Love in Pentra

Marc Yves:

For years, I’ve been tinkering with an anthropomorphic-animal fantasy setting. Right now I’m calling it Pentra. Imagine something like The Elder Scrolls, but instead of having various races of humans, elves, orcs, and whatnot, every sapient species in the setting is like the Argonians or Khajiit: a family or genus of animal, walking upright and capable of speech, agriculture, magic, and so forth. I began work on the setting in college, when I wanted to write stories about the characters I’d invented on Furcadia back in high school, but felt dubious about appropriating the intellectual property of the Furc setting. Since then I’ve been on again, off again with it, never quite sure what to do with it. Sometimes I think I’ll make it into a tabletop role-playing game, sometimes I write stories and novels set there. Ultimately, who knows?

In any case, this is a post about love in that world: themes, cultural beliefs, differences in mindset about the topic between Pentra and Earth. Why? Well, “furry” fandom has a reputation for being sex-obsessed; I’ve tried a few different ways of distancing myself from that in my writing to date, but it’s tended toward cop-outs (“the people of Pentra just don’t make as big a deal about it as we do”) and the uncomfortably kyriarchal (characters with rigid codes of chastity). I’d like to achieve something better. So with this brainstorm, I set out to:

  • Enliven the setting. Variety is fun! How might I use this speculative world to explode the notion of “love” and play with it?
  • Break from kyriarchal assumptions. Can I build a setting that doesn’t fall prey to all the usual sexist, heterocentric, gender-binary, etc. traps?
  • Provide story fuel. Whatever I do with this, it’s supposed to make good tales, collaborative or otherwise. Will this generate juicy conflicts and twisty undercurrents?
  • Be unconventional, but not appropriative. One of the growing themes of Pentra is a clash-of-cultures thing, where these species with all different assumptions have been thrown together and mixed up, forming odd alliances and strange syncretisms. Can I build that theme without borrowing from real-world cultural traditions I have no right to?
  • Make something that feels animalistic. There’s gotta be a point to the setting’s having animal species instead of varied human races. Can I make something that feels animal-like–or at least expresses a “furry” sociology like you’d find on Furcadia? (Preferably without the oversexed bits…)

So here goes. One word of warning: there’s a tangent or two that could be triggering for folks with sexual abuse or assault in their background. I’ve put those asides in footnotes, so you can pause at the break if needed.

The Five Loves

Pentra is sometimes called the “world of fives.” Where other worlds give particular significance to trinities, decades, cycles of forty, in Pentra the number most commonly shrouded in lore and superstition is five. It is an empty signifier, surely. But here as in many other places, a concept comes in five flavors: Pentrans love in five ways. Though they vary in their definitions and expressions, they are all, on some level, things we would call “love.” They involve attraction, from one theri (person) to another; a warmth of feeling; well-wishing; desire for closeness.

  • Love in Words. Those who love each other in words are confidantes, secret-keepers, speech-mates, letter-friends. It is a love expressed in sharing of the self, of inner thoughts and fervent dreams, in exchange of stories of personal history and importance, over whatever distance one’s means of communication allow.
  • Love in Touch. Those who love with touch are bed-mates, affectionate friends, lovers, comfort-givers. It is expressed in physical contact, whether hands held, a head tucked against a shoulder, or an intimate tryst. But it is all the same spectrum, the different expressions a matter more of degree than kind.*
  • Love in Aid. Theri in aid-love are help-mates, partners, comrades in arms, companions in labor. It is the love expressed when you shoulder another’s physical burdens, come to the defense of their person, or collaborate with them on a scheme, project, or artistic work.
  • Love in Worship. Love in worship is the classic “crush,” an infatuation, the state of limerence, the relation of followers to their hero. It desires little else than to see the object of affection return the feeling in kind, and clings to any scrap of hope that might occur.
  • Love in Fertility. The fifth love is the drive for theri to procreate, to select a partner with whom to combine and pass on their lineage. It is breed-love, the love of sire and dam, the closeness attained by bringing a child into the world together.

