Space: 1889 would not remain in print for very long. Game Designers’ Workshop cancelled the line in 1990, but Heliograph, Inc. would reprint many of the titles at the turn of the century. In 2010, the Pinnacle Entertainment Group published a Savage Worlds edition of the game called Space 1889: Red Sands. More recently, in 2015, German publisher Uhrwerk Verlag/Clockwork Publishing published a new edition using the Ubiquity System, originally seen Hollow Earth Expedition from Exile Game Studio. Notably, this edition emphasised the role of the European powers, especially Prussia under Bismarck, in the setting, as opposed to the role of the British Empire in the previous versions. The Strange Land is available for both the Ubiquity System of Space: 1889 and the Savage Worlds rules for Space 1889: Red Sands. It is the latter version of The Strange Land that is being reviewed here.
The Strange Land concerns the fate of the young Canal Martian boy, Kime, and is divided into two parts. The first part is set on Earth and is an investigation into his kidnapping which leads into industrial unrest, whilst the second part takes place on Mars, and more directly involves industrial unrest. The scenario can be played straight through, but ideally, the second part should take place later in the campaign some time after the first. In particular, it is suggested that the Player Characters for the first part be from Novice to Seasoned Rank, and from Season to Veteran in the second part. The scenario also suggests that the Player Characters, or at least a few of them, be British. The scenario has a nice sense of historicity and although the scenario calls for more middle- and upper-class character types initially, any working-class character, or a character with radical leanings will have much to do in the scenario.
The Strange Land opens with the Player Characters invited to stay at the Hampshire estate of Lord John Feltam-Hithe, where at the end of a lengthy dinner, his young ward, an orphaned Canal Martian named Kime, will perform an amazing feat—he will levitate into the air! The Player Characters have the opportunity to interact with the other guests, including an explorer, an industrialist, a businessman, a poetess, and others, but after performing for the night and retiring, Kime has disappeared. Lord Feltam-Hithe presses upon the Player Characters that the boy is in danger and must be found. Their investigations lead first to one of the staff and from their to decidedly rotten circus, which has pitched its tents outside the nearby town. The circus owner is a vile piece of work, poorly treating both staff and exhibits, including, it turns out, one John Merrick! Who proves to be the most noble amongst all of the NPCs that the Player Characters will encounter as they conduct their investigation, which will also reveal more about Lord Feltam-Hithe’s parlous financial situation.
In the third scene of the first part to The Strange Land, the Player Characters literally follows the tracks to London and get involved in the London Dock Strike of 1889. In the setting of Space: 1889, this is exacerbated by taking place on the Southern Aerial Docks, which is currently being occupied the striking dockworkers. Rumour is flying about an ‘Angel of the Docks’, a figure who has become a figurehead to the striking dockworkers. Could this be Kime? If so, the Player Characters need to find a means to ascend to the Southern Aerial Docks. Here the author provides several NPCs which can become potential contacts for the Player Characters, including a historical figure or two, along with several means of accessing the Southern Aerial Docks. These means are inventive and the author is clearly having some fun with them. Ultimately, which should happen is standoff between the striking dockworkers and the strike breakers, with both Kime and the Player Characters sort of in the middle, and the situation getting resolved one way or another.
It is at this point that the scenario could have ended and nobody would have been the wiser. However, The Strange Land has a second, much shorter part, which takes place on Mars, a year or two after the events of the first part. The Player Characters are sent to the aid of a hill station towards the edge of the British sphere of influence on the Red Planet. A local noble, Shune, wants the help of the commander of the hill station in ending a labour strike at the nearby pumping station, Astolor Station—which helps keep the waters flowing through the canals of the dying planet. The commander of the hill station would rather not get involved, and certainly not involve the British residency on Mars, but there are rumours too that a British hostage has been taken as well. So a labour strike, a kidnapping, and an unpleasant, condescending Martian noble, but how are they all connected? This is a simpler situation than in the first half of The Strange Land, but not as linear and more open in how the Player Characters approach the situation. Whether they decide to give help to Shune or negotiate with him, or storm the pumping station or parlay with the strikers, there are consequences to their decisions. The various options are discussed and supported with details of the situation’s major NPCs, so rather than running her Player Characters through the plot as in the first half, the Game Master will primarily reacting to their decisions.
Physically, The Strange Land is a short book. It needs a slight edit in places, but the few pieces of artwork and the single map—that of the Southern Aerial Docks—are all decent. However, it would have benefitted from a few more thumbnail portraits of the NPCs, and definitely more maps. Whether that is of Lord Feltam-Hithe’s estate, the region around Astolor Station, and of Astolor Station itself. If not that, then at least an illustration.
