Monday, May 29, 2006

Developing culture of a feline race

Feline humanoid races are a staple of fantasy worlds, but they're almost always done wrong in roleplaying games, largely because defining the race's culture is left to players who then fall into one of a few common traps that render the whole idea of a feline race pointless. The most common traps are:

Cuddlekittens: Ignoring all feline races except the one that is least like all the others -- the housecat -- they depict the feline race as snuggly, playful kittens, who trivialize themselves. While we all love kittens, they don't prove very interesting as fantasy heroes or villains, particularly compared with the richness of other feline species.

Furry Humans: They're just people who happen to be furry, and maybe have one or two other vaguely feline-inspired traits like a propensity for meat, but otherwise they act just like people. A particularly pernicious version of this is the "sexy catgirl" version, in which they're just kinky humans in furry costumes.

Poncy Aristocrats: Focusing on how lions are the king of animals, they play up the nobility by dressing up in frilly fru-fru silk and flouncing around marble palaces in gilt chariots. This derives from the misconception that there is an opposition, a trade-off, between majestic nobility, grace and elegance and poise, on the one hand, and primal savagery, terrifying strength and viciousness on the other. And there is such an opposition in some species -- perhaps humans, for instance. But you only need look at a lion in placid repose on its haunches, completely unadorned save by blood on its jaw as it tears flesh from a carcass with infinite aplomb and savage strength, to see that with felines, these traits are not only not opposed, but each reinforce one another. Stripping a feline of its savage power does not increase its noble presence, it decreases it.

When Lusternia came along, it seemed like a chance to do right what had been done wrong in so many other places before. Its background was rich and beautiful, but it was also sketchy. Its feline race, the aslaran, were described only by a few paragraphs, plus a few passing references in the history, which shed no light on the vast majority of questions about aslaran culture and traditions. A ripe opportunity for players to develop all that, and do it right.

The trick in a situation like this is forging consensus. You have a bunch of players playing independently, often not even meeting each other, making up the missing bits of the racial background as they make up their own. The inexorable tendency is towards the sucking black hole of Wishy-Washiness, where every race and every culture ends up being described the same way, "very diverse, including nearly every possibility within it". Why bother? The whole point of developing a race's culture is to ensure that they have one. It's incredibly hard to resist the pull of Wishy-Washiness because it's hard to reject anyone's input, but at some point, something has to be accepted, decided, if anything's to be accomplished.

A handful of people, myself amongst them, started right in on developing aslaran culture as soon as Lusternia was open, and we were doing very well at avoiding the pitfalls. There weren't that many of us, and this worked in our favor, and we got a lot of great stuff done. There was an early incident that outsiders probably thought was a major setback. One particular aslaran player who came along later mistook himself for a leader of these efforts (because of a coincidental matter of in-game finances), but was only obstructive to them because of his remarkably inflated ego, and unhelpful because of his dedication to repeating the Poncy Aristocrat mistake. He, and a few loyalists he'd arranged around himself, were soon excluded from the efforts, and did not realize that for a long time (in fact, according to the revisionist history on his web page, he still hasn't realized it). They depicted this as a schism, but it really had no impact on the ongoing efforts, which had been started before he came and done out of his sight anyway.

What actually killed these efforts was much more serious. As I've written previously, Lusternia turned out to fall far, far short of its promise. One by one, those who had been part of this effort fell away, or switched to other roles, or gave up entirely in the face of administrative resistance and inconsistency. The effort eventually languished and withered on the vine. Sometimes I look back on some of the things we produced during those days and sigh at all the lost promise.

Perhaps the best emblem of this failure is that that particular egotist remains in Lusternia, allowing the Poncy Aristocrat model to hold sway by default; he posts endless screeds on the Lusternia forums about how Lusternia's design is anathema to strong roleplaying, yet no matter how many times he says it's pointless to stay, he never leaves and instead takes some kind of misguided pride in the victory of his perseverence. That pale echo is all that remains of what we did, and that fact is a microcosm of Lusternia's failure. Everything in Lusternia is like this: a faint mockery of what it could have been.

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