I only heard of John Carter and his adventures on Barsoom during the promotional campaign for the 2012 movie. It was a shock to me to discover that there was this entire sci-fi fantasy epic that was, until that point, unknown to me. I didn’t see the movie, but I did a fair amount of reading to figure out what I was missing. Little did I know that the author of Tarzan had a multiple series of adventure sci-fi novels, all with an rich, semi-connected lore. Despite its past popularity, I didn’t see much else about the John Carter world until I got a chance to review a new 2d20 game based on the novels.
Modiphius Entertainment has taken their 2d20 system and applied it to some exciting settings/IPs, like Conan, The Mutant Chronicles, and (my personal favorite) Star Trek Adventures, and they’ve got another gem with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. High adventure, romanticism and rationalism collide to create an extremely compelling setting for a roleplaying game.
The first thing that is apparent in this core rulebook is the passion for the source material, and it shows in the presentation of the lore and mechanics. Edgar Rice Burroughs created a Mars full of fantastical creatures, nations, and technology in one of the original interplanetary adventure stories. John Carter of Mars the Roleplaying Game’s core rulebook is a great source of story seeds for those who are familiar with the source material, and it’s an amazing introduction for those who aren’t familiar with John Carter.
Full disclosure: I really dig the 2d20 system that Modiphius employs. For the uninitiated, it’s a system that relies on a smaller number of dice than some other tabletop RPGs, while allowing the gameplay to remain flexible. Each die is considered as a “success” or “fail” with the number of d20s being rolled usually two, with more being added based on certain circumstances like other player character assistance, spending momentum to buy more, etc.
Momentum is a currency that is accumulated on successes, and used by players to make things possible, or just easier, for their character. While it’s not unique to John Carter of Mars the Roleplaying Game, it’s a great, natural way for a game to have a sort of ebb and flow when coupled with the Narrator’s use of Threat, which is the GM/DM version of momentum. When I first encountered the Threat mechanic, I thought it was limiting, but it’s a fun way to gamify the storytelling role.
As you’ve probably gathered, the game master role is called “Narrator” for the John Carter of Mars Roleplaying Game. That’s because this is a storytelling heavy system. In John Carter, players are even encouraged to spend their momentum to add to scenes, if the Narrator allows it. The campaigns that are run under these rules aren’t mean to instantly kill characters for bad decisions; instead, they would suffer from severe stress effects, like fear, or blacking out, instead of death. That’s not to say that death isn’t possible, it’s just not really in the spirit of high adventure.
There are many denizens of Barsoom you can choose from as a playable character. You can be a Jasoomian, like John Carter—Earthborn, and as a result, exceptionally strong. There are multiple races of Barsoomians, too: from the ubiquitous and warlike green-skinned Martians, to the mysterious onyx-skinned First Born. The Core Rulebook does a great job laying out each of these cultures, what it means mechanically and how they should react in-lore. The character creation is great for this, and walks you through each aspect of making your high-adventure character—from their backstory, to their attributes. This includes adding flaws to your hero, which grounds them a bit, and is a great source of conflict in some cases. The Core Rulebook gives you all the tools you’ll need to have a proper John Carter character, with a wealth of information that will help inform your character’s decisions going forward.
John Carter of Mars doesn’t use Skills like normal RPGs would. Instead, everyone on Barsoom can learn or do anything, if the story or Narrator allow it. If it’s reasonable to learn how to pilot an airship to be a pirate of the skies, you can do that. While there aren’t skills, there are talents—these can be taken straight from the book, hybridized, or even created from scratch to represent the character you want.
With the rules being followed, and no conscious min-maxing, our John Carter characters felt pretty powerful from the outset. It’s the perfect feeling for a high-adventure setting. We were dispatching minions with ease during our run-through of “Mind Merchants of Mars” starter campaign, which was important, because it starts with the player characters fighting for their lives in a Barsoomian arena. None of our group were too familiar with the John Carter lore, so there were mistakes undoubtedly made, but the spirit of the adventure was definitely in-line with John Carter, something the rulebook does a great job of conveying.
If you’re curious to see this game in action yourself, Modiphius has been doing a weekly live playthrough. You can check out the archives on their YouTube channel, starting with the first episode here.
If I do have any complaints about John Carter it is its format. It’s printed in an unconventional landscape format that works just fine digitally, but may be annoying in physical form. Personally, when I’m running any extended campaign, I try to get the physical copies. Since John Carter’s format fits so well digitally, I may just skip the physical editions.
Despite my complaint about the format, the art in the book is great. It does a wonderful job of showing off the world you’ll inhabit as a player; it also inspires the imagination with dynamic scenes of adventure in action. Whenever I think of John Carter I envision Martians leaping from airships clad in their leather harnesses ready to do battle with a waiting army below.
John Carter of Mars was obviously put together by those who has a passion for the source material. It’s a great resource for a great roleplaying setting. My group’s next campaign is going to be a John Carter one—because it’s simultaneously unique, and familiar to those who enjoy sci-fi adventure.