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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Interview with the lead designer of the Gor RPG

In other news, the Gor RPG is out!
And I interviewed the game designer, James Desborough from PostMortem Studios, for my blog.

If you need an intro, you can assume I said "Hi, Mr. Desborough. Let me ask you a few questions about the Gor game you just published for my Characters and Flashing Blades blog".

Question by Asen Georgiev and the CaFB blog: Mr. Desborough, please assume I don't know what Gor is and have never read any novels (which would be utterly wrong, but you get the idea). How would you present me Gor as a setting for RPGs? 

Answer by James "Grim" Desborough: I would say that it is a setting in the tradition of Planetary Romance. I think it has a lot in common with Barsoom, but where that was - perhaps - challenging the propriety of its era (with nudity and treating 'coloured' people as equal and superior) Gor challenges more of our sexual preoccupations and gender politics. That was part of a general cultural shift in the 60s and 70s with both 'free love' and the pill making an impact, but also the impact of feminism. 

Another way you could put it, I suppose, is as the bastard child of Conan and Velikovsky, with a dash of BDSM aesthetic and a fetish for the classics.

Q: You said it yourself: Gor is known as a world with heavy BDSM elements. Are you going to try and market the book to members of that particular sub-culture? 

A: I'm unsure exactly how to reach them as a market. Perhaps advertising on Fetlife? *Chuckle* I don't know. I've more focussed on trying to reach the existing (soft) RP communities in Second Life and webchat etc. 

Q: I see that you clearly present Gor as a "pulp" world, which - I agree - is how it started, and how it should be. But how does that jive with the d6 system, which can be notoriously lethal? 

A: Gor is a pretty lethal world too. Pulps can certainly be very lethal. I've compensated for this some by providing an 'honour' system, to simulatneously encourage 'Gorean' behaviour and to insulate a little from the deadliness. 

Q: Why did you pick Gor as a setting, especially since we both know it's got, how to put it, "associated cultural baggage"? 

A: I've enjoyed the books since I was a teenager. I've always thought that it would make an interesting setting for a roleplaying game given its fantastical elements, well developed societies and cultures and the 'frisson' that comes with that baggage. I'd written lots of homebrews and ideas for it over the last 25 years or so and then decided to take the plunge. Part of it's just because I like the books, some because of their personal meaning to me (and no, I don't think all women should be slaves or any of that other nonsense, I just mean they mean a lot to me). Part of it is because the double standards around sex and violence in games has always bothered me and part of it is because I was told I couldn't or shouldn't, which is a red rag to a bull. 

Q: Bondage and slavery is part of the novels the setting is based on, and slaves aren't exactly treated kindly. How do you suggest the GMs should proceed if the PCs are captured - a fate that has (repeatedly) befallen even Tarl Cabbot, the protagonist of most Gor books? 

A: Slavery is much more apparent in the books than it is canonically in the societies that Norman presents in his books. The figures he gives are that - perhaps - 5% of the population are slaves and the majority of that are male work slaves, out of sight and out of mind. So the impression many have isn't necessarily accurate... that said, slavery is - thematically - a huge part of the books and the world and so unavoidable. Slavery presents a good alternative to total-party-kills and there's always a chance to escape or, thematically, to become happy in that bondage and turn one's master or mistress to one's side. That's another recurring theme. For my part, I'd 'metagame' it a little, see what the players wanted and plot the following games that way. 

Q: Slavery  does indeed present a good alternative to total-party-kills. Does the system provide for means to capture someone? A threshold where the characters are incapacitated, but not yet dead; grappling (that's easier to apply than the grapple rules in d20, preferably!); less-lethal strikes; or others? 
A: There's a limited 'death spiral' inspired by one of the few good things about D&D4e and the capacity to render people insensible. So it's anticipated to an extent. I may expand on that some in a supplement. One of the next supplements will have rules for 'breaking' people, applicable to NPCs only, torture and slave training. The slave training thing is rather Gor specific, but torture is something that's common in games but not much addressed. I felt that the necessity to handle this kind of thing for a game created an opportunity to tackle that. 