Implications and Complications

Since differences between cultures are a major theme in the setting, how universal are these concepts across the world? The basic ideas of the five loves are widespread. If you were to take any two Pentran languages, it would not be difficult to find distinct words or phrases for each of the five that translate passably well between them. That said, every culture across the world treats them differently, valuing them differently, placing them with different degrees of priority in their social mores and family structures. One culture might consider love-in-worship a kind of mental illness, to be treated with stern rebuke, isolation from the object of adoration, and exile if it will not break. One culture might be very free and open with touch-love, its theri gathering in warm huddles of mutual affection, but treat word-love with the utmost privacy, the conversations between secret-keepers kept in reverence behind closed doors. And so on! Depending on the cultures and nations involved, love across borders might be of no consequence… or likely to produce a bloody Romeo and Juliet tragedy.

Sex and procreation are explicitly distinct; how does that work? A few things about Pentra make this possible despite the pseudo-medievalism of the world. For one, theri tend to be more in tune with their bodily rhythms of fertility than humans, lending clarity to their decisions on the depth of physical intimacy to pursue. But of course passion cannot always wait for convenience. Thankfully, herbal and alchemical contraceptive and abortifacient remedies are widely known and cheaply available. It’s possible that some culture, dying out of infertility, might censure the practice… but touch-love will have its due, and breed-love will not be coerced any more than any other of the five.

Is there anything special about having all five in the same relationship? This, too, differs, by culture and by individual. Most theri would consider the notion rather quaint, a sort of conservative romantic ideal that would most likely leave you lonely if you held out for it. Others might react with revulsion (“Snog my arms-brother? Ugh!”) or confusion (“Wouldn’t it be awkward to be infatuated with your child’s sire?”) to the idea.

Do theri get married? There can be formal, public bonds made commemorating any of the five. It’s perhaps most common to recognize love-in-fertility this way, especially among cultures that place a strong emphasis on blood lineage. Some of these tend to pair it with a vow of aid-love in the upbringing of the child, but it’s equally common to entrust the task of upbringing to other family members. It’s least common to recognize love-in-worship with a ceremony or legal document, given the often fleeting nature of the attraction–but in some places, a requited worship-love is seen as blessed, and a good excuse for a party! It’s worth noting, too, that not all Pentran cultures practice the sort of one-to-one, lifetime pair-bonding we think of with the term “marriage.” Many therian relationships, even formally recognized ones, can become complicated polyamorous sprawls, some members of the love-network bound formally, others with less commitment, many with different affirmed types of love connecting them. Confusing, messy, prone to soap-opera dramas: absolutely! But in between the thorny episodes we tell stories about, it can be quite a joyful arrangement.

What’s the love between parent and child, brother and sister, in this setup? Rather than a love unto itself, a familial bond acts as a sort of lens or filter over the other expressions. The child who burrows in between his parents to sleep seeks the comfort of love-in-touch.** A parent mentoring and guiding their child as they grow demonstrates a very special and particular love-in-aid. Siblings whispering secrets after their kin have gone to bed feel and show love-in-words. There is a different character to it due to the family connections, but they are understood to be expressions of the same core emotions.

Do these loves cross species lines? Definitely! In prehistoria, the species were isolated and did not know each other; when they first came together there was confusion and utter hatred; but over time a more cosmopolitan picture has arisen. All are theri. Given place, time, opportunity, and chemistry, a Reptile and an Ursine could love one another in any or all of the five ways. Only love-in-fertility requires some special consideration, since most species are not naturally capable of producing hybrid offspring. A pair of hopeful parents of different species can seek out an alchemist, life-mage, or evoker in hopes of obtaining a spell or blessing that will allow them to have children together. The resulting child typically belongs to one or the other species, but with some distinguishing characteristics of the other: a Canine with a fox’s shape but a snow-leopard coat, for instance. But full hybrids, too, are not unheard of.

