Role-Playing on Barsoom
A Review by Fredrik Ekman
(An updated version of the article originally published in ERB-APA #109.)
From the age of 15, when I discovered tabletop role-playing games (rpg), I always figured that Barsoom would be a great setting for roleplaying. However, it is also a demanding world for the game designer.
Historically, there have been two sort-of rpg books in a Barsoomian setting; TSR's Warriors of Mars and Heritage's Adventure Gaming Handbook. Neither is a good set of rules.
Some things that are important in Barsoomian role-playing rules are: stats for major races (green, red, black, yellow, thern); important occupations (soldier, noble, barbarian, scientist, assassin, mercenary); rules for equipment (radium rifles, radium torches, etc); rules for airship battle; rules for telepathy; stats for major beasts (calot, white ape, banth, thoat); and encounter tables.
And all that is just the surface. A good set of rules must also accomodate for the Barsoomian society and the pulp genre. It needs to offer fast-paced action; support chivalry towards women; facilitate sudden plot twists; follow the Barsoomian code of honor; encourage heroic deeds; and many other things. It should also deal, in one way or another, with the fact that Barsoom is a poor fit with modern gender patterns.
The above-mentioned books support only a handful of these requisites.
Two "new" rpg books are currently in print. Both are print-on-demand, both are published without ERB, Inc. licenses, and both are based on the d20 core rules originally developed for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).
Red Planet (RP) is a spiral-bound booklet, written by the blogger 'Clovis Cithog' and published by Abbadon, Inc. It can be ordered from the blog Jasoomian Dreams. The cover is in colour, and the 76 content pages in b/w. On review is the 2011 sixth printing. RP is a stand-alone set of rules, but designed to be compatible with d20, so that modules that have been created for other d20 settings can easily be incorporated. There are many original illustrations in the book, including a map. Several are very nicely done, but unfortunately reproduction quality does not do them justice.
One of the book's strengths is the background information, which is at once well selected and atmospheric. It is the first ever Barsoom rpg I have seen that actually uses Barsoomian measures of time and length integrated with the rules, including a simple but serviceable Barsoomian calendar. I really like that, as it helps to create the right atmosphere for the setting. However, it also violates the d20 compatibility somewhat, since measures have to be converted one way or the other.
One potential problem with the setting is that most descriptions of races assume that adventures are set before The Gods of Mars, but there is no mention that mixed race parties would not be possible in that time period.
RP claims to be rules-lite, yet sometimes gives unnecessarily detailed rules. For instance, "only a true criminal can remove traps." (pg. 37f) But why? Another unnecessary detail is that it is specified which player has to roll initiative for the entire group.
Several different vocations are available to players. Each has a level progression table, with a title attached to every level (mostly drawn from the books, e.g. a third level Warrior is a Padwar). These titles serve no practical purpose, and progressions are very artificial. (For instance, the Padwar would advance to a fourth level Kadar, but "kadar" is not a military title in the books.)
Unfortunately, the rules cover a range of items and concepts that are not appropriate in a Barsoomian campaign, such as crossbows, submachine guns, Marvin the Martian's disintegrator (!), and magic spells for priests. This is problematic for two reasons: It clutters the rules with useless information; and, unless both the GM and the players are well versed in Burroughs' world, makes it hard to keep the campaign true to the setting.
The magic chapter, as a matter of fact, is the longest in the entire book. Unlike the rest of the book, it was written by Michael Curtis, and it gives the appearance of a quick conversion from some other rule-set. In this chapter, Barsoom becomes a planet of powerful gods, spell-casting priests, undead, zombies, vampires, demons, spirit warriors, blessings, etc. Even well-known Barsoomian phenomena such as speaking with the dead become something else when invoked by "specific words, gestures and intonations" within the spiritual domain of the fire goddess Aranth. Certainly, there is room for mystical powers on Barsoom (John Carter's interplanetary teleportations, for example), but not divinely invoked, nor reserved for priests. The magic rules are optional, but they take up far too much space. Space that had been better used for some good telepathy rules
In play, the rules behave well on the whole, but specific rules are often hard to find and there is no index. At least one rule contradicts itself (maximum number of skills).