Q: While you say that there's always a chance to escape and this happens in the novels, and I fully agree with your "metagame" approach - hopefully it's in the GM's advice - I'd argue that it's much more common for the protagonists in the novels to turn the tables on the master or mistress when said master or mistress is in trouble. It's also a recurring theme (and a good reason to NOT have slaves). It's *usually* the secondary characters that get used to it and try to bring the Master/Mistress to the other side. Are you addressing those options in the GM advice section (both "slaves are going to betray you", and "you can betray your master to his or her enemies, though watch out if you do")? 

A: Not so much, I've more tried to anticipate the PC side of things since 'loss of agency' is always a bummer when you're a player. 

Q: In the Gor novels, John Norman - or rather his protagonist Tarl Cabbot, I'd argue - has taken multiple stances that would be offensive to contemporary readers (to note: women are happiest as slaves, that homosexuality is unnatural and doesn't happen in a "sane" society, and that Earth's society is trying to emasculate men - I'm probably missing a few). Does the world book address those matters? How? 

A: I don't know that this is entirely true. Homosexuality is relatively prominent in one of his books as a plot-point and the Panther Girls are certainly implicitly if not explicitly, lesbian or bisexual. Men and women of Earth prove to be quite capable when on Gor - Jason and Tarl especially. 

I take these, at least the ones I agree exist as part of the world he presents, to be fictional precepts upon which the world is build, same as any other game. 'There are multiple intelligent races', 'Magic exists', 'Aliens have visited Earth in the past' seem little different to me than similar thought experiments around sexuality etc. For my part I think it's the realm of fantasy, common fantasies as that, so it doesn't bother me so much. I see reality and fantasy as distinct and trust readers to make the same distinction, just as I do with being wandering murderhobos! 

You can see an argument being made for a 'state of nature' being superior in some ways to our artificial world of concrete and plastic and I think some people have sympathy for that. It is, of course, a naturalistic fallacy but still, I think that's part of the appeal of the fantasy for some people - as it is with survival and post-apocalyptic games and fiction. 

I don't particularly address these things, I do try to contextualise them within our society as it exists now, something I got criticised for already, though I thought it was important. Rather I try to emphasise that your game world is your own. I don't think I get to dictate how people should play. I can only control what I mean and recommend. 

Q: I haven't read all the Gor books, so I guess I've missed which one has relatively prominent homosexuality (but some quick Googling suggested it's Magicians of Gor - Asen and the CaFB blog). What I do remember is that in Blood-Brothers of Gor, the character thinks how relationships between males are due to a deficiency in Earth's sexuality. Let it be clear, are you treating such statements (or those about slaves) as true in the universe of the game, or as only true in-the-head-of-Tarl? 

A: I've suggested that these things are less common, and that trans is likely less common too - Red Savages not withstanding - and that intersex conditions probably barely exist (Goreans are rather unforgivingly Spartan when it comes to children). I have, however. This isn't a personal judgement, just the way I have interpreted the world and how it might treat these things. The homosexuality aspect I've taken from the book that covers it, but a lot had to be inferred. Given so much of Gor's inspiration comes from the Greeks and Romans though... I don't think people have much to worry about. It was important to present the world as written. I didn't feel it was my place to interpret, but to suggest. 

Q: The setting also has the Priest-Kings imposing a world-wide technological embargo on Gor, which purposefully limits weapon technologies (they kill the perpetrators in a rather impressive fashion, for the uninitiated). What should the GMs do if a PC tries to make a gun? 

A: In the books the Priest Kings have become more distant and intervene less and less. It can take some time for such interventions to happen. I would start with a small chance of them being found out and destroyed for making or using such a weapon and crank up the chance the more and more they use it, while having NPCs etc warn them. The Priest Kings would likely prefer to eliminate them in front of an audience so... I wouldn't pull any punches, but I'd take my time. 