What about gender and orientation? How do those fit in? Love in Pentra is nothing if not varied! Preferences of attraction can and do change from one theri to the next, from one love to the next, even over time. One theri might prefer to seek physical intimacy with others of their own sex, but tend to hero-worship or secret-keeping with those who present the opposite. Species, or races within a species, have different degrees of sexual dimorphism, too (consider: in our world, it takes some knowledge of zoology or biology to distinguish male from female birds of different species at a glance!), so cultured theri try not to assume anything about sex or gender from outward appearance. Moreover, the presence of magic opens up possibilities unheard of in our own world, similarly to the cross-species breed-love mentioned above. A skilled life-mage might transform from one sex to the other according to their desires or the desires of their mate. Such things also open up the possibility of childbearing between theri born of the same biological sex, and so on.

You mention “requited” a couple of times, which implies the existence of “unrequited” loves. There’s no way these things always work out happily-ever-after. Definitely not. The she-cat who would do any back- or heart-breaking labor for her aid-love who would not lift a finger for her in return; the stallion desirous of a child by one who would never deign to carry or nurse; the awkward jealous triangles of physical passions never quite aligned; these are all well-known stories and hard-felt truths. And of course those who meet and love for a time do not love always the same or forever, and the partings can be bittersweet or simply bitter. Take every drama and obstacle imagined in our particular notions of romance, and multiply it by five: thus it is in Pentra.

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What was that book?

Ethan Barrister:

This is a curious use of my blog. But perhaps the Internet can help me.

At some point during my childhood, early grade school I would guess though I can’t pinpoint further (so circa 20 years ago?), one of my parents or elder siblings had a book.

It was mainly an art book, depicting various Indiana Jones-esque archaeological adventures. The one I most vividly remember was a battle on a rope bridge, with unfortunate explorers tumbling over the side into some great chasm. There was also an introductory page depicting the top of a desk or table, strewn with artifacts obtained from the scenes on the later pages. But beyond that, it was a sort of puzzle book: the pictures contained what looked like torn-up pieces of a journal or memoir. When pieced together, they provided… something. The backstory of the pictures and artifacts? Clues to some further puzzle or objective you needed to find by hunting for clues in the pictures? I don’t remember ever attempting what was needed to put them together; you’d have to either photocopy and cut up the pages, or trace the fragments with paper and pencil.

And the fact that I never did that, never understood the book or what it was ultimately about, haunts me to this day. I mean, that may be an overstatement, but for whatever reason I find myself remembering that strange book and thinking about it, every few years.

I don’t know the title, publisher, author, anything else about it beyond these memories. Oh Internet, do you know the mysterious tome of which I speak? …where I might find a copy of it? …if there are others in its unusual and memorable genre?

Orb of Rebirth: A New Year’s Tale

A new year, the traditional time for new beginnings, new endeavors, new attempts at bettering oneself. In the last year, I proposed to my girlfriend, all but conquered some nervous tics, began a new and healthier sleep schedule, made huge strides in learning to code, lapsed into and re-bested an Internet addiction. What goals then to turn to next?

In a cloistered alchemy lab, a magus lifts up a crystal ball in one hand. Red and orange light like flame swirls within it. He speaks a word, and the flames burst forth in shapes like wings, without heat, but their light filling the room around him. The wings grow until their span reaches from wall to wall, the height of them from tip to crest as tall as the magus himself. Then they close around him, enfolding him in a brilliant embrace, and in no more than a moment flames, magus, and crystal alike are gone, the room empty.

I have a tendency to over-plan and under-execute. I have no shortage of ideas, aspirations, hobbies, projects, skills in various stages of development. I ride the enthusiasm into a grand design and complete the first exciting moves. But my life is littered with such half-formed creations: novels with only three chapters written, books half-read, games designed but not edited.

A traveler stumbles out of the forest into the town. He wears a simple tunic and carries a squire’s practice sword at his waist. He has a dazed expression on his face, and though he looks familiar to the townsfolk, he does not greet or even seem to recognize them. He wanders through the market, his puzzled eyes sweeping from side to side, then stops in front of a haberdasher’s stall. He picks up a curious pointed cap, travel wear for a village magician. His eyes light up: he must have this. But he has no coin.

