I’m currently DMing a 3.5 campaign in which all the player characters are nonhuman animals. We meet every two weeks, and most of the group seem to be enjoying themselves a great deal. The party consists of a black bear fighter, a wolverine barbarian, a wolf ranger, a rabbit cleric, a raccoon rogue, and a snake sorcerer with a half-elf familiar. There’s also a DMPC who’s a German shepherd paladin, the figure who brought the party together. So far, they’ve tangled with zombie rats, kobolds, a greenspawn leaper, and a forest fire. The last session left them in the company of a grove of owl druids who might be able to help them with a mystery that’s been brewing under all the action.
They’re still low-level right now, but things are already getting too rules-heavy for my taste, and many of theirs, as well. Naturally, I’ve been knocking around ideas for converting the game to a simpler, more old school-ish rules engine. And while there are many good D&D clones to choose from, the entire campaign has made me nostalgic for an old game I’ve never played, but that has always intrigued me.
I’m talking, of course, about Bunnies & Burrows, an rpg inspired by Watership Down, and published in 1976, two years after the original Dungeons & Dragons. To my knowledge, B&B is the only role-playing game ever published that focuses on nonhuman animals as player characters. Sure, there’s the excellent third-party 3.5 supplement The Noble Wild: An Animal Player’s Handbook, which my current campaign is making extensive use of. But it’s still only a supplement, while the original B&B is a stand-alone game.
Now, in B&B, you can’t play any old animal. In fact, you have to play a rabbit. And everything in the game is defined from a rabbit’s-eye point of view, including the scaling of non-rabbit creatures. This, I gathered, is an aspect that hurt the game’s popularity, as many people scoffed, “but what do rabbits do?” (I suspect many such people never read Watership Down or watched either of its animated adaptations).
If you can accept that limitation, B&B is a pretty cool little rules engine. It has some similarities to OD&D, such as the use of character classes, saving throws, and the rolling of attributes with a 3d6. This is hardly surprising, given the time period and state of the RPG hobby in 1976.
But B&B also has its own unique core mechanic, a percentile-dice-+-chart-referencing system that in some ways foreshadows the original Call Of Cthulhu RPG.
Player rabbits in Bunnies & Burrows have eight ability scores, each generated with the roll of 3d6 — Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma (any of this sound familiar?), Smell, and Speed. Each of these ability scores is associated with a specific character class. A rabbit’s level in a particular class defines her level of proficiency in a set of skills also associated with the class’s prime ability score.
The eight classes are Fighter (Strength), Runner (Speed), Herbalist (Smell), Scout (Intelligence), Seer (Wisdom), Maverick (Dexterity), Empath (Constitution), and Storyteller (Charisma). Some of these classes mirror their OD&D counterparts and do pretty much what you’d expect, but the interesting thing is that while a character must begin as one of the classes, they’re not limited too much by their initial choice. Levels in a given class provide characters with a bonus to their chart-reference standing, and so each rabbit begins at level 0. It’s expected that they’ll focus on their starting class for a while, but it’s very easy for them to gain levels in other classes.
Level advancement works on an honor and assessment system, rather than on points. Basically, if a rabbit spends a lot of time during an adventure making successful attribute checks, the GM can decide it’s enough to earn her a new level in the class associated with that attribute. This means that a Fighter who makes a lot of successful Smell-related tasks can gain a level of Herbalist. Just like that.
There’s no cumbersome, arbitrary multi-class system in Bunnies & Burrows, no level limits or class combination restrictions. Characters are limited only by their inherent talents and growing knowledge pool. B&B is the first RPG to have free-form multi-classing rules. This probably owes to the fact that all PCs in the game are members of the same race, so the designers didn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about assigning races and classes. But it’s still neat, and years ahead of its time.
Of course, there are stats for non-rabbit animals (including humans!), but they all play the role of monsters in B&B. The game contains no guidelines for playing, say, dogs or owls. Humans are statted to dragon-like levels of hit points, and armed with modern weapons, pretty much making them the most fearsome creatures a rabbit will ever run away from.
The core mechanic is a collection of tables on which the rabbit cross-references their Attribute level against a target number, and derives a percentage chance of success. She then makes a percentile dice roll, hoping to score less than or equal to her chance of success. This is a mechanic very similar to Call Of Cthulhu‘s resistance table, except that each Attribute (and thus, each character class) has its own chart.
And the best part of Bunnies & Burrows is the rewards system. Rabbits don’t earn experience points or collect treasure. They struggle for food, shelter, and sex. The more experienced a rabbit gets, the better her chances of getting more of those rewards, eventually being able to found her own warren, populated largely by her offspring and their mates and children.
This system, in my opinion, was B&B’s master stroke. “But what do rabbits do,” you ask? They fight for survival in a world full of big scary creatures who want to eat them. And if they make it to the end, they get to pass on their genes and wisdom to the next generation. This is Natural Selection, The Roleplaying Game.
The drawback is that the rules are poorly organized, and often needlessly complicated. In fact, the authors admit as much, explicitly, at least once in the book. And the game is too limited in scope, I think, to facilitate the kind of animal-PC campaign I’m running right now. While B&B does have some rudimentary magic-like rules in its Herbalism, Empath, and Seer classes, they’re not robust enough to handle the kind of magic that D&D players would expect. Converting from 3.5 to old-school Bunnies & Burrows would require porting over and designing a completely new magic system.
On it’s own terms, though, B&B is a brilliant, charming little game that does exactly what it was designed to do: evoke the spirit and ambience of Watership Down. It remains one of the core inspirations and influences on my own conception of animal as PCs.
And oh yeah, it was the first RPG with martial-arts rules. Get yourself a copy, and learn the secrets of Bun Fu.