Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs


Burroughs doesn't spend a lot of time pussyfooting in The Gods of Mars. Within ten pages we see John Carter fighting side by side with his old compatriot, Tars Tarkas, against a vast horde of monstrosities:

"[S]treaming in from all directions across the meadow, from out of the forest, and from the far distance of the flat land across the river, I could see converging upon us a hundred different lines of wildly leaping [plant men], and with them ... that most dreaded of Martian creatures: the great white apes of Barsoom."

"It was into the eyes of such as these and the terrible plant men that I gazed above the shoulder of my foe, and then, in a mighty wave of snarling, snapping, screaming, purring rage, they swept over me and of all the sounds that assailed my ears as I went down beneath them, to me the most hideous was the horrid purring of the plant men. Instantly a score of cruel fangs and keen talons were sunk into my flesh; cold, sucking lips fastened themselves upon my arteries. I struggled to free myself, and even though weighed down by these immense bodies, I succeeded in struggling to my feet, where, still grasping my longsword, and shortening my grip upon it until I could use it as a dagger, I wrought such havoc among them that at one time I stood for an instant free."

"[T]he whole howling pack of hideous devils hurled themselves upon me. To right and left flew my shimmering blade, now green with the sticky juice of a plant man, now red with the crimson blood of a great white ape; but always flying from one opponent to another, hesitating but the barest fraction of a second to drink the lifeblood in the centre of some savage heart. And thus I fought as I never had fought before, against such frightful odds that I cannot realize even now that human muscles could have withstood that awful onslaught, that terrific weight of hurtling tons of ferocious, battling flesh.
With the fear that we would escape them, the creatures redoubled their efforts to pull me down, and though the ground about me was piled high with their dead and dying comrades, they succeeded at last in overwhelming me, and I went down beneath them for the second time that day, and once again felt those awful sucking lips against my flesh."

That, right there, is the model for high-level D&D.

Unfortunately, as many know, it is exceedingly difficult to make such combats enjoyable, even in the rules-light early versions of D&D. However, the game which spawned D&D, Chainmail, points towards a rather elegant option. Chainmail, being a miniatures war game, handles combat on a much more abstract scale than even OD&D. Individuals are clustered into Troops, which are comprised of twenty units. These can be fielded directly against Heroes and Super-Heroes, which are power single-unit troops, as well as tougher monsters such as giants and dragons. In OD&D, your PC would qualify as a Hero at 4th level and a Super-Hero at 8th, with a domain earned at name level, meaning that you could reasonably face large swaths of enemies who had been compacted down to a reasonable size. This creates a "widescreen combat" approach that fits nicely with John Carter's heroics.

Ripping off this idea for Rogues & Reavers, enemies that are too weak to threaten the PCs individually can be grouped into Troops, which are handled as a single foe. This is certainly not a new idea in RPGs, as later games like Feng Shui and 4e would similarly cluster goon squads, but the difference between the two approaches is the purpose they serve. In Feng Shui, "mooks" exist to as an ego boost at low levels, providing foes to dispatch with laughable ease. For Rogues & Reavers, the goal is to simply and hasten combats that could potential employ hundreds of characters. Low-level PCs will not take out hordes of 1 HP enemies, but rather as the players grow in power they will overcome thresholds that reduce once-dangerous foes into simple goons to be slaughtered en masse (contrast the battle against the single White Ape battle in A Princess of Mars to the carnage described above).




If there is one place where Burroughs improves from A Princess of Mars, it is in his depiction of action. While Howard may be the master, ERB has a strong showing here, along with his escape from Omean, which strikes me as similar to a lot of scenes in Star Wars, and the incredibly brutal struggle in the gladiatorial pits of Issus. There is a great depiction of a military conflict with the siege on the Valley Dor, and any referee looking to liven up his battle scenes would do well to drink deep from this stuff.

Not only is the action top-notch, but the dungeon sequences are also quite stellar, possessing a quality of otherworldly menace. The disembodied voice and swiveling, self-locking doors of the Chamber of Mystery, as well as the nasty flood/fire combo trap of the final battle both are worth cribbing notes from, but by far the most effective is when John Carter becomes lost in the darkness. Stalked by faceless, nameless monsters that slowly surround him on all sides, we are treated to a harrowing struggle for survival against a pack of beasts out of a nightmare:

"For what seemed hours the eyes approached gradually closer and closer, until I felt that I should go mad for the horror of it. I had been constantly turning this way and that to prevent any sudden rush from behind, until I was fairly worn out. At length I could endure it no longer, and, taking a fresh grasp upon my longsword, I turned suddenly and charged down upon one of my tormentors.

