Reviewed by Jamie 'Trotsky' Revell ©2002
Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion
GURPS Mars is a general source for gaming on the Red Planet. The first half of the book provides background information on the world that can be used in any campaign, while the second half details four specific ready-to-use settings.
The meat of the first half is a detailed description of Mars and its environment. Some of this could be obtained from any good non-fiction book about the planet, many of which are available, but it is the application of this data to produce game mechanics that makes it worthwhile. What are the effects of Martian gravity? What exactly would happen to you if you went out without a spacesuit? How will the cold and background radiation affect you? These are the sort of questions answered here. Descriptions of interesting geographic features are provided, from the Valles Marineris and Noctis Labyrinthia to the 'Face on Mars'. Travel times from Earth to Mars are addressed, with some appropriate spacecraft designs, as well as information on the likelihood of finding water and where Martian life could plausibly be hiding.
So far this is all pretty realistic; the remainder of the background section, however, deals with Mars in fiction and superstition. Here such matters as Lowell's canals, Hoagland's ruined cities and Gauquelin's 'Mars Effect' are discussed. There is information on Astrology, the role of the planet in various ancient mythologies, on Charles Fort and Immanuel Velikovsky. I didn't find much here that was new to me, nor much that could provide inspiration for gaming, but those with a taste for far-out games and cinematic conspiracies might find it more useful than I did. Certainly, it does cover a wide range of topics, and seems to be fairly comprehensive.
Each of the four settings is distinct, and has its own unique flavour, illustrating the wide range of purposes to which the planet Mars can be put in games. The first is a very hard science setting, of the type not commonly seen in RPGs. Here Mars has a population of about a thousand human colonists in various domed bases scattered across the surface, and owing allegiance to various different governments. Vehicle designs and other technological information are provided along with three pages of suggested character types and a host of plot suggestions. It's unlikely a long campaign could be made out of this, but for short to mid-length games there is plenty to explore and a lot to do.
The second setting presents a Mars which has been partially terraformed, and which is much more habitable. This is probably the setting that will be most helpful to those wanting to use the planet in an existing science fiction game, because the technology level is closer to that typical of such milieus. A fair portion of the chapter addresses how terraforming might be achieved, with the description of the setting being relatively short. However, the vehicle statistics and character and campaign suggestions should make up for this, especially if the GM wants to adapt it for an existing campaign anyway.
Next comes Mars as envisaged in 1950s B-movies, with a healthy dose of HG Wells thrown in for good measure. This Mars is inhabited by insectoid aliens, living in huge domed cities and ruled by sinister Science Lords. Statistics are provided for flying saucers and attack tripods, there are mutants out in the wastelands and strange telepathic powers. This world is best suited to a campaign centred around either an invasion of Earth, or to the adventures of a plucky band of human heroes stranded on Mars who must lead the oppressed workers in a revolt against their cruel overlords.
The last Mars setting is reminiscent of that of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with an ancient Martian civilisation living on canal banks, using antigravity boats and fighting with swords rather than death rays. In the spirit of such things, there are many races of Martian, including troglodyte Cave Martians living in a great underground Empire. This is a swashbuckling setting with a twist and certainly looks a lot of fun, although GMs interested in it might want to check out GURPS Planet Krishna, which has a similar atmosphere and is able to devote a whole book to it.
GURPS Mars is an eclectic book; it provides a wide range of information, and no one GM is likely to find all of it useful. Thus, while all the settings are interesting and well developed, the book is likely to prove most useful to those who want a realistic setting, where the information in the first half of the book will prove valuable. If the only thing you are interested in is one of the last two settings, you're likely to find much of the rest of the book to be excess baggage. Of course, if you're interested in several of the settings, the book ought to be a good deal, even if you have to adapt the rules sections to some other game system.
Editor's Note: GURPS Mars is published by Steve Jackson Games who can be reached at http://www.sjgames.com/