The Complete Canal Priests Of Mars is now available!The original publication of Canal Priests Of Mars cut slightly over a third of author Marcus L. Rowland's manuscript to fit GDW's adventure format. The Complete Canal Priests Of Mars restores the cut material, features all new artwork by Paul Daly, and adds many useful player handouts. Enjoy the "author's cut" of a classic Space 1889 adventure, or experience it for the first time!
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Everything Jules Verne could have written; everything H. G. Wells should have written; everything A. Conan Doyle thought of but never published -- because it was too fantastic.So reads the text on the back of the rulebook for the roleplaying game Space: 1889.
Given such extravagant claims, do the contents inside live up to their billing? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. The setting is fascinating and offers a wide variety of novel settings for adventure, and the wide variety of supplements published allow even the most inexperienced gamemaster to easily put together a campaign. This article is an overview of the Space: 1889 universe, with an evaluation of the various materials published for the game.
Released in 1988 by GDW, Space:1889 was inspired by the classic science fiction of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the first of a series of "steampunk" roleplaying games published in the late 1980s and early 1990s (a trend that owed much to the publication in 1991 of the novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling). Space: 1889 is the direct ancestor of such popular games as Castle Falkenstein and Deadlands, as well as a number of other less well known efforts. The game is notable for combining a historical setting with advanced technology, most significantly space flight.
Space: 1889 differs from subsequent steampunk games in that it is fundamentally a science fiction game. Unlike later rpgs, which incorporate fantasy (Castle Falkenstein) or the supernatural (Deadlands), all of the elements of the Space: 1889 game universe are based on science and technology, albeit with physical laws somewhat different than our own (more on that later).
Although Space: 1889 has been out of print since 1994, and its publisher GDW is now out of business, it is still possible to obtain copies of most game materials. A number of distributors still have copies, and several specialists in used games regularly stock it. Check with your local full service game store, or make use of the world wide web or the Usenet group rec.games.frp.marketplace.
An annotated list of all of the material produced for Space: 1889 is included as an appendix to this article, so I will not bore you with a complete listing here. It is worth noting, however, that GDW attempted to produce materials that would appeal to various audiences. As a result, there are a variety of roleplaying adventures, a computer roleplaying game, rules for miniatures, and several board games, all in the Space: 1889 setting. Taken together, they provide a rich background for adventure -- the following descriptions of the game universe is drawn from these books and other materials.
Space: 1889 is set in an alternate universe, similar to our own but with significantly different physics. The inspiration for the setting comes primarily from the science fiction of the late 19th century.
The Space: 1889 timeline begins to diverge from our own in the late 1860s, with the proof of the existence of the ether. A theoretical construct first proposed by Rene Descartes in 1638, the ether was described by 19th century scientists as the medium through which light waves and other types of energy were transmitted as vibrations. In our own universe, the ether theory was discredited by experiments done in the late 19th century and was replaced by relativistic and quantum physics.
In the Space: 1889 universe, however, the ether exists, and its existence makes travel between the planets possible. In 1868, Thomas Edison, inspired by the theories of the physicist Etiene Moreau, built and tested a device to manipulate the ether. When he found it would not work, he consulted with Moreau, who suggested that the atmosphere was interfering with the device, and that it would work if taken to a sufficiently high altitude.
In 1870, attaching his invention to a balloon, he and the Scottish explorer and soldier-of-fortune Jack Armstrong became the first humans to leave the Earth's atmosphere, landing on Mars and returning unharmed. Edison and Armstrong brought back electrifying news -- Mars was inhabited! Within a year dozens of companies were building flyers based on Edison's design, and the race to explore the solar system was on.
Mars was the focus of much of the earliest exploration, and while humans found a great deal there that was interesting (described in more detail later in this article), the most interesting was the second major difference between the Space: 1889 universe and our own: liftwood. Grown only on certain high-altitude groves on Mars, the wood of the liftwood tree has a unique quality -- it resists the force of gravity. Ships equipped with liftwood panels can fly, and so the Martian skies are filled with warships and trading vessels.
