Postmortem Studios is working on a tabletop roleplaying game based on the Gor series of fantasy novels by John Norman (a.k.a. philosophy professor John Lange). Published since the 1960s, Gor is a modern version of the Orientalist fantasies of savage lands and slave markets and so on. You can read about their ongoing project on their blog. Gor has a long history of being recreated in Second Life and other online roleplaying environments, so it’s not surprising that someone would try to adapt it to the tabletop, dice-and-paper form of roleplaying.
I learned about this from following the Facebook page of Michael Manning, my favourite (living) fetish/BDSM artist. He’s illustrating the entire book. Manning is primarily known as a fetish/BDSM artist, and it makes sense that he would be tapped for this project. Apart from the standard ferocious monsters, sword-wielding warriors, decadent cities and savage fighting, the books are rife with BDSM imagery. So much so, that there is a fringe subset of the BDSM culture based on the books, Goreans, who borrow the iconography and terminology of the books, such as slave positions and so on. Some of these terms have seeped out into the broader BDSM world.
Gor is notorious for its strong emphasis not only on the world’s apparently universal chattel slavery, but the male-dominant/female-submissive philosophy that justifies it, endlessly reiterated in the books. That’s what made me pause when I thought about Manning illustrating the book. Manning’s work, starting with the graphic novel The Spider Garden, has a strong bi/queer flair, running all over the map of sexuality from conventional, heteronormative pinups to “sacred androgynes”, cross-dressed men, and other, stranger types of sexuality. This also comes in a time when video games and related media like tabletop RPGs are under a lot of flak for #GamerGate. The games designer, James Desborough, reportedly has connections to #GamerGate and some other controversies. It got me wondering: how will Gor be adapted into this medium?
It looks like Postmortem will make Gor a somewhat more inclusive place.
The image above was posted on the Postmortem blog with the caption, “See? It’s not ALL male-dom.” This does not contradict Gorean canon. There are male slaves and free females who take advantage of them, and I suppose you could squint a bit and envision M/m and F/f encounters just off stage. However, the Gor canon is overwhelmingly about maledom/femsub.
A Q&A blog posting says:
Q: Gaming has made big advances in the representations of women, minorities and alternative sexuality. Don’t you think a Gor RPG is a regressive step?
A: Gor has a plurality of representation, despite its reputation and the concentration on a particular outlook within the books themselves. On racial issues, despite some troublesome terminology (to modern eyes) Gor is immensely respectful and inclusive. Alternative sexuality barely comes up in the books, but there’s also no judgement or negative images presented, per se.
As regards the more general comment about representations – and this question was originally asked in a much more abusive form, I’ve translated it – there’s several things to keep in mind I think.
Firstly and most importantly, Gor is a fantasy world. Not reality. It’s a ‘what if?’, and, as such, should be understood in that context.
Secondly, there’s room for multiple ways of going about things. I’m in favour of a plurality of representations and tropes and I don’t think that creativity is a zero-sum game. The new and the ‘traditional’, both have things for and against them.
Thirdly, I see nothing progressive in constricting or limiting free expression, kink-shaming or abandoning classical tropes which can still entertain and serve a purpose, even in different contexts.
Another post addresses the awkwardness of playing female slave characters:
Slave revolts occur in the Gor books and for female slaves, despite the gender philosophy of the setting, there are also the Talunas and Panther Girls.
Most stories involving slave girls within Gor are love stories, indeed the common thread throughout the entire series is the tension of the relationship between Tarl and Talena, played out in geopolitics, honour, bitterness and – perhaps – reconciliation.
Most slaves are unarmed, but that doesn’t make them useless. You could view a slave almost as a ‘healer’ class for the group, taking care of food, comfort, providing distractions and running interference for the rest of the group. Slaves might not be able to be physically dangerous – most of the time – but they’re far from useless. Slaves have an advantage in being ‘beneath notice’ and somewhat immune to threats.
On the other hand, an excerpt from the world book suggests male pleasure slaves, whether serving women or men, don’t really count for much:
Male pleasure slaves are relatively rare as submissive men, silk slaves, do not often arouse mistresses and do not often appear on Gor. Nonetheless, some are found and some are even bred for, though even the most submissive male slave may ‘revert’ and turn upon his mistress. Men are also bought by other men and while Gorean society is largely not judgmental on sexuality some of the practices to produce male slaves for other men – especially from boyhood – are regarded with distaste.
So much for inclusiveness. (See another blog post that addresses the gender politics of Gor, and another that talks about sex in RPGs more generally. Yet another talks about the less defensible aspects of the fictional world and how the game will handle that. )
Desborough directly addresses the issues of gender and consent (and race, something Gor is also kind of retrograde about):
Sex & Gender
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
The Gorean world is one of savage, might makes right, philosophy for the most part – though ‘might’ can take many forms from physical to intellectual or economic. It’s savage and cruel in many ways and a great deal of political and social power derives directly from the strength of one’s sword arm. As such it is a world of extremely stratified and defined gender roles with much of the political, and almost all the military power, residing with men.
