Thursday, April 03, 2014

Review: Love and Sex in the Ninth World

“Love and Sex in the Ninth World” (abbreviated LaSitNW here) is a 13 page pdf document published by Monte Cook Games for their Numenera line. It’s written by Shanna Germain who is no stranger to erotica, kink, and gaming, and that shows in this little “glimmer.”

LaSitNW is just what it says it is on the tin: the hows (and, unfortunately, also the whys) of adding romance and sex to your Numenera game. I say that discussing the whys is unfortunate because it’s wasted space; if you had no interest in doing so, why would you have picked up this pdf? Beyond a discussion of what sex and romance can do in your game, there seems little point to it, and in a product so tiny, space and time and effort are at a premium. So I don’t see much point in selling the product (or the idea) to someone who’s already bought it, especially when it’s not the sort of thing you can flip through at a store.

The text itself is a mixture of practical advice, egg-shell-walking caution, and flashes of brilliance. I’d love to see what a bolder, unapologetic writer like Zak S. might do with the same topic, but for what it is and who its published by, it’s more than I’d expected.

The very first words of the text are as follows: “Because the Ninth World is so large and disparate, it would be foolish to make sweeping generalizations about sex, love, lust, and courtship among its inhabitants.” Ms. Germain then proceeds to do exactly that. We are told that gender inequality and sexual orientation are no big thing in the Ninth World. This is disappointing from a world-building standpoint, but hardly surprising. Sweeping these broadly off the table right from the start prevents drama, especially in games where people are expected to play their own, real-world genders and sexual orientations.

If this starts you to worrying that Ms. Germain’s Ninth World is some sort of happy-happy rainbow-spangled Seattle-esque love fest where sex is always magical and bright, the brief section on class will relieve your fears. It’s short and deals exclusively with slavery in the Ninth World. The attitudes described are very Roman; slaves are used for sex without much consideration for their opinions on the matter. There’s an interesting fission between the matter-of-fact outlook of the inhabitants of the Ninth World and modern day sensibilities. One NPC, Duke Ingast, is described as “a notorious slave owner”. I can’t help but imagine the phrase would make as much sense in the Ninth World as calling someone in our day and age a “notorious toaster owner.”

The first section closes with a description of the loosey-goosey, term-limited, and rather vague institution of marriage in the Ninth World (called “coupledom”) and an explanation of how attraction is very culturally specific. It’s all very Heinleinian (including legal prostitution and for-hire enforcers of relationship contracts) though without any mention of non-communal polyamory. Which is kind of surprising; one would think that the Aeon Priesthood would be the natural place to find line marriages.

The real juicy meat of LaSitNW comes in the section called Putting Sex in Your Game. These two pages are sprinkled with little gems of wisdom culled from Ms. Germain’s experience as a gamer and author: “Love’s job is usually to portray deep emotional loss… or high emotional joy…” “Sex’s job is typically about power exchange.” “ If a PC is trying to get pregnant, and the guard is clearly expecting (or vice versa—maybe the guard has been infertile for years), the dynamic will have a unique emotional charge.”

Some of what’s in there is your basic adventure-creation advice (romance as a plot point, etc.) and some looks half-baked (an extremely vague section on mechanical benefits from love and sex without any real explanation of how to handle it looks tailor-made to trip up unexperienced GMs). But as an essay on how to use the fact that love and sex complicate everything, it shines. If you’re an experienced hand at writing romance and erotica it may seem like old hat, but for the rest of us, there’s a lot of brain-fodder here to play with.

Unfortunately, it’s followed by a full page on how sex is a touchy topic, “triggers,” and similar warnings. It’s all given the star treatment, but the folks who really need to read it won’t, and it’ll likely scare off the timid.

With that last bit of dreary business taken care of, Ms. Germain allows herself to get playful with her subject matter. She discusses love tokens (instead of rings, Ninth Worlders exchange badges), STIs, pregnancy (“Getting pregnant is a level 5 task between two fertile people of the opposite sex who are not using devices to alter fertility.”) and childbirth, and prostitution. That last is perhaps the most fun. We learn, for instance, that prostitution is not the final refuge of the skill-less and destitute, but rather the domain of highly trained, celebrated, and well-compensated professionals. These professionals are known by their specializations and styles. Goldglams are the rockstars of the sex world, advertising their presence with street performances and then picking their sexual clients selectively. Daupsams trade sex only for numenera, and include aeon priests among their number. Flute boys seemed misnamed to me; they bear little resemblance to the musician-whores of Athens and seem more like the geisha of Japan.

We then get another page of apologia for use of non-traditional sex and gender roles. They do brush against the real issue (using traditional assumptions to limit people’s options at the gaming table) but it’s another page that could have been put to better use.

The final section gives us three artifacts, five cyphers, and eight oddities. Most are good, offering intriguing bits of roleplay and strange abilities that will find all sorts of creative use inside and outside bedrooms. The weakest of the bunch is what amounts to a levitating sex-swing, but even that is fraught with creative uses once you get it into the hands of devious players.

If play that includes sex and romance intrigues you, and you’re not intimately familiar with the art of crafting romance or erotica stories, this is certainly worth your time and treasure. (You should probably also invest in a beginner’s guide to writing that sort of thing, especially if you haven’t read much of it.) The bits of numenera and background details are interesting, but by themselves are not worth the price if that’s all you hope to get out of it. I would have preferred a more in-depth treatment of the subject with greater emphasis on cultural permutations, but I also recognize that I’m odd in that respect. As such, while I bemoan the short shrift such a limited form allows the topic, I’m thrilled it got even this much attention and that it was handled as expertly as it was. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Germain’s kinky creativity in the near future.

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