Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for June 11th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rave; the topic is anthropomorphic animals as humanoid creatures.
Okay, I’m going to warn you right now that this article is probably going to come off as even preacher than my Wednesday Raves tend to be. Sorry in advanced.
Have you ever noticed that there’s like three different “styles” of catfolk in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game? If you haven’t, surprise! There are three different styles of catfolk in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and they’re all spread out between different sources and product lines. Don’t believe me? Let’s see!
- The catfolk in Bestiary 2.
- The catfolk in the Advanced Race Guide.
- The catfolk in the Shattered Star adventure path.
See! Three completely different looks! We’re going to give this a technical term and call it “degrees of anthromorphization.” I’m almost 100% word that I just made that word up, so roll with it. For a quick etymology lesson, “anthropomorphism” is the attribution of human form or characteristics to a non-human being or entity. This term applies to a wide variety of topics; for example, if I walk into a Catholic church and I see a painting of a buff, old man in a white robe with gray hair and think to myself, “this is an artist’s depiction of God,” then I’m looking at an anthromorphic depiction of God: human attributes given to a non-human being or entity. In nerd culture, “anthropomorphic” is often associated with the furry fandom because that fandom revolves around anthromorphized animals, or animals given human form and attributes. So, what’s the problem here? Read on to see.
I mentioned my new buzzword, “degree of anthomorphization,” so I’m going to quickly apply it to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Let’s talk about the three distinct looks of catfolk. For this scale, we’ll be measuring how much of a cross between human and cat the character is.
- Degree 1 — Human: You’re an ordinary human! Congratz.
- Degree 2 — Bestiary 2: Notice in the Bestiary 2 version of the catfolk, the character is mostly humanoid. She doesn’t seem to have any fur or if she does, it’s so fine that it isn’t emphasized in the art. Furthermore, her only real “cat” aspects are her ears, her eyes, and her tail. She’s basically a human girl with cat face paint on.
- Degree 3 — Shattered Star: You can also call this one the “Thundercats Catfolk.” Like the original 1980s Thundercats cartoon, this catfolk has more cat-like features, but it has clear anthropomorphic features as well. For example, this character clearly has fur, cat-like claws and eyes, and a tail. That said, she also has a set of human-like feet and legs and a human-like face.
- Degree 4 — Advanced Race Guide: Now we’re really starting to pull away from humanity. At degree four, we’ve abandoned most human-like aspects of the character except for her shape: she is bipedal and has hands with opposable thumbs. Otherwise, she’s fully covered in fur, has a feline face, is digitigrade (meaning that her legs are jointed in a way that causes her to walk on her toes, bone-wise), and has a tail.
- Degree 5 — Cat: You’re an ordinary cat. Congratz! How are you reading this?
Now, this is all well and good, but what makes the best for a race?
It should be no secret that the Pathfinder Campaign Setting is humanocentric, or has a heavy focus on humans, their cultures, and their politics. Humanocentric fantasy settings are the easiest to create because their designers are humans, meaning they understand how humans think and act. In contrast, thinking about how an inhuman creature like a catfolk would react in a situation is a difficult mental exercise for designers because we aren’t catfolk. It is difficult for any designer to “shed their humanity” when designing other races. Our human brains corrupt our thoughts with human ideals and motivations that in reality, an inhuman creature may not be capable of understanding. But humanocentrism doesn’t necessarily restrict itself to mental design; it can sneak its way into physical design as well. Let’s talk about one of the big ones: foot design. (Warning, I’m a bit of a skeleton geek.)
Here’s a short list of humanoid races in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: adlets, catfolk, gnolls, kitsune, werewolves. What do they all have in common? They’re humanoids with feline or canine features. What else do they have in common? Catfolk and kitsune are more often depicted as plantigrade creatures while adlets, gnolls, and werewolves are always depicted as digitigrade creatures. What point am I trying to make? Apparently if it can’t wear human-style shoes, it isn’t fit to be a PC race. The game generally assumes that you’re playing the “good guy,” and an unintentional message that can be easily contrived from such a character design is, “if you don’t look human enough, you’re the bad guy.” It’s a trick used by artists and game designers to get us to regard something as a monster. “It’s okay for me to stab a wolf if its trying to kill me and this thing looks more wolf than human, so it must be okay for me to stab this adlet too.” This is why I liked the Advanced Race Guide versions of the catfolk and kitsune races, both of which were digitigrade in the Advanced Race Guide. This depiction challenged the idea of what could be considered ‘civilized folk’ in ways that keeping them as “painted humans” doesn’t match.
Here’s another, similar list of humanoids: lizardmen, kobolds, nagaji, vishkanya. What do they all have in common? They’re humanoids with reptilian features. What else do they have in common? Nagaji and vishkanya have standard, “human” features while lizardfolk and kobolds have far more pronounced reptilian features. And which ones are portrayed as monsters?
Further along this line, 0-HD creatures that theoretically could be played as PCs are given fluff that incriminates them within their own campaign setting. Good examples of this are strix, kobolds, and ratfolk. All three races are very clearly inhuman: strix are harpy-like creatures with black feathers and hair, kobolds are short, draconic humanoids with lizard-like talons and scales, and ratfolk are, well, humanoid rats. These races are very clearly not human, and so their racial entries often paint them as enemies rather than allies. Strixes hate humanoids for encroaching on their land, ratfolk are dangerous creatures that scheme and plot against the surface world, and kobolds have a history of being villains that’s decades long. Why? I don’t know, its probably part psychological, part tradition. It is much easier to convey that a snarling, snickering gnoll is evil than a grinning human. Even when said human is twirling his goatee while sporting a black trenchcoat with red trimmings. We (game designers and writers) rely heavily on crutches like these in our storytelling and they’ve more than stayed their due.
Diversity in Humanoids
If there’s a moral in this story, it’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to throw some drastic diversity in among your humanoid races. Let your catfolk and kitsune be digitigrade and throw in entire clans of gnolls who aren’t bloodthirsty savages. Build races in your game that are cool and alien but aren’t antagonistic to humanity. Is it wrong to use traditionally evil gnolls and kobolds? Of course not, but take the time to explain the personal, moral reasons that they’re bad and don’t rely on, “They’re gnolls. Fight them.”
Well, what di you think of my rave today? Do you think that it’s a problem that humanoid races tend to be designed as “friendly” and “unfriendly” by body type and appearance or is this a tendency that deserves to stick around? How do you depict races like catfolk and kitsune, which have been depicted in multiple ways across different products, in your campaign setting or how would you depict them if you haven’t had to yet? How do you use races like gnolls and kobolds in your campaign? Leave your comments and answers below and make sure to check out next week’s article: same Everyman time, same Everyman place!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune gnoll hunter, and he prefers his kitsune (as well as his catfolk) digitigrade.