Or how to ensure your 'Tales of Gor' character is truly Gorean...
Like any sane, rational person with a modicum of impeccable good taste, I was extremely pleased to see Postmortem Studios' 'Tales of Gor' RPG appear earlier this year. As it stands it's already a fully realised project with enough material contained in the primary two books for Games Masters and Players alike to roam the surface of Gor in a clash of steel and a swish of pleasure silks. In time I hope this franchise will spawn many excellent supplements, but until then, just to keep interest in the game ticking over, I thought I'd pen a couple of extremely unofficial articles in support of it. None of what follows is endorsed by the game author, nor is it meant to be the opinions of John Norman, but what I hope it succeeds in doing is inspiring a few people to create characters for this game that would do the books proud.
More so than most games, 'Tales of Gor' cries out for players to create characters that seem a natural fit to the thriving and detailed world they live in. This is not really the campaign setting for you to foist a generic D&D adventurer on. To get the most out of the Gor setting you'd do well to consider the kind of people that live on the Counter Earth. While you don't have to play 'typical Goreans' – the game after all makes the point many times that Gor is yours to interpret as you will - what follows is a guide to character creation if you want to truly capture the flavour of the kind of people who live, fight and lust throughout the Gorean cycle.
I should begin by saying there is one glaring omission in this article, and that concerns Panther Girls, as I want them to be the subject of a stand alone article at a later date. With that said, let's begin with a look at what you should consider if you want your character to feel truly Gorean.
A character concept is important because it explains who your character is in the context of Gor as a world. It shapes the way your character reacts to his or her environment and the role-play of other people.
Characters in the Gor novels essentially fall into one of two categories – slave or free, and this then is the first thing you should consider. While I imagine most player characters in a tabletop game will be free, that may not necessarily be the case in an Internet/chat room based game of 'Tales of Gor', where much of the awkwardness of roleplaying slavery and gender issues face to face disappears. I'll be touching more on that in my second article which discusses how to play 'Tales of Gor' via the chat rooms on the Internet, and how this might be a radically different kind of game than a tabletop one.
John Norman uses a limited number of stereotypical character concepts for his slaves. Any one of these could be used ‘as is’ or you could develop your own variation on one of the common themes. Virtually all of his female slaves fall into one of six categories:
1) An innocent, but spoilt, Earth girl: a woman who was taken by slavers from Earth and transported in the steel ships to Gor. She is effectively a barbarian and knows nothing of Gor when she arrives. This can be a good choice for anyone with little or no knowledge of the books, as you can justify learning about Gor as you go along.
2) Selfish Agent of the Kurii: The Kurii (plural) are an alien race of bear-like creatures who want to conquer the planet for themselves. For reasons that are never quite clear, they seem very keen on recruiting women to act as their agents, despite these women on the whole lacking any particular talent for the job whatsoever. Inevitably these women run into Tarl Cabot (or someone similar) and end up being enslaved. Agents can be recruited from Gor or Earth (in which case they are usually given a crash course on the language and customs before they take up their duties). They probably don’t know the truth about who they work for really, as it’s extremely unlikely they would have seen a Kur – their dealings would have been with other human agents.
3) Gorean woman in the wrong place at the wrong time: A Free Woman who either does something stupid to the wrong person or happens to be the spoils of war. Basically a former free woman who has been enslaved through bad luck/misfortune.
4) Punishment enslavement: A woman who has either run up debts (and being unable to pay them, is enslaved) or committed some sort of crime, punishable by the collar.
5) A Natural born slave: a girl born into captivity – possibly bred from other slaves.
6) Panther girl: one of the outlaw women of the Northern forests, captured by hunters.
John Norman repeats these concepts throughout the books because they have universal appeal. He seems especially fond of rich, insolent women being enslaved.
Your choice of concept gives you some inspiration for how you react to your slavery – incomprehension and fear if you’re from Earth; outrage and disbelief if you were Gorean and free; or a simple matter of fate if you were born to the role.
