Sunday, September 12, 2010

Looking for signs of ancient life in SL, part II

In my first house in Alsium.
I've been putting this one off for a while, for no discernible reason other than laziness and a temporary preoccupation with so-called real life. But I guess it's time.

I had promised that I would follow up with you all both on the subject of "looking for signs of ancient life" in SL, as well as providing a bit more detail about what I've been doing with myself during the last three months or so. Not that it really matters what I've been up to, but perhaps talking about my ongoing journey can shine a bit of light on some interesting aspects of what is taking place in certain corners of the historically-themed sims in-world.

As I have noted elsewhere, I have been spending less time than I used to in Deadwood--not because there is anything wrong with it, but just because I was in a weird place emotionally and mentally, and not enjoying it as much as I used to. Similarly I have completely dropped out of Hogwarts United, mostly because I found that I couldn't bring myself to make the kind of mental effort, and fulfill the necessary time commitment to do it well.

So where did I go?

Well, you might recall that back in May, I was exploring the ancient-themed sims. In part this was because I was just looking for something new to experience, but also because I had been inspired by the ancient environments in Heritage Key. It made me wonder, so what's available in SL? The builds in Heritage Key are beautifully done, but not consistently populated, and not really designed for role-playing. They are much more like immersive museum exhibits than a place where you form a community and interact on an ongoing basis with other interesting people. Heritage Key is about teaching, not learning; it's about visiting, not building a set of relationships; nor is it about enabling the creation of your own content--and I have come to realize that those are the elements that do the most to keep me in Second Life, rather than wandering off to places like Blue Mars (which also hasn't made the effort to accommodate Mac users, so fuck 'em).

Anyway, back in May, at the time I wrote the ancient life article part I, I found that there seemed to be a number of historical Egyptian, Roman and Greek-themed builds in Second Life, but generally speaking they were largely devoid of any humanity (at least when I visited), or were mediocre builds, or both. And when I say "mediocre," in some cases, I am being extremely generous.

Not long after I wrote the article, I stumbled across two new places, Alsium and The City of Hydra, and by golly I found myself being drawn in.

When I first saw it, Alsium was literally a brand-new build. It is a representation (or perhaps an "interpretation") of an ancient Roman resort town that actually existed, but for which there is relatively little historical information or physical remains to draw upon for guidance in doing a recreation. While there are things that I would have done differently if it was my build--some improbable statuary, a superfluity of banners, and some other things like limited seating at the arena and a lack of certain public structures that most Roman towns had--it's freakin' gorgeous, and it's a fun place to explore and to play. And hey, it's not my build, not my sim, so at this point I will just shut the fuck up regarding what is or isn't there. Cuz after all, if I really wanted to have an ancient build that met all the criteria I would like for one to meet, then I need to cough up the jack and build one myself someday, right? Well maybe I just will, because the experience of being a part of the Alsium community has been very positive.

Alsium--a pretty resort town on the coast, about 35 km from Rome. This is in the suburbs, away from the town center with its arena, baths and forum. The multi-story structure with the private dock is my current domus.

And in many ways, I was pleasantly surprised at how positive the experience has been. The vast majority of Alsium's players--and characters--are gay males. I have no issues with gay folks, but you could argue that I didn't really fit in. Also, many of the guys are players who have migrated from Gorean sims (and my only previous contact with Goreans had been somewhat ridiculous...I'll have to tell you the story sometime). Initially, I was the only female player and/or character present. So in a lot of ways, on the surface, it seemed like it should not have worked for me being there. But somehow it did, in large part because of some key decisions that were made by sim owner Noah Shepherd: he gave the sim a particular time period to work with--its timeframe is during the latter part of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, roughly in the era from 170 to 175 AD, so there was an historical context; he quickly opened up an adjoining sim that offered a variety of rental properties (a bit pricey, but with huge prim limits), so that residents could do exciting and interesting things in terms of not just decorating but structurally adapting the interior spaces they rented; and he made it clear that what he wanted was not a particular type or style of roleplaying to take place--he just wanted good roleplaying.

The character I created was a Greco-Egyptian lady from Alexandria, the widow of a wine merchant who died of a fever while I was accompanying him on a buying trip. My premise was that I was sort of stranded in Italy, and needed to keep the business going in order to meet his obligations and settle our debts. And as time went on, with the help of his "servus" who had helped him run the business, the enterprise was becoming profitable and my character was finding that she enjoyed being a wine merchant.

