Roleplayer Library Review: A Princess of Mars and the Barsoom Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

John Carter needs no armor!!!! 

ISBN-13: 9780307430458* 

John Carter of Mars has been said to be seminal (Google says that word means “a work, event, moment, or figure that strongly influencing later developments”. Take that as you will…) series in science fiction, and one of the shining stars of the planetary romance genre and pulp era. I don't think that applause is off base. For me, it stands as a distinct type of adventure, and is one of the best I read.

More importantly than that, they are great novels, full of action, romance, sexism, possibly some racism, violence, nakedness, more violence, honor, righteousness , weak vulnerable females, strong lethal females, and people-that-can-detach-their-heads-from-their-bodies. 

As such, the books are both a great inspiration, and a dangerous inspiration to GMs and players the worlds over. 

This book applies to: 
D&D, Pathfinder and sundry 
2nd ed D&D's Spelljammer setting 
Classic World of Darkness (very mildly)

How it applies to the GM

A Princess of Mars, and the rest of the novels, take place in a richly built, very particular version of Mars, a Mars that has living cultures on it, breathable air, and vegetation. Burroughs wrote the books in the early 1900’s, as in 1912 for A Princess of Mars appearing in All-Story. That is more than 100 years ago, by the way, which accounts for a Mars that has been so strongly disproven by science that it takes writers aback to think of Mars as anything but a dead world that has always been dead.

This setting alone is enough to inspire a GM of many stripes, and Mars: the Roleplaying Game of Planetary Romance seems to be built using this setting. I can’t vouch for its quality, since I have never played it, but at least my readers know that there is a game that uses a setting analogous to Barsoom (which is the native’s demonym for the big red planet)

But even a GM not interested in having stories on Burrough’s Mars can find much fodder within the world. I for one am most enamored with the wide variety of weird creatures and cultures that inhabit the places. Their are races whose psychic powers are so great that they question whether reality is really constructed by their own minds, or that there is something external to experience that makes up existence. That kind of stuff is a wonderful articulation of many themes in Mage the Ascension, and is more or less the philosophy of the Cult of Ecstacy (when they are not so toasted that they can’t think)

Your assignment tonight is to stat out Thurgood Jenkins and Brian as Cult of Ecstacy characters in M:tA.

Other weird aliens that could easily make good D&D, Pathfinder, Exalted, or weird sci-fi/fantasy characters include the Plant-men, who eat with their hands and jump-stab people, Barsoom’s Green-men (think Orcs with extra arms), white apes with extra arms, ten-legged lions as big as that dorky Prius you drive to your lame-o job, and a race of people who are literally just disembodied heads that can crawl on spider-frickin' legs onto these headless human-looking bodies, sit their neck-butts on the headless animal's mouth (located where the neck should be) and brain dominate the body. See Chessmen of Mars for that last one.

But, as I promised earlier, there is some danger in Mars, and by danger I mean danger of alienating players and being offensive. Here it is.

By our current, enlightened standards, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom is unabashedly sexist.

How? On Mars, women are lauded as beautiful, but also disarmed and dis-empowered, most of the time (though Tara rack up quite a few frags in her book). Women do not have positions of power, most of the time (Except for the old haggard black-skinned goddess Is, who was not really a goddess but wielded crap-tonnes of political power). Women are bought and sold, or used as man-prizes, and most of the books have the old-fashioned damsel in distress motivation for the male hero, who often tussles with another male who wants to impale the lady on his Barsoomian meat-rocket.

There are no buts either. I would not incorporate the inequality in my game, with or without female players, unless we specifically wanted to explore the possibilities of a sexist world’s effects on female characters (much like how might keep the rampant sexism of any historical game like Dark Ages: Vampire or Ars Magica).

NOTE: Everyone is also naked on Barsoom. That means the women run around in less that chain-mail bikinis, which smacks much of hyper-sexualization. But like I said: EVERYONE is naked on Barsoom, include the male warriors flopping around in leather banana hammocks, getting all sweaty as they grope each other in the heat of passion). That might imply that everyone is hyper-sexualized, I take it. Take that as you will.

The incomparable Dejah Thoris. "Indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure." Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars. Dejah Thoris by MARCIOABREU7 on deviantart.com

John Carter of Mars, rocking a Calvin Klein thong!
John Carter by kevinwada on deviantart.com

It's not too hard to excise the sexism from the world though, in my opinion, and still have interesting parts to appropriate. The ten legged lion thingys (Banths, by the way), don’t care whether they eat lady flesh or dude flesh.

The rest of Barsoomian society is very interesting. On Barsoom, no one steals! I bust a gut every time I hear that in the text! Barsoomians also generally don’t lie (which I think some lying, or at least subterfuge happens in the stories). Having PCs meet people who not only claim this but actually do not steal or lie might be quite an interesting experience.

Also, the technology used in Barsoom is great meat for both World of Darkness (representing for my ladies in the Sons of Ether) and in Exalted, where, when I imagine floating airships, honorable duels, funky monsters, and strange cultures, it all seems to fit nicely into the anime-inspired setting. Stats for Barsoomian airships would be interesting too, since they don’t run off of lift like an airplane, but more by levitating off the ground and moving laterally via propellers. I bet submarine rules would be pretty good for representing combat with them.

Dem battleships..... They see me flying, they hating...

How it applies to the PC

Here is where A Princess of Mars truly shines, in my opinion. Next time I have a new player with a paladin, I will suggest that they read at least A Princess of Mars. And its not for the “I’ll save you! And so much more…” aspect.

I have yet to encounter a character as Lawful Good as John Carter. Yes, he is the tool used by the damsel-in-distress plot, but his behavior is what I picture when I think of a Paladin. He rarely deceives, even when it would greatly benefit him, generally fights for peace, but also national defense and for his family, doesn’t really understand fear, hesitation, or sloth, and loves battle. These traits can be studied and applied to any paladin, male, female, gay, straight, human, non-human and it would make the basis for an interesting paladin.

This is not to say that John Carter is the ideal paladin, or the only one. I am sure that Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin in the Paksearnion series is nothing like this, but is just as valid inspiration. But for a new player who doesn’t really know where to start as far as playing a honorable-to-a-fault character, John Carter might be the ticket.  

So long as you don’t say “We’re I a woman, I would weep.” (Gods of Mars)

Also, I can't help but mention that there is very little armor on Barsoom, so characters that use more of a Dexterity/Agility based defensive style can find representation in these books. In other words, when your GM poo-poos your swashbuckler, you can always remember that your characters simply prefers not to be hit by weapons.

The Librivox version

I have listened to A Princess of Mars on Librivox (the most awesome site on the internet! Better than Porntube and Lolcats.com combined! And way less sticky!). The version I heard was read solely by the incomparable Mark D. Nelson! (Not the same as the awesome RPG artist Mark A. Nelson). Mark has the perfect, nonpareil voice for John Carter: that familiar, 1950’s PSA or newscaster kind of voice. His female accent is a little male, but its so evocative that I can’t really say anything bad about it. Since John Carter’s nephew is narrating most of the stories, the voice fits more than any voice should.

I hope you find A Princess of Mars and the other novels inspiring. Next is Pride and Prejudice.

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