I took the chance to review the John Carter of Mars roleplaying game because although I suspected it would suffer from One True King syndrome, it looks lovely and I liked the movie more than cinema audiences did.
You can get the John Carter Quickstart for free from DriveThruRPG if you fancy taking a peek, risk-free, for yourself.
Just how good looking is the book? In hardback, John Carter from Mars is a printed in US Letter size and in landscape orientation. That was announced by the Kicktarter, but I didn’t appreciate what that would mean in terms of sheer physical impact. I don’t have the book. I have the PDF, and it makes a difference even there. It makes the PDF much easier to read. Three columns of text per page and without any awkward page spreads that, designed for paper, don’t work on screens. It’s also full of Sports Illustrated models, more on that later.
One True King syndrome is when a setting is so defined by a character that it does not make sense to omit this character from the game. It’s often the case that you can’t add the character to the game either because it messes with game balance. For example, Doctor Who RPGs struggle with this, is it a Doctor Who game without the Doctor? What’s a Buffy the Vampire Slayer setting without Buffy or a Tarzan game without Tarzan?
I thought John Carter from Mars would have the One True King syndrome because Edgar Rice Burroughs’ second most famous hero’s name was right there in the title. They didn’t call this the Barsoom RPG, after the setting. The apparent focus is on Carter.
As it happens, I think John Carter from Mars does have a splash of One True King syndrome, but the game gives players and GMs a way to mitigate it, so it fades away to the background. There are three distinct eras on Barsoom/Mars. There’s the time before John Carter arrived (or when he hadn’t achieved much), that period after he shook things up but then vanished, and then that period after he turned but was busy at epic level stuff, flying around to unite warring nations. These three eras are known as Dotar Sojat, Prince of Helium and Jeddak of Jeddaks and Modiphius Entertainment shared detailed descriptions of each as part of the announcement for the game.
In the Dotar Sojat you can ignore John Carter’s antics, but to stay true to Barsoom any Earthborn in your group can’t really amount to much historically. In the Prince of Helium era, there is no John Carter to ignore, and you do whatever you want, staying true to the setting, providing it does not derail the Jeddak of Jeddaks. In that last era, your Earthborn have a lot of space for their own adventures. I think it works.
Or, as the game allows it, you can play as John Carter or meet him and his allies. I don’t see the attraction in that, but I’m well aware that’s the whole point of the setting for other gamers.
You don’t need to know a terrible amount about the setting either to enjoy the game. It’s easy to get up to speed, and Modiphius’ own intro takes care of most of it.
John Carter of Mars’ style of play
I mentioned John Carter of Mars was full of Sports Illustrated models dressed in leather harnesses. It’s more than a visual style for the game; it is a strong influence on the rules. In John Carter of Mars, characters are assumed to be highly competent. Your PCs won’t be slowed down by small events. Even NPCs are so perfect they could, if the world wasn’t so harsh, live to 1,000.
An excellent example of this is the rules for Minions. Smaller baddies count as Minions and don’t need stats for their own. It is assumed the heroes will beat them. They, at most, can add 1 Threat to the scene. The rules govern how many Minions our highly competent, body perfect, heroes can dispatch each round. That 1 Threat is something that a proper villain, a real menace, can use.
There’s even a note about characters and disability in the opening pages of the book. If you want to play a hero with a disability, then you can. In this adventure that is only a disadvantage if you decide. The game states;
This is pulp planetary romance and there is more than enough room for blind swordswomen who navigate the landscape as well as a sighted person or five-limbed green Martians who have learned to compensate for severe injury.
Another powerful example of how the presence of hyper-competent characters affects the style of the game is baked into the mechanics. There are no skills. There is no need for skills. If it makes sense for your character to have had some knowledge, training or even exposure to the task at hand, then it is same to assume they can do it.
Character creation gives you a steer on what you can assume for your hero. For example, if you’re playing a Yellow Martian (an Okar), then you’ll know the basics of self-defence, operate machinery and use medicines, can fly most vehicles, ride mounts and survive in challenging Arctic conditions.
Instead of skills, this 2d20 adaption uses talents. Talents are those defining abilities that make characters standout such as an especially effective sword technique, mighty strength or tricks picked up after training for hundreds of years an assassin. With talents, you could automatically defeat one, two, or three Minions every round.
