Space 1889

“Science-Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time. ”

Game Designers Workshop (GDW), 1988

Game Concept and System Design: Frank Chadwick
Background Design/Development: Frank Chadwick, Marc W. Miller, Howard Whitehouse, Loren K. Wiseman
Additional Design/Development: Timothy B. Brown, Lester Smith, Tim Ryan, Julia Martin

Space 1889

8 3/4" x 11 3/4" hardbound rulebook; 200 pages, plus 16 pull out pages

Supporting items in the collection

Conklin's Atlas of the Worlds and Handy Manual of Useful Information. Frank Chadwick, Game Designer's Workshop, 1989. Copy on loan to the Museum from Brian Rogers.

Back to the Science Fiction Wing
Back to the main lobby

On March 9, 1870, Thomas Edison and Jack Armstrong, a Scottish soldier of fortune, landed their ether flyer on the planet Mars. Edison and Armstrong found the canals, cities, and Martians as predicted by prominent scientists and science-fiction writers. By the early 1880s, Britain had established a colony on Mars and was engaged in hostilities with the Martian Oenotrian Empire. As may be expected, the other powerful nations of the world aren't willing to let the British take all the glory and plunder, so Germans, Belgians, French, Russians, Americans, and Japanese can all be found on the Red Planet.

Humans can't really afford to leave Mars to its own affairs. After all, Mars is the only source of liftwood, a wood that is lighter than air. Liftwood is needed to build the better ether flyers, as well as aerial gunboats and other necessities of a modern interplanetary empire.

Humans have been exploring other planets as well. The Germans have a strong presence on swampy Venus, and there is a British scientific outpost on Mercury. Nobody goes to Earth's moon—there appears to be nothing of value there, and the lack of atmosphere makes landings difficult, as demonstrated by the disappearance of the last expedition of the Russian lunar expert, Tereshkova.

The really adventurous go to Mars.


The setting

Space 1889 didn't spend much time discussing Earth affairs. The designers apparently intended it to be fairly close to historical Earth, ignoring any changes that may have occurred as a result of aerial gunboats or the other science fiction inventions described in the rules, or even the economic strain to nations struggling to simultaneously colonize Africa, India, south east Asia, and the planets Mars and Venus. Instead, Space 1889 put its energies into space, as the title promised.

Chadwick's Mars was certainly worth adventuring on. Mars is a desert planet with seasonal floods of water from the poles that flow down the canals. The ancient Martians deployed incomprehensible technologies to dig their canals and pump the water, build tremendous cities, and feed their peoples. As the planet dried out, Martian society became decadent. The knowledge to maintain and repair the technology disappeared, and modern Martians coast on the gifts granted them by their ancestors.

Martians have three distinct races. The High Martians are described as bestial and barely intelligent. They are able to fly, courtesy of a lifting gland and wing membranes, and they live in remote mountain fortresses called Kraags. The High Martians live by loot, plunder, and the trade of liftwood, which only grows in their territory. The lowland Canal Martians are civilized and refined. They have neither lift glands nor wing membranes, and they live in the cities and towns along the canals. Evolutionarily midway between the High and Canal Martians are the Hill Martians, nomadic peoples who wander the desert regions, raiding and fighting. They have no lift glands and only the smallest vestiges of membranes. They may be relatively peaceful herders, or they may be aggressive raiders.

The three Martian races are not internally homogenous. Each consists of different nations, peoples, and languages. Typical for a core rulebook, only a few regions were described in any detail. This was no handicap for most games, as players would likely be involved in European affairs on Mars, either in the British colony of Syrtis Major or near the Belgian colony of the Great Coprates Rift Valley.

The British fought and won a number of wars with small Martian city-states around their protectorate of Parhoon, building a colony around the old Martian city of Syrtis Major. When the British raided Kraag Barrovar, home of Hattabranx, the most powerful High Martain ruler in the area, they gained access to his liftwood, and aroused insecurity and hatred in the Oenotrian Empire. Deprived of liftwood, the Oenotrian Empire would be unable to defend its holdings against either the British or other Martian powers. With some goading by German agents, the Oenotrians declared war on the British in 1889. The front is currently stalemated, as neither side possesses enough air power or ground forces to force a conclusion upon the other side.

Meanwhile, in the Coprates Valley, the Belgians have replicated their horrific behaviors from the Congo, exploiting and brutalizing the natives into working for them as virtual slaves. The whole region is in a state of unrest, and because of the Belgians, growing numbers of Martians are convinced that the only good Earther is a dead one. American arms merchants are selling modern weapons to the Martians, and the area features a growing number of deadly confrontations.

As if these tensions weren't enough, the Ground Cleansers, a fanatically anti-human movement, is gaining strength among the Martians; anarchists from Earth have agents on Mars who are randomly bombing public places and government offices, and the Irish Sons of Fenian have agents on Mars to make life difficult for the British. In short, there's plenty of ferment and activity in this setting for player characters to get involved with.

