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?


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…

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

16 thoughts on “Gaming on Gor

  1. The anecdote about Norman and Norton is especially amusing when you consider both are pseudonyms.

    Like you, I love the idea of Gor, but the books them selves do leave a bad taste in the mouth at times…in fact, I don't think I've ever managed to get through a single one, though I've tried three or four (it's possible that some of the later ones aren't as well done as the earlier books).

    Still, I'd prefer to simply steal ideas from the books and do a pastiche rather than 'port the entire world. For me, I prefer a simple setting: say, simply the priest-kings and tarnsmen of the Greco-Roman region…
    : )

  2. I would be remiss without letting you know of a couple of things:

    1) Houseplants of Gor. No, seriously. I can't read it without laughing.out.loud every single time.

    2) The Gorean subculture spread beyond AOL to IRC and other areas. There is still a very serious group involved in it, attempting to live their lives around Gorean power exchange philosophies. No word if they're going to find Counter-Earth anytime soon. It's my understanding that the more serious "leather folk" tend to look at Goreans much like gamers look at min-maxing munchkin players.

    Still, kajira positions and dances can be fun to imagine…

  3. I've never been a fan of the series, though I may re-sample it (it's been many years and tastes change). Personally, I don't think the ethics of the setting much affect it's value as an RPG setting.

    We've all heard the arguments over the decades: evil characters, encouragement of pagan/Satannic beliefs/practices, etc. Even the ethics of going out and slaughtering living beings for the amusement and the chance to steal thier stuff could bear serious discussion ;-).

    The point is, as role-players, we define settings to explore our imaginiations and doing things you couldn't or wouldn't (hopefully) do is often a part of that. So individual preferences are important to the individuals, but no setting or concept is a real issue IMHO.

    I was interested to note not too long ago that Gor had also spread to Second Life:

  4. Heh, yeah I had read Houseplants of Gor years ago, and forgot about it. I, too, still chuckle when I read it.

    I did mention the IRL Goreans in the post (one such couple got arrested a couple years ago in the UK, if I remember correctly), but one interesting thing I forgot to mention was a sub-sub-sub-group called the Tuchuks (modeled after Gor's nomadic culture) who, IRL are a sort of semi-SCA group. I know they at least used to show up to Pennsic War. Not sure if they're still around…

  5. I have to say, if a potential GM told me he was planning a campaign based on the Gor novels… well, I wouldn't be playing in that campaign.

    The series may have started off well enough, but as a whole it could be gathered into a compilation called "Slave Sluts Who Are Gagging For It Really No Matter What They Say… of Gor". It's offensive crap, and deserves to be commited to the garbage heap of history.

  6. @Chgowiz: There was a bit of media and legal fuss last year(?) in my part of the UK over a local RL Gorean group. They had a pretty standard sub/dom dynamic (the subs *really* set the boundaries) once you got past the middle-aged biker/S&S imagery. Hey, if it floats their boat…

    "I am to be placed in a hanging basket on the porch," said the spider plant.

    Hmmm, the mind boggles at the content of Gorean gardening programmes. (some days I disgust myself)

  7. @Joseph – I thought those were the "wildmen" – my only time going to Pennsic was a drunken affair and I only remember mostly naked men running around screaming barbaric epiteths. It wasn't the alchohol…

    @Chris – it's my understanding that most of the Goreans are seen as LARP'ing in the BDSM subculture. I think if it were to go into a more rigid, dogmatic power exchange structure as the cyber-Goreans like to play, you'd see a great many men in jail for domestic violence. There's little tolerance for that sort of thing in most of the country.

    That's not to say it couldn't be fun to RPG in a beer/beer/beer/pretzel sort of game.

  8. If Norman had perished in a plane crash after the first three books his creation might be looked on rather fondly. As it is, the puerile misogynist fantasies that began to absorb more and more of his later novels (making them unreadable, actually)spoiled the entire thing. Plus, it must be said, "Norman" isn't really a very good writer. If it wasn't for the slavery/bondage motif I doubt anyone would still be interested in his books.

