Friday, January 29, 2010

The Rival NPC Party

Back a year and a half ago or so, I introduced my players to the most irritating, burr-under-the-saddle, thing you love to hate imaginable. A rival party of NPCs; the Red Seekers.

There were as many in the NPC party as there were in the players' party. They weren't evil per se, but they were everything the PCs could ever hate. They were a few levels higher than the PCs (but not enough to allow them to completely steamroller the PCs), and naturally as the PCs gained levels, these guys did too. They were a little richer (making a point of renting the best rooms in the only inn in town, usually only a few hours before the PCs got there). They had slightly better magic ("oh, you don't have magic missile in your spell book? What a pity!"). They waived around an "official charter" from the Duke of Tenh Himself, declaring them to be his official agents, treasure seekers, and troubleshooters. Oh, they *loved* that charter and the status it brought.

But worst of all, they were arrogant, and condescending towards the PCs, and constantly rubbed their nose in the fact that they were oh-so-slightly beneath the NPCs-- but never in a way that was overtly insulting. Just always with the smirk and the grin amongst themselves that nobody else seemed to catch except the PCs. And they all wore those red cloaks. Those damned smugness-inducing red cloaks.

Oh, how the players hated those guys! And they couldn't really do anything about it, because they weren't evil. They were just... jerks. And had a habit of showing up and stealing the PCs' thunder.

It was a great time playing encounters between the PCs and that NPC party. Not everywhere, of course; too much would spoil the broth. But every once in a while, there they'd be, and the collective groan that emanated from my players told me it was so wrong, but oh so right.

I would encourage other DMs to do something similar. It's a not-threat; certainly they won't pose a threat to life, limb, and loot, but rather to dignity. It also allows for an opportunity to inject a little comic relief into the game (an absolute necessity when there's a lot of Serious Things going on; breaking the tension with humor, when done with a light touch, makes the campaign all the better). The trick is to make them essentially bullet-proof, but only because the players don't have an excuse to knock their blocks off, no matter how hard they might want to.

Eventually, in my game, the NPCs got their comeuppance, and the PCs were able to roll a little night-soil downhill on them (figuratively speaking), and that was hailed as a great victory and was a quite cathartic episode. But they're bound to make a comeback. And I will definitely look forward to that collective groan when they do.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Project Shibboleth is now...

The word "emprise" (emm-PRIZE), which means a chivalric and daring undertaking, has won out over a number of alternatives (many of which featured the sainted ampersand) as the title of my new retro-recon game. For those who haven't been following this blog with great regularity, this is my attempt to answer a "what if?" question that has been weighing on my mind for a quarter century:
What if Gary Gygax had not left TSR in 1985, and had been allowed to design the second edition of the world’s most famous fantasy role-playing game?
I'm making great progress, but it's a ton of work, and I make no predictions about how long it will be before a formal call for playtesters goes out. (But go out it will, along with a call for artists.)

Everything's up for grabs at this point, but as of right now, the game will consist of three core rulebooks:
  • Players Manual
  • Game Masters Manual
  • Bestiary
In addition, there will be a boxed beginners set, with stripped-down starter rules, a starter adventure, dice, and so forth. Down the line, I foresee dealing with mass combat as a separate, but compatible, game that will give the "old school endgame" some teeth and those men-at-arms and followers gained at higher levels a raison d'etre.

It will be published under the auspices of the OGL, which while it carries with it some restrictions I might not like, is ultimately the best legal protection for a work of this nature.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Castle of the Mad Archmage January Release Now Available!

And so, back in stride, I present to you the next installment of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. This release takes us down through Level 8: The Lesser Caves. This one just flew onto the page as quickly as I could write it, a torrent of creativity that would not be stopped.

If I may say so myself, this level has a lot of really nice stuff in it. The northeast section is my favorite; there's not a dozen keyed encounters in the whole quadrant, but it's sure to befuddle players for quite some time.

