Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Bringing Barsoom to your table

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 the latter’s 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. Of course, it has been a direct influence on earlier war games and roleplaying games like the John Carter: Warlord of Mars – Adventure Gaming Handbook, as well as Modiphius Entertainment’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, the recent and first proper roleplaying game to be based directly on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories.

Yet, despite the John Carter movie of 2012, neither the stories of John Carter nor the world of Barsoom are as familiar to the gaming hobby or the readers of Science Fiction as they once were. After all, the John Carter stories never got turned in comic strips, radio series, Saturday morning serials, or movies the way that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ own Tarzan, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck Rogers all did. So, it is as if the core rulebook for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom has to actually introduce the licensed property almost as if it was something wholly new. Thus, having been published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom begins with an explanation of both who Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Cater are, what Barsoom is, and perhaps, most importantly, how its “Rationalism, Romanticism, and Pulp Roleplaying” mark it as different from other roleplaying games. Here is a world where, “Heroes fight enemies born of lust, ignorance, and tyranny to save their friends, loved ones, and those places and cultures they call home. False gods, lying priests, deceitful nobles, treacherous assassins, and many other cruel adversaries are the biggest threats.” Notably, “There are no “evil” races on Mars.” Thus, villains need to be drawn of a richer cloth, with motives more than mere vileness. Although the practices and attitudes of the natives of Barsoom may be callously pragmatic and emotionally muted, there is room for sentiment and for firm action, perhaps upon the part of man or woman of Earth, or even one of the several species that make Mars their home, to overcome the native reticence and thus make friendships, dispel falsehoods, forge alliances, and so on, much like John Carter did in uniting Barsoom.

What all of this will involve, will depend on when the Narrator is setting her John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom campaign. Three eras of play are suggested—‘Dotar Sojat’, when Carter arrives on Mars and has his earliest adventures; ‘Prince of Helium’, when John Carter has married Dejah Thoris, become a Prince of Helium, and has most of his adventures and discovers many of the planet’s secrets; and ‘Jeddak of Jeddaks’, when John Carter has unified much of Mars and brought about a fragile peace which has pushed conflict and adventure to the planet’s furthest locales. The latter is the default period for playing in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, a time when the player characters have the opportunity to make a name for themselves and perhaps bring about the greater era of peace that John Carter’s unification has promised. The other eras provide plenty of scope for adventure, especially if the player characters take the roles of characters from the books, one of the Champions of Barsoom—the legendary John Carter, the inspiring Princess Dejah Thoris, the daring Kantos Kan, the loyal and mighty Tars Tarkas, and so on—one of the given options in the roleplaying game, either by creating them themselves or using the more powerful versions included in the book.

John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom employs the same 2d20 System as Modiphius Entertainment’s other roleplaying games, like Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, but in a stripped down version designed to be played using experienced and talented pulp-style characters in a planetary romance. This is will be reflected throughout John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom and its iteration of the 2d20 System.

Characters in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom are defined by their attributes and their Talents. There are six attributes—Daring, Cunning, Empathy, Might, Passion, and Reason—which range in value between four and twelve for player characters. Talents are unique or developed abilities which make a character special, such as a skill, a natural aptitude, an arcane power, or a psychic power. They typically require a player to expend Momentum, or allow a character to undertake actions which Momentum would not normally allow him to do. Now what is missing here is skills. Unlike most other 2d20 System roleplaying games, characters are automatically deemed to be competent from the start.

Character creation in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom involves a player coming up with a concept, selecting a Race, archetype, descriptor, before setting starting Renown and equipment. Lastly a character needs a flaw. The given concepts include Wandering Princess, Reformed Assassin, Airship Raider, Adventuring Scientist, Panthan Warrior (Martian sword-for hire), or Lost Explorer, which although has no mechanical benefit, will influence a player’s further decisions in creating the character. A player’s choice of Race—Earthborn, First Born, Green Martian, Okar, and Red Martian—provide some attribute modifications and may give a character a Talent, but primarily tell a character what he knows, what he does not know, and what he can do. So, the copper skinned and athletic Red Martians can speak and read Barsoomian, has knowledge of his home kingdom and its neighbours, plus their customs, politics, and threats, knows of Barsoom’s great cities, and the basics of airship operation and Red Martian science. He knows little of people and places far away or hidden, but can defend himself in hand-to-hand, melee, and ranged combat, operate the basic machinery and use medicine common to Red Martian culture, and can fly most vehicles and ride trained mounts. A Red Martian receives a +2 bonus to Daring, Cunning, Empathy, Passion, or Reason, and two +1 bonuses to any other attributes.

