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Saturday, 6 July 2019

1978: John Carter: Warlord of Mars – Adventure Gaming Handbook

For over a century, fans of Science Fiction and planetary romance have been thrilling to the adventures of John Carter, American Civil War veteran and prospector on the alternate Mars known as Barsoom as he won himself a place as a warlord—or Jeddak—and won the hand of a Martian princess, Dejah Thoris of Helium, as well as delving into the mysteries of the dying planet. This is a world at war, between the city states of the Red Martians, each of which stands guard against attacks by the barbarous, four-armed Green Martians, whose great tribes fight amongst themselves. It is also a world of mysteries, much of it dating back into Barsoom’s long past and ancient civilisations. The eleven books in the series, penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs and starting with A Princess of Mars, have long had an influence upon gaming, most notably its inclusion in E. Gary Gygax’s ‘Appendix N’ of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also upon roleplaying games set on Mars such as Game Designer’s Workshop’s Space 1889, Adamant Entertainment’s MARS: The Roleplaying Game of Planetary Romance, and Onyx Path Publishing’s Cavaliers of Mars. Plus of course, it serves as the direct inspiration for Modiphius Entertainment’s John Carter of Mars - The Roleplaying Game, the recent roleplaying game to be based directly on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories. It was though, not the first.

The influence of A Princess of Mars on E. Gary Gygax cannot only be seen in its inclusion in the famous ‘Appendix N’, but also five years earlier with TSR, Inc.’s The Warfare of Barsoom in Miniature, Rules for individual and large-scale land and aerial conflict, co-written with Brian Blume. This though, was an unlicensed game, and as much as the book has become a collector’s piece, it was always an unofficial set of rules and it would be another publisher who released the first set of official rules for gaming on Barsoom. Two years later, in 1976, Grenadier Models, Inc. also released a line of ‘John Carter Warlord Of Mars’ miniatures, but they too were unlicensed. It would be Heritage Models, Inc. in 1978 which published the actual first, official gaming product based on the John Carter of Mars series of books. A year later, SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.) would publish its highly regarded John Carter: Warlord of Mars board game.

Now better known for publishing Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, the first Star Trek roleplaying game—also in 1978, and later the fantasy roleplaying game, Swordbearer, in 1982, Heritage Models, Inc. was primarily a publisher of wargames and miniatures. Indeed, it would also release a line of miniatures to support not the one new set of rules, but two. One was the Barsoomian Battle Manual: Wargame Rules For Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Classic Science-Fiction Series, which provided rules for mass combat on Barsoom and aerial combat between the flyers used on the planet by all nations. The other was the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook.

The John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook offers ‘Miniature Man-to-Man Adventure Gaming’ stating that, “Here is action with a single man or small group of men pitting their abilities, skills, and courage against other men or fearsome Beasts in settings from dank, poorly lighted underground dungeons to the swirling, desperate hand-to-hand battle raging on the deck of the flyer a thousand feet above the ground. The clash of naked steel. . .the test of manhood and courage. . .this is the essence of a life on Barsoom!” Certainly this sums up life on Barsoom for its brave men and women, the planet being filled with dread creatures like the Great White Apes, the Apts, and the Banths, let alone attacks by the barbarous Green Men, whilst the dungeons mentioned are the little known mazes of tunnels and rooms beneath the planet’s many cities—inhabited and abandoned—built long ago by the ancients. It also provides help with ‘Painting and Organizing Your Miniatures’. What you have here then is not a roleplaying game per se, but more of a set of wargames rules with rules for single figure or character action, whether that is combat, exploration, or roleplaying. In this, it echoes roleplaying’s first steps with the original Dungeons & Dragons from 1974.

The sixty-four page John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook begins though with a guide to the inhabitants and creatures of Barsoom. In turn, the Red Men, First Born, Therns, Yellow Men. Assassins, Green Men, and more are described in detail, as are many of the planet’s dangerous wildlife. The descriptions vary wildly in length and depth, for example, the Red Men and Green Men of Mars have three and four pages devoted to them, whereas the Yellow Men and Toonolian Marsupials barely two paragraphs each. This though, reflects their prominence in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories rather than lack of diligence upon the part of the author. What is noticeable about each of the entries is that they are all prefaced by listing describing their appearance. So for the Red Men this includes the colour of their skin, hair, and clothing, their boots and harnesses (from which they hang their awards and medals), and what weapons they carry. These details are not just included for colour, but serve as the painting guide for each of the different races and creatures upon Barsoom. Along with a guide to the Barsoomian environment, weapons of Barsoom, flyers—the main form of transport on the planet, and its cities, this all takes up roughly half of the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook.

Characters in the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook are defined by seven attributes: Swordsmanship (Attack and Defense), Strength, Finesse, Luck, Accuracy, Constitution, Morale, and Quickness. Swordsmanship is rolled on three six-sided dice—both Attack and Defense, as Constitution, but everything else is rolled on two six-sided dice. Modifiers from Strength, Finesse, and Luck adjust a character’s Swordsmanship values. There is little acknowledgement of race in the process except for adjustment of the Accuracy value for Red Men and Green Men. Indeed, selecting a race is not actually part of the process. 

