The destiny of the worlds in a Space 1889 campaign is determined by three distinct groups of people. The first is the Brotherhood of Luxor. The second are the Vulcans. The final group is the player characters. How they deal with the plots of the Brotherhood and handle the dangerous technology of the Vulcans will determine the fate of the solar system in their campaign.
The Savage Worlds version of Space 1889, Red Sands, is one of Pinnacle’s plot point games. Like all plot point games, there is an inherent story in the game, a central threat that will destroy the solar system and everything unless the player characters are able to put a stop to it. GMs of these games are not forced to come up with a campaign concept for Space 1889, it is provided right out of the box.
In Space 1889 the worlds endangering threat is the Brotherhood of Luxor a big bad cabal with more than one dark secret. The core of the Brotherhood is a gathering of powerful, anonymous individuals who each have their own reason for creating chaos and destruction. They use any number of cat’s-paws and pawns and a wide assortment of strange technology to advance their plots and it isn’t until their end game that the players have a chance of glimpsing the men behind the curtain.
Some of the strange technology is where the second actors in this particular drama become involved. The Vulcans in Space 1889 are not the pointy-eared, logic-loving people from the Star Trek franchise. Or perhaps they are. No one really knows. The Vulcans in Space 1889 were the inhabitants of the tenth planet (or ninth, according to recent changes to poor Pluto’s classification) in our solar system, Vulcan. In Space 1899 cosmology, this planet once orbited between Mars and Jupiter. Apparently, the Vulcans are the reason why this planet is a planet no more and has become an asteroid belt and not a planet. In typical ancient civilization fashion, they managed to completely destroy themselves and their planet with some sort of super weapon(s.) The Brotherhood of Luxor seeks out these weapons and any other of the ancient, advanced technology of the Vulcans that they can find. These weapons are no doubt better left alone and only a madman would tamper with such destructive devices, only a madman would assume that history is not going to repeat itself. It is up to the player characters to find these pieces of technology first or to prevent the Brotherhood from using them for their own nefarious purposes.
Of course, an ancient race of highly advanced but extinct aliens is a common trope in both science fiction and fantasy settings. It is often used with varying levels of success, generally straying into the deus ex machina region of plot devices and explanations but in Space 1889, the Vulcans are utilized quite well. They are shadowy figures with no mention of their culture, appearance or history. Everything about them is nothing more than theory at best and completely unknown at worst except for the pieces of their technology that turn up. And these pieces of technology tell little about them. They are invariably weapons, or can be used as weapons but whether the intentions of the Vulcans to use them as weapons or not is seldom indicated. This keeps this lost race from becoming a heavy handed morality tale and make them a plot device. And while this is quite deus ex machina, it is mitigated by the fact that no effort is made to make them anything else. These machines exist, they must be kept out of dangerous hands, little more needs to be known and little more is revealed.
The Brotherhood of Luxor is not putting all their eggs in the lost relics of an ancient alien civilization basket, however. They are also mad scientists in their own right. Many of the diabolical devices they bring to bear on the heroes are the inventions of their own minds. In both cases, however, the Brotherhood depends as much on advanced technology to destroy their foes as they do on fanatical followers and unknowing cat’s-paws.
I am not generally a fan of the plot point format. I prefer a much more freeform campaign and setting and the plot points always seem to force more than vaguely uniform shape on each group’s campaign. However, Pinnacle does an excellent job with both the plot and the adventures that it encompasses. The plot is interesting and compelling and does a great job of pulling the players in from the very beginning and keeping them hooked to the very end. The adventures are fast paced and link together tightly. In fact, the adventures flow into each other so closely that it might be difficult to slip other adventures into a campaign between them.
However, if a clever GM does find a way to include other adventures, he doesn’t have to look far to find mo. In addition to the plot point adventures, adventures keyed to different locations and situations are included in the book. These adventures are just as interesting as the plot point adventures and often provide excellent rewards for the characters. In fact, these adventures are good enough that it would be difficult for the players to determine which adventures are part of the plot and which are not in many cases. For that matter, a campaign could be run using these adventures without every touching any of the plot point adventures.
And if a GM runs out of plot point adventures and the additional adventures provided and really wants to throw in more adventures, there is an adventure generator. It begins with players deciding generally where they want to go and generally what they want to do. From that point, a number of random tables provide a framework for the GM to create an adventure around.
