Review: Space: 1889 – Red Sands

Posted: 29 October 2014 in Reviews

"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."
– Space: 1889

This one doesn’t count, because it’s a present for my son Nick, but in between the arrival and the gifting, what’s a man to do?

Nick is now esconced at university, where he has started a small Savage Worlds group, since the local RPG group is now two years into a Pathfinder game, and a 1st level character adventuring with 15th level ones has a precarious position at best. ("It wouldn’t be a problem if they were playing Savage Worlds," Nick said. Chip off the old block there.) This group wants to play something steampunk, so I thought a setting book might be useful to him. Steampunk being a bit outside my normal comfort zone, I cast around for options. There are basically four official possibilities:

  • Deadlands, the flagship setting, but that is more of a horror western; there is steampunk, but it’s an aside to the main themes.
  • Rippers, which is Victorian but leans more towards horror and biotech.
  • Runepunk, and I’m not entirely sure what that is, but it isn’t steampunk the way my boy understands it.
  • Space: 1889, a re-imagining of a fondly-remembered 1980s classic from GDW, ported to Savage Worlds.

So of course it had to be Space: 1889 Red Sands.

IN A NUTSHELL: Victorian SF role-playing campaign for Savage Worlds; 192 page hardback or PDF file. Requires the SW core rulebook.


This is more of a Plot Point Campaign than a setting book proper, with over half the page count being devoted to adventures of one stripe or another, and little choice of who the PCs work for. For those unfamiliar with Pinnacle’s PPC approach, it’s a combination of a railroad and a sandbox; there is a story arc, and there are arc-advancing adventures called Plot Points, intended to be played in a strict sequence, each triggered by a specific thing that the PCs do or find; but there are also a range of Savage Tales, shorter adventures that can be slotted in as appropriate along the way – each of these tends to be associated with a specific locale. Generally, SW books also include a random adventure generator, and this one is no exception.

Red Sands (4 pages). This is an introduction to the setting, suitable for use as a player handout. In essence, the setting is Earth in 1889 AD, as the scientists of the day understood it, but with the addition of steam-powered interplanetary craft and antigravity flyers dependant on "liftwood", which grows only on Mars.

Making Heroes (12 pages). Leaning on Rippers, the book assumes that PCs are members of a society which acts as their patron, giving them a reason to adventure together and providing funding, direction and support. The various character archetypes from the original Space: 1889 are presented here as character concepts, each with a description of who they are and a reason for them to join the Explorers’ Society and fight the Brotherhood of Luxor. However, while the original game assumed all PCs were humans, and citizens of the British Empire too, by Jove, this new version also allows Canal Martians, Steppe Martians, High Martians or Venusian Lizard-Men as playable races.

Character creation in general follows the core SW rulebook, with the addition of a new secondary attribute, Status, to reflect the rigid stratification of Victorian society. It starts at 2, and is modified by Edges and Hindrances. We’ll return to what use it is later.

There are half-a-dozen new Hindrances, and several dozen new Edges, most of which are Professional Edges reflecting the careers of the original game. My favourite of these is Associate, which allows you to begin with an NPC Extra as a follower, much as certain careers did in the earlier game. (I remember fondly the player who created a Rank 6 Adventuress/Criminal Mastermind specifically to get three NPC followers, whereupon I pointed out that the thug, valet and upper-class twit were perfect matches for three of the other PCs, and gave the character command of them instead. Good times.) The only Arcane Background permitted is Weird Science.

Possessions (14 pages). PCs begin with £5 each, equivalent to $500 in standard SW money. The extensive price list limits itself to pounds and shillings, which is a good balance between playability and realism, and better than the original in my opinion – one problem I had with that was tracking expenses to the farthing. Gear is essentially anything you could have bought in the late 1880s, plus aerial flyers and Martian animals.

Setting Rules (22 pages). These cover the game effects of Status, and provide extensive rules for creating inventions and the construction and operation of both aether flyers (read "spaceships") and aerial flyers; combat between them uses the chase rules, as normal for SW, albeit with a few new options and twists.

High-status characters find it easier to Intimidate lower-status ones, while the lower classes find it easier to Taunt their betters. Neither does well in Streetwise rolls above or below their station. Helping NPCs results in them owing you favours, which can be cashed in to gain access to support of various kinds or to cover up scandalous behaviour. Status is my favourite of the new setting rules, and I could see myself using it in a variety of other settings.

