In 1988, Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) published a Frank Chadwick game that, in my opinion, is the best role playing game setting ever written. Space: 1889 portrayed Victorian-era space travel, and the colonization of Mercury, Venus, and Mars by the nations of Earth. It was a lush, vibrant setting full of intrigue, adventure, and science as only Pulp or “Steampunk” can portray. To this day, it remains my favorite RPG setting of any genre. Frank Chadwick still owns the trademark to this game.
Unfortunately, the game mechanics were awkward; it seemed as though every single different type of task in the game used a different dice mechanic. For example, using a skill, melee combat and ranged combat all required using a different rule set. It can be confusing for players and GM’s to keep straight. Regardless, though, there were aspects to Space: 1889 that were fantastic. The art was perfect for the setting, the background information was phenomenal, and the career lists used for character generation were exactly the ones that should have been used.
In 2010, the setting of Space:1889 was brought back to life in Space: 1889 Red Sands, using the Savage Worlds (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, http://www.peginc.com) system. This attempted to bring the setting into a modern game system, and it succeeded extremely well. The quality of the rulebooks art and writing is beyond reproach, and the Savage Worlds system fits the genre quite well. It had already been established with its own line of settings (Savage Worlds is generally considered a setting-less system) and some of those settings are solidly in the pulp/steampunk adventure genre.
Exile Game Studio (www.exilegames.com) recently (or, at least, I only discovered it recently) published a version of Space: 1889 using their excellent Ubiquity system. Ubiquity uses a variation of my favorite style of role playing game; number of successes. This is reminiscent of my all-time favorite system Shadowrun, as well as White Wolf’s World of Darkness series (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc.). I was so impressed with this system that I purchased Hollow Earth Expedition, Leagues of Adventure, Leagues of Gothic Horror, and Space: 1889 all at the same time.
So far, the Ubiquity version is the best version yet. It has everything going for it that the original had, plus more. It’s a big PDF at 258 pages, and it’s filled to the brim with background information.
No matter what system you decide works best for you, I can’t recommend Space: 1889 enough. It’s a good way to get all the fantasy and all the science fiction at the same time. I would suggest you take a look at Ubiquity, even if you don’t want to go all Victorian… but then you’d never get a chance to pilot the H.M.S. Great Yarmouth through the asteroid belt on an expedition to finally explore the outer planets!