#RPG – A Critique of ‘Privilege, Power, & Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial & Gender Identities in TTRPGS
This is an incomplete and early version of the essay in the book on this topic which is still being updated as I read people’s concerns, wishes and thoughts.
The weighty question for many in more adult role-playing settings is ‘how do we handle sex’. For people who are happy to slaughter hundreds of enemies and trample their bodies underfoot, to torture for information and to commit genocide on tribes and tribes of goblins on their PlayStations, the question of sex – or even ‘nipples’ – seems to cause a huge amount of vexation, upset and outrage. That’s just regular sex too, not the kind of dominance/submission that characterises many – even most – sexual relationships on Gor.
It can be unsettling to cover sexual topics around the table, especially with friends who you may feel will be judging you. Playing online is, perhaps, an easier venue to explore these areas of role-play and even more so in a venue that preserves anonymity and creates distance (such as text chat).
Different groups will have different comfort levels. Some will wish to be explicit, others will seek to avoid the topic altogether, others will find a middle path that suits them. The golden rule here is that everyone at the table should be comfortable with what’s going on, should feel free to speak up if they’re uncomfortable and that they shouldn’t feel judged for doing so.
The Gorean novels themselves vary from coy, to suggestive to almost-but-not-quite explicit, so if you’re looking to recreate the feel of the novels in your games then even a small and terse description will be adequate.
So there’s naked people around and some of them are in chains. So what? The focus of the game is still going to be sword-fighting, intrigue, flying around on giant birds and exploring exotic locales. So who cares? The slaves and the sexual dynamic are just set dressing and shouldn’t come up at all. It’s just silently assumed that the characters do sexy stuff but it’s not described, just as its not – usually – described when characters go to the toilet.
“I’ll leave a copper tarsk on the table and carry the paga slave off to the alcoves.”
“Refreshed and relieved you emerge again, after a time, having slaked all your thirsts.”
With a coy approach you acknowledge that the sexual world exists but you do not go into any detail. It’s there as and when people want to access it but it doesn’t intrude. No detail is really gone into, but everyone knows what’s going on. It just doesn’t need to be said. The actual sex part ‘fades to black’.
“Buy me Master!” The slave girl writhes in her chains and presses her body against the bars of cage, wild eyed, flushed and needy. “Try me! Only a tarsk bit, one taste and you will want to buy me!” The slaver smacks the cage with the butt of his whip, but the grin on his face says he’s pleased with the girl’s display.
With the suggestive approach the sex can and will intrude but there’s a limit to how graphic and involved it gets. Sexual characteristics might be described and, perhaps, a couple of sentences on the performance but that’s about it. This is probably the best sort of level to play around tables.
I grasp hold of the silk slave’s leash and pull him down between my legs, tugging my intimate robe up around my waist as I do so. “Perhaps, slave, if you do a good enough job you can remain here in my chambers, rather than breaking rocks in the quarry.”
His broad back stiffens slightly and a scowl flashes across his face but, after a meek sounding: “Yes Mistress,” he lowers his head and begins to attend to your pleasure with an eager and fervent tongue.”
Blow-by-blow sexual encounters probably aren’t a good idea around a table as they’re the most intimate and personal and the most likely to cause people discomfort. They’re also going to take up time and cast the spotlight on a single player, preventing the others from getting their time to shine and eating up a lot of your game time. Explicit encounters are probably only worthwhile in one-on-one games or when playing online in environments were people can do their own thing.
A Word About BDSM
BDSM encapsulates bondage, domination, discipline, submission, sadism and masochism, even more broadly you could use the term ‘kink’. For a lot of people those terms are going to bring up thoughts of 50 Shades of Grey or ‘Bring out the gimp’. The term might even make you giggle or think of furry handcuffs, spanking and so on. I’ve mentioned 50 Shades simply because it’s a point of cultural reference that kink has become somewhat mainstream, even The Simpsons has had its ‘snuggle dungeon’ episode, which is another cultural touchstone.
