Review: Mars

Posted: 16 November 2011 in Reviews

This is Adamant Entertainment’s take on the planetary romance genre of pulp adventure, giving the Savage Worlds treatment to Mars as envisioned by writers such as H G Wells and Edgar Rice Burrows, although it isn’t a direct implementation of any of them. 181 page PDF or hard copy.


As it says, this is an introduction to Mars, both through a short story and a half-page in the authorial voice. This isn’t Mars as we now know it to be, but Mars as the pulp fiction and cinema serials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries imagined it.

Frankly, Mars was a better place then. But I digress.

MARS (27 pages)

This is the background chapter, and provides the history and geography of this imaginary Mars. As usual for the genre, this is a once lush planet, whose civilisation has been largely destroyed by centuries of drought, and is thus a mixture of weird science (radium rifles) and ancient or mediaeval technology (swords). The dying effort of the former civilisation was to construct a network of canals, bringing what little water remains to the surviving cities.

It’s worth noting at the outset that this section contains information I wouldn’t expect the PCs to know at the outset, so it should be considered GM-only territory.

Daily life is mentioned briefly, but only those details which can inject verisimilitude into the GM’s descriptions – the scarcity of meat, the general climate, decaying technology maintained by rote, holidays, and so on.

Races include the city-dwelling Red Men, the barbarian Green Men of the wilderness between cities, the fierce and disciplined White Apes, and the Grey Men used to frighten naughty children. Despite laying eggs, the Red Men are essentially humans, and are even now the dominant civilisation; their surviving nations are described in moderate detail, with a couple of pages each; by contrast, the Ape Empire has but a single page, that of the Grey Men or the Green even less.

We also learn about the ruined cities of the Red Men’s ancestors, and the treasure that may be found therein by the stout of heart; the Red King of the Green Men, an exile who is forging a nomad empire in the wastes; the damp caverns below the surface; the aberrant Whispering Lord, a Grey Man exile; the dead sea floors; the canals; the quick-blooming thornpatches and their miniature ecosystems; oases; the long-abandoned polar stations and what lies within.

The book includes a map, and the PDF edition of the game comes with a full-colour version in a separate file; but as the authors note, writers of planetary romances weren’t much bothered about detailed maps, and “in the North Polar Wastes, many days from the citadel” is as good a set of directions as players should expect to get.

Despite the book’s insistence that it is not based on any one writer’s work, this chapter reeks of John Carter to me. (That’s not a complaint, incidentally.)

I would have preferred it to introduce the races earlier, and in a more structured manner; the PC and NPC races are in the next chapter, Characters. A few quick paragaphs early on would have helped me to grasp them better.

CHARACTERS (36 pages)

As in Adamant’s Thrilling Tales, players are advised to create stereotypical characters in broad strokes; if it takes you more than one pithy, pulpish sentence to convey the essence of your character, you’re doing it wrong.

The player is offered capsule descriptions of the key archetypes of the genre; the Adventurer, the Companion (more likely an NPC sidekick than a PC, methinks), the Defender, the Explorer, the Outcast, the Trickster. Within this framework, character creation follows normal Savage Worlds rules; buy your attributes, skills and edges with points, take hindrances to get extra points.
The book suggests that beginning characters start with at least two advances from Novice (i.e., 10 experience points), and that experienced players should start at Seasoned rank or better. I wouldn’t go down that route myself, but there you go.

The authors expect troupes of PCs to be a mixture of earthmen and Red Men, with perhaps a Green Man or White Ape attached – those are the PC races.
Earthmen are those unexpectedly deposited on Mars as was John Carter, at some point between 1850 and 1950, depending on when the GM thinks the campaign should happen; Red Men are, as mentioned before, red-skinned, egg-laying, but otherwise human, and the main civilised race of Mars; Green Men are hard-skinned, tusked and clawed nomads; White Apes are, well, what it says on the tin; picture the gorillas from Planet of the Apes and you’re about there.

Red Men start with a free Edge (like standard humans), one skill of their choice at d6, and Survival d6. Note that coupled with the advice to start with 10 experience, even a Novice Red Man is effectively Seasoned. (I do have to wonder why a species that lays eggs would develop such voluptuous figures as those depicted in the illustrations, but this is science fantasy here.)

Green Men initially have +3 Size, d6 Strength, d6 Vigour, Large, Bloodthirsty, natural claws and tusks, and Survival d6, and that’s before they start building their characters; admittedly raising Smarts is hard for them. No wonder the humans are advised to start with a few extra experience. Green Men are also egg-layers.

White Apes begin with Size +2; Strength, Vigour and Agility all at d6; thick fur coats; prehensile feet; Bloodthirsty; Clumsy; and Survival d6. Raising Spirit is hard for them.

Grey Martians (picture H G Wells’ Martians) and synthe-men (relic constructs from the lost civilisation) are also described here, but it’s made clear that in the typical game they will be NPCs.

Earthmen are treated last. They are normal Savage Worlds characters, but in line with the genre, they may use points from character creation to buy unusual powers – maybe they are stronger due to the weak gravity, maybe their appearance strikes an obedient chord in the minds of Martian races, or some other power – a wide list of suggestions is provided. All Earthmen have the Outsider hindrance, and one free edge.

