A Singular Sort of Fiction


Today I shall share my thoughts on epic lapine narratives, and of course more stuff on games.

Rabbits. Honestly, I don’t know if we would ascribe so much importance to these little fellows if it weren’t for the works of Richard Adams. I mean sure they have a place in our folklore and mythological cycles going back to ancient times. But before his wonderful magnum opus, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to look at a rabbit’s life story the same way we look at the Aeneid. Watership Down has always been one of my favorites, and I’m currently re-reading it for the nth time. I love the book, I love the movie, and I love the bizarre role-playing game which it inspired (more on that later).

There has been plenty of interesting criticism on the book, but it’s still hard (for me at least) to answer the underlying question of why it’s still so appealing. It’s not just that Adams expertly captures the feel of the old epics, and creates a fascinating culture and world while he’s at it. I think it has something to do with how stacked the odds always seem to be for the characters. Everyone loves underdogs, because the possibility (and even likelihood) of failure or death really raises the stakes.

Rabbits are the ultimate underdogs, they live in an incredibly hostile world, and they only have each other to depend on. There is always something out there that is smarter, faster, and stronger than them. The only edge they have on the rest of the animal kingdom is being really good at making babies, and that’s a long-term survival strategy. So whenever I see a character in Watership Down display bravery, or defy the odds, it seems so much more meaningful because you know how f#@%ed they are if things go badly for them.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. I couldn’t find a high-quality clip, but if you follow the link and start at 1:06:00 and go to 1:08:00, there you are –


Bigwig (and the rest of them too) have nothing going for them at this point. They are surrounded, they don’t know Kehaar is on the bridge. It’s pretty hopeless, and Bigwig goes ahead and trash-talks the General anyway, just because he’s a badass. It’s foolish bravery, but bravery nonetheless. Later those two characters square off again in my other favorite scene, which I will use the book to excerpt (Bigwig, from the point of view of the Efrafrans, is referred to as Thlayli) –

Once more he climbed on the earth pile. Then he stopped. Vervain and Thistle, raising their heads to peer past him from behind, saw why. Thlayli had made his way up the run and was crouching immediately below. Blood has matted the great thatch of fur on his head, and one ear, half-severed, hung down beside his face. His breathing was slow and heavy.

“You’ll find it much harder to push me back from here, General,” he said.

With a sort of weary, dull surprise, Woundwort realized that he was afraid. He did not want to attack Thlayli again. He knew, with flinching certainty, that he was not up to it. And who was? he thought. Who could do it? No, they would have to get in by some other way, and everyone would know why.

“Thlayli,” he said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”

Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”

Again, even in a situation where it’s rabbits against rabbits, Adams puts the protagonists in a seemingly hopeless situation, and if the survival of the whole community wasn’t at stake, who knows where it would have gone. It’s not the kind of world where the heroes are invulnerable either. Bigwig almost dies in a snare, and the group loses a few rabbits during their journey.

I’ve found that when it comes to stories like this, the audience immediately becomes aware of how serious the circumstances are, regardless of how silly or strange the premise. There’s almost a comparison with zombie fiction. You’re on the edge of your seat because you know this is a world that does not care. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there are some horrific moments that wouldn’t be out of place in the horror genre. I’ll never forget my 8th birthday party, where my friends slept over and watched Watership Down for the first time. Two of them had their moms come pick them up after I fell asleep.

Anyway, that feeling of tension and desperation carries over into some of the book’s other adaptations, namely the role-playing game. Bunnies and Burrows is one of my favorite tabletop games of all time, even though it’s now incredibly dated. Here are some interesting facts about it-

  • It’s one of the oldest tabletop RPGs, the first edition coming out only two years after the original D&D.
  • It introduced many innovative concepts, including a rudimentary skill system and martial arts.
  • Multiple “magic” systems, in the form of herbalism (combining ingredients to create a range of effects), seer abilities (spending “trance-points” to achieve supernatural effects), and empathic healing (burning fatigue and hit points to heal your friends).
  • It forced the players into making non-traditional choices for overcoming obstacles, with combat usually being a really bad idea.

I ran a short B&B campaign with some roommates/college friends, and it was a blast. Since Richard Adams clearly was inspired by ancient epics, I basically adapted the Odyssey into an adventure series with rabbits. The group played a band separated from their warren by a flood, and they had to find their way home. We had some surprisingly emotional moments, with plenty of tension, excitement, and moments for Bigwig-style heroism.

We tried to use the original, 1976 rules, but I ended up kind of re-designing it as I went. Still, they’re actually pretty simple and fun, if you ignore a lot of the ridiculous and useless sub-systems (like herbalism, which has some great ideas, and some terrible ones). There’s also a GURPS edition which is supposed to be good. Currently, Bully-Pulpit Games, the masterminds behind many classic  story-games, such as Fiasco, Durance, and Night-Witches, is working on their own rabbits RPG. It will be called The Warren, and it adapts the rules of Apocalypse World. I’m a little bitter about it, since I also had that idea a while back, but I guess it goes to show that you should act on good ideas when you have them. I have to admit they came up with a better title too, mine would have been called Bunny World.

Image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images photostream, no known copyright restrictions


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s