Recently I was lucky enough to be involved in the playtest for the upcoming John Carter RPG, due to be released by UK-based Modiphius Entertainment in 2017. As a longtime fan of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels on which the game is based, I’d been waiting for a chance to play this ever since I heard the game was in development. I mean, what better way is there to spend a Friday night after work than pretending you’re a 12-foot tall, four-armed, green-skinned, bug-eyed Martian warrior named Tars Tarkas?
My first impressions of the game were very favourable. I think it captures the heroic, swashbuckling spirit of the books admirably well, and Modiphius’s patented 2d20 LITE game system does a good job of resolving combat and player character actions. It’s not without its bugs though, particularly the amount of mathematical bookkeeping that’s required to run combat. But given this is only phase 1 of the playtest that’s not surprising. There’s heaps of promise in the John Carter RPG, and more importantly it’s a lot of fun.
To give some background, John Carter appears to be a licensed tie-in with the movie of the same name released in 2012. The film, however, was based on the 1912 novel A Princess of Mars, written by pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs would also write Tarzan of the Apes in the same year, so expect a Tarzan RPG anytime soon, ‘cos it’s way overdue.
Burroughs (who’s still known as “ERB” to his legions of fans) wrote a total of 11 books set on Mars or “Barsoom,” as it was called in the rudimentary but pioneering constructed language he devised for his stories. Burroughs’ vision of Mars was based on the scientific consensus of the time, which imagined Mars as being much older than Earth with dwindling water supplies that forced its inhabitants to construct a vast system of planetary-wide canals.
But whatever effort he might have gone to for scientific realism, Burroughs’ stories themselves were pure swashbuckling adventure. John Carter, the main character in the first three books (his descendants feature in later volumes) is a former captain in the Confederate Army mysteriously transported to Mars via astral projection. On Mars he becomes an early version of Superman, literally able to leap tall buildings in a single bound thanks to the lower Martian gravity. He’s also as naked as the day he was born, as are all civilized races of Barsoom, a feature of the books that didn’t quite make it into the Disney film. Which struck me as a touch hypocritical given that Donald Duck never wears any pants.
The various Martian cultures are invariably exotic and constantly at war. The Red Martians, who live in scattered city states of which Helium is preeminent, appear the most human-like except that they are oviparous, which is to say they lay eggs (Barsoomian dating tip #1: Never make an omelette to impress a Martian lady). The Green Martians, with their multiple limbs and swiveling eyes, are the original Bug Eyed Monsters. There’s other colour-coded Martians as well, including Yellow, Black and White Martians, all of whom take turns as adversaries of John Carter and Dejah Thoris of Helium, the Martian princess whom he marries (IMHO Carter was punching above his weight, but there you go).
Why am I telling you all this? Indeed, some readers will be seething with impatience by now. “We know this backstory, get to the game!” Hold your thoats, friends. I’m getting there.
The thing about Burroughs is that while some people know a lot about Barsoom, many more have never heard of it. Burrough’s Martian stories are pretty much where Lovecraft was 10-15 years ago, before the so-called “Lovecraft Renaissance.” Although the books have a passionate and enduring fan-base a century after their publication, Burroughs’ vision of Mars remains relatively obscure in wider popular culture. And this despite the immense influence of Barsoom and its moss-covered dead sea bottoms. The late great Carl Sagan was inspired by Burroughs’ Martian stories to become a scientist; campus lore has it that Sagan hung a map of Barsoom on the wall outside his office at Cornell University. George Lucas was also heavily influenced by Burroughs while devising Star Wars in the mid-1970s. Words that are now practically part of the popular lexicon such as “Jedi” and “padawan” are actually thinly veiled borrowings of the Barsoomian jed (a ruler) and padwan (a lieutenant).
So it might be that the John Carter RPG will appeal hugely to fans who already know Barsoom, but it remains to be seen how it will go attracting players new to the universe. Certainly, this seemed to be a factor behind the apparent box office failure of the 2012 film. (Critics also blamed a misguided and ineffective marketing campaign, but it couldn’t have helped that the film was banned in the cities of Zodanga, Thark and Warhoon on the grounds of negative portrayals of Martian culture.)
So, to the playtest. We had six players in our group, including myself. Each of us took a pre-gen character provided in the playtest kit. Lev, president of the Melbourne-based journal RPG Review, played the feisty Martian Princess Dejah Thoris; Liz, also from RGP Review, took on a Red Martian guard described in the notes as “looking to make a name for himself” which Liz cheerfully interpreted to mean “Kill everything in sight!”; Simon, co-owner of Gatekeeper Games where the playtest was held, offered a counterpoint to all the heroism with a cowardly nobleman that he dubbed “Captain Squealy Pants”; Dave, who played an elite but sadly nameless Martian pilot; and Adam, who took on the role of none other than John Carter of Virginia himself, Warlord of Mars. Our gamesmaster was Karl, also from RPG Review, who will be familiar to roleplayers in Melbourne as a GM of talent and skill, particularly when it comes to running complex combat scenes involving large numbers of characters and NPCs.
