Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Retrospective: Bunnies & Burrows

Looking back on my early introduction to the hobby of roleplaying, one of the things that strikes me is how many RPGs available at the time of which I'd never heard, let alone had the chance to play. 1976's Bunnies & Burrows by B. Dennis Sustare and Scott Robinson, published by Fantasy Games Unlimited, is a very good example of a game utterly unknown to me at the time. I think the very first time I ever came across a reference to it was in an editorial or article by Roger E. Moore (in either Dragon or Polyhedron), where he describes an AD&D session he ran in which the characters were all transported to the world of Bunnies & Burrows and he presented each of his players with a miniature rabbit painted to look like their characters. Sometime afterwards, I was able to confirm that B&B did in fact exist and was not a joke or a parody but quite serious, though it would be many more years before I ever laid eyes on a copy of the game (though I did read GURPS Bunnies & Burrows in 1992).

Subtitled "the fantasy world of intelligent rabbits," B&B states, in its introduction, that "a currently popular novel has demonstrated that rabbits are suitable subjects for fantasy games." The novel in question, I assume, is the 1972 novel, Watership Down, by Richard Adams, a book I knew only vaguely from having seen stills from the the 1978 animated film in the pages of Starlog or a similar magazine. It's also worth noting that the term "fantasy game" is, at this early date, a synonym for "roleplaying game" and doesn't necessarily mean that the game in question will include typical fantasy elements, like magic or monsters. Bunnies & Burrows strictly contains neither, though both appear after a fashion, at least from the limited perspective of rabbits. That said, the idea that rabbits have a society of their own, right down to having distinct professions (character classes) one might take up, is quite fantastical and is the primary conceit on which B&B is built. 

As one might of a RPG published just two years after OD&D, Bunnies & Burrows show a lot of influence from its illustrious predecessor. Rabbit characters have eight ability scores, consisting of D&D's six plus Speed and Smell. Again, like OD&D, they are generated by the roll of three six-sided dice. Unlike OD&D, these ability scores can increase over time through successful use. There eight professions, one corresponding to each of the ability scores: Fighter (Strength), Runner (Speed), Herbalist (Smell), Scout (Intelligence), Seer (Wisdom), Maverick (Dexterity), Empath (Constitution), and Storyteller (Charisma). Each profession offers a variety of skills unique to it, from the fairly straightforward (a Fighter's combat talents) to the more peculiar (a Seer's improved ability to see the future). There's quite a lot of fascinating stuff to be found here. I was simultaneously amazed at the comparative sophistication of the rules, despite their early date, and intrigued by the world implied by some of the sub-systems introduced.

The implied world has many elements that I like. The combat rules, for example, are explicitly presented as applying primarily to fights between rabbits. That's because almost every predator in the game is vastly more potent than a rabbit and any fight involving them will inevitably lead to the rabbit's demise unless he is very clever (or fast!). Likewise, there are extensive rules for locating and using beneficial herbs (hence the importance of the Smell ability score). Sustare and Robinson clearly put a great deal of thought into B&B, attempting to model what the world might look like from the perspective of a rabbit while at the same time presenting it in a way that might hold the attention of someone more used to Dungeons & Dragons.

If Bunnies & Burrows has a real flaw, it's that its audience is very small indeed. Even after reading the rules and admiring its designers' ingenuity, I nevertheless found myself wondering what one does in a B&B campaign. There is a section in the rulebook on running the game but it's brief and ultimately comes down to "use your imagination," which, while fair, isn't helpful to those of us who haven't read Watership Down and similar books. There are rules for creating, mapping, and maintaining a rabbit warren, which are interesting, but I'm not sure they're sufficient to hold one's attention long-term. Likewise, rules for mating and reproduction (the first in a RPG?) are included and genuinely necessary but, unlike similar rules in, say, Pendragon, they don't seem to have a clear use in the game beyond color. 

At the same time, I can't help but admire Bunnies & Burrows. Even today, it stands out as an oddity, a genuinely unusual subject for a roleplaying game likely aimed at a very specific group of players. In 1976, it was revolutionary – evidence that this strange new hobby had potential beyond the world of dungeons and dragons, potential that has been proved again and again in the decades since and shows no signs of running dry.

16 comments:

  1. In the early days, I picked up almost every RPG that hit the shelves of my FLGS (sadly EPT was one of the exceptions, and also sadly I got rid of most). Bunnies and Burrows was one of the games I picked up (though I got rid of the original copy, the copy I have now was acquired sometime later). I never ran a campaign, but I did run a few sessions. I remember trying to explain a cigarette butt to my sister in bunny terms and it made no sense to her...

    In addition to the GURPS version, bunny role playing was one of the first things that Steffan O'Sullivan did with FUDGE.

    With the number of small animal fiction series (and RPGs) out there like Redwall and Mouseguard, it seems that inspiration for a B&B campaign would not be too hard to find.

    And hey, the game did get me to read Watership Down, and I seem to remember another bunny themed novel that was maybe a bit more gritty than Watership Down.

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  2. I bought the second edition of Bunnies and Burrows (Jeff Dee cover) and still own it. I think the store I got it from was called "The World House," located on Queen West. I bought a ton of FGU stuff from there - Psi Word, V&V, Flashing Blades, etc. You could pick up some FGU as well from The Silver Snail.
    I ran a game or two of B&B. Kind of funny having a "bunny party," beat the snot out of a dog or cat and some bunnies having psychic powers. I remember trying to figure out what class Hazel, from the book WSD, would be. And when John Hurt passed away it is his voice as Hazel in animated movie that comes to mind most for me. Great movie.

