Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.

* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here


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!