Friday, 12 May 2017

'The Silver Cult' adventure module (Tales of Gor RPG) review

'The Silver Cult' (Tales of Gor RPG)

Postmortem Studios (33pp)

It’s only been a few weeks since Tales of Gor appeared in pdf and then print form, and already we have the second adventure module, which pleases me no end as I do like to see a steady stream of supplements for a new game system.

Now, whereas the previous module, The Tower of Art, could probably be classed as ‘Gor light’ since it took a rather PG rated approach to the more notorious aspects of Mr Norman’s saga, this time around the authors deliver a far more ‘purist’ adventure that ticks pretty much every Gor box you’d expect. If Tower of Art strayed into Robert E Howard territory a bit (and that’s no bad thing – REH is one of my favourite writers) then The Silver Cult is instead an adventure with the feel of the first dozen or so Gor novels.

Straight away we’re delving into ‘Outlaw of Gor’ territory as the central plot involves a resurrected Silver Mask conspiracy 50 years on from the fall of the Matriarchal regime in the silver rich city of Tharna.
Tharna was an anomaly on Gor at the time – a city ruled by women, overturning the usual state of affairs on this savage planet; at least until Tar Cabot turned up and introduced a regime change of his own.

The game module presupposes that some of the silver masked women escaped the fall of their city and have since dreamed of the blessed day when they might take their revenge against men in general and right the wrongs done to their sex. It’s a great plot concept that surprisingly John Norman has never picked up on, which makes it perfect material for an adventure module since it has the feel of a Gor book that should have been written some time in the early 1980s.

The adventure kicks off in fine form with the male characters taking part in a game of 'girl catch' (while the female members of the party no doubt look on in resigned dismay) which for those not familiar with it, sees the men blindfolded and trying to catch hold of a hooded kajira who has jingling bells tied to her body. So straight away it’s clear that this is going to be a Gor module that doesn’t shy away from the slavery aspects of the Gor books. From here on in the player characters are drawn into the service of a man who claims to need their help in raiding a deceitful caravan master who has wronged him, and that in time then leads the characters into the clutches of the Silver Mask conspiracy.

There are a number of things that stand out in this adventure. Firstly, its an exercise in writing an adventure as a plot. Another (lesser) publisher might pad this out with 50 pages of floor plans of random locations, which frankly I don’t have any need for. As a GM and as a player, I want an adventure that is essentially a good story, that concentrates on role-playing and character interaction, as opposed to exploring a series of rooms in detail (which Pathfinder and D&D tends to veer towards). From the evidence of the two modules published so far, it seems that author James Desborough shares my preference for plot driven adventures, rather than architectural guides. What you get in 33 pages here is probably worth double that from some other game system.

Secondly, the adventure doesn’t serve to railroad the player down a single path. There are many ways to tackle each chunk of this adventure, and it is perfectly possible to play it from the perspective of trying to bring down the conspiracy, or supporting the conspiracy (though the latter option will require additional work on the part of the GM and quite possibly a longer playing time). The module makes the effort to explore the various different routes that players may choose to go down, which is all to the good.

Thirdly, the adventure really does feel like classic Gor. There are slaves to be taken, random encounters that hark back to the great era of the novels (the Free Woman huntress on a riding Tharlarion with a crossbow, from Beasts of Gor is replicated as an encounter in passing) and a strong sense that you’re adventuring in Norman’s world and not some coy understated watered down version. That said, all the gender, slavery, bondage elements are presented so that they can sit happily in the background or be brought rather more to the fore, depending on the wishes of the players and the GM. Not all face to face tabletop groups will feel comfortable with role-playing the friskier elements of the books in painstaking detail (that includes me – I prefer a more abstract approach in tabletop games, though tend to be more adventurous with the anonymity of online gaming) so the options here work well. Female slavery is a central part of the Gor concept, and it plays a vibrant role in this adventure, but never at the point of making it so blatant and overbearing that a face to face game would prove difficult to run.

I suppose in context the slavery/gender stuff here occupies the same narrative position as it does in some of the early books like Nomads, Assassin, and Raiders.

And it’s the small bits of detail that really makes the module work and evokes the feeling of Gor rather than some generic swords and sorcery (minus the sorcery) setting. I loved it, and the best thing I can say about it is I immediately wanted to play in it. What really stands out as well is the immense amount of scope here for female characters to make a real difference to the way the plot unfolds, as obviously they would have the option of siding with the Silver Mask women (either for real or as a ruse), while the male characters probably end up prisoners in the silver mines for a while. It would even be possible to play this scenario as a party of (eventually betrayed by the Silver Masks when they outlive their usefulness) Panther Girls (as is acknowledged in the introductory notes).

So full marks for an engaging adventure story, and for being that rare thing – a module that can work well with many different groups of characters.

Like Tower of Art before, the module also include some additional rules for the game, and in this case the rules are exceptionally elegant, offering as they do a system for torture and the breaking/taming of slaves. The system is geared towards being used on NPCs, though player characters can voluntarily be subject to the same rules if they wish. Torture isn’t something I’d be involved with personally as a Gorean character, but for information gathering purposes, some characters would turn to it, and here we have a system which is all about the breaking down of willpower. I’ll gloss over the torture side, because the bit that really stands out for me is the same use of the willpower rolls for breaking slaves into submission. I touched earlier on how role-playing the slavery elements of Gor in a tabletop game might bring up some awkward moments, even if the slaves in question are NPCs.

So, what the rules do then is apply some game mechanics to what might otherwise lead to some potentially cringe worthy moments of role-play exchanges, offering the group the chances instead to steer such things into the territory driven by game mechanics in a more abstract fashion, if they feel uncomfortable with role-playing such scenes in detail. There’s also a comfortable middle ground where each stage in the game mechanics can prompt a short 'in character' exchange to support the dice rolls. An approach I’d probably adopt.

Essentially then the person breaking a slave‘s will does so over time, selecting from a list of classic Gorean tropes – each one of which in the books gradually breaks the slave’s will to resist As each one is used, an opposed willpower contest takes place, with failures on the part of the slave leading to a gradual erosion of her resistance points. A slave might break early on with some bad dice rolls, or she may hold on to her pride for many days or weeks until bit by bit it is taken away from her. I really like the system. It’s an essentially simple idea, but the permutations (being free form) are varied and it allows the role-play to be a bit more abstract for groups who feel a bit shy about such things.

Personally speaking I’d find such role-play a lot easier if I was essentially responding to the effects of the will power tests detailed here. Almost along the lines of – 'hey, it’s not my fault – Castus of Ar stripped me and bound my wrists and ankles after he captured me, and I lost another 4 resistance points, so I’m not feeling quite so defiant now...' And so on.

Each group can find its own balance to this kind of role-play, but what’s certain is the inclusion of these rules makes the whole thing a lot easier.

The module rounds off with some additional rewards for players who make the effort to keep their characters in the spirit of Gor, offering dice roll bonuses and so forth. Again, I’m very much in support of this kind of thing, both as a GM and as a player.

All told, this is probably my favourite of the two adventures to date, and it bodes well for forthcoming material. I think the Gor licence has found a very safe pair of hands in the form of Mr Desborough and Postmortem Studios.

PDF copy from RPGNow (£2.32)

Perfect bound print copy from Lulu (£6.99)

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