Concepts for men are a little more limited. Generally speaking they were not taken from Earth (Jason Marshall in book 14 is an exception), but the 'Tales of Gor' game takes a rather more flexible approach and suggests that by now Earth men were beginning to be taken to Gor to serve as silk slaves for Gorean Free Women on account of the fact they would be more docile and obedient than the native Gorean men. You could make out a special case for your character being taken from Earth for any reason you wish, but understand it would not be the norm. This is important enough to warrant stressing again – slavers were not routinely interested in abducting men from Earth.
Many Gorean slaves were free men taken as spoils of war. Although never actually stated, this does seem to imply they were probably defeated warriors, captured rather than killed. In other words, rather dangerous men, and not exactly the subordinate respectful types with doe eyes that submissive men in on-line Gor role-play chat rooms seem to play. The other most likely case of enslavement would be for criminal acts. Again this suggests a lot of male slaves were once serious criminals – making them again very dangerous. An owner would want to keep such men under tight security indeed. The end of book 14 (Fighting Slave) makes it abundantly clear (in the case of poor Lady Florence) what could happen to an female owner of a male slave if he managed to escape his chains.
Now that you’ve chosen a character concept you can elaborate on it and add detail. So you were a girl on Earth? What was your name? Where did you live? Were you rich or poor? Did you have a job? What unusual circumstances occurred prior to you being seized? What were your last memories of being taken? What happened between waking up on an alien planet and being sold in the slave markets of Gor?
If you were Gorean, what was your caste? Your home stone? Your attitude to slaves before you yourself were collared? What circumstances led you to the collar?
What you’re doing here is establishing a background, rather than simply appearing in the game as 'slave girl number 7'. You don’t have to go overboard with background, but do try and sketch out some bullet points that serve to remind you who you are in the context of the gaming experience.
If you’re new to the books, you may not realise that there are a number of customs that are especially prevalent in long running on-line Gor RPG forums that run contrary to John Norman’s novels. Now would be a good time to address some of them.
A common misconception in some of the games I’ve frequented in the past is that a slave should always be played as someone who orgasms wildly the moment she’s told to serve a drink or scrub a floor. This is a slight exaggeration, but there are a lot of people playing male Gorean characters who feel that a person is not role-playing a Gorean slave properly if that slave isn’t relishing every moment of her slavery. There is nothing wrong with playing a slave who is angry at being enslaved and who is fighting the feelings the collar is bringing forth in her body. The books are full of examples of women who do not want to be slaves (at least, not at first). Inevitably they all eventually accept their new condition (Norman has something of a one-track mind on the subject) but this could take a long period of time and would be a gradual thing. It is perfectly acceptable to role-play a woman who is forced into the role against her will.
Another common misconception in certain Gor online games is that slaves are all fluffy ‘chain sisters’ who snuggle and hug one another. The books are repeatedly clear that on many occasions various slaves did not get on with one another. Yes there were friendships, and a shared acceptance of their condition, but also there were examples of slaves maintaining a strict ‘pecking order’ within households – of new girls being picked on – of former free women being mercilessly teased upon enslavement (it is apparent that many existing slaves relished seeing a free woman reduced to slavery) - of strong girls dominating the others – and of some girls demanding respect and demonstrations of submission when a favour is sought.
The relationship between male and female slaves is also worth mentioning, if you intend your role-play to resemble the books. Female slaves generally disliked male slaves. They delighted in teasing them where possible, and whenever they could get away with it. Male slaves on the other hand had the typical male Gorean attitude to female slave flesh – they wanted it, but generally were not permitted to have it. When on occasion a male slave might be rewarded with the use of a girl for the night, the girl would generally serve the male slave as if he were free. The threat of being given to a male kajirus for a night is usually considered to be a very low punishment for a kajira, though John Norman inevitably always portrays the girl as being immensely satisfied come the morning...