Character Generation

Space 1889 was a skill-based system. Typical for GDW games, Space 1889 limited itself to six sided dice, and kept characters simple, which made creating them fairly fast. Characters had six attributes: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Charisma, and Social Class, with scores ranging from one to six in each attribute. Scores could be determined in three ways: the distributive system had players assign the values one through six to each attribute, with no duplicate values. The free purchase system gave players a pool of twenty one points to assign as he desired, so long as each attribute had a value between one and six. The random generation system had players roll a single die for each attribute. If the total of all the attributes came to less than 18, then players could add points however they felt until the total reached 18.

The game had only twenty-four basic skills, linked to attributes, so that each attribute was associated with four skills. Eleven of the twenty-four were cascade skills, meaning they had a number of specific subskills associated with them. For example, the close combat skill (a strength-based skill) was a cascade skill with three skills under it: edged weapons, pole arms, and bashing weapons.

Each character automatically received the first skill for each attribute (fisticuffs for Strength, stealth for Agility, wilderness travel for Endurance, observation for Intellect, eloquence for Charisma, and riding for Social Class) at the level of the attribute minus one. All characters also received the second strength skill, throwing, set at one half the character's strength, rounded up.

Characters then chose one or two careers for their characters. Careers might have pre-requisites (required attributes or gender), and listed a number of skills the character would receive, usually seven levels' worth. For example, a foreign office diplomat needed to be male, with a social class of at least 3 and an intellect of at least 4. He would receive the skills of bargaining at 2, linguistics (French) at 3, eloquence at 1 and observation at 1.

A character might take only one career, in which case the player received six extra points to invest in raising character skills or to buy new ones. If a character had two careers, then he would gain all of the skills from both careers, but only have two extra points to invest.

Careers were classified as government (including military and government officer careers), exotic (including hunters, explorers, adventuress), service (including servants and tutors), mercantile (including engineers and inventors), professional (including detectives, doctors, and scientists), or criminal (including thieves, anarchists, or master criminals).

As may be guessed, women were barred from many of these fields, but there were options for female characters. Not only were there many careers open for women (and the adventuress was for women only), but female characters could easily attempt to impersonate men by rolling equal or less than the character's agility or intellect. Success meant the character could enter the career disguised as a male.

Although character generation was fairly simple, at times the referee needed to generate NPCs quickly. An alternate system was somewhat faster, basing NPC characteristics on their profession, and providing a table with thirty six different very brief descriptions providing the NPC's primary motivation.

While the rules did not expressly say so, the amount of detail about Britain and its social system argue that the designers felt the players would choose British characters. But there's no reason to not be another nationality, and there are even some rules for generating Martian characters—presumably as NPCs, but there's no reason why a player might not want to be "Gunga Din" on Mars.


Characters could advance very quickly. The rules advised awarding a single experience point for every major event or episode. One point could be used to buy a new level of a skill. However, if that would put the skill higher than the governing attribute, players had to roll greater than or equal to the previous skill level on a single die. In addition to experience points, characters gained an additional close combat point, to be spent on the close combat skill alone, if the character engaged in any close combat during the game. Notice that general experience points could not be spent on the close combat skill.

Space 1889 also recommended several other rewards to motivate characters. There's loot, of course, but also cash rewards from a grateful government, and fame and distinction. These were measured by "renown points," which did not appear to have any specific game function, but came with all kinds of sparkly rewards such as getting one's name mentioned in the newspaper for valor, receiving medals from the government, or even being awarded a knighthood. The rules also mention that characters could pick up "souvenirs," some of which might be useful in later adventures.


The Game

The game used two systems to resolve events, excepting combat. Players rolled a number of dice equal to the relevant skill level and totaled the result, attempting to beat a target number set by the referee. If the character had no relevant skill, then the player rolled a number of dice equal to the relevant ability score.

An even simpler system was the "quick roll," where a player or the referee rolled a single die. If the score was less than the relevant skill or attribute, the character succeeded. If a second skill or attribute had bearing on the event, then there could be a die modification, adjusting the skill up or down.


Combat in Space: 1889 was simple enough in the basic outline, but required a lot of die rolling and modification. The setting demands many different kinds of combat: fisticuffs and unarmed melee, attacks with melee weapons such as swords and pikes, missile weapons including bows, guns, machine guns, and artillery, and advanced weapons such as heat rays. Each of these required embellishments to the basic combat system.

The basic combat system permited characters to perform a number of actions in a thirty second combat round. If a character was not in melee, he got four actions. If in melee, he got as many actions as his Close Combat skill, or his Agility score, if higher. For each attack, the attacker rolled a number of dice. Each die rolled below the appropriate skill was one hit. The defender then made a saving roll, trying to roll below his target number also. If he saved, the defender took no damage. If he failed, the defender took damage based on the weapon used. Armor made it easier for defenders to save.