As I mentioned earlier I played Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of the Tharks, most powerful of the many warlike hordes of Green Martians who roam the dry sea bottoms of Barsoom on their six legged thoats. Ask me if I could have squeezed any more in-universe names into that last sentence, ‘cos the answer would be Calot ha dar phai karsof jeddak. (Though I wouldn’t dare repeat this to a Dothraki, who share a likely pop cultural lineage with the Tharks, despite having only one pair of arms.)
The scenario we played was fairly basic, and designed I suppose to test the core mechanics of the game. Returning from a diplomatic mission, our party’s airship is rammed mid-air by a black-hulled ship full of First Born, jet-black Martians living near the planet’s north pole known for their piratical activities. A boarding party of First Born swarm over the deck and attempt to abduct Dejah Thoris. Mayhem ensues.
Given that this was a phase 1 of the playtest I won’t attempt a comprehensive overview of the game system, as I expect it will change a fair bit before the final game is released. Characters have six attributes – Aggression, Might, Empathy, Reason, Passion and Daring – which are rated from 4 to 12, where 4 is considered average and 12 virtually godlike. To give an idea, my 12-foot tall Tars Tarkas, considered one of the greatest fighters of Barsoom, had a Might of 8 and an Aggression of 6.
Straight away I liked the choice of these attributes, because they described character traits rather than simple physical capabilities like, say, Dexterity or Constitution. When attempting any significant action, players must make a skill test by choosing a combination of two of their character’s attributes. The GM then assigns a Difficulty rating to the particular test; in our game, Karl set most Difficulty ratings in the 1-3 range. Rolling 2d20, the player then checks which (if any) of the dice were lower than the lowest, highest and combined scores of the two attributes chosen for that action. This determines how many raw Successes the PC has achieved, against which the Difficulty level must be subtracted. Any Successes left over can be used to resolve the outcome of the PC’s chosen action, or stored for future actions as Momentum points. Opposed actions against NPCs work similarly, with both sides choosing two attributes, rolling 2d20 and then comparing their respective Successes to determine which party comes out on top.
What’s really interesting is the way the two attributes chosen by the PC have a very real bearing on both the roleplay and gameplay aspects of the game. The player has to justify or describe in game terms how their character is using the combination of attributes to perform an action. This took a little getting used to, for which having a GM as experienced as Karl was a great advantage for us first-time players. But once we got the hang of it, thinking in terms of the in-game consequences of choosing two specific attributes became second nature.
To give an example, at one point in the melee Tars Tarkas found himself in danger of being overwhelmed by the First Born mooks, who’d decided that ganging up to attack the Thark in something like 8-to-1 odds wasn’t actually against the pirates’ code of honour after all. “How are you going to respond, Tars?” Karl asked me.
I decided I wanted to use a combination of Might and Daring, mainly because it gave me the highest odds of succeeding against the cowardly pirates. But I was less certain of how to justify this combination, because while “Might” refers to brute strength, “Daring” in combat usually means speed or agility.
“I’m not quite sure,” I replied, honestly enough.
Karl thought about my problem for a moment. “Ok,” he said, coming to a solution. “How about this: Tars Tarkas lowers his great green head with its enormous tusks and roars, bull-rushing straight at the pirates. So that would be using Might for the show of intimidating strength, and Daring for the charge. I think that would work.”
I rolled 2d20. Indeed, it worked, and with spectacular results. After comparing opposed rolls the mooks were so terrified by the spectacle of a not-so-jolly-green-giant charging straight for them that they fled in panic, scrabbling desperately to escape in the nearest lifeboat. Which was unfortunate for Simon’s cowardly noble Captain Squealy Pants, who was already in said lifeboat trying to save his unworthy hide when nobody was looking. And we all know how that turned out for him … let’s just say that gravity is still gravity from 500 feet up in the air, whether you’re above Earth or Barsoom.
(You know, I just knew I’d love playing a Green Martian, who are roughly equivalent to barbarians in this game system. And I’ve always enjoyed playing barbarians. Many years ago now I came to terms with the realisation that when it comes to RPGs I actually quite enjoy hitting things as a way to resolve problems. Which, interestingly, is pretty much the exact opposite to my real world character type of ENFJ. “Hey, guys, before we go any further can we please find consensus on whether we want to melee. Let’s talk, ok?”)
