My family and I have started playing GURPS Girl Genius and I’m running a campaign that starts when Agatha is around 5 — about 13 years before Book 1 starts. I’ve been reconstructing some combination of the modern and 15-years-earlier setting from the Girl Genius Wiki, the comic and various other sources.

This is my own contribution: things I’ve noticed, things I’ve researched, things I’ve put together and so on.

It’s a series of articles:

None of this will make a lot of sense if you haven’t read the comics. Luckily you can start right now, for free if you’re so inclined. They’re fantastic for reading out loud, a lot like old radio shows. I read the comics to my kids and I have since they were tiny. The Foglios have been drawing them since 2002, and new pages show up around three a week with occasional breaks, gaps and filler short stories.

Here’s some major background from the comics and Wiki that I’ll refer to often:

You may especially want to read the Ivo Sharktooth story since it contains more concentrated geographical and social information about the city than any other part of the comic. If I mention the Court of Gears or the Field of Weights, the Sharktooth short story is where that background comes from.

I’ll also mention tidbits from the novelizations. Mostly they have the same information as the comic, but occasionally — especially in footnotes — they have important facts that aren’t otherwise mentioned.

Some Quick Setting

Mechanicsburg is in Transylvania in the books. The main Girl Genius story starts around 1892. I’ll keep mentioning 1879, because that’s where our RPG story starts.

Transylvania has a fragmented national character — there are a lot of different ethnic groups there. It’s currently part of Romania, but has historically been home to Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Romany/Travellers, Germans and many more. A lot of the area has been one tiny city/country or another, changing fairly often, for centuries. Many of those countries have fantastic names like “Wallachia.” And early on a lot of identities like “German” weren’t really a thing — before there was Germany there were a lot of mini-countries which (mostly) became provinces of Germany. So being a Rhinelander or a Prussian wouldn’t necessarily involve being “German” before, what, 1866? And there’s a whole thing with the Volksdeutsche… The relevant Wikipedia pages are a lovely read if you have the time. I get some of this from Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine as well.

While Transylvania has a lot of historical ethnic diversity, (fictitious) Mechanicsburg has far more. The ruling Heterodyne family raided all over Europa, bringing back a variety of people as spoils of war. There are a few ways that their world is less diverse — for instance, trips to the Americas seem to be effectively impossible (yet they have chocolate!). But mostly their Transylvania, which prominently features African and Chinese people, is more diverse than would have been true in our world.

Some Comic-History Facts

Mechanicsburg is in a weird period of its history — even more than usual. After many centuries of despotic rule by dictators, in the 1830s the Heterodyne Boys were born. They were raised by their literally-sainted mother far from the wicked influences of the family. In 1852 they started their famous adventures. Likely around the same time, their father despaired of them becoming properly wicked, and his wife Teodora fatally poisoned him to save them.

The Boys razed the infamous Fleshyards and the Monster District and rebuilt the Great Hospital in their place. The many Mechanicsburg monsters were taken in by the people of Mechanicsburg, but the Boys apparently hated them and intended to drive them out. The Monsters Guild charter was never renewed during their reign. It seems likely that the Jagermonsters’ vow to stay out of Mechanicsburg until a new Heterodyne ruled was from the beginning of their reign, not the end. And that vow seemed to apply to all their monsters, like Snoz and the wild Jagers, not just the Jagermonsters who enlisted with the Baron.

On to Mechanicsburg

The first time we really see Mechanicsburg is in book 7, “Agatha Heterodyne and the Voice of the Castle”. There’s a market, presumably in the The Field of Weights, where they’re exchanging rumours about what happened in Sturmhalten and selling various foods. There’s a money exchange in the background.

Given the fragmented national character of Transylvania, a money exchange is likely a big deal. It would be one of many such exchanges. Eventually the Baron’s empire brought Imperial Dollars as a standard currency through Eastern Europe (source: RPG sourcebook), but before that their currency would be as fragmented as the set of kingdoms. Through the Long War, new mini-kingdoms were rising and falling constantly. One assumes there was a strong tendency to use money that was silver or gold so that it had inherent value. Paper money would probably have been in the form of banknotes, so they were a claim of value from a specific bank.

In the mean time, money exchanges would be an enormous thing for a city reliant on tourism. You need the tourists to be able to pay even if they don’t have local money. That’s one reason among many that tourism took awhile to develop in our own world.

There are a few really interesting things about the whole market. We see black people, at least one in arguably North African traditional garb, buying and selling. There’s at least one person who looks like a construct, or otherwise Spark-modified, yelling “eggs! mostly chicken!”

