While their sardonic cardinal gets all the best lines, the whole Priesthood of Ming shares a sense of humour perhaps best appreciated from a safe place very far away. Priests of Ming are the hands and eyes of the Emperor’s divine will. They’re also utterly alien creatures, which have learned to conceal their true natures by mimicking the shapes of men – or of a hundred other objects. Outside the public gaze they set down their golden masks and rubber eyes and relax into puddles of black glup. When they return from their missions they merge with the Ur-pool and share their individual experiences in a communion only dreamed of by other creatures, to emerge again on demand with strength, memories and skills drawn from the collective pool.
At least that’s the idea. Recently a growing number of “budlets” have been postponing their reintegration, perhaps under the influence of the mighty Klytus, perhaps corrupted by the collective’s long but uneasy partnership with The Ming.
As monsters the Priests are commanders of Ming’s soldiers (reskinned orcs), palace guards (reskinned kobolds) and secret police (assassins, levels 1-4). They are also highly mobile and dextrous mimics, their hit dice (but no other stats) dependent on their size. Man-sized Priests usually have 4HD (ie 4d4). Natural AC is 8, but Priests often go armoured – partly because it makes maintaining form easier. They may have spells, psionics or divine magics, but they uniformly have poor grip: they cannot use bows apart from crossbows. Melee weapons must be adapted to their bodies, with wide, non-slip handles. On the other hand they can attack without artificial weapons, stabbing with spikes for 1d6, constricting with ropey tentacles for 1d3 per round (break with a str vs str contest), or smothering/choking by intruding into the airways of their victims (dex vs dex contest to avoid, 1d4 damage and save vs CON of lose consciousness each round, -1 per round of intrusion. Damage increases by 1 die size each round of continuous occupation). Other attacks are left to the ingenuity of the DM.
As PCs, Priests develop their powers slowly. In order to level up a Priest must rejoin the Collective, which rewards their successes (xp) with skills. Priests fight and save as thieves, but level up on the Magic User table. They have access to the unarmed attacks detailed above. They get D4 hit dice and may use any weapons and armour, provided it is adapted for their use (fitted with non-slip grips, padding under chain or ring mail). They conduct electricity cheerfully and are immune to electrical attacks. On the downside they can also be deformed against their will by electromagnetic fields.
Although most Priests leave the Collective with 3-4 cubic feet of glup body, they may elect to be anywhere from half to double that volume without any change in game mechanics.
Beginning at 1st level, Priests can transform at will between their “native” blob of glup form and one other form per level, which is selected while the Priest is leveling up in the Collective. The Priest’s glup form is highly deformable but cannot squeeze through gaps narrower than 6 inches (size of a CD), -1”/level (so at 1st level that’s 5″).* If human-sized it occupied 3-4 cubic feet. The glup form can move 1’/round/level on a flat surface, but it may roll, slide or flow faster down inclined surfaces. In glup form a Priest takes half damage from falling. Other forms can move at the speed you’d expect for the thing being mimicked, although winged forms cannot fly.
Maintaining form is exhausting: Priests must rest for 13 hours a day – 1 hour/level or lose 1HP for each hour of rest missed.
At 3rd level Priests can act as one other character class of 2 levels lower, casting spells, picking locks etc (may change class on leveling up). This class is chosen while the Priest is in the Collective and may be changed each time the Priest rejoins the Collective (ie at each level up). Priests can also get skills off whatever weird-ass table you found on someone’s blog, such as Zak Smith’s Alternative Classes.
At 5th level Priests may divide themselves into 2 or more parts, which may act independently. When they do so they divide their attributes and stats among the parts as they wish, but each part must have at least 1 in everything.
At 7th level a Priest may improvise novel forms that are not on their transformation list. Doing so requires a save vs magic – if the save is failed the novel form fails and cannot be attempted again until the next level. On a natural 20 the priest forgets one of their usual forms until the next level-up. 7th level Priests can also demand up to 8x the usual volume of glup for their bodies (ie 32 cubic feet**). If they have over 16 cubic feet of glup, hit points are doubled.
A 9th level Priest attracts 1d12 Priest followers or wannabes. It may Collectivize with other Priests to create a giant-sized creature with the sum of all Hit Dice and damage capabilities, reflected either as multiple attacks or a single attack with the total damage potential of all the Priests in the Collective.