Keeping the business going: the cellar of my first house in Alsium, filled with casks and amphorae.

I soon discovered that this character and her little storylines did fit in pretty well with what was going on, and that the guys all treated her with the greatest respect and consideration. Yeah, I kind of made it a point to not be around when they would get into their...well...being a bit randy, enjoying their "boys will be boys" grab-ass, slightly Fellini-esque fun and games. But there were plenty of times that we collectively had storylines going in which that I could be a contributing player.

I decided to rent one of the houses that came available, and put considerable work into researching Roman life, business, society and decorative arts. I had a wonderfully good time learning new things purely on my own, inspired by the roleplay, and then, as time went on, I found other people in the sim who were very interested in sharing information as well. Members of the growing Alsium community (which is gradually becoming more diverse) put on classes for each other, discussing matters such as food, daily life, the Roman client system, classes, and slavery.

Ah yes...slavery. A very touchy issue. But you can't represent Roman life without incorporating that element. It would be like trying to do "Spartacus" and claiming that it was just a labor dispute that got out of hand. I'll be honest, I am not terribly comfortable in dealing with the subject in rp--even though there are aspects of ancient slavery that are very different from how we understand slavery in the context of American history. I even have a hard time calling someone a slave, in the same way that I simply cannot bring myself to use the "N" word when playing a 19th century rebel widow. And I am not going to treat my servi badly. Historical authenticity be damned, there simply are things I am not willing to do. Oddly enough I have two very good friends who have decided to come in and play the servi in my household now and then. Sometimes, I may refer to them as "servus," but more often, I will say "this is my man, Serenek," or I will describe them as "members of my household."

Not everyone is so careful--but then that in itself is historically authentic: even in the ancient world, various people in different circumstances saw slavery in multiple ways and treated enslaved people differently than their contemporaries did. And in the roleplay we do, different people who play slaves are obviously exploring historical and personal issues in wildly divergent ways--I'm not entirely sure what all is going on, but I do know that in this sim (as well as the next place I am going discuss) there is an on-going effort to help the residents to distinguish between the historical form of slavery that is part of the ancient Roman story, and the largely BDSM-based style of fantasy slavery that is part of the Gorean canon.

By the way, that is one of the really interesting things that I have heard from some of the guys who came to Alsium from Gorean rp--they say a big part of what they found frustrating in Gor was the restrictive nature of Gorean canon and community life. They actually find this historical context to be more flexible. I'm still pondering the significance of that one.

Hard at work in my new house in Alsium.

So I have been having a great time being a part of this community, learning new stuff, going to the arena and cheering on the guys who have been working so very hard to master the combat system...and I have really had a great time building and decorating, rebuilding and redecorating, making textures of actual ancient mosaics, wall art, frescoes, etc....

...and not having responsibility. I just come and go, fiddle around with my "domus" and have fun.

Oh yes, and I also periodically go over to the City of Hydra. The folks there have established a grittier environment for ancient Roman rp--a representation (again, not a completely historically authentic recreation) of a generic Roman-occupied commercial port city out in the conquered territories somewhere (I think it's supposed to be on the Greek coast or something like that).

It is sort of a classical dystopia--urban, ugly, corrupt, crowded and crime-ridden. Hydra is an unplanned jumble of check-by-jowl town houses, apartments and stores that is hard to find your way around.

If I was the Roman governor of the city I think I would have simply sold the inhabitants, razed the buildings, and started over. But that's just me.

The City of Hydra.

Seriously though, I don't play here too often, not because of the stories or the build or anything like that--it's just that it seems to be mostly populated at times when I have to be at work. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see a place that is so completely different from Alsium.

Alsium is a beautiful place where the corruption, the penchant for violence, the tension between competing interests and factions is all under the surface, bubbling forth into visible form only periodically, not unlike some fictional Steven King New England resort town.

In Hydra, the unpleasant realities of life are pretty much all out there to be seen and savored, if that is how you like to spend your vacations. It reminds me a lot of New Jersey.

I will say that one thing that has kind of turned me off on Hydra (which by the way, should not be confused with a "Hydra" that apparently exists on a Gorean sim), is that they make a point in describing themselves as offering "Excellent, immersive Roman roleplay -- only the Best."