50 Shades, of course, was awful as a representation of the BDSM scene and should in no way be taken as any sort of reflection of how that world really is. Similarly, even though there are ‘Gorean lifestyle’ people within the kink community, Gor should not be taken as any sort of guide to BDSM or any sort of reflection on how things really are.
Consent is hugely important in BDSM circles, as is obvious given the existence of the ‘safe word’, a word of phrase that when uttered unquestionably and absolutely means “No, stop!” Role-playing, similarly, needs to be a safe, sane and consensual activity and whether its that spiders creep you out or that you don’t want to know what your character is being put through at the hands of the slaver or torturer you also get a ‘safe word’ and can demand a ‘fade to black’ at any point.
If you want to know more about BDSM, kink and so on, there are better places to learn about it – and to explore it – than within a game.
This is going to be a bit of an essay, in which I try to address – or at least talk about – some of the worries, concerns and objections to the very concept of this game that have been doing the rounds. So, ‘For god’s sake, strap yourselves in!’ – keeping your foot on the red pedal is optional.
Race & Gor
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
Despite being written in the 60s – up until today – Gor gets a lot of comparisons with the pulps, and with good reason. To the modern mind a great deal of the pulps were extremely sexist, racist and otherwise fit that dread phrase ‘problematic’. Certainly a lot of the pre WWII pulps contain a lot of racism. Robert E Howard’s assumptions about race are fairly explicit, HP Lovecraft’s even more so. Edgar Rice Burroughs was playing with racial perceptions in the early John Carter stories and Tarzan certainly plays around with the same topics. In writing my neo-pulp story collection Pulp Nova, I played around with some of the ideas and inverted some of the same expectations in the story ‘Wild’.
To a casual reader, Gor might – at first – seem racist. One sees references to ‘Red Savages’, ‘Red Hunters’, the Pani (ersatz Japanese) have a somewhat moustache-twirling cruelty to them but, not one that’s unjustified by history, and Bila Hiruma is referred to as the ‘great black Ubar’. Dig beneath this surface though and the books are surprisingly respectful, and even admiring, of the transplanted cultures that are found on Gor.
The hero of the stories, Tarl Cabot, ingratiates himself with the various cultures he encounters but never truly outshines them. It is often the secondary characters within those cultures that are the true heroes of the story, with Tarl as the observer to their genius, their sidekick or even their slave. The native American culture (Savages of Gor, Blood Brothers of Gor) is particularly interesting. A extremely militant and protective culture carrying the memory of mistreatment in the settling of America and organised, ruthlessly, to prevent the same happening to their lands on Gor.
Sex & Gender
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
The Gorean world is one of savage, might makes right, philosophy for the most part – though ‘might’ can take many forms from physical to intellectual or economic. It’s savage and cruel in many ways and a great deal of political and social power derives directly from the strength of one’s sword arm. As such it is a world of extremely stratified and defined gender roles with much of the political, and almost all the military power, residing with men.
Yes, men and women’s roles in society are – typically – very constrained but that’s a reflection of the wider (normal) Gorean society which is very stratified by caste as well as gender and by people ‘knowing their place and role’. That’s the very thing that makes defying those expectations and playing characters that defy, pervert or undermine those expectations (or embody them!) so interesting.
Since the criticism directed has been towards the roles available to women in the Gorean setting, I’ll direct this section towards that.
Tarl is an exceptional character, as the protagonist, and also an unreliable narrator coloured by his own experiences and betrayals. Still, he meets many women in his explorations of Gor and they’re not all helpless maidens or slaves – or at least they don’t start out that way.
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
Gor contains slavery. This is not unusual for game settings. Slavery exists in many fiction settings and games, as well as existing throughout human history and – in some forms – still today. What is different and challenging about the Gorean setting is that slavery in this context is not seen as an unambiguous evil, but sometimes even as something… good, it also takes it to an extreme.
Slaves are not only taken on Gor, they are bred and it is an accepted part of the Gorean culture that some people are natural slaves and that that’s the state they belong in and are most fulfilled as. Within Gorean gender relations that is most often taken to be women and that is the message of the entire culture, with female slavery in particular being something simultaneously full of dread and titillation to Gorean free women.