In order to have authority over Ming’s forces, a Priest must have a golden Mask of Office. Ming’s forces are surprisingly ill-informed and have no idea of what lurks behind those masks, so merely doing your mimic trick may scare them but won’t command loyalty.
* we may conclude from Klytus’ complete liquefaction in the City of the Hawkmen that he was at least 5th level. He of course escaped death at the hands of Voltan and the Imperial Navy by dribbling into the bilges of the city and then hailing fellow priests aboard War-rocket Ajax from a dangling aerial, Luke Skywalker style.
** what would you do with so much glup? Maintaining multiple person-sized forms is one obvious and popular option, being impressively huge is another (a Priest could pose as a Hutt or an unusually corpulent Thark). There are rumours of some Priests posing as entire buildings, with hollow interior spaces and working doors.
If Lord of the Rings is secretly a book about landscape, ERB’s Barsoom stories are secretly about architecture.
I mean a couple of things by that. First there’s the obvious point that most of LoTR involves an extended walk in the woods, an epic journey that’s as much about finding your way through the thickets of Middle Earth, meeting its various people, getting bitten by mosquitoes in its marshes and rained on while crossing its moors as it is about any grand narrative. The battles and ring quest and all that mostly punctuate this core activity of the characters and the storyteller moving through wilderness. But more than that, the wilderness is in many ways the central character: it’s a mythically inhabited landscape – like the theological/philosophical idea^ of God’s country that reveals His face to you through His works, except in this case the faces revealed are those of the Norse-god Valar and Maiar, the elves, Sauron, Saruman – even Shelob who poisons her own little hidey-hole on the border of Mordor: these are personalities that own and shape the land, that alter its nature.
The Barsoom stories, in contrast, mostly play out in palaces, cities and temples** that turn out merely to be obvious markers in a planet-wide built environment, encompassing the network of canals, irrigation and atmosphere machines (sealed up in their own monstrous buildings).
And enormous, secret architectures of the ancients – the impenetrable rings of mountains protecting the Therns and Okar, the artificial underground dome and sea of the First Born; nested domains of hidden masters revealed in strict succession like an enfilade of state rooms.
There’s no hexcrawling Mars – it’s a man-made wilderness – a desert created and sustained by willed, sentient effort, and defined by destinations with emptiness between. The flat sea bottoms are for long mounted chases, exactly like the stern-chases of Horation Hornblower, the dry “seas” as featureless and mathematical as they must be to allow Carter to make his tough decisions about who escapes and who has to hold off the enemy, while the magnificent distances from pole to pole are routinely crossed at maximum speed by fliers, as Carter and his enemies each try to construct their own bright future and tear down the other’s.
More generally, Barsoom is intelligible, theatrical, designed to a purpose – which brings me to the point of this post for roleplaying. The predictable certainty with which Barsoom is laid out helps to keep the action where ERB wants it – fast-paced, sword wielding and cliff (or building) hanging, while Carter gets to be the chaos that disrupts the staid and known world of Barsoomian formal warfare.* Whether you like this or not depends on your feelings about hex/dungeoncrawling vs. plot-chasing as play methods. In any event, it offers some tools for running high-octane sword’n'planet adventure at high speed:
1. it’s all very definite – it helps to establish rules for the world. You know as soon as you encounter the sheer, perfect cliff that it’s impassable except for one trick passageway – and you know that one passage will be there, somewhere. You know when you fly into the city that its complexity needn’t concern unless you make it important – the villain will be squatting in the palace on the central square, under the spire, while your imprisoned friend will be at the bottom of the deepest pit.
2. it helps define the world as a theater built for heists. The palaces are stages on which courts enact their plays, and they all have both a scene and an obscene: there are always service corridors, ancient tunnels, secret passages or spaces behind curtains where you can see the action on stage but cannot be seen. This means not only that you can always collapse the enemy’s certainty and open up the chaos of tactical infinity on his regular schemes of guards, but also that all those people and places the tyrant relies on but chooses not to see are your potential allies. Just like you wouldn’t orienteer across the sea bottoms, so you wouldn’t (necessarily) try to map these endless anthills of power (unless that was the setup for your heist): instead you liberate some local from injustice and they lead you straight to where you ought to be.
