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John Carter of Mars Core Rulebook $19.99
Publisher: Modiphius
by Monica G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/11/2019 12:06:07

The John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is perhaps best known for the notorious 2012 film adaption (the infamous 'mockbuster' film company The Asylum also took a stab at the character three years earlier). But the series also influenced such new classics as Star Wars and Avatar. The source material is a natural for a tabletop RPG and Modiphius Entertainment has provided it. How does it size up? The series features a Virginian native and soldier who seemingly dies in the nineteenth century and is temporarily transported to Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom as chronicled in the 1917 book A Princess of Mars. A series followed and John Carter is now second only to Tarzan of the Apes as Burrough's most famous character. Although the game is faithful to the source material, the designers openly acknowledge that politically incorrect elements emerge in the original stories and are translated into the game. Context is obviously open to interpretation and players can still handle subjects such as slavery or sexism in the manner they deem appropriate.

The game allows characters to play either a transplanted Earthborn hero like Carter or one of four 'human' races populating Mars - Red Martians, Green (the most physically alien and my personal favorites), Yellow and Black. Character creation is relatively simple. Character start with four points in six attributes and are given to more points to discretionarily spend - more points are added based on the races and occupations selected by the players. Players combine two appropriate attributes as appropriate for skill resolutions using 2 D20 - the target number is equal to or less than the sum of the attributes. If a player rolls a success that is less than the weaker of the two attributes, they earn an extra success. The difficulty of the task determines the number of successes required - excess successes can be saved as momentum points and spent at a later time. The race and occupation selected also determines a character's general skills and knowledge of the setting. Each occupation also comes with a recommended talent (characters get the equivalent of five talents when they begin).

For example, I may want to play an Earthborn fugitive Confederate sharpshooter feeling Union regulators that winds up on Barsoom - basically The Outlaw Josey Whales in a sword-and-planet setting. He would three points two might and one each to two other attributes - I add a point each to reason and cunning. I have to subtract one from an attribute due to the racial choice so I deduct one from daring. I choose fugitive as an occupation because his character, like Whales, was more of a guerilla than a regular soldier and is now fleeing. I now get to add two each to cunning and passion. The talent 'no chains can hold me' is suggested as a talent but I can see what else is available and pick something else. Players choose a descriptor that describes the character and allows bonuses to attributes. I choose canny and get one point added to both daring and reason. Characters also start with at least one core piece of equipment and renown - the latter allows the purchase of in-game advantages such as contacts. Earthbound characters are the exception to both rules so I am out of luck. Each character also selects a flaw to help define them. Player-created flaws are allowed on a discretionary basis and I choose bitter - my character lost friends and family during the Civil War. For talents I pick three grade-one entries and one grade-two. I select passionate rider, expert rifleman and keen marksman for grade one. My grade-two selection is deadly pistoleer. Yes, I may I have watched too many Westerns. Characters also start with a luck point pool that is generated from their weakest attribute, although it can be awarded for player ingenuity. Game masters can use the player's luck pool to generate threat points, which are used in a manner similar to momentum except that they are used against the payers (these points can temporarily boost the villain's fighting capabilities, for example).

The setting is divided into three eras based around the progression of Carter's social influence. The first era, for example, is set before Carter became established and is a conflict-driven setting. During the third era, when Carter rules an empire, there is considerably more law and order. The rules also include a bestiary and a serialized adventure in the mold of the original stories. The book also discusses the shared universe of which the Mars series was just a part. Not only does Carter find monsters and villain on Jupiter and the moons of Mars but he occupied the same literary setting as Tarzan, the Pellucidar saga (essentially John Carter in a hollow Earth setting), the Venus series (really more of the same) and the standalone novel The Mad King (a Ruritanian in the style of The Prisoner of Zenda). Unfortunately, the rules only skim this aspect of the story - future supplements may address this. Overall this is an excellent product. It retains the integrity of the original material while allowing for significant extrapolation. This is highly recommended for fans of the Space Opera genre who want to try something more 'old school.'

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John Carter of Mars Core Rulebook
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