Parthlan of Manatos
Swordsmanship: Attack 20/Defense 20
Strength: 9 (+2)
Finesse: 9 (+2)
Luck: 9 (+2)
Accuracy: 7
Constitution: 14
Morale: 10
Quickness: 6 (-1)

In terms of rules, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook does not provide a skills system or a resolution mechanic, instead focusing on combat. This includes movement with a surprisingly high chance of tripping over and the use of a Combat Results Table to determine attacks. This requires Swordsmanship ratings to be compared, the values modified by the combatants’ stance, position when attacking, wounds suffered, and so on, the difference determining which column is rolled on using just two six-sided dice. If successful, this generates a modifier which is added to the result of two ten-sided dice (or percentage dice as the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook puts it) and the outcome determines how many Wound Points and what type of wound is inflicted. If Wounds are inflicted, then the defender rolls on the Swoon Chart to see if he is incapacitated, the chance determined by how many Wounds he has lost.
For example, Parthlan of Manatos is aboard a flyer which has been successfully boarded by pirates. So far he has cut down several pirates, but as the battle on the deck swirls around him, the lead pirate raider steps forth and singles him out. Fighting stalls as this duel plays out. The raider leader has a Swordsmanship of 16, so comparing that to Parthlan’s Swordsmanship gives him a difference of +4 and rolling a 9 on that column on the Critical Results Table gives a modifier of +1. A roll of 6 and 6 plus the modifier for a total of 13 and the raid leader has suffered a moderate wound to the head and five Wounds.
The raid leader has a Constitution of 13 and so can suffer 13 Wounds before definitely being knocked unconscious and potentially dying. So far, he has suffered 5 wounds, or 38% of his Constitution. The Judge rolls a ten-sided die and the result of 2 indicates that the raid leader is stunned and at a -1 penalty to attack and defence on the next turn. This means that the raid leader is at a disadvantage when it comes to his attack and may need to be more aggressive to counter the effects of the wound he has suffered. Either that, or retreat…
Some tactical options are provided, such as stance—Attack, Defence, Normal or Web of Steel—and position when attacking, enabling combatants to counter better opponents or the effects of wounds. Missile combat uses similar mechanics, as does mounted combat, the latter allowing for loss of control of the notoriously surly Thoats in combat, whilst the rules for flyer allow for simple aerial engagements but still focussing upon the characters.

The objective in John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook for the player characters is two-fold. One is to get better, primarily by accruing Adventure Points which can be spent to improve a character’s attributes. The other is to achieve status. This is done by achieving military rank, rising from nothing up to Jeddak’s Chamber Guard, by achieving social status as a prince, and then by further adventuring, by improving his appearance with jewels and medals, and so, he can accrue ‘Princess Points’. The aim here is to make a good impression, but the random events when meeting her, such as dancing with her and repeatedly stepping on her foot, singing her a sweet love song, staring and drooling at her, belching loudly, or getting to dance with her repeatedly, will temporarily modify a character’s total Princess Points. Then of course, a roll is made on the ‘Princess Response’ table, the results ranging from “Who are you, have we met before?” to the eye-opening “MY PRINCE, FIREWORKS, THE BIG TIME, HUBBA HUBBA!!”.

By modern standards, these mechanics are both clumsy and misogynist. Yet they are both a product of their time—after all, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook was published forty years ago, and based on a source of its time, A Princess of Mars having been published sixty years earlier. So romancing, even wooing a princess would be perfectly in keeping with the planetary romance genre of the books. Yet just as in the four decades since the publication of the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook, sensibilities towards the genre and how it should be approached have changed, so has game design, with roleplaying games like Chaosium, Inc.’s King Arthur Pendragon handling both the male and female roles within its genre with subtlety and consideration. Here the approach feels immature, at least in some of the writing.

For the Judge—as the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook terms the Game Master—there is advice on the types of scenario which can be run, such as protecting a cultivated area, going on a Banth hunt, or looking for an assassin in Jeddak’s palace, but there is an emphasis on interacting with the Princess. Whether that is rescuing the Princess from the villain who has kidnapped her, rescuing the Princess from Green Men who have captured her, rescuing the Princess from the villain who has kidnapped her and plans to marry her, and— None of which should be seen as the Princess’ fault, but of course, it is up to the player characters to rush after her in order to rescue her. So that she can get kidnapped again. Then rescued again. Then kidnapped again. Then wooed. Kidnapped and rescued again. Wooed again, and so on, until her fair, red hand is won. Which will still not prevent her from being kidnapped and needing rescuing again.

One option not covered in all of this is playing men of Earth. Now stats are given for the eponymous character of the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook—John Carter, but is here presented as the only NPC in the book. He is also invincible in that he cannot be killed. Nevertheless, no means are provided for playing characters from Earth, and really, there is all but no advice on playing any of the different races in this game.

Physically, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook is a book of two halves. The first half, the source material and the painting guide is reasonably written and in general a good guide to Barsoom. The second half is a muddle, the rules written with little, if any clarity, and little in the way of proper organisation. The need to flip back and forth to access both rules and tables can only hamper play. Beyond the book’s vibrant colour cover, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook is completely unillustrated.

At the time of its publication, John J. Nutter reviewed the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook in ‘Barsoomian Options: System Additions & A Review of John Carter, Warlord of Mars’ in The Space Gamer No. 24 (September-October, 1979), stating that, “Mr. Matheny has built a sound combat system and role-playing game which captures much of the flavor of the novels.” Hindsight was less kind though, Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (Prometheus Books, 1991) describing the rules as “poorly organized”, adding that “Players unfamiliar with the concepts of role-playing games would probably be unable to use them”.

By the standards of the day, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook was unsophisticated, one note, and clumsy. Today, it feels too grounded in its wargaming roots and undeveloped even in comparison to the Dungeons & Dragons of 1974 with the constant focus on rescuing the princess never less than jarring. Ultimately, the John Carter, Warlord of Mars: Adventure Gaming Handbook is a gaming curio, an attempt to create a hybrid between roleplaying and wargaming, but one that fails to succeed at either.

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