On a similar note, much of the role-play on online Gor between Free Women and slave-girls has been wildly different from the books. I’ve lost count of the number of online Gor rooms where Free Women love their little slave darlings, giving them cuddles and hugs, pet names, gifts of chocolate, and praise them at every opportunity. The sad reality (in the books) is that most Free Women detested slaves, for reasons that should be quite obvious to anyone who has read one (If it’s not obvious, well, don’t expect me to tell you...).
Male slaves, it has to be said, generally have an easier time from Free Women than kajirae do in the books, as they’re not subjected to the same animosity. It is quite possible that a Free Woman may be fond of a male slave, though do not confuse this with the thought that she sees him as an equal in any way. Free Women have reputations to maintain, and while in secret they may be attracted to the idea of a brawny tanned body chained to their couch, in practice such a thing is a minefield to navigate in Gorean social circles. They would certainly not be flirting with male slaves in public, nor would they be recognising or appreciating any signs of overt sexuality in public. A male slave is akin to a pet – although in this case the pet in actual fact has the potential to be a leopard with rather sharp teeth and claws admittedly.
Gorean male slaves in the books were in actual fact strong, healthy, confident, and powerful men, who just happened to be confined in steel with no realistic chance of escape. On the whole they didn’t snivel or crawl or whimper or do many of the things you might associate with BDSM play. They obeyed of course, because to do otherwise would be to be beaten savagely with the full strength of a particularly brutal whip – the snake. Their slavery was a matter of circumstance and coercion. Men were not natural slaves on Gor – they did not discover ‘slave bellies’ during their service. They enjoyed sex of course, but there was always the suggestion that they would prefer to be in control. When chained to a woman’s couch of course, that option was never available to them.
There is a passage in book 19 (Kajira) that mentions how male slaves in Ar weren’t always collared. The reasoning for his was so that they would not recognise one another, realise their strength in numbers, and revolt. By implication, these are dangerous men. A revolt by perfumed silk-clad slave girls of course wouldn’t amount to much. A revolt by thousands of ex-military, and violent ex-criminals on the other hand would.
The two most important features of Gorean society for free men and women are Caste and Home Stone. Of these two, Caste is the number one thing that will shape the concept of your character. The word is a bit misleading as it really refers to profession. Gorean society is very rigid – people are born into certain caste professions and rarely change them. The castes are similar to the guilds of Renaissance Europe with their own rules, customs and styles. Five of the castes are considered as 'high castes' offering a distinction similar to class divides in Earth society. The high castes number the Initiates (priests), the Scribes (scholars), the Builders (architects and skilled craftsmen such as stone masons), the Physicians and the Warriors. Other (non-high) castes include slavers, sailors, pot makers, saddle makers, metal workers, woodsmen, players (specifically playing the game of Kaissa – a chess-like game), Merchants, peasants etc. Pretty much any profession you might think of probably has its own caste on Gor. The castes regulate the practice and conduct of its members and to a certain extent provide caste protection in times of need. A member of a caste could in theory appeal for help to another member of the same caste.
Your choice of caste is the most important decision you'll make when deciding on a Free character and it will drive all other considerations and choices that follow. For a start you will be expected to practise your caste in role-play, or at the very least, make a nodding acknowledgement of it from time to time. Deciding whether to be high caste or not will also have an effect on how other characters react to you.
Homestone is also important to your character concept. Homestone simply means the city that you swear allegiance to and call home. Unlike our modern 21st century Earth, where patriotism is often considered to be outdated, and where many of us are 'global citizens' able to relocate at will, sometimes from country to country, let alone city to city, Goreans prize their identity as belonging to a particular Homestone They show immense pride and loyalty to the place they call home and will defend it at all costs. Protection is given to other men and women of their Homestone It is unlikely for example that a Man of (say) Corcyrus would enslave a woman of Corcyrus, unless she really provoked the collar. Women of other cities however would be fair game.
