Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Horrors and Delights of B/X Mars

All art in this post by Michael Gibbons
Confession: I've read Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars and I thought it was pretty bad. The plot feels like an overheated and breathless litany of "And then this happens, and then this happens!," the main character seems like the epitome of naked (heh) wish-fulfillment, and the ending was a textbook example of an author simply running out of steam. I've never bothered to venture past the first book in the series; I doubt I'll ever be tempted to return to it.

And yet, when Michael Gibbons put out the call for players in his B/X Mars game, I volunteered with alacrity.

I have not regretted this decision.

B/X Mars is not Burroughs's Mars. There are obvious similarities, of course. B/X Mars draws a lot of inspiration from the planetary romance and larger science fantasy genres; Gib's Mars is a land of ancient technologies and lost civilizations fallen into ruin. The planet's deserts are hot and unrelenting, the people strange and savage, and barely clad warriors armed with swords face off against each other amid the red sands. 

The Mars flavor is in there, there's no denying it, but I want to focus on three things that have made this particular game more than an exercise in pastiche: the structure, the mystery, and the emergent themes.

The Structure
When we started playing this campaign, we were told that our party was wandering the desert, searching for civilization. We had a rough map and free rein to go wherever we wanted. So, a basic sandbox, right? 

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of hexcrawl-style sandbox campaigns; I've played in enough of them that felt like railroads constrained by the "paths" you were highly encouraged to follow. 
This B/X Mars game short-circuits the potential for boredom by offering up other ways to travel around the wastes besides hoofing it--we've uncovered trains, lifts, and transmat devices. Half the time we have no idea where we are and it's glorious.

The Mystery
A good portion of the fun in this campaign has been the thrill of discovery. We are not just figuring out the rules (hacked substantially from B/X D&D), we're also figuring out the world as we play. For example, early on we found a mysterious metal triangle. Then we found more of these triangular devices. Then we found depressions in other objects in which the triangles would fit. To say we wasted a tremendous amount of time messing about with the triangles would be an understatement. The game isn't just a sandbox, it's a toy box and we have a lot of stuff to play with. Can't wait to find out what I can do with the stingstick I got in the last adventure!

Emergent Themes
It turns out that the planetary romance elements in B/X Mars are only part of the story. As we've been playing we've come to the collective realization that B/X Mars is also a horror game. We've already had one total party kill--only to be resurrected by the Martian version of Victor Frankenstein so he could experiment upon us. Don't worry, we eventually took him out in a Tarantino-meets-Saw ploy where we garroted him while stabbing him into corpsedom. 

We never feel like invincible John Carters or Deja Thorises. Our Martian princess plummeted to her death after a marsquake knocked her from a rope bridge into a deadly ravine. Our Thark! was destroyed by a flame-headed mummy.

And that's just the half of it. We've been assaulted by, and run from, a deathsquad of shambling reanimates. We fought off armies of warlike antmen. We encountered a horrible freak who had the mewling faces of infants sewn to his body.

And don't even get me started on Mr. Whip, the NPC I hate and fear above all others.

So, here's the thing, Michael is currently working his B/X Mars material into a lavishly illustrated product that you can buy and use for your own games. Choose wisely and keep an eye here for more news.