Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Tabletop: Space 1889: Red Sands

Space 1889 cover and Amazon link

I've long been in love with Space: 1889, the RPG that captured the spirit of Victorian science fiction long before anyone knew what "steampunk" was. The setting is one of my absolute favorites, thick with romance, mystery, wonder, and morally ambiguous colonialism. The system I'm not quite as devoted to (though I don't think it's bad), and while Heliograph Incorporated has been doing the Lord's work keeping the original game in print, Space: 1889: Red Sands, a setting book for Savage Worlds, has the promise of updating the classic world with a more modern, streamlined rules set. The two prove to be a good match, and while the book has a few shortcomings and doesn't quite capture all the things that made me love the original game, it's a good translation of the setting with some new elements that open up gameplay quite a lot.

The setting is based on the premise that Thomas Edison invented a form of space travel in 1870, with ether propellers taking ships to the planets of the inner solar system, which happened to be mostly inhabited. Earth's major colonial powers took advantage of the opportunity to expand their empires, setting up bases on the new worlds and making the Great Game of political intrigue even more complicated. While the original game limited PCs to human adventurers, and generally presumed they'd be loyal subjects of the British Empire (with options for anarchists and criminals), Red Sands gives us the opportunity to play noble or savage Martians and Venusian lizard men (no Selenites, though, but I'll get to that later.)

The thing tying all characters together is that they're all members of the British Association's Explorer's Society. It's a group dedicated to discovery, advancing knowledge, and also saving the civilized worlds from the predations of evil secret societies. This is where some of the new stuff comes in- a mysterious cult called the Brotherhood of Luxor has arisen, and while the Explorer's Society doesn't know a lot about it, they know they're up to no good.

The conflict between the Explorer's Society and Brotherhood of Luxor does two things. First, it sets up the Red Sands campaign, a serialized adventure taking up a chapter, which takes the players all over the inner planets fighting a sinister conspiracy. It also alleviates one element of the setting that people may have a problem with- nowadays we generally view old-school imperialism as a Bad Thing, what with our valuing self-determination and not treating other peoples as disadvantaged savages and so on. Frank Chadwick's original game showed some understanding of the messy complexities of the British Empire and Victorian values, but it was hard to really push against those things, and characters were locked in a "colonizer" role by default. Now the characters are not only not necessarily the colonizers, they're not necessarily fighting for the Empire or Queen Vic- they're united by a more palatable, more universal love of adventure and dislike of diabolical masterminds.

The campaign itself is fairly interesting, mirroring the serialized adventures in other Savage Worlds setting books. It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the published material for the original game, and it may be worth double checking the lethality of some elements, but it's a compelling story and likely won't require a GM to do any more tweaking than he or she wants to. There are also a number of shorter, self-contained "Savage Tales" plot hooks, and a nice random adventure generator system to spark ideas.

There's a good amount of setting information, though space concerns mean you may want to turn to some of Heliograph's reprints to pick up on details. However, there are problems I do have with Red Sands' presentation of the setting. As the name implies, the central campaign- and so much of the material- is very Mars-centric, and this is a problem the original game had in terms of the supplements it put out before the line was canceled. More on the lizard men and dinosaurs of Venus would have been welcome, and there's very little information on the moon; the insectoid Selenites aren't even statted up anywhere. Only one of the Savage Tales plots takes place on the moon, and that doesn't involve the Selenites, rather dealing with the vanished Vulcan culture. I had hoped at first that Pinnacle planned to deal more with the other worlds in future books, but I've not heard much on that front. So if you really want to explore all the Many Worlds you may have to do a few conversions yourself.

Though Space: 1889's original rules system was a little clunky and unfocused, I am glad that the Savage Worlds conversion preserves something of its funky, fiddly Invention system that lets you create everything from a more efficient ether propeller to a goddamn lightning cannon, as well as rules for building your own ether flyer (which any good group should do, in my humble opinion.) Converting characters over should be no problem, and of course Savage Worlds was designed for pulpy action-adventure so it fits the setting quite well.

I'm not entirely satisfied with the book, but this may be because I'm applying high standards to the treatment of one of my favorite settings ever. It's definitely focused a bit more on savage adventure than on the wonder of discovery, but the latter isn't shortchanged. I do think the emphasis on Mars represents a missed opportunity to correct the same imbalance in the original line, which was discontinued before it could begin to focus elsewhere. And I'm still nonplussed about the Selenites (they should be in the errata or something.) Still, I can't argue against this being a successful translation of the setting to a new system, and not only is the change in mechanics is for the better, but Red Sands opens up the setting and adds quite a few new possibilities for adventure. It's good enough that I want to see more.

Grade: B+

(Note: this review or something like it should be up on later. Since this site gets less traffic I figure I'd give you a sneak preview.)

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