Want an underrated movie that was completely mismarketed but just plain fun? John Carter should be on your radar. Want a series of classic man-out-of-his-element science fiction tales? John Carter should be on your radar. Interested in an RPG set on a distant world full of savage beasts and brutal culture while at the same time graced with alien beauty and grace? John Carter should be on your radar. But what do I know… let’s ask Lostie Rorschach.
Why John Carter?
Why would Modiphius – or anyone – make an RPG about John Carter, Warlord of Mars in 2019? Someone who’d never read the books might think of him as the “Martian Tarzan”. And possibly have images in their heads from the Frazetta pulp art of a half-clad, Conan-looking dude, holding a sword with a bikini’d Princess swooning at his feet. Or maybe they saw the ill-fated Disney film, but were mystified or lost interest when it “flopped” (a whole article in itself, with wide-ranging effects).
Whatever the source of their impression, chances are non-book readers have a negative view of the material as non-scientific kid’s stuff, juvenile, derivative, and sexist. One young viewer I know even accused it of “ripping off AVATAR”.
- For the science of the day, Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) got Gravity pretty right, having John make fantastical leaps and demonstrate great strength from being used to only Earth gravity. That same concept would get re-used decades later for a guy named Kal-El
- There are moral themes that John grapples with that any parent should be proud to have their kid reading about. Just his internal debates about the brutal Thark culture versus our own absolutely resonate with today’s world … or even with John’s own Civil War origins.
- If someone can legit say John Carter is derivative, please make the argument. It’s inspired a ridiculous amount of follow on material, but aside from Verne and Wells, it was there first.
- As for the gender politics, *as written*, Dejah Thoris is probably the most empowered female character of early 1900s fiction. She has agency, intelligence, courage, leadership, and loyalty…all without the Earth-born superpowers that put John Carter closer to being an actual “Mary Sue”. There’s a reason the first book is named for her, and not John Carter.
The eleven John Carter novels and many associated stories represent fiction decades ahead of its time, forming a baseline of the pulp genre and all that followed. It’s hard to say we’d even have comics and science fiction and then gaming the same way we do, if not for the John Carter series. As far as influences, the John Carter series inspired the likes of Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. I could go on, but I’ll urge those who’d argue to find and listen to the excellent audiobook introduction by Finn JD John to “A Princess of Mars”.
So the real question to me is, “Why did such an RPG take so long to happen?”
Background for the beginner and veteran
So I’ve been talking it up and hinting at a few highlights, but if you’ve never heard anything of John Carter, you’re probably still “So what? How does this guy even get to Mars” Here’s some quick background.
John Carter is a Civil War veteran, a former (and regretful) Confederate Captain. He’s a Virginian gentleman, in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In looks, he’s the 30-ish archetypal hero (which he essentially helped define), tall, black hair, and steely blue eyes.
While prospecting in the West and running from Apache, he finds a cave that somehow allows him to Astral Project body and soul to Mars.
While just trying to survive, he stumbles into the midst of the Game of Thrones-like politics of the Red Martians; survives the brutal ways of the green-skinned, 10 ft tall, 4-armed Tharks to win their respect; courts and wins the heart of a Princess; and countless other heroics, even coming one day to challenge the false gods of Mars.
Oh yeah, he even has a Martian dog.
This RPG uses the Modiphius 2d20 system, which also backs their CONAN and Mutant Chronicles lines. In a world where everyone and their Aunt Bessie has a custom dice system, I kinda really like 2d20, and this is my first exposure to it.
There are 6 stats for player characters, ranging from 1 to 12, with the highs and lows very rare. Standard tests involve choosing TWO of your stats that would complement each other suitable to the task at hand (i.e. role-playing opportunities abound). Add those together and roll 2d20, counting the “successes” that roll equal or less than the stat total on EACH die. Modifiers can add more dice (up to 5) or swing the successes needed, offering a wide range of design space.
The 6 stats are a role-playing treat by themselves. They are every bit as flavorful as they sound:
Player characters start with an average 4 in each stat, further modified by Race and Archetype.