Download the whole thing --> HERE <--

Next up, Level 9, which I'm almost certain will be released along with levels 10 and 11, since they all intersect massively and trying to pry one out of the others would not be an easy thing. As always, keep your eyes on the status box off to the right-- that'll let you know where things stand.

Also, just a reminder; I'll be running a couple of sessions of Castle of the Mad Archmage at Dreamation in Morristown, NJ next month. Hope to see some of you there!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Now the Fun Begins - Character Classes

Just a quick Project Shibboleth update. I'm pretty much done outlining the three core books (still a little more work to do on the Game Master Guide, but I'm well enough along to get to writing), and have done the first draft of the character abilities and races section of the Players Guide. Now comes the fun part-- character classes!

Aside from the classes we know and love, several new sub-classes are going to be introduced. Here's the full list I'm working with:

  • Bard
  • Jester
  • Cavalier
  • Paladin
  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Mystic
  • Fighter
  • Barbarian
  • Monk (maybe)
  • Ranger
  • Magic-User
  • Illusionist
  • Savant
  • Thief
  • Mountebank
  • Thief-Acrobat
Now, this is fun in a bunch of different ways. First, I get to design several whole new classes (the Mountebank, Savant, Mystic, and Bard; the Jester I've already done) and new spells for each of those. The bard is getting a complete redo as a more normal character class; you start off as a bard just as you'd start off any other class (except Acrobat). They'll also have songs for spells (yay!).

There's information relevant to all of the other classes spread out among the old PH, DMG, DD, and UA books. That will all get consolidated in one place (finally!).

In addition, some of the existing classes are getting substantive changes. Specifically the magic-user; there will be rules of some sort-- I've got some ideas but nothing definite yet-- regarding specialization. Cavaliers and Barbarians might get some tweaking. Clerics will get orisons; their equivalent of cantrips.

Hey! What's up with the monk and assassin? The assassin is getting moved out to an appendix, but it will definitely be included. As far as the monk goes, I'm of the opinion that it more properly belongs in an oriental-based game, and so out it goes. It may or may not be replaced by a more European-flavored "warrior-spy" sort of character class; I've got some ideas but I'm not sure they'll gel into something viable. We shall see. I know that'll not sit well with some folks; sorry about that. I know that the OA rules, as published, weren't of the highest caliber, and frankly I don't know enough about pre-modern Asian history and culture to do the thing justice.

If anyone can get hold of Francois Froideval, however, I would love to publish his take on the OA material as a supplement to this project...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Son of Yet More Minifigs Pics

Every couple of months I go through the various auctions on eBay and other sources and scoop up new pictures for my ever-growing collection of Minifigs Greyhawk Miniatures photos. A new batch has just been added:

THRILL to the Valley Elf King and his guards!
SWOON at the sight of the magnificent Magnus Dragonnel!
APPOPLECT before the awesome dragonnette!
GEZORK on the beastly giant rat!

Plus Much, Much, More!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Organizing Monsters

So I'm busily in the process of outlining the three core books that will form Project Shibboleth; a Players Guide, a Game Masters Guide, and a Bestiary. That has caused me to give some serious thought to how the monsters will be organized. Back in '85, EGG opined:
"I am desirous of presenting creatures by region (or plane, subterranean, and similar categorical means) so as to make the work serve as a reasonable random encounter reference as well." (Dragon #103, November 1985)
I'm not sure about the idea of breaking monsters down into such small boxes (arctic, underground, mountain-dwellers, etc.), because I think that would fragment things just too much and make the book unusable as a reference, for all of Gygax's good intentions regarding making it a random encounter tool. However, my recent experience with the Castle of the Mad Archmage has led me to conclude that some level of differentiation between creature types wouldn't be out of order, especially when you consider that beasties from the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Monster Manual II (as well as some new ones) will all be included together. That leads me to consider the following as a useful, and not overly granular, breakdown:
  • Wilderness and Dungeon Monsters
  • Underwater and Waterborne Monsters
  • Prehistoric Monsters (which would naturally include all those dinosaurs)
  • Extra-planar Monsters
I combine the wilderness and dungeon monsters because there's so much overlap between them. Humanoids, giants; tons of things can be encountered both in a desolate wilderness and a deep dungeon level. But when you're putting together an adventure, you're probably going to know if the focus is on land or in the water. Ditto prehistoric monsters; they tend to cluster together in specialized regions, and are thus best presented together.