Next, the book has rules for creating new races, much like those in SW Deluxe Edition. This and the inclusion of NPC races suggest to me that this chapter should be for GM only as well.
A discussion of skills follows, including a tucked-away note that every PC gets Guts d4 free; then of hindrances and edges. In each case, this explains minor tweaks to fit them to the genre, which ones are not permitted, and in the case of edges, a range of new ones. Notably, Arcane Background is very uncommon amongst PCs, and is expected to be used mostly for villainous NPCs.

GEAR (13 pages)

As usual for an RPG, this focuses mostly on the armour and weapons of the Red Planet. Gunpowder is notable by its complete absence, the Martians never having invented it. We do have a range of radium-powered firearms and exotic armour and weapons suited to a metal-poor culture.

There are notes on a few vehicle types, mostly canal barges or desert transport.

As you know by now, I tend to glaze over at the equipment chapters of setting books, preferring to stick to the items in the core rules. I have no idea how unusual that is, but that’s how I roll.

SETTING RULES (14 pages)

These are largely the same as those in Adamant’s Thrilling Tales:

Heroes or major villains on Mars basically don’t die, and the incapacitation rules are modified to reflect that.

PCs can gain bennies through acting with style and panache, and use them to gain minor narrative control in scenes.

Two new levels of NPC; henchmen, who are better than extras but not as good as wild cards, and mooks, who make extras look good.

However, the book also adds statistics for airships. Nobody really understands how they work, so no effort is wasted on explaining that; but they are likely to engage in combat, so there are modified rules for fighting between airships and boarding actions.


This chapter opens with a brief history of the planetary romance genre, from 1905 to the present, then moves on to the themes that define it; ruined cities, a focus on ideals and archetypes rather than realism, weird science, grand schemes and exotic locales.

It then explains how to construct the type of adventure suited to the genre, emphasising jump-cuts between scenes of excitement, nefarious villainy, and characters who are morally black or white, not grey.

As is common in SW settings, we now find a random adventure generator, using dice and tables to determine who the villain is, what he wants, how the PCs are drawn in (the “hook”), the exotic location where it happens, the villain’s henchmen, and plot twists. A detailed example is given to show how these work together.

BEASTS OF MARS (16 pages)

Mars isn’t a game where one kicks in the door, kills the monster and loots its treasure; I have no problem with that approach, but it doesn’t fit here. The Beasts of Mars are villains’ pets, guardians of lost treasures, or simply part of the environment, there to remind players why the Red Men live behind city walls. This bestiary offers two things; first, a selection of apex predator types – there are a bunch of small furry creatures around, but you don’t eat them and they don’t eat you, so they don’t need statblocks; and second, guidelines for converting creatures from other SW bestiaries to Martian ones, essentially trappings writ large, with an example conversion.

Personally, I don’t feel the need for rules on how to turn a lion into a six-legged compound-eyed nasty, but they do no harm, and may even provide me with some inspiration.

SLAVERS OF MARS (32 pages)

Here is a five-scenario Plot Point campaign, in which the heroes are hired to extract a Martian princess from the wastelands by airship. Naturally, things are never quite that simple, and go downhill rapidly. ‘Nuff said.

There’s also a selection of a dozen or so adventure seeds – Savage Tales, as they would usually be called for this game system.

ENCOUNTERS (9 pages)

There’s a page of encounter tables for various environments, intended as spurs to the imagination rather than detailed encounters; the GM is expected to wing it, which suits me fine. There are also a variety of stock NPCs; citizens, assassins, city guardsmen, naval ratings and officers, thugs, nobles, soldiers, priests, typical Green and White Martians. Finally, a selection of eight fleshed-out wild card NPCs, to be introduced as patrons or villains.

And, of course, there is the obligatory character sheet.


The main competition for Mars would be the Savage Worlds version of Space: 1889, which covers a broadly similar campaign setting. I don’t have that (yet), and it’s been many years since I saw the GDW version, so I can’t do an effective comparison. My guess is that Mars takes fewer pains with plausibility.

The Good

I don’t often comment about the illustrations in a gaming product, but I did like the ones in Mars; for the most part, simple line drawings, but good at capturing the feel of the setting. The book is also peppered with short fiction in the pulp style, which also serve to convey the sense of being there.

The Bad

The organisation of the book is a little worse than I’ve come to expect in modern RPG products. Referring to races for some time before explaining what they are, snippets of character creation scattered throughout the Characters chapter, and so forth. Note in particular that the GM-only and player information is mixed together, so this is not a book where you can easily give sections to the players.

The odd reference to Action Points or advanced classes, both d20 concepts, manages to leak through the editing; that doesn’t confuse me because I know what they are, and that they are leftovers from the original d20 edition, but someone without that information might be confused.

The Verdict

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I’d love to run this one. All I need is players. Maybe once Irongrave winds down.

  1. thetailrace says:

    Always enjoyed Space:1889 in its original incarnation, I note that there’s a Savage Worlds spin on it nowadays. I may have to check that out.

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