Home > Uncategorized > I’m going to say some unpopular things about Barsoom

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.

  1. z
    March 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I thought people already figured this out.

    You game Barsoom by leaving John Carter out. Play the natives of Barsoom. Destiny problem, solved. You are free to roam around doing Barsoomian things in a Barsoomian setting.

    • March 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      That’s exactly what I mean by “minor picaresque adventures around the edges of Barsoom/Mungo.” Kinda Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Red. I see 2 main problems with this approach (beyond the usual problems of conveying a complex and well-thumbed setting to a bunch of new players or sometimes even worse old players who already have opinions about what it is/means):
      1. what I said in the post linked above about PCs being the stars – Barsoom is a very brightly coloured background. This is good and bad, but I think mostly bad, alas. Especially when
      2. the setting was built to accommodate some other star and their wild adventures. Because a big part of the charm of the setting – what we know about it through those adventures – is the epic scale, the precedent set by the previous hero, who could be allowed to play with the shiny toys – huge setting-rewriting wars, revolutionary joining of Red and Green men in united action, stuff like that – exactly because he was already narratively constrained. So your PCs, whoever they are, if they are not narratively constrained, can seriously break the setting if you give them the same kind of ride.

      Did that make sense? Put another way – because JC doesn’t have to start at first level and earn his way up to power, the things of power are devalued by his handling them. Your PCs should really also be able to handle the things of power the same way, or they’ll be shortchanged. And I have a sense that’s extremely dangerous/might not be as much fun as I think, but now I’m not sure.

  2. March 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I pretty much feel that way about the whole ‘this game/campaign is inspired by the book x’ thing. I’m baffled at why people keep trying to ‘base a game on’ a given book, movie, or TV show. Steal ideas from, steal the setting of, sure. But for some reason a lot of people seem to think it is a good idea to borrow plots from them, or emulate the plotting of a novel/movie, and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

  3. March 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    But John Carter isn’t “the One” in the usual messianic sense that term is used–at least in the books. He’s a dude that lucks up and gets the girl after some wandering and adventure.

    And JC isn’t the only hero in the Mars stories. There’s Carthoris, Han Hadron, Gahan of Gathol, Thuvia, and Ulysess Paxton. JC isn’t the star of their stories. Now, like most fiction there are differences with gaming, but it provides plenty of textual room for heroes beyond Carter.

    • March 12, 2012 at 7:39 pm

      Good point about the other characters in later books – I was maybe getting carried away thinking about parallels between Barsoom and Mongo.

      …but in Princess he pretty much seems destined for greatness, by authorial fiat if not by any kind of in-world agency. And I know that’s part of the heroic adventure tradition and danger in literature is always illusory but it feels different with Carter than with, say, Indiana Jones.

      • March 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm

        True, Carter is (by events if nothing else) the greatest adventurer of his day, but even leaving aside him sharing a planet which seems to have weird things under every rock with other slightly lesser adventures, you can always set the game after he’s settled into Helium and has grand-children or before his arrival.

        • March 13, 2012 at 11:20 am

          Sorry for shifting position here – like I said up top, I’m trying to figure this out… Also sorry this is so long – I hope you don’t mind if we have a conversation here.

          I guess I’m thinking that Carter himself isn’t the problem; it’s the structure of his adventures that’s problematic – not only the fact that it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s a/the hero (the standard objection to story gaming) but also the focus of his adventures, which in the book is entirely emotional/internal (he wants to get back together with DT) and in the movie is dramatic, not procedural (his adventures and battles are just catalysts for his interior journey – it’s “how John got his groove back,” and that’s story gaming through and through).

          (here’s Robin Laws on the jargon “dramatic” and “procedural” – I should’ve linked it in the post)

          Carter, and all similar heroes, has an aim that’s always somewhat oblique across the path of events, and that’s critical for the writer, who can therefore keep those events parading past without them overwhelming the story. Because his goal is not to be king, ERB can make him a king without destroying/ending the story, and we get to enjoy him being king and all the finery and passing background, and then he’s off again being a pauper or a spy or just running really fast toward the goal which is always tantalizingly out of reach (DT). This structure is I think different both from the Luke type hero’s journey construction, which annoyed people so much in Dragonlance and later products, and from the Han Solo/Cugel type picaresque adventure structure, where our iconic hero encounters the situation of the week and opportunistically gains or loses from it.

          Maybe the metaphor for this structure is either the chase or the waterfall (depending on the proportions of carrot and stick in play): in the chase, some desired object is getting away and you have to go after it, solve riddles, find it on maps, beat the nazis – you wrote about this recently, I guess. In the waterfall case you’re swimming against a current that wants to drag you to your doom (over the waterfall). The goal (dry land) may be nearby but it’s just out of reach. The water/current is various obstacles thrown into your path (the princess is kidnapped/an impostor/not where you thought she would be. Your allies need to you help them before they’ll help you or they have their own princess to rescue or the princess is infected with a disease you have to cure…). You can be knocked back by an obstacle or even, rarely, profit by it. A bad knock-back risks losing the goal altogether.

          I could see running either a chase or a waterfall game – the former relies only on victory conditions and risks the players defining other objectives, the latter sets definite failure conditions: it’s more railroady but that might be fun, too – you’re not railroaded toward a goal exactly, but you are challenged to keep up.

          I suspect the goal must be the same for all members of the party – and if it’s a good enough goal it could serve to recruit new party members to replace casualties. I guess this is CoC’s structure within an adventure, although there it seems the metastructure is “things are OK, oh no this is wrong, restore the balance” (this even clearer in superhero stories). Good goals for a party: Vikings came and stole all our DTs (sorry); find and repair the air engines or we’ll slowly suffocate; stop the Therns meddling and destroying us; overthrow the evil empire; clear dad’s name/prove your innocence. Hmmm these all require backstory.

  4. Guest
    March 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Gygax did it.

    I wonder what kind of adventures Erac’s Cousin had when he was there.

  5. March 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    The SPI board game “John Carter of Mars” had a cut-and-dried approach that wonderfully simulated the stock pulp plotting of the novels.

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