Q: The system you picked for this project is the d6 system. Why do you think it is a good fit for the Gor setting? 

A: I'm anticipating getting some 'noobs' into gaming via Gor. It already has a vibrant online roleplaying community in forums, chatrooms and Second Life - something I found out when doing research. As such I wanted the game to be accessible. D6 was used to power the West End Games version of Star Wars, which was also an heroic, science-fantasy game, so it seemed like a good fit. Second to Red Box D&D, D6 was probably the gateway drug to gaming for a lot of people in its time and so it seemed like a good fit. Character templates also work great for Gor's castes. 

Q: I think that d6 is probably at least fourth (after Vampire and maybe the d100 games, Runequest included) as a gateway to the hobby, but I do know that there is a Gorean roleplaying community. Are you trying to market your game to those people? If so, how do you explain to them why they need a system for the games they are already playing? 

A: I've suggested it primarily as a resource - the worldbook too. It's my hope that the game may provide a common ground for these many different RP communities, but we'll see. I am trying to appeal to them, with some success. We'll see how things go though. 

Q: Kinda related to the above, but not quite - does the way you present the setting differ in "World of Gor" and "Tales of Gor" ("Setting book" and "System", respectively)? I could see the setting book being more about the general society, while the game book being more focused on the details that concern PCs... 

A: I give a broad overview in 'Tales' and much more detail in 'World'. Some info is repeated. If you really want to dig deep into the setting then 'World' is necessary, but you could cope without it - and some understanding of the books. 

Q: Since I'm addressing the differences between the two books, let me ask about the system, too. What would you say to people that would take World of Gor, and use it with another system of choice? 

A: Go ahead! Whatever floats your boat!
As a system hacker myself though, I'm always interested in how people tweak systems and find inspiration all sorts of places. I daresay Tales could still be useful to them on that basis. 

Q: I understand that Tales of Gor has to be accessible. But you also mention that the future adventures would contain some additional rules. Does that mean that Tales of Gor is somehow "incomplete" as a game, from the point of view of RPG hobbyists? 

A: It's complete, adding additional rules etc to supplements is more intended to add value that pure adventures simply don't have and to tackle problems and ideas that couldn't justify page space in the main books. Think of it as... DVD extras, or Director Commentary. 

Q: Also, can you give us a list of what kind of rules are added in your current adventure? I wasn't able to find such a list in the adventure's description. 

A: The Tower of Art adventure contains rules for adding 'specialities' to your characters, particular areas of expertise in their skills. It just allows a bit more customisation and personalisation. I suspect a lot of additional rules will be similar, complications and special cases that aren't necessary for new players but will increase the complexity and depth for those that want that. 

Q: I hope it wouldn't offend you when I state that your reputation in RPG circles is best* described as "controversial", especially when it comes to certain topics that other people consider more sensitive than you do. It's also fair to say that most of your critics don't really appreciate Gor. Was picking Gor as a setting (at least in part) a big "fuck you" to your critics? 

A: I've been reading the books since I was 15. This project took years to pull off, unfortunately, it should have been much quicker. That's a lot of time, effort and sleepless night JUST to stick the middle finger up at someone. Is it partly a 'fuck you'? Sure, but it's also a genuine labour of love. 

After years of harassment etc. I still don't really understand my critics. I share most of their political viewpoints, just disagree on tactics. What seems to set me at odds is my differentiation between reality and fantasy and my commitment to free expression. I don't see either of these things as bad. 

Asen: Thank you for your time, Mr. Desborough!

*For the benefit of readers, I have to note that Mr. Desborough is a veteran game designer with multiple games to his name. However, that's 1) not part of my question and 2) even some people that have never read one of those books have heard the critics levelled at him. 

Feel free to copy and paste that interview, to use it commercially or non-commercially, as long as you mention the name of the interviewer Asen R. Georgiev. Of course, the responsibility for any further use is on you.