Of the five races open to the players, the Red Martians with their great airship navies and the tall, six-limbed, betusked, and aggressive Green Martians are the most numerous. The yellow-skinned Okar from the polar regions, and the arrogant onyx-skinned First Born who serve Issus, the living goddess-tyrant, are rarer, whilst Earthborn are all but unique. It is possible to create mixed heritage characters, but features common to all Martians include limited telepathy and egg laying instead of giving birth to live young.

Some fifteen Archetypes are given, including Airship Officer, Assassin, Beastmaster, Duelist, Envoy, Explorer, Fugitive, Gladiator, Guide, Healer, Panthan, Rogue, Scientist, Soldier, and Spy. Again, these provide a character with more of what he knows and what he can do, but give attribute bonuses and a suggested Talent. A Descriptor—again from a choice of fifteen—adds further attribute bonuses, whilst a player has five points to invest in Talents, which come in grades. So for example, Expert Aim (Grade 2) grants a player two extra twenty-sided dice when shooting, but not moving, and Witty Repartee (Grade 2) enables a player character to take an additional Spoken action as part of an attack, defence, or other action. Of the given Talents, most are combat or action orientated to reflect the pulp action nature of John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, with only a few reflecting knowledge or a social skill, and none being of an arcane or psychic nature, their being saved for NPCs later in the core rulebook. All characters bar Earthborn receive ten Renown with which to invest in allies, contacts, titles, and so on, reflecting status in their kingdoms or tribes. All characters receive the standard equipment for their archetype. This is their Core Equipment and something that they always have or can easily replace. Only a few Flaws are given, but all enforce a character to lose Momentum points when they do not roleplay that flaw. 

Our sample character is Jane Miller, a young lady from Yorkshire who family was wealthy enough for her to study chemistry at university. Yet before she had a chance to complete her degree, the war against Germany broke out and she volunteered to train as a nurse. An ardent romantic, she never managed to find and keep a young man for herself, ultimately finding solace in books. The last thing she remembers was rushing to get the men recovering under care into the shelter during an artillery bombardment. Now she is on a dry, dusty world with red sands and sky and no idea quite where she is. 

Name: Jane Miller
Concept: Romantic Lost Explorer
Race: Earthborn
Archetype: Healer
Renown: 0
Flaw: Softhearted

Daring 4 Cunning 3 Empathy 6
Might 7 Passion 7 Reason 7 

Leaps and Bounds (Racial) (Grade 2)
Show Me Where It Hurts (Grade 1)
Perceptive Scientist (Grade 2)
Skilled Physician (Grade 2)
Empathic Rider (Grade 2)

The process is relatively quick, but throughout, there is advice on how a player can create his own Archetypes, Talents, and Flaws as well as modify existing Talents. The latter is probably easier than creating new Talents, which comes with the danger of being too similar to existing ones or being too powerful.

