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



Pentra: “By Any Other Name” game recap

Last night, I played a game of Pentra, the anthro-animal collaborative storytelling project I’ve been working on. It was possibly the best story I’ve seen it turn out yet! Here I’ll recap the story, and provide some mechanics and playtest commentary in the endnotes.

The scenario, called “By Any Other Name” (written in commemoration of Habitica‘s name change from “HabitRPG”!), starts as follows:

In the region of Habityr, it is customary for a child coming of age to have a “second name day,” where they choose whether to formally join the family of their sire, dam, or midwife. The upcoming second name day of the gifted [Child] is a topic of much speculation and gossip. But when the day arrives, the teen proudly declares for a fourth house no one has ever heard of, and disappears! Will the three snubbed houses be able to put off their recriminations long enough to track down the wayward youth?

We fleshed out the starting characters1 as follows:

The Child: Bella, a female rabbit. Each of the houses wanted her so badly because she was a seer. Never mind that the visions were unreliable, something of a source of torment for her.

The Dam: Ilona, a female elephant, a historian, the community’s keeper of legend and storyteller. Her story-collecting habits made her something of a gossip.

The Sire: St. Oddart, a male lion2. He was a church patriarch, beloved as a pillar of the community despite his self-centeredness.

The Midwife: Arque, a female Nubian goat. Skilled in medicine and possessed of “ninja-like agility.”

The Hero: Kel, a male wolf. His tracking sense made him ideal for finding the Child, but he was a compulsive liar, given to tall tales.

The story began at the moment of Bella’s disappearance, the elders huffing about in indignation and demanding that she be found and brought back. Kel of course stepped up to volunteer, but he and his boasts of having “rescued hundreds of children!” were swept aside as Quarran, the General, came forward3 with his regiment of African wild dog theri to accomplish the task. They set out into the woods, and Kel, piqued at having been upstaged, took off at a different course.

It didn’t take long for the General’s men to find Bella, cornering her up a tree4. She protested that she had seen visions of their deaths in open battle, resulting from her remaining snared in this community. If they let her go, the fate could be averted! Stoic Quarran was undeterred–it is a soldier’s lot in life to die fighting. Dismayed, but trusting in another vision that a dashing hero would save her, Bella consented to be led back.

Indeed, Kel had tracked her by another route, and came upon the scene as the warriors surrounded her and began to march her away. Thinking quickly, he ducked into the brush and fired an arrow toward the group of soldiers, then changed position and fired again, faking an attack by a larger force. The soldiers went into phalanx formation, and Bella nearly slipped away in the shuffle–but tripped and fell headlong, allowing her easy recapture5. One of the soldiers threw her over his shoulder, and Kel, cursing his ill luck, left off pursuit for now.

Bella pleaded with her captor to at least let her walk on her own with some dignity, laying on some charm. It worked, to a degree. Yoquel, the Soldier, found himself uncomfortably attracted to his captive6. Too loyal to his commander to risk another escape attempt, but wanting to accommodate her request, he let her down, clamping an arm around her waist to keep her restrained.

Meanwhile, Quarran studied the arrows of the mysterious attacker from the woods. He recognized their wielder’s scent: he and Kel had been close, once. The wolf had been a member of his company, but deserted. Why was he back now?

They made it back to the town square without further incident. The squabbling between the three houses had died down, and with Bella returned, the elders sent for Therothe Judge, an ancient turtle whose impartiality the community relied upon in times of dispute like this. Before Bella could even make her case, the judge unilaterally declared that she would join St. Oddard’s house, no more dithering! Bella sputtered about the terrible visions she’d seen of what would come of this, but it was done. She went to her sire’s household, head low.

A week later, in an atrium of her father’s house, St. Oddard pressured Bella to use her oracular powers in service to his upcoming campaign against the heathen warriors of the Red Lands. She protested that her visions were not specific enough to tell him of troop movements, and what she had seen foretold disaster for him in any case, but he would not accept any of it. Eventually, in weary exasperation, she told him what he wanted to hear. In that moment she heard a whispering in her mind: “Do you wish to be free of the tyrant?”

Bella begged some time in private “to pray,” and in the quiet replied to the voice: “Yes.”

“Then meet me at the blighted tree under the light of the moon,” the voice replied, and said no more.

The seer attended the appointed place and time, and there encountered Beatricethe Sorceress, a hyena theri of impossibly tall stature. She offered to take Bella away to join the Sisterhood, where the sisters would teach her how to control her powers. It would not be freedom, she cautioned, for Bella and her powers would be at the service of the community. Arque, however, had followed her there, and cautioned her that the Sisters, too, would use her to their own ends. In times past, Arque had attempted to become a Sister, but had been rejected.

“So I am in another tug-of-war,” muttered Bella, and asked for a chance to think before giving Beatrice her decision. She never had the chance; while on the road back to her father’s household, she was set upon by Kel and Yoquel, who dragged her away from the town. Kel revealed that he was in fact a great general of the Red Lands, and if she would accompany him there, she could live as she pleased among those theri. Too exhausted to fight further, and seeing this as the best chance yet for disentangling herself from the politics of her community, she went along.

