09 August 2019
Interplanetary pulp perfection
At first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything too special about John Carter of Mars – there’s no unique mechanic or complicated gimmick to help it stand out from the crowd. Once you dig a little deeper, however, you soon find that what the game lacks in bells and whistles it more than makes up for with a sheer, unwavering commitment to having fun.
The entire game emits waves of pulp-tinged excitement like a ball of madly grinning radium, and it’s clear that the designers made a conscious decision to ditch any idea that didn’t mesh with the theatrical heroics of the original Barsoom stories. Everything from combat to character creation encourages players to leap out of windows, ride chandeliers and pause a pitched battle to challenge the enemy commander to an honourable duel.
It’s a refreshingly blunt take on the pulp adventure genre, but in all truth it’s probably the only real way to match the tone of the setting. Dreamed up by Edgar Rice Burroughs – also known for creating Tarzan – the Barsoom books are packed with tales of derring-do and impossible heroism that would be a shameless power fantasy if it wasn’t for the air of cheerful sincerity it exudes.
The world Burroughs created is saturated with violence and honour in equal measure; it’s a world of radium-infused rifles and jewelled princesses, where multi-limbed monsters roam the wastes and airships drift over blue canals. Nothing about it seems particularly original to modern sensibilities, but the gleeful blend of so many different ideas produces something that can’t easily be found in tabletop gaming.
In order to achieve the properly pulpy, heroic feel of John Carter of Mars, the team at Modiphius has streamlined and trimmed the 2d20 system, which has also cropped up in several titles including Star Trek Adventures and Mutant Chronicles. It’s still chunkier than most deliberately lightweight games out there, but any kind of rule that could distract from the action has been tossed out of the window.
One of the more obvious examples of this comes from that fact that it doesn’t bother with a traditional skill system. Rather than parcelling out a couple of things for each hero to be good at, the game chooses to operate under the base assumption that they’re all effortlessly competent at anything they put their minds to, whether that’s sneaking into an enemy camp or tracking a band of raiders through the burning Martian desert.
Some characters will still handle some tasks better than others thanks to their core stats, and every background lists a couple of areas where individuals may struggle, but beyond that they’re given the room to be almost comically skilled.
This may sound a little silly, but the titular John Carter was a dashing hero who managed to instantly excel at everything from duelling to piloting airships, so why should our own heroes be limited by such paltry things as training and practice? Sure, it’s not wildly realistic, but that isn’t the point of the game.
Several other areas have been trimmed down, too. Every sword deals the same amount of damage and movement is abstracted into a handful of rough bands. There aren’t any rules for cover; it’s assumed that when characters are shot at, they’ll naturally leap behind a convenient pillar while thinking up their next quip.
This does detract from the game’s tactical combat, but that’s not what John Carter really cares about either. Combat’s main role isn’t testing player skill or even luck, but giving the characters a chance to show off their bravery and strength.
Players who get their kicks from mechanically optimising their builds or struggling through dangerous, dirty worlds of darkness may quickly tire of the game’s antics. If you’re after a few nights of gaming guaranteed to stick a smile on your face, however, this is an unexpected gem just waiting to be uncovered.
PLAY IT? - YES
Everything from the rules to the artwork drips with liquid heroism. It may be a little dumb, but it’s undeniably fun.
Designer: Modiphius team
This review originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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