I break out extra-planar monsters because they, more than anything else, are unique unto themselves. I had thought about breaking out undead, but I think a comprehensive undead encounter table will fulfill that function (I'm planning on moving the random encounter tables to this book, and there will be a comprehensive index into the bargain).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My New Obsession

A couple of weeks ago, I announced the beginning of Project Shibboleth. I was deliberately cagey about its nature, other than to say that it was a gaming project, and had second place behind the completion of the core levels of Castle of the Mad Archmage.

Well, I'm usually pretty good at keeping a secret, but I'm just so bursting-over-the-walls with enthusiasm that I've just got to spill the beans. Plus, over the last two or three weeks, I've made a lot of progress, although nowhere near completion.

As one enterprising commenter opined (you get a "no-prize", Joe Mac), Project Shibboleth is, indeed, my attempt to create a "Gygaxian" Second Edition of AD&D.

I've previously written about the various plans, hints, and so forth that Gary Gygax had given us in the early to mid 1980's about how he would approach such a thing (and indeed some of his ideas were eventually incorporated into Unearthed Arcana, released just before he was ousted from TSR), plus his various statements on the Internet in more recent years. I want to see how a game would look with mountebanks and seers, and I want a rulebook with all the classes, races, and spell descriptions in one place. I want combat to actually work in practice the way it's written, and to be written consistently.

So, given as I am to Quixotic quests (as my progress with Castle of the Mad Archmage no doubt demonstrates), I have embarked on the creation of my own interpretation of what Second Edition *could* have been. Obviously, no one can know what such a thing would really have looked like, as the moment was lost a quarter century ago. But we can imagine, and extrapolate, and opine, and I intend to do all of those as part of my own effort. A small part of the thing I've already published as a free PDF; my take on the Jester class, inspired by the very same sources that I'm using to inform the entire project. Look for that to be a part of the new project, pretty much wholesale.

The project (for which I've bounced around a bunch of names, none of which I find ultimately satisfying) consists, in my mind, of three parts:
  1. Integrate and reorganize the material from the PH, DMG, DaD, and UA (and select pieces of WSG and DSG) so as to make it seamless and better laid out.
  2. Make alterations to the existing rules along the lines that Gary Gygax laid out over the years (variable hit die types for monsters, removing psionics, streamlining combat, etc.).
  3. Design entirely new material, also along the lines that Gary Gygax had described as stuff that would be included in such a new edition; new character classes and spells, a workable skill system, etc.
And then, coming out with a trio of core books-- for players, for game masters, and a book of monsters-- for the whole, in addition to a "starter kit" (I envision a true boxed set that someone can open up and get to playing in 20 minutes) and a book of Gods and rules (and special spells) for their attendant priests as an extra.

This won't be a retro-clone, technically, because it's not a "clone" of any particular system. Rather, it's something of a "retro-recon"; reconstructing a workable system from hints about something that never was. As Rob Conley states:

To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.
If this ain't that, I don't know what is.

Told you this was a Quixotic project... But then again I've been thinking about it for the better part of a decade or two. So maybe I might just have a shot.

There are obviously legalities involved here, but I think I can get the job done within the framework of the OGL, in much the way other games such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, etc. have done.

I make no promises about timelines, or even whether I'm going to be able to finally pull it off. I'll also be needing playtesters at some point, and art, and all of that rigmarole. Watch this space for details!

