Edgar Rice Burroughs
John Carter, Warlord of Mars
Painting Guide, Fictional Ethnic Descriptions, Man-To-Man Action Rules
Copyright 1978, Heritage Models
Contributed to the Museum by Dr. Louis LaMancusa
John Carter, Warlord of Mars, was published by Heritage Models, a miniature figures company. It is not surprising that the rules expected players to use miniaturesthe combat rules would be difficult to run without them. But John Carter was an actual role playing game, in contrast to TSR's Warriors of Mars rules (click here for our review), which had the role playing rules tacked on as an afterthought. Heritage did things very differently from TSR, starting with the obvious: they got permission from the Burroughs estate to use the setting. TSR didn't, and their rules were quickly pulled from publication.
The John Carter rules began with thirty pages of ethnographic information. There were extensive descriptions of each of the major races on Barsoom (Red men, First Born, Therns, Yellow Men, Green Men), descriptions of the major creatures one might encounter, and some notes on the cities, landscapes, and ecology of Barsoom. As befitted a set of miniatures rules, there were also painting guides for each of the people, creatures, weapons, and flyers one might encounter.
The rules were basic and simple. Character generation was simple, with virtually all personal characteristics related to fighting ability. Players rolled 3d6 for Swordsmanship. The rules implied two rolls, one for attack and one for defense, but the most of the rule book referred to Swordsmanship as a single skill. Players then rolled 2d6 for the remaining characteristics: Finesse, Sixth Sense (sometimes referred to as Luck), Accuracy, Constitution, Morale, and Quickness. Strength, Finesse, and Luck all modified Swordsmanship skills to varying degrees. Accuracy was for missile attacks, and Constitution was the number of wound points a character possessed.
Actually, these rules were not to be used to generate player characters, something readers didn't discover until twelve pages later, after the combat rules. These basic rules were for generating run-of-the-mill individuals. Player characters were expected to be Princes, and needed higher scores: roll 5d6 for Morale, 4d6 for Swordsmanship and Finesse, 3d6 for everything else except for accuracy, which remained at 2d6. In addition, Princes had a new Noble Heart characteristic (5d6).
Where it was common in other RPGs for player characters to generate their starting wealth to buy equipment, John Carter did things differently. Characters rolled for wealth, but for decoration: jewels, precious metal, and medals. As better warriors would be expected to have more swag, these were generated by a table based on the character's Swordsmanship skill and a 2d6 roll. Princes also needed to have their starting military rank generated, likewise from a table based on the character's Swordsmanship skill and a 2d6 roll.
The combat system was the core of the game, and would probably have been hard to use without miniatures on the table. The game used a moderately complex system, where players would "select cards" for their action: presumably, they had a stack of index cards on which they'd write a set of possible orders, and they would select the card for their action that turn. Players first had to choose how fast they were moving (running, trotting, walking, etc.), and this would determine their movement points for the turn.
Once character movement points were determined, the game used an impulse movement system, meaning that the turn was broken down into six phases, and whether a character could take an action in a particular phase depended on that character's movement points. (For example, a walking character had three movement points, letting him act on phase one, three, and five.) Characters could attack if there was an adjacent enemy figure in their frontal area at any point during the turn.
Players would select a combat card with their choice of strategy on it. Characters could normally attack and defend in the same turn (using the separate attack and defense swordsmanship values), or they could shift one to six points from one score to another for a more spirited attack or defense (for example, subtracting four points from attack to boost defense by four). There was also a "web of steel" option to permit an all-out defense without an attack. Players rolled 2d6 and read the result off the combat result table, based on the difference between their attack value and the defender's defense value. The result was an X (miss), or a positive or negative number. If they hit, players rolled 2d10 on the wound table, using the numeric result of the first combat result table to modify the wound die roll. The wound table simultaneously handled hit location, wound severity, and the actual number of hit points lost.
Wounds were noted in terms of the number of points of damage caused, the seriousness of the wound (light, moderate, serious, or fatal), and which part of the body was struck. Sufficient damage to a body area would impair the character's ability to function, and possibly even kill him. Characters could also die from total hit point damage accumulated: there was a "swoon table," where players rolled against the total percent of hit points lost. A failure could mean a stun, a swoon, or death from shock.
