The hiss of steam escaping a valve, a deafening grinding of gears, the whoop of a whistle, and this dirigible is aloft! The steampunk aesthetic is one of the most iconic in pop culture, and its ability to insert modern-like tech into otherwise primitive settings is one of the hallmarks of its success. Seeing as a lot of the technology in steampunk settings works outside the realms of actual science, it makes sense that the aesthetic can be ported into Dungeons and Dragons! Without further ado, here are some options to do steampunk in D&D 5e.
What Is Steampunk?
Okay, maybe a little bit of further ado. First, we need to go over just what steampunk is. As mentioned previously, it’s a certain type of fantastical aesthetic. Imagine if the Victorian era (that’s most of the 1800s; think Jane Eyre, Picture of Dorian Grey, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes) had access to technologies far beyond their time via steam power. This magical steam could power everything from flying machines to prototypes of the modern computer, far beyond what Babbage’s Difference Engine was capable of in its time.
All of this is to say, the look and feel of steampunk is less about the world it inhabits, and more about the vibes. Even if the fantasy world of your campaign doesn’t have a “Victorian” era as the real one does, there are still ways to transfer steampunk into it. While we’ve provided a brief definition of steampunk here, the important part is discussing with your DM (or your players, if the DM is you) what aspects of steampunk you want embodied in the world. If you like the aesthetic of using steam powered machines, maybe that’s the part you use and not the stuffy corsets of the Victorian times.
On that note, just how much technology is implied by a steampunk setting? That’s a big question, and the answer is that it’s entirely up to your crew! We do have a jumping off point, though. The zeppelin is an icon of the steampunk aesthetic, so having your world be at least technologically advanced enough to craft this flying machine is a good place to start. This means the basics of motorized locomotion are known to humanoids, so land vehicles are also very likely present. A good place to get inspiration from is Wizards of the Coast’s own Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica. The Izzet guild in particular is their take on steampunk in this fantastical magic setting.
Steampunk settings are always in motion. There’s never time to sit still, as the scientists are always on the verge of the next big discovery! Funny enough, the STEAM acronym we use today (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) is a lot of what the STEAMpunk society values. Do what you want, so long as you put your whole heart into it. One of the things that makes steampunk so endearing is the vivacity with which the world’s inhabitants live their lives. It’s hard to be dull when everything around you is filled with such excitement!
The normal becomes abnormal when these fanciful technologies are involved. A regular train station might seem trite and dreary when we think about it from our point of view, but the steam-powered locomotion to the next city over always has something exciting on board! Where we have a drab convenience store in our world, the steampunk general stores are all abuzz with whatever steam-powered clockwork gadgets the resident tinkerer has thrown together today.
There are a great many sources to pull steampunk inspiration from for your D&D world!
Disney’s Treasure Planet was many of our first foray into the idea of steampunk (does saying that date me?). The 2002 film had a more galactic take on the genre, but the tenets of the aesthetic stand strong.
The parody comic strip Dr. Peepers, Steampunk Hero is based entirely around this genre! Any good parody makes sure to hit on the most important aspects of that which it’s parodying, so this is a surprisingly good source of steampunk info.
The online game Guns of Icarus is all about zeppelin-on-zeppelin combat, and all based on steampunk! Playing this game will teach you the ins and outs of working your very own steampunk zeppelin.
BioShock Infinite is not explicitly steampunk, but gives a phenomenal overview of the whole “society having technologies far too advanced for it.” In fact, so do the first two BioShock games! The societal ramifications of rapidly progressing tech are still relevant in steampunk, and all of these games get into the morality of it all.
Want some audio inspiration? The band Steam Powered Giraffe take inspiration from the aesthetic of steampunk and is what I imagine to be the music of the time in a steampunk setting.
How to Steampunk
Now we get to the nitty gritty of it! What can you do in order to make your setting more steampunk? Well, apart from just slapping the tech on there, you’ve got to be larger than life to get this big and fantastical aesthetic down. The towns are noisy and bustling, the machines are awe-inspiring, and the people are excited to be there!