For unarmed attacks, the attacker rolled as many dice as his Agility score, and tried to roll below his Fisticuffs skill. Defenders calculated their save target number by adding their Strength and Endurance scores, and subtracting the attacker's Strength. We could not find out what damage a fisticuffs attack caused.

For armed melee attacks, the number of attack dice depended on the weapon, with more maneuverable weapons having more dice. The target number was the attacker's skill with the weapon. Defenders could use their weapon to block or parry. They rolled as if attacking, but their target number was modified by the weapon's blocking value. Each successful block roll removed one of the attacker's successful attack rolls. If the defender had more successes than the attacker, then the defender could re-roll each extra success as a riposte against the attacker. Shields were used to block, either by adding two dice to the weapon's blocking, or by using six blocking dice by itself. Should the attacker have any successes left after a defender's block, the defender's save roll was a one, increased by his armor. Damage depended on the weapon used, usually one or two wounds. The melee system also took weapon reach and attacker's strength into account, by penalizing characters with shorter reach or insufficient strength to properly wield their weapon.

Missile combat treated guns and bows the same. In some ways, missile combat was faster. Each shot rolled one die, and the defender could not block. If characters were at close range (ten yards or less), the attacker rolled against her Close Combat skill; at longer ranges, she uses her Marksmanship skill. Defenders saved based on the attacker's weapon and on how much cover they have. Most weapons had a save of one; revolvers had a save of two. Most guns caused two wounds of damage. Reload rules were rather detailed; referees were clearly expected to limit missile combat through attacker ammunition limits.

Machine guns were treated very similarly to other firearms. The attacker rolled against his machine gun skill (or close combat skill if within ten yards of the target), and the defender rolled saves against a target value of one. Machine gun hits caused three wounds, making them very powerful. They were also capable of either concentrating multiple hits on the same target, or spreading out their fire across multiple targets. If the attacker fired at multiple targets, he rolled dice, counted the number of hits, and distributed the hits, one per target. If there were more hits than targets, the extra hits were disregarded.

Unlike regular firearms, machine guns put out an awesome number of bullets and were highly prone to jamming. Space: 1889 modeled the firepower by counting every ten bullets fired as one shot. Jams were dealt with by giving each gun a safe rate of fire, where it would not jam, or a maximum rate of fire, which risked a jam. For every shot fired beyond the safe rate, the attacker rolled a die. If any of these dice rolled a six, the gun was jammed. It took as long to clear a jam as it took to reload, so a machine gunner could lose an entire combat round clearing his weapon. Many weapons had their safe rate of fire be the same as the maximum rate, so they could not jam except by referee fiat. We note that the Maxim machine gun fired ten shots a round, and had a 500 round magazine, making this a very fearsome weapon indeed.

Artillery combat was fairly complex, requiring a lot more die rolling. Suffice it to say, characters did not want to be hit by artillery—and we might add, referees probably did not want to deal with it in combat!


Damage in Space 1889 was simple, non-specific, and likely to lead to unconsciousness—at least for player characters. Unimportant referee-controlled characters were far more vulnerable.

Damage was simply counted as a number of wounds. A character could take as many wounds as the average of his Strength and Endurance, at which point he fell unconscious. If a character took more damage than the sum of his Strength and Endurance, then he was dead. Unimportant referee characters (NPCs) lose consciousness after two wounds, and die if they took more than two. A wound took two days of rest to heal.



Space 1889 had no magic or psychic powers for characters. Instead, it provided for Victorian super-science, permitting for the appearance of anachronisms such as hydrofoils, calculating engines, submersibles, powered flight, antibiotics, and armored war tractors. Science fiction inventions could also be invented, such as heat rays, cold rays, and mole machines for traveling through the earth. Such devices were developed by inventor characters. "Inventor" was a career choice for characters, giving them skills in Science, Engineering, and Mechanics. The rules included a long list of devices that could be invented in play, and players were welcome to develop new ideas, most easily by combining the functions of already listed devices. Invention required the investment of research dice.

Inventor characters began the game with a number of dice equal to the sum of the character's skill levels in science, engineering, mechanics, all of the sub-areas for these skills, and the character's Intellect score. Dice would be assigned by the player into some of the eleven different fields of research. Once dice were assigned, the player rolled them to obtain a number of research points. These points would then be invested in specific devices within that category. For example, if a character wanted to invent a flying machine, she would add up her research dice in physics and naval architecture (the relevant skills for flying inventions), roll them, and invest those points in any invention, so long as she had enough to completely cover the "cost" of any given invention. To actually attempt to invent the item, the player would roll one or more research dice from that area, trying to beat the experimental success number. Once spent, those dice are gone, no longer available for other research.

