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It is safe to say that John Carter did not do as well as Disney would have liked. It is pretty clear by now that it is more on the Prince of Persia end of the profit scale than on the Pirates of the Caribbean end. That’s a shame, really. The original John Carter books are fine examples of good pulp action and tons of sci-fi stories and franchises have mined the stories for ideas and themes. Many of the things that we take for granted as being part of the sci-fi landscape come from places like the John Carter stories, Flash Gordon and the writing of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. If the movie had done well, there could have been an explosion of interest in these pulp stories that would have benefitted nerds everywhere. That’s no doubt what Adamant Entertainment was hoping for with their Mars supplements. But, despite the lack of success of the John Carter movie, we can still enjoy some of the gaming that gained its inspiration from the same source.
Adamant has published a number of adventures and supplements that revolve around the pulp Mars. The first, Blood Legacy of Mars begins with a coup and a loyal servant fleeing the bloody massacre of the royal family with the infant heir to the throne in her arms. It picks up decades later when this heir is a grown man who believes himself to be nothing more than the son of a whore. He is a talented nobody who will likely only know fame and fortune through luck as much as talent and hard work. Fortunately, his heritage is just that bit of luck. Unfortunately, it is likely to be as much trouble as it is to be of help. Enter, the player characters. They arrive just as a bit of serendipity reveals the prince’s noble heritage and are dragged along for his wild ride to fame and fortune.
The roles of the characters in the plot vary widely, and this adventure seems designed not for a party that is already in place, but for a group that unites for this story. Characters enter the story at different points, rather than all beginning at the beginning. The adventure assumes that the characters do not know each other when it begins and, in fact, at certain points in the plot, the characters will likely be at cross purposes to each other. To this end, the adventure suggests that, for an ongoing campaign the players set their characters aside and create new ones for this adventure. The actions in the adventure then become a play that the real characters are watching.
The adventure is driven by events rather than locations. A handful of scenes are presented and it is the complex way that the characters and NPC’s interact with each other that make the adventure interesting rather than the unusual places in which they take place. In fact, these interactions are so important that a large flow chart for the relationships of the NPC’s is presented to help the game master keep track of everything. There is also a large section for the NPC’s that is much more a description of them and their goals and drives than their ability scores. It is these goals that really push the plot along.
In keeping with the event based nature of the adventure, the descriptions of the locations that make up the sets for the scenes are exceptionally short. In fact, there are no maps presented for any of them and only the outlines of the floor plans are given. Even shorter is a small bestiary for the few creatures that appear in the game.
What plays more of a role in the adventure than the monsters is alcohol. Almost all the scenes involve some kind of revelry and rules for intoxication are provided at the beginning of the adventure and are used often.
This adventure suffers from the same problem a number of products from small presses do. There are a number of spelling and grammar errors that are simply annoying and at one point, a page number is referenced but is marked as “XX” rather than the actual page number, clearly a place holder that was never corrected before the adventure was published.
Another Mars adventure, Sky Tyrant of Mars has everything you could want in a Martian adventure; intrigue, action, an alien princess, an ancient unstoppable war machine created by a lost civilization and a power mad warlord who wants to exploit it. To enhance the pulpy feel, the pace is quick and the story compelling.
It also has everything you could want in a Savage Worlds adventure. While there are some simple, straight up combat encounters, Sky Tyrant of Mars takes full advantage of the flexible nature of the Savage Worlds system. There are not one but three encounters that use the chase rules from the core system. There is also a scene that uses a sort of choose your own adventure style of choice resolution rather than a well defined map when the characters are exploring a labyrinth. This method keeps the fast flow of the adventure going as the party only has to deal with the important parts of the maze without playing out wandering for hours at a time.
In fact, there are no maps included in the adventure, at all. Rather, for each scene where there will be combat, a quick description of the battlefield is given. These descriptions are detailed enough to make the areas clear but give the game master some room for their own creativity, and saves page space that would otherwise be wasted with maps.
While it might be short on maps, the adventure does not skimp on characters. Four pregenerated characters are presented for the players, though they can, of course, use their own characters. In addition to their stat blocks, these characters have about a half page of description to help players understand their personalities and histories to make playing them easier. A fair amount of the book is also dedicated to NPC’s and creatures. Some description is provided as well as full stat blocks for them and each of the creatures has diverse abilities that make for interesting encounters.
At the end of the adventure, the characters save Mars from certain domination by a cruel warlord, but the massive war machine that was the core of his plan slips out of their grasp so they are not given a game changing piece of technology. There are undoubtedly players who will feel cheated by this, but the story does a good job of doing this logically.
Face of Mars focuses on only one of the traditional subjects of Mars pulp stories – ancient, lost riches. It has a very Indiana Jones in space feel to it with everything from traps that the characters have to outsmart to angry natives they have to deal with to a subtle clue that the characters have to figure out to get to the treasure.
Actually, the subtle clue that is the key to the story might be a bit too subtle. The intention is that the players should have a hard time figuring out the solution to getting into the final treasure chamber but I consider myself a relatively clever person and did not catch the solution until it was presented.
