Space 1889 review
Overview: Space 1889 is a Science Fantasy role-playing game. Set in our historical Victorian era, it uses the “Scientific Romance” genera of Verne, Wells, Conan Doyle, and other less well known authors as it’s inspiration. The game, originally published by GDW and recently re-released by Heliograph, has always enjoyed sketchy popularity. I must admit upfront, that I am a fan of the game, but hope to present it, with it’s strengths and flaws, objectively enough to allow you to form your own opinions.
Character Creation: Lets start at the beginning, creating a character. The game uses 6 attributes, with scores ranging from 1-6 (the game is based on a D6 system). 1 being the minimum and 6 the maximum. There is no allowance for attributes above 6 or below 1. The attributes are Strength, Intellect, Agility, Charisma, Endurance, and Social Level. The game offers 3 systems for attribute generation. A random method where you roll 6 times for your 6 attribute scores. If they total less than 18, the player may add to the attribute of their choice to raise the total to 18. There is a free purchase method, were the player assigns 21 purchase points among the 6 attributes. Finally there is an distribution method, were the player assigns the numbers 1 through 6 to each attribute.
Next comes skills. Space 1889 is not a class driven system per say, but does have broad “stereo-type” careers which is the default method of character generation. Each player may take 1 career and 6 general skill points, or 2 careers and 2 general skill points. A career gives you certain skills and specified levels. General skill points are used to purchase the skills of your choice at 1 level per point. You may take 2 different careers, or the same career twice, or as noted, only 1 career. A few examples of careers include Army or Navy, Explorer, Diplomat, Reporter, Scientist, Doctor, or Master Criminal. There are 24 skills, listed 4 each under each attribute. This method though only effects the purchase price of skills and not the skill level or performance. A person with a 3 in Endurance and a 2 in swimming can swim just as well as a person with a 6 in Endurance and a 2 in Swimming, but the person with the 6 can buy levels of swimming for half the price. A number of the skills are categorized as “cascade” skills. Cascade skills have a number of specializations under them. The player picks one as their specialty or primary. All others listed under the cascade skill are usable at one half the level of the skill. For example, Mechanics has Steam, Electricity, and Machinist as the cascade skills. A character with a level 4 (Steam), would also have a level 2 in Electricity and Machinist. And there you have it, your character.
Things you may like or not like: You like your character to be a one-eyed pirate with a trained parrot, good sense of direction and a drinking problem and you want to know exactly how he measures up to that British Naval officer with a strong sense of duty and a fear of spiders. If you enjoy a game with a detailed character creation system with advantages and disadvantages covered in the game rules, you may not enjoy this system.
If you like a quick and easy system which still allows for a measure of individual character creation, and don’t mind just jotting down in the character description that he has one eye and a parrot, you should like this system just fine. At no time do you require a calculator, nor are you possessed of the nagging suspicion that taking the points from “missing arm” in order to purchase “ambidextrous” was a bad idea.
Mechanics: This is where Space 1889 always suffers the most criticism. The basic task resolution is simple and straight forward and the game offers two ways of resolving tasks.. The first, you roll a number of dice equal to you skill level or attribute level, which ever is appropriate. The dice are added together and the total compared to a fixed target number. The second, you roll a single dice against a target number of your skill or attribute. This second method, while less dramatic, is useful for times when pace of the game is more important. The combat system is where the game becomes somewhat “clunky”. The number of dice you roll is determined by the weapon you use. Your target number is your skill level, the defending player has an option of blocking, and then gets to roll a “saving” roll to see if you actually get hurt, once you get hit. Heavy weapons and artillery have so many additions that they really are separate rules in themselves, and this seems to be the main complaint against this game. There is a variant system for Arial combat, for mass combat, for mountain climbing, and for other overland or water travel and a particularly complex one for inventing things.
Things you may like or not like: If you like a streamlined , transparent rules system, you may have some problems with this game. You will either have to dump a couple of chapters of rules and wing it with the basic event resolution system. However, one of the advantages of the travel rules in particular is that they add considerable drama to things other than combat. Climbing a mountain to get to the Martian stronghold is as exciting as fighting the guards once you get there. The environment becomes as much an opponent as anything else. In this game crossing a desert isn’t as simple as “Roll for desert survival…You made it, you’re on the other side.”
Setting: If the mechanics are universally disparaged, the setting is equally as praised. Set in historical Victorian Earth, it also encompasses Mercury, a dinosaur populated, lizard man native Venus, and a canal crossed Mars, complete with decadent, exotic Martians. In fact, Mars is the default setting, and it’s history, environment and population are lovingly detailed in the book. It has flying ships crossing barren desert. Stately canals flowing through decaying cities of petty princes and bizarre cults.
Things you may or may not like: If you’re looking for a realistic setting, it ain’t here. Leave you physics at the door and prepare to accept aether theory, gravity repellent wood and other such elements. However if the setting silences you annoying physicist friends, they’ll awaken the beast in your annoying historian friends. Be prepared to be informed that the Queens Own Fusilier Guards could not possibly be on Mars in 1889, because they were fighting in Upper Backyardistan at that time.
My feelings: As I said before, I am a fan of this game. While acknowledging the problems, I find them a minor disadvantage, and in some ways an advantage for me. I like the idea that fighting the Venusian jungle is as extensive and exciting as fighting it’s denizens. I like the easy character creation, which I feel perfectly balances creating a unique character with ease and speed. I even like the hideously complicated research and invention system. It at least has the advantage of providing in game mechanics rules for why your scientist types can’t just create the gadget of the week to solve every problem that comes along. And finally, who wouldn’t thrill at racing in a sleek cloud ship at night over the sands of the desert, lit by the twin Martian moons as they fly towards the ghost haunted ruins of a lost city. Space 1889 truly delivers on it’s promise of “Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time”.