GHR: Animonde

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Animonde was first published in 1988 and was the second RPG to be created by the legendary French game designer Croc. Animonde was originally self-published in the form of an 88-page booklet, which was soon followed by a supplement describing the game world and a collection of pre-written adventures. An attempt was made in the mid-to-late 2000s to produce a second edition but this soon fell by the way-side.

While Croc’s first RPG (Bitume) was an enormously cynical and violent post-apocalyptic game that is best described as what if Fallout and Mad Max hooked up and had a really sarcastic Gitanes-smoking French kid, his second game demonstrated an aesthetic reversal so radical that its basic ideas have yet to be fully understood or processed. Even in an age where is bursting at the seams with soft, smol bean, queer-friendly indie games about finding love and found family, Animonde still has the power to surprise and delight.

Animonde is set in a vaguely medieval fantasy world where humanity never assumed dominion over animals. The inhabitants of this world see themselves as living in symbiosis with animal companions who help to provide many of the necessities which, in our universe, are replaced with tools constructed from inanimate materials. The setting for Animonde is not a thousand miles away from the settings for Pokemon or The Flintstones and a lot of the economic and social activity revolves around catching and training creatures with characteristic or capacities that are useful to humans. Sometimes these capacities are martial but more often they’re mundane things like animals that live on your shoulders and drape their fur in such a way to either cool or warm you up depending upon the weather. There are also birds whose wings and legs allow them to serve as umbrellas.

In practice, this symbiotic relationship played out a bit like the cybernetic gear in games like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun in that you only had space for so many animals on your person and so a lot of thought and energy went into saving up to buy specific animals whose abilities might complement your character’s specific skillset.

The characters in this world were colourful, whimsical, and bursting with life. I remember this game acquired enough of a following to spawn a number of widely-read fanzines and these fanzines all leaned into the sheer joyous silliness of serious business RPG adventurers cutting about the place wearing sentient fur hats and evening gowns that are actually well-trained tropical birds.

The game’s laid-back silliness also extended to the setting, which was described as “Romantik-Fantasy” on the game’s cover. This was a world that was stagnant in a way that recalls Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories except that rather than fostering madness and melancholy, the stagnation is taken as a sign of interior and exterior lives having entered into harmony: Society is structured around a series of castes and the big decisions were made by unambitious nobles surrounded by lazy soldiers who knew their role was primarily decorative (the higher your rank, the higher the heels on your shoes, so most kings and potentates were too unsteady on their pins to do very much other than sit around looking fabulous).

In this world, there are no mercenary armies but there are adventurers who are called upon to solve problems that have fallen through the cracks of Animonde’s otherwise well-ordered society. This is the point at which Animonde shifts from the merely singular to the outright revolutionary.

Animonde is set in a world where everyone lives in symbiosis with other species. Far from merely pragmatic, this sense of connectedness is deeply spiritual and it shapes not only how people view animals but also how people view each other. Indeed, aside from being very loudly and unambiguously supportive of animal rights, Animonde is also a pacifist RPG. In the world of Animonde, people respect each other and do not wish to harm their fellow humans. Weapons terrify the inhabitants of Animonde to the point where most unpleasant confrontations wind up being solved not through violent confrontation but through intimidation or careful de-escalation. The game does allow player characters to attack, harm, and even kill other people, but these actions are profoundly transgressive and leave deep de-humanising psychological scars comparable to encounters with the Mythos in Call of Cthulhu.

I never owned this game but I played it a number of times at conventions by virtue of the fact that the game had a really large following in French-speaking Switzerland back in the 1990s. At the time, I found a lot of the game’s values and systems quite puzzling but thirty years later they have remained with me to the point where I would love nothing more than to write and run an Animonde campaign of my own.

As I observed when I wrote about Croc’s best known game INS/MV, RPGs in the 1990s tended not to have very detailed advice to GMs and so people usually learned what a game was like either from playing in someone else’s game or by reading published scenarios. One of the things that always stayed with me about Animonde is that it was possible to play the game and entirely miss the point. For example, one convention game ended with a violent confrontation so terrible that it would have viewed as harrowing and over-the-top in most conventional RPGs. This GM followed the rules and applies the Animonde equivalent of a SAN loss for the violence but that loss was swiftly counter-balanced at the end of the scenario by giving everyone their sanity back upon successful completion of the mission. This was not how Animonde was supposed to work… this was a game about harmony and peace.

I was fortunate enough to play in another session run by the editor of a well-regarded Animonde fanzine and he took the principles of the game very seriously: To draw a weapon in public was a profoundly transgressive act that would leave many observers in tears. Adventures were not so much about violent confrontation as they were about resolving problems that had emerged from the somewhat staid and hidebound nature of society. This was a game where your characters were less swash-buckling heroes and more of a combination of professional arbitrators, hostage negotiators, and management consultants. The aim of the game was to resolve things peacefully and allow everyone to retain face, not to hack of limbs and loot the bodies. Think of the British seasons of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares combined with that episode of Always Sunny where the gang decide to use reason: Teenaged boys diagnosing problems and then struggling to give career and personal advice without resulting to violence, childish insults, or ritualised public humiliation.

This is where Animonde truly lodged itself in my brain as the GM happened to mention that one of his groups had put a lot of thought into how the various animal companions boosted their skills and he said that rather than drawing up battle-plans before an encounter, the group would spend an eternity helping each other to pick out their most lethal outfits. Combine this with the fact that social status was designated by the steepness of your high-heels and you have a form of fantasy that is not about barbarians swinging swords or wizards casting spells, but about groups of fabulously dressed people vamping at each other before deciding to settle their differences by comparing fits and making threat-displays designed to intimidate and awe.

I never experienced this aspect of the game directly and I was too young and narrow to pick up on the cultural comparisons but for all that SFF publishers go on and on about diversity, why has nobody produced a novel about drag queens clad in sentient mink stoles settling their problems by Vogue-ing? Thirty five years later and that astonishingly queer vision of fantasy adventure gaming remains untapped and unrealised. The fact that it was created by a fat, scruffy, and by all accounts straight French man only serves to make that vision more psychologically compelling.

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