The three of them were not long on the road when they encountered a raiding party of warriors of the Red Lands, the Cat People, lying in ambush. There was confusion and a scuffle; Yoquel, looking every bit one of Quarran’s warriors, was cut down where he stood7. But for once it turned out that Kel was telling the truth: the Red Landers did recognize him as their general! Unfortunately for Bella, he wasn’t sure about his promise to let her go free; her powers and her value as a hostage would be too useful in the battle to come.

Just before dawn, as the army led by Quarran and St. Oddard prepared to march, a trio of she-elephant theri approached Kel’s camp. These were Cielia, Murra, and Ilsa, the Aunts, blood kin to Bella’s dam. They asked that the child be returned to her family–she had no part in this battle. Kel stood firm: he was not the instigator of this bloodshed. If Oddard called off his crusade, the girl would go free. The Aunts relayed this demand back to Ilona, who as historian was to accompany Oddard to the battlefront. Torn between loyalty to her community (cool though her affections for Oddard were, anymore) and the safety of her daughter, she sided with the latter: she begged Oddard to call off the attack. As usual, though, he would take no other path but his own, and so he marched leaving the historian behind.

Heart softened by the Aunts’ plea, though, Kel changed his plans. The Red Landers would flee their position, evading Quarran’s army, and once they successfully disengaged, he would let Bella go free. Back in Oddard’s camp, Ilona treated with Arque on Bella’s behalf, and the ninja goat crept into the supply train and put Quarran’s supplies to the torch. The General attempted to call off the attack, to fall back and resupply, but St. Oddard still would not be deterred. He put the warriors into a forced march in pursuit of the escaping Red Landers.

Unburdened of their supplies, they were able to close the distance, though their fighting condition suffered from exhaustion and lack of food. The Red Landers would be more than a match despite their fewer numbers and weaker equipment. A bloody battle commenced, theri falling in droves on both sides–and around it all, hyena sorcerer-sisters linked hands, drinking in power from the departing souls.

Quarran and Kel met on the field. Quarran demanded an explanation: why had Kel deserted, so long ago? Why fight his old brother in arms? Kel snarled back: “I left in disgust once you threw in with Oddard, that zealous monster! The least of these Red Land warriors are twice the theri you now are!” They exchanged fatal blows and died together there, locked in a mortal embrace.

Despite her every attempt to avert it, the doom Bella had foreseen was come to pass. She cried out in despair, and a sorcerous power rolled forth from her. Lightning from the heavens raked the battlefield, striking down all survivors save Bella herself: Oddard, Beatrice and her assembled Sisters, everyone. Alone now, Bella walked away to the east, her mind at last free from portents8.

  1. Each scenario comes with a set of characters, typically five of them, interrelated and in varying degrees of conflict with one another. Each has an epithet (like “the Midwife”), a Drive describing their impetus for action, and an Others list describing their thoughts on the other characters. At the beginning of the game, players fill in the characters’ names, genders, species, Qualities and Complications, to make them unique to that group’s game. The process could use a bit of speeding up; there’s a lot of staring at blank spaces on the page, in the first few minutes of play. Moreover, people didn’t use the Others list much. I might drop Others and provide some suggested Qualities and Complications to pick from for each character.
  2. The setting of Pentra is left loosely defined, but there are a few things established as part of the rules of the game. One is that via common hedge-magics, it’s possible for any two consenting adult theri to mate and produce offspring, but the outcomes can be unpredictable. So we’re encouraged to make characters members of whatever species we think fit them, regardless of blood or family relations.
  3. After the story begins, players can add named characters to the mix as needed. This game, my wife Misha wrote up four sheets, one of them representing a triumvirate of three characters. I also added one and Clyde added another, for a total of six blank sheets filled out during game–the most I’ve seen happen to date.
  4. This is one of the little things I like about Pentra‘s collaborative storytelling style, as opposed to traditional RPGs with lots of dice rolls for skill checks and whatnot. If this had been a game of Dungeons & Dragons, no doubt tracking down Bella would have been a protracted affair involving Stealth and Perception and Survival and who knows what else. Here, we get straight to the interesting parts!
  5. Here Misha played a Twist card (I may need a better name for these), “Pratfall,” declaring that a theri’s efforts come to embarrassing failure. Cards overrule pretty much anything else, so by this point Bella was well and truly defeated!
  6. At present, there are five love-related cards in the deck, based on the Five Loves in this post. The distinctions are pretty often cast aside, though, so the frequency with which standard sexual-romantic attractions spring into the narrative may be too much. I suspect I’ll at least trim out “Love in Fertility.”
  7. It’s become traditional that when a character dies, you tear their character page in two. I think that’ll go into the rules!
  8. This was a lovely climactic one-two of twist cards: “Ohz, Strength, Might-in-Adversity” where a character reveals a hidden power, and “Ilan, Freedom, Hope-of-Prisoners” which frees a character from literal or figurative restraints. Perfect. Of the many character pages written up, only five remained untorn: Bella of course, and those who had remained behind when the armies marched (Arque, Ilona, Thero, and the Aunts).