Everyone seems to have a trick they recommend, each a contradictory strategy, or in the best of cases pieces of a larger puzzle. Focus on one habit at a time. Break things down into small steps. Set up trigger conditions to take desired actions, and be on guard for the triggers that tend to lead you in the wrong direction. Don’t rest until you stay on track for 21 days… or is it 66?

The hero-to-be hires himself out. He does odd jobs around the town: hauls firewood, hunts game and vermin, fights and chases off more dangerous creatures. He grows stronger, more confident. He keeps himself fed and lodged, and puts away a bit of his earnings to purchase better equipment: a proper sword, a shield, a helmet, a sturdy suit of armor. When he falters–neglecting his training, or failing in a commitment to one of the townsfolk–he grows ill. On a few occasions he finds himself staring down Death itself, and trudges shaking to the apothecary with a handful of coin or gems to purchase a curative. When the dawn comes and he awakens still among the living, he sighs with relief.

The base stock of the magic mixture, it turns out, comes not from my books on productivity and focus, but from my love of games. Games are by definition behavior-modifiers: “Game design is mind control,” as Luke Crane put it. When we play a game, we do things that we’d never bother with or think to do in any other context, learn strategies and strive for reward with an intensity seldom seen elsewhere in life.

In time, the aptitudes the young warrior had before that momentous night in the alchemy lab return to him. At first simple cantrips, mere tricks, then mighty  spells of stone and flame, power and brilliance. He sets aside sword and shield in favor of a staff. He buys that magician’s cap, then later trades up to a true cornuthaum, “horn of magic”, a hat woven with enchanted threads, its tapered shape designed to channel the energies of the stars above into the growing arcane reservoir of his mind. He attracts the notice of other adventurous souls, who join forces with him to quest for fabled treasures and slay mighty beasts.

Enter HabitRPG, a Web site with accompanying mobile applications and a diverse community of coders, gamers, and self-improvement enthusiasts. It turns your life into a game of the most iconic Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy traditions, to astounding effect. Your successes mean gold and experience for your hero; setbacks, injury or even death. I credit it for the majority of my memorable successes over the last year. Without it I would likely never have learned JavaScript and Git, cured my afternoon Circadian crashes, or curbed my tendency to spiral into self-deprecating reminiscences.

If you want 2014 to be a year of success, you owe it to yourself to check this site out. You will be amazed. It is a marvel.

Battered and shivering on a snowy mountainside, four questers of varying professions stand breathless before a gaping cave mouth. The Healer attempts an incantation of health and shelter, but his voice falters. Our hero, now the party’s Mage, sets a grim smile and lays a hand on the Healer’s shoulder. The wind lashing the stony slope suddenly carries an intangible strength, and with the next breath each of the adventurers take, they feel more ready. The Healer completes his blessing, and all four of them stand straighter. The Warrior thumps the haft of her axe upon her shield, and the Rogue spins her twin blades into a reversed grip, ready to drive them deep.

A rumble, then a roar emanates from the cave mouth. Vice, the Shadow Wyrm, awaits.

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Adulath Caracai II:

Yes, that’s “Unknown,” not “Within.” Back on my old LiveJournal, I titled my game review posts “Late to the Party”… maybe I should still do that!

Gameplay: It’s extra difficult for me to come at this from an on-its-own-merits perspective. X-Com: Terror from the Deep, sequel to the UFO Defense from which Enemy Unknown is inspired, ranks in my personal top five video games of all time! So by psychological necessity, this will be something of a comparison review.

That warning established, I feel Enemy Unknown takes almost the ideal approach to reimagining its predecessor. It starts with a number of baseline goals having to do with the original UFO Defense‘s greatest successes. It’s squad-level, turn-based tactical combat, interspersed with global strategic decisions involving interception of alien craft, research of their technologies, and production of new arms and equipment to outfit soldiers with; just like the original. A soldier, once killed, is dead for ever, just like in the original. Missions are thus the same tense search-and-destroy affair as in the original, with clenched teeth as you end your turn and await the enemy’s move, and curses when a sure shot goes wide or an alien takes down one of your veterans.