In most 2d20 System roleplaying games, such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of and Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, a player rolls two twenty-sided dice and get successes by rolling against the value of an Attribute or against an Attribute plus the Expertise value of a skill in Attribute Test. A success is achieved by rolling under this combined value, but two successes if the player rolls under the Expertise value of the skill. Of course, John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom does not use skills. Instead combining the total of an Attribute and a Skill, it combines two appropriate Attributes, a player rolling two twenty-sided dice to get successes by rolling under the combined total, or two successes by rolling under the value of the lower Attribute. If a player rolls a twenty, it does not necessarily mean that the character fails, but rather that he suffers a Complication to his action, though as an alternative, it can add to the Narrator’s Threat pool.
For example, not long after she has been stranded on Barsoom, Jane Miller has been captured by the Red Martian bandit, Tavsark On. She has managed to get him drunk and slipped out to the edge of his camp where the bandits have their thoats penned. These riding animals are not used to Earthmen, so she is strange to them, but Jane wants to steal one and ride it away. The Narrator asks Jane’s player for a roll, telling him that since the task is Challenging, he will need two Successes in order for her to be able to calm and ride the strange beast. He suggests that Jane’s player will be rolling against a total of her Daring and Empathy, since she needs to calm the thoat quickly. This gives the player a target of ten to roll against, but if he rolls four or less—equal to Jane’s Daring—her player will generate extra Successes. He rolls 1 and 6. The 6 generates one Success, but the 1, which is under her Daring in this situation, generates another two for a total of three Success. The two Successes mean that Jane sneaks past the guard, calms a thoat, and manages to ride away from the camp. Further, she has an extra Success left over, which can be kept as Momentum.
Most of the time, a player will need to generate no more than a single Success to do whatever his character wants to do, but it can be as high as five or Epic Successes needed, depending upon the action. Any Successes generated above the difficulty generate Momentum and Momentum can be saved or spent. Typical uses for Momentum are to add another twenty-sided die to an attribute test, make an opponent’s test more challenging, increase quality or scope of a success, to obtain information, or reduce the time a task takes. In another change from other 2d20 System roleplaying games, Momentum in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom is not saved into a communal pool to be used by all of the players, but into individual pools. Although each player’s pool maximum Momentum is equal to their character’s lowest Attribute, it means that there is more Momentum in play overall. Another aspect to having individual pools is that players can transfer Momentum between each other’s pools and so help each facilitate the action.
So for example, Jane Miller has managed to escape the camp of the famed Red Martian bandit, Tavsark On, but the guards quickly realise that she is gone, and with Tavsark On at their head, they give chase. Since she is trying to get away, Jane’s player will roll against Daring and Passion, but Tavsark On will lose face if he does not catch the stranger, so the Narrator will roll against his Might of 5 and Passion of 4. Jane also has the Empathic Ride Talent which not only allows her to always use her Empathy when riding or controlling a living mount, but also allows her player to reroll a failed roll. To ensure that Jane outrides her former captor, her player decides to spend the Momentum from the earlier success to add another die. This means that Jane’s player will be rolling three dice versus the Narrator’s two. The Narrator rolls 1 and 8, which is enough for three successes. This sets a high bar for Jane’s player as Tavsark On gains on her. Jane’s player rolls 1, 10, and 14, which also gives her three success, but that is not enough. Fortunately, her player can reroll a die because of her Talent and chooses the 14 to reroll. This time it rolls a two and generates another two success. This is two more than Tavsark On and so not only does Jane get away, but there is more Momentum to save or spend.
In addition to Momentum, characters also have Luck, but where Momentum needs to be generated and the amount a player holds in his pool degrades from one scene to the next, a player always begins a session with his Luck refreshed to the value of his character’s lowest Attribute. Luck can be spent to add more dice to a roll—but such dice are always set at 1 and thus always generate two successes, to perform an extra action in combat, gain a second wind and recover from stress suffered in combat, inflict more damage in combat, overcome an affliction, and to influence the story. Luck points can also be earned for noteworthy actions and roleplaying, and so on. Another way to gain Luck is by accepting voluntary failure—it also adds to the Threat pool for the Narrator’s use, as does purchasing extra Momentum should a player run out. The size of the Threat pool is equal to the number of Luck points the player characters start a session with and Threat is used in a similar fashion to Momentum, but for the Narrator’s NPCs rather than the player characters. Another use for Threat is to seize the initiative in a conflict from the player characters and let an NPC act next.

As with other 2d20 System roleplaying games, what the Threat and Momentum mechanics do is set up a pair of parallel economies with Threat being fed in part by Momentum, but Momentum in the main being used to overcome the complications and circumstances which the expenditure of Threat can bring into play. The primary use of Threat though, is to ratchet up the tension and the challenge, whereas the primary use of Momentum is to enable the player characters to overcome this challenge and in action, be larger than life.  In other 2d20 System roleplaying games, these parallel economies are more balanced because there is only one of each, but in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, because they generally have access to more Momentum, the economy favours the players and their characters. It also means that the Narrator will want to be slightly conservative in expending Threat from her Threat pool, saving them for her story’s villains rather than rather expending them necessarily on Mooks and minor incoveniences.

