Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Space 1889 - Red Sands

Years ago I picked up a game book with a Victorian Era British soldier on the cover fighting off gold-skinned ape men with fin ears. The logo had "SPACE" drawn as riveted metal with a stylized "1889" below it. I picked up the blue book and read the back cover.

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! The Space 1889 role-playing game covers the exciting background of Victorian science fiction: ether fliers and Martian cloud ships, the canals and ancient civilizations of the red planet, Venus' swamps and dinosaurs, the honeycombed interior of Luna, and the thrills of inventions and inventors; the driving force behind Victoria's multi-world empire!

In the game's history, Thomas Edison invented a device called the Ether Propeller which allowed ships raised to high enough altitude to travel through space at amazing rates of speed. In the 19th century, Ether was believed to be light's medium like water for waves and air for sound. SPACE:1889 uses ether and other scientific theories from the 1800s to build a universe consistent with the mindset of the day.

Space: 1889 and its companion Sky Galleons of Mars ignited my imagination the way few settings ever have. While other science fiction RPGs sent characters to the far future, Frank Chadwick sent gamers into the past. The character combat system wasn't great but the ship-to-ship rules were first rate . The original work gave you atlases of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and Mercury along with the indigenous races for each planet. I fought the cursed Belgians from one end of Mars to the other and knew victory captaining the screw galley Texan's Pride. Now THAT was a setting!

Pinnacle Entertainment Group recently released Space 1889: Red Sands, a setting book in my beloved Victorian SciFi setting. After my last few reviews it was interesting diving back into a Pinnacle book. With some other settings I've come to expect at least 100 pages of history and setting information. Red Sands as a four page history section then dives straight into character creation. For some reason I found the extraordinarily refreshing.

The Explorers Society
The binding force for the characters in Red Sands is the Explorers Society. All characters are assumed to be members in this elite organization formed to expand the boundaries of science, investigate mysteries, foil those who promote violence, promote peace in the preservation of Earth and the other planets. Villainous conspiracies are the Societies primary target especially when those conspiracies span continents and worlds. Where there is a threat to civilization, the Society is ready to step in.

British society of the 1890s had a distinct caste system to it. The upper classes did not fraternize with the lower classes and women knew their place. Commoners were expected to defer to their betters. Explorers Society has a more modern attitude in regards to race, class, and gender.

The British Association's Explorers Society is more that just an organization funding adventurers. Its a social club as well. Members are expect to attend receptions and report to superiors their group's activities and regale other members with their stories of adventure and daring.

Character Creation
Red Sands provides the following list of character concepts from the period. While it is by no means exhaustive it will give the player some ideas of the types of characters appropriate for the game.

Agent: Spying
Big Game Hunter
Colonial Officer
Jungle Lord/Lady
Canal/Steppe Martians
High Martians
Lizard Men from Venus

Character creation follows the normal Savage Worlds path with stats starting at d4 with 15 skill points. Knowledge skills get a twist, they can be used to reduce the penalties to a trait test. For professions, they can also be used to derive income. There is a new Secondary Status (to add to Charisma, Parry, Pace, and Toughness) called Status. A character's Status starts at 2 (working class) and is modified by edges and/or hindrances.

Typical of Savage Settings, Red Sands includes a bevy of new Hindrances such as Airsickness and Jingoistic, Edges such as Cannoneer, Pugilist, and Liquid Courage, and new gear, and vehicles.

The role of Status in Victorian England cannot be overstated. People of various classes simply did not interact socially. While the famous would, at times, transcend social class. If you were born into a working class family you would likely die in the working class.

Red Sands divides Status into five levels; Underclass, Working Class, Middle Class, Upper Class, and Elite. Status affects a character's monthly income, the type of Favors one can call in, and Intimidate, Taunt, and Streetwise trait tests.

Favors are a currency unto themselves. Your ability to spend Favors is based on your Status. They include such things as borrowing money or equipment, gaining the assistance of guards or soldiers, and gaining access to 'social' events. Favors can get you out of a sticky legal situation, make a political problem go away, or give you a clever alibi when needed. Favors are gained by helping others. Generally the number of Favors gained is based on the social status of those helped. Thus helping a workman helps a little. Saving the Queen from a scandal helps a lot.

Weird Science is one way to create devices used in Space 1889 but its not the only way to construct 'futuristic' devices. Even those without an Arcane Background can make gadgets. These follow a more structured path and are usable by anyone.

The invention rules follow closely with the original Space: 1889 rules wherein the inventor designs the gadget by making a knowledge trait test in either science, mechanics, engineering.

Once designed, The inventor then collects the materials required to build the device. The Red Sands book contains a list of possible parts along with their cost and rank required to construct them. Once the parts are in place, the inventor makes a repair roll to see if he/she succeeds.