The numerous changes from the original simplify things in many appreciated ways, and add customization and depth to areas that didn’t have them before. No longer do you need to micromanage inventory down to how many clips of ammunition you have stored in your base. As soldiers earn promotions, they gain skills you can activate in tactical fashion, unlike the homogeneous shooters of the original. And combat actions have been condensed down to two per turn (typically movement and firing), rather than the original’s fine-grained and very wargamey “time units”, along with a more consciously deployable reaction-fire mechanic called “Overwatch.”

I did say “almost” ideal, though. Many of the tweaks and simplifications make Enemy Unknown a better game, but not a better experience. The original had an underlying mindset of simulation: events happen because of calculated factors and prior events often out of your sight. If aliens attack Moscow, a UFO flew there from an alien base, and you didn’t see it or catch it in time. In the reimagining, though, it’s just… because it’s time for a terror mission. Things are more scripted, less real. You only get one base, one troop transport, and can’t build any more (despite the obvious utility of such, with alien attacks happening simultaneously around the globe); why? You just can’t. You can’t sell manufactured items for cash, unless there’s a specific random request for them; why? Because one of the simplifications is that manufacturing most items takes only money, not time, so selling for profit would enable unlimited cash. It coheres as a design, but there’s a hollowness to it.

Aesthetics: We’ve come a long way from the blobby sprites and comic book monster pinups of the original, that’s for certain! The aliens are monstrous and creepy and intimidating, just like they ought to be. Action camera angles (optional) highlight kills and dramatic discoveries. It’s X-Com brought into the 21st century, abandoning the 90s radar dishes and flat-top haircuts for orbital recon satellites and slick space-marine armor.

There are some odd choices here, though. Soldiers’ weapons look more like Nerf or Lego toys than instruments of war. On a night mission with the enemy’s location undiscovered, is it really a good idea to cover yourself in red and green LEDs like a martial Christmas tree? And the animations, while serviceable, feel unpolished: snipers brace their rifles on their forearms even when there’s perfectly serviceable hard cover right in front of them; a soldier engaging in suppressive fire steps out into open space and stands there looking undefended. It caused me some confusion: how am I not getting reaction fire, which triggers on enemy movement, when they’re obviously waltzing out into the open to shoot?

Difficulty FAQtor: A few lookups, mostly to get a sense of the relative utility of different special abilities. Difficulty is highly customizable; I tried “Classic” difficulty at first and found it entirely too brutal, getting wiped out or at least decimated mission after mission. I settled on Normal difficulty but with the “Ironman” option enabled, which disallows any form of save-game rollback. (Mercifully, if you fail the very last mission, it does allow you do-overs there. I needed two.) When I get the chance to play the expansion set, I’ll likely attempt Classic again, knowing better what I’m doing!

Ism Factor: Exemplary. Your squad members are evenly split between men and women, and come from various countries around the globe, their names, complexions, and accents varying with their background. (The expansion will enable the option to have soldiers speak their native languages!) Female soldiers have a more slender profile than the men, but their costumes are otherwise identical, not in any way exploitative. They even have the same VA scripts, ensuring that no inequity slips in through choices in what the characters say! Support characters are at least modestly diverse: the Central Command guy is whitebread American, but the lead scientist is a European woman, and the head engineer is a middle-aged, even a bit overweight, gent of Chinese heritage. They could have been bolder with those choices–why not an African-American woman for a central command officer, a Pakistani scientist?–but that’s such a mild criticism that I’d say the game retains its top rating in this category.

Enjoyment Score: 4 out of 5 stars. I eagerly kept playing the game, often losing track of time while I was about it. However, I didn’t have any desire to play more once I’d won, at least until I get ahold of the expansion pack, and the replay urge is a crucial criterion for a game to earn 5 stars from me. Notably, I’ve played Enemy Unknown‘s predecessors several times, ha.

Review: Rogue Legacy

Adulath II:

Gameplay: Rogue Legacy is an homage to two traditions of games at once: roguelikes, where levels are randomly generated and character death is permanent (no reloading saved games after a Game Over); and the brand of sidescrolling action-RPGs exemplified by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors. You jump, double-jump, dash, swing swords, and throw spells while exploring a procedurally generated castle full of traps and hostile critters, breaking furniture to find loot, and clinging to your meager reserve of health points as long as you can… for when you run out, you’re toast, and need to start the castle all over again.