3. which means the ubiquitous palace-megadungeons of Barsoom actually aren’t dungeons at all… unless you want them to be, in which case they’re as dungeony as anything you could ever hope to find. Every palace is ancient and has had many architects, so they always have some secrets to be explored and exploited – both by and against the PCs, and if you can read the traces of ancient intention you might unlock secrets even in well-trodden halls that open up a new (old) plot. This is like the good time of Ars Magica covenant design, exploring your wizarding school finding the old headmasters’ secret books and lurking doom right under your feet. Moreover, architecture is a map of the mind and building in the service of tyranny is always irrational; it generally supports containment and concealment, serving the tyrant’s paranoia and power-trips, so its lower layers tend to be psycho-theatrical trawls through vile torture chambers and worse pleasure pits, which inexplicably put the control rooms, from where you can murder the city’s entire populace, and the Well of Punishment, where the tyrant can watch his arch enemies starve to death, right next to each other.***
So do you want this kind of architectural world in your game or not? I’m kinda on the fence, myself. The old dnd mainstay of wilderness-with-points-of-architecture seems to offer the best possibilities of both worlds. But consider for a moment what an all-architectural world offers you – what I think is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness:
architecture has meaning. Purpose. And that meaning can be revealed, understood. In some sense a work of architecture is a puzzle to be unraveled, rather than a blank space where you make your own dwelling and meaning. Which implies that your adventures in an architectural world, like Barsoom, would probably one day reach a natural end, when you know what the whole thing is for. As a Brit, coming from the land of truly interminable soap operas, I can see some value in that.
And the all-architectural world has no real outside, which is pretty much a thematic imperative in the Barsoom books – the Impenetrable Temple of the Sun, dread torture-prison of the god-queen Issus herself, like every bit of Barsoomian building everywhere, has a back door. The Tomb of Horrors, lost in its own wilderness, has a bottom, where its Ultimate Big Bad lurks, at his and its and often the PCs’ end. But in the all-architecture tombworld of horrors, that bottom chamber always leads somewhere else – always, ultimately, everywhere. So to defeat it either you have root it out (not just loot it but maybe rehabilitate it) or you have to break out of tombworld altogether… by which time you’ll probably have a good idea of what you want your sandbox domain endgame to be.
* which is kind of interesting when you consider they were written at the same time as ERB’s Tarzan stories – two naked protagonists, one king of the wild, the other prince of the realm of orderly war.
** the nomadic Tharks that John Carter first encounters (whom I’m convinced are based on Edward o’Donovan’s description of Turcomans) traipse from one ruined city to another, rather than following the more usual nomadic schedule of alternating pastures. They even take their name from one such city.
*** real example! From Warlord of Mars. No it makes no sense at all that JC can escape from the Pit of Plenty and jump straight into the Room With The Deadly Switches… except that this nasty little set of corridors is where the evil and cowardly emperor likes to spend most of his time, reassuring himself that the lever remains unpulled and his enemies remain abject.
^ Check out Heidegger’s “fourfold” of earth, sky, gods and mortals for more on this idea… and then come back and explain it to me.
Bonus for getting this far: imagedump of stuff that I didn’t know I wanted but now I do:
See that? That’s Percy Lowell’s actual “canals” drawing that caused all the fuss. WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME THAT “CANALS” IS A EUPHEMISM FOR GIANT STALKING SPIDERS!!???!?!? (from here)
Alas, a rather prosaic take on the wondrous temple of Issus, drawn by someone who’d recently been to the National Mall and wished it looked more like Chichen Itza. Sounds like me, actually.
I feel nothing but woe can come out of this unholy partnership of Duke Bluebeard and Chixi’lu the Loathsome – and I fear the production rather misses the whole point and power of Bartok’s vision, but there you go. I’ll still have my all-time-favourite works of psycho-theatre.
Motherlode of Barsoom art. Not sorted by quality, but feel the width. I’m rather charmed (though not convinced) by this Bond-era speedboat take on the Martian flyers:
there, all my obsessions in one image at last. I guess.
Is Rogues and Reavers’ post on fucking tourists, a new class for LL and Krul. Also ideal for Carcosa, The Bleaklands and anywhere else where life is a daily desperate struggle. It’s especially useful for me because I’m just about to post a bunch more about ERB’s Barsoom books, and what it’s like to read them while traveling through arid, rugged countryside where you don’t really speak the language and also alas can’t jump out of trouble.