In addition to the traditions from pulp, Face of Mars also capitalizes on some of the modern scientific discoveries about Mars. For example the face of Mars referenced in the name is the face on Mars that was recently discovered and which made so much news when it was discovered. Also, part of the concept revolves around the fact that there was once water on Mars, another idea for which there is some scientific support and that has been around at least since Total Recall.
There are a few mechanical problems with the adventure, though. First, there is no consistent indicator of which opponents are Wild Cards and which are not. A few of the descriptions explain whether a creature is a Wild Card, extra or mook but not every one and this can make a huge difference in how much of a threat a character or creature is to the party.
Additionally, many of the monsters seem exceptionally dangerous. Creating appropriate opposition is always a problem with Savage Worlds and many of the opponents in this adventure appear to be more than a challenge for a party of the appropriate size.
Rebels of Mars is just as complex in its own way as Blood Legacy of Mars. There are four different factions with agendas that both overlap and oppose each other. Unfortunately, the motivations of these factions are not as well defined as in Blood Legacy of Mars. In fact, at times the reasons for the conflicts seem somewhat arbitrary.
The adventure seems to revolve around a group of Confederate soldiers who are accidentally brought to Mars by one of the diverse natives. Of course, these soldiers don’t actually appear in the adventure until the last two scenes so the story is not particularly about them. In reality, the adventure is about an escaped sex slave, the man who is trying to retrieve her and the man’s wife who is trying to get her revenge on him.
Rebels of Mars seems more like two or three good adventures or scenarios that have been mashed together than one coherent story. Each element would make a good core for an interesting adventure, but all of them together just makes things jumbled and confused.
Warriors of Mars brings the Savage Worlds Showdown rules to the pulp Mars setting. Anyone who has seen the Showdown rules and the Savage Worlds core combat rules knows there is not much difference. In fact, a GM can effortlessly take the stat blocks and battle scenarios from Warriors of Mars and use them as combat encounters in a Savage Worlds game.
For anyone looking for a fast, skirmish level miniatures game, this is an excellent offering. Details are given for the common troops and officers of each of the four major factions of Mars as well as an extensive list of “Rogues.” Red Martians, Green Martians, Grey Martians and White Apes make up the four largest factions on Mars and demonstrate the wide variety of sentient inhabitants of the red planet. As if that diversity were not enough the rogues included are faction less individuals, mercenaries and creatures which can be added to any force or who just happen to wander across the battlefield. They include both humans who have been transplanted from Earth and a number of weird Martian beasts.
Warriors of Mars includes several special rules applicable to the setting as well as a full range of suitably Martian weapons. There are also several Showdown scenarios with terrain rules, special rules and squad breakdowns that are especially true to the setting.
Overall, it is a good supplement for the Showdown rules. Unfortunately, it is atrociously written and edited. The grammar is horrible and often references to page numbers are left blank or left with only the ubiquitous and annoying “XX.” The writers were clearly more concerned with the mechanical side of the supplement than they were with any aesthetic appeal to the writing and in fact, what is written is occasionally incomprehensible. The supplement would have been immensely improved with a read through and edit.
Sellswords of Mars is the largest of the supplements from Adamant. It is more of a campaign breakdown for a set of Showdown encounters than an actual adventure. While this is appropriate for the story, which revolves around a war between two Martian factions, characters that do not have combat abilities or have poor combat abilities will likely not find much to do.
The plot of Sellswords of Mars is fairly straightforward, but the writers have done a good job having what the characters do have a distinct effect on the story. The result of each battle strengthens or weakens the heroes’ positions, affects the enemy’s strength or changes the pace of the war, usually depending on whether the characters win or lose. There are also a few side quests that are not Showdown encounters that can be undertaken to help in the war effort.
These if/then results are simple by themselves but can get fairly complex as they are chained together and the supplement includes a two page flow chart at the end. It looks like something from a corporate retreat and is fairly unfathomable by itself, but it is an invaluable resource when running the game. Following it brings the players and GM from encounter to encounter effortlessly.
The relative strengths of the two armies is tracked through the whole campaign, giving it a very good, consistent feel. Every unit is accounted for and when one is lost during a battle, they are not replaced.
Everything builds up to a final, climatic battle to decide the fate of a city against strange invaders with the characters playing a vital role in overcoming the enemy’s final defenses.
Given how many encounters there are, and how long a Showdown battle lasts, this supplement could be a short campaign in and of itself or a rather long arc in an ongoing campaign.
A great deal of this book is dedicated to the terrain charts, unit stats and other information that is required to run the Showdown battles in the campaign. This information alone is invaluable for people who want to run other battles using the Warriors of Mars rules.
The pulp Mars setting can seem a little clichéd to modern people but there are plenty of ideas and themes to appeal to anyone who loves wild adventures and is capable of some suspension of disbelief. For swashbuckling sci-fi action, it’s hard to beat one of the original ideas.