Like any good RPG, they exhort the player to start with a Concept, and build from there. “What do you want to be in this world of Barsoom (Mars)?” is the simple and essential question. (As a longtime fan of the old “Sky Galleons of Mars” game, and the Space 1889 RPG, my first and only answer is ‘Sky Pirate’)
First step after that is allocating initial stat bonuses, then choosing race. Starting Races include Earthborn, and the skittles-rainbow of Martians – Green, Red, Black, and Yellow. And they have excellent rules for cross-breeds. Now aside from the green Tharks, that may seem like merely a list of multi-hued “humans”; but the races couldn’t be more different in application. All come with the usual variety of stat changes and innate talents, but then they have some delightfully elegant sections titled
- What you know
- What you don’t know
- What you can do
Those simple questions answered truly make each race distinct.
The you choose an Archetype, from Assassin to Scientist, Envoy to Rogue, etc. Each comes with stat changes, and another round of What You Know, and What You Can Do. And for those who never find the book list enough, there are SOLID rules for devising your own archetypes.
Last two steps are more customization. There’s choice of a descriptor, such as “Savage” or “Bold” or “Charming” etc, offering bonuses. And then the selection of Talents, some of which are suggested on each archetype. Talents are an amalgam of innate abilities, unusual abilities, or even just skills you’re good at. There’s no real laundry list of skills, ala GURPS … yet its all very practical.
Talents govern how you use the big game mechanic – Momentum. We’ll discuss that further below.
One last note on characters – the game has zero problem with playing characters from the books, whether manually created or using the stats listed later on, as long as all players start on equal footing.
So two other mechanics kick in whenever you make a test. Every extra success you roll that you don’t need generates Momentum. And every 20 you roll generates Complications.
Momentum is the player resource to create extra story conditions. You can’t spend it without a good description of how it works, for starters. And the quick list of options they describe should give you a feel for how it works. With Momentum, you may:
- Create Obstacles
- Create Opportunity
- Obtain information
- Improve Quality of success
- Increase Scope of Success
- Reduce time required
Complications are best described as “Why can’t things go smooth?” As implied, they’re best as improv by the GM, but can range from as simple as the Guard looking the wrong (right?) way or merely improving the challenge rating (called Threat); or as complex as making a new friend.
There is also a fairly unique combat system, but I’ll leave some things unspoiled. Suffice to say that as a picky bastard when it comes to “damage”, I like their methods better than anything since Mutants and Masterminds.
At times I feel the art is a little lacking (thought the design and layout is not).
That’s about it … and given the slew of excellent JOHN CARTER art out there, its not even a pickable nit.
A lot of licensed/themed RPGs cover the system, write up some characters and locations, and call it done. You already know the books, etc, right, so why duplicate what you already know?
For the JOHN CARTER RPG, that’s nowhere near enough. The main “rules” part covers 90 pages, including well-detailed diversions on technology and society. But then the next 100 pages are a fascinating, easy-to-read, even joyful detailing of the world of Barsoom (and beyond). They detail multiple eras from the books, and even stat out book characters within those multiple eras. They cover societies, religions, economics, geography, politics and beasts. Everything to give the game a real lived-in feel. And for someone like me, who read most of the books as a very young teen, and only one book as an adult, it was a wonderful refresher to have.
The next 60 pages are a starting adventure, and adventure hooks. And that’s followed by two of the gold standards for RPG’s: an Index AND a handy Glossary of Game Terms!
Oh, and did I mention the maps? There are Maps!
Due to schedules, I’m struggling to keep a D&D campaign going once a month; all while sitting on plans to run STAR TREK or WRATH AND GLORY or the new VAMPIRE, or LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS each (or all) at some point this summer. If I can find willing players, JOHN CARTER just cut line ahead of all of them.
To use a less anecdotal system, let’s try the one used by the D6 Generation Podcast. (If there’s an LHR Rating System, I honestly don’t recall it).
The system is the number rolled equal to or higher on a D6, to represent your chance of liking the game. Sure fire hit is a 2+, bogged down boring system with too many tables and no artwork is a 6+. Rerolls work as in-between modifiers (not math correct, but think of them as the ½ marks)
For a standard role-player who likes their Fantasy and Sci Fi, it’s a 3+
For fans of the retro pulp genre, add a reroll.
For those who still hold all the bad assumptions I debunked at the start, why are you still even a gamer? Don’t you have someone’s birthday to ruin? Get lost!
For those who are new or old fans of the John Carter series, a 2+ with a reroll. It’d be truly hard to imagine a better execution of an RPG for this material.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. Stay classy, Losties!