Sunday, March 1, 2015


While I was flirting with GURPS in the late 80s, I developed a crush for another new RPG of the day - Space: 1889.

I was perusing the shelves of the local game shop when this cover caught my eye.

The text on the back cover was equally evocative:
Role-Playing In A More Civilized Time. Everything Jules Verne should have written. Everything H. G. Wells could have written. Everything A. Conan Doyle thought of, but never published because it was too fantastic. Everything you need for adventures of the century!
 At that time, most RPGs were the generic, medieval fantasy or less frequently futuristic sci-fi. There were some historical RPGs (Gangbusters and Boot Hill come to mind) but they were a fringe of the market. What Space: 1889 did was to take a historical setting and turn it into a science fiction (some may say a science fantasy) game. This was very different than anything else. I was not particularly familiar with the Victorian Era but I was a history buff (I was more interested in the 17th and 18 centuries as evidenced by my fondness for Rafael Sabatini's novels). However, I had read Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and knew about his other works that postulated trips to the moon. I picked it up and just fell in love with the setting. Frank Chadwick and the guys at GDW did a wonderful job of evoking the Victorian setting and ethos. I remember Carl Sagan talking about how Percival Lowell believed there were canals on Mars - which he took to be evidence of life. Well, according to Space: 1889, there were canals on Mars, and we could explore them! The game was like being transported back to the science fiction and scientific beliefs of the day.

The book itself was packed full of detail. From descriptions of Mars (a desert world) and Venus (a swampy world with dinosaurs) to lists of late 19th century equipment, Space: 1889 gave you plenty of material to work with. I spent hours just reading (and re-reading) the material and background information.

At first, I even loved the system. Character creation was skill-based, but it was not so complicated as GURPS. The basic system for determining attributes was very clever. There are 6 attributes; players assign each a value from 1 to 6. However, you could not use the same number twice. Therefore, one attribute will be very weak (a 1), another a bit stronger (a 2), all the way to 6. Thus, a character has a broad spectrum from weak to strong. Then players choose a career (or perhaps 2) for their character - this determines their skills. There are some options for free choice of skills, too. Creating a character is a breeze. The combat system seemed clever, as well. It simply used D6s (no "groping for dice"). To take an action, one rolled a number of D6s equal to their applicable skill level. Quick and simple.

Unfortunately, the system did not really hold up to use. I decided to run an experiment using an example given in the book. The hero, armed with a revolver, stumbled upon 3 Venusian grave robbers with daggers. In the book, the hero dispatched the enemy with ease and I expected the same. After all, the bad guys were bringing knives to a gun fight! I ran through it and the hero lost, badly. I tried again and got the same result. A couple more tries led to the same result. What was going on? Well, the combat system was a little different than the skill system - as I recall the number of dice was determined by the weapon not the skill level. Thus, what you were armed with was more important than how good your were. In our hero's case, the Venusian's daggers gave them lots of dice (especially because there were 3 of them). And once hit, a character needed to spend actions recovering. Basically, once the hero took a hit, the other enemies swarmed over him and skewered him. I was very disappointed (in hindsight, I think I was expecting something with a bit more pulpy feel to it, with the hero able to fight off hordes of minions). Anyway, I soured on the system and the game ended up collecting dust on the shelf.

I actually never playedit but I still love the setting. It is telling that when I got rid of all my RPG stuff in the 90s, I held onto Space: 1889. Over 25 years later, I still have that original book and I will never get rid of it. So how did it influence my gaming? I can't really say if it did directly, but it did spur an interest in Victorian history and science fiction. As a result, I re-read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and read A. Conan Doyle's Lost World. I would discover the Flashman series (historical novels set in the Victorian Era) and Byron Farwell. I still occasionally pull it out and ponder running a campaign using my Kevin's Krawl rules modded for the period. In fact, I'm going to close out this post and get out my old copy of the rules.

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