It’s much more than a mashup, however. Rogue Legacy adopts the innovations of Roguelikes such as Shiren the Wanderer, where achievements managed on one run of the castle (such as unlocking new equipment or defeating a boss) carry through to your next attempt, even if the layout is reshuffled and the monsters respawned. The conceit is that each hero who dies assaulting the castle leaves behind successors, new generations of explorers sworn to take up the quest where others have failed.

As if that weren’t ingenious enough, the game keeps things fresh by letting you pick from three randomized children each generation, who sport character classes with strengths and weaknesses, as well as odd “traits” that may have aesthetic (like “nostalgic,” which turns the game sepia-toned) or game-mechanical (like “dextrocardia”, which switches the values of your health and magic pools) effects. Additional flourishes like an ever-growing hall of family portraits contribute to the feeling that you’re carrying on an actual, well, legacy, not rewinding time and trying again.

Aesthetics: The look and feel of Rogue Legacy are perhaps its least notable parts. It’s a pleasant 16-bit-like style, with pixely sprites, chiptune music, and palette-swapped enemies and equipment. “Retro” is a popular style right now, and RL follows the fad without any substantial missteps. Character classes are differentiated by minor but evocative embellishments: mages have beards (even the ladies, ha), spellswords’ blades don’t appear until they swing, and so forth. It does get rather samey after a while, though. I would particularly have liked to see some weapon other than a sword for my heroes at some point, for instance.

Difficulty FAQtor: I didn’t need any walkthroughs or YouTube trainers to finish the game in 22 hours, and that figure appears to be close to average based on the global Steam achievement stats: “play for 20 hours” is a slightly less common achievement than “beat the final boss”. The game is hard, but it’s one of the fairest difficult games I’ve played. Despite the randomness, it was extraordinarily rare for me to feel I died or took damage in a way that couldn’t have been avoided with better skill. And there’s an appreciable amount of strategy in how you spend the gold you amass each run, what equipment you use, and which classes and traits you select. Like Persona 3, it’s possible to grind your way to victory, but smart play makes grind less necessary and speeds up what grind you choose to do; unlike Persona 3, even if you do choose the grind route, the gameplay involved in doing so remains entertaining.

Ism Factor: Mixed. There’s actually quite a lot of interesting things to be said about RL, here, so I’m going to break it down a bit!

Gender and Orientation: RL does admirably on these. You almost always have the option of choosing either a male or a female character, and that choice in itself doesn’t have any gameplay effect. The female sprites have pretty traditional gender signifiers (a pink ribbon atop the helmet, and subtly rounded chest armor), but aren’t in any way sexualized or demeaned. And RL, unlike most games, at least acknowledges the existence of sexual orientations: “gay” is one of the random traits a character can have, and there’s no caricaturing or stereotyping involved in it.

Race: Here, however, RL falls utterly flat. Every single character is white. Heroes, NPCs, storyline characters in cutscenes, you name it. You could put forth the flimsy argument that, well, it’s a single family line we’re looking at, so of course they’ll have similar skin tones. But the history you build can easily last millennia: my own playthrough was 145 generations. Maintaining utter racial homogeneity for that length of time (or perhaps worse, disqualifying any dark-skinned child from taking up the quest) would take a ruthless white supremacy that’d make modern hate groups look integrationist by comparison.

Ableism: You could write a whole paper here. I’m not well-versed in this corner of intersectional feminism, so whatever I say is probably even more silly gum-flapping than usual; take that as you may. But… wow. First off, I have to give the game props for the fact that in it, not every hero is utterly able-bodied and neurotypical. Typically, a game hero is the designer’s Platonic ideal of an athlete, and almost every villain you see is “insane”. In RL, though, heroes typically quest while dealing with a handful of physical or mental afflictions, and the antagonists of the piece seem troubled, but not mentally ill or accused of being such. There’s something cool about playing a dyslexic hero, happening upon a page of a prior adventurer’s journal, and straining–both player and character–to understand the ensuing array of letter-jumbled words.