Inventions have a Reliability trait ranging from d4 to d12 based on the rank of the inventor. Some inventions use Reliability as an activation die but others use it to determine how well an invention performs. Vehicles with a higher score might go faster or fly higher, power sources produce more power, etc.

The book lists common gadgets and components along with cost and the rank needed to invent them. You can assemble these into a new device or use them with a different trapping to invent something new. Of course, factories produce many such devices but you'll pay more based on the purchased item's reliability.

Aerial Ships
Because so much of the setting is based above ground, Red Sands contains information on construction, combat, repairs, crew skills, upkeep.

Aerial combat uses the normal Savage Worlds chase rules once the ships are in close quarters. If there is a pursuer and a pursued, this means the pursuer must beat an opposed piloting roll with a raise. If the pursued in winning the opposed roll with a raise first then they have escaped.

The range increment (see pg 115 of the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition) for aerial ships is 50. At the beginning of combat the GM determines the altitude of each (ranging from Landed to Very High). To change altitude you Trimsman rolls his knowledge(Trimsman) trait roll. On a success the flier changes altitude by one level. On a raise the ship changes two altitude levels.

Weapons on a ship fire once a turn but don't receive an unstable platform penalty as it is assumed the weapons are aimed. You can fire more often but receive a -2 penalty along with any other modifiers due to lace of aiming. Damage to a ship causes both the Pilot and Trimsman to make a roll to see if the ship goes out of control or looses altitude.

Red Sands contains a complete section on aerial ship construction allowing you to design or customize your own sky ship. You make choices in Hull Size, Propulsion, Armor, Armament, Crew, and Cargo. The size of the ship affects everything else. Likewise propulsion dictates size of crew and whether you need to store fuel. After you pack everything else onto you ship anything left over is cargo.

As with most Savage Supplements, Red Sands contains a Gazetteer to give the players feel for the game. It describes each of the four inner planets along with the colonial ambitions of Earth's nations on each. The gazetteer contains proper Victorian maps of Venus and Mars as well.

The Red Captain's Log
The Red Captains of Mars are humans who have 'gone native' finding a life of adventure in the skies above the Red Planet. The Red Captains are the subject of popular stories on Earth. The GM's portion of Red Sands is named in tribute to these adventurers and their stories of daring dos.

A new villain forms the core of the adventures presented in Space 1889. Kronos and his his villainous inner circle seek nothing less than the overthrow of man and conquest of the solar system. While the Explorers Society seeks to uplift man through exploration the Brotherhood of Luxor seeks man's demise from a shroud of secrecy.

The Red Sands campaign starts on Earth moving quickly to Mars and Venus. It includes over a dozen plot points leading to the finale against the King of Chaos, Kronos. The book also contains 37 Savage Tales to fill the gaps between plot points spanning Mercury to the asteroid belt. Several of the Savage Tales contain vital clues of the setting's history so play as many as possible. There's also an adventure generator.

Other Victorian Resources
Red Sands is a little lite on background information for the Victorian Era. If you want to know more about the amazing time period I recommend reading The Kerberos Club which has more information about the time period. Aside from an organization to advance and protect society, The Explorers Society is a Victorian social club much like the super-powered Kerberos Club and so the GM and players will gain much from reading of Kerbeans day-to-day life.

You might also want to pick up the original Space:1889 along with the other Space:1889 supplements for additional background information for the setting. The original game system has an extensive set of adventures and setting books with even more fan material available. All of this should be easily converted to Savage Worlds. Your best value would be the Space 1889 Product Bundle from DriveThruRPG. This include 12 separate works originally published by GDW for just under $50. I highly recommend this purchase if you plan to spend any time at all in the Space 1889 universe.

Knowing the history of Queen Victoria, Pax Britannia, the 19th Century, and the parent organization of the Explorers Society will prove useful as well.

Red Sands was one of the most anticipated books I've seen in my gaming career. The forums of Pinnacle were abuzz with activity when news of the supplement first leaked. I know this will seem odd to those who never played SPACE:1889 but, at the time, this setting was the most innovative thing to hit RPGs. To be honest I can't think of another game that's done better.

My favorite setting has now been released in my favorite game system. It's a feeling akin to having a local team make it to the Super Bowl. Soon the Pride of Texas will ply the skies of Mars once more. King Leopold's Belgium contingent on Mars will never know what hit 'em.


  1. Thanks for this very helpful review.

  2. One thing I need to note, while you don't need the original Space 1889 to play it is very useful to have it. I've updated the post with the Space 1889 bundle from DriveThru.

  3. Thanks for reviewing it so thoroughly! For those who have the Cloudships of Mars miniature game note that the movement rate is about double what the game had as the "hex" area was half what that game had. You should be able to use miniatures or paper ships and battle on any size hexboard for those who like the miniature side of the cloudships. Jus' saying ;>)