Once invented, the character needs to build the device, which costs money and resources, but then the character and the party have the device to use as they see fit. Characters could even invent their own ether flyers so that the party could travel to the planets at will, rather than buying commercial tickets. Ether flyers are complex and require some design work on the part of the player or party—thankfully ether flyer designs were largely modular, and don't require a lot of detail. Players were well-advised to put a laboratory in it: inventors could use the months spent in space travel to research new inventions.

Inventors would gain research dice as experience from adventures, either from using a relevant skill or from learning new information in that field.


The Rest of the Book

To be blunt, we found the first half of the book slow going. Aside from a short section at the beginning about Victorian society and mores, the first half of the book was a relatively dry compendium of rules and supplies player characters might need. We applauded the extensive illustrations, especially those of equipment on the buying list, but the material was dull reading.

The second half of the book was far more exciting, with details about Martian geography, canal design, cultural notes, and the all-too-short bestiary. While Venus was not as well detailed, it was still fun to read and should provide some interesting adventures.

Once we began plotting a game, however, certain weaknesses of the background became evident. In the long run, Mars and Venus were not much more exotic than Africa, South America, or the poles on Earth. While the setting makes it clear that martian diseases and poisons do not affect earth creatures, the martian peoples are little different from humans. They appear to be mammalian, eat foods humans find digestible (albeit very spicy), and drink alcohol. In short, aside from skin color and other cosmetic differences, the martians seem to serve the same role as non-European humans on Earth: enemies, foils, and eventually, servants and revolutionaries against the European powers. We had thought that this view was a result of the limited material available in the main rule book, but the supplement Conklin's Atlas of the Worlds adds virtually no new information on martian biology, psychology, or culture to dispel this impression.

Perhaps the original purpose of the Space: 1889 setting was to provide for wargaming. Certainly the rules for aerial ship to ship combat were complete enough to be a stand-alone wargame, and GDW produced such products shortly after the role playing game was introduced.

Conklin's Atlas of the Worlds

This supplement presents some useful information about the Space: 1889 setting. It describes Mercury in some detail (neglected in the main rulebook), spends some time with Venus, describing lizard men tribes, the locations of European colonies, and typical European architecture on Venus. There are some simple digests and maps of regions of Earth worth exploring: South America, Africa, and the Balkans. There is an all too brief section about Mars, with detail maps of the Coprates Valley and the Gorklimsk Swamps. There is some additional information on martian languages, but cultural information is largely reprinted from the main rule book. The book closes with some information on Moon Men, descendants of survivors of the planet Vulcan, which exploded long ago, creating the asteroid belt. For the interested, the book has worthwhile information about just about everything except Mars, although the tables to generate martian cities might be worthwhile.



Space 1889 displayed great strengths and weaknesses. We feel the setting was a fascinating one, and good one for games. Heliograph press, currently licensed to sell reprints of the original materials, evidently agrees, selling the game and even audiobook dramas set in the Space 1889 universe. The game system itself was workable but dull, but we fear the combat system required too many die rolls to make it usable except by experienced players. This problem should be overcome by Pinnacle Entertainment's Space: 1889 Red Sands release, porting the Space: 1889 setting over to the popular Savage Worlds game engine.

While we applaud the unusual setting, in the end we were far more impressed with physical settings of the worlds than the inhabitants who lived on them. We had hoped the martian peoples would present interesting role playing opportunities, but they are little more than humans in ochre skins. Likewise, we were disappointed by the lack of exotic weaponry on the part of the Martians. Why should they use conventional black powder cannons and mortars? Metal was said to be scarce on Mars, and why should Earth sell the Martians long obsolete cannons instead of more up to date breech-loading weapons? If the invention rules permitted humans to create submarines, tripod war machines, heat rays and freeze rays, why are the Martians, heirs to high technology, using something as mundane as black powder cannons? The only real innovation we saw was the Martian "lob gun," a very short-barreled weapon resembling a U.S. Civil War mortar. Lob guns were designed for aerial combat, dropping cannonballs on the decks of enemy vessels and causing terrible damage.

A personal note from the curator

I've been interested in this game since I first heard of it, and have long sought to find an inexpensive copy. I'm thrilled to have it in the Museum. I managed to run a short campaign for my gaming group in the summer of 2007. The group included Lady Elizabeth Doow, an Australian inventor/scientist who'd designed a new ether propellor, her assistant, Donal Stewart, a dour Scottish engineer, Professor Lodge, a scholar of martian history, Elizabeth Lodge, his wife and retired adventuress, Mrs. Darshama, wife of a prominent and reclusive Indian scholar, and various assistants and staff. The game was terrific, but we gradually let go of the original rules and shfited to using Everway as the game system, which worked surprisingly well.


Back to the Science Fiction Wing
Back to the main lobby