Whether written for use with Space 1889: Red Sands or the original Ubiquity System version of Space: 1889, The Strange Land is a solid little scenario. (With a little effort, it could no doubt be adapted to new version, Space 1889: After, currently being Kickstarted by Strange Owl Games.) It takes the Player Characters to the highs and lows of society on both Earth and Mars, and the first half, set on Earth could easily be run without the need to run the second half. There is an enjoyable sense of working-class radicalism to both halves and together they allow The Strange Land to explore the underside to Victorian life the reform movement in Space: 1889.
The Strange Land was the worst scenario we played at Gen Con 2022. This is not to say that the scenario itself is bad. In fact, given its author, it is no surprise that it is a decent, playable, and enjoyable scenario—as written. Yet, of all the gaming experiences we had at Gen Con 2022, it was the worst. Attending Gen Con as a group, we signed up to play a total of five games and got into four of them. These were, in chronological order, Pirates of the Shattered World, X-Crawl, Delta Green, and Space: 1889. Of these, Delta Green was a blast, Pirates of the Shattered World entertaining if crowded, X-Crawl disappointing, and Space: 1889 utterly dreadful. This is despite the fact that our X-Crawl game, which was due to take place in Goodman Games’ Wizard’s Van, was to be run by the game designer, and was an event that we were really, really looking forward to, was cancelled—with good reason. So yes, a gaming experience which was cancelled and thus involved no gaming whatsoever and meant we did not meet the game designer, was a superior gaming experience than the Space: 1889 game.
So why was it so bad?
It took too long to get started and too long for the Game Master to explain the rules. It took too long to get to the hook for the first half of the scenario—the disappearance of Kime—and thus get us involved. When we wanted to roleplay, the Game Master would attempt to move the plot on and when we attempted to investigate, the Game Master would ignore our efforts. The Game Master added a couple of scenes and details that having read and reviewed the scenario are implied, but not really suitable additions given that the scenario is being run in a convention timeslot. So, we felt unengaged in the scenario and grew increasingly bored over the course of the session. In fact, we were communicating this to each other via our Whatsapp group, to the point where we agreed two things. First, it looked like the session of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition session that the Game Master’s wife was running on an adjacent table, was a whole lot more energetic and fun, and that we wished that were playing that instead. Second, when towards the end of the session when the Game Master announced that the scenario was not yet finished, but could be if we decided to stay after the session was supposed to end if we had no pressing appointments, we all agreed that we really, really needed to be somewhere else.
All of which would be exacerbated by ‘Red Hat Guy’. The gaming group of consisted of myself and four other friends. The sixth player was ‘Red Hat Guy’. So named because he wore a red baseball cap. He sat down, selected a character, did not want to know who we were or who our characters were, and only seemed to come alive when there was combat involved. He made no contribution to the investigation or the roleplaying, what little of it we were allowed to do, and said virtually nothing for the whole of the session. However, he proved to be as bored as we were. Towards the end of the session, the player sat next to him sent the following message on our Whatsapp group: “Red hat is skimming through boob pictures. My game is now complete.”
Now in hindsight we should have done something about this. We should have told Red Hat Guy to stop or gone to the Gen Con organisers. We did not. Why not? We were in shock at the audacity of anyone doing such a thing. Had we done so, it would have upended the game, disrupting it, and somehow that did not feel right. Had the one female player been sat next to Red Hat Guy it might have been a different matter. He might never have begun browsing pornography on his mobile phone and the session would have slouched to its end, with none of us the wiser as to how he was feeling. If he had, then she would have very likely, clearly asked him not to, and that probably would have brought the gaming session to end.
Even to this day, we are still in shock even now at what happened with Red Hat Guy. Thankfully, we did not see him again and if we did, we would not want to game with him again. His actions capped what was already a terrible gaming experience, one that we really wanted to get away from, but are never going to forget.
A coda to this terrible gaming experience came at Gateway Strategicon, a convention held over Labour Day weekend 2023 in Los Angeles. One of our number ran The Adventure of the Sword Tournament, the quick-start for Pendragon, Sixth Edition and ‘Red Hat Guy’ had signed up to play. The was no sign that he recognised the Game Master, who had also been a player in the Space 1889 game at Gen Con and who had no idea that ‘Red Hat Guy’ had signed up to play. Although he did not commit the faux pas of watching pornography in public, ‘Red Hat Guy’ committed the gaming faux pas of refusing to engage with the scenario or the game world. Instead of playing an Arthurian knight, he wanted his character to walk the land and meditate. Kung Fu this was not and David Carradine he was not. Rather than engage in the scenario, he decided his knight would sell his arms and armour and horses, and then sit outside the city of London praying. For a full four-hour session. The only times he stirred were for the tournament when there was going to be some (mock) combat and then at the end when everyone swore fealty to the newly anointed King Arthur. The first of these he was unable to do because of course, he had sold all of knight’s arms and armour and horses and so could not participate. As for the second, he was able to swear fealty to King Arthur, but literally last and right from the back of the crowd as he rushed in from outside London’s walls to the square where the sword in the stone was.