Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gaming on Gor

A few months ago, I posted about television shows that I thought would make good settings for RPGs. I'd like to follow that up with a bit about a series of books that I think would make a really terrific RPG.

John Norman's Gor. Yes, that Gor.

If you've not read the series, and might want to (and honestly it's worth doing), please be aware that there are some spoilers here. I'll try to go light on them.

I think that Gor has gotten something of a bum rap over the years as a swords-and-planet series, and that its potential as a pencil-and-paper RPG is truly great. The premise is classic; on the opposite side of the sun is a "counter-Earth" (hence the series' oft-forgotten overall title, "The Chronicles of Counter-Earth"). Somewhat absently ruled by a race of aliens called Priest-Kings, the human population of the counter-Earth is kept in a state of primitive technology (in most areas; healing is quite advanced, for example, but simple armor and advanced weapons such as firearms are strictly forbidden). Over the eons, Priest-Kings have abducted humans from Earth and taken them to Gor, where they have planted the seeds of Earth-like civilizations; there's a Norse culture, an Amerindian culture, etc., while most of the action centers in a region of city states who have a vaguely Greco-Roman culture. There is another alien race, the Kur, who are bent on taking over Gor, and their agents wage a never-ending campaign of subversion against the more overtly powerful Priest-Kings.

Amongst most of the cultures, there is a caste system, which defines who you are and what you do. The Warriors rule for the most part, but there are Healers, and Builders, and Physicians, and Priests, and so forth. The various city-states are in a constant state of conflict, with shifting alliances, wars both large and small, intrigues, trade caravans, and the like. There are the giant birds, tarns, which the most adventurous warriors ride as mounts, both for sport (there are tarn races in the larger cities, much like ancient Rome's chariot races) and for hunting and war.

And there are over two dozen books, some tipping the scales at over 400 pages, detailing this world and its intrigues in amazing detail. Man, doesn't this sound like the BEST setting for a campaign? Years ago, I myself made a half-hearted attempt to put together a GURPS Gor campaign (although I think it might do really well with Savage Worlds or FUDGE today). Why hasn't somebody jumped on this property already?

Well...

One of the central themes of the series is slavery. Not just that it's a society that condones slaves; that's no big deal when talking about a fantasy or RPG world. But Norman seems to use his novels to convey a message that women are natural slaves to men, and, if only the artificial trappings of civilization were done away with (as, naturally, the Priest-Kings have done, if only inadvertently for their own ends), then the "natural" state of affairs between men and women will be able to express itself, and men will be the natural masters and women their docile and obedient slaves, and perfectly happy and content in their role as such. A common theme in the books is that of various "barbarians" (meaning young women who have been abducted from our Earth and deposited on Gor) learning their true role in the natural order, and coming to accept and love it, either quickly or slowly. Usually quickly.

(There is a, possibly apocryphal, story about a panel at a science fiction convention on the East Coast many years ago, where John Norman and Andre Norton were seated next to one another, on a purely alphabetical basis. The tale goes that Norton spent the entire panel glaring at Norman, furious enough at the alphabetical indignity that it looked like she was ready to gouge out his eyes.)

There is, in addition, a whole sub-sub-culture of the B&D / S&M scene that models their own activities around the books. And on the Internet, especially but not exclusively on AOL, there is a thriving Gorean role-playing community, with their own plots, and intrigues, and rules (on AOL, for example, there is the Gorean Arena, a chat room where nearly every night characters face off against one another using the built-in AOL dice-rolling feature, and a set of rules that are not set by any one person or group, but are, rather, mutually agreed-upon). At times, there are dozens of such chat rooms, from the Kajira Waterfalls to the Gardens of Ar, where the Goreans spend their time role-playing. It differs from pen-and-paper RPG's in two major respects; there's no game master, and most of the encounters usually end up in two or more characters going off to a private room... (ahem)

The fact that the "rules", such as they are, are arrived at by mutual consensus of the hundreds or thousands of players, is, I think, rather remarkable in and of itself. But I digress...

So Gor has a bit of an image problem; one that is not helped by the content of the books themselves.

They start out as fairly standard swords-and-planet stuff. But as the series goes on, the books not only get longer, but the "all women are natural slaves" (the Gorean word is kajira) thing gets more pronounced. When I read them, I tended to sort of skim over those portions, just so I could get to the good stuff about how the isle of Cos was plotting to overthrow Ar as the pre-eminent city on Gor. Or how the Tarl Cabot (the protagonist of most-- but not all-- the novels and one who very interestingly goes from hero to anti-hero and back again to hero over the course of the books) deals with the latest threat to his person or the Priest-Kings. Some of the plots are carried-- successfully, I think-- for three or more entire books. The culture is well described, including the game of kaissa, which is a sort of chess to which some enterprising folks have actually come up with rules and created actual game-sets.

But the world of Gor is so incredibly well detailed, and so perfectly set for a broad swords-and-planet game, that it's almost a shame that the sexual aspects have been allowed to overshadow it for so long. There's political intrigue, combat, strange animals (sleen, tarns, urts, etc.), and boundless opportunities for role-playing. Hell, I'll admit that I played AOL Gor quite a bit in years gone by, but by far the most enjoyable parts were always the ones where there was a big plot afoot, and where there were opportunities for interesting characters to interact on a level that many pen-and-paper games aspire to. If someone were to come out with a Counter-Earth RPG setting, I would most definitely buy it.

And not just to play a one-on-one with my wife, ending up in our chambers, in the furs...