For me, the core mechanic of using two attributes to resolve an action was a standout aspect of the game, as it led to a really expressive style of gameplay that not only provided a highly flexible core game mechanic, but also functioned as a virtual engine for storytelling. I also thought that the attributes used in the game were well suited to the heroic feel of the source material. For instance, there’s no attribute for “Sneaking” or “Stealth” in John Carter, which on Barsoom would be considered cowardly and dishonourable (unless you were playing Captain Squealy Pants. Sorry Simon, I’ll stop now). Instead there’s “Daring”, much more suited to the spirit of the original books.
The other players in our group were also impressed with this core mechanic. As Dave said during our discussion at the end of the adventure, “I really enjoyed the stats for the characters, because it made it less ‘I’m going to smash this’ and more ‘I’m going to leap over here and twirl around and carry this guy off the edge of the boat.’ Which then let you choose which two stats you were going to use.” Liz was of a similar opinion. “Yeah, I also liked it how the choice of stats gave you angles for your character,” she said. “That’s if you were really playing your character – which I wasn’t, ‘cos I came in late and was like ‘Kill everyone!’” (Actually, the system worked pretty well for that too.)
The playtest wasn’t without glitches, which is to be expected for the first round of testing. Though the maths isn’t particularly complicated – there’s no resistance tables or formulae – there’s actually quite a lot of it. This is especially evident when making opposed rolls, where PCs and the GM are both rolling against their attributes then subtracting Difficulty, then subtracting the PCs’ Successes against the NPCs’ Successes, then adding Momentum. It’s a lot to keep track of, and as Simon jokingly suggested at one point, having an abacus on hand would probably help.
Our group also noted that it seemed quite difficult to defeat opponents. As Adam put it, “Without knowing the full intention of what you’re able to do in the game, it seemed a little too difficult to be able to kill someone. But then, like in this situation [of the pirate attack] where you got to the point if you thought about it to just throw [a pirate] over the edge of the boat, that just got rid of him a lot easier. So it was the difference between us attacking and attacking and trying to kill them, and then just realizing, ‘We just toss them over the side of the boat.’ It’s almost way too hard and a little too easy.”
As GM, Karl had also noted this. “Yeah, I found the non-player characters virtually indestructible,” he agreed. “Especially the lead bad guys who are started out kind of like PCs, as opposed to the mooks. The mooks are tough enough to kill, but the lead bad guys are virtually impossible … If we’d been riding thoats across the plain, we wouldn’t have had the option of tossing [pirates] over the side. We could’ve been here on Tuesday! [all laugh]”
Liz’s suggestion to resolve this apparent design bug was to roleplay more creatively. “To kill the lead bad guys, would we have had to play the characters harder? Like, be more heroic? Because I was just, ‘I’m going to shoot the nearest bad guy.’ Would I have had to do something big and stupid to kill a lead bad guy? Is the combat more character driven?” It’s hard to tell whether this was the intention behind the game design, i.e. to make PCs use roleplay to resolve combat actions instead of crunching numbers. But either way the combat could become quite drawn out as we attempted to whittle down our opponents’ stats incrementally into submission.
My feeling is that the glitches our group identified should most likely be ironed out in further development. As I said at the start of this review, overall I thought that John Carter has great potential to be a top-rate RPG. When it comes to reviewing roleplaying games I have three very broad and subjective criteria that I always come back to:
Was it immersive?
Yes, the game does a great job of capturing the spirit and detail of Burroughs’ Martian novels. The core mechanic of using two attributes for significant actions also offered for a pleasing depth and complexity of roleplay possibilities.
Was it fun to play?
Yes, even with the sometimes drawn-out combat taken into consideration.
Would I play it again?
Definitely, although next time I want to be Princess Dejah Thoris. Just don’t ask me to come dressed in character. Nobody needs to see that on a Friday night, ok?
Well done to Modiphius for bringing John Carter into the realm of RPGs. I’ll be looking forward to the next round of playtesting, and to the final game itself. Now if you excuse me I have to go and see a man about a calot …
John Carter the Roleplaying Game will be released by Modiphius Entertainment in 2017. For more details go to Modiphius’ website. If you want to have a go at playtesting, Karl will be running the game again at Gatecon VI on Saturday 20 August at Gatekeeper Games.
Games vs Play wishes to thank Modiphius Entertainment for the use of images in this blog. Except for the photos I took of my old battered copy of A Princess of Mars, which I read and then promptly stole from my Grade 5 classroom back in 1985. That’s just how I rolled when I was 11.