Gor, BDSM, Consent, Roleplay & ‘Rape’
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
Gor exists in a space with some relation to the BDSM community. ‘Gorean slavery’ exists as a real kink, or style of kink at least, playing off some of the formalised slave movements, poses, recitations and behaviours played out in the novels.
The novels themselves are actually fairly coy, with very little in the way of graphic sexual activity being depicted. Most of it is simply hinted at or takes place ‘off screen’. The difference between them and, say, Conan, is that the sexual part is at least acknowledged rather than being simply implicit.
Something that is hugely important in the BDSM community is consent, even when the appearance of consent is absent (consensual non-consent, slave play or rape-play). It’s arguably more integral and up front in the BDSM community than it is in relation to any other aspect of sexuality in a way that’s only recently been brought to the fore elsewhere. This is even formalised in soft limits, hard limits and – perhaps most explicitly – in the practice of having safe words.
This is not entirely different to the social contracts we create around roleplaying, one form of fantasy play not being that different to another when you get down to it. We have rules to make it safe and it all operates on consent.
One last thing worth pointing out is the role of ‘rape’ in the Gorean novels. The word doesn’t quite carry the same connotation within Gorean society as it does to us, being more akin in meaning to the colloquial use. On Gor its meaning is more like ‘ravish’, to take with passion and strength and force. In a world where it is the considered wisdom of both free people and slaves that slaves wish to be slaves and where sexual fervour and freedom can lead to frenzies of lust, the context is also different.
Nobody is saying this is the state of the real world.
What I’m finding fascinating is the RPG people shaming the kinksters and the kinksters shaming the RPG people. Gor seems to exist at a Lagrange Point of contempt between two groups of people who really, really, aren’t all that dissimilar.
The Role of Fantasy
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
Fantasy gives us a space to engage in behaviours, to experience situations and to experiment within a safe space. For some reason, which continues to utterly befuddle me, this is considered fine when it comes to murder, warfare, horror, violence, torture etc, but is still considered – for many people – off limits when it comes to anything titillating or sexual and that seems to be spreading to other things as well. This isn’t really the place to get into that in detail.
uThere is a line between reality and fantasy and the vast and overwhelming majority of people nderstand and respect that line. You can slaughter a hundred bandits beneath your axe playing D&D and not think it too many, nor be held suspect (at least not since the 1980s) that it would make you a mass murderer. You can summon up fell demons from the warp and set them upon your enemies in Warhammer and nobody is going to think you’re a satanic cultist. You can read 50 Shades of Grey (I know, I know…) and nobody necessarily thinks you’re into everything that’s in that.
So why should a little titillation and fantastical gender relations be any different?
I don’t know.
Gor is a fantasy world that isn’t real.
The sexual aspect, even in the books, is background exoticism against the backdrop of which adventures, intrigue and exotic adventures take place. You can ramp it up or tone it down as you and your group prefer, but it is integral to the background. It is one of the most intriguing, difficult and different aspects to a game that there is. Do we not want to be challenged? To stretch our mental legs? Can we not enjoy things that are difficult? Imagine alternate moral systems and cultural norms? Is this not a big part of the deeper appeal of roleplaying games? If we’re only going to be playing in fantasy theme parks that reflect our modern sensibilities, with a thin veneer of magic, dragons or science fiction, then we’re selling ourselves short.
At least, that’s my opinion.
Nor do we have to approve of the Gorean culture. Tarl spends a great deal of time in the first few books having trouble adjusting, as does Jason in the novels that focus around him. Those men are, of course, of Earth, while those brought up within Gorean culture – male or female – are unlikely to have the same trouble or to be able to understand the moral quandries that those men went through.
My aim in providing the game book, and the world book, is to provide tools to play YOUR games and to make YOUR Gor. Whether you want to indulge your swords-and-sandals fantasies and lead strings of captured women (or men) from burning towns, or whether you want to lead a revolt of panther girls to raid the border towns and liberate the slaves, that’s entirely up to you. They’re all valid choices.
