Tales of Gor (Postmortem Studios, 2017) is the licensed tabletop role-playing game adaptation of John Norman’s notorious Gor series of sword-and-sorcery novels, written by James “Grim” Desborough and illustrated by Michael Manning. Gor is notorious for heavy themes of slavery, sadomasochism, male dominance and female submission, and for long philosophical digressions justifying those themes. Since 1966, there have been more than 30 novels published in the series. The series has inspired a strong cult following, including a small branch of BDSM culture devoted to Gorean style slavery, both in real life and online in Second Life.
In keeping with the 19th and early 20th century literary roots of Gor (e.g. ER Burroughs’ Barsoom series), the book has a framing device of an in-universe account written by an Earth man transplanted to Gor. There’s a gazetteer of the various cultures, mostly fictionalized versions of real-world cultures.
Tales of Gor uses the OpenD6 system, probably best known for being used in the 1980s Star Wars RPG. Roll a number of six-sided-dice equal to your relevant attribute and skill ratings, and compare the resulting total against a target number to determine success. Character generation starts with templates based on their caste in Gorean society, with room for customization. You can take the “Man (or Woman) of Earth” trait, and get a small boost to physical abilities because of Earth’s higher gravity, but you have to spend some of your skill allowance on something useless in Gor’s quasi-classical setting, like computer programming or welding.
For the most part, Tales of Gor isn’t all that different from any other sword-and-sorcery RPG. For the purposes of this discussion, what matters is how it handles the sexual content of its source material.
Under the “Race and Sex” heading (Pg. 8), Desborough acknowledges the controversial material.
To those lacking context or familiarity it would be all too easy to dismiss the Gorean world as one of racism, imperialist fantasy and misogyny.Pg. 8
He then takes an apologist position.
Primarily one should always keep in mind that the Gorean world is a fantasy world and, as such, should be treated as fantasy. It is escapism, whimsy and a way of exploring alternate worlds and ideas form the safety of your own mind.
Millions of people around the world enjoy the fantasy of domination and submission into which Gor fits and it says nothing of their own personal beliefs bout the political and social relationships outside the bedroom – and nor does enjoying a guilty pleasure like Gor.Pg. 8
In the world description section, starting on page 17, slavery is introduced in the third paragraph.
Behind it all, Gor rests upon the backs of slaves, taken in conquest or as a result of criminality, debt or custom. On Gor, slavery is seen as being as natural as a predator taking prey or the strong overcoming the weak. Equality is seen as a contemptible myth and though they do not discriminate by race, they do by gender. On Gor there is no gender equality, the differences are seen as immutable and important and many a beautiful woman will find herself in the chains of a Gorean master, taken as a prize, no matter her power or station. Men who are taken prisoner are unlikely to find themselves in so soft a slavery and may well be executed or put to work in mines or fields, until death or sale.[Pg. 17]
Note the lack of distinction between sex and gender. The text includes a paragraph on deviations from this sex/gender paradigm.
Intersex conditions and transsexuality is virtually unknown on Gor outside of particular cultures or fringe religious grounds such as the Waniyanpi of the barrens. It is likely that intersex conditions are seen as deformity and aborted or killed at birth while transsexuality is almost unheard of, outside some cultural accommodation and shaming amongst the Red Savages. Homosexuality is also somewhat rarer than on Earth, though it is in no way hated or considered unnatural and there are male slaves bred and raised solely for that market.Pg.36
No mention of what queer women of Gor do.
The author does include an escape clause.
Your Gor is your own however, and you are free to include or exclude these as you wish.Pg.36
See page 34, 35, 44, 51, 52, 55, 162
In character creation, the section headed “Gender” (Pg.44) continues the theme of complementary essentialism, prefaced by another escape clause.
Gender is hugely important on Gor and as such gender differences appear in these rules as standard, though you are free to ignore them if you so wish, and many will choose to do so.Pg. 44
After listing the physical differences between average men and women, there are optional rules for giving the two (only) genders boosts to certain attributes.
In the Skills section, there are listings for Pleasure (“An ability in this can please Masters and Mistresses or help break slaves to their bondage.”) [Pg. 52] and Slave Handling (“Prolonged use of this skill upon a capture can break their will and transform them from a resentful, bitter and disobedient capture into a responsive, pliant and joyful slave.”) [Pg. 52] Note that there are no rules to model this process.
Desborough keeps tapdancing on the edge, stating elements of Gorean ideology and then backing off to say that the reader doesn’t have to use them.
On page 162, the text directly addresses sex in roleplaying, which is a dicey topic even in settings without Gor’s sexual politics.
It can be unsettling to cover sexual topics around the table, especially with friends who you may feel will be judging you.Pg.162
The golden rule here is that everyone at the table should be comfortable with what’s going on, should feel free to speak up if they’re uncomfortable and that they shouldn’t feel judged for doing so.Pg. 162
The book then provides examples of several levels of explicitness. [Pg. 163]
- Ignore it. Assume it happens in the background but don’t talk about it.
- Coy. Sex happens, but it’s all off-stage. Just fade-to-black.
- Suggestive. Some explicit description.
- Explicit. Just what it says.
On the next page, there’s a half-page of text with the heading “A Word About BDSM”. The author describes the popularity of BDSM by city Fifty Shades, the “gimp” from Pulp Fiction, and the “snuggle dungeon” episode of The Simpsons (S24E17).
Similarly, even though there are ‘Gorean lifestyle’ people within the kink community, Gor should not be taken as any sort of guide to BDSM or any sort of reflection on how things really are.Pg.164
The author then draws parallels between BDSM and RPG.
Role-playing, similarly, needs to be a safe, sane and consensual activity and whether its that spiders creep you out or that you don’t want to know what your character is being put through at the hands of the slaver or torturer you also get a ‘safe word’ and can demand a ‘fade to black’ at any point.Pg. 164
In theory, this is fine, but I’m not sure how this would work in practice, especially for those who want to play female characters. In Gor, the destiny of almost any woman is sexual slavery. One could play a free woman, a “panther girl” or other rare exceptions, but even they lead constricted lives. You would have to “play against the grain”. There’s a sample adventure that includes a pleasure slave as a pre-made character, but it isn’t clear what she’s supposed to do in the situation.
The book’s art is all by Michael Manning, who has made beautiful, imaginative fetish and BDSM art for decades, notably the Spider Garden series of graphic novels.
Manning’s art manages to slyly subvert the gender politics of the text. One piece shows a lushly curvaceous pleasure slave and a scarred, muscular panther girl giving each other the side eye.
Manning’s artwork can be purchased in a separate book.