Monte Cooke’s kickoff into Moebius-inspired Science Fantasy strikes just the right visual notes for me – even if the support text makes me crawn*: Humanity lives amid the remnants of eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen on Earth. NO! Instead: there is crazy inexplicable shit out there! Is anybody in charge at all!?! Go find out!
Which is kind of my way of saying I don’t know if I want to be in on the playtest phase of this or if I’d rather stay aloof, clutching my own distressingly similar setting, which will look derivative of this starting in about 2 minutes.
Damn you, Cooke!
Back to the proper subject of this blog: Dystopian Pokeverses. At last I can show you some suitably dystopian versions of old favourite Pokemon, courtesy of Gavin Mackey. That’s pretty much what I was thinking all along – thanks Gavin. More than these, which are also lovable but not miserable enough. And I’m really delighted by the sheer commitment in the fan movie Pokemon Apocalypse, but it’s not exactly where I was going either.
And while I’m doing a lazy linkdump post, do you know about Skylanders? That’s… not it either, but it’s kind of a place where my current aesthetic could go. I do like the mix of Cthulhiana, DnD cliches, Lego Adventures game design and Pokemon-type creature features. I call it Poke-Xena for a new generation. Which reminds me: apparently there are some Flash Gordon novels I should seek out, if my current Barsoom jones doesn’t abate soon.
Because I’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 25 years, DnD-wise, I had no idea that Githyanki had become a thing (I did have an idea about dark elves, because you can’t avoid them, but still, the name Drizzt meant nothing to me).
Anyway, shorn of the reams of lore they have no doubt accumulated, this is pretty much what I think about the astrally traveling jerks. And this beats anything else I have to say about them: They build their fortresses on the petrified bodies of dead gods. Like this here. Or here, which is also ridiculously cool. Or maybe there, for a change. See, if you keep mixing things up, eventually you can even put your dungeon underground and it looks cool all over again.
In case you’re currently under a rock, Geoffrey McKinney is publishing bare-bones old school modules with fanzine type production values. And Ian Johnson is doing the same for his wonderfully demented hell-crawl, The Bleaklands. The latter in particular is totally half-baked and fizzing with ideas.
My review of Eldritch Skies: don’t bother. I could say why in more detail, but fundamentally, what I wanted was balls-out Cthulhoid spacefaring where mead is your stardrive as well as your visual futurist, in about 32 pages of mind-altering illustrations. I didn’t want a wordy fantasy heartbreaker in 400 pages.
Finally, where are the hex sheet of yore? Here - print your own (thanks +Cole Long). Also crazy polar projection things and stuff.
The rest is pentagon tesselation.
Sky men are a proud and high-spirited people: they will not bear ill-usage. They are fond of adventures, emigration, and capable of undertaking the most dangerous enterprises.
They are divided into two castes: the shunned and ridiculed ground-walkers and the “true” sky men – those who have “come of age” and can walk on clouds, making their homes on shifting, drifting, fluffy continents.
The primitive and frequently squalid appearance of ground-walkers gives sky men a poor reputation among the rulers of the land, who are therefore disinclined to credit rumours of a high civilization above the clouds, or of solid sky man fortresses high in the stratosphere. Sky men are known to ride on (infest, perhaps) Timor Tom, however, and have been known to settle on other prominent flyers for a time. Garuda is said to have befriended the sky men and deigned to carry them willingly. There are even legends that Garuda taught the sky men how to live in the heavens.
Humans see the skin of sky men as always being the exact colour of the sky, making them extremely hard to spot in their usual environment. Birds and some lizards, however, which have 4 colour-sensitive cones in their eyes in place of humans’ 3, have no trouble seeing them. Under favourable conditions a sky man may gain up to +3 on all stealth tasks among humans from their near-invisibility.
All character classes have been found among sky men of one caste or another. In sky man society entertainers and memorizers of epic poems enjoy the highest status, alongside those leaders who prove their prowess by great deeds of thievery or piracy enacted against non sky men: the profession of thief is a perfectly acceptable choice for a young sky man setting out in the world. Mere warriors are seen as wasting their talents if they do not practice some other skill or rise to positions of leadership. Priests, diviners, spirit mediums and druids are viewed with suspicion but sky men tolerate them as occasionally highly useful. Sky man children are taught to fear wizards and their ilk, and there is no tradition of scholarly magic among them. Those who learn wizardry elsewhere are considered good marriage partners, however.