UPDATE: The final name for the project is now "Adventures Dark and Deep". Look for the ADD tag on the blog for details!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

John Carter pic begins filming

Over at Aint it Cool News, Harry has posted the official press release that the film adaptation of John Carter of Mars has begun filming.

I confess I'm not a fan of John Carter. I've tried to read that first book three or four times, and just can't get past the first fifty pages or so. But it is a book with tremendous influence on the early D&D game, and the original Castle Greyhawk went so far as to include magical gates to the Mars of the books, so the film is most definitely relevant. And the fact that their creative team (listed in the press release) seems top-notch, the film itself might not be that bad.

I've not really been following its development; it's possible the script will suck. For those who want to follow all the twists and turns, there's a fan site that is covering it on a daily basis. But who am I fooling? I'll probably end up seeing the film one way or the other.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Castle of the Mad Archmage in Action

Over at Mighty Thews and Non-Euclidean Geometry there's an account of the DM running part of level 2 of Castle of the Mad Archmage for his players. I love to hear accounts of how CotMA works in play with other folks; don't be shy about posting 'em and letting me know! This looks to be a regular thing for him and his players, so hopefully we'll hear more about how his group fares in months to come.

(And if anyone wants to post one here as a guest blogger, please send me an email and we can set it up.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SPI Infomercial

Is this awesome or what? I had no idea this existed until yesterday.

By my count, I had about 90% of the games shown in this film at one point. Oh, War in Europe, how I miss thee...

(Hat tip to ConsimWorld)

Rules Organization

A number of people, when discussing the merits of retro-clones vs. the original game rules, point to the notion that the retro-clones are "better organized". I confess to being a little puzzled by this, as I can find my way around the old AD&D rules with very little problem.

Although I am very happy to admit that my own experience of the AD&D rules is colored by the fact that I know them so well, and can often just quote them from memory, and have an idea of where to find just about any tidbit of information I happen to need at the time. Not everybody has been pouring over these books for 30 years.

So I'd like to open up a discussion about this, if I may. What specifically is better about the organization of games like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Sword & Wizardry, etc. than the original D&D and AD&D books? Is it that they're all in one book? Do the chapters "flow" more logically? Something else? Looking at the tables of contents, they don't seem all that different to me, so I think I'm just missing something...

Monday, January 11, 2010

What Use is Intelligence?

I've been taking a closer look at the various abilities listed in the Player's Handbook, and I'm leaning to the opinion that intelligence is the most under-utilized statistic amongst the Big 6 (well, 7 if you count comeliness).

Looking at the description of the intelligence attribute itself, it seems to have three main uses:
  • Learning additional languages
  • Casting high-level magic-user spells
  • learning listed spells/maximum and minimum number of spells per level
I don't count class or race minimums as a "use" per se (elves must have an 8, illusionsts must have a 15, etc.).

The languages issue is rather an odd one, as non-human characters generally already start off with a boatload of languages, and only get the chance to learn one or two more if they have an exceedingly high INT score.

Being able to cast spells of 5th (INT 10+), 6th (INT 12+), etc. level is certainly something a magic-user needs to have, and at least gives an incentive for players not to try to get cute and put their highest roll in something that has more immediate applicability (like constitution for hit points or dexterity for armor class).

The last one; the chance to know listed spells, and the minimum/maximum spells per level is simply a non-issue. I've never heard of anyone actually using those cockamamie rules. (Basically, each M-U character is expected to roll for each spell listed in the Players Handbook; if they blow their roll, they can't ever learn the spell in question. Ever. And someone with, say, a 15 INT would only be able to ever learn 11 spells listed in the Players Handbook. Ever. And even then, it's no guarantee you'll ever find the 11 spells you are "able to learn.")