Talents fit the style of John Carter, but I am going to talk about the weakness of the system in the next section of this review.
So, if we’ve got hugely capable heroes by default what is there to challenge them?
Momentum is the stat that defines the style of play in John Carter. Players have to roll dice when there is a consequence for failure. Mechanically speaking, the odds of success aren’t high when the dice come out to play. To tip the odds in favour of the heroes then Momentum points previously earned need to be spent.
As a result, Momentum becomes the currency of the game. To earn Momentum characters have to succeed in a dice roll. Therefore, to earn Momentum players need to take a risk or offer a consequence of failure on a task where they would otherwise be none. One success leads to another in this dangerous red world, but it is up to the players and their heroics to try and kickstart that cycle. Sitting back to wait for events to happen to you is to invite a loss of Momentum, and you do not want that.
I especially like it when an RPG mechanics encourage a style of play that fits with nature of the world. I feel Modiphius have cracked this with the RPG for John Carter. It’s easy to see your tabletop pack of alien survivors being engaged in the very sort of high octane and improbable action that also suits Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classics.
John Carter’s mechanics
This RPG uses a modified version of Modiphius’s 2d20 system. A standard roll of the dice has two twenty-sided dice bounce on the tabletop, each one trying to roll under a target number defined by two of the character’s attributes and where the player needs a certain amount of successes on the dice for their character to succeed at the task.
You can see, I think, how vital Momentum is. If you ever need more than two successes, then you’ll likely need to cash in some Momentum points.
There are three types of damage; mental, physical and passion (a character’s desire to get stuff done). To begin with, health is easily cured, needing only a short rest or similar, but once those tracks fill up, then the characters start to feel more severe afflictions.
As a result, the game encourages bravery and, should it be necessary, dramatic escapes. You’ll likely be fine after the escape. If you haven’t gone too far, you’ll probably be able to return your character to the scene of the action.
There is a range of minis for this game, but it doesn’t feel especially skirmish or wargame to me. There’s no initiative, for example. Turn order is up to you. It could be narrator determined, or the players could decide, it could be random or, if you want, pick an attribute relevant to the scene and use that. It likely won’t matter as you don’t need to sweat the small stuff in this game. There are no rules for cover, for example. You only need to think about the mechanics during moments of high tension.
I mentioned talents and this part of the game is certainly my main concern. Players can make their own talents up. In many ways, this is good. It means few of the RPG’s 282-pages are lost to lists of talents (but there are a few pages for you to pick from) and it means you can define your character’s defining traits. However, it takes a reading or two to get your head around the concept, and I predict many player-GM ‘discussions’ over what is acceptable. There are rules as to when talents can stack, and you are allowed to merge talents together. That said, you’re discouraged from creating too immense talents that might often have something to contribute to most situations. What’s the line between appropriately merged and too broad? I suspect that’ll take trial and error.
John Carter RPG observations
This RPG starts out very strong. I really liked the intro “Welcome to Barsoom” which was clearly written by a fan. If you find the game looking gorgeous on the shelf of your local store, slide it out, open it up and read that text. It may well persuade you to give Mars a second look.
The merger of rationalism, romanticism and pulp roleplaying is strong here. The adventures of John Carter became best sellers for a reason.
Does the game fade towards the end? Not really, it’s just that as we move deeper into the book, we work towards smaller details; like weapon types, NPCs and, of course, a pre-written adventure. None of these things is as interesting as the possibilities promised at the start.
The art is gorgeous but surprisingly sparse a book published in landscape orientation. In particular, I really wanted illustrations of each of the Beasts of Barsoom we have rules for. I’d love to see a Modiphius Darseen, or a Modiphius Silian or Martian Spider.
I’m glad I made time for John Carter of Mars. Barsoom is a fantastic setting, and the Modiphius writing team have done it justice. The adaptation of 2d20 feels spot on too.
My concern is that the whole RPG, with optional special dice and minis, might feel a bit too intimidating for newcomers or too far off the beaten track for veterans who already know what they like. I think this is a game that will live or die by the support it gets from fans and local stores. It’ll need people to say ‘give it a try’.
Give it a try.
My copy of John Carter of Mars Core Rulebook was provided for review.