Rather than combat scenes, John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom has Action scenes, which can involve speech, movement, conflict, and free actions—the latter never requiring an Attribute test, whereas the others probably will. Action scenes also vary in length, depending upon the situation, from a single clash of swords to the great flying ships spending minutes to maneuvering for position. Combat itself consists of opposed rolls, but the attacker will roll and the defender will roll varies. For example, to make an attack with a sword, Cunning and Daring are typically used, whilst Daring and Reason are used for ranged attacks. To defend against the sword blow, Daring and Passion would be used if the blow was bravely defended against, or even Daring and Empathy if the defender was trying to read the attacker’s movements. These combinations define how a character undertakes an action, and they work as well with movement actions and spoken actions as much as they conflict actions.

If the attacker rolls more successes than the defender, then action succeeds. Momentum here can be spent to increase the number of damage dice rolled, to disarm an opponent, get rid of a minion, to move closer or further away, and so on. Depending upon the type of action, damage is inflicted upon a character’s Confusion, Fear, or Injury stress tracks. Take too much damage to a stress track and a character can suffer from an affliction—Madness from Confusion damage, Trauma from Fear damage, and Wounds from Injury stress. Each type of affliction increases the difficulty of Attribute tests, but suffer too much of one affliction and a character will black out.

In addition to the standard twenty-sided dice, John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom uses Combat dice. These are six-sided dice where only the rolls of one, two, five or six count with rolls of five and six also inflicting an Effect, such the Sharp quality of a sword, which inflicts extra damage.
For example, prior to her successful flight from his camp, Jane Miller found a way to sneak out of Tavsark On’s tent. The bandit has been drinking, trying to find out more about his strange captive, whilst she has been demurring. At the right moment, Jane snatches up his dagger and despite him laughing at her that she is not going to do anything, stabs him! Her player will roll her Daring of 4 and Cunning of 3 against an Average difficulty, whilst the Narrator will roll against Tavsark On’s Might of 4 and Reason of 6, but since the bandit has been drinking, it will be against a Challenging difficulty. Jane desperately wants to get away, so her player spends a point of Luck to give her two Successes. This is enough, but her player still needs to roll, but needing more of an advantage opts to purchase a point of Momentum in return for adding a point of Threat to the Threat pool. Jane’s player rolls three dice and gets 10, 7, and 2—three success, which with the two from the Luck point, gives her five. This is enough to succeed and generate four Momentum. The Narrator rolls two dice for Tavsark On, but rolls 14 and 20, so not only a failure, but with a Complication too! Jane’s player elects to turn all of the extra Momentum into Combat dice, which gives him four extra to roll with the single Combat die for the wine jug! Jane’s player rolls 2, 4, 5, 5, and 6. All but the 4 inflicts a point of damage on Tavsark On’s Injury, plus the 5, 5, and 6 all have an effect, which for the dagger is Sharp! So for each effect rolled, another point of damage is inflicted, for a total of seven. This fills Tavsark On’s Injury stress track, inflicting a wound and it is more than five points of damage, inflicting another Wound! Tavsark On roars in pain and anger, attempting to grab his assailant, but the Narrator describes—and here the Complication comes into play—how the bandit staggers back, gets caught up in a tapestry and trips up, banging his head and knocking himself out. Now Jane can make her escape...
One notable fact about combat is that John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom does not differentiate between weapons. So all daggers do one die’s worth of damage, swords do two, and so on. Firearms and bows are similar. This reflects the lack of variety of weapon design—or the efficiency of weapon design—on Barsoom over thousands of years. Barsoomians know what works, and are also honourable enough to always face each other with equal weapons, so if a Red Martian armed with a radium pistol is faced by an opponent with a sword, the former will holster his pistol and draw his sword. What this means mechanically is that John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom eschews the need for an extensive equipment list and that in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, it is a character’s skill which matters rather than the weapon. Another aspect of John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom genre is that the player characters are powerful, with only a few NPCs approaching or equalling their power and skill. Such NPCs will be challenging, especially when supported by the Narrator’s Threat pool, but many other NPCs, especially minions do not represent such a challenge.

