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Space 1889: Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time Paperback – July 1, 2000
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Fair Disclosure: I have never played this version of the game, but *have* played the Savage Worlds version put out under the name Space 1889:Red Sands and had a spiffing time doing so. In fact, so compelling was my experience GMing this for an enthusiastic crowd I ended up making a Space 1889 costume for parties and cons, and I built an attention-getting Space 1889-inspired steampunk raygun using plumbing fixtures, computer case-lights, a Lumen Disc and the power of my mighty brain (and a shed-load of machine tools). Yes, I fell and fell hard.
This book contains the background and mechanics to play the original Frank Chadwick game.
The mechanics are based on D6 die rolls.
To build a character you pick a career (or possibly two careers) and apply the limitations of that career and the pool of skill points each conveys to building out the skill lists of the character. Careers grant lists of skills and points to allocate to them, and the player will have a certain number of extra points available for building skills outside those limits. Pretty standard stuff. Similar to Call of Cthulhu in approach.
The skill tests are a bit odd. The skill levels are the number of dice rolled and totaled to hit a pre-determined total representing the difficulty of the task. An easy task might have a target of 4, a difficult task a target of 12 and so forth. The table of suggested difficulty levels is on page 45 at the bottom left of the page.
This mechanism gives me pause. The simple "ladder of difficulty" presented does not seem to my admittedly un-mathematical mind to factor in how pools of dice "work" in terms of the numbers being rolled. I may be being thick here. I do not have a good feeling for how dice pools work in practice - in terms of how adding or subtracting dice bias the expected results - as I have not played any RPGs that use them.
There's a rule of thumb for tasks that require several skill sets to achieve, one that seems reasonable to my eye. When skills are interchangeable, you use whichever is higher. When they are interdependent, you use whichever is lower. This is not an unreasonable way to adjudicate this sort of synergy on-the-fly.
The combat round is the usual mishmash of allowed actions. You get to do four actions in a round from a list of allowable options like move, dodge, prepare a weapon for use, charge, attack and so forth. If you are engaged in close combat you get either your Close Combat skill or Agility attribute score in actions, whichever is higher. This is different but no harder than D20/Pathfinder as far as I can see. Savage Worlds makes things easier at first, but players have in-combat actions and options that can complicate matters (not to the level of Space 1889 though).
Hits are adjudicated by comparing a die total to a pre-determined difficulty score. One must roll the target score or less on one die. A 1 always hits, a 6 always misses. A hit target gets to make a saving roll, and then damage is determined.
Here we see a weakness in the system. The mechanism to adjudicate success with skills if completely different than that used to adjudicate success in combat. Also, the saving roll seems clumsy when compared to ideas like D20's Armor Class or BRP's Armor ( and Savage Worlds which uses a similar mechanism to BRP).
The rest of the book is concerned with a gazetteer of the solar system as per the Space 1889 vision, a list of notable NPCs, rules for letting players invent stuff (new inventions being a big part of what makes the Space 1889 background so compelling - think the machinery of the 1960s movies The First Men In The Moon or Journey to the Centre of the Earth or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) details of the flying ships of Mars (made of Liftwood) and advice to the GM. Dotted about are also adventure seeds that provide challenges for the players to solve.
Physically, the GDW hardback edition is a four-star affair, with a decent binding for the most part combining black and white printing on rough-to-the-touch unsized paper with gloss high-chinaclay paper on which glorious color is printed. The signatures are stitched, but where stitched units are laid side-by-side the pages are glued too high and thus to open the book flat at such a point is to risk disemboweling the spine or tearing the page.
I'm not pulling a star because there are only three or four such pages in the entire book. The fact that so many of these books are still available secondhand shows that the binding is hard-wearing in play. Either that or the combat/skill test thing drives people away from the game within days.
I have no intention of running Space 1889 using these rules or this book. In point of fact I long ago acquired an inexpensive pdf of this book to supplement the rather sparse background information provided in the Space 1889:Red Sands book. I simply wanted a hardcopy of the book as the setting-related contents are so interesting. I considered buying this back in the day, but I could only afford one game book and stumped up for Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader instead.
There are still a bunch of resources available for this version of the game should you be seriously contemplating running it. Anything not in print is likely to be available as a pdf - often an unindexed pdf, true, but still.
Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographical Society: The Journal of Historical Science Fiction Roleplaying This was a fan magazine put out in the 90s, now collected in three volumes. Each volume is a mixed bag, with content that may or may not appeal, but I have found useful stuff in all three collected volumes.
The Complete Canal Priests Of Mars Is a campaign that can very easily be converted to the Savage Worlds system. It features a voyage from Earth to Mars aboard a luxury liner.
Cloud Captains of Mars & Conklin's Atlas of the Worlds (Space 1889 Sci-Fi Roleplaying) - sourcebooks. Cloud Captains is all about gadding around the skies of Mars and Conklin's Atlas broadens that theme to all the worlds within Aethership range.
Beastmen of Mars / Canal Priests of Mars (Space 1889 Sci-Fi Roleplaying) - Two long adventures.
Soldier's Companion (Space 1889 Sci-Fi Roleplaying) - when only a tabletop battlefield is big enough
Space 1889: Red Sands (Savage Worlds, S2P10012) - The Savage Worlds port of the game. Expensive, thin and with a binding that may fail early, I still think it represents a more playable version of the game than the original. Get this in pdf if possible. you'll also need Savage Worlds Deluxe: Explorer's Edition (S2P10016) before you can play.
Space 1889 (HC) - The Clockworks version of the game. Uses an innovative engine with a D2 dice pool mechanism and a character build process that includes advantageous and disadvantageous character traits similar to the Savage Worlds system, but is otherwise the same setting as in the GDW version.
I suppose there are many people who like lots of rules and methods in their games. Lots of complicated stats, in depth character creation with attributes, skills, advantages, disadvantages, etc. Space 1889 allows you to create an exciting character with a minimum of systems. This is a stripped down, streamlined, fast playing, action packed game system. Grab you saber, buckle on your pistol, load your carbine, and mount up, we're heading out into a world filled with opportunities for the greatest adventure you can have around a table!
Character creation is easy. Combat is fast paced. It's all very intuitive, easy to remember and implement. This is a classic game and it is great to see it ressurected. In a sea of d20 deluge, I am thrilled to see this classic product make a resurgence. It's biggest weakness is it's niche setting, but if you are looking for the ultimate steampunk game, look no further. If you want it simple, fast and fun, here it is.
I wish this were like the original, with a hardcover and color plates, but I am just glad to see it back. I never owned it in it's first incarnation, but I did have the pleasure of playing it. Now, I finally own it, and it is a prize in my RPG collection.
The concept is delightful. I found the layout a little weak and the information not in a consistant format. But the information was there!
However, I've got to give four stars for concept alone.