include magic. Such campaigns usually center around espionage, crime, exploration, or some other facet of real life that allows for a bit of rough-and-tumble adventure as well as some brain work. But what if you wanted to do some historical role-playing and have magic as well? What follows are a few concepts that will allow you to bring a little magic into the ‘real’ world for your role playing pleasure. I’ll be dressing up these items in Victorian-era clothing because Steampunk is trendy at the moment, but there’s no reason you couldn’t send them further back, to the dawn of the Age of Reason, for example, or even into the future, in a star-faring campaign.

Lord Kelvin's harmonic analyser (1878).  (Image courtesy Andy Dingley and Wikimedia Commons)
Lord Kelvin's harmonic analyser (1878). (Image courtesy Andy Dingley and Wikimedia Commons)

GURPS is a very versatile rules set. It's only drawback is its vulnerability to min-maxing, but a clever GM will be able to work around this. GURPS is well-supported with sourcebooks for various fictional settings and eras of history. I can't recommend it highly enough.


The Dawn of an Era

When people make new discoveries or invent new things, sometimes human society changes on a fundamental level. Witness the social effects of writing, printing, movable type, and then see how people took the printed word and applied to it the advances in practical electrics: telegraphy, teletype machines, the internet. But none of the world’s scientific or technological advances changed the actual world on a fundamental level, after all. Humans didn’t create the elements; we merely isolated them. We didn’t create protons and neutrons and electrons; they were waiting for us inside the atoms. Electricity was always there. We merely figured out how to take advantage of it. Benjamin Franklin did not ‘discover’ electricity with his kite experiment. (In fact, some historians now question whether he ever conducted that experiment at all.) What that experiment did was to show that lightning was a form of electricity (which people had already been fiddling with for some time), and to demonstrate that even lightning could be influenced by people. Now that we understand more about how electricity works, we can do all kinds of cool stuff with it. And that’s exactly how magic could fit into the mundane world. Someone would first need to find a way to quantify it, then to harness it, and finally to make practical use of it. Here’s one way this could happen.

Measuring Magic

People have been reporting supernatural experiences since the beginning of recorded history. But nobody has ever been able to reliably reproduce a supernatural experience. That could be because there’s no such thing as magic, or it could be that we simply haven’t figured out how to measure it yet. Behold the Thaumometer!

Invented by Professor Benjamin Thrush, late of _________ College, Cambridge, the Thaumometer is a portable box-shaped device made of mahogany, inlaid with ivory, and trimmed with brass. An ivory-backed dial covered by a domed crystal, rather larger than that of a pocket-watch, dominates the top of the box. An intricately shaped vane of brass wire projects from one end. When in the presence of a field of magical energy, a needle sweeps from the left side of the dial toward the right. The more powerful the field, the further to the right the needle sweeps. Items of occult significance also register on the Thaumometer, though it is as yet unknown whether these items emit magical energy or merely direct it, as a pipe directs the flow of water. The device also reads different levels of Thaumic energy when aimed at different persons. Interestingly, there is no apparent pattern to the sort of person who will generate a high reading as opposed to a low one. A scientist and a mystic are equally likely (or unlikely) to have a higher than average Thaumometer reading. Most humans, however, produce a reading of about 10.5 Thaums.

GURPS Magic 4E Softcover
GURPS Magic 4E Softcover

The Magic sourcebook for the GURPS system.


Storing Magic

Using the same principles on which the Thaumometer is based, Professor Thrush has been able to create a vessel in which magical energy can be temporarily stored. The device, which would not seem out of place in a laboratory for electrical experiments, consists of a quartz sphere in a framework of brass wire. The outer framework forms a regular dodecahedron, with small points of quartz at each intersection of wire. The Thaumic Capacitor has been able to absorb up to thirty Thaums in controlled experiments (as measured by the Thaumometer), but the energy subsides over the course of time, at a surprisingly consistent rate of one Thaum every thirty-three minutes. Professor Thrush has been unable to explain the loss of Thaumic energy, or its regularity, but speculates that high concentrations of magical energy tend to diffuse naturally.

