It’s fair to say that Gor has something of a polarising opinion on people.
And that's putting it mildly.
While ostensibly derived from the same pulp ‘swords and planet’ genre that spawned adventure romps by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, Leigh Brackett and Michael Moorcock amongst many others, Gor from an early age ensured its commercial popularity and courted controversy at the same time by making slavery an integral part of the setting, to the point where nowadays that is pretty much all it is (in)famous for.
That said, it was once a common series of books in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Science Fiction sections of bookshops, occupying vast tracts of shelf space, and the basic core idea (setting aside the more controversial elements) of a primitive Counter Earth orbiting the Sun on the opposite side to the Earth, and the secret war between two alien races vying to control both Gor and (as a secondary prize) Earth is a good one and cries out for a role-playing game to match. And now at last it has one.
The core set comes as two volumes – game stats and character design (plus an introduction to the culture setting) in the first, and an encyclopaedic compendium of A to Z reference material in the second. This makes commercial sense as there are thousands of potential Gor fans who might wish to pick up the reference material, even though they don't play RPGs, and wouldn't need to know how many hit points a Sleen has.
43 on average, just in case you're wondering. :)
The first thing to remark upon as I crack open (in a virtual pdf kind of way) the electronic spine of the Tales of Gor game manual is how uncontroversial it actually is once you skim its pages. Yes, there are some pictures of naked breasts, but the author has not produced a game book that beats you about the head with lectures about slavery and the natural order of the genders. What you have is what you would actually want – a sleek, easy to grasp set of rules to establish characters and campaign adventures set on the 'sword and sandal' world of Gor. It takes the adventure setting of Gor first and foremost, and while it doesn't shy away from the prevalent nature of slavery on that world, I wouldn't say the slavery aspect in the game books is any more prevalent than in the old Mongoose Conan RPG or in the Rome TV series. Because the author recognises that any tabletop Gor RPG is going to be about sword play and adventures first, with the erotic overtones of that world mostly on show in the background to add spice and kink to the decadent nature of Gorean society.
And here it comes down to your personal preferences. If you don't like the idea of old school pulp stories having a sexual undertone, then of course this game is never going to be your thing, in much the same way I don't really take much to Cyber Punk or Japanese Manga. But reading the book you'd probably be surprised how readily accessible it is as a complete body of work to anyone who is interested in pulp Science Fantasy games.
What James does very successfully here is he takes all the interesting and imaginative elements of the Gorean world – elements that are often lost or submerged beneath tedious copy and paste diatribes on the nature of the sexes in the later books (and one thing that can't be denied, Gor is probably one of the most detailed and fleshed out worlds in pulp fiction) – and he plays to its strengths, playing down the exasperating aspects that even the most enthusiastic John Norman fan could probably live without.
So yes, it's first and foremost an RPG of 'High Adventure' that benefits from a decadent setting that either appeals or doesn't appeal. If you have set your mind to hating anything to do with Gor, well, this game probably isn't going to win you over, but if you've simply heard it's controversial, you may be surprised to see how the subject matter has been handled here.
The game mechanics are lifted squarely from the open source D6 system that powered the original Star Wars RPG – a system that incorporates 'wild dice' to produce extreme effects at either end of the spectrum. It's simple enough to be picked up by people who are new to RPGs, but elegant enough that it can provide the sort of feel you want from a game that evokes heroism and larger than life adventures.
Gor's strict caste system lends itself well to character templates, and although the most appealing one for me is obviously 'head strong, condescending, reassuringly superficial, and somewhat overconfident agent of the sinister Kurii,' you can if you wish role-play a builder instead.
Though honestly? A builder? Why would you? :)
The black and white art by Michael Manning is all bespoke and with only one or two exceptions, evokes the complex world of Gor very well indeed. I'd best describe it as a comic book take on Aubrey Beardsley with its solid chiaroscuro style. The exception for me at least are the faces of the Kurii that look a bit too cartoon like and not nearly ferocious enough. In some of the illustrations you feel like you want to give them a great big hug and stroke their lovely soft fur, and indeed, there appear to be one or two pictures where slave girls are indeed doing just that (Disclaimer: in real life, never actually attempt to stroke or hug a Kur). On the other hand, the pictures on pages 25 and 56 are just sublime and worth the price of admission alone.
Despite the single minded tone of the official books, the game is quick to assure us that it is designed to accommodate any manner of interpretations of Gor. It’s quite conceivable that a group of player characters could be anti-slavery, for example, odd as that might seem to John Norman himself. And it wouldn’t be that difficult to run a Gor game in the style of Robert E Howard’s Hyborian age, with the added flavour of the secret cold war between the enigmatic Priest Kings and the savage Kurii lurking in the background.
Moving on to the second volume (which was a bit of a beast to download to be honest) we have a hefty compendium of easily digestible background entries in an A to Z format, made more fun by randomly placed interjections by the author writing as an Earth man brought to Gor to live for a few years as a roving scribe. Breaking up what is essentially 202 pages of encyclopaedia entries, with a series of (often) humorous insights and anecdotal observations into everything from Samos of Port Kar to Pleasure Slaves, makes for fun reading, and my only criticism here is there isn’t more of it. It’s a stylistic flourish that I would love to see carried over into supplementary books, especially ones that flesh out specific regions of Gor.
As I well know (because I role-play there), the Internet has long had a sizeable presence of ‘role-players’ gaming Gor in various forms in chat room based sites (not to mention the vast population of such people in Second Life) and it would be very cool indeed if this game with its simple enough rule system that lends itself very well to the dice rolling programmes in Gor based chat rooms, became a standard rule set for people to take their role-play further than it currently stands. It has that potential over and above the more usual tabletop format of role-playing games and it would be a vast improvement on the current anarchic system whereby two players simply argue about who stabbed who successfully with a sword.
Taking into account its small press origins, this is an impressive and inexpensive role-playing game that succeeds in bringing the full flavour of its source material to the tabletop. To my mind it presents a far more elegant and cohesive game setting than, say, the bloated and sprawling world of Pathfinder, and it has the potential to be expanded into all manner of meaty supplements.
High on my wish list would be adventure/sourcebooks for the various regions of Gor – in particular the Tahari, the Northern reaches of Torvaldsland, the Panther Girl forests and the Jungle interior. Taking one of those regions, populating it with fleshed out locations and a format of say, 101 adventure seeds, or perhaps a sprawling campaign on the scale of ‘Shadows of Yog Sothoth', would make for a very cool package indeed.
And I can but dream of a source pack specifically tailored to haughty, over confident agents of the Kurii…
So, all credit to James Desborough who seems to have pulled off the near impossible, when you consider how toxic the concept of Gor can be in certain quarters.
Five stars, which frankly is four stars more than I’d give to the tawdry and demeaning plays of Boots Tarsk Bit. Needless to say, I of course only watch those plays periodically to remind myself how offensive they are... ;)
You can buy Tales of Gor (both volumes) from lulu.com.
Tales of Gor (Game manual):
World of Gor (Encyclopaedia):