Once you've decided on Homestone and caste, think about your lifestyle. What do you do for a living? Where do you work? Are you self employed, or do you work for an NPC? Where do you live? Are you rich? Poor? Somewhere in between? Do you have family? Has anything notable occurred in your past, or have you had an easy life so far? You can put as much (or as little) detail as you like into your character concept.
One of the myths prevalent in on line games of Gor is that Free Women are supposed to kneel modestly in a room and keep quiet. Dispel such notions from your mind! In actual fact, Free Women (in the cities at least) probably enjoyed greater freedoms and rights than women did in the equivalent periods of Earth history (and indeed in some regions of the world to this day), and so it should be for your characters. Free Women were by and large protected by both their castes and their homestones. They were subject to the law, like anyone else, but they did not live in fear of being collared if they didn't please a man who shared their Home Stone. The law on Gor tends to protect a Free Woman provided she doesn't do anything illegal. She may practise a profession, travel about a city as she wishes and, yes, even argue with and criticise men! Shock! Horror!
Out in the wildernesses of Gor of course there is no law, and a woman would be at risk, but since women on the whole were sensible enough not to go roaming the highways alone, that shouldn't concern you. While you stay in a city your character will be relatively safe. I say relatively safe because the risks in a Gorean city are the same as in any modern city. Walk through the wrong district late at night when it's dark, or take a short cut through some cut throat alley, and of course you could be attacked, but the same thing applies to London, Paris or New York at night.
Where Gorean Free Women differ from Earth ones is in their sense of propriety and dignity. Gorean culture prescribes a double standard for women that is sometimes referred to (though not in the books themselves) as the Madonna/Whore complex. She can either be the virginal Lady of Arthurian myths, resplendent in her flowing gowns and noble chastity, or she can be an abject slut, relishing her sexuality. Men, who are the dominant gender on Gor, permit very little middle ground between the two contrasts. A Free Woman is raised from an early age to believe she must always keep herself covered up in public. Typical Gorean fashion requires multiple layers of full-body gowns – usually loose and billowing as opposed to belted tightly and figure hugging – accompanied by up to five layers of face veils, and something to loosely cover the hair. Women are taught not to express any element of sexuality in their lifestyle and consequently they are typically repressed when it comes to such 'forbidden' feelings. A Gorean woman IS permitted to have sex, but it requires a complex and faintly ridiculous courtship protocol where she somehow has to interest a man without actually interesting a man. No wonder so many of them seem unhappy. The accepted method of courtship (an overly polite form of dating) should then lead to a period of Free Companionship – effectively a finite marriage that ends after a year or so unless it is renewed. But even then the Gorean Free Woman is expected to indulge in sex as a polite and modest affair, no doubt lying back and thinking of Ar while her Free Companion Man enters her gently, being considerate enough to not disturb her too much during the intercourse. Most Men would be frankly shocked and dismayed if their Free Companion began to exhibit signs of really enjoying sex. Such responses would suggest she might actually have slave feelings. Free Women are terrified that anyone might think that of them. Being interested in sex or being sexually responsive is one of the gravest taboos as far as Free Women are concerned.
Although they aren't slaves, most Free Women are taught at an early age how to submit to the collar, along with a few basic slave positions. The reason for this is that if their city is ever stormed by a foreign army, they will have a chance to save their lives by submitting to the conquerors. It's effectively an action of last resort when there are no men of your Homestone left to protect you.
Many Free Women are highly competitive amongst themselves. John Norman seems to have a keen interest in writing bitchy Free Women who delight in seeing their rivals humiliated and/or collared. I suppose I should really feel insulted by his simple stereotyping, but in actual fact I view it as quite funny, which is the best way to deal with it. It depends on your tastes of course, but there is some fun to be had RPing a haughty woman who delights in outdoing her peers whenever possible. By now you will no doubt realise that the Gor books are not really for the politically correct amongst us.