A rival researcher, Miss Fiona Butler-Greene, of ________, Surrey, suggests that the diffusion is caused not by a natural tendency of Thaums to disperse but rather the materials used in the Thrush Thaumic Capacitor. Miss Butler-Greene is currently engaged in a search for the perfect materials for retaining magical energy and claims to have had initial success when substituting amethyst at the points of intersection. Encouraged by this, she hopes to be able to demonstrate a working Butler-Greene Thaumic Capacitor to the Royal Society sometime before the New Year.

Both the Thrush Thaumic Capacitor and the Butler-Greene one are fragile constructs. A more robust design must be found before the storage and transportation of magical energy becomes practical.

Directing Magic

Energy that can neither be influenced nor controlled nor converted has very little practical use. Hoping to harness magical energy for practical purposes, Miss Fiona Butler-Greene has invented the Thaumic Influence Assembly. This Assembly is quite small, only slightly larger than a standard golf ball. The size of the assembly is due not to the inherent properties of the Thaum but rather the materials available to Miss Butler-Greene. The device is made of a hollow oak hemisphere with a small hole at the center, the inner surface of which is lined with gold leaf. Over the outer surface, nine regularly spaced silver wires trace a spiral pattern from the edge of the hemisphere to the center hole, where they hold a brilliant-cut diamond, point facing outward. This device, when held near an object with a high Thaumic energy reading, focuses the object’s Thaumic energy such that it the Thrush Thaumometer cannot detect it anywhere but at or in front of the diamond itself.

Miss Butler-Greene’s initial design for the Thaumic Influence Assembly was much larger and made use of a piece of topaz at the focal point, but initial experimentation caused the rapid deterioration of the gem. Other materials met with similar results. It is not yet understood why the smaller device with a diamond as the focus is successful because of its size, because of the use of diamond, or both, or if the small diamond would be equally successful in the larger Assembly. Miss Butler-Greene has been wary of experimenting further due to lack of funds to replace a potentially destroyed diamond.

Amplifying Magic

Thus far, nobody in the English–speaking world has been able to produce a device for intensifying or amplifying magical energy, but there are rumors of work being done on a Thaumic Resonator somewhere in the Ottoman Empire. If true, the existence of an experimental Thaumic Resonator implies the existence of a Turkish version of the Thaumometer and suggests that there may also exist a Thaumic Capacitor or Thaumic Influence Assembly.

It is unknown what effect magical energy will have on animate or inanimate matter at higher levels or at greater focus than found in nature.

GURPS Steampunk Hardcover
GURPS Steampunk Hardcover

If you're going to drop magic into a steampunk world, this book will be an excellent jumping-off place. Again, this is a book I haven't read yet, but Steve Jackson Games produces quality stuff. It'll be worth the money.


Thaumatological Adventure Seeds

Here are a few ideas for adventures in a world where magic has just been “discovered.”

Out of the Bottle

A thaumatological experiment has gone wrong, and… something… has escaped. It’s up to the characters to find it and deal with it.

The escaped entity has left a trail of injured or dead lab assistants. If the entity is not found and neutralized before it reaches London, who knows how many lives will be lost?

Perhaps the entity has become self-aware and feels remorse for the destruction it has caused. It fears ‘death.’ Do the characters have the right (let alone the ability) to end its existence? Alternatively, the entity is one of the lab’s technicians in a new, non-physical, form. Can the characters convince this new meta-person to control himself and do his duty for king and country?

Secret Weapon

In a secret lab in the Hebrides, a successful means of focusing and projecting magical energy has been perfected.

The Thaumatologist in charge of the project has disappeared, along with the Thaumic Projector apparatus. The characters must find and recover both the Thaumatologist and the apparatus; if they cannot be recovered, they must be rendered useless to the foreign power that has stolen them. The characters must follow the trail and defeat several skilled foreign spies before they can recover their quarry.

When the characters learn about their mission, they discover that the missing scientist has some kind of relationship to one of the characters. A sibling? A former romantic interest? A rival? Will the relationship make it impossible for the characters to kill the scientist if she cannot be rescued? Or will it make them less motivated to save her?

