Reading The Warren by Marshall Miller (and a new World Playset: Deck 17-R01)

This post is a brief overview of an RPG I managed to read through, but not yet try out, called The Warren. It’s a story game about… you guessed it, intelligent rabbits, sort of a RPG adaptation of Watership Down and stories like it. (Did the cover art above give it away?)

This post includes short explanation of my (honestly sketchy) familiarity with the family of games it belongs to, an overview of what I found interesting in the game’s design, and a free (but not yet playtested) “World” playbook I designed for the setting, and a pretty wacky one at that. The fact I sat down and did one up should tell you at least a little about my response to the game, but if you’re interested in the fine details, read on.

I find it odd, if not particularly surprising, how much hostility that I see when I read what OSR people have to say about some of the newer game systems that have become popular in the past decade or so. (I mean, this is a hobby where people will demonize you for liking the “wrong” edition of the same game you love and play regularly, so probably hostility should surprise nobody.) One set of games that really seems to attract the most snark and dismay from Grognards includes games that fall under the “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA) rubric—that is, games that use a variant of Apocalypse World‘s game engine.

I understand the hostility a little: when I read the 2nd edition of Apocalypse World, I was puzzled and honestly a little turned off. I couldn’t really envision what a game run with this system would really be like, I found the prose of the book a little alienating, style-wise, and a little less clear than I’d prefer. And, well, I didn’t understand why the game needed “Sex moves,” except to be “edgy” or whatever.

Then I got a chance to play Bedlam Hall last year at a mini-con. It helped me understand the general PbtA system a little better, so that I felt like I “got” more about how it was supposed to work, and most important, it was really fun. My strong impression is that a PbtA game isn’t necessarily as open-ended or broad as other RPGs, but—like Fiasco—if you’ve got well-designed playsets and playbooks, it can be a great scaffolding for players to assemble, collaboratively and on the fly, a pretty fascinating story in a specific genre. Bedlam Hall was backstabby British humor of the upstairs/downstairs sort, and while some of the other players (who were more experienced with PbtA games) had thoughts on how the system could be improved slightly, I was astonished the thing worked as well as it did.

So, that’s my bona fides, I guess: I’ve played one PbtA game once, and read Apocalypse World 2nd edition once. In other words, this is unfamiliar territory for me, but I’m interested. What’s more, I’ve been interested in the idea of an animal-centric game—but don’t really want to just run D&D or a variant on it with anthropomorphic animals as characters. (I’m sure Pugmire or Mouse Guard is fun with the right people, but I’m looking for something different and narrative-focused.)

Having said all that—and with the caveat that I haven’t had a chance to run or play it yet—I found Marshall Miller’s The Warren really fascinating, and would very much like to give it a try. I got the hardback as an add-on when I backed Star-Crossed, and after I received it a few weeks ago I figured I’d give it a read.

Obviously, the game is built to allow a group to run rabbit stories—Brer Rabbit, Peter Rabbit and Watership Down are the most familiar exemplars of the genre for most of us—and that’s obviously a narrative limitation. Except, if you know anything about limitations, you know how they can be tremendously freeing, and I think in this case they really would be. I don’t know about the original version of Bunnies & Burrows, the first RPG to center on intelligent rabbits, but I have read that the GURPS version is good, for GURPS lovers at least.

Of course, GURPS is a different conception of how RPGs work—older school, more open-ended—whereas The Warren, being a PbtA game, has a specific idea of what anthropomorphic rabbit stories are supposed to be like. Rabbits are mostly noncombative (fleeing is often a better option than fighting), they live in (and are profoundly concerned for the health of) communities, they’re vulnerable to predators and other threats within their environment, and they experience stress when directly pressured by those threats and predators.

Just by looking at the various playsets for the game—character playsets, the GM Moves reference, and the World playsets—you can get a sense of what kind of stories the system is set up to provide scaffolding for: rabbits have to deal with different levels of danger posed to them and their warren:

  • immediate threats to their the characters’ survival
  • interpersonal conflict/bonds between individual rabbits, and between rabbits and ally species
  • political conflict within the warren
  • territorial conflict between the characters’ warren and other, rival warrens
  • long-term, slow-growing threats to the warren’s survival

That’s not set in stone: it’s possible that territorial conflicts with other warrens will come up more often than political conflict within one’s own warren, for examople. Still, that list is in what I think is the typical or “standard” order of frequency, as well as in order of apparent priority: characters are likely to be able to set aside personal conflicts with one another if a hound or hawk is attacking them; a coup within the warren is something characters are likely to think of as secondary if they find themselves also to be in direct conflict with another rabbit (player character or NPC alike). Finally, prioritizing short term survival is usually going to trump concern over some slow-growing threat: more humans in the area with each passing week is likely not going to be top concern if a rival warren has been dispatching battalions of tough bunny raiding parties to try chase the player characters’ group out of the area, steal resources, or kidnap potential mates for their own group.

The thing is, those concerns near the bottom of the list inevitably will creep up on player characters, until they become dire enough to matter as much as the immediate threats—or until someone farsighted enough realizes they soon will be. Then you get an interesting conflict between priorities: if it the valley is becoming hotter and hotter each passing week of a unusually hot summer, eventually characters will be arguing about whether it’s better to stay and try eke out an existence among the baked, dying vegetation, or leave and risk the inevitable predators, rival warrens, and vicissitudes of travel that may lie beyond the known (to the rabbits) world. Not that the story writes itself, but the set of dilemmas do sort of fall in line naturally, leaving players to consider and weight different strategies, responses, priorities, and risks before they settle on one or another response.