Humans have been quick to take advantage of this new material, and European gunboats now sail the skies of Mars (and Earth as well). Liftwood is rare and expensive, however, and many of the colonial struggles on Mars have their roots in the liftwood plantations. Most liftwood is used now to build spacecraft, liftwood being safer and more easily controlled that balloons for lifting ether engines above the atmosphere.
What humans have found in the decades since space travel became possible is a solar system that is teeming with life. So far, the limits of exploration are defined by the asteroid belt -- space ships are powered by solar boilers, and the Sun's rays are inadequate to go further out. All of the planets within the asteroid belt are inhabited by sentient life at various stages of cultural development, and there are a wide variety of adventure opportunities.
NOTE: The intelligent inhabitants of the dark side of Mercury are described in Jim's article "Dwellers in the Dark" in Challenge #52 -- there really are natives on all the planets!
The innermost planet, Mercury, is a tidally locked world, with one side always facing the Sun, the other the void of outer space. Between the cold of the dark side and the heat of the light side, there is a narrow 100-mile wide temperate zone that circles the globe. All around the zone runs the World River, linking the various lakes and small seas, its flow driven by Coriolus effects. Along the river, exotic plant life and primitive shelled creatures (similar to those common on Earth during the Paleozoic Age) make their home.
Largely unexplored, there is only one permanent human settlement, a British scientific outpost named Princess Christiana Station with less than a hundred residents. While molten tin and lead on the hot side of the planet and frozen fields of ammonia and carbon dioxide on the cold side are potential commercial products, the extremes of heat and cold have made exploitation impractical to date.
A recent scientific expedition to the dark side of Mercury has reported exotic life forms living in the extreme cold. Their body chemistry is based on ammonia, and the creatures cataloged included a primitive race vaguely resembling spiders or crabs. The expedition managed to establish communication with them, and they proved helpful in exploration of the area. (see the article "Dwellers in the Dark" in Challenge #52 for more details).
Beneath a constant shroud of clouds, Venus is a swamp world drenched by nearly continuous rainfall. Much of the surface is covered by a shallow ocean that averages less than ten feet deep. The plants are similar to those of the Mesozoic age of Earth, and dinosaurs roam the jungles.
Venus is home to the Lizardmen, a race of intelligent humanoids. Most of them roam the jungles in small bands, though some of the more advanced tribes had developed agriculture before the arrival of Europeans. Recently, several countries have set up trading stations, where merchants exchange tools and rubber items for the exotic plants harvested by the Lizardmen. Venusian plants are much in demand on Earth as ingredients in drugs and dyes, and collectors of fine flowers find Venusian blooms to be of great beauty.
The exploration of Venus has been hampered by the constant storms and rain, which make aerial scouting dangerous. A more significant complication, however, is the effect that the Venusian magnetic field has on liftwood. It causes the wood to rapidly loose its anti-gravity properties. In fact, the first three British expeditions to the planet failed to return when their flyers were unable to reach flight altitude. It was not until the German expedition of 1879-80, which used hydrogen gas for lift, that the truth was learned from the few survivors of the earlier expeditions. German mastery of Zeppelin technology has meant that they have dominated the exploration of Venus ever since.
Venus is hot and damp -- the few human settlers make their homes in the highlands which are cooler and lack swamps. The British, Russians, and Italians have all set up colonies, but by far the largest European settlement is that of the German empire. It's capital, Venusstadt, is the largest and most civilized city on the planet -- the residence of the Governor and his family boasts an air conditioning system!
On the surface, the Earth's Moon appears to be barren and devoid of life. Yet that is literally a surface impression -- beneath the lunar surface lies a series of interconnected caverns and tunnels that is the home of a complex ecosystem and not one, but two races of intelligent beings. One of those races, the insect-like Selenites, are native to the Moon, and live a primitive existence harvesting fungus for food. Their society is described in detail in the Space: 1889 rulebook.
The second race, the mysterious Moon Men, are descended from a group that escaped from the planet Vulcan before it was destroyed to create the Asteroid Belt. They are the decadent descendants of an advanced technological people, and live deep within the Moon in the City of Light and Science, surrounded by machines that they no longer understand.
Very little of the Moon has been explored, and no doubt other mysteries await discovery below its surface.
