Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Retrospective: Warriors of Mars

It's oft been noted that the LBBs contain more references to the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs than to any other fantasy tales and with good reason. Though largely unknown today -- to the point where the ignorant have suggested that the movie John Carter is ripping off the innumerable films inspired by Burroughs -- the Barsoom novels were hugely influential for decades. They are, in many respects, the wellspring from which contemporary fantasy and science fiction flow, even if the debt both genres owe to these seminal books is often unacknowledged.

Gary Gygax, though, was not shy in acknowledging the debt he owed to Burroughs. He mentioned his name in both OD&D and in Appendix N of his AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and the Greyhawk campaign included at least one expedition to the red sands of Barsoom. Given this, it should probably come as no surprise that, in the same year that OD&D appeared, TSR released a 56-page miniatures wargame entitled Warriors of Mars. Written by Gygax and Brian Blume, this small book provides rules for adjudicating battles, both on the land and in the air, between the various antagonistic cultures of Mars, as envisioned by Burroughs.

If you've never heard of Warriors of Mars, let alone seen a copy, there's a good reason for that. There was, so far as I know, only one print run of the book before the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate contacted TSR about possible infringement of their rights. Rather than risk legal action, the book was never reprinted, making it today one of the rarest -- and most expensive -- TSR products. I've tried in vain to obtain a copy for myself at a reasonable (i.e. not multi-hundred dollar) price for several years now but to no avail. Fortunately, I have known several people who own copies that they've been willing to lend me, so I've at least had the chance to read the book.

Warriors of Mars is not explicitly a roleplaying game; it's a miniatures wargame. However, it wouldn't be difficult to use it as the basis for an RPG, since there are rules for "personalities," like John Carter or Tars Tarkas. Likewise, the rules cover several scales, including 1:1, along with things like experience points, levels, and advice on how to design "personal adventures." Like the Greg Bell artwork used to illustrate it, Warriors of Mars makes for a very crude RPG -- far cruder than even OD&D -- but one could do it, especially if one is prepared to wing it when it came to anything other than combat. Where Warriors of Mars does excel, though, is as an introduction to Barsoom and its various characters, cultures, life forms, and locations. It's no substitute for the novels, of course, but Gygax and Blume cover enough foundational material to get one started if one has no previous knowledge of the works of Burroughs.

Barsoom remains, in my opinion, a great source of inspiration for fantasy roleplaying games. The Red Planet of my Dwimmermount campaign, Areon, owes a lot to Burroughs's conception of Mars (just as my Kythirea, owes a lot to his Amtor). It's my hope that, whatever the virtues or flaws of the Disney movie (I have still yet to see it), it will at least pique some interest in the source material on which it draws. Barsoom is every bit as much the birthplace of D&D -- and the hobby -- as the Hyborian Age or Middle-earth and it deserves to be better known.

20 comments:

  1. I can recall buying Best of The Dragon and reading Jim Ward's article "Deserted Cities of Mars". At the time I thought, "What does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?" because I didn't know anything about John Carter at the time.

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  2. About five years ago at a convention flea market, I spotted a pristine copy of this in a heap of old RPG materials. By pristine, I mean like it just rolled off the press. It had gone into some store's inventory and never been sold. It still had the store's price sticker on it -- $6.95. I asked the dealer how much he wanted for it, and he replied "what's it say on the cover?" I said "$6.95," and he said "then $6.95 it is." And I said "sold!" That's apropos of nothing, really, other than being something I brag about at every opportunity. It leaves a lot to be desired as a game, but it's a wonderful piece of TSR history.

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  3. "...whatever the virtues or flaws of the Disney movie (I have still yet to see it)..."

    You may have to hurry to see it in a theater. It's bombing badly at the box office, and I don't think it's run will last much longer.

    And speaking of Barsoom, I've always wanted a Jetan set.

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  4. I'm curious about the films that may have ripped off/based themselves ERB's Mars tales. I'm hearing that a lot lately, but can't think of any real examples off hand. I can only really think of Star Wars, but I see way more Dune in those than ERB. Or is the "stranger to these lands goes native" type of things, like Avatar (itself obviously heavily inspired by a certain Kevin Cosnter film, of all things) that are similar to it?

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    1. There's a LOT of ERB in Star Wars. "Jedi," "Sith," "bantha," and "padawan" are all basically loan-words from Barsoomian. While plot and incident are less obvious in the original trilogy, the prequels (especially "Attack of the Clones") are rife with stolen scenes. _Dune_ and "Flash Gordon" are themselves derived from Barsoom, so all the bits Lucas stole from those are essentially second-hand ERB.

      And James Cameron explicitly acknowledged his debt to ERB in "Avatar" interviews.

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    2. Oh, I forgot about animals and names for things in Star Wars. Yeah, that I dig. I'd like to hear more Attack of the Clones examples, because I for sure don't want to watch it again to catch the "homages."

      I don't doubt Herbert read some Barsoom tales and there might be some inpiration, but outside of a desert planet and some word similarities (both authors maybe taking a lot of cues from Middle Eastern stuff), they seem pretty far removed from each other in tone, style, action, and basic philosophy. Herbert himself studied desert ecology before writing the books, and it's the mainn reason his books center on a desert planet. But sure, there could be a little inpiration from JCOM.