The New Aristocracy

The characters attend a demonstration of the new Thrush Thaumometer. One of them causes the thaumometer to register the highest reading ever recorded from a human subject, by a wide margin.

The implications of this reading are unkown, but the character in question is soon approached by several different organizations with offers of employment. One of the organizations will be the government of the country they are in at the time. Another will be a foreign intelligence service. Perhaps a criminal organization or two will also approach her.

Which organization, if any, will the character accept? What will the other organizations do when she rejects them?


One or more of the characters is part of the team that discovers a method for using ambient thaumic energy to power a machine.

The announcement is met with mixed reactions. Railroad and shipping companies are pleased, and look forward to eliminating the expense of coal from their balance sheets. Mining companies, among others, are less pleased with the news. Members of the development team start disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Can the characters find their missing colleagues? Are they alive or dead? Who will be the next target?

Other Unanswered Questions

If magical energy is discovered and quantified, what will be the reaction of various long-established groups? Will scientists welcome the news or scoff at it? What about religious organizations? Will the Church view this discovery as proof of divine (or demonic) influence in the world? Will the new group of thaumatologists be celebrated or shunned? What about the royal houses of Europe, the robber barons of the young United States, the Shogun of Japan or the Emperor of China? Will they seek to co-opt thaumatology and use it to hold onto their power, or will they seek to suppress it? What if a group of magical practitioners already exists in the shadows of society? Will they feel that they can finally reveal themselves to the rest of humanity? Or will they feel threatened by this new technomancy?


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    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Hi, Beltane73, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • Beltane73 profile image

      Holly Kline 4 years ago from South Jersey

      Awesome!! Great hub. I'll be following you now. :)

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      An FMA-based campaign would be an interesting one, Rachel. I'd be surprised if there weren't an FMA sourcebook already in existence. Steamy magic is fertile ground for all kinds of campaign ideas.

      But magic can live in a modern setting as well, with the discoveries being made not by "Gentlemen Philosophers" but by the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, or perhaps NASA astronomers. String 'theory' is still kind of magical; the math only makes sense to a very small segment of the population (I'm not one of them), and even they disagree on what it means. If someone could construct an experiment to test string theory, figure out where all the gravity comes from, and learn how to change its focus and flow, it would be a huge change to our world. If misused, such power might even wreck the place. But what if gravity is merely a by-product of the thaumic field that 'really' keeps the planets in their orbits and so forth?

      Lots of potential.

    • La Pit Master profile image

      La Pit Master 6 years ago from On Your Tabletop

      Very creative and well written. You should write RPG supplements for a living. I'm a GURPS fan 2.

    • IdeaMan1 profile image

      Michael Marcus 6 years ago from Hamtramck, Michigan

      Well... I don't know how good of a system based on FMA would be; they're actually quite fuzzy on what can or cannot be done, characters' power-levels, and the like. Certainly, something like that could be developed in GAME (a universal role-playing system by Hamtramck Idea Men), but for that matter, so could something like the Thaumatic Studies, as described above, or a system by which "ley lines" structured the thaumatic fields, how people tap them, and so forth (Robert Asprin had a nifty system for that hidden within his very silly series of "MYTH Adventures," but that could easily be applied to a more structured, steampunk setting.).

      For that matter, a rarified substance similar to the "lumeniferous ether" conjectured by Steam-Age scientists could easily exist in a fantasy role-playing game. In that case, you'd have something fluid that people could tap with advanced sorcery-science or more directly. Michael Moorcock's "Chronicles of Hawkmoon" series had such a system. I should also note, for those of you who prefer a "sexier" version of this could have magic being free-flowing "orgone" a la Wilhelm Reich. Yum.

      There are a *wealth* of opportunities for steampunk-styled magery.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 6 years ago from Illinois

      The best answer: make an RPG based on the world of Fullmetal Alchemist. It's a steampunk setting with magic that's based on drawing geometric patterns in a specific manner with ingredients that are exchanged or changed into something else. There are limits, such as that you can't bring anyone back from the dead or create gold.