OK. I've met some really good people there. And yes, I've experienced some very good rp in Hydra. But I have also experienced some very good rp in Alsium.

A place like Alsium admittedly has a number of folks who exhibit a wide variety of rp styles and levels of experience. Some people are just starting out and some of what people do could be described as "RP lite." But you know, I find that Alsium's residents generally try to accommodate one another and adjust to make it work. That's about all you can ask for. In fact, I think you can make a pretty good argument that the variety of styles and skills and levels of experience is actually a strength.

Look, I think it's good to aspire to providing a quality experience. But when you give yourself labels like "only the Best" (as Hydra does on their landmark card), I find it just a tad off-putting, especially when there are so many interpretations of what constitutes "good rp," let alone what might be considered "the best."

Still, it's an interesting build and I encourage you to go look at it.

So that's the bottom line. In the end, I did manage to find some entertaining, engaging places for ancient rp in SL. There's even informal, self directed learning going on in these places. There's some great people to interact with. And I think, most interestingly, you might find yourself reconsidering how you look at certain groups of people, as your assumptions about the members of various communities are challenged.


  1. I'm fascinated by folks that find Gorean rp more restrictive than Roman rp, but to be fair, Norman was a writer very much of his time. In the chaos surrounding women's rights and emergent gay culture, he chose to write a series of books where women were subservient--and designed to be--and men were men; a world in which homosexuality, while not unknown, was widely disparaged. Such relationships as he did mention are nearly always between master and slave, or between master and savages; never between men of the same social standing.

    (Surprisingly, several writers of the same time saw lesbianism in a more flattering light; Norman did not.)

    So if, as I'm surmising, they were gay and in Gor; then of course they'd find it restrictive and Alsium much more forgiving--even more enjoyable.

  2. Good point. I'm not sure how hard-core Gor folks treated the guys who were doing Gay Gor, but I'm guessing "forgiving" wouldn't be one of the adjectives used in the summary.

    And yes, Professor's Norman's odd little books were very much a commentary on American life in the sixties, as well as being an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars. At least, if you look at them like that, they become a lot more readable. The first few anyway. I think Norman went batshit crazy in his later years and consequently his later books just got more and more self-indulgent and stupid.

    Seriously though, the more I have thought about this, the more I have decided what I am really writing about here--and it ties in to the last post I did--is that if we are going to be able to continue finding things in SL that are enjoyable and worthwhile, we need to go to places we have not been before--not just for brief visits but to actually try living there--and we need to interact with people we would not usually hang around with (especially people who, superficially, we feel we don't have much in common with).

    Yeah, I know that statement seems vapid and obvious. It shouldn't need to be said...but how much have we really done it?

  3. I read a Gor book once - I was a kid (13 - 14?) and all I remember were a race of giant ants who talk via smells. All the slavery stuff must have missed me or simply not stuck. I certainly wasn't impressed with the book enough to a) buy and more or b) want to RP in that world.

    When I did RP (table top, 13-17 yo) I stuck to Middle Earth, Cthulhu & Traveller/2300 but eben now in SL, the only stuff that really appeals to me is Cthulhu. The fact I've ened up in a Steampunk sim when I have next to zero interest in Steampunk is an accident. I was looking for a home and Lunar offered me one. I'd really like to explore the Arkham sims I think...

    Having said that, Gia has been trying to get me into Hydra for a while now and I *am* tempted - even more so after your description of it Gia. I like ugly dystopian messes more than anything - it's why I love Shanghai in Steelhead so much, and only really one street of that if I'm honest. Give me over crowding and alleys and I'm happy :-D

  4. Hey HB,

    oh dude, if you like gritty dystopian environments, then I definitely recommend Hydra. It's a wonderfully complex build, with lots of layers and levels and dead ends. There also are some really nice touches, like a public latrine (literally very public, as in "not enclosed") and a place of execution for criminals (a category that includes just about 90% of the populace, including the authorities).

    And hey, maybe this is another example of my point about how we need to be going different kinds of places--if you looked for only builds that directly related to your enthusiasm for the Cthulhu mythos, the opportunities for you to play in SL would be somewhat limited. So go forth! Give someplace like Hydra a try! Gia would be happy to see you at her tavern, I'm sure.

