Barsoom Or Bust

I don’t like movies.  In a general sense.  I just don’t like movies.  I’d much rather read a book or watch TV.  I’m not all that into special/visual effects.  Even better movies are typically too short and unsatisfying.

So, why did I see John Carter when I hadn’t been in a movie theater in years?

Eventually, I will get to how all of this relates to gaming, in the meantime …

I particularly think it’s a bad idea to see a movie when you are familiar with the source material, especially if that source material is a book (including comic books).  I’ve read the I Am Legend novella.  I didn’t like it.  I wouldn’t recommend it, though I’m not a fan of true horror, so maybe it’s more appealing to people who like horror.  But, it had a very specific point to it – the ending.  A point utterly failed by Will Smith’s movie.  Use the same names and a similar situation … and tell a different story – that’s what movie adaptions typically do.

The adaption might be far better, but I don’t recall any instance when knowing about the original going into the movie made the movie seem so, rather it just struck me as different.  There are James Bond novels I’ve read after the movies, and I enjoyed the movies more, hardly remembering the particulars of the books.  Can I think of an instance where I was happy to read a novel after being introduced to a story through a movie?  Not off the top of my head.

So, it may just be that I identify a story as something unique.  One can see this in comic books as well, where I rarely had interest in reimaginings of characters I knew, even though comic books do that all of the time.  Note also, this is why I don’t watch superhero movies, even ones that get good reviews, like Iron Man, though I never cared that much about Iron Man, so maybe I could break down and watch that some day.

Obviously, I’ve read the John Carter stories.  I think of them as an eleven book series, but originally, they were magazine stories as most science fiction, fantasy, and/or adventures stories from back in the day seem to have been.  I’ve read them multiple times.  I like them.  In fact, given how much other series I’ve read deteriorated to the point where they are embarrassingly bad (Laurell K. Hamilton’s stuff, Wheel of Time, Elric stories), my respect for series that didn’t fall apart had been growing.  I suppose it helps to just stop at some point and no longer continue a series just for monetary reasons.  That book 11 suddenly ends without a resolution to JC’s predicament is unfortunate.

While I never expected to enjoy the John Carter movie because of my experiences with not enjoying movies based on books I’ve previously read, I did feel compelled to check it out because it felt important.  I was amazed that someone had finally tried making a movie after only a hundred years.

The box office has been far worse than the reviews.  The reviews have been mediocre.  The reviewers have pointed out the numerous difficulties of selling an audience on the property, given how much later properties have drawn upon the (more) original and have already claimed the minds of those unfamiliar with the older stories.

Though, reviewers often give passes to movies they shouldn’t have, such as Star Wars Epidodes 1, 2, and 3, which I find to be abominations.  Maybe, if they weren’t Star Wars movies, they would be adequate movies, appealing to those who care about special effects.  But, they are just offensive in how boring they are, how unappealing the characters are, and how obsessed they seem with special effects over an enjoyable story.

The twin contexts of, one, having the books to compare to and, two, not generally liking the medium of movies left me quite unimpressed with John Carter.  Much like Natalie Portman was the only thing of interest to me in the more recently made Star Wars movies, Lynn Collins was the primary thing that held my interest, calling to mind someone I used to work with.  And, for those who have read of Dejah Thoris, perhaps read the comic book stories I’ve never read, it can be amusing to contrast the damsel in distress of the novels with the warrior/scientist of the movie.

Conan, Spellsinger, Gor.  Versus.  Thomas Covenant, Wheel of Time, any Eternal Champion.  I don’t expect people to have read the same series I have – I certainly haven’t read many series others have and don’t remember all that well some series I have read, such as Lord of the Rings.  So, the difference between the first group and the second group needs some explanation.  One could say the second group is either high fantasy or prone to high fantasy, but that isn’t the point.  The point is that the first group has worlds that make for good places to set a role-playing game where the latter group has worlds where that’s a problem.