3d6 for stats. Because the mix of abilities and limitations pretty much balances out, Sky Men progress in their professions at the same rate as humans/baseline characters.
Sky men share the following special features:
1. Cannot wear armour. Really – they’re allergic to confinement, especially in any kind of metal harness – will lose 1hp per hour, or 1hp per four hours in leather armour.
2. But get natural AC 5 when naked and able to take advantage of sky-camouflage. AC 8 at other times, due to tough hide.
3. being almost invisible gives up to +3 to surprise under appropriate circumstances.
4. At 3rd level, get the ability to cloudwalk – not fly but walk and/or jump up into clouds and live up there like it’s another landscape. Cloudwalkers can carry their normal encumbrance load into the sky (as human). They also get hours of precognitive weather sense equal to their level (precog will wake them from sleep, trances etc). If the clouds thin/drop, they’ll drop out of them: crit fails on precog or jump are bad news. The ability to cloudwalk marks a sky man as a leader and imposes restrictions of honour: to maintain their sytatus cloudwalkers must take an oath of piracy: never to acquire anything in trade but only to steal it from groundwalkers
5. with a run up, they can long-jump their Dex + level in feet, or half that straight up.
(Originally inspired by Ken Hite’s Ingredients for Pyramid’s first Iron Ref competition – these being “a chair upholstered in an unusual or frightening material; an injury to the eye;” and some other thing I can’t remember. Sky Men are of course the secret masters of the Bugis of Sulawesi, those “ancestors” who first descended from the sky and told the Bugis to take to ships, thereby causing innumerable headaches for Dutch, British and French colonial shipping firms in the 18th and 19th centuries)
Rumours has it that Sky Men…
- worship the sky and are unable to cover their heads or sleep indoors
- generate local weather when angry or sad
- exude a smell delicious to wild animals and monsters
- may only use piercing weapons in honor of their thunderbolt gods
- can only drink rain water, not groundwater
- find vegetables, roots and tubers poisonous
- suffer claustrophobia or malaise when under a roof
- cannot pass beneath archways
- are poisoned by stagnant air
I don’t like Westerns.*
OK, that’s not quite true (put down those carbines, Cole Long and Ken Hite) – it’s really just the cliches of Westerns I don’t like.
Oh, really? You don’t like cliches? Well, actually it’s the cliche ecology of Westerns I don’t like. I love me some steely-eyed preachers if they show up in the ghost-haunted Philippines or Interzone; I’m OK with vodou-loa-busting gunslingers. I can even bear a posse if it consists of Makassarese pirates and spirit mediums. Shift the basically-Western narrative to Barsoom and I’m delighted. But the Western has worn such a deep groove through its own ingredients that my eyes just glaze over if a new sheriff rides into town and a posse rides out and a steely-eyed preacher spits baccy juice before delivering some tough-guy homily.
But there is a thing the Western brings that I do like. That I would like to see in some games out here in the DnD-circling multiverse. For me, the take-home message of the Western** is:
it’s up to you to make the world better.
And the Western is peculiarly well-pointed to deliver this message: everyone (that matters) in the Western has the same upbringing, which features a hefty dose of scriptural Right and Wrong – so everyone knows what they should be doing, but the defining feature of the Wild West is that the Law is weak so, shorn of the steel embrace of society’s strictures, we get to see whether people will deal with each other in a way that makes everyone’s life better or worse (and it’s usually worse).
The default case with DnD is essentially the same minus the assumed moral background, which is replaced with a hard-wired, zero-sum acquisition = destiny leveling up mechanic, which promises More and Bigger game and in-game status only and always at the expense of other characters in the world.*** So it becomes mighty surprising if anybody ever decides to do anything to improve anyone else’s lot.
This morning Jason Kielbasa said he’s concluded that his new game, Dust (mythical 1930s American great depression game) should be a game about carving out areas of optimism in a world of depression.
I would play that game. It’s the good part of the Western, just slightly divorced from the Western! Even better, if the Depression is a brief hiatus in the building of the great Foucauldian socio-legal machine, it represents a narrow window where you could try to carve out your safe haven in the wilderness, against the BBEGs of hunger and banditry and gubmint and the nascent interfering Feds and the bootleggers and the preventive-men and the cops and the robbers and the cowboys and the indians – you could try to build a better way – and then try to defend it in all the conceivable ways such different utopias would be attacked, by the resettling of the Leviathan on the land through the second half of the 30s.****
I’d even play a paladin in that setting, because as a paladin you’d actually have something to do beside enact violence on competing philosophies. You could do some good.
