Stablehand: What is it, really?

Occasionally people ask me what Stablehand is, and I try to explain it to them. I can do a decent job of this. But today I just realised that one of the reasons I have trouble getting my definition just right is that Stablehand actually isn’t just one thing. It’s actually about 15 different things all rolled up into one.

So, here’s the real answer to the question “what is Stablehand?”:

  1. A gamebook. Fairly self-explanatory if you know what branching books, text adventures, etc. are. So… yeah.
  2. A worldbuilding project. I want my gamebook to be kind of engrossing, so I’m trying to come up with all kinds of interesting fauna and locales and traditions and stuff like that. The worldbuilding is also kind of its own project though, as I just generally like the idea of putting together a world and trying to figure out various “what-if” scenarios, even if I’m not the best at it.
  3. A project to create a sci-fi-fantasy phylogeny and ecosystem. Something I’ve been playing with is the idea of taking all these improbable animals you see in heraldry and myths and trying to figure out what their life history and evolutionary relationships would be if they were all just normal, real animals. I’m also creating some slightly more original animals as I construct this evolutionary tree and realise that oh, if I take legs off the hexart it would be kind of like a legless lizard. I’m also playing with the idea of swapping a handful of extinct animals for extant ones here and there or often even realising some of the mythical animals, like my “monoceros”, as branches off extinct lineages.
  4. An open bestiary. Currently I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do this but I have a vague goal of making all the various animals themselves completely open for anybody to use with no caveats, not even the all of… two? the CC-BY-SA I’m currently using for the story itself has. I figure, what’s the use of creating a bunch of weird and colourful animals if other people can’t reimagine, rework, and become them as fursonas or whatnot? It always disgusted me just a little that the term “mythical creature” had an expiration date on it, and while modern creators are making all these new and diverse species, our definition of “mythical creatures” remains small and boring since people in the modern era have had this idea implanted in them that they cannot create new mythical creatures, but only new intellectual property which they should not allow to be “stolen” by anyone since its only value is in being monopolised. I say, let’s change the definition of “mythical creature”. Let’s create some new open mythical creatures and start letting the modern world into it for once.
  5. A system of weird mechanics kind of just for the sake of being that. It serves its purpose in the universe of course, but I also just like the idea of building a personality-characterising system that’s also kind of like a traditional RPG element system (mostly without the rock-paper-scissors thing though) and this idea of “clans” or “factions” you identify with at the same time. I also like the idea of a fantastic mechanic that people in the real world can also connect to if not in exactly the same way.
  6. A system for roleplaying. Part of the reason I’ve been designing everything around these weird vaguely game-like mechanics is that I think at some point it’s possible it might spawn something a little bit vaguely like D&D; but simpler, where you have a framework you can start with that defines how various things work and then you can do whatever you like from there.
  7. An aesthetic style and maybe a new subgenre. I’m trying to build this new “style subgenre” called Retrolark, which is basically a counterpart to steampunk but more “modern”. Now, by modern, I don’t just mean current technology/ideas—that is a part of it, but another part of it is modern as in modern art. (Maybe I’m actually thinking of postmodernism? I’m not entirely sure.) Anyway, this idea that there’s a certain set of motifs you can use to make things seem “avant garde”, “futuristic”, and/or “modern” no matter what era you’re in, though what I’m trying to put together is designed to lean a little toward the way that kind of thing was done in about the 80s/90s—trying to be cool and “the future” but… not quite succeeding. So… that’s the “retro” part of the name. And at the same time I’m adding fantasy (well, sci-fi-fantasy) and other randomness into the mix and going for a kind of abstract narrative style, which is where the “lark” comes in. The next two bullets will explain this better.
  8. A story that makes both complete sense and no sense at all. Ok, this is going to be hard to explain. But basically, this entire thing started out as a project to “interpret” nonsense churned out by Cleverbot, Bad Translator, plaster patterns on the wall, clouds, and other unlikely sources for writing prompts (collectively, aka the “cleverbad”). The thing was, Bad Translator in particular had a real talent for creating these bizarre quotes that were nothing like what you put into it and sounded like they were all part of some really big and epic but extremely confusing and surreal story (e.g.: “The grandson of wind? Therefore, the State?”, “In the first year and the second card code can lead to the formal structure of science”, “We have a different atmosphere. In the framework of the preparation of Disaster”), and I really wanted to just take that story and read it. The problem was, it didn’t exist. It was all in my imagination.

    So… I basically started creating Stablehand to try to capture the feel of this imaginary “story”—this idea of a story where really crazy and unusual things happen, and you get these weird combinations of ideas that seem to be eclectic and nonsensical on the surface but at the same time feel like they’re just bursting with meaning and coherence if you could only find it, and then you later find out that sure enough, these things do go together in this universe and whoa, they go together and jive with the overall history/mechanics of the universe in a really neat way too; I never would have thought of that, but it works. And that’s kind of the way the entire story is, with circumstances, events, characters, and other elements just seeming not to fit together at all sometimes but then you find out that huh, there is a place for that, and even though 2/3 of everything seems absolutely insane (from any perspective), none of it is really that weird or nonsensical at all in context. It’s only weird because you think it’s weird.