But there’s something uncomfortable about the way these disabilities are represented. My fiancee was unsettled when, looking over my shoulder, she saw I was playing a character with “Alzheimer’s.” She, rightly I think, dreads the day when she or someone she cares about starts to suffer from the disease; it’s a horrific way for a life to end, and it runs in both of our families. In game, it just makes your character unable to remember the castle layout, disabling your full-screen map. It’s a vast trivialization of the condition, and that doesn’t feel right. Conditions like dwarfism, in the real world, have an array of physical and social consequences to them, and people with those conditions bond over them to form support networks and entire subcultures. Is it right to appropriate that, with an inaccurate depiction no less, for our amusement at seeing a downscaled sprite leap around like a flea and squeeze into tiny passages? I don’t think so.

RL could have done this just a bit differently and been less problematic, I’d conjecture. “Forgetful” instead of “Alzheimer’s,” “Tiny” instead of “Dwarfism,” “Flatulent” instead of “IBS,” and so on. It would lose a tiny sliver of the humor factor (which is in any case a punching-down sort of humor, able folks chuckling at things they don’t have to deal with), for a substantial improvement in its Ism Factor.

Enjoyment Rating: 5/5. I played it, loved it, found it novel and entertaining at almost every moment. It took an effort of will to stop myself from playing and playing all the way to the finish of a New Game+. Highly recommended despite its handful of problematic elements!

HabitRPG Interview

Kithia Verdon:

HabitRPG has been doing a Meet the Staff series on their blog. I started writing up this humorous self-interview before I discovered they had a standard format for the posts, so consider this a supplemental piece of mine!

“Sabe” is a weird name. Where’d that come from?
It’s short for my usual Internet handle, SabreCat. My long-time friend Elaine Escher came up with it when she wanted to insert me into her Webcomic. My given name is Edward, but I don’t go by that because when I do, I get tired jokes about investment firms.

That Webcomic… and your Gravatar… are you a furry, Mr. Jones?
Depends on your definition! I do like fiction and artwork involving anthropomorphic animals, be they catfolk, werewolves, minotaurs, etc. But I don’t dress in costume or do… stranger things than that.

So you say, so you say. Any other topics we should tread lightly on?
Well, I’ve been known to get soapboxy about feminism, copyright reform, and nutrition. We can keep it simple by leaving those alone, I guess?

Safe ground, then: how did you get involved with HabitRPG?
A while ago, I was brainstorming about how to improve my habits, and posted this entry about self-gamification. Magic Missile of the Mad Rollin’ Dolls pointed me to Habit as a site already doing the sort of thing I had in mind there. I checked it out, and it did what I was looking for even better than the system I’d thought up! As time went on, and my appreciation for the site grew, I came to see how the site’s growing pains were causing it trouble. So I stepped up to help out where I could, providing advice to frustrated users in the site’s “Tavern” chat room, writing bug reports, and so forth. To make myself more useful, I started learning my way around GitHub so I could fix typos and similar minor nuisances myself. After a while, the developers invited me to join up with them for meetings and planning, so here I am!

What do you use Habit for?
Oh, all sorts of things. I use it to help keep me on task at work, to focus me on creativity and self-improvement instead of vegetating in front of a screen all day at home, and to remind me of important little things like taking medications and getting to bed at a sane hour. I’ve even used it to keep me more mindful of things that go on within my own head, like holding grudges against people or getting anxious about my mistakes. If there’s something going on in my life that I think I can do better on, I try to work it in to my Habit scheme one way or another! My layout is constantly changing, and that’s OK. The site’s flexibility makes such frequent tweaks easy, far easier than it’d be if I were keeping track of self-improvement projects in different places or in my head.

When you’re not working on Habit, or working on your habits, what are you likely to be doing?
Playing RPGs of the dice-and-imagination variety, or designing them. Hanging out with my fiancée, dogs, and cat. Dancing. Playing computer and video games, particularly indie titles on Steam. And writing blog posts!

