I’ve got a lot of things to say about the John Carter RPG, but not in the form of a review. John Carter is a property that has fired my imagination before, has been foundational to modern action stories in both science fiction and fantasy, and presented some ideas that were not common in the era when the books were presented.
All of that having been said, John Carter is also about a former Confederate soldier who shows up on Mars as an archetypal White Savior, and whose primary motivation is to win the heart of an attractive woman that barely wears clothes. For all of the positive elements, like getting disparate cultures to work together in harmony, and teaching people about the dangers of blindly following religious dogma, some of those cultures still need to learn that their ways are wrong and to subvert them to the consensus opinion of the previously allied groups. John Carter is still the perspective character that has the clarity to see and understand what needs to be done.
Touching on Issues
This is addressed in the book, and that’s good. The book mentions that John is a Confederate soldier, and that may not sit well with some players. It mentions that, especially early on, male characters are the primary action heroes. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t do much to deconstruct the White Savior trope or give players or GMs tools to avoid it in game. After acknowledging the problematic content, the biggest admonition the text provides is to make sure that women in the setting have a chance to be heroes as well.
While the text brings up much of the problematic content, instead of providing tools to create stories that capture the positive aspects of the stories while avoiding the more harmful tropes, the virtues of the story seem to be held up as a defense of the overall content. For example, John isn’t a proud Confederate, he was just defending Virginia. John really does love Deja Thoris. The evil hierarchy of religion was oppressing the people, so someone had to break the system (even though that system isn’t just organizational, but also tied to one specific species of people).
It’s Not You, It’s Me
In the end, I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have liked to have been with the presentation. It had me thinking about how I almost think the best way to engage content like John Carter is with games like Cavaliers of Mars or other RPGs that have some “distance” from the source material and aren’t as invested in preserving and protecting it.
In some ways, it is a very similar feeling I get to the Conan RPG, but inexplicably, I have picked up several of those releases. I can’t fully explain it, except to say that it might have something to do with the fact that I don’t picture Conan as a role model, so much as a point of view protagonist. If Conan is right in a story, and someone else it wrong, it is often because of Conan’s detachment from biases, rather than his moral compass. And even with all of those disclaimers, every time I have sat down to read through the book and think about how I would run it, I’m still overwhelmed by a concern that I would run smack dab into various harmful tropes that exist in the source material. In my mind, it’s a lot easier for me to avoid it with a game or setting that pays homage to Conan, like Primeval Thule, than with something wholly faithful to the source material.
I’m not saying that if you like the John Carter novels, comics, movie, or even the RPG, that you are wrong for doing so. All I am saying is that for me, personally, I don’t feel comfortable doing a full review of the game, because it’s hard to separate my concerns from the way the rules are presented. Most of us like some problematic content. I really like a lot of the elements of the John Carter stories. The important part is to acknowledge the bits that are problematic, and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I’m just a little concerned that a defense of the elements, instead of a critique, may allow problematic elements to thrive going forward.