Your NPCs should be interesting and embody that steampunk style. Your top hat-wearing, goggle clad shop owner is a tinkerer in their spare time and can make cool items for your party. The plucky adventure seeking zeppelin pilot is always happy to give the party a lift, even to dangerous destinations. The villain should be just as big as the allies you give the party. Does your electric kingpin ride a steam-powered mechanized beholder? Maybe they bend metal to their whim to craft their robot army! The villain’s motives should be as unique as their capabilities.
Don’t be afraid to break some rules! Steampunk may not fit cleanly into the D&D mold, and the genre itself is about pushing the boundaries, always moving forward. Flavor things as crazy as you want to fit the scene. Spells and weapons can change in look all you want.
For the most direct translation of steampunk to D&D, check out the Eberron setting! Featured in the book Eberron: Rising from the Last War, you’ll find all of the information you could want on the world. This book introduced warforged, a race of robotic humanoids, and the Artificer class. You don’t need to use the world itself necessarily, but there are many steampunk tropes that you can “borrow” from the book!
Another fun way to inject some steampunk fun into your campaign is something a bit more personal. You can accessorize! There are countless sources of fun steampunk fashion. A pair of steampunk themed goggles can add a bit of flair to your sessions. Props aren’t a necessity, but can certainly make for a deeper immersion into the setting.
Steampunk Gods, Classes, and Monsters
There are a handful of Forgotten Realms gods you can use if you’d like to transplant your steampunk fantasies into that world. The most one-to-one translation would be Gond, the Gearsmith. As his title implies, he’s the god of smithing, crafting, and inventing. This is the epitome of all steampunk is, progressing and discovering, always. Dugmaren Brightmantle is a lesser dwarven deity that stands for many similar things. His domain is learning and innovation, and particularly a patron of dwarven scholars and philosophers. If you’re a dwarf, this would be a good option to look into. Tangentially, the goddess of merchants and trade, Waukeen, could extend to the trade of ideas and inventions!
As mentioned in Eberron, the Artificer class is quintessential steampunk. A magical tinkerer is what steampunk is all about! All of the subclasses can be flavored as steampunk, but the armorer subclass may work best for it. The armor can be flavored up as a series of pistons and gears that enhance the Artificer’s hand-to-hand combat. All of their magic also comes from the things they create and share with their allies!
For monsters, we begin with clockwork horrors. These mechanical menaces are equipped with fantasy buzz saws and terrifying spidery mandibles. They appear in 5e in the Spelljammer: Adventures in Space collection.
The inevitables are constructs that enforce the law above all else. If your party is particularly chaotic, you could send these arbiters of neutrality to put them in their place!
The steam in steampunk isn’t always nice! Steam mephits are small elemental spirits that could come about from the overuse and abuse of this tech. Keep in mind these little baddies explode when they die, so they could cause some pain from beyond the grave, or provide a burst of energy.
Modrons are interesting constructed critters. They come in many different numbers, and as they ascend they become more complex and intelligent. Monodrones make up the base and ascend to duodrones, tridrones, quadrones, and so on all the way up to the ruler of their plane of existence: Primus.
Here we’ve got some questions related to the wonderful world of steampunk!
Is there steampunk in D&D?
That’s up to you! There is a canon steampunk-esque world in the D&D multiverse with Eberron, but if there’s steampunk in your D&D depends on what you and your party want.
What is Eberron 5e?
The setting and adventure book Eberron: Rising from the Last War contains all the information you could possibly need on the Eberron setting. In the world there are robots, high tech (for fantasy!), and the potential for insane adventures based on those.
The world has its own fleshed out lore and adventures, so it can also be used as a sourcebook to run adventures straight out of!
Wrapping Things Up
Steampunk is a deep and exciting genre to explore in a D&D setting! If it’s something you’re interested in, looking into the Eberron setting is absolutely worth it. Even if it’s not a setting you would want to use, the cross between D&D and steampunk is a hotbed for inspiration for a campaign! Steampunk is full of possibilities. Your party can explore much more of the world than in traditional fantasy because of the steampunk technology allowing for better transport. These are some things you’d want to be sure to discuss with your party, because it’s only fun if everyone’s on board!