    As someone said, if a DM told me he wanted to adventure in the world of Gor I'd be out of there PDQ since I'm not into the S&M/BD scene and any campaign based in this setting would be forced to go that direction. I can see a very, very mature set of gamers handling it and…oh hell, no I can't. Any such campaign would soon turn into "What can I make the slave girls do because they really love it, heh heh heh" bullshit and I have better things to do that hang around middle aged guys acting out their rape/bondage fantasies…blech.

  9. I read the Gor series ages ago as a teenager – read all of 'em, but only a few of the books stand out in my memory. I love many of the aspects of Gor – tarn riding, Grecco-Roman culture, strange new monsters – but I was also very…intrigued by the master/slave theme – I mean, c'mon, I was a horny teenage boy! And in the 70's this was softcore porn! But as an RPG? I think it would be fun for the first few hours, but to stay true to Gor, it wouldn't take long for the game to devolve into S&M jokes and sillyness.

  10. OK, now I have to take the Devil's Advocate position, just because…

    … in all seriousness, I think it depends on how the DM runs the campaign. If you emphasize the slavery, then it becomes the focus. If it's background, then it's background. Blackmoor had slaves. It's not an unknown flavor in many other swords & planets type of stories.

    I almost feel challenged to try now…

  11. Usually, when someone talks about gaming a book, I make this pretentious argument about how there is a huge difference between playing a game in the style of the authour's stories and playing a game in the authour's setting, with my preferences for the former. But in this case, I think doing the latter woudl be preferable. Good even. Because you're right–the setting is perfectly fine and minor surgery removes the offending stuff.

    Come to think of it, I recall an article in the Dragon back int he 80's, talking about adapting Gor for a D&D game.

  12. My problem with gaming Gor is that so much of it already exists in better forms. Weird cultural practices? Tekumel/EPT, RuneQuest, Reign. Class-ism? Tekumel, maybe a bit of Dying Earth as well. Kinkiness? Any given friday night…

    Could some of the of the Gor elements (I have an allergy to saying "Gorean" for some reason) be transplanted to gaming? Sure – I have to say that the expression of the priest-kings would work for some of the higher echelons of the Tsolyani pantheon. But we're talking style and not substance for most of them.

    An interesting consideration, but I think I'll still pass…

  13. Hm. I'm afraid you might be more successful if you lifted the good parts of the Gor books – the stuff that makes you want to play them – and transplanted them to a 'new' setting, without the problematic name. 'Gor', as a name, just has a ton of nasty baggage – I seem to remember that Dark Horse was going to reprint the novels, and there was such a huge uprising of distaste for them that they quietly scuttled the plans.

  14. I skimmed over the comments, so if this is redundant I apologize. I think the Gorean roleplay is too far focused on sex. When I joined it I trained under two black castes and I learnt Gor by means of strict rules, castes, customs, and a very well played out world to go nuts and be anything. The laws of Gor make a rich rp that is lacking in other kinds. Having said that, as a secondlife-gorean, I must say that true Gorean rp has died and opted more towards the stereotypical assumptions. I often get requested to join a "homestone" not for the sake of good rp but for the sake of how many kajira that homestone has. It's sad because text sex is not rp and not why I come to Gor. I come for epic battles, political quarrels, deep conversations, and the lore provided. If people could just stop discriminating and stop being dumbasses focusing on tits then Gor would probably be one of the best rp settings in the history of table-top and LARP. The real beauty is the constrictions. DnD lets you run wild and, besides the class restrictions you choose, you can do anything and everything you want. But Gor makes you hold an etiquette not just with castes/weapons/armor but it makes you hold that etiquette even with speech and how you eat/drink certain things. I agree with this post on Gor getting the short end of the stick, but the common gorean rper just coming into it for a slave is not helping the situation at all.

  15. I read all of the Tarl Cabot Gor books and enjoyed them. I skipped the sex parts as well (Note, this which is overly difficult in an audio novel) so they really weren't that offensive, just longer than they should have been.

    Having said that I'm not sure it would be so great as a location for a game. Most of the beasts are just re-skinned versions of human animals. Most of the cultures are the same as human cultures. It's basically alt-history with sex-slaves and Tarn. Not really interested.

    On the other hand the books are loaded with some nice sequences, plot threads, and characters that I was able to steal and put into my own campaign with little trouble. The fact that most people won't touch the books with a 10-foot pole just means the theft goes unnoticed.

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