  5. Ahh hell - if I want to play anywhere else, I'm going to have to clone myself first - I've barely enough time for the Steal Head storyline as it is ;-D

  6. Dio, good coverage of both RP regions. I don't have time for RP in SL, though I still RP in the old-school manner with polyhedra dice and rules.

    I found the comments about Goreans who have left its RP interesting. Other than male domination, what is the attraction of Gorean RP in SL? And why aren't other great fantasy series--notably, Conan--more common as RP destinations?

    My guilty reading pleasures as a teen focused more on Conan and HPL, so I could put down Dickens or Eliot or whatever the teacher required and read something that would keep me awake.

    I recall that, unlike in Gor, at least a few of Howard's females such as BĂȘlit, the "Queen of the Black Coast," held their own against the Cimmerian. At the time, I also read the books "Tarnsman of Gor" and, based on its lurid cover alone, "Slave Girl of Gor." Well, I couldn't finish that one...

    I found Norman's writing awful, compared to my beloved pulp writers. Even Burroughs' pretty weak prose in the John Carter series was great fun as compared to Norman's plodding. That's not to say that Robert E. Howard was a well balanced man, psychologically, or his world is all that more politically correct. Okay, Conan does despise slavery.

    Howard's prose holds up, and it's curious that Gor has emerged as a stand-out subculture in SL when other and better written works have not inspired more good RP. I know...I know...the Goreans may not have read Norman's stuff.

  7. Hey Iggy,

    Actually, I believe they consider reading the books to be something of a requirement--I recall a friend of mine who tried it for a while telling me that there was a library in the sim he lived in for a while, and it was expected that you make the effort to read the books which were offered through the library in notecard form.

    In fact I think that is the source of some of the "restrictive" issue--hard-core Gor rp seems to be very closely based on canon that is derived solely from the books. Anything not found in the books--technology, personality types, social groups, ideas--is not acceptable to many Gorean roleplayers.

    Consequently, using something like ancient Roman history to provide the structure and limits of a roleplaying community logically would be more expansive and forgiving and flexible than parameters forced upon you by drawing upon the narrowly focused imaginary world created by a single writer.

    Superficially, one might conclude that basing your rp within the context of an historical reality would be more restrictive than fantasy/fiction. But the fact is, real human history is far more complex and full of many more opportunities, ideas, gray areas, ideas and emotions than most fantasy realities, particularity ones that come from tiny minds like Professor Norman's.

    The rich and complicated social, political, economic and intellectual tapestry of something like the Roman empire offers the chance to develop a vast array of historically plausible characters and storylines. Arguably, there are only so many storylines that can arise from Gorean canon, unless you are willing to move beyond what is in the books.

    As far why other, better written and more engaging series have not evolved into extensive rp communities in SL--well, I suppose you could argue that it has happened some, with the Harry Potter-themed sims (but in that context a great many of those playing there, myself included, did not strictly limit ourselves to the canon and moved beyond it in some interesting ways). And wasn't there a "Dune" rp community in SL?

    But yeah, you do have to wonder...why didn't a "Dune" community spread and develop like Gor did? Or why not something like...say, the fantasy Arthurian Britain of T.H. White?

    Is it that an existing Gor community moved into SL and just took on the technology as a means to enhance and continue a roleplay experience that was already well developed? Is it perhaps that Gor represents a very simple sort of universe that is easy to play in and offers no surprises?

  8. Dio, the Dune RP areas were hit with a cease-and-desist order by Herbert's estate. Even so, it seems that what is popular in cinema leads to RP: there were lots of pirate-themed sims a couple of years back, when the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films were released. One wonders how long the Pandora-themed sims will endure.

    Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars and Middle Earth have enough of a fan base to make them viable long term in SL, as long as IP infringement is not enforced. I'm guessing that savvy copyright holders will regard all this as a form of interactive fan fiction. It's the sale of themed items that may cause problems!

    As for Gor's longevity, I'd read somewhere that many on the Gorean chat-rooms and from The Sims Online migrated to SL. It remains to be seen if a mass exodus to a Gorean Grid will happen as OpenSim evolves. It would segregate a type of RP many of find offensive and offer proponents the chance to make a simulacrum of Norman's continent from the books.

    I'll wish the Goreans well if they go and won't miss their style of RP based on a ridiculously Nietzschean world-view. I enjoy Nietzsche and teach his work, but I'd prefer the philosophy straight from the horse', mouth than wrapped in Norman's BDSM trappings.

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