The technology section in John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom highlights the differences between the advances made by Barsoom and by Earth. Barsoom is more advanced than Earth, but has lost much understanding and access of the scientific and technology their ancient forebears once had. So whilst the Red Martian kingdoms field navies of fliers of all sizes, kept aloft by anti-gravity, and pneumatic trains run between the twin cities of Helium, and are widely understood, how exactly the planet maintains a breathable atmosphere is a secret known to a very few… 

In terms of background, John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom provides information on the history of Barsoom; the culture, traditions, laws, languages, and more on the tribes of the Green Hordes and the kingdoms of the Red Martians. Each of Red Martian nations is given roughly two thirds of a page, which includes notable personages and places as well as suggestions on how to use each in a Narrator’s campaign. The far northern kingdom of Okar is given a similar treatment, whilst the other planets in the Solar System are accorded a varying amount of detail, all depending  to what degree they figure in Edgar Rice Burough’s stories. Further background—specifically for the Narrator’s eyes only—explore the mysteries and secrets of Barsoom, all of them drawn from the books. This includes the secrets of Barsoomian religion, such as where the Barsoomians go to die should they survive long enough to reach a thousand years old, hidden locations, strange powers, and lost technology. It is interesting to note that the relative obscurity of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom stories actually means that they are likely to be fresh and unknown to many gaming groups.

As well as the section detailing the secrets of Barsoom, the Narrator is given some solid advice on running John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, as well as handling the mechanics and setting both tone and theme for a campaign. This includes how to create suitable villains for a campaign, adhere to the conventions of the genre, and expanding Barsoom beyond Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, giving new kingdoms and cities for the player characters to visit. Numerous sources of inspiration are discussed, surprisingly more than just the novels—which are even more surprisingly, not actually listed in the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom—including classic myths, other works of fiction, and more. Stats and write-ups are provided for almost twenty of Barsoom’s creatures, most notably the iconic White Ape, along with a guide for the Narrator to create her own, followed by stats and write-ups for all of the major characters from the novels—including John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and their family, as well as some archetypal ones too.

Rounding out John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom is ‘The Mind Merchants of Mars’, a short action-packed adventure. It begins with the characters being thrown into an arena and forced to fight experienced gladiators. Whatever the outcome, they end up being sold into slavery, escape, and more. This is a decent introductory scenario, throwing the player characters straight into the action and get them involved immediately. It is supported not only by a cast of villains which deserve to make further appearances, but also some nine quite detailed adventure hooks, each with variations.

Physically—and this is the very first thing which will strike anybody about it—Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom comes not in the traditional portrait format as almost every other roleplaying game and supplement does, but landscape format. This gives it a singular appearance and provides a wider space for the roleplaying game’s artwork. Vistas here, really can be vistas. Much of that artwork is excellent, the cover in particular is spectacular, but some of the internal illustrations feel a little murky. The writing is good throughout, though an edit is required in places. Where the game and rules are lacking is in having more and fuller examples of both the rules and play, as more would make it easier for new players and Narrators to learn. Another issue is the organisation, which could have been better, in particular, the Talents could have been all listed and explained in one place, rather than placed throughout the book where they appear with NPCs. This would have been useful as a reference for the Narrator. It would have been nice if there had been a few maps than the one given of Barsoom, perhaps of a city or a flier, basically to help the Narrator visualise places if not support the roleplaying game’s use of miniatures, which is an option. If there is a real issue though with the core rule book for John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom, it is actually the format. As lovely as it is, the landscape format is a little unwieldy for easy use. 

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom is the lightest and easiest of Modiphius Entertainment’s 2d20 System. It plays fast and easy, the Momentum mechanics supporting an action-oriented Pulp style of play in an old fashioned setting. Indeed, were Modiphius Entertainment to find a Pulp style property it wanted to develop into a roleplaying game, then the version of the 2d20 System used in this roleplaying game would serve as a very solid basis for it. In the meantime, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: Adventures on the Dying World of Barsoom provides everything necessary for a gaming group to visit Barsoom for the first and gives Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories the roleplaying they deserve.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, personally I wish Modiphius had gone a bit further with streamlining the rules, since I still find the 2d20 system a bit rulesy for my liking.