In spite of my criticism, there is much to like about RP. It is a good effort, and definitely very playable as it stands (with some small modifications). The settings are mostly atmospheric, but sometimes stray too far from the feeling of the original, in particular in the excess of non-Barsoomian equipment and magic, as well as in the lack of well-developed telepathy.
Shadows of a Dying World
Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars: Shadows of a Dying World (SDW) is a book written by Jim Clunie and published by Skirmisher Publishing in 2007. ISBN 0-9777211-9-1. It is distributed both printed (through Lulu), and as a pdf file (through various sites, e.g. rpgnow.com). There are 56 content pages, plus an extra 47 page creature creation guide. The cover is in colour and the interior in b/w. SDW is said to be the first in a series of Barsoom books, but so far there is no sign of a second book.
The appended creature creation guide is ambitious, but has no specific connection with Barsoom, so it will not be reviewed here.
The book contains many illustrations. Most of them are in a cartoonish style, which in my opinion does not go well with Barsoom at all. The pictures are not bad, just not very Barsoomesque. Reproduction quality is mostly adequate, but in a few cases, the resolution is too low.
The majority of the book consists of descriptions and stats for Barsoomian beasts, such as banth, apt and sith. For the most part, the selection of beasts is very good, and it is also nice to have several varieties with different difficulty ratings for several species. I do lack some beasts, such as giant lizards and spiders of Ghasta, but perhaps it was reasoned that these can easily be adapted from other d20 bestiaries. The most important omissions seem to be the darseen and the sorak, neither of which is really necessary for normal purposes.
Two of the creatures described can be used for player characters, namely green men and kaldanes. I am overjoyed to see kaldanes as a playable race, something which I have not seen in any other Barsoomian rpg rules.
In my opinion, it is a bit silly to include a Corphal monster, and it is certainly very silly to put it on the cover, as if it was the most important Barsoomian species. In fact, Burroughs included it only as a means to show the superstition and cowardice of the Manatorians. It was never intended as a "real" monster.
Telepathy is just briefly mentioned in the book, and there are no specific telepathy rules. However, judging from the creature descriptions, it seems that the d20 psionic rules are intended to double for Barsoomian telepathy. This is unfortunate, since those psionic rules are splendidly ill suited for Barsoom. Some creatures illustrate this by being endowed with psionic super-powers, such as the apt's "Ice Blink," allowing it to psionically teleport over snow or ice fields.
Apart from the beasts and monsters, the book contains an introduction, which is good if the GM is new to Barsoom but fairly superfluous otherwise. There are also three appendices, giving sample encounter tables, Barsoomian feats, and an optional set of rules to compensate for the fact that Barsoomians rarely use armour. All appendices are good, and in particular the third one, since it deals with a compatibility problem between d20 and Barsoom. There are, however, remaining compatibility issues. I already mentioned psionics; another is the use of d20 classes, such as monks and paladins.
Even though both these books have their faults, I cannot help liking them. They share an apparent love for the world of Barsoom. More importantly, they are definitely useful for roleplaying in a Barsoomian setting.
They also complement each other in several ways. For instance, RP is a stand-alone rule set with many things that SDW lacks, while SDW in its turn covers areas that are not in RP (several beast descriptions, encounter tables and kaldane player characters, for instance).
But at the same time, both books suffer from trying, each in its own way, to adapt Barsoom to fit d20, when it should properly have been done the other way around, adapting d20 to fit Barsoom. The result is a Barsoom with many traces of D&D, such as magic and psionics. The D&D tradition, with emphasis on monster bashing and treasure collecting, has a hard time emulating Barsoom, with its pulp-style adventuring and daring deeds.
For the Burroughs fan who is also a gamer, these books are well worth having. But for the general collector, unless a completist, they are not required.
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