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Architects of Mars

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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 psychotheatre.

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.

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  1. nancylebovitz
    September 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for offering a very interesting angle for analysis. Now I’m wondering what the Harry Potter books are about in that sense. They definitely work better when they’re set indoors, but that’s probably the wrong angle. They might be about authorial invention vs. inevitability.

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