Set in the wondrous, dying world of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom, John Carter of Mars (JCOM) is a swashbuckling science-fantasy game of radium guns and longswords, airships and adventure. A solid rules framework emphasizes narrative play and encourages the action to keep moving forward.
Characters are created by choosing a race (one of 4 types of Martian plus earthborn humans), an archetype (airship pilot, explorer, duelist, etc.), a descriptor (primary personality trait), Talents (special abilities), and a Flaw (a personality trait that gets you into trouble).
Your choices from these options help determine your Attribute ratings (the core scores that define your character). Rather than a skill list, JCOM archetypes tell you what your character knows and is capable of, allowing characters to attempt related actions. These function similarly to Fate Aspects or 13th Age’s Backgrounds.
What’s particularly nice is the game includes notes on how to build or customize your own Archetypes, Descriptors, and Flaws, allowing a wider variety of options. This isn’t a massively in-depth section, as these choices are mostly ways to distribute points, but it’s nice that it’s included.
The game runs on a narrative version of the 2d20 system. As mentioned above there are no skill lists, so all justifications for attempted actions come from the various choices you make in character creation. Your duelist is perfectly able to hold their own in a swordfight, but might be at a loss in piloting an airship, or properly handling animals.
In previous versions of the 2d20 system the target number for a skill check was derived by adding your Skill Expertise to its respective attribute, rolling 2d20, and counting a success for each die that rolled equal to or under the target number. If the die roll was lower than the Skill Focus (starting levels typically 1-3), an additional success was gained.
In JCOM, the target number is found by adding two abilities together, and the “Skill Focus” is the lower of the two numbers. This means that adding two attributes rated 7 and 5 will give a target number of 12, and any die that rolls 5 or under will generate an additional success. Successes are compared to a difficulty rating (and if they match or exceed the rating the check is successful. Any successes in excess become Momentum, which acts as a meta-currency and can be saved in a pool or immediately spent to affect the narrative by adding additional dice to rolls, altering difficulties, or learning information, among a variety of other things. Due to the increased chance for extra successes, the PCs have a greater ability to perform fantastic and daring feats.
As an additional resource, players have Luck Points, which can operate in a similar fashion to Momentum, but also affect how much Threat the Narrator has access to. Threat is the Narrator’s meta-currency, which they can use to hinder the players.
Conflict and combat use abstract zones rather than precise movement and combat is not just restricted to physical conflict as it also includes social combat. Attribute tests are made to attack, with different pairings depending on the method, and resisted with attributes specific to the type of attack. Any damage is inflicted on the appropriate Stress Track.
As a reward beyond the traditional XP, Renown helps track the characters’ reputation and give them motivation to attempt great deeds. It can be used to gain social and political advantages, allies, influence, and titles among the lands and organizations of Barsoom. It gives a solid motivation to be involved in the welfare of Barsoom and encourage the players to effect change upon the setting.
There are thorough sections which detail the history and society of this fantastic world, as well as secrets of the setting, all ripe with plot hooks. While some players may already be familiar through the books, comics, or movie, it’s always useful to have the lore collected for easy reference. Unsurprisingly, events of the books are summarized, so expect spoilers.
Narrators are given useful sections on how to best emulate the pulp, planetary romance genre of JCOM. Campaign foci and structure, summaries and conventions of the genre are all highlighted. The strange world of Barsoom is fleshed-out with the bestiary, with the useful inclusion of plot seeds for each creature.
John Carter of Mars is a great version of the 2d20 system, exhibiting the versatility of the rules and bringing life to a classic setting and genre.
[5 of 5 Stars!]