With any game, I think the best thing to do is to provide the tools and the context, and then to let people make their own stories.
A lot of ink (pixels?) have been spilt over the years about the misogynistic and patriarchal nature of the Gorean world and – more recently – about this fundraiser and this game as a whole. The Free Woman/Slave division is seen as the virgin/whore dichotomy writ large. Michael Moorcock even campaigned for Gorean novels to be put on the top shelf and Norman himself has blamed these criticisms for various setbacks over the time the novels have been published, though I’m not sure how true that is.
Still, we live in a more enlightened age, don’t we? People are much freer about sexuality than they used to be and after the Comics Code, Satanic Panic, Murder Simulators and all the other nonsense we’ve had to put up with we’re all well aware that (for the vast and overwhelming majority of people) there’s a sharp delineation between fantasy and reality? Right?
It seems not.
Well then, is there a role for women in a Gorean role-playing game or are they destined to just be – as some wag asked me on Twitter – ‘part of the equipment list?’
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Gorean society, as written is deeply patriarchal – as in genuinely, actually patriarchal. Men hold the power but in the Gorean world that is largely because men still hold the means of production and the military might. Gor is largely pre-industrial, everything is done by hand and muscle power is more important in fighting, agriculture and in generally keeping the world moving. Men cannot be done without and as such hold the balance of physical power.
Women are not without power though. Many castes do not disfavour women, the Scribes, Physicians and Initiates certainly don’t, and there’s nothing to prevent a woman becoming the head of her caste in a city. The caste of Warriors lacks examples of women in the books, but as an hereditary caste there seems no reason to think that there aren’t female warriors, though they might be more likely to fall into support roles, espionage and the like. Women in the Caste of Builders might be supply sellers, architects, researchers, even if they’re less likely to be hod-carriers or bricklayers.
Women hold a great deal of economic power as well, running most of the shops, leading merchant houses, investing their money, managing estates and breeding racing tharlarion (examples from the books). Free women are accorded a level of respect that – within certain bounds – give them a decided social advantage over Gorean men. Nor are free women asexual ‘Madonnas’. Free women have access to male silk slaves and are presented as sexual beings throughout the books, slavery is not an inevitable fate and many women and men find free companions to be with (equivalent to marriage) though both may also have slaves to entertain them on the side.
Tharna, until it was overthrown, was a vicious matriarchy. There are Panther Girls in the northern forests and in the great jungle of the interior (called Talunas) who are runaway slaves and free women who reject the dominant male society. So tough and committed are they that some scar their faces or otherwise mutilate themselves to show their rejection of Gorean society.
Nor is there any reason you can’t play as a slave girl (or slave boy) within the group. Many slaves are loved and cherished, fought over and for and many slaves have played key roles in important events on Gor. A slave may also only temporarily be a slave, seeking to earn their freedom or perhaps a skilled thief put in a collar as a punishment and simply biding their time.
Nobody, male or female, at the table should be – or is – forced to put up with anything they don’t want to.
Fantasy games, books, graphic novels, heck – fantasy art in general – is an opportunity to engage with and experience a world that doesn’t even have to exist. We don’t even have to like what occurs there to enjoy it. Just consider the popularity of horror novels, of splatterpunk films, reaction videos. It’s OK to enjoy ‘problematic things’ and you don’t have to agree with them to enjoy it. A game world that is genuinely different is interesting, conflict is interesting, a bland, generic, everything is shiny and happy game world is dull as ditchwater.
Your game is your own, make it your own.
Repeat that mantra.
When it comes to sexuality, Gor in the novels is presented as almost 100% heterosexual, though there are a few hints as to otherwise and one glaring exception that gives some hints that homosexuality is accepted within Gorean society and catered to by slavers. In short, there’s nothing whatsoever to stop you playing a gay or lesbian character and Gorean society doesn’t seem to give too much of a fig about it on a societal level.
Transgender issues are a bit more thorny. So if you’re sensitive, stop reading now.
Still want to read on?