* obviously this doesn’t apply to High Plains Drifter.
** Messrs Hite and Tynes will tell you that one of the dominant themes of the Western is the Way of the Gun: one does not wish to pick up the tool of death because in doing so one relinquishes one’s civilisation, but somebody has to do it, and forever after they are tainted by it – civilisation must be defended but it cannot encompass those who must be so uncivilised as to do what is needed to defend it. That’s cool too, but it doesn’t help to shift a game that’s already about murderhobos away from the murderhoboing into any other activity.
*** hence the term “monster,” which means “unperson from which you may take without tarnishing your Lawful Good crown,” and hence also the boundary-probing orc babies encounter in Keep on the Borderlands, which seems designed to test how far you’re willing to buy into the implicit moral framework of the game. Carcosa of course makes hay with – and derives much of its power from – this categorizing game, by allowing PCs to be explicitly as monstrous as anything else while, with its 13 colours of men, making the lines between “human” and “humanoid” less certain.
**** look I’m just going to assume you know what I mean by all this Foucauldian/Leviathan stuff, OK? Otherwise I’ll have to post a syllabus on the end of this, and that will spoil the whole joke. The kreplach thing is a Pynchon reference, which I’m not going to explain further here.
Bonus reward for reading this far: this is what Carcosa Wacky Races looks like 200 years after the original race, after a massive influx of funding and materiel from all over the flailsnails multiverse has turned Carcosa into a Las Vegas tourist trap/paradise version of its former self, and its electroradiant hellscape has been declared a UNESCO multiversal treasure. The pilots of these sleek, polished rocketshells like to wax nostalgic about the old Burning Man spirit of the early races. Somehow, they say, the old adventure has gone out of the event.
If you’re going to include four-armed Green Martians in your game, I reckon they ought to benefit from being able to wield 3- and 4-handed weapons. The trouble is, it’s not so easy to imagine them – I mean sure, you could provide a sword with a really, really long handle, but does it make any sort of sense? Would it actually be cool?
Here’s what I’ve got so far – can you do better?
1. four-handed pentadent: a long stick with a bizarre and ridiculously violent-looking forest of blades on the end, wide enough to hold back a whole column of infantry if you have no regard for your own life.
2. battle-sprange of Kapleurk: a weird metal abortion full of spiky bits and handles, clearly infringing on the Klingons’ copyright – combining aspects of halberd, punch dagger and shield, it works rather like a swiss-army knife, which is to say not very well at all.
3. Radium gatling gun. Big and unwieldy, it requires two hands to hold and another to crank the handle. The fourth is needed for flashing big thumbs ups to all your envious Thark mates.
4. whirling voulge-tree: these really only require two hands, but for full effectiveness you have to use two at a time, interlocking the points for a spinning wheel of steel deathspikes. Not recommended for children under 9 feet tall.
5. Wajestic War Wurlitzer: not technically a weapon, this gigantic pipe organ will nevertheless make you the envy of any operatically-minded enemies you encounter. Exerts an irresistible fascination on vampires, and its gas-powered version is capable of burning them right out of the sky.
6. Cannon. Strictly this is also not a 4-handed weapon, but you can laugh and laugh at those puny red men trying to heave it off their crushed thoats after you’ve bowled them down with it.
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.
…well, she’s probably supposed to be at least 200, I think – reds live a long time and she was no teenager when John Carter first met her in 1865.
I could wax poetic here but I won’t. I’m looking forward to the Barsoomian retro-clone that’s supposed to come out this year more than the movie, and in celebration I think I may run a game – maybe even a G+ game – later in the year that bridges Barsoom, Carcosa, Mongo, Jorune, Sulawesi and more than likely the Pliocene, along with whatever Flailsnailers bring. So here‘s the first of the campaign maps (click to enlarge a lot):
…and here’s a monster/city, for your quatrefoil-print men to explore using their Yuggotech Gossamer Gliders (indispensable, fully disposable, completely non-refundable!):
…and here’s a reminder of the alien landscapes all around us:
Because with all this embarrassment of riches of flying islands and helium engines and sinking cities and dessicated Martian salt-pans, I might just spend half the campaign exploring the amphibious possibilities of tidal sand bars and estuaries (great for your Southeast Asian pirate nemeses, natch – or maybe for all those awesome new Slaad that Scrap Princess has just invented!).