Unfortunately, that useless rule is also the one that gives some heft to the INT statistic. Without it, in terms of day-to-day use, you have languages. Strength gives you all sorts of strengthy things to do like opening doors and melee combat. Dexterity gives you an AC bonus and missile combat bonuses. Constitution gives you permanent HP bonuses. Even charisma, if utilized properly, allows you to get and keep henchmen and hirelings. But intelligence only gives languages.

My question, and I am actively soliciting your opinions on this, is whether you agree with me that intelligence, as currently described in the AD&D rules, is really underpowered (or perhaps "underutilized" is a better word) than the rest of the abilities, and if so, what to do about it?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ineffable Grandeur of 30-mile Hexes

Rob Conley, purveyor of the Bat in the Attic blog and designer of numerous excellent old-school RPG products, recently reminded us on the RPG Circus podcast of a flaw he found in the World of Greyhawk, as originally presented in a humble 32 page booklet written by Gary Gygax and two enormous and gorgeous poster maps penned by Darlene. It's a theme he's mentioned before; specifically, he makes mention of "the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hex".

While I generally like Rob's stuff, and especially (from what I've heard of it-- I've not yet purchased it myself) his take on the Wilderlands campaign, I must take this opportunity to humbly disagree with him on this particular issue. Specifically, he has written:
By the time they reached 10th level or so I was growing dissatsified with running Greyhawk. The howling emptiness of the 30 mile hexes were tedious to fill. The various realms were too grand. Their scale was beyond what I felt even 10th level characters could measurably effect.
In my own campaigns, I've done wilderness maps at a quarter mile per hex, 100, and everything in between. Since I've settled on Greyhawk as my campaign setting of choice, I've come to the conclusion that large scale maps are not at all inimical to the sandbox style of campaign. All it means is that you have a larger sandbox.

Taking the World of Greyhawk as my specific example, the question becomes, "do you really need to have an encounter with a monster every day?" Does every hex have to have a creature, or a dungeon, or an ancient monolith, or whatever? Why can't there just be hexes where there's nothing but plains of wheat, with a handful of farmsteads around a small village?

Personally, I think it speaks to the scale and breadth of the campaign that a party traveling from Greyhawk to Highfolk (perhaps in pursuit of some lead or having a treasure map or somesuch come into their possession) would have the journey be described thusly:
"You begin your journey on the fourth day of Flocktime. and four days later find yourselves in the free city of Dyvers. [Stuff then happens to them in Dyvers, or maybe doesn't, depending on the actions of the PCs and the wishes of the DM] Traveling on the High Road, you reach Verbobonc eight days later [Ditto]. Once you leave Verbobonc, after eight days you come to a small village where there's a ford that allows you to cross the river Velverdyva [Ditto]. A week and a half after that, you see the walls of Highfolk finally greeting you after your journey."
Now, that is assuming the DM doesn't roll for any random wilderness encounters during the trip; over the course of 30 days of travel, there is room for all sorts of random encounters (and, looking at the WoG encounter tables, the preponderance of encounters will be with merchants, pilgrims, patrols, and so forth). But I think that speaks not to the deficiency of the setting, but rather to the nature of play within it.

In some sandbox-type settings, the idea is to explore a wilderness and "clear it out", much like some players are inclined to "clean out" a dungeon or dungeon level before moving on. But the World of Greyhawk fantasy setting, much like the concept of the megadungeon itself (which largely had its genesis in Greyhawk) works a little bit differently. Those "empty" hexes are only empty in the context of adventurers looking for stuff to explore and things to kill. Simply put, in the civilized lands of Greyhawk (and even in the barbarian lands in the northern belt of the map) you're not supposed to go into a given hex with the idea that it is a new realm to be tamed, its inhabitants slain and its lands brought into the sphere of civilization. In many respects, it's just another part of the montage of travel, flyover country where you must travel by necessity in order to get to your ultimate destination.

