Review: John Carter of Mars
There are very few games that have managed to surprise me like John Carter of Mars. In just a few hours its unrelenting dedication to over-the-top heroism and shameless power fantasies completely captured my imagination and had me furiously messaging friends to arrange a session as soon as possible.
This was a little unexpected for a few reasons, not least of which was the fact that when the review copy first turned up I’d never encountered John Carter. A quick googling revealed him as the hero of the Barsoom novels penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs – the chap behind Tarzan – which seemed to be some grade-A pulp about an American soldier’s adventures in a fantasy-tinged Mars.
The exact details of the plot don’t really matter too much, however. No, the much more exciting aspect of the books – an aspect that Modiphius manged to captured in their RPG – is their tone. From the very first page to the final battle, both the Barsoom books and the John Carter of Mars RPG are utterly, shamelessly, breathtakingly heroic.
Every battle is a chance for the main characters to take on dozens of enemies at once. Every political showdown a demonstration of the heroes’ stalwart honour and righteousness Every journey a snapshot of epic scenery and razor-sharp piloting skill. The John Carter rulebook even describes the characters as ‘hyper-competent’ – effortlessly skilled at every task the plot places before them. Somehow, these aspects are carried over into the RPG, both through the setting and the ruleset.
For example, that hyper-competence is reflected in the fact that there isn’t a traditional skill system, as such. Rather than being presented with a short list of skills that your hero might be good at, players are instead given a couple of notes on the mere handful of tasks they may struggle with.
An Okar drawn from the frozen arctic might find that they’re not so good at surviving in arid environments, say, or at piecing together the customs of cultures found elsewhere on Mars. Everything else? So long as it makes sense, you’re great at it. 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 seems absolutely nuts if you approach it with the mindset of a regular RPG, but in John Carter it just seems to work.
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 or instantly and unerringly tell if an enemy is armed.
Even the system for allocating damage plays its part, allowing the heroes to soak up a pretty serious amount of hits before their injuries become a problem that will last beyond the current scene. That isn’t to say there’s no real danger, as when things go bad the lingering damage can stack up pretty quickly, but while it’s pretty easy for the GM to force player characters into perilous situations they’re hard to actually kill off unless you’re seriously dedicated to murdering them.
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 innately powerful 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 disappointing time, but if you instead leap on every chandelier and challenge powerful foes to single combat you’ll have an absolute blast.
It’s not a perfect game and there are probably plenty of folks who’ll be prickled by the wilful disregard of realism or and relatively low-grade peril, but if you head in with the right attitude there are few titles as effortlessly enjoyable as John Carter of Mars. It says a lot 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.