The sword & planet (also referred to as planetary romance) sub-genre of heroic fantasy has been on my mind quite a bit of late. I am sure this has much to do with the fact that I recently read Robert E.Howard's Almuric, read and reviewed Clovis Cithog's Red Planet: The Fantasy Roleplaying Game Based on Selected Martian Tales and I have Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars series of books waiting in the wings to read. And come to think of it, I watched Flash Gordon just a few weeks ago as well. All this has me pondering an idea for a setting that can be used as the backdrop for a Sword & Sanity campaign with a strong sword & planet flavor. This is inevitably going to spawn a series of posts that I will tag under "Dark Corners of High Adventure", which I will begin in the next few days.
About a month ago I received a couple of copies of Red Planet: The Fantasy Roleplaying Game Based on Selected Martian Tales from the writer and designer of the game, Clovis Cithog. As you can probably tell from the title, Red Planet is a roleplaying game designed to emulate the planetary romance stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I have taken the time to read over quite a bit of the rules, and I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts. This is by no means a full review, but I may take the time in the near future to amend that. I would actually call this a mini-review or even an overview since I have not had a chance to playtest the game.
Red Planet is a do-it-yourself publication released by Clovis' Abbadon Games, and is an Open Game License (OGL) product. The book is 69 pages, not counting the index, glossary, Open Game License and the included character sheet. By the looks of things, this is a complete game, and should contain everything you might need to run a sword & planet campaign of adventures on Barsoom.
Though this is not a d20 product, Red Planet is an OGL game that has a lot of similarities to the Dungeon & Dragons system. There are some difference though, but most are more cosmetic than a real departure from standard D&D rules. A good example of this is the six ability scores the game uses: Strength, Agility, Tenacity, Reason, Intuition and Persuasion. Obviously, each of these are just D&D ability scores by another name. As I said before, most of the differences are merely cosmetic. There are no rules for the feats found in most d20 products, which keeps the ruleset lean and flexible. Red Planet uses all the same dice conventions as D&D, and I could see very little difference in the way the game is played. It would not be hard at all to convert much of the material presented in Red Planet over to your D&D or Labyrinth Lord campaign if needed.
I would go out on a limb here and say that Red Planet can be considered "old-school" in its overall design philosophy and presentation. It feels like a game that could have been produced during the early years of the roleplaying hobby, but keeps and eye on modern game design sensibilities. The artwork presented is a mixed bag of interior black and white illustrations, pictures of a line of Barsoom inspired miniatures and digital artwork for the cover. All the artwork is serviceable and appropriate, with the interior illustrations being on par with many of TSR's pre-second edition publications. My only nit to pick here would be the cover. Generally, I am not a fan of digital art, so this next statement is a result of my personal taste, but I would have much preferred to see the cover illustrated by one of the artists that provided the interior artwork. Having said that, the cover is serviceable... and obviously eye catching! :-)
There are ten chapters in the game manual, and they are as follows:
- Measures - this chapter covers pertinent information for the setting of the game, such as a brief overview of Burroughs' Mars fiction, as well as a brief timeline and map of Barsoom. It also covers important game measurements, such as increments of time, linear units of measurement and money conversion. This is a strong introductory chapter, and serves it's purpose in introducing the players to the setting, various Barsoomian terms (the Game Master is referred to as "nolach") and overall flavor of the game.
- Races & Vocations - as the title suggests, this chapter details the playable races and vocations of the game. The races include Red Martians, Green Martians, Yellow Martians, Therns, Black Pirates and Exotic Races. Vocations include Scientist, Trooper, Criminal, Warrior, eXtra and Priest. Each race has a preferred vocation, and each vocation has a primary ability score that it is linked to. The rules cover the first ten levels of the game.
- Abilities & Saving Throws - This chapter covers ability scores, ability throws, saving throws and hit points. If you have played D&D then you will be right at home with everything in this chapter. Saving throws are handled as follows: roll d20 + appropriate ability modifier + character saving throw modifier +/- GM circumstantial modifier. Ability throws are handled as followes: roll 2d6 + apprpriate ability modifer +/- GM circumstantial modifier. Difficulty class is the number to beat for the saving and ability throws, and can range from 4 to 40.
- Weapons & Combat - This chapter does a good job covering equipment (weapons and armor) that span through the ages; including Tech Level I: Stone Age through Tech Level IX: Inventions, and everything in between. Also, combat rules are thoroughly explained, with rules for combat actions, movement, defense class and parrying. Again, very much in line with standard D&D rules.
- Spells - this chapter covers spells and spell-like effects for priests. These spells could be dropped into any D&D game as written.
- Critical Hits - in this chapter you will find advanced combat rules covering critical hits and their effects on characters damaged in combat. There are critical hit charts for blunt, energy, piercing and slashing damage.
- Skills - there are twenty-one skills detailed in this chapter. I have not held the list up to the one found in the d20 SRD, but I suspect the skill list is somewhat similar. The list is obviously not as long, but it seems to do a good job in covering much of the same area as the d20 SRD, but with fewer skills.
- Fliers - this chapter has all the needed information and write-ups for various Barsoomian flying vehicles.
- Starting Adventure - Red Planet has an adventure designed for beginning adventurers, complete with maps.
- Beasts of Barsoom - as the name implies, this chapter is the creature compendium. There are creature write-ups for: Apt, Banth, Calot, Plant Man, Ulsio and White Ape.
After chapter 10 there are rules for calculating experience in the game, a glossary of terms used on Barsoom, the Open Game License and a character sheet.
Overall, I am very pleased with Red Planet. I like the old-school feel of the game, and the less-is-more design approach Clovis took. As I stated before, I have not had a chance to playtest the game as of yet, but I would have no problem recommending Red Planet to anyone looking for a rules-lite system to run sword & planet adventures. Especially at the $10 cover price! Those of you who are interested in ordering a copy of the game should go to Clovis' blog, Jasoomian Dreams, scroll to the bottom of the page and the ordering instructions are listed there.