As already mentioned earlier, Free Women tolerate slaves at best. Men rarely intervene when a Free Woman has reason to punish a slave, which is bad news for the slave, because on the whole she probably has done little to deserve the punishment!
Simply put, men rule Gor. Any rights and privileges that women enjoy are permitted to them, through historical tradition, by men.
Men, more so than women, are obsessed with Honour. This to them is what dignity, decency and propriety are to women. Gorean men would be appalled at the 21st century Earth attitude that states 'the individual is all'. Gorean society is very ordered and formal. Everyone knows his or her place, and there are many implied standards of decent behaviour which do not even require laws. The typical rudeness and social disrespect for one another that occurs in our society would be anathema to Goreans. Most Gorean men put their duty to their Homestone and caste before their own social and economic advancement. There are criminals and outlaws of course, but such people would be despised within a city. There is little evidence in the books that Goreans have any respect for such people. On Earth we are used to a 'pop' culture growing up around notorious criminals with films and books being written about them. Goreans would find such an attitude puzzling. Why glamorise dishonourable outlaws and criminals? They would instead be driven from the city or impaled.
Many men in existing Gorean role-play forums misunderstand or forget what the concept of honour means to a Gorean. It goes beyond fighting fairly in a spar tournament. In a sense it can be summed up as 'treating other people the way you would want them to treat you'. A Gorean would not for example randomly vandalise someone else's property. It would not make sense to him to do so. The action would not enrich his wealth or standing in any way, and the other person would not have done anything to warrant it, so why do it? Don't mistake this as some sort of utopian society where no one tries to better themselves at the expense of others. Goreans are as competitive as Earth people – of course they will try to make a profit where they can, and they will covet the most beautiful slaves for themselves, but they will not indulge in nihilistic practices for no reason. If one Gorean challenges another Gorean (and this would usually only happen in the wilderness) he knows it is a very serious matter – probably of life or death – so it would not be over a trivial matter. The Gorean man must really, really want that naked slave girl on a leash if he challenges another man for her on the road to Ar. Because one of those men will inevitably die in the process.
The concept of honour is so important in Gorean society that I would go so far as to say that if you don't incorporate it into your character concept/role-play, then you're not really role-playing a Gorean.
On the whole men show respect to Free Women. They are prepared to put up with quite a lot from a woman before they show any anger. A parallel would be the way an adult tolerates the behaviour of a child because, “Well, it's only a child...” In return they expect Free Women to observe strict standards of decency. Men would be genuinely ashamed of a Free Woman of their Homestone if she, for example, routinely disgraced her city by exposing her face or indecent amounts of flesh (sadly for Free Women on Gor, indecent amounts of flesh could refer to as little as a pretty ankle...). Sometimes when men have collared a woman it is (in their mind) for her own good, if she has acted as a slave might. A desire to have her in their chains doesn't necessarily enter into the equation – in fact they might have no intention of keeping her. They might even think they were doing her a favour – that she'd ultimately be happier in a collar where she belonged. One such example occurs in the first chapter of book 21 (Mercenaries) when Tarl takes 'pity' on a Free Woman whom he feels genuinely needs a collar around her throat. Undoubtedly sometimes Men get this wrong... but being men it is unlikely they would ever realise it or admit it.
Men are of course very keen on slaves. They spend a lot of time with their slaves, over and above the time they actually have sex with them. Gorean men are interested in every aspect of their slave. They like to know how the slave thinks for example. Even a man who has drunk the wine of Free Companionship with a Free Woman will still use slaves as and when he wishes. He does not consider this as being unfaithful, as slaves obviously do not count. Men do however understand that Free Women are uncomfortable around slaves, and they therefore are usually careful to ensure that
a Free Woman isn't too scandalised. Slaves in the presence of a Free Woman for example might be instructed to wear tunics that are not quite so revealing. They might be told to kneel in Tower rather than in Nadu, and they would probably not dance. Nevertheless, a man's effort to mitigate the sexuality of their slaves only goes so far, and Free Women are generally expected to put up with what they don't like.