The Space: 1889 system has more published information about Mars than any other planet, and most published adventures are set on that planet. This is not surprising, because Mars is by far the most complex and interesting setting in the Space: 1889 universe.
Mars is the first planet explored by humans, and in 1889 is being colonized and subjugated by the European powers. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Belgians, and Japanese all have established colonies there, and American traders are everywhere in evidence. The reasons are plain -- liftwood is a valuable commodity, and the growing importance of aerial navies has made many countries desirous of establishing their influence on Mars. Moreover, in addition to liftwood there are other Martian products that bring a good price on Earth, and the huge Martian population is a ready market for European manufactured goods.
Mars is much older than Earth, and over time has gradually lost its water and has become hot and dry. The only thing that makes life possible over much of the planet is the enormous canal system. Built long ago before Martians became decadent and weak, the canal system is an amazing feat of engineering. Criss-crossing the globe, the canals bring water from the annual melting of the polar icecaps. Powerful pumps lift water over mountains, huge bridges span valleys, and other devices link the canals to make them avenues of commerce, all powered by mysterious sources of energy beyond current human understanding.
Martian cities are at the intersections of canals, where they serve as centers for trade. The canals are not entirely watertight -- the small leaks create aquifers along the banks that support crops and small villages. The canal system is old, however, and not all of the ancient pumps still work or ancient bridges stand. As a result, many of the canals no longer have running water, and serve only as caravan routes across the harsh deserts.
There are three distinct Martian cultures. The most advanced is made up of the Canal Martians. They live along the canals and in the Martian cities. Tall (well over 6 feet), with pointed ears and pale ocher skin, they vaguely resemble the elves of human myth. Their hands, like other Martians, have only three fingers along with a thumb. Canal Martian food is much like human food, though more spicy.
Their level of social and technological development is roughly that of Europe in the Renaissance. Each city is ruled by a royal family, their armies use black powder muzzleloaders, and horse-like Gashants are the main means of ground transportation. Although civilized, they are clearly a culture in decline, with baroque and incomprehensible art and science that lacks the innovative spark. Nowhere is this decline clearer than in the arena of government, which in Martian cities is almost incomprehensibly bureaucratic and extraordinarily corrupt.
The second Martian culture is that of the Hill Martians. They are slightly shorter and stockier than Canal Martians (but still average slightly over 6 feet in height), and their skin color tends toward a golden brown with brown or red hair.
They are frontiersmen of Martian society, living beyond the power of the Canal Martian governments. They have a variety of cultures, but their social structures most closely resemble those of human nomads like the Sioux of North America or the Tartars of Asia. Their government is tribal, usually based on clans. Many Hill Martians have never encountered humans -- since they respect courage, determination, and skill with weapons, humans who demonstrate those traits are the most likely to be well received.
Finally, we come to the savage High Martians. In physical appearance they resemble the other Martian races, but are much shorter and walk with a stooped, apelike posture. Their skin is dark, their hair is black, and they have wing membranes under their arms. These wings aid them in flight -- High Martians have a lifting gland that cancels gravity in much the same was as liftwood does.
High Martians live far from civilization in hill fortresses called Kraags. Ruled by kings, high Martians steal from more civilized peoples and enslave captives. All work in High Martian communities is done by slaves, who are unable to escape since they cannot fly down from the Kraags as the High Martians do. Many High Martian kings are wealthy, since liftwood only grows in the mountains, and High Martian tribes usually control the groves and tend them with their slaves.
One last thing about Mars: the surface gravity is 90% of that of Earth, when orbital calculations indicate that it should be less than half. Published Space: 1889 material never explains the discrepancy, so the solution is left to the gamemaster. In truth, the reason for setting the Martian gravity at that level is to make things easier in game terms -- since so many Space: 1889 adventures are set on Mars, it would be inconvenient to constantly adjust character actions for gravity difference.
The observant reader may have noticed that there is a definite pattern to the state of development of the various planets. Mercury, the innermost world, is youngest when compared to Earth, with very primitive animals and plants. Venus is young compared to the Earth, but older than Mercury, and Mars is older than Earth, it's civilization having reached its peak long ago. Vulcan, now the asteroid belt, is the oldest of all, a planet so tired it exploded as a natural consequence of its age.
