Review: John Carter of Mars
There are very few games that have managed to surprise me in the way that John Carter of Mars did. In just a few hours its steadfast commitment to over-the-top heroics and shameless power fantasy completely captured my imagination and left me desperate to find a playgroup as soon as possible.
When the review copy first turned up I’d never encountered John Carter or the Barsoom novels he stars in. A quick googling revealed that they’re the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs – the guy behind Tarzan – and are some prime pulp adventure nonsense about an American soldier magically transported to a fantasy-tinged Mars. The exact details of the plot don’t really matter too much, however, as the much more exciting aspect of the books that Modiphius captured in their RPG is its tone – a tone that is utterly, shamelessly, mind-blowingly heroic.
The main characters of both the books and RPGs are described as ‘hyper-competent’. This means they’re all effortlessly skilled at every task they put their mind to, can survive impossible dangers without a scratch and have so many strokes of luck that fate seems to be actively rigging the odds in their favour. Somehow, every aspect of this is carried over into the RPG, both through the setting and the ruleset.
For example, to mirror the way that heroes pull hitherto-unmentioned talents from the void is reflected in the fact that there isn’t a traditional skill system. Instead of your background or training handing out a small list of things you might be good at – such as piloting an airship or calming a wild animal – you instead get a couple of notes on the handful of tasks you may not be so good at.
An Okar character drawn from the frozen arctic may not be so good at surviving in arid environments, say. Everything else? That’s pretty much up for grabs, so long as it makes reasonable logical sense.
If you want your character to be an ace pilot, a skilled sniper and a trained scientist all at the same time, go ahead.
This madcap tone of hyper-competence extends throughout the entire game. The basic low-level talents that characters can buy would be hilariously overpowered in most traditional adventure RPGs, such as getting to sneak past minions without having to roll, and while it’s pretty easy to force player characters into perilous situations they’re hellishly difficult to kill off for good.
All these shenanigans come packaged within the same 2d20 system that Modiphius has used for several other games, including Conan and Star Trek Adventures, though some of the crunchier aspects have been filed away in the name of pure fun. Sadly, this does include a few bits and pieces that helped round out the tactical combat, such as making every sword in the game mechanically identical, but it helps things flow at the breakneck pace that the tone demands.
This side of things is important because in many games the overpowered characters and pared-down rules could quickly get boring – like a D&D dungeon crawl with a party ten levels higher than recommended. But after a few hours with John Carter you come to the realisation that while it wears many of the trappings of a combat-driven adventure RPG its spirit is closer to a storytelling game. It just happens that the stories you tell tend to include a hell of a lot of fights.
Once this idea snaps into place you start viewing combat not as a tactical challenge, but rather a chance to build your character’s personality and have fun pulling off stupidly heroic stunts. If you simply play to win and make optimal decisions and combat manoeuvres you’re setting yourself up for a bad time, but if you instead leap on every chandelier and challenge powerful foes to single combat you’ll have a blast.
It’s not a perfect game and there are large sections of the RPG community who’ll be prickled by the wilful disregard of realism or genuine peril, but it says a lot about the strength of the John Carter of Mars that within about half an hour of cracking open the rulebook I was already stuffing my kindle full of every Barsoom novel I could get my hands on.
Swashbuckling in space never felt so wonderfully heroic.