Mars & Martians

Shifting Sands

Player Guide


[Ed. Note: We actually do have quite a bit more information written up about Martian society, religions, culture and customs. But we are not publishing it here because we are saving it to distribute as bluesheets to the players of Martian characters, both because we want the non-Martians to have the enjoyment of encountering these customs for the first time in game as the players of the Martian characters bring them to life, and because we want the players of the Martian characters to have a hand and therefore investment in further defining, tweaking and embellishing what Martian life is like.]


Martian culture is ancient, with a recorded history that stretches back nearly 20,000 years. Their civilization is characterized by a large number of independent city-states, some of which have banded together into larger imperial federations.

Mars is much older than Earth, and over time has gradually lost its water and has become dry. The only thing that makes life possible over much of the planet is the enormous canal system. Built long ago before Martians became decadent and weak, the canal system is an amazing feat of engineering. Criss-crossing the planet, the canals bring water from the annual melting of the polar icecaps. Powerful pumps lift water over mountains, huge bridges span valleys, and other devices link the canals to make them avenues of commerce, all powered by mysterious sources of energy beyond current human understanding.

Martian cities are located at key points along the canal network, particularly at the junction points of the canals, where they serve as centers of trade, craftwork, and political organization. But the technology to maintain the canals is no longer fully understood, and some canals have gone dry, dooming the cities along them to fall into ruins.

There are three species of Martians. The most sophisticated are the Canal Martians, the inhabitants of the surviving canal cities. Canal Martians tend to be craftsmen and artisans, soldiers, farmers, politicians and rulers, intellectuals and priests. They are proud of their ancient culture and see themselves as the natural leaders of the Martians. The political organization of the city-states varies, but a typical city-state is ruled by a monarch, who often governs with the aid of an advisory council, although in some cases the monarch is a figurehead and the council controls the real power. Their level of technology and organization is loosely comparable to Renaissance Europe; black powder guns are the most common weapons for soldiers.

The second Martian species are the Hill Martians. They live in regions beyond the control of the Canal Martians, organized into small clans and inter-related tribes. They are mostly hunters and trappers, craftsmen, and warriors, although some of them work as caravan guards, wilderness guides, and the like. Their level of technology and social organization is much lower, roughly comparable to rural Scotland and Ireland in the Renaissance; guns are rare and swords, spears, and knives are the basic weapons.

The third Martian species are the High Martians, considered the most primitive, both in cultural and biological terms. Unlike the other two species, High Martians possess membranes under their arms and a lifting gland that allows them to fly. (In other Martians, the lifting gland is vestigial.) The High Martians live in small clans based around mountain holds called Kraags. Each kraag is ruled by a king who recognizes no law other than his own power. Because liftwood grows only in the mountainous regions of Mars, other Martians must trade with them, making some of the kraag kings quite wealthy. Other Martians regard the High Martians as little better than savages and animals.

Note: Only Canal Martians are available as player characters without special dispensation from the GMs. Players should not expect to play High Martians at all, and will have to have a very good character concept to play a Hill Martian, because the Countess is unlikely to invite anyone other than Canal Martians to her salons. That's the in-game reason. The meta-reason is because Hill Martians played in civilized settings will by nature be loners and outsiders, which as you may recall us mentioning before is antithetical to the type of highly-connected character we are looking for.

Technology and the Colonies

Terran technology is considerably more advanced than Martian technology on some key points, most notably gunpowder weapons, steam turbines, and electricity. As a result, European states have been able to begin colonizing Mars. Britain possesses the most substantial colonial holdings, comprising more than a half-dozen city-states in the Crown Colony of Syrtis Lapis, and friendly relations with half a dozen others. The Belgians have managed to establish a small foothold in the Coprates Rift, taking control of three city-states, while French Socialists led a revolution that has overthrown the ruling dynasty of Idaeus Fons and established a joint French-Martian state there. Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan have thus far been largely unsuccessful in gaining footholds on Mars.

Some Martian commodities have become important on Earth, and this has encouraged Terran colonization on Mars. The most important Martian export is liftwood, a type of wood that has anti-gravity properties that make it ideal for building airships, which have started to be employed on Earth as well as elsewhere. Gumme is a rubber-like substance that retains its form and flexibility in extreme temperatures, which makes it an important industrial component. Bhutan Spice, a mild narcotic, is becoming popular in wealthy social circles. Beyond that, exotic Martian art treasures, unusual gemstones, and various craft goods are in high demand on Earth.

Martian Religion

If there is one thing that the Canal Martians have plenty of, it is religions. The diversity of the various religious beliefs is just as wide as that on Earth. Almost every city-state has its own state religion, mystery cults, and philosophical sects. Some religions are theistic, but many are a-theistic. Consequently, it is difficult to generalize about Martian religion. However, there are several general principles that occur in all city-states.

All city-states participate in the religion of the Canal Keepers of Gaaryan, one of the a-theistic faiths. The organization of Canal Keepers in the closest thing Canal Martians have to planet-wide religion. The original Canal Keepers, led by Selden II, built the canals millennia ago, but the knowledge of how they did it has been lost. The Canal Keepers are devoted to maintaining the canals that bring the water from the polar caps all over Mars. They follow very strict astrological instructions to maintain the canals. Everything must be done according to their sacred texts or the canals will fail and life on Mars will cease to exist.


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