Actually, all of these adventures, including the plot point ones are little more than frameworks for the GM to build upon. There is a great deal of room for a GM to put in his own flavor to make them focused on hisplayer characters. While this is useful for veteran GM’s, the adventures are almost too loose for new GM’s. GM’s need a fair amount of preparation to make any of these adventures work and it often takes two or three read-throughs to get a good grip on the characters and plot of the adventure.
The Space 1889 book is more than just adventures, however. While the player’s guide includes rules for creating steam punk inventions, there is an additional section in the Game Master’s portion that provides rules for creating even wilder, more dangerous and more spectacular devices.
There is also an expanded gazetteer in the game master’s section that builds on the framework given in the player’s section. Impressively, Pinnacle avoids the trap that so many others fall into of focusing only on Earth. While the Earth section is extensive and helps GM’s get a good grip on what various countries and continents were like in 1889 and specifically what they’re like in this altered timeline, Mars is explored with just as much depth. There are several nations, both ones from Earth and native to Mars on the planet and the holdings and status of each are detailed in turn. In the end, the GM get’s just as good a feel for Mars as he does for Earth.
The other worlds of the Solar System that characters can reach, Mercury, Venus and the asteroid belt, are not nearly as detailed as Earth or Mars and the planets beyond the asteroid belt are only mentioned. This is not an accident, however. Earth and Mars are undoubtedly the focus of the story in Space 1889 and while these other worlds are certainly interesting and could be the background for any number of excellent adventures, they exist on the periphery of the story. It seems to have been a conscious decision to give these other worlds only sparse descriptions. Anything more would just waste space in the book.
Though the gazetteer is extensive, it gives no real history and there is no history section in the book. The GM and players are dropped into the world with no background and no understanding of how things got to be the way they are. While it can be assumed that the Earth portions are the same as our real history (with the notable exception of space travel being discovered much earlier,) there is no way of knowing how things on Mars ended up the way they are. There are a number of Martian nations that are in the middle of wars to retain their independence or who are trying to regain their independence but there is never any mention of how they lost their independence in the first place or how they came into conflict with the nations of Earth. In addition to just adding to the feel of the setting, it would be easier for GM’s to deal with issues that come up with NPC’s and plot twists if there was more history to work with.
Just as there is no history in the book, there is also no description of Martian Culture. There are three distinct Martian races but beyond their physical differences (which are rather small between two of the races) there is very little mention of what separates these races from each other. There is never a description of how the Martians live, what their society is like or even what makes them culturally different from humans. The few places where any kind of Martian society is mentioned makes them out to be simply stereotypically “foreign.” Not particularly alien, simply not-European. Again, some cultural description of the Martians would be useful information when it is necessary to free form an adventure or make an adjustment because of the actions of the characters.
Finally, Space 1889 has a nice gallery of adversaries for the heroes to face. These opponents are generally of a quite pulpy style. They include things like abominable snowmen and clever apes as well as dinosaurs and space monstrosities. Many of these creatures are leftovers from the Vulcans who somehow destroyed themselves in the ancient past. These leftovers range from robots that are still functional to creatures that the Vulcans created as pets or guards who have managed to propagate themselves to otherwise ordinary creatures that were accidentally mutated by Vulcan technology.
In addition to the bestiary portion there is also a sort of Rogue’s gallery that includes both generic civilians and opponents as well as specific villains and allies that are needed for the assorted adventures provided in the book and adventures the GM comes up with on his own. Much of this humanoid section is taken up by the generic villains and civilians needed for the non-plot point adventures but an equally large portion of it details the Brotherhood of Luxor, from their lowly minions who are nothing more than unwitting tools to the secret cabal at the top of the group who are maneuvering everyone else to their own nefarious ends.
For the most part, Space 1889 has the great production values that are to be expected from Pinnacle. The layout, art and writing are all excellent. Unfortunately, the quality drops later in the book. Specifically, the typos get worse. The most notable and common of these typos is “Spirit.” After a certain point in the book, and including all of the bestiary section, the word “Spirit” is spelled “Sprit.” Not once, not a few times, not often but EVERY time. Every time spirit should be in the book after a certain point it is misspelled as sprit. This is made all the more annoying because the rest of the book is so good.
Space 1889 is an excellent plot point campaign setting. The plot is fast paced and entertaining and the setting is intriguing. Either the setting or the plot would make an excellent campaign and the two of them together make for a truly awesome experience. Space 1889 is a great choice for people whether they like the steam punk genre or not.