Missile combat used the same system, but the attack column used on the combat results table was based on the range the weapon was fired from, rather than an ability score. There were also rules for mounted combat, which uses the mount's speed, but the rider's combat value. Green Men rode the ill-tempered Wild Bull Thoat, and had to roll on a table to see if they were thrown by their mount, and if the mount would attack them.
Additional rules included tripping (check each time a character changed direction, backed up, climbed, or sidestepped), and modifications to attack and defense values (wounds, defending a Princess, facing of the defender, etc.). The rules suggested a simplified combat system (presented after the full combat system) eliminating many of these modifications and details.
True to the flavor of the books, in the John Carter game, one did not adventure for wealth or glory, but for love. Winning the hand of a Princess was the primary goal. Where most games had player characters vying for experience points, John Carter had characters striving for Princess points. Princess Points were determined by the character's Swordsmanship skill, jewels, precious metals, and medals (determined at character generation for Princes) and the character's Morale and Noble Heart characteristics. Additional points were supposed to have been added by the character's military rank, but these numbers were left off of the table.
Princess points could be earned in adventuring. These ranged from 150 points for dueling to directly protect a Princess, down to 25 points for protecting any non-royal female. Most points were earned by dueling, protecting, and rescuing. Failed attempts subtracted Princess points.
The procedure for gaining a Princess's hand was largely determined by die rolling on tables, with no opportunity to role play. The heroes of Barsoom apparently were victims of their hormones when meeting an attractive member of the opposite sex, acting like clumsy high school boys...or maybe it was just an opportunity for the author to indulge in cheap jokes about Barsoomian romance.
To win a Princess's affections, the player totaled up his Princess points, as noted above. Two random rolls modified this total: one was the Princess's feelings about the character's looks (roll 2d6; this was done for each new Princess met, but only once for each Princess), and then the player could make 1 - 3 rolls on a random reaction table to see how their character acted in front of the Princess. Players were required to roll at least once. One example: "01 - 03: Stare unabashed at Princess entire evening, occasionally drool. -50 points." A lucky roll of 100 gained the player 300 points; an unlucky roll of 58-65 had the character make a total fool of himself and lose 500 points.
After all of these modifications, characters lined up in order of their Princess points. A single d6 roll was made on the Princess Response table. Characters needed at least 251 Princess Points to have a 1/6 chance of winning her hand; the highest column on the table required more than 1200 points, and here there's a 2/3 chance of success. The first character to succeed gets to be the Princess's love; all others need to find a new love interest. The rules, of course, tell us that as soon as a character has succeeded at romance, a villain will kidnap the Princess, generating a new adventure.
There were character advancement rules. Characters earned Adventure points through combat with enemies and beasts. These points could be used to be boost personal characteristics and occasionally earn a new medal.
The brief remainder of the rules included simple encounter tables, the characteristics for John Carter himself, some rules for fighting with (and on) flyers, and two character sheet templates.
This was an unusual game. The purple prose and jokes made for amusing reading, but the author clearly wanted a game to permit adventuring on Barsoom, not to make fun of it. The rules were badly organized and full of typos, but simple enough that most of the problems could easily be surmounted.
The romantic goal of the game, while entirely appropriate to the setting, was unusual, only matched by GDW's En Garde game (click here for a review). With the exception of combat and romance, the rules were simple to nonexistent, yet there was enough information here for a decent referee to run a good game. Like the books, however, continued interest would depend entirely on the skill of the referee and players to keep the game fresh.
In some ways, these rules would have been well complimented by TSR's Warriors of Mars rules. While there was some considerable overlap, and John Carter was a far superior role playing game, Warriors of Mars could fill some of John Carter's gaps: Warriors of Mars had maps of Barsoom (no matter how crude), and had rules for army engagements that John Carter lacked.
While these rules offer little beyond historical interest today, we cannot help but think they might make a good evening's entertainment. Like En Garde, John Carter appears to play as a series of combats, many of them duels, culminating in a set of die rolls on a table for success in romance. Metagaming's The Fantasy Trip (click here for a review) had a fast, fun, and workable man-to-man combat system; using this as John Carter's combat system might lead to a fun short campaign.
May 21, 2004