Update: thanks to Matt Kish I can add William Timlin’s The Ship That Sailed To Mars to this list. There’s something distinctively wonderful about Edwardian scifi, that I would dearly love to capture, without it turning twee. I have no idea how.
Flailsnailing around the multiverse with Skeree the Bonewoman this past week has taught me a whole lot about Carcosa. Which is a good thing, because neither Geoffrey McKinney nor Jeff Rients (whose chargen document she’s made out of) told me much about the culture, society or worldview of your average Carcosan. So Skeree’s been defining all that on the fly, to give her a basis for her actions, attitudes and potential skills and to help her avoid being just a walking axe, trailing around after the other PCs with no motivation of her own.
So I’ve learned she can track and survive in the wilderness and she’s heard about the cats of Ulthar and all sorts of other unexpected stuff.* And a funny thing’s been happening – as she tries stuff out and gets flashes of insight about, say, how medieval Europe is like/unlike her blasted post-cthulhupocaplyptic home, she makes the worlds she passes through a bit more Carcosan, as DMs pick up the cues. Who knew a 15th century Roman cat sorcerer would speak Debased Yuggothic? Well, now we do, and it’s because Skeree cursed his feline army and they understood her.
Skeree – and Roger Burgess’ Zharillia – have also been telling me about what the point of a Carcosa game is. Because I’m convinced that, like CoC and rather less like DnD, it has one, or at least a strong theme – based around the sorcerers and their predations. And I think I’ve found a historical analogue for it, which can fill in the blanks like Dickensian London fills in the blanks of GURPS Goblins.
Carcosa is the West African hinterland – Niger – during the Atlantic slave trade.
The sorcerers, enemies of all mankind, traders with agents utterly inhuman and malign, are slave dealers. They cause despair and suffering for all. And yet people still bring them sacrificial victims, betraying their neighbours for the promise of a little temporary security, despising all but their own little enclave because that makes it easier to sell everyone else out. The different colours of men of course reflect different tribal identities, and they make a nice, solid basis for distrust, so that cutting the Flash Gordonian knot – convincing them all to work together against their common enemy – becomes a fitting challenge for a good, long campaign.**
So. If we pursue that thought – and if we posit some Cthulhuvian uses for Carcosan victims other than as sacrifice fuel – then Carcosa should be plumbed back into the Mythos network and there ought to be (unpronounceable) colonies somewhere out there where our unfortunates wind up. And there ought to be runaway settlements – maroons, not unlike Carcosa itself, which offer some temporary sanctuary, below the radar of the Inhuman Master System, and maybe even underground railroads, if anyone will help a poor half-monsterfied bone brother out.
And suddenly I’m thinking I really should dust off all those books about the Haitian Revolution – which is, after all, the great granddaddy of most of our horror tropes – possibly the very Matter of Horror as we understand it; the spectre of our white colonialism falling down before a black Spartacus revolt, combined with the spectre of the rational project failing before the Chaotic Hydra. Zombies? Madness in the face of disorder? Cannibalism and were-creatures and voodoo and amok possession and the killing jungle and hearts of darkness? It all starts in Haiti.
So if I do run a Carcosan-themed game it’ll be mashed up with Barsoom – if only because ERB’s yellow and blue men are too good to pass up – and it’ll owe as much to De Laurentian Flash and Bollywood as to Lovecraft and McKinney. But most of all it’ll be a Haitian slavery and revolt game – maybe in glittery drag – and it’ll lead to harder questions about trust and despotism and violence than Flash or John Carter ever have to face.
* EG: Carcosa has no money – all transactions are barter, and there are no fixed exchange rates. Precious metals are unknown – there is jewelry, but it’s valued purely on appearance: nobody cares if it’s real gold or not. You test magic and batteries with your tongue. Trophies taken from your enemies are vital for establishing your credentials – and therefore leveling up…
** even without the complexity hinted at above, the optimistic We Are All One Flashian campaign can keep getting revived as new sorcerers – or even texts or artifacts – can bring the old disease of division right back again.