Yes, men and women’s roles in society are – typically – very constrained but that’s a reflection of the wider (normal) Gorean society which is very stratified by caste as well as gender and by people ‘knowing their place and role’. That’s the very thing that makes defying those expectations and playing characters that defy, pervert or undermine those expectations (or embody them!) so interesting.
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
Gor contains slavery. This is not unusual for game settings. Slavery exists in many fiction settings and games, as well as existing throughout human history and – in some forms – still today. What is different and challenging about the Gorean setting is that slavery in this context is not seen as an unambiguous evil, but sometimes even as something… good, it also takes it to an extreme.
Desborough gets into an awkward, “it wasn’t rape-rape” rationale for some of the sexuality in the books:
One last thing worth pointing out is the role of ‘rape’ in the Gorean novels. The word doesn’t quite carry the same connotation within Gorean society as it does to us, being more akin in meaning to the colloquial use. On Gor its meaning is more like ‘ravish’, to take with passion and strength and force. In a world where it is the considered wisdom of both free people and slaves that slaves wish to be slaves and where sexual fervour and freedom can lead to frenzies of lust, the context is also different.
Nobody is saying this is the state of the real world.
Tabletop RPGs are an interesting medium in that they are collaborative experiences, with the players and the game master engaged in a constant improvisational interpretation of the rules and the fictional world. Reading between the lines somewhat, the above post seems to say that you can play Gor your way. One post says you can make the sexual encounters as detailed or as vague as you like, or have female warriors or male slaves. It makes sense from an economic perspective, in that a Gor RPG with the gender politics turned down might appeal to a larger audience.
My aim in providing the game book, and the world book, is to provide tools to play YOUR games and to make YOUR Gor. Whether you want to indulge your swords-and-sandals fantasies and lead strings of captured women (or men) from burning towns, or whether you want to lead a revolt of panther girls to raid the border towns and liberate the slaves, that’s entirely up to you. They’re all valid choices.
Doubtless, Gorean purists will complain about this. For them, the Norman philosophy is what it’s all about. This puts Postmortem in an awkward position of having to please both dedicated Gor fans, who want fidelity to the Norman canon and philosophy, and other RPG players, who are likely to be wary of Gor’s notorious reputation, even if the game softens it. (The game appears to be sold as two books, a rule book and a setting reference book, which will also double as a concordance for Gor fans who aren’t into RPGs.)
If you strip out the focus on male dominance and female submission, Gor is a pretty standard sword and sorcery world (though technically it is science fiction). It is thoroughly developed, with over 30 novels worth of material to draw upon, and it’s probably one of the best known fantasy worlds. Problem is, Gor is more notorious than famous, because of the aforementioned sexual content philosophy. I predict that many RPG players will judge the book by its cover and turn away. Tabletop RPGs have an awkward history of gender and sexuality issues (inherited from their pulp adventure literary ancestors), especially as they were primarily marketed to heterosexual male adolescents. There are also some nasty outliers like the obscure FATAL. Now that the RPG culture has matured and diversified, they’re likely to avoid something based on Gor.
Even BDSM players have some discomfort around our disreputable cousins. There’s a lot of erotic fantasy fiction out there now, covering a wide variety of sexual dynamics, and generally without lengthy digressions on patriarchal philosophy. One of the blog postings mentioned the Starz TV series Spartacus, describing it as “very Gorean”. That’s true, in that the series includes a lot of action-adventure, swordfighting, CGI blood spattering over the camera lens, and male and female nudity. On the other hand, Spartacus is pretty progressive in its depiction of sexuality: homosexual relationships have the same weight as heterosexual relationships, women have sexual agency, and rape is taken seriously by the narrative. Furthermore, the entire series is structured around the struggle between the Roman empire and the rebellious slaves. It proves you can have T&A and beefcake and blood and guts, and still be sexually inclusive.
Tales of Gor appears to be an awkward compromise, urging players to play the game and the setting as they want, while repeating the source material and its philosophy as faithfully as possible. It remains to be seen if it will please anybody.
To quote Desborough himself:
What I’m finding fascinating is the RPG people shaming the kinksters and the kinksters shaming the RPG people. Gor seems to exist at a Lagrange Point of contempt between two groups of people who really, really, aren’t all that dissimilar.
A LaGrange point is where the gravitational attraction of two bodies in space (such as the Earth and the Moon) are in balance. An object placed there will stay there, stably. Gor, instead, is at the contact point of two waves of disdain from two different populations. Anything there won’t be stable for long.