We see very few constructs, arguably none at all, in Mechanicsburg street scenes before Agatha takes power. Beetleburg is full of them. The short stories after Agatha takes power (Sharktooth, Solstice story, Guild of Monsters) have constructs and monsters prominently on the streets and often working in the shops. But before Agatha takes power, very few. And so the green-goggled person who looks perhaps construct-like stands out, both in the market scene and in the scenes after. It seems likely that the Jagermonster vow to the Boys was part of a larger banning of constructs and monsters.

For the record, “poiled slurgs! fried onna stick!” is an old joke with the Foglios, kind of like the Winslow. So I wouldn’t read any specific historical context into it.

The following page has much less of note. A tour guide, and you can see a wheeled self-driven vehicle on the street below the balcony, presumably Spark-made originally. And the following page doesn’t really show the city.

And then we see Mechanicsburg, with Carson Von Mekkhan talking to Castle Heterodyne at the main gate, with its giant skulls, gargoyles and lightning devices. Horse-drawn wagons go into and out of the gate.

The following page gives us one of our first pieces of geography: as you look out the main gate, you can see a busy four-arched bridge below you and to your right, with (presumably) the Dyne running from your right to your left, quite vigorously. So either the Dyne is a quite large river or it joins with another, or perhaps that isn’t the Dyne. Remember that the Dyne flows from Castle Heterodyne, but it’s hard to imagine quite that much water flowing from the waterfall we see in the pictures of the castle.

I’m saying things like “right to left” because we don’t yet know compass directions, though I’ll assume some eventually.

There are also mountains in the background with a small keep on top of them. So: the big river near town flows past the mountains, and those mountains are at least somewhat settled and defended.

The next page has one really interesting thing from my point of view. There is a wagon drawn by a horse-headed construct in the first frame leaving Mechanicsburg. Presumably the wagon and construct came from inside. Again, we see nearly no constructs in Mechanicsburg during this time. Krosp is covered in bandages, but it’s not clear to me why. Later they let him prance around in Mechanicsburg uncovered, talking and wearing his coat, so presumably it’s not a problem for him to be recognized as a construct or as a specific distinctive cat-construct that was travelling with Agatha.

Next let’s talk about the two-page spread looking over Mechanicsburg that follows. Most of the signs are references to other webcomics (e.g. Wapsi Square, Girls with Slingshots, Dominic Deegan.) But there are several interesting things about the buildings, too. We see several Islamic- or Russian-style onion domes, including one on the Cathedral and one on Castle Heterodyne. There is also a building with a stair-stepped facade in (to my eye) a similar style, possibly like Moorish Spain. This suggests a general Islamic influence on the architecture, not limited to Mosques or similar specific buildings. This would be in line with the general cosmopolitan feel. Like Glasgow, Mechanicsburg seems to be a city with very diverse architectural influences, even aside from buildings that seem intentionally Mad-Science-y.

Castle Heterodyne is quite centrally located, but has an outer wall around it that we’ll see more closely later. So it’s very much in the center of the city, but also a bit set apart from it. It may be the “fortress of the Heterodynes”, but you don’t get the impression that it is frequently directly assaulted. The outer layers of Mechanicsburg, including mountains and outlying towns, are already a legendary defense. You’d have to get very far indeed to assault the castle itself.

On the left page is a large industrial and factory district full of smoky chimneys, either outside the city walls or surrounded by a separate wall inside the city. This could arguably be the Court of Gears, where Sparky and industrial products are sold, and apparently well-known for its stink. But it’s hard to be sure, since Mechanicsburg is likely to have more than one district of that type. Also: no obvious signs of gear logos or similar. (Edit to add: yeah, that’s probably the Court of Gears. In Ivo Sharktooth when he describes it you can see the windmill and outer wall.)

It’s hard to tell if Agatha and company head into the city where they were told: down the boulevard, to the state of the Heterodyne boys, then left toward the Great Hospital. They’re riding past souvenir stands, but those will probably be constant near the main gate, near the Great Hospital and generally where tourists are expected.

Lots of tourists near the Great Hospital? Yup. Von Mekkhan absolutely expects that they’re bringing a sick child for treatment, and the Great Hospital is basically peerless in Europa for its quality of treatment. They live in a world of refugees, which has been rocked by war and Spark-created disasters for the vast majority of the last 200+ years. You would expect a ton of visitors to the hospital.

While the interior areas of the hospital grounds aren’t full of tourist advertisements, you’d assume that all the nearby areas of the city are.

So Then… What?

This is a good start. We have some history, some observations, and a bare beginning of some geography. There are a lot more comic pages that show Mechanicsburg, often with wonderful little Easter eggs hidden here and there.

And of course, I’m being gamemaster for a tabletop role-playing game. These little cultural bits and trivia are exactly what I’m here for. I’m just writing them down for you too.

This article links every page of the comic that shows Mechanicsburg city scenes before Zola’s arrival. So I’ll probably pick up there next time I write. There’s a lot to be said about those crowd scenes… starting with the notable lack of monsters and constructs.