Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

John Carter and The Rule of Awesome

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.


12 responses to “John Carter and The Rule of Awesome

  1. Cirsova June 14, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Urbanski’s insistence that “Stories are very rarely ‘easily’ adapted into game content” tells me that he’s not reading the right books. There is some gold right there.

    Brackett does throw in some pretty grisly senseless deaths of rescued characters, but mostly so that the hero can hold their dying forms while he sheds tears of manly sorrow.

    • jddyalblog June 14, 2016 at 1:10 pm

      In bite-sized chunks, they’re very easily adapted. At a larger, macro level, it’s much more difficult—it’s more difficult to establish pacing, a story arc, predictability in characters, etc.

      Which is exactly why this hobby is not the same as writing stories, of course. Quite literally every single one of my favorite moments from a game happened when one of the players did something so incredibly astoundingly surprising that it forced EVERYONE to react to it. You simply can’t structure the game to provide that; you just need to have a group that is inclined to do crazy things, and a GM who’s willing to play pretty fast and loose.

      • Cirsova June 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm

        Oh, yeah, if you try to make your game a novel or replicate a novel with a game, you’re bound to fail, but what you can do are take some basic premises, monsters, and magic and stat them out and frame them in an outline. Holmes didn’t try to make a Peter Pan module, but he did stick a captive Tiger-lily with some pirates in a tide cave to make a pretty cool set-piece in the sample dungeon.

  2. emperorponders June 14, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Man, I don’t know what Table for resting and random encounters Burroughs used, but I want it.

  3. pcbushi June 14, 2016 at 9:43 am

    It has occurred to me several times throughout the series that many of ERB’s settings sound like archetypal tabletop dungeon settings. I just passed the Carrion Caves in Warlord of Mars; struck me as yet another prime example. Also occurred to me that ERB wasn’t afraid to split the party, despite conventional wisdom. ;)

  4. Hooc Ott June 14, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    “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.”

    Been perusing the Dragonlance Module “Dragons of Despair” and it does have a random monster sheet. Also there are a lot of allies to be gained in the module. The forestmaster (Unicorn guardian of Darkenwood) will give each PC a Pegasi if they ask for his aid. In the Decent into Darkness part of the module Gully Dwarves will aid the PCs (though mostly only guides to the ultimate confrontation with the Dragon) and there are also at least two captured fighters and a thief who will aid the PCs if they are released. There are also a few Spectral Minions who will aid the PCs in various ways.

    There are lots of “funnels” that lead the PCs to their ultimate goal but how is that different then John Carter’s ultimate goal in the novel?

    Irony bonus: My understanding of the book’s plot is Carter proves the non-existence of gods while Dragonlance module’s quest is to retrieve some golden discs that if read by a cleric will allow them to use Clerical spells which were absent in the world and the gods forgotten for some time and the Epilogue of the module brings them back.

  5. Professor Oats June 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

    “Presently soft, padded feet sounded close behind us…”

    Had to remind myself I wasn’t reading Jack Vance. I seriously can’t read the word “presently” anymore without thinking of him

    I have yet to read any John Carter stories, though I’d like to. I am a little concerned that he and Conan might be Gary Stus. Hopefully that’s not the case

    • pcbushi June 15, 2016 at 7:36 am

      It’s weird, when I think about it, John Carter and Conan are kinda Gary Stus (I learned a new term today). And I’ve come to hate those kinds of characters generally speaking. But it works for them. I’m sure someone else here can articulate it better than I can, but perhaps it’s because John Carter and Conan are both so well fleshed out. Carter and Conan are both fighters, not intellectuals. They are both good with men and excellent leaders, but they’re not primarily diplomats.

      Conan, as a “primitive,” has a healthy fear of anything magical, though of course he has the courage to fight through that fear.

      In John Carter’s case, maybe his being good at everything didn’t bother me so much because the whole premise of his character seems to be that Mars is the perfect world for him and becomes more of a home than Earth. It’s a hard, bellicose world full of fighters, but it’s also a world where virtues such as honor, justice, honesty, bravery, and chivalry are widely held and valued.

      Also neither protagonist is invincible. Both suffer frequent setbacks and occasional defeats and are saved by allies or luck.

      I think so long as you enjoy stories of the fighting man, where the good guy wins in the end and bad guys (usually) ultimately get what’s coming to them, you’ll like both series.

    • jeffro June 15, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      If you read them, please let me know what you think. Just personally, I don’t think you can get better than Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. But like I’ve argued elsewhere, science fiction and fantasy used to be basically a type of romance story with teenage boys as the target audience. To that extent, it is not that much different than, say, the MockingJay girl books. But the psychology of boys means that the structure of the story is different and the emotional beats hit different marks. I don’t think John Carter is a Mary Sue any more than Tolkien’s Aragorn is because he really has to be worthy of the princess he wins in the end. It’s fairytale romance… on Mars! Not too different from The Princess Bride, really… but with more savagery and epic battles.

  6. John E. Boyle June 18, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I think of the Gods of Mars whenever I see someone calling ERB a racist and a misogynist. John Carter not only is brother in everything but blood to the monstrous Tars Tarkas, but the white Therns are the only two-legged race on Barsoom who possess no redeeming characteristics at all. I could argue the most powerful individual depicted in the book is Thuvia, the red Martian girl who can command scores of savage banths, yet who risks her life to save Dejah Thoris in the book’s cliffhanger ending. And all of this in one of ERB’s earliest novels.

    I’m beginning to think that a lot of the people calling Burroughs racist and misogynist simply haven’t read much, if any of his work at all.

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