Storium: First Impressions

Marc Yves:

A couple of months ago, someone I follow on Twitter shared a link to the upcoming collaborative writing site Storium. It sounded fascinating, and reminded me of collaborative fiction projects I was heavily involved in from junior high through high school. So I signed up for an invite, and lo and behold I got in to the alpha test about a week ago. What do I think, and how does it compare to those collabs that were so near and dear to my adolescent heart (and which today I remain nostalgic about)?

Folks, this thing is really cool.

Storium, per commentary on its blog, is intended to provide a structure for online collaborative writing built from the ground up for the purpose, as opposed to the shoehorning of such endeavors into message boards and forums meant more for topic discussions. Its features speak directly to those needs:

  • Email notifications of activity, and the ability to nudge people whose input you’re waiting for.
  • Story/Chapter/Scene/Move structure for posts.
  • Creative prompts to help overcome blank-page paralysis, such as setting (“World”) templates, character archetypes, and “cards” that represent locations and goals in a scene.
  • A “karma” system that encourages players to write failures and setbacks for their characters before claiming big successes.

You can read up on the aforelinked blog to get more details on those! I’ve been using the site since I got that invite, and now have one story underway with a second in warmup. I’d like to take some time to examine the differences between Storium and collaborative writing projects I’ve embarked on in the past, and what I think of those differences.

Linearity. In a game of Storium, you write one scene after another, one Chapter after another, until the story comes to a conclusion. This is in marked contrast to the collaborations of my past, which tended to be sprawling affairs with lots of subplots going on in parallel. You probably could use Storium to accomplish such a setup, by creating several stories, but it’d be a clear case of shoehorning; the design would fight you at each step.

Individual scale. Similar to the above, in Storium each player gets exactly one character. The assumption, not built-in but implied by structure and advised in help text, is that those characters will be in the same scenes together most of the time. In my old forum collabs, people could make up as many characters as they fancied, sometimes to the point where the archive of character descriptions was littered with people who never got written into a story at all.

Those two pieces together represent the biggest paradigm shift from the collaborative stories I remember, and it’s taken me a bit of reorientation to get it. But I see what problems it solves, and I appreciate that. The linearity prevents chronology from ever becoming a headache. In multi-thread forum stories, you might have a series of posts describing a single hour of time, and another that jumps ahead by days or weeks between paragraphs. If the events of one become relevant to the other, how do you reconcile them? It got confusing. And while huge casts of characters can be impressive, people did tend to have one or two they focused on and really developed; the others were supporting cast. There are times I think I’ll chafe against the one-character-per-player restriction, and it does cut off certain types of stories (we’re all but assured that a player’s character won’t die before the final scene, for instance), but overall it’s different, not worse. I think it’ll help promote fewer, more three-dimensional characters, which has some value over an ensemble of bit parts.

The smaller scale has an additional, more subtle benefit: accountability. In a collaboration involving dozens of authors, it’s all but impossible to get everyone to contribute regularly. People wander away, and their stories die off. Even for regular contributors, dilution of responsibility kicks in. With only four or five people overall involved in a story, it’s easier to set and enforce a pace, and to keep track of outages that might delay an individual writer’s contribution. The invite-only nature of stories shores up the matter, too: an author wandered in from the Internet at large has no particular reason to feel responsible for the story’s success. But if you’re one of four people expressly asked to join an intimate group, there’s a feeling of obligation and motivation to see it through.

Fancy creative prompts. The collaborations I’d done before were all text all the time, maybe with a picture gallery on the side. With story cards, Karma, and inline images, a Storium tale looks vibrant, made for the Internet. The cues they provide are subtle, and players don’t always understand them at first, but they do help give direction when people aren’t sure what to do next. Blank-page paralysis plus the daunting scale of those other collaborations made it difficult for people to get started. Storium doesn’t suffer from those problems, at least not as much!

All together, I think a Storium game is more likely to be sustained to a conclusion than other styles of collaboration, and that greatly appeals to me. There’s something sad about a sprawling collaborative world sitting abandoned, its characters in eternal stasis, their hopes and fears unresolved. But I’m just starting, so we’ll see if that holds true!