What problem?  The problem that the world is far too dependent upon a singular character or small group of specific characters.  Conan may be the most badass dude in his world, but he isn’t necessary to it.  Whereas, no Eternal Champion story functions without an Eternal Champion or three.  It’s unfortunate in that Thomas Covenant’s fantasy world and Wheel of Time’s world are both well suited to having RPG characters – those characters just wouldn’t be the characters who are of prime importance (outside of playing an established character).  It’s certainly possible to play some bit character in the grand scheme of things; I just find it offputting to know that no matter what my character will ever do, it won’t be relevant in the way that the book characters are relevant.

John Carter may be the Jesus of his world, but he’s not necessary, unless you give a crap about every race uniting, which I just see as a side plot to the constant attempts to recover kidnapped women.  So, Barsoom fits well into the group of worlds where the characters can carve out their own destiny.  JC and Conan are much alike in how they both rise to a level of great prominence but are easily replaced.  When I reread the whole series, I’ll know, but my recollection is that about five of the eleven books in the John Carter series aren’t about John Carter at all.

While reasons have been given for why a movie took a hundred years to make, needing the special effects technology to catch up mostly, it has been amazing that so little had been done with a RPG.  I was in a local game store a few months ago and stunned by how a RPG completely ripped off the Mars books.  Why not just get the license for the real thing?  Probably because estates are weird and reluctant to do such, even if it’s unlikely to be screwed up.

I don’t hold out much hope that a new official RPG will be made.  There was the 1978 miniatures game John Carter, Warlord of Mars and there is the newer game, whose name escapes me and which I cannot find with an online search, that is a complete ripoff.  I’ll just have to check the store again.

Still, you don’t need an official RPG to set a game in a world.  I believe JC was written up as a 30th level fighter in AD&D terms.  Can scale however you want, but given unaging warriors who fight for the thrill of fighting to the death their entire lives, a mediocre swordsman on Barsoom could be 10th level, with 20th level fighters being rather commonplace.

I hadn’t thought much of what system would work well.  I don’t find that level systems model source material all that well, unless you freely start characters at mid/high levels or have them jump in level rather easily.  A percentile system could possibly capture the difference between the 90%/90% attack/parry “common fighting man” and the 99%/99% or 180%/180% or whatever elite fighting man of Mars.  I have a hard time envisioning L5R working, what with there being far too much variance in results and far too many rank 8, 9, 10 Swords skill characters.  I wonder if Savage Worlds might scale correctly with numerous d12+1 vs. d12+3 fights, though, again, variance.

The whole point of sword fights on Barsoom is that you are either clearly better and cut down a dozen warriors easily or face a highly skilled swordsman and have to open a dozen minor wounds before polishing someone off with a desperate/rage-induced/lucky final strike.  Actually, 3e L5R dueling rules might capture the nature of important one on one fights.

Speaking of one on one fights, another huge problem that RPGs have modeling.  Interestingly, Conan has a supplement that has rules for an epic duel.  But, in general, the mechanics just don’t lend themselves to duels.  I suppose I could play with it a bit to see if normal L5R can model general combat where my Agility 7 Earthling with Swords 10 just rips apart a dozen Agility 4, Swords 5 nobodies, while the Iaijutsu rules get used for one on one fights.  Though, a huge problem with one on one fights has nothing to do with mechanics and everything to do with the difference between a single protagonist in a book and a party in a RPG.

Well, okay, that and the rather important bit that book characters don’t die (unless they can be resurrected), that they are irreplaceable to the story where RPG characters are rather less interesting when they must win fights for the story to make any sense.

Given the nature of Barsoom, one could try to find players into modeling duels, one could abstract action to some degree to avoid having a single player fighting a long, drawn out duel while others aren’t involved, or one could just choose to find a more party friendly world.

Given that few people I know have read the books and, therefore, have no particular allegiance to Barsoom, probably just not bother coming up with something, just as I don’t bother with most of my RPG ideas.