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  5. BTW, "Deserted Cities of Mars" first appeared in The Strategist Review #3 which you can read a pdf of here:

    http://dnd.ezael.net/~snorri/Strategic_review_3

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  6. John Carter was thoroughly enjoyable and captured the pulpy essence of the novels. Some changes were made, yes but they worked fairly well. I think I'll see it one more time before it is ushered off the stage.

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  7. I was reading about this product recently on the OD&D Discussion forum. The closest a lot of people can get to this are home-brew adaptations like the ones on the Grey Elf resources page - inspiring stuff that can be adapted to most of the older flavours of D&D/clones. You're a lucky man to have read it!

    I keep meaning to read Princess of Mars - I don't think most people are able to separate the comic strip from the original books when talking about the John Carter film - there's a lot of confusion out there!

    Swords 'n' aliens is an awesome combination. One wonders what Star Wars would have been like if Lucas had chosen katanas or foils over lightsabers.

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  8. One tournament dungeon I created was based on the dying Mars. Not just that of ERB, but also all the other Martian writers (including that of Michael Moorcock!) as well.

    The party were members of the Royal Guard who discover that a covert operations team is in the process of kidnapping the Princess of their city (having slaughtered her personal on-duty guard). Responding to the scene, the hodge-podge collection of essentially off-duty characters manage to capture one of the raiders' flyers, while the other one (with the Princess) is making a getaway. If they don't pursue now, the Princess is lost...

    Was interesting for a couple of reasons, including the reskinning of the magic user and cleric classes, an experiment and in letting fighters have limited wands (pistol) and staves (rifle). Wrote up a lot more than I needed to, and always considered going back to it one day. The players had fun, even the group that lost because they decided to organise a proper expedition before setting out on the pursuit (despite the strong encouragement of the gamemaster hosting that group).

    Even now the red deserts and canals are calling me back, even more strongly since John Carter.

    [I liked the film, but apparently people that have never encountered the source material don't, believing it to be too cliche and stereotyped. But I suppose that's what you get for being both a century old and canonical.]

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  9. Aren't LBB's the "little black books" of GDW re: Traveller?

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    1. In a Traveller context, yes. In a D&D context, "LBBs" stands for "little brown books."

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    2. I have to admit this confused me at first, until I remembered the early Brown books of D&D fame.

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  10. At least the movie meant that the first two books of the series were reprinted in Finnish.

    I read the books over 25 years ago, but I don't they have been reprinted since. They're not very good, and I can of course get the originals from Project Gutenberg, but I still like them as books (with nice covers).

    James, I also sent you an email regarding a different matter, have you seen that or did it get lost somewhere? It was about Stalker.

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  11. The John Carter books were the first sci-fi/fantasy books I ever read so they hold a special place for my.

    However, as a game resource, you simply cannot beat the SPI Warlord of Mars boardgame. It's gazetteer lists ever single character and monster in every book. Plus a map of the world with travel times between the cities for walking, riding and flying. Plus random encounter charts for every terrain type on the planet. As someone who's read all the books multiple times, I have yet to spot something that's missing or misrepresented. Simply outstanding. While game itself has great ideas, it is pretty much unplayable (it was SPI afterall).

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  12. Ah, yes, Barsoom. A couple of years ago, when I was tight on money, but in search of reading material, I grabbed the whole set off of Project Gutenberg. Hadn't read them since I was in Middle School.

    There are a couple of other gaming options for Barsoom that are a little more modern than this book or the SPI wargame.

    Back during the height of WotC support for d20 Modern (however brief that was), two articles of Polyhedron (when it was still being published as a section of Dungeon) written by Lizard (yes that's how he/she is credited) called Iron Lords of Jupiter were published.

    Adamant Entertainment also has released for two different systems, MARS...which is basically the John Carter RPG with the serial numbers filed off. One version was Modern SRD compatible (and can still be found via Lulu/Drive Thru RPG), and for Savage Worlds. I've run the d20 Modern version and picked up the Savage Worlds version. The Savage Worlds version is still being supported, in fact, Adamant just released a couple of new adventures for it last week in celebration of the movie release.

    I've not run the Savage Worlds version, but the d20 Modern version of MARS is solid, and would run all the John Carter/Barsoom games you'd ever want pretty easily. I'd also suggest it wouldn't take much to convert Barsoom over to your D&D rules system of choice, be it old school, Pathfinder, or D&D 4E, for that matter.

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  13. To add, MARS was written by the same "Lizard" who wrote the Polyhedron articles back in the day.

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  14. Having read Burroughs in the 60's, I would certainly have bought this in the 70's had I known it existed! I have every other little book from Chainmail up!

    And do go see John Carter. Non-Burroughs fans can enjoy it, and fans will enjoy seeing these characters finally make it to the big screen in a reasonable adaptation.

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  15. FWIW, Warriors of Mars is available for download from the Internet Archive

    http://archive.org/details/WarriorsOfMarsTheWarfareOfBarsoomInMiniature1974

    Enjoy!

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