What: The Warren
Who: Marshall Miller (author), Bully Pulpit Games (publisher)
Why: Because you were wondering about the rabbits in my logo
The Warren: Why a Roleplaying Game about Rabbits?
Animal adventures appeal to me. The struggle for survival and a better community grows starker and more elegant when viewed through the eyes of tiny creatures. Rabbits.
Let’s go back to when I was 12 years old.
It was 1987, the Year of the Fire Rabbit, according to the Chinese zodiac. I was visiting my mother in Boulder, Colorado. It was there, in the university library, that I found Watership Down by Richard Adams.
Opening the pages, I entered an unfamiliar world at ankle height. The English countryside was re-imagined as a mythical landscape populated with monsters and giants (humans), where heroes defied tyrants and gods whispered to their followers. And our heroes were but simple rabbits, brave small creatures fighting to survive in this world of fogs and shadows, strange smells and conspiratorial whispers.
The brothers Hazel and Fiver plotted to escape a doom foretold in prophetic daydreams. Like Aaron and Moses, they led an exodus to a promised land, encountering strange lands, dystopian communities and new friends and enemies along the way. I may have been unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of the story, but I could appreciate the way mundane things like a river crossing, a trapper’s snare or a railroad were transformed into epic obstacles for rabbits. And Richard Adams wove together a rich oral culture for his protagonists by peppering the story with creation myths, a trickster demigod and a legendary land of the dead.
It is my very favourite novel. I’ve read it many times. I’ve owned multiple copies of the book and the DVD of the film. I even designed a set of wargaming rules for it called Efrafa!
Beyond Watership Down
As a gamer, Watership Down represents the kind of story I want to explore at the tabletop. Although I’ve played with GURPS Bunnies & Burrows, I found it to be an over-complicated solution to problems I wasn’t looking to solve. It’s nice to have myriad sub-systems for herbalism, bunny martial arts (!) and more, but somehow it wasn’t enough to hook me, to get me to run it again.
In 2015, Bully Pulpit Games (Fiasco, Night Witches) launched the Kickstarter for The Warren. Or as one supporter called it, “The Walking Dead, but with rabbits.” It got right to the point of making rabbit existence feel tiny, vulnerable and exciting. And it had a much more compact system using the Apocalypse World engine. I was on board.
Play to Find Out
The Warren comes in a 136-page 6.25″ by 9.25″ softcover book with mostly black-and-white illustrations. The exception is a two-page colour spread showing a cross-section of typical burrows in a rabbit warren. As with all Powered by the Apocalypse games, the narrative-focused rules are focused on supporting the shared fiction. The Gamemaster directs the flow of a conversation describing what happens in the fiction. Everyone plays to find out what happens next. The Moves (rules) activate during specific situations, like when rabbits have to run, hide, persuade or resist panic. That’s when players (and only players) roll dice and figure out the outcome of a situation. Most of the dice rolls can result in a complete success, a partial success or complete failure, and it’s the hard choices that come from partial successes that add drama to many game situations.
If you like optimising stats and complicated interactions of different rules and sub-systems, you won’t find it here. Are you used to having a lot of fine control in imposing modifiers to rolls, tweaking complicated NPC stats or spending hours on prep? This isn’t that kind of RPG. None of those things (modifiers, NPC stats, need for prep) exist in the game.
That said, if you’re familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, The Warren differs in several ways: Players choosing from a common pool of Moves, multi-generational stories that incorporate childbirth and death as part of play, and player-driven invention of new Moves.
Hit the Ground Hopping
The Warren is my go-to game for introducing newcomers to roleplaying. Character creation just involves choosing four stats, one Character Move (unique ability) and a name and description. These are natural, unaugmented bunnies, so there are no magic spells or equipment lists to pore through. And in-game challenges are very easy to describe and understand: a stalking predator, a raging storm, a forest fire, a naughty human child. For a little rabbit, these threats have the same heft and terror that would be posed by dragons or Cthulhu in other games. Existential horror.
That isn’t to say the book doesn’t have plenty of useful game material. A GM who has never run a game will have plenty of sensible and straightforward notes on what to do, what questions to ask and how to handle tone, setting and pacing. Helpful sidebars offer useful facts about rabbits. The Warren provides easy rules references on the character sheet (or “playbook”). The GM’s reference, likewise, is clear and well-organised, just like a teaching plan.
Two settings are sketched out in the back of the book. Another six worlds (including maps) are available for download from Bully Pulpit’s site. The settings run the gamut from meadows and woods to city parks, the Nile Delta and mythic Mesoamerica. Each of the eight core settings includes more questions for the GM to ask in order to springboard new adventures. And of course, I’ve found it easy to adapt other settings, like T. S. Luikart’s Malice Tarn (“King Lear with rabbits”) and original creations like Pitstop Warren, a home of strangely cosmopolitan rabbits located under a lorry depot.
What is it like to play The Warren?
The Warren lays out a wild world of woodland creatures that truly makes the player characters feel their place at the bottom of the food chain. You’ll experience an exciting, naturalistic existence, living by your wits. You’ll have to overcome rising panic every time you cross an open space or smell an unfamiliar animal. Small victories will seem epic.
If the life of an adventurous rabbit interests you, play The Warren.