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7 Responses to Barsoom Or Bust

  1. CCP personnel are developing a ‘Cavaliers of Mars’ RPG, so your Barsooom may happen eventually…

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, hard to be motivated to spend that type of cash for the drivel that’s been put out in recent years. (see also: get off my lawn)

    http://forums.white-wolf.com/default.aspx?g=posts&t=59730

    http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/100590/Cavaliers-of-Mars-Quickstart?cPath=8329

    http://blog.fantasyheartbreaker.com/2012/03/04/the-apprentices-tale/

  2. iclee says:

    I’ve taken a look at the quickstart. I’m still failing to understand why someone can’t just get the license and create a RPG for the actual world. But, then, that’s what I think all of the time, and I’ve talked to industry people enough to know that license holders may not want someone to have the license or may way overvalue it.

    It just sounds ridiculous to use someone’s pastiche RPG when the source material is not in any way an issue, being readily available. All that’s needed is some coherent system to model the genre.

    Then, the system is one of those descriptor systems that I’ve grown disinterested in.

  3. Brad says:

    Read Mars. Pellucidar & Hollow Earth series when in HS. Loved them. Then. Don’t think I’d be all that excited running one of theses as an RPG. Tho I would play a game.

  4. iclee says:

    It occurs to me, and maybe the miniatures game does something like this, that the way to play a Barsoom game is to play a faction – city, green man tribe, whatever. That would solve the problem of losing characters, though it also loses the personal nature of the books.

    Still on the subject of the problem of characters dying, I guess it’s always possible that someone has more than one true love, so having a character die pursuing some hottie isn’t the end of the world as his buddy could just take his place.

    And, related to my other post, rewards and punishments can be removed from the realm of survival. Survival can be guaranteed but at some major cost in terms of storyline success.

  5. Frederick says:

    I would like to point out one thing : in L5R, 2 is surhuman (and regular for a samurai). The regular people have 1. So, putting 5 to mook and 7 to the hero seem ridiculously heavy handed for me. And quickly cause trouble since you encounter the damned 10-cap to dice rule.

    If you don’t try to put your average heroe equal to the surhuman monster that are some L5R NPC (the original council of five in Way of the phoenix, for example), it will work way better :)

    • iclee says:

      It all depends upon how you want to model things. There’s a rather well known article about Aragorn being a 5th level character (pretty easy to search with Aragorn + 5th level). I don’t particularly find the arguments persuasive, but I find the gist of the argument being that you can way overscale expectations to be useful.

      The standard in L5R is actually more like trait 3+ for a character of importance. Sure, a character of a bunch of 5+’s is ridiculous in the game. Jumps from 2 to 3 and 3 to 4 are massive. I did run an adventure recently where someone had four 7’s, including Void, statted out by the campaign staff, but he is one of the most notable characters in Rokugani history.

      Mars isn’t Rokugan, though. Mars is full of people who have been fighting constantly for their lives for centuries. It cheapens things to say that they are only decent swordsmen rather than absurd badasses. And, that’s why I don’t buy into the Aragorn is 5th level philosophy – it *does* take away the impressiveness of characters when you know that there is a vast amount of room above them. Without magic, by the way, 20th level characters aren’t demigods, Conan d20 does a good job showing that.

      Now, sure, can scale back from the numbers I mentioned. I went immediately to the top of the scale to make a point about how different systems model things differently. I had a character with War Fans 10 … at rank 1! I played an adventure next to someone with Kenjutsu 10. Agility 4 may be quite badass in L5R, but it’s also not that rare for a rank 3 bushi or Fire shugenja. The question is more how common rank 3 characters are in the world, given that rank 3+ is broken mechanically in L5R. I would say uncommon for rank 3, rare for rank 4, very rare for rank 5, and so forth. Someone has to be in the advanced schools that often wouldn’t be taken until rank 6. Note that in one HoR2 mod, a rank 14 character is statted out. That’s just silly.

      I just don’t have a problem with John Carter being a 30th level fighter, any more than I have a problem with having Agility/other physical traits 6 or 7 or higher since he is superhuman relative to Barsoomians. Can play with the numbers quite a bit, but I think L5R just ends up with a problematic scale for representing the great swordsmen of Mars and Earthlings’ superhuman physical stats.

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