I’m going to say some unpopular things about Barsoom
This is not a well thought out post. I’m trying to think through some stuff here and would appreciate your help. I’m trying to figure out why I think John Carter isn’t gameable – and I concede that I could be totally wrong about that.
First, the movie is very well done, and if you’re interested in swords and adventure movies with lots of fighting and classic storytelling, I’ll echo what almost everyone else in the OSR is saying: it is worth your time. It’s not great art*, but it is good entertainment, and it’s faithful enough to the source material that I for one didn’t leave the theater saying “what the fuck was that?”**
And I love Barsoom with a great big love. I find it inspiring as anything. I want to run games on it. But from a sandbox DM’s perspective, John Carter’s adventures don’t love me, and the film really points up why. Because I have no idea how to run a game of John Carter with PCs in the starring roles, and when I’ve tried it’s tended to be “minor picaresque adventures around the edges of Barsoom/Mungo.” Maybe because my players aren’t bona fide heroes, but I suspect more because the nature of the conflict, the parameters governing what makes for good decisions in this setting, are basically different from common sense, self preservation and sustainable ambition.
This post is really an adjunct to 2 other posts I wrote recently, on how the PCs should be the stars and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the scenery and how Cowboys and Aliens was the most DnDest movie evar because at least for some of the time it presented a heist-type situation that a bunch of misfits had to figure out a way of cracking. John Carter is the polar opposite of that. In Cowboys and Aliens the protagonists could potentially be just about anyone (ie the players have freedom to choose their PCs), and they’re responding to a universal threat – JC on the other hand has to behave just so to fit the narrative trajectory – to fulfil the role of The One, thrust by events (fortune? Destiny?) into the role of Uniting and Saving all the fairies of another world from The Threat. Sure, the film doesn’t get as explicit as issuing prophecies or anything, but he’s the only visitor from outside, he’s the only one able to unite red and green men, he’s got the crazy jumping ability like nobody else, he always performs… it’s not just Conan, it’s a bit of Superman. And that leads to high-fantasy, high-destiny, high-narrative-control story game fodder, and the trouble with that is…
I was going to say: the trouble is it’s a different aesthetic from what I like, but why not turn up the heat? Or it only works as long as JC acts like a hero, but if he doesn’t then why not let it be about Cugel the Predicted? Or is it that the background continually conspires to thrust JC into exactly the place and situation he needs to be in, to make the critical difference? No, not quite that either, although it speaks to railroading… No, I think the really big problem with it is that actually all the important conflicts are within John and/or in the relationships between the core characters, and consequently all the other big stuff that’s happening (wars, tests, taboos, sacrilege, schemes) is really just window-dressing – background. Which is why it always drapes just so, to frame that soap opera character drama to best effect.
And I’ve never been able to make that work around a gaming table. My games have always been about exploring the world, finding out about plots and doing something about them, saving the city or surviving its destruction These are actually the point in my games, and getting the support of some tribe of people would be the main event, if you could somehow manage it, because it would radically change what you could do. But they’re not the point for JC and therefore they’re trivial for him – the main point is getting together with DT. And although I’m trying to imagine playing a game where that was true (Amber, I guess) I’m drawing a blank on how to avoid the use of such huge resources immediately changing the nature of the game into something entirely other.
Maybe I should just relax about that. This session, since the green men decided to follow you, we’re playing Horde Wars. Next session the Plague will come and we’ll be play postapoc, and the week after it’s up-close-and-personal jumping assassin wars in Helium. Maybe that would be great. But I worry about totally losing focus – the sense of the campaign – because so many problems would become trivial when you have a horde with you, and so many others come up to swamp your previous goals, like how are we going to feed this army?
Have you ever tried to play a game like this? Did you manage? How did it work out? Do I just sound like these guys, saying “horror is hard”?
* They sure spent a lot, and the art direction is obviously enthusiastic and skilled and has really nice touches. Still, it didn’t look as good as, say, The Fifth Element. I don’t know why, really. Too generic? Too familiar? Zodanga’s awesome, the flyers… are merely ornithopters. Somehow I wanted more surprise.
** It was both nice and peculiar to see Posca, Caesar and Mark Antony from HBO’s Rome in basically the same roles – a nice reminder of the early Roman Warrior cover art, and the costume design was gorgeously Art Nouveau. If I were called Kitsch I’d change that, but I guess it’s working for him. At least in this role.