  9. An experiment on the word “normal” and varying the typical fantasy formula. Ok, following that kind of vague idea on normal vs. weird (I think I could have done a better job articulating that, but I guess it’s good enough for now), I’m playing with this idea of how in a lot of fantasy stories (particularly if they involve dragons), even though “normal” should have a different definition, it doesn’t, and everybody in the story still regards the fantastic stuff with great reverence as if it shouldn’t be real. Ever noticed that? It’s like there’s this unspoken almost-religious veneration of things like magic and dragons, like they’re a gift from God/Gaia and everybody’s just so thankful that the ancient masters were blessed enough to receive this great Providence and perfect it through the sacred methods over the many generations so that we can all bask in their awe.

    I guess one of the reasons I like Pokémon is that nobody just gets the idea in their head the monsters are really special and supernatural and then thinks that’s just the obvious way to go; even though Pokémon can shoot fire and water and moon-beams out of their mouths, for the most part nobody’s ever forming the same kind of weird cult around them. And actually, for that matter, I think you could say similar things about Monster Farm too; I mean, Monster Farm literally said the monsters were a gift from God (or at least, that was the in-universe myth), but yet somehow it didn’t fall victim to this either, which is pretty amazing honestly.

    Anyhow! In Stablehand, I’m trying to create a world where even though there are some pretty crazy things going on by our standards, people actually regard what’s normal in their world as normal rather than trying to sanctify it just because we think it’s weird.

  10. A system of emblems and symbols. Along with the Retrolark style I’m also kind of half-intentionally and half-unconsciously creating another style basically based on having a ton of emblems for everything. I think it’s possible Homestuck infected me with this emblem obsession, but I really don’t know, since before I knew about it I was making a bunch of emblems for Tyrian and one of my recent-ish attempts to reboot Tenkai too. Anyway, the attributes have emblems, the attitudes have emblems, the characters have emblems, the countries have emblems… everything has emblems. And some things, while they don’t have a beautifully minimal emblem, still have symbolisms attached to them that, like I just described about two bullets ago, connect together to create a unique world culture. These emblems, of course, are under the CC-BY-SA like everything else, so they also have the potential to become vector clipart of a sort.
  11. A character study. This is one of the more obvious facets of Stablehand I think. The gamebook format is kind of exciting for me because if I want to and have the motivation, I can take every single character in a hell of a lot of different directions and expose a lot more facets of them than I could with a plain old linear story. I dunno how many different branches and endings this thing is actually going to have in practice, but I hope there will be enough to make it interesting.
  12. An anime musical. This is one of the weirder facets of it. I’m writing a bunch of songs for Stablehand to kind of convey the characters’ central themes/personalities in a different way, as well as their story, a little bit. Some of these are just kind of ambient background music that I could easily just put in unobtrusive links to or something, but others actually have lyrics, and I’d like to make some kind of animations for those. I’m… not sure how that will fit with the main story; on one hand I think it’d be kind of weird to have almost Disney-esque song moments in the middle of a thing that mostly doesn’t have audio or drastic animation, but on the other, it’s also the kind of thing that’s crazy enough it might actually fit the theme perfectly. So… I’m kind of still figuring this part out.
  13. A libre monstergame and a connection to my other project. I haven’t fully decided on this, but it’s somewhat likely I’ll use the creatures from Stablehand in it if and when I make real progress on Tenkai, and it’s also possible, though much less definite, that Stablehand will have some kind of connection with Tyrian. It’s already kind of an opposite to Tyrian in a lot of ways without me even trying to do that, but I may actually connect them story-wise too. I’m already planning to add something a little like the Chayavana in Tyrian to Stablehand as an MB, so it’s not impossible.
  14. Possibly, a libre fandom. I’ve tried to explain and stress this before on places like the about page, so this time I’ll just make it relatively brief. A guy named Richard Stallman who did a bunch of stuff for the free software movement said it this way:

    Every nonfree program has a lord, a master — and if you use the program, he is your master.

    Apply that to fandoms. There are a lot of great works and fandoms out there, but in an era where copyright and the monopoly rights that creators feel they’re entitled to threaten to inch greater and greater, you’re really shackling yourself by being a member of a non-libre fandom. Have you ever thought about how many original things you now explicitly can’t create because of what you’ve read, watched, played, etc., just because you would feel like you were “stealing” or “unoriginal”, or because you want to “respect copyright”? Now there’s something to think about. If you want the masters of your fandoms to be masters of your mind and creativity, that’s completely your call, but my goal is to give everyone a different option. That is, a fandom where there’s no huge brick wall between “your stuff” and “my stuff”, and where you never have to worry about what will happen if you make Thing X or use Thing Y. My stuff is for YOU. And, well, if you use it under the CC-BY-SA, your stuff is theoretically for me too. It’s going to be a challenging world when I can no longer just say “that’s not canon” and have to say “that’s not my canon”, but I think I can live with it.

  15. Whatever you want it to be. Don’t forget this one! As I’ve already said a million times Stablehand is libre, so just about whatever crazy thing you want to make it, you can. I honestly dunno what people would do with it, but that’s part of the reason you make stuff libre in the first place—so you can find out. “All rights reserved” is the option for people who know what other people will do with their work, the answer to which is “nothing”.