First off, Chapter IV features what can only be described today as a dungeon environment:
“Labyrinthine passages connect these caves with the luxurious palaces of the Holy Therns, and through them pass upon their many duties the lesser therns, and hordes of slaves, and prisoners, and fierce beasts; the grim inhabitants of this sunless world.
“There be within this vast network of winding passages and countless chambers men, women, and beasts who, born within its dim and gruesome underworld, have never seen the light of day—nor ever shall.
“They are kept to do the bidding of the race of therns; to furnish at once their sport and their sustenance.
Burroughs rapidly introduces an adventure premise, and the three “player character” types head off to do the impossible. For fans of the more wargamey approach of some strands of seventies D&D, the introduction of ten NPC’s to provide some extra muscle is heart-warming:
There were in all ten red Martians, men and women, and when we had briefly explained our plan they decided to join forces with us, though it was evident that it was with some considerable misgivings that they thus tempted fate by opposing an ancient superstition, even though each knew through cruel experience the fallacy of its entire fabric.
Thuvia, the girl whom I had first freed, soon had the others at liberty. Tars Tarkas and I stripped the bodies of the two therns of their weapons, which included swords, daggers, and two revolvers of the curious and deadly type manufactured by the red Martians.
We distributed the weapons as far as they would go among our followers, giving the firearms to two of the women; Thuvia being one so armed.
Now… if this were a movie or the typical role-playing game being played at the convention table next to mine, I think I know how this is “supposed” to go. The players now march through a sequence of encounters and then– like Aliens maybe– the NPC “hireling” types gradually drop off one by one. Then there’s some kind of climatic “boss” type encounter like in Wolfenstein 3D. The players manage to win with their last hit-point. The adventure scenario is over and the players celebrate the achievement of their objective. Nice, neat, and simple, right?
That’s not how Edgar Rice Burroughs runs things.
Check it out. The player characters make camp to rest before beginning the adventure scenario. And then this happens:
I was awakened with a start by cries of alarm, and scarce were my eyes opened, nor had I yet sufficiently collected my wits to quite realize where I was, when a fusillade of shots rang out, reverberating through the subterranean corridors in a series of deafening echoes.
In an instant I was upon my feet. A dozen lesser therns confronted us from a large doorway at the opposite end of the storeroom from which we had entered. About me lay the bodies of my companions, with the exception of Thuvia and Tars Tarkas, who, like myself, had been asleep upon the floor and thus escaped the first raking fire.
Man, what happened to my adventure plot?! The guy went to all that effort to set it up this scheme where– like in the classic module G1 Steading of the Hill Giant— the player characters would liberate some NPC’s and then go do awesome things with them. Instead, they are wiped out in a random encounter for no apparent reason!
Anyone familiar with the idea of Chekhov’s Gun should be flummoxed, right? This plot element was established only to be erased at the beginning of the very next chapter! I can’t imagine Leigh Brackett writing it like this. Burroughs… he’s crazy, y’all! Why would he do that…? Well… maybe he’s making this up as he goes. Maybe he realized where things were going and had second thoughts. Or maybe he thought of something more awesome and decided to just roll with it. What’s more awesome than leading a rag tag group of red martians on a hopeless quest? Keep reading!
She commenced calling in a low singsong voice that was half purr. She continued this as we wound our tedious way through the maze of subterranean passages and chambers.
Presently soft, padded feet sounded close behind us, and as I turned I saw a pair of great, green eyes shining in the dark shadows at our rear. From a diverging tunnel a sinuous, tawny form crept stealthily toward us.
Low growls and angry snarls assailed our ears on every side as we hastened on and one by one the ferocious creatures answered the call of their mistress.
She spoke a word to each as it joined us. Like well-schooled terriers, they paced the corridors with us, but I could not help but note the lathering jowls, nor the hungry expressions with which they eyed Tars Tarkas and myself.
Soon we were entirely surrounded by some fifty of the brutes. Two walked close on either side of Thuvia, as guards might walk. The sleek sides of others now and then touched my own naked limbs. It was a strange experience; the almost noiseless passage of naked human feet and padded paws; the golden walls splashed with precious stones; the dim light cast by the tiny radium bulbs set at considerable distances along the roof; the huge, maned beasts of prey crowding with low growls about us; the mighty green warrior towering high above us all; myself crowned with the priceless diadem of a Holy Thern; and leading the procession the beautiful girl, Thuvia.
I shall not soon forget it.
Yeah, me neither!
And there’s the answer. Three player characters on a hopeless quest backed up by an army of fifty banths. Yeah. That’s way more awesome than a humdrum group of ten red martians!
Needless to say, this is the stuff of late night D&D sessions in a way that a great deal of Tolkien and Tolkien pastiche is not. That guy last year that lost his sweet war dog killing an enemy magic-user? He wanted to go back to the dungeon, round up the stray surviving gnolls, and become their new “chief”. That time the players got perfect reaction roll with the only surviving dire wolf in a battle? Yeah, the thing turned out to be the leader of the pack and he went and rounded up all the rest of his buddies, not only giving the players a lot of extra muscle, but also a chance to set up an epic dire wolf puppy mill for extra side money. (!!)
But yeah, the lesson here is that all kinds of stuff happens in a game. Easy come, easy go is the rule with all sorts of things in D&D. You can’t get overly invested in any one story element. But no matter what happens, there’s always a way to awesome things up. If you or the players think of something that’s more awesome than what anyone else at the table had planned, always be ready to embrace it. Of course, if you are looking to emulate what you read in The Lord of the Rings with an epic journey from The Shire to Mount Doom… you are not alone! That very impetus lead to the DragonLance books and modules, of course. Classic D&D is not like that, though. It’s much closer in spirit to the John Carter stories.