Released by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1988, Space 1889 was the first dedicated steampunk role playing game. Frank Chadwick had almost literally created a game that was ahead of its time because, while it had its fans and never really died out, it never really took off either. It was re-released in 2000 but it was still running ahead of the curve as the steampunk scene really hadn’t happened yet. Now, with steampunk running full throttle, with a dozen other games already out there, is it too late for another re-issue of this classic game?
Two years ago, Uhrwerk Verlag, one of Germany’s largest RPG publishers, reissued Space 1889 in German. And last year, UK game publisher Chronicle City teamed up with Uhrwerk Verlag, got Frank Chadwick on board and launched a Kickstarter to retranslate the game back into English in addition to creating expanded sourcebooks and game aids.
That Kickstarter is coming to fruition. I have received my final edit copy (that I will be using for this review) but the hard cover books should be shipping any day now.
Space 1889 imagines a world where inventor Thomas Edison invented an aetheric motor, built a space ship around it, and traveled to Mars in 1870. What follows is a steampunk world with adventure drawn from Jules Verne to Edgar Rice Borroughs and all the dime novels in between.
Primarily, there are the British colonial holdings on Mars, paralleling historical India under The Raj and based on much of Burroughs’ Barsoom. Of course, since we are talking about a planet equivalent in area to all the landmasses of the Earth, Not only is there a lot of different Martian environments, races, flora and fauna, but all the other spacefaring nations of the Earth are competing to grab their own piece of the interplanetary pie. And let us not forget Venus, Mercury, all the asteroids and, of course, the Earth herself as opportunities for exploration and adventure.
For those familiar with the earlier editions of the game, the worlds are the same but with more detail. For example, the old book spent two pages on the aether. I always found it a fine synopsis of the entire theory and its development. The new edition devotes twice the space. Additionally, the later 19th Century timeline, originally presented as two pages in one of the supplements (“Conklin’s Atlas of the Worlds”), is now eight pages of the core rules, as it should be.
Of course, any setting can be adapted to any game system. Space 1889 was adapted to the Savage Worlds rules in 2010 and while I played a lot of Savage Worlds at the time, I found some issues with the game mechanics. This newest edition utilizes the Ubiquity system (also used with “Hollow Earth Expeditions”). To quickly summarize task resolution, a difficulty level is assigned to any action. The player rolls a number of dice based on his skills and attributes. If the number of even numbers rolled exceeds the number set by the difficulty, the action succeeds. Exceeding by more than necessary leads to a more dramatic success. Using even/odd to determine success allows the player to use dice of any type and solves some of the wonky probability curves that occur when using multiple dice with different numbers of sides.
This dice pool method can sometimes lead to rolling handfulls of dice but Exile Games has produced some specially numbered dice that reduce the number of dice while preserving the bell curve.
To accelerate game play, Ubiquity has added something called “Taking the Average” such that if your dice pool from skills and attributes is twice that of the given difficulty, the probably of success is 50/50. With even odds as that, it is assumed that the player is skilled enough to automatically succeed and no dice are rolled. I can appreciate that a master locksmith would be able to pick a simple lock every time and it seems a waste to force him to roll on what seems a guaranteed success but I personally think the 50/50 cut off may be too generous.
Because combat is literally the life and death of a character, so too is the combat system itself the life of death of a role playing game. I have played combat systems from those that are very abstract, such as Dungeon and Dragons‘s hit point system, to those that are excessively detailed, such as Leading Edge’s Spectrum system which breaks the body down to 59 anatomical hit locations and would follow each bullet as it penetrates through flesh, muscles, organs and bone. The Ubiquity combat system tends towards the more abstract, D&D-like end. Characters have a number of health points and damage caused by weapons will ablate that number. If the number falls below a certain number, other stats and skills are degraded. Take more damage and the character will become unconscious. A bullet that causes X points of damage will produce exactly the same result as a club that causes the same X points of damage. And just as later editions of D&D incorporated some more detailed combat add-ons such as critical hits, I think that Ubiquity could also benefit from some additional combat realism. But just as the task resolution system has “Taking the Average” to speed up game play, so too have they chosen a more abstract and thus faster combat system.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about character generation. Much like the majority of role playing game systems, characters in Space 1889 are divided into professions or archetypes, to use the currently popular convention. Adventurer, doctor, engineer, soldier, these are shortcuts in defining the character’s basic skillset or inclination. In the original Space 1889 rules, these careers came with some prerequisites as well as providing a base set of skills. For example, if one wanted to be a Big Game Hunter in the mold of Allan Quartermain, one needed to have a minimum level of agility, which was necessary for being a decent rifle shot and being able to sustain one’s job as a hunter. Having chosen that career, one was given base skill levels in marksmanship, tracking and linguistics (so you can boss around your local bearers). The original rules spent lass space on each career than I just did.
The new rules provide two pages on each of the various archetypes but then, other than presenting a sample character, omits any prerequisite or career skills. One could construct a character with the Big Game Hunter archetype but then with absolutely none of the skills necessary to actually hunt big game. It is left to the player’s personal interpretation of what attributes and skills might be necessary for a given career. Fine, perhaps, for someone making their own way in the world as an Adventurer, not so much for someone coming out of a regimented military career. It seems to defeat the purpose of having an archetype line on the character sheet at all. With the fine detail they put into all the other elements of character generation it seems to be something of an oversight.
On the plus side of that, gone are the 19th Century misogynistic rules that forbid women from certain careers. The original rules defined those outright (Soldier is a male-only profession) but the new, without any character prerequisites at all, gloss over that. One is left to speculate if having space travel become available in the last quarter of the 19th Century changed gender dynamics or, as I suspect, it’s a happy coincidence due more to an oversight in game design.
Personally, I was more influenced by Wells’ evolutionary approach to Mars so the Space 1889 Martians that aren’t very different from humans and a colonial relationship not unlike India appeals less to me. Were I to run a game in this system, I might focus on the dinosaur infested Venus and leave Mars to “intellects, vast cool and unsympathetic, regarding our earth with envious eyes.” I might also set my game earlier, having the players at the cutting edge of space exploration rather than having two decades of development behind them. And I would also probably tinker with the combat system just a bit. I also prefer combat more towards the detailed and realistic end of the spectrum. Not as extreme as “Spectrum” but at least those that detail hits and damage to specific areas and with differing results based on that. A bullet to the arm affects one differently than a bullet to the head just as a knife causes a different kind of injury than a bullet or a club.
All that being said is not criticism of Space 1889 as a complete and consistent game. It has a robust set of game mechanics that offers a wide range of play and a rich set of worlds in which to play. Additional sourcebooks (Venus and Mercury), and adventure modules will expand the world even further, though I suspect that if you were to lay hands upon some of the original publications from twenty years ago you could adapt them quite easily.
Does the new Space 1889 have what it takes to surpass its status as the first steampunk RPG and break into an increasingly crowded market?
We can hope.