Does it really hurt anything to hand-wave five day's travel in lands that are fairly civilized, in order to get the PCs to the city? By all means, I think the DM should roll for random encounters, and hopefully have a few set-pieces and ready-to-roll encounters with merchant caravans, troupes of actors, and the ubiquitous peasants set upon by goblin raiders to drop in should the action lag. But in a setting such as Greyhawk, the theme is not "exploring the wilderness, taming it, and bringing it to the realm of civilization". It's "there are elder places of deep and abiding mystery, which we reach by passing through relatively mundane spaces."

Why does the DM need to "fill" all the hexes? What is wrong with having some stretches of geography just be that safe place where the inns aren't run by secret vampire cults, the fields are tended by honest, hard-working folk who don't happen to also be werewolves in thrall to the local lich, and there aren't tribes of goblins in the hills waiting to launch a raid?

Sure, the scale of Greyhawk's maps are large, but that just means the action takes place on a larger tableau. Think of those scenes in Conan the Barbarian, where he is running or riding over hundreds of miles of terrain. The movement takes only a minute on screen, but it gets him to where the action is. It gives the thing depth and scale. Enormous scale.

How is that it different if the characters travel 3 miles to find the next dungeon, monster, or secret cult, or 60? It's just a question of scale, and I happen to think it works in Greyhawk's favor that the scale is so large. There's only one dungeon in any given 90 mile area? So what? There are so many 90 mile areas, all it means is that you've got a little farther to travel to get to the next one. And getting there can be half the fun.

Dare to let the mundane be mundane! It will make the extraordinary seem all the more special.

GenCon Registration About to Kick Off

So I check my inbox today, and what do I see but a note from GenCon with the fast-approaching dates to submit events (Jan 13th), get a badge (Jan 24th), and get housing (Jan 26th).

Full details are here:

I haven't been to a GenCon in many years (in fact, it was still in Milwaukee when I last attended). Time is not really an issue; it's all about the finances (we're planning a trip to Orlando this summer, so that's taking up all our available "fun money"). If it looks like it's possible I'll be able to attend, I'll definitely want to run a session of Castle of the Mad Archmage, and of course finally meet some of the luminaries of the OSR face-to-face. If a spare $1,000 falls into my lap, I'm there (he says looking hopefully up and to the right at the "donate" button...)!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Best of the Blog

Several people have asked if I had a better-formatted version of some of the more practical articles over the last year or two, and I thought it might be a good idea to collect them, and perhaps a couple other of what I think are the best of the blog, into a nicely formatted, easy-to-print pdf. So voila! I give you the Best of the Greyhawk Grognard Blog 2008-2009.

It's got stuff like my series on DMing the D1-D3 series, the Fortean Flanaess, my City of Greyhawk maps, and of course eXPloring the Flanaess.

If folks find it a useful aid (not to mention a stroll down memory lane), I'll keep up the tradition for 2010 and beyond.

Download it for free (of course) in the Free Downloads section over to the right, or just click ---> HERE <---

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Project Shibboleth Has Begun

I find myself with not only quite a bit of spare designing time staring me in the face, but also with a decided bug to start something new, and tons of energy to devote to the project.

This will in no way take away from the Castle of the Archmage core levels; I'm back on track to get a level out each month, and that will take priority; I anticipate being done with the core levels 2-13 by Autumn.

So what does this entail? Well, it's going to be a TON of work. I expect that if I continue at a fairly good clip, I'll be working on it for at least the better part of 2010. I am hesitant to go into any more detail, but it's something that speaks to my particular background, strengths, and skills, and it's going to be a blast. Oh, and it has something to do with gaming. But, since I posted this here and not someplace else, you probably already figured that out.

The reason I'm hesitant to spill any details is that I don't want to go great-guns for two months, and then get sick of the thing, and have all sorts of expectations hanging over me. Once it looks like there's light at the end of the tunnel (or at least parts of it), I will reveal more of the nature of the beast.

Why "shibboleth"? I found this Random Word Generator and that's literally the first thing that came up as an "uncommon noun". Read nothing into it other than that.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

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...