There’s two things of particular interest to me here: one is that The Warren makes an effort to be playable with young kids. Depending on how young, you can tune how much violence and death to include in the game, though it does seem to assume some degree of death is inevitable—among NPCs, if not among player characters. The other thing is that there are special “Moves” included for kid games: “Mate” is replaced with “Best Friend” and “Littermate,” for those who’re playing games with kids who haven’t yet had that talk about the birds & the bees, or for any groups who might find it awkward to have “mating” going on in-game.

Speaking of “mating in-game” (in other words, the game’s kinda-sorta “sex” move), that reminds me that one of the big differences between The Warren and Apocalypse World is that player character playbooks in The Warren are way less differentiated between individual character types. Not that characters are all alike, but the individualization is much less extreme: you make your character unique by assigning stats, and choosing a single Character Move. That’s pretty much it, beyond the fluffy bits like picking a name, a sex, an appearance, and so on. This is a smart design choice for a few reasons: it simplifies character creation, for one thing, and also makes it easier for new players to learn how the game works, since they can see other players using mostly the same moves available to them. It also makes sense given that rabbits social organization isn’t terribly specialized: one’s stats and single unique Character Move (at least at first) provide sufficient individualization.

The other thing that interests me is that all rabbits have a Panic score that they must manage. This, essentially, is The Warren‘s version of the Sanity score/stat in Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, etc. If you accumulate too many Panic points and exceed your maximum Panic score, you lose control of your character temporarily, and the GM can choose whether you give into the urge to Flee or Fight, or just end up paralyzed by your Fear. It’s easy to end up with a Scar (which causes you to lose a Move from your repertory: maybe you lose a leg and can’t flee effectively anymore, or lose an eye and are never quite as perceptive, or maybe you become high strung and have trouble relaxing). However, before you get to that point, you can manage your Panic score by using certain moves (like Relax), by successfully dealing with threats (so you become less likely to be panicked by them later on), or by getting help from other rabbits. This effectively introduces a partly-cooperative resource management mechanic into the game—the resource being your remaining capacity to handle more panic points.

Honestly, I expected to find The Warren interesting, but I was surprised at how tantalizing I found it. A friend of mine commented, “I can’t see doing more than a one-shot of that game,” but I can definitely see it. I mean, I don’t imagine one would run a years-long campaign spanning a massive, intergenerational leporine saga or anything, but I do think it would be fun to play a mini-series of sessions, especially with younger players (or a mix of younger and older ones), especially jumping forward a generation every few sessions. I think it’d be a really strong contender for a fun between-games one-shot system, because of how easy it seems to learn, how shared most of the moves are, and how open the playing field is, within the limits of playing rabbits (or pikas, or hares, options the rulebook briefly mentions).

Anyway, having read the gamebook, I dropped by the game’s subpage at the website of the publisher, Bully Pulpit Games, to check out the resources available. I discovered that not only are there printable playbooks and a GM moves reference, but also a number of “World Playbooks” were available. (I only expected to find the two provided in the rulebook plus one extra one the book mentioned would be there, but it seems more got added over the years.)

Looking through the set, I noticed that the idea that the game had sparked for me hadn’t been done yet, so I threw together a unique World playbook for the game:

(Right click the image above and “Save As” to download this file, or simply click it to open the PDF and preview its contents.)

As you can guess from the title, this playbook sets the game on a spaceship. Deck 17-R01 was the recreational wilderlands deck of a massive interstellar starship called the Destiny, which suffered a partial breakdown in function somewhere along its voyage to a distant world. The Destiny has drifted for aeons, and while it’s mostly been maintained by the ship AI and an army of bots, evolution and (fantastical, mutation-inducing) radiation have left a number of species on the ship (including human survivors, animals, and plants alike) altered in profound ways, and kept other human passengers sleeping for centuries or millennia.

That means that there’s primitive mutant humanoids, animals, and plants to predate upon the rabbits, tons of maintenance bots, a helpful-but-confused ship A.I., other colonies of bunnies elsewhere on the ship, some non-primitive maintenance crews that can wake from hibernation, the threat of a failing life support system on deck, research bots hoping to “study” (i.e. kidnap and dissect) the bunnies, and threats involving the failing life support system and some damage to the specific deck the characters currently inhabit. The warren’s interspecies buddy is a mutated monkey, and their nemeses on Deck 17-R01 include a motile, carnivorous mutant plant and a pair of hyperevolved descendants of cats. The playbook includes guidelines for various decks and locales throughout the ship, as well as a set of four unique Custom Moves available to all rabbits on board and examples of how to integrate mutations as Character Moves, to allow characters to start with a useful mutation, or to develop one during play.

Think of it as The Rats of NIMH or Watership Down crossed with Metamorphosis Alpha, with a little 3rd edition Gamma World and some Mutant Future thrown in. You may also notice references to Red Dwarf and Paranoia, and the Monsters (a primitive tribe of mutant humans) will probably bring to mind Brian Aldiss’s novel Non-Stop (or any of the more recent explorations of the trope, like, say, the film Pandorum). It’s a mishmash on purpose: my intent is that the vibe can be as dark or as comedic as your group likes, or oscillate somewhere between those two extremes as you prefer.

It’s not yet playtested, and the map is junk. (I realized, after drawing it, that I’d forgotten to increase the pixel count so it’s not really printable.) Still, if you try it out, I’d love feedback. I hope to try it out for myself sometime, if I can find players, and will probably make some changes to it once I have had a chance to try it out. (That said, I feel like maybe running The Warren in plain vanilla mode first is probably important, so I can see how the “Deck 17-R01” setting and moves changes things.)

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