John Carter of Mars
I’ve always been on the periphery of the planetary romance genre. I know that to this day Edgar Rice Burroughs has some very passionate fans, but, while I greatly admire his creativity (and we’ll cover that a bit more), I’ve never been able to make it through more than two or three of his works.
Several years ago I read A Princess of Mars so I have some basic familiarity with the setting. Moreover, one of my early D&D purchases was Best of Dragon Magazine Volume 1 which had discussions on Barsoom. The influence of Barsoom on early D&D was fairly prominent if I recall correctly (among other influences).
With that background, what I present is my review of the John Carter of Mars RPG by Modiphius. I’m reviewing the pdf-only. Rolling Boxcars received this pdf for free from Modiphius in return for a review (which is really overdue) — I don’t think the complementary nature of it influences my review but full disclosure seems best.
The RPG uses a stripped-down version of the 2d20 system Modiphius uses in most of their games. One challenge I had with the game was I feel it could have used a very quick, like a one page, high-level overview of the 2d20 system. Early on I found a number of concepts mentioned that aren’t fleshed out until later in the text.
It’s probably worth starting with a high-level overview of the setting. The game takes place on Barsoom, the natives’ name for the planet Mars. The novels follow the exploits of John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War. He finds himself transported to Mars and rapidly becomes involved in the conflicts there. Mars was once a lush and fertile world but has become extremely arid and its once-great civilization has descended into barbarism in many places. Technology is somewhat scattered, with flying devices going hand-in-hand with swords.
One nice thing about the RPG is it goes into a lot of detail about Barsoom. Burroughs fleshed it out considerably over several novels but the design team of the RPG seemed to have anticipated a lot of people like me with just a basic familiarity with the setting.
Perhaps the best way to get an idea behind the system is to look at character generation, which introduces many concepts. I’ll walk you through the steps:
- General Concept – Basically come up with a high-level picture for your character – airship raider, lost explorers, adventuring scientist are among the ideas listed.
- Starting Attributes – Characters have six attributes – Cunning, Daring, Empathy, Might, Passion, and Reason. They range from 1 to 12, with 4 being average. There are no skills. At its base, any task will use two attributes. For most tasks you roll 2D20, though certain factors can change this. Each roll that is less than the total of those two attributes is a success. If a roll is less than the lower of the two attributes it counts as an additional success—so it is possible, with 2d20, to get up to four successes. An average task requires one success, more challenging ones require more.
- Selecting Your Race – There are many types of Martians detailed or your character can be Earthborn, like John Carter. Each race gets certain bonuses, will know and not know certain things and can do certain things (for example, Red Martians can operate basic machinery and use medicines from their culture).
- Select Archetype – There are various archetypes in the game such as assassin, beastmaster, scientist, etc. Each archetype grants certain attribute bonuses, suggests certain talents (see below), provides knowledge of certain things, and allows you to do specific things. Character generation repeatedly lists what characters’ know, don’t know, and can do. The idea is that in a game without skills, this gives you an idea as to the types of actions that are reasonable for your character to attempt. Your knowledge might change as the game progresses. For example, Earthborn only starts out with languages from Earth but over time that might change.
- Select Descriptor – A descriptor gives a bonus to two attributes. For example, Bold gets +1 to Cunning and Daring. This simply continues the fine-tuning of your character’s attributes.
- Talents – Talents let characters achieve certain things not normally allowed or sometimes requiring “Momentum”. Some talents allow for Momentum to be spent in certain unique ways or give ways to gain more Momentum. Momentum is one of the concepts introduced early but not explained until later. Basically, it is a pool your character has – every success you get on an action above what was required, you get a Momentum Point. Momentum is capped at your lowest attribute and diminishes over time. The GM (or Narrator in the game’s terminology) has a Threat pool for a similar purpose. These pools can fuel talents, create opportunities and obstacles, allow for counter-strikes, improve successes, etc.—basically, a control knob giving narrative control. Back to talents – they might be psychic, allowing you to fight a certain way, gain bonus dice when rolling tasks, etc.
- Starting Renown and Equipment – Renown is your character’s fame and notoriety and starts at zero for Earthborn and higher for natives of Mars. Core equipment is the equipment you can easily replace—something you are rarely without.
- Choose a Flaw – Flaws are defined as “anti-talents”. For example, you might be overprotective – if someone in your charge is injured due to something you do or don’t do, you lose 5 momentum (if that drops your momentum to zero, you take fear damage—more on that later).
- Name and Finalize Concept and Attributes – If you’d held off deciding on where to spend bonuses to attributes, you need to finalize them here. Then you create your stress tracks, which function as specialized kinds of hit points:
- Fear – Sum of Daring and Passion
- Injury – Sum of Cunning and Might
- Confusion – Sum of Empathy and Reason
I’ve tried to give an idea of game mechanics. Some additions that I didn’t cover:
- Every 20 you roll in a task is a complication—some inconvenience
- Opposed tasks are won by the character generating the most Momentum
- Action sequences simply expand on the basic resolution system I’ve described. Base damage is a d6 roll – with additional d6s coming from weapon or equipment qualities, talents, or spending Momentum. Damage is deducted from the appropriate stress track.
As your character adventures, you get experience points. These can be used to increase attributes, add talents, add core equipment, and change flaws. Similarly, you gain renown which can get your character allies – much like how John Carter becomes a better-known hero, he has countless allies he can call upon. You can use renown to change Barsoom—bringing allies together, making peace between factions, etc.
Beyond what I’ve described, the book is brimming with setting info along with the needed game mechanics for the setting—beasts, weapons, gadgets, etc. It has advice for running the game in different “eras” of Mars (corresponding to different groupings of the novels), a pair of fully-fleshed out adventures, and several pages of less detailed adventure ideas.
In short, the John Carter RPG is a lovely book which not only captures but describes the setting in wonderful detail. It is nicely illustrated in full color, showcasing the weird alien life and landscapes of Mars. It is divided into four sections – character generation, rules, setting, and narration. One oddity is the game is laid out in a landscape format, with pages wider than they are tall.
The book briefly discusses some of the challenges of institutional slavery in the setting and the casual early 20th-century sexism which finds its way into Burroughs’ text. I think a little more discussion would have been nice, but that be my personal taste.
Like I said in my opening, I’m not a huge fan of this genre. However, I can clearly recognize this is a well-realized RPG for that genre—I can see having years of adventure from just this single book. If you’re interested in the genre and want a game set in it, this is a great purchase. If you’ve no interest in such a game but want a sourcebook on Barsoom to mine for ideas for another game, this is a great purchase as well.
~ Dan Stack
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