Who can fight?
On Gor, women were not warriors. They may be born to the caste of warriors, because their father is a warrior, but they did not generally learn to fight with weapons. There is a reason for this – the same reason why women did not form armies during the equivalent historical periods on Earth. Contrary to the picture painted in modern fantasy novels, where women dodge nimbly about, sweeping aside the clumsy blows swung at them, parrying, riposting and offering highly skilled thrusts with their own blades, primitive sword and shield warfare was never like that. Battles were won by muscle. Throughout history battles resembled rugby scrums. Two lines of very big hairy men would form up, locking their shields together, with spears or swords sticking out, facing forward. After a certain amount of shouting abuse to drum up courage, these two lines would then collide into one another in a thunderous crash, and it would be a case of pushing and shoving until one line broke apart. The line that had the heavier, stronger men, would generally break the weaker line. Once your line was broken, your enemy would begin to hack you to pieces. No army unit ever survived once its line broke. Combat was like a tug of war in reverse – muscle and body weight was the key to winning. See the film '300' for an example of the pushing and shoving. Having women in your shield wall would be like putting a weak link in a chain. Plus, even before you got to the battle, the soldiers would be expected to fast march twenty miles with full packs, shield and weapons to get there. If you weren't physically very strong you'd collapse before you reached the battlefield. A Gorean woman is nowhere near as strong as a Gorean man. The Gorean woman may be stronger than her Earth counterpart, as the Gorean woman lives in a pre-technological age, and therefore life is harder and more physical, but she can't even begin to approach the level of Gorean male strength.
Another common misconception is that if women can't match men with swords and shields, they can match them with a bow. Panther clans in particular claim amazing prowess with the bow, despite having been Free Women or slaves two months earlier. Somehow in the intervening time they have mastered a powerful hunting bow and are able to shoot down men from long range. The truth is that to use a bow well (i.e. to hit a fast moving target while your hands are shaking with adrenaline, because he's going to kill you if your first shot misses) takes a lifetime of practice. During the Hundred Years War, England was able to field the most powerful army in existence at that time. It effectively had access to a 'weapon of mass destruction' that no other nation could field in battle – the longbow. And the reason why England was the only Western nation able to use the longbow was because it was the only nation that trained peasants in its use from childhood. If you weren't trained from an early age, then you couldn't use it effectively enough to make a difference in battle. England lost its dominance in war at the same time its peasants stopped learning to use the bow.
Having said that, what I've described just now should only be considered the 'norm' on Gor, and it should be obvious enough that you can create a female character who is the exception to the rule and who has heroic combat skills. It should however be apparent that such a person would be an oddity on Gor, and the reactions of NPCs within the game should reflect that if the game is meant to be faithful to the original setting.
It should be stressed too that not all men on Gor were trained to fight. In fact, common sense dictates that most of them weren't. The caste of warriors and the caste of guardsmen would be able to fight, but it's very unlikely that a baker or a candle maker would be able to defend himself very well. So even the male characters in Tales of Gor are likely to be exceptional rather than ordinary. The perspective of the books is overly macho because of course most of them are narrated by Tarl Cabot - a man who is supposed to be the greatest fighter of his age. On-line Gor sometimes gives the impression that Gor is a warrior society where every man is Conan the Barbarian. Wagon camps and the like probably did provide basic martial training to most of its men, but in the civilised cities (which resemble a cross between classical era Athens and Rome and various late Mediaeval/early Renaissance cities) most people would not be versed in the art of war. As soon as you build stone walls around a population, the need to defend against raids reduces dramatically, so you need a smaller proportion of warriors. This enables people to pursue other professions instead, thereby enriching your society. Since the books tend to concentrate on the adventures of warriors such as Tarl, many people assume all Gorean men are like that. The ratio of fighting men to non-fighting men on Gor probably doesn't differ much from the Roman Empire in 30AD.