John Carter of Mars (TTRPG) - Review
By Tom Mannering
Before reading the new Modiphius John Carter of Mars core rulebook, I didn’t know much about the Hero of Barsoom or the world he inhabits. I knew he was a Virginian fighting man, and I knew that the 2012 Disney film based on the titular character was a commercial flop. But beyond the occasional passing comment on the series by a handful of fans that I know, it’s not something I’ve had much awareness of. I mention this, because it means that I went into both reading and reviewing this book as someone with about as little knowledge of the subject matter as someone who runs in both fantasy and sci-fi fandoms could possibly have.
The review copy of John Carter I received was a PDF version, so I can only comment on the presentation of the book in a digital format. However, even at that this book is incredibly evocative of the setting it aims to represent. The front cover depicts alien warriors wielding both futuristic firearms alongside more primitive melee weaponry, with a muscled human hero stood amidst the horde as a gigantic four arm ape-like beast appears on the horizon attacking a woman in a hover car. You literally cannot get more science fantasy than that!
The book maintains this eye-catching art throughout, painting a clear picture of the setting of Barsoom and its inhabitant throughout. The artwork of the various landscapes, cities and action scenes were a favourite, giving the reader a clear idea of what makes this setting unique. Some of the art for the individual characters, especially in the ‘Creating Your Adventurer’ section is a little weaker, but by no means poor.
The layout of the rules is well done, with a clear introduction to the setting and its timeline, building your own characters, further information on the world and its lore and ending in narrator content including a bestiary and an introductory adventure. I found the book easy to read and the content is presented in a manner that merges both rules and narrative to maintain that immersion in the setting as you’re learning.
One strange observation is that the book is presented in landscape, rather than horizontally. While this works well for a PDF as it means it fills a screen comfortably, were I reading the hard copy I’d find it being wider that it is tall rather unusual. I’m not sure if or what the design decision behind this is, but it doesn’t negatively impact the book beyond personal preference.
The John Carter of Mars game has an interesting challenge, needing to encapsulate what I have come to realise is a rather unique science fantasy setting. Blending swords and supernatural elements with alien technology isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially when you consider the setting specifics such as commonplace telepathic abilities and dynamic religious tensions. Not to mention the fact that some humans that “die” on Earth wake up here with superhuman abilities.
But, it manages this well. All these aspects are represented and explained well in the core book with the rules supporting heroic and action-packed play but leaving room to explore the more nuanced aspects of the setting. Even the games core attributes are great at evoking the setting, using terms such as ‘Daring’, ‘Cunning’ and - my personal favourite - ‘Passion’. Equally, even character creation makes it very clear where your place in the world is depending on your racial and archetype choice. The small details throughout character building added with the expanded details later give a board understanding of the unique war-torn setting and the complex interracial relations.
Barsoom is not the place you come for dark horror and in-depth investigation, it’s where you come for high concept science fantasy action, broad chested champions and cunning warrior women. Nevertheless, it affords itself opportunity to slow down and explore the romance and wonder that exist alongside the harsh realities of the setting. If I had come to this as a fan of the books, I don’t think I would have been disappointed.
John Carter of Mars uses Modiphius own game system ‘2d20’, which I first saw used in their Conan system. I found it to be an interesting system when I looked at it in Conan, and it largely remains the same here. It isn’t an overly complex system at the outset, but I wouldn’t refer to it as beginner friendly either. If John Carter of Mars is someone’s first roleplaying experience, it’s a system that will likely need to be explained a couple of times, and even a seasoned RPG veteran it will likely take a little bit of time to grasp the idea. However, once a player has got the core mechanics down, it should become fairly intuitive. From a player perspective, I think it could be picked up in a session or two.
It is worth noting that, as is often the case with roleplaying games, the GM is going to have the lion’s share of the studying to take on board. This is because the system uses things such as 'Momentum', 'Threat' and 'Luck', which are tracked resources that bolster and hinder the heroes depending on how much they have of each. Managing these on top of everything else could be daunting for a first-time GM, so I’d recommend getting the basics down in a few introductory sessions before you fully introduce all these aspects.
From a balance perspective, the character generation seems largely equal, with all races getting about an equal pegging in attribute bonuses and racial talent of one type or another. Players then choose from 15 archetypes, which cover many pulp style characters from ‘Airship Officer’ to ‘Gladiator’ and beyond. Again, these seems balanced in the bonuses they received and the Talents they recommend you start with. There is no ‘class’ progression present, with characters improving by using xp to buy new talents, boosting attributes or gaining equipment. This means balancing largely falls to the GM and the players, which is mitigated somewhat by multiple advances in the same area getting costly fast. I do appreciate that a lot of focus on character advancement focuses on your character legacy, gaining titles, garnering power and influence and becoming a figure of legend. Given the source material, this seems far more important to capturing the flavour than just making the attribute numbers bigger. It seems Modiphius realise this by dedicacting one page to spending xp, and seven to improving your renown, titles and accolades.
I think one area where this book really shines is its usability. Not only are all the rules here that you need to play the game, but there is a wealth of content detailing the history of the world and the customs. There over a dozen named characters fully realised from the different eras of the novels, including guides on how the players would perceive those eras and the impact they can have. There are generic characters for the players to use as enemies and allies as well as eight characters built and detailed by Kickstarter backers that a narrator could use and alter as they saw fit. There’s also a sizable bestiary of alien monsters for your heroes to do battle with, giving narrator a buffet of choice straight out of the gate. Finally, the book includes a 14-page starting adventure, which is always something I love to see, as well as further adventure ideas. The book literally has everything you would need to play this game for years (excluding paper, pencils and dice, but I won’t hold that against them).
As I said at the start, I had no strong interest in John Carter as a character when I started reading and reviewing this book. However, I’m pleased to say that Modiphius Entertainment changed that. Not only are you provided with a solid roleplaying system, but you are drawn into the setting of Barsoom and the universe that Edgar Rice Burroughs created. Modiphius have reverently recreated the science fantasy world in all its eras and presented it in both an interesting and faithful manner, creating a system that captures what the source material represented. The system isn’t perfect and there is some work to be done for the narrator to get their head around everything, but ultimately, I feel it would be worth it. If you are a fan of the John Carter, fantasy sci-fi or even pulp action in a unique setting, I would definitely recommend this one.
For the Virginian fighting man in all of us.
A digital copy of the John Carter of Mars rulebook was provided for this review.