As I was almost upon it the thing retreated before me, but a sound from behind caused me to wheel in time to see three pairs of eyes rushing at me from the rear. With a cry of rage I turned to meet the cowardly beasts, but as I advanced they retreated as had their fellow. Another glance over my shoulder discovered the first eyes sneaking on me again. And again I charged, only to see the eyes retreat before me and hear the muffled rush of the three at my back. Thus we continued, the eyes always a little closer in the end than they had been before, until I thought that I should go mad with the terrible strain of the ordeal."

This sequence touches upon something that has long fascinated me about dungeons but which I have yet to employ to its fullest potential: the darkness. Anyone who has explored underground passageways, either caving or in urban exploration, is aware of the pervasive darkness that is so unlike life on the surface. There is a sensation that one's light source truly is one's only tenuous link to safety and sanity, and there is little that has unnerved me more than having a light flicker and dim while beneath tons of rock. Unfortunately, tracking torches and oil is just the sort of record-keeping that players are quick to forget, so there has been few chances for players to be lost at the bottom of a maze somewhere deep underground surrounded by total darkness. If they do end up in such a predicament (likely only to occur if I start tracking torches myself, or if they get separated), you'd better believe I'm going to have some of ERB's stalking eyes wander out of the depths.


Despite all of the strong points of this novel, some of the top-notch melodrama of A Princess of Mars is missing, with nothing as stirring as the Sola-Tars Tarkas-Sakoja triangle. Only the final act, and the threat of Phaidor's revenge, really pulls at the heart-strings.

Phaidor is an interesting archetype, the femme fatale, that seems to get little play in RPGs, rarely appearing in published modules or at the table. I suspect that this is because role-playing is a game first, and players rarely act against their best interests. This means that they will be happy to engage in a dalliance, but will kill even their own mother without a second thought if they prove to be an obstacle; because of this, it is nearly impossible for a femme fatale to work her charms on the PCs outside of magical coercion.

Juvenile adventure fiction is likewise bound to have moral protagonists who are not swayed by their lust for flesh, and in this Phaidor provides a good example of how to handle the femme fatale. Carter chastely refuses the aggressive, shockingly beautiful woman who then wheedles and schemes, looking to coerce Carter if he will not join her willingly and, later, to get revenge on him for refusing her. A parallel example is The Enchantress from Marvel Comics, an old enemy of Thor, who is similarly chaste.

The femme fatale, when faced with a hero that refuses to fall for her charms, inevitably becomes obsessed with said hero. This leads to stalking, where the woman murders other love interests and will pull any foul trick to win the hero's heart.

Of course, this sort of thing is pure male fantasy, a tremendous boost to the ego, and perhaps more than a bit sexist. That said, D&D is (at least in part) a game about fantasies, and not all of them are entirely pleasant. There's plenty of darkness in D&D, and the important part is to keep the fantasy separate from reality.

Speaking more broadly on the topic of sexuality in D&D, it is strange to me that such a subject is so rarely touched upon, yet plays so large a part in the source material. The human form is constantly a source of inspiration and celebration in swords and sorcery, with Howard and Burroughs' loving depictions of Dejah Thoris and Bêlit; both Conan and Liane the Wayfarer gleefully jump headlong into danger to satisfy their loins. Yet, in D&D, there is traditionally a prudish, almost puritanical spirit that hangs over the table. That's something that I hope to challenge in my home games, as I suspect that many players, when invited to pursue a romantic angle, will do so even without a substantial reward. If you have any advice or experience in this undiscovered country of adventure design, please feel free to share!




Of course, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the titular gods in The Gods of Mars. ERB casts a cynical eye towards the institution of religion in his second novel of John Carter's adventures, a trope which would be much-imitated by his pulp progeny. Here, religion is a sham, with churches existing to bilk their congregations and any "gods" nothing more than aliens with strange powers dressing themselves in pseudo-mystical nonsense.

Obviously, this is a far cry from the assumptions of D&D, where the gods are categorically real and very divine. Their claims are even backed up by Heavens and Hells which can be easily visited by high-level spellcasters, leaving little room to doubt their absolute truthfulness. To my knowledge, TSR would buck that trend only twice: in the Dark Sun and Mystara settings. In Dark Sun, where the gods have abandoned mankind but presumably still exist, the "false gods" that step in to fill the gaps never make assertions to divinity - they simply can provide spells to the clergy. Mystara, on the other hand, establishes that certain gods achieved divinity through exposure to magic radiation from a crashed starship. They do not go so far as to say all gods are false, however, only some are "false-ish", having achieved immortality through a shortcut of sorts. Both, as I've illustrated, only take half-steps in this direction.

If it is not already obvious, my own aesthetics fall much more in line with the sword & sorcery genre, and Rogues & Reavers will reflect that, having no traditional gods or planes of the afterlife. If there are any "true" gods, they will be silent and their domains unattainable by mortal man. The majority of priests will be corrupt bureaucrats intent on seizing power and extracting wealth, and any gods that appear will be the furthest thing from the divine.
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