Weird Science produces strange prototype devices which can’t be reliably reproduced, but the rules for Inventions allow you to design items based on Knowledge and Repair rolls; once successful, you can sell the manufacturing rights for a one-off payment, or enjoy ongoing revenue from the patent. There are dozens of example inventions – the GM is advised to use these templates rather than require the players to design them, at least at first – some of which form a very basic tech tree, for example to build an aeroplane one must first have built a glider and an internal combustion engine.

Gazetteer (5 pages). This is very basic, and at first a disappointment for me, as I thought it was all the background I was going to get; however, if you read on, you find there is more setting info in The Many Worlds and the assorted adventures, so in effect the Gazetteer is the stuff you can show the PCs, separated out so that you can do so without spoilers.

The Captain’s Secrets (7 pages). From here onwards, we’re in GM-only territory. An overview of the Plot Point Campaign, discussions of the setting rules, special components your inventor PCs don’t know they need until they start researching a device, and mad science inventions. You know you’re going to need the last one. What self-respecting PC is going to build an aeroplane when he can build a volcano machine or a mind-control ray?

The Many Worlds (12 pages). This is a reprise of the Gazetteer, this time with notes on what might be encountered where (including a rarity for SW, random encounter tables) and which Savage Tales are appropriate for each location. Most of the page count is devoted to Mars.

Adventures (10 pages). A random adventure generator based on dice rolls.

Red Sands (35 pages). Here are the Plot Point adventures, 13 of them in all plus an overview of how they fit together and an explanation of how to continue gaming in the setting after you’re finished. The story arc takes the PCs to Earth and Venus, but most of their time will be spent on Mars.

Savage Tales (44 pages). There are 37 short scenarios, for a total of 50 adventures in all – at one session every week, and two experience per session, that will keep your group occupied for roughly a year, and develop their characters from Novice to Legendary. Along the way they will learn why there is an asteroid belt, thwart an interplanetary conspiracy, and save more than one world.

Allies & Enemies (22 pages). "This chapter presents a collection of weird beasts, stalwart allies, and fiendish enemies for the heroes to confront in the course of their etheric journeys." So it does; 36 beasts, 45 stock human and humanoid NPCs, and 15 assorted senior members of the enemy cabal.

We close with an index; unusually for a SW setting, there is no custom character sheet, although there are advertisements for reprints of the original game, which would be of value if you want to expand your game beyond the main campaign.


Red Sands is 8.5" x 11", somewhat larger than the emerging standard for SW products of 6.5" x 9", and full colour throughout, black type on a sort of reddish pink background, with half or quarter page illustrations every few pages.

Personally, I preferred the artwork from the original game, but what there is suffices.


What happened to the Selenites, eh?

And supposing my PCs don’t want to work for the Explorers’ Society, but (say) run off and enlist with the Red Captains instead? (I suppose in that depressingly-likely event I would still get use out of many of the Savage Tales.)


I always loved the 1889 setting, but couldn’t get my head around the rules, so my original campaign folded after half a dozen sessions. I much prefer this version. Had I but world enough, and time…

I have never actually played a Plot Point Campaign, although by now I have read a number of them; but I suspect two things. First, that once you’ve finished the PPC, you’re done with that setting; how many times can you save a given world before it palls? Second, that as play progresses and the plotline builds to a climax, the Savage Tales tend to get skipped over.

Like the original, although there are other planets to visit – and the PPC is one of those "travelogue" story arcs which invites you to meander through the cool setting and marvel at it – the primary focus of the game is Mars.

It’s a nice piece of work; if it were for me, it would probably wind up on the shelf as a source of inspiration or merged with Adamant Entertainment’s Mars to produce a Mad Science monstrosity the Lady Heterodyne herself would be proud of; but it’s not for me, and I hope my son’s group have a great time playing it.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

  1. Charles Blakely says:

    Nice article. The Space 1889 quote left out the most obvious writer: Edgar Rice Burroughs. I suppose if they used his name they would have had instant copyright suits.

  2. Dave B says:

    My game group recently played through this setting. It’s a good setting for the fun pulpy game savage worlds frequently delivers. There is lots of space 1889 material from the separate rules system that is trivial to port, and allows for side quests from the plot points. I did find it a bit ‘led by the nose’ for me at the time, but I played a character with curiosity hindrace, so I was “DAMN CURIOUS” about every single side quest, and had basically given up my right to be choosey anyway. It seems to be a fairly rich setting, and there are a number of wargamers who like the context for colonial conflict with steam punk technology and a lighter european hand on the situation. Recommended.

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