Intersex conditions are likely to be viewed as deformity and the Goreans are pretty ruthless when it comes to babies with deformities, killing them almost all the time – for any deformity that cannot be healed or prevented by the physicians. Deformed people and cripples are viewed with disgust more than pity and even begging a living can become virtually impossible for them as in Gorean society it is seen as a deep insult to either be pitied or to be shown pity. It’s all a bit Spartan.
With that unpleasantness out of the way, what about people who aren’t intersex but feel that they’ve been born into the wrong sex? Given Gorean views on the importance of gender this is likely to be a very difficult path to go down and they’re more likely to be slotted into the homosexual identity than anything else. Some cultures have room for those who live differently than their obvious gender, the Red Savages in particular make young men who fail to become warriors live as women and it seems likely that the transplanted cultures of the jungles and of the barrens have also carried over cultural acceptance and spiritual reverence for this kind of thing.
It’d be a hard thing to play out, just as its a hard thing in real life, but the conflict between the hugely strict and important Gorean attitude to gender and someone who defies that could make for fascinating RP.
In the fuss about me, the remainder of the panels and events Indie+ haven’t gotten the profile and attention that they should have. People who claim to care about their voices and concerns instead chose to fixate on me, to the cost of the other events.
Let’s do something to fix that a bit:
The Machinations of the Space Princess fundraiser as part of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure fundraiser didn’t fund but there was sufficient interest to warrant another look.
MotSP will set its sights on the world of sleazy, sensual pulp Science Fiction from the likes of Metal Hurlant, creating a universe of heavy metal space opera (rather than rock n’ roll).
Rather than a single adventure and some ideas, MotSP will be a FULL GAME.
MotSP will give you ALL THE RULES you need to play.
MotSP will BULGE AT THE SEAMS with adventure ideas and toolkits to help you create and maintain your game and produce ideas.
MotSP will include fantastic art by Satine Phoenix.
MotSP will take your gang of wandering space-reprobates from the strip clubs of Proxima to the feudal planets of the Black Cluster. The glass spires of Imperial Space to the wastelands of scrap-worlds.
MotSP will take you from confronting elemental evil to delving the crypts of long-dead civilisations across the known galaxy.
MotSP is planned to include:
Why should you back us?
Satine is a fantastic, up-and-coming illustrator and associated with I Hit it With my Axe and D&D With Pornstars. This project will give her a real chance to stretch her artistic legs and show off.
I am a full time RPG writer and author with a lifetime love of science-fiction comics, novels and fantasy art. If you’ve ever looked at a Tim White or Roger Dean illustration and been inspired to set a game in what you see, we have something in common.
I have a proven track record of producing great games in PDF and POD as well as selling through publishers such as Cubicle 7 and Chronicle City. I have worked for Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackson Games, Cubicle 7 Entertainment and others and won an Origins Award (along with my writing partner Steve mortimer) for my work on The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming, the book that spawned the card game.
If nothing else, you’re guaranteed an amusing read with great art and that HAS to be worth a few bucks.
All funds donated will be used whether the project hits its target or not! If you’re donating, you’re actually donating! Whatever amount up to $1,000 is raised will go on art from Satine. Past that number we’ll start to reveal and trigger stretch goals and the money will be split 50/50 between art and payment to me for my time/effort (and driving lessons!)
THIS IS AN EXPANSION FOR CALL OF CTHENTACLE
Spankham Asylum, a study-ground for those grappling with understanding strange fetishes and psychosexual condition. Doctor Karr investigates a spate of strange, new, tentacular fantasies with the aid of The Patient.
Expand your Cthentacle games into the realm of psychiatry with straitjackets, therapy, tranquilisers and dangerous readings from The Book of Eiboner.
Buy it HERE
Buy ALL of Cthentacle at a discount price HERE
There’s a constant clash going on between two minority groups in gaming. Those who give a flying fuck about art/representations/gender pronouns and those who want to defend the creative freedom that we – in theory – have. The majority of people, whatever their gender, sexuality or whatever, don’t seem to give the flying fuck in question and are happily getting on with their games.
