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John Carter: Warlord of Mars

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Game.

Board and counter Wargame (1979). Simulations Publications Inc. Designed by Mark Herman, Eric Goldberg.

While most easily classified as a Wargame, John Carter is actually a fusion of several types of game which have followed generally separate paths of development since its release. Specifically, it combines many of the attributes of Board Games, Wargames and Role Playing Games. Players create new stories set on the exotic world of Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of Mars, interpreting their roles in the manner of a RPG in a narrative constructed according to the detailed algorithms of a Wargame. The rules function as a story-generating machine which produces the skeleton of one of Burroughs' Martian Planetary Romances, upon which the players can layer dialogue and improvised characterizations. It is perhaps a testimony to the formulaic nature of Burroughs' plots that this is possible, but the resulting narratives can be remarkably effective. Historical Wargames are sometimes viewed as a form of "analytical history", in which counterfactual possibilities are played out to better understand the actual course of events; John Carter is perhaps best understood as an often hilarious exercise in "analytical criticism". The overall effect is somewhere between homage and parody. The mechanics dealing with Befriendment, Treachery, Remorse, Love and Romance are particularly striking; a detailed table of "Unspeakable Acts" is provided to model the (generally disastrous) results of a villain's attempt to perform a dishonourable act with a hero's beloved within the context of a Barsoomian narrative.

In addition to the "strategic", or narrative, game, John Carter can be played as a tactical duelling game of man-to-man combat or as a war game depicting an aerial conflict between the home city of Burroughs' eponymous hero and the rest of Barsoom. The narrative game is, however, the main focus. Each player has two aspects, one heroic and one villainous. As their hero, the player must perform such tasks as rescuing their betrothed from her kidnappers or restoring the victim of a forced brain transplantation (see Identity Transfer) to their original body, while as their villain they must attempt to frustrate another player's hero. Since heroes must always win within the conventions of the narrative, the winner is determined on the basis of how long it takes each player's hero to achieve their goals, and how much love and glory they earn along the way. While the elegance of the game's story generator can occasionally be obscured by the special cases required to handle the many places and characters of Barsoom, John Carter is remarkable as an example of generative narrative mechanics (see Interactive Narrative) in the form of a board and counter Wargame, as well as a penetrating analysis of the underlying structure of Burroughs' stories of Love, Honour and the Barsoomian Way. [NT]

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