This pattern has been used by some human philosophers to justify the colonialism that has developed as Earthmen carve up the solar system politically. After all, it clearly demonstrates that humans are at the height of civilization, unencumbered by the decadence that burdens Martian civilization. The pattern is also helpful for Space: 1889 gamemasters when determining the background for their adventures -- the structure provides an orderly way to categorize the universe.
More thoughtful men and women find the implications more troubling. After all, if both Vulcan and Mars saw the heights of civilization and then fell, it implies the same will eventually happen to the human race, and that we will eventually be replaced by the Lizardmen of Venus as rulers as we slide into decadence.
Potentially even more of a problem is what lies beyond the asteroid belt. The theory implies that the farther out the planet, the more advanced and decadent the civilization -- what will we find when we reach Jupiter and the other outer planets, and can the human mind handle the experience?
One final note -- the existence of life far below the surface of the Moon implies that the same may be true for other planets. The Earth as a hollow sphere is a common theme of early science fiction, and GDW had plans to incorporate this concept into the future development of the game. The Space: 1889 computer game locates the last surviving members of the race of intelligent dinosaurs who once ruled the Earth in vast caverns deep underground, and there were firm plans to reveal that Venus was hollow as well, with another secret civilization. Perhaps a journey to the center of Mars would explain why Martian gravity is higher than it should be.
With such and interesting and varied setting, why did Space: 1889 fail in the marketplace? There are a number of possible reasons, but a major factor seems to be that the weakest aspect of Space: 1889 is its game system. While some aspects of the game mechanics are simple and effective, most notably character generation, in general resolving the actions of player characters is neither simple nor straightforward. Much of the reason for this is that the game has several different resolution systems, each used for a different type of task. Character actions use one system, except for personal combat, which uses another, while large-scale and vehicle combat uses a third system. In addition, inventor characters use a fourth system to develop and perfect their inventions. As a result, game masters and players have to master a number of different ways to resolving tasks, complicating things unnecessarily.
The system for resolving individual tasks is highly cinematic, and is perhaps the best part of the Space: 1889 system. Characters with low skill levels have a hard time accomplishing even routine tasks, while characters with high skill levels have the potential of doing things that are seemingly impossible. However, since results are based on dice totals, even the most highly skilled character can fail at a routine task (though that result is usually very unlikely). This means there is always tension associated with game play, and players can never be sure they will succeed.
Unfortunately, the combat system uses a different system from the individual task system. The combat system is derived from miniatures gaming. Of the many people I have spoken to over the years, only one has claimed to have used the combat system as written -- everyone else has substituted something else. Support for the argument that the Space: 1889 combat system is weak is the abundance of alternatives available on the World Wide Web. The Heliograph web site contains links to many of them.
The best solution to the problem with the Space: 1889 rule system is to use the Forgotten Futures game system instead. It is specifically designed for settings like Space: 1889, and allows the gamemaster and players to enjoy the action without constant reference to the rules.
Overall, Space: 1889 is an interesting and innovative setting, handicapped by a less than ideal game system. Several other factors worked against the game in its initial release, I think -- it requires some knowledge of history to play well and enjoy, and it does not allow for the creation of exotic and super-powerful player characters. As a result it never sold well to younger gamers who make up the bulk of the RPG marketplace. My own experience confirms this -- All but a handful of the Space: 1889 fans I have met were over 25 years of age when they started playing the game, and the few younger fans were either history majors in college or came from a background in miniatures gaming.
For the more mature roleplayer, however, Space: 1889 has great potential. The game's greatest strength is its firm grounding in history. Earth's history until 1876 is identical to our own, and changes after that date are relatively minor. As a result, background material is as close as the nearest library. Aside from ether flyers and liftwood, the equipment of the period is historical as well, so information is easy to come by.
Space: 1889 is also a game that encourages roleplaying and inter-player interaction. All sorts of character types are appropriate for the game, and the varied and exotic cultures described in the source material means that games do not have to center exclusively around combat and dungeon crawling (though one can certainly include that easily enough).
Overall, this is a system that is well worth tracking down. It truly is "Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time."