That said a lot of pressure – or at least what feels like a lot of pressure – is being applied upon creators to do what they’re ‘told’ by those seeking to pressure. This goes on to the point where you can be called all sorts of nasty names, have boycotts organised of your material and people can dedicate their lives to hate-mailing you and posting constantly on fora about what a terrible person you are.
The argument itself is pretty redundant at this point, people are too entrenched and won’t countenance thought or compromise but it might be an idea to give an historical perspective on sex/representation in fantasy and science fiction literature and film. That might also give some of the hardliners a bit of a better idea why there are some of us who enjoy sexy material, sexual material and whose eyes roll hard into our heads any time someone starts whining about armour or clothing styles.
SF and Fantasy have long been ahead of public attitudes when it comes to sex and sexuality. The fantastical has often provided a safe forum to examine these ideas, particularly when it comes to matters that are transgressive, experimental, odd.
HG Wells was a prophet of the sexual revolution and something of a ‘player’ himself. Many of the great masters and mistresses of SF and Fantasy cut their literary teeth during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Going back to the Victorian period (Pearson’s magazine etc) one would find at least ‘racy’ descriptions, if not illustrations, women characters in positions of power and authority and so forth. Lest we forget, in the formative and hidebound Christian years of the 19th and 20th centuries – which so inform society even today – women were barely even seen as sexual beings, not so in fantasy and SF.
Fantastical writings brought sex and sexuality out into the light, examined it, made it plain. Pulp covers might be lurid and titillating, but there was nothing wrong with that. Even Burroughs had his Martians – of all colours and genders – running around naked. Not that that will make it to the films I’m sure.
We suffered our setbacks at the hands of the moral majority, the comics code, the banning of horror comics, furore over the pulps, moral panic at the content of works by Harrison, Farmer, you name it and those aren’t even the authors who went after sexuality as a topic all out. Women in these works might have been sexual, but one must remember that this itself was, still is, somewhat revolutionary. No slut-shaming here, just an enjoyment of male and female sexuality and – often – the imaginings of more liberated, promiscuous and less dysfunctional socio-sexual politics from the group families of Heinlein to the incestuous what if of Sturgeon’s Notorious ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would you Let One Marry Your Sister?’
Women tagged along in SF/Fantasy long before it was acceptable to the morals of the world at large, wore trousers first in SF (or Bloomers, a solution to the skirt issues of zero gravity). It’s taken women from closeted and protected McGuffins to leaders and warriors. Wilma Deering, Samus Aran, Eowyn, Red Sonja and a part of that liberation has also been to recognise the female as a motivated sexual being.
So, when the censorious come to call, whether they be motivated by religion or gender studies those of us who lived in, or studied, or appreciate all the effort, time and battles that have gone into creating a liberated and anything goes field of fiction bristle. I think it’s understandable that we do so. What I don’t understand is why anyone would seek to drag us back to puritanical outlooks, particularly those on the liberal or leftist side of things. That’s where I place myself politically, but I guess I’m a libertine.
There are valid concerns to be had about representations in advertising and celebrity, but the fantastical is pure fantasy. Nobody, hopefully, expects Superman or Wonder Woman to be someone they could ever really aspire to be and we need our ‘gods and monsters’, our archetypes, our ‘gods’ even if we know that they’re not real. These things are about escaping, dragging real world bullshit into games and escapism rather defeats the object of ‘escape’.
I don’t want to turn the dial back to a more repressed age and I think we lose more than we gain that way.
You’re free to not like something, just try to be consistent, knowledgable, tolerant and don’t confuse ‘I don’t like X’ with ‘X should not exist’.
A companion game to Tough Justice and Courtesans, Doxy takes you down to the street and the life of the common strumpet and the darkness of the Georgian underworld. Can you make enough to eat? To drink? To drown your sorrows in gin? Can you escape the horrors of the noose or transportation?
Doxy is a fully featured game using the ‘Beer & Crisps’ system, not for the faint hearted or the easily offended.
Buy it HERE
Or in hardcopy HERE