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  3. Please indulge me as I go onto an only-mildly-related tangent:

    A while back, I played with an all female group. It turned out there were guys around it, but the core was female, and I was the lone male. Truthfully, very often, a woman playing RPGs for me is a wife/girlfriend or maybe a sister. No always, like magic, but normally. So I was the token guy, and I commented on it.

    The GM (this was WFRP1e) commented that she was at least pleased I was ok with it, since a lot of guys give her grief, and some refuse to play with her. I thought she was kidding/exaggerating, but no. so I told her, a) I love to RP, and more the merried. b) if you play with both sides, you double the chances of a game on a saturday night ;) and c) there was no game I would not try for 30 minutes nor a group I could not sit down with, for same 30 minutes.

    B&B would test that last part. but I would still try it ;)

    Rick

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  4. I'd read Watership Down before seeing the movie (something that seems to happen to me a lot - Princess Bride was another of those for me) and enjoyed it enough to grab B&B back in the day, but yeah, I'm not sure how you could do a campaign of it even today. Maybe something generational borrowing elements from TSR's Birthright campaign rules and Pendragon? Found your own bunny dynasty, that sort of thing? Or going farther afield, what about a post-apocalypse B&B game, where nuclear winter, fallout, and the odd starving human survivor provide the main threats? You could do the generational thing again and work in mutant rabbits as time goes by, maybe cribbing from Gamma World if you want to go silly instead of grim. Or set the end times farther back (a few centuries is a long, long time in bunny terms) and do an Earth After Man thing with it.

    Might also be viable to do as a break in the middle of a D&D game. Whole party gets polymorphed instead of killed in a TPK and they have to survive dealing with the local rabbits (some of whom might also be polymorphed humanoids) on the own terms while trying to find a way to change back before something eats them.

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  5. Watership Down is definitely worth reading!

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  6. Back in the day, it was a truism that there would be no Runequest without B&B -- those were probably the best RPG rules-as-rules at the time, at least according to my memory.

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    1. That's intriguing. I've already noticed that Sustare has several articles in Chaosium's Different Worlds, so I'd not be the least bit surprised to learn that he actually had an influence on the development of BRP/RQ.

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    2. And speaking of Sustarre: his Swordbearer includes a "Bunrab" PC race of, of course, anthopomorphic rabbit-men. Your interview with him mentions his initial, thwarted ambition to use only original races in the game -- in the end the rulebook provides rules for playing at least a dozen or two intelligent races, and I can't help but wonder which ones were intended as the "primary line-up" before the publisher mandated the addition of Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. Swordbearer strikes me as the perfect chassis for a party consisting of Bunrabs, insect-men, pixies, satyrs, and a unicorn.

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  7. Watership Down, feh. Bunnicula is where it's at. I wonder if anybody's done vampire rabbit rules for Bunnies & Burrows.

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    1. Bunnicula I read as a kid. That's a great book.

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    2. Sure was. I was also a big fan of the sequel, The Celery Stalks at Midnight. Haven't read them in thirty-some years; I should track down copies for my son.

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  8. Back in the '80s, I played a couple games of B&B, and then in the early '90s, my Very Serious D&D/Ars Magicka group's early-show players would do B&B while waiting for the late-running players. We'd pass around Referee duties to whoever was interested.

    Of course, all of us had read Watership Down, and/or seen the movie, as well as other small-furry-animals-in-danger books & shows, Redwall was popular with the slightly younger players, and I drew a lot on Greyfax Grimwald (but everyone was rabbits, not Otter, Bear, and Dwarf).

    Typical adventures aren't that different from D&D, you're the loose adventurer/soldier types of the warren, and root out trouble with big animals, Humans (oh no), and hostile warrens. The WD novel covers at least three politically very different warrens, so there's always some reason to fight.

    I ran one adventure where they met caged rabbits at a Human farm, and got some out, but some of the party, not being any smarter than a talking rabbit, decided to stay… A player complained of having bad dreams about that after.

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  9. I think a title such as B&B shows what the real potential of rpg's could have been - exploring literary worlds beyond the typical F/SF trope. It's a bit of a shame that rpg's got stuck in the "F/SF adventuring ghetto", while one could imagine roleplaying games exploring e.g. the worlds of Jane Austen or Shakespeare (but not limited to those, of course).

    Granted, it would be a big leap, esp if you designed game aimed at miniature wargamers, but still, somehow a missed opportunity.

    OTOH, it might be difficult to see a potential for a large market if an rpg would not be about heroes slashing orcs and dragons and getting all the loot :-)

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  10. I'm not sure I share James' confusion about what one does in a B&B campagin. One of the most popular tabletop RPGs in the market now is Mouseguard, which is essentially an updated version of B&B.

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    1. Admittedly, I don't know much about Mouseguard but I was under the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that the mice in it had a civilization on the model of the human Middle Ages. Is that not correct? In B&B, the rabbits are just that – rabbits – with behavior and a "society" that mimicked that of real world rabbits (for the most part).

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  11. Phil Dutré may be happy to know that the modern RPG explosion is definitely serving the wider literary potential he cites. To wit, for your Jane Austen fans, there is _The Good Society_ https://storybrewersroleplaying.com/good-society

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