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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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!