The world of Barsoom was created over a hundred years ago by a pulp writer writing for a mostly white male audience. That is frankly not what the RPG market looks like today. There are more woman and people of color playing games every day. LGBT players and narrators abound as well. From a certain point of view, Carter is a somewhat problematic “white savior” or “white knight” who comes in and fixes everything for other cultures while rescuing ladies who can’t care for themselves. This is in fact the Carter I have myself had thrown at me on occasion by those determined to place Burroughs in some pulp literary dustbin with other writers.
So that was a challenge. And a clear one.
So how does one introduce Barsoom and open it up for an RPG without ignoring or undermining the original stories? How do you welcome the modern diverse RPG market while not alienating long time fans?
Well, it honestly wasn’t that hard. And I thank Edgar Rice Burroughs for that. Specifically, I want to focus on three things from the Barsoom stories that informed how we presented his world.
Truly Unique and Alien Cultures
Burroughs was the guy who created strangely human but unique alien cultures. The red Martians are not Native Americans, Indians, or anyone else. The Okar are not Asians, the First Born are not Africans. And so on. In a move that would make certain pulp writers like Lovecraft decidedly uncomfortable, the mixing of races and cultures led to the creation of the red Martians, the central culture of Barsoom that includes numerous heroic and admirable groups and individuals. This also means the Therns, the corrupt white guys who kinda ruin everything for the second and third book aren’t actually white people in the Earth sense. Also note this wasn’t true and these cultures and races are supposed to be Earth stand-ins? Burroughs would be such an anti-establishment radical that history frankly just doesn’t bear that out.
Strong Women and Men Working Together
Burrough’s women were not usually big fighters, but they were capable of it and some like Llana of Gathol are quite skilled. They were also leaders, stateswomen, scientists, and often portrayed as smart, capable, independent, and valued. Honorable Barsoomians don’t enslave, abuse, or kill women to show some “alpha” status. No, they treat them as peers, partners, and respected companions. Even in cultures that have strong gender divides like the green Martians, we find strong women and vital cultural roles. Remember, behind every green Martian male trying to blow your heroes’ head off with a rifle is literally a green Martian woman—they make the weapons. Thus the idea that Barsoom was filled with exceptional people of all genders was…already there. We just added some art and examples to showcase it.
Naked Not Salacious
Barsoom’s general lack of clothing was another issue. While more than a few artists over the years used the undisputable fact that most people on Barsoom wander around with few clothes to create some spicy artwork, it’s not presented as inferior or immoral in the text. Carter doesn’t go around forcing Barsoomians to “put some clothes on!”. No, he expresses some understandable culture shock and then dons a harness and cloak and wandered around “naked” like everyone else. So this didn’t have as strong an effect on the RPG as some might expect—mostly specific art direction and an understandable lack of armor rules.
Strong Heroic Values
Other elements surface in the work, often championed by Carter himself. Don’t be cruel to animals. Don’t use guns or other superior weapons to kill those not similarly armed. Don’t kill someone so you can take their spouse. Don’t judge people by appearances. Let people rule themselves whenever possible. Respect allies, friends, and lovers. And my personal favorite: beware blind obedience and adherence to belief systems that defy reason. These things diminish us and are harmful.
To quote another favorite story from my youth “This is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it, we will not use it.” Of course, that guy was mostly inspired by Zorro, but he probably learned a thing or two from heroes like John Carter as well.
Mix in some ecological disaster narrowly averted by heroic action and ingenuity and that’s Barsoom. That’s Burroughs. That’s Carter. So maybe folks can begin to understand why I love it so. And that’s the world we present. At least below the surface, and I’m not talking about the Omean Sea.
Now that is mostly subtext. It wouldn’t be Barsoom without the terrifying beasts, amazing technology, vile villains, and endless threats to the freedom and existence of the good people of the red planet. It’s a setting for heroes of all sorts, and that’s what we presented. That was always the bulk of the work, modeling and presenting a bold world of airships and sword fights and romance that crosses time and space. And by combining the themes and lessons of Burroughs with his amazing world? We brought John Carter of Mars to the gaming table.
Narrator Afterword (Literally)
Since I know some folks ask or note this. We call our “GM” the Narrator not out of some desire to be different for its own sake or some other reason. Its pretty simple. All the Barsoom novels have a narrator. Many begin with a forward from a narrator, including a fictionalized version of Burroughs himself. So that’s the role we cast our game master/moderate/storyteller in. Its one of many nods to Burroughs and his work in the book. And now you know, too.