Thursday, November 18, 2010

Swords and Planets: a Review of Red Planet RPG

The “Sword and Planet” genre appears to be in a full-bloomed mini-revival these days. Paizo devoted an on-going series of re-released classics and one need only toss a virtual rock at many old school gaming blogs these days to hit some kind of exploration of these science fantasy themes (my own exploration of Tekumel is part and parcel of this trend).

For all that energy, I am frankly puzzled by the fact that we haven't seen a profusion of sword and planet-styled games (to date that is, there are some highly-inspired OD&D supplements and works in progress). Thus I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a few weeks back a package containing a  handy set of Barsoom-flavored RPG rules from my fellow Texan and old school blogger Clovis Cithog.

Like many old schoolers, I'm a perversely difficult audience when it comes to new rule sets. I love innovation--especially when it tends to pare down complexity, help amplify a literary theme, or provide interesting game-play situations--but tend to be stubbornly conservative and, dare I say, lazy when it comes to new game mechanics. A stripped-down D&D platform with chrome and other tricked out bits bolted on top works for me far more often then not.

Red Planet is fortunately such a beast. Weighing in at less than 70 pages and with tried and true core features like archetypical classes, level advancement, similar attributes, familiar combat mechanics, etc. I liked the fact that I could read through it and feel like I could run a successful game with it in a few days time.

It's with the crunch that the game has it's best moments, however. First of all, Clovis makes no bones about situating the game in not just some Mars but THE Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs fame. Given my own interest in respectfully exploring the public domain works of pulp fantasy I appreciated how he weaves in the right amount of flavor and setting information as a tribute to Burroughs' work without it feeling like a regurgitation.

Character generation is fun and simple with players selecting or rolling from the major sentient races of Mars: Red, Green, Thern, Black Pirate, Yellow, or Exotic. (Interestingly there are no John Carter-like outsiders here.) Each race has a preferred class (called “vocation” in the rules) and can only play a small handful of classes outside these.

The classes are a also fun and setting-appropriate range. Troopers are thoat-mounted fighters and Warriors more of the typical fighting man type. Criminals are more assassin than thief, a choice that seems to be pretty consistent with the material. Scientists are the technology users who can employ relics and have access to inventions. Extras seem to be the jack-of-all-trades class that reminds me a little of the prosaically-named Classic Traveller “Other” career.

The inclusion of a spell-casting Priest class is an exception to the rule about staying close to the source material. Their introduction seems a bit awkward to me given the near-absence of religion and magic in ERB's work. Clovis acknowledges himself the dilemma and allows for a GM to ignore or restrict the class and spell-casting rules.

Combat mechanics are a simplified d20-like system with ascending AC and an interesting 2nd-edition AD&D-ish division of effects between four categories of weapons: blunt, piercing, slashing, and energy. Rules exist for the wide range of relic and strange tech items one could employ in combat.

Rules for fliers are among my favorites in the game and remind me some of the great Space 1889 subsystems of yore. What Barsoom would be complete without PCs blasting, grappling, or ramming one in each and every adventure?

Level advancement has some interesting quirks. PCs start at 2nd level and there are no experience points as such. Instead at the end of an adventure a player rolls a d6 in which an attribute, skill, or level is increased. Personally I am still too wed to the quantifible bean counting that comes with exp. Systems, but I like the nice randomized pay-off system that reminds me of the fun of leveling up in first edition Gamma World.

All in all a nice little system worth picking up. Distribution is pleasingly personal, contact Clovis over at Jasoomian Dreams. For $10 he will send you a copy and a free copy for a friend to boot.


  1. Game looks cool, thanks for the review. Might have to dig up one of the ERB Mars books from the boxes in my garage and take another look

  2. I was quite interested to hear your review. A Barsoom RPG is a project I've wanted to do for many years.

    The inclusion of spell casting priests is almost a deal breaker for me. The closest Barsoom gets to "magic" is the minor role telepathy plays in the first couple books. Though there are many times religion comes into play it is always debunked as false and superstitious. Is the rational for the Priest to heal the other PCs?

  3. Thank you reviewing my RPG, Chris.

    < - - For all customers, Mention this review to insure that you receive a bonus copy of Red Planet, the fantasy roleplaying game based on selected Martian Tales © 1990

    The inclusion of the Priest vocation was a counterbalance to the Scientist vocation or class.

    “Upon warlike Barsoom, there are few cowards, and that every man, whether prince, priest or peasant glories in deadly strife.” (GM, II)

    True spell casters, priests or magicians are not described in the original source material; however, wondrous, spell-like or magical effects are described repeatedly. Spell casting upon Barsoom is rare; therefore, Red Planet is a science-fantasy setting, not medieval high fantasy. The nolach can deal with this corundum in several ways . . .

    1) allow individual spells to selected characters,
    2) allow revival of ancient gods since death of Issus,
    3) allow the priest class only to ancient (CM VII), exotic or isolated populations, OR
    4) some combination of the above.

  4. Personally I'm still happy with the original John Carter rules I picked up way back when TSR put them out. Still using them after all these years.

  5. @ underminer ; TSR rules were for miniature combat, NOT a role playing game.

    Barsoomian legends tell of an ancient pantheon of gods that was more directly involved in the lives of the Martians before the advent of technology.

    “For weeks Gahan of Gathol crossed valleys and hills in search of some familiar landmark that might point his way toward his native land, but the summit of each succeeding ridge revealed but another unfamiliar view. He saw few animals and no men, until he finally came to the belief that he had fallen upon that fabled area of ancient Barsoom which lay under the curse of her olden gods--the once rich and fertile country whose people in their pride and arrogance had denied the deities, and whose punishment had been extermination.”
    Chessmen of Mars, VII

  6. Maybe you could have a priest class that doesn't cast spells, but is good at intimidation, lore and other setting-appropriate things.