Bunnies & Burrows

(Cross-posted to RPG.net.)

Bunnies and Burrows was the first roleplaying game I ever played (as opposed to GMed). Having recently acquired a copy of the game once again after losing mine years ago, it seemed only fitting that as my first review I hearken back to my roots and tackle the project for RPG.net.

THE THING

Bunnies and Burrows 1st edition is a 75-page softback, written by B. Dennis Sustare & Scott Robinson, and published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1976. Cover and interior illustrations are by Charles Loving. It is written in a style that has long fallen out of general use, with all major rules sections numbered in the manner of wargames of that era. Sections 1.0 – 12.1 (48 pp) cover the rules, and sections 13.0-16.0 (22 pp) give advice on how to set up and run the game. Finally there are two appendices dealing with the rules for rabbit gambling games and discussing the availability of metal figurines. The whole is illustrated throughout with sketches of heroic rabbits performing various tasks (fighting, preparing herbs, etc.)

By the standards of today’s mainstream games, the printing and layout of Bunnies and Burrows is somewhat lacking. Desktop publishing was still in the future when the game was published, and it shows The original manuscript appears to have been typewritten.

SYSTEM

All characters in B&B are created using 8 characteristics — Strength, Speed, Smell, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. A unique and intriguing aspect of the game is that characters gain levels in each characteristic through use. Each time a skill from a particular characteristic is successfully used, the player makes a check mark next to that characteristic. At the end of each day, players roll against a percentage chance that each characteristic successfully used will increase in level. Higher characteristics give a higher chance for success. For example, having an 18 in a characteristic gives a 35% chance for advancement per roll, while a characteristic of 3 gives only a 6% chance. A character may only advance in a given characteristic once per day, so extra rolls after the initial success are lost

For each of the eight characteristics, there is a matching profession. Declaring for a certain profession will either give a character bonuses to skills used with that profession, or in some cases will allow the character to perform special activities which are not open to those who have declared other professions. Players have the choice of giving their rabbit one or two declared professions. Two professions gives the character a wider range of bonus abilities, while declaring for a single profession gives an additional 5% bonus for advancement in the profession’s governing characteristic. Players are not required to select their professions based on their highest characteristic, though that has obvious advantages. The eight professions are

  • Fighter (Strength) — gain bonuses to their hit points, chance to hit, and damage.
  • Runner (Speed) — gain a unique ability to both attack and dodge simultaneously, and automatically go first in melee (except against other Runners).
  • Herbalist (Smell) — gain improved chance of preparing herbal concoctions (which act a lot like potions) and at higher level have some unique preparation techniques.
  • Scout (Intelligence) — gain a bonus to detecting and springing traps, an improved chance to spot hidden objects, and can speak additional languages.
  • Seer (Wisdom) — gain improved chance to see the future, instill shock in other rabbits, and feign death. At higher levels they can instill shock in animals other than rabbits.
  • Maverick (Dexterity) — can carry more objects, and gain improved chances to cheat at gambling, lie successfully, and manipulate objects. At high levels they can disguise themselves as creatures other than rabbits.
  • Empath (Constitution) — have a reduced chance to go into shock when confronted with something frightening, have more energy points, gain an increased chance of successfully producing offspring, and at high levels can heal others.
  • Storyteller (Charisma) — have an increased chance of persuading others, successfully finding a mate, and at higher levels may enthrall others.

Skill resolution in B&B is primarily percentile based (with a couple of rolls based on a d6 thrown in just to keep the players on their toes). Both the combat system and the saving throw system have intriguing twists to them. In combat, each character has a choice of 10 different maneuvers to choose from, ranging from “Run” to “Bite and Hold”. The basic chance to hit is based on the attacker’s Strength level versus the defenders Defense Class, but this is modified by the maneuver that the attacker and defender choose. For example, an attacker trying to Bite and Hold a defender who is Ripping gains an additional 50% chance to hit, while an attacker trying to Cuff a defender who is running gains only an additional 1%.

Saving throws come in two types — saves against environmental factors such as parasite infestation, which are based on the character’s raw traits. Against attacks by other rabbits requiring a saving throw, such as herb attacks by herbalists, the game uses a device called the “circle of professions” in which the character’s saving throw is dependent on how far around the “circle” the defender’s profession is from the attackers. Each type of profession is, therefor, particularly susceptible to the special attacks of another profession. For example, fighters are four steps away from Herbalists on the circle of professions, so a Fighter would have only a 10% chance of saving vs a Slumberflower thrown by an Herbalist,whereas a Scout (adjacent to the Herbalist on the circle of professions) would have a 30% chance of saving.

HOW IT PLAYS

The Actual Play thread can be found here.

Our play group found B&B to be fairly easy to pick up and play with a minimum of hassle. The percentile based skill resolution system was easy to grasp, primarily because the game has few modifiers to worry about. The combat system took a bit of getting used to, and I had to spend some time looking up modifiers for the first game. For the future I will photocopy all the relevant charts to distribute to the players, which should alleviate that problem.

As anyone who played those “old school” games can attest, rolling 3d6 in order can lead to some extremely awful characters and some extremely buff characters. I have always found the prospect of playing the “second string” character unappealing, but certainly there are those who enjoy it. No matter how well players roll, however, they are fairly fragile compared to other critters out there in the world. The average starting bunny has 4-5 hit points, while the fox that might be encountered outside the burrow has an average of 25. Pugnacious bunnies may find themselves lunch for the local carnivore pretty quickly. Knowing when to run (which is most of the time) is important when playing B&B.

Everyone seemed to have a good time, even the guy who rolled Kudzu (who had the worst stats of any of the starting bunnies) and, after Kudzu died, Pine (who had even worse stats than Kudzu).

As with many games of the period, much is left to the GM. Rules for manipulating objects and invention suffer from having no real guidelines for determining what is reasonable, and what the chance of success might be. The herbalism rules are also a bit weak, being both cumbersome and time consuming to execute based on the idea that the GM will map out the entire area around the warren and then place each instance of the various herbs on the map for the bunnies to find. In practice this was the one area I seriously deviated from the rules, allowing bunnies to look for herbs periodically rather than mapping out their exact location.

OVERALL

There is no way around it — this game was written near the dawn of roleplaying, and it shows. If you want your games to have the glossy pages and color illustrations of a modern White Wolf product, this game is not for you.

I think the biggest difficulty with running this game is balancing out the rolls that characters make, so that everyone has a chance to progress. Certain characteristics, such as Wisdom, simply come into play less often than characteristics such as Strength, particularly at lower levels So while the party Fighter may be progressing happily along, the party Seer may be hindered through having insufficient successes in his or her chosen profession for rapid advancement.

The game also suffers from a “spiral of incompetence”. Low rolls for characteristics mean less chance of success at abilities based on those characteristics, and also less chance of making a successful advancement roll. This means that some characters may potentially race ahead of others in terms of level advancement.

Finally, since characters roll for advancement in all of their characteristics, it is entirely possible to get more advances in a characteristic that is not related to the character’s profession than in the characteristic that is (Tulip, in our game, progressed the most in Constitution, which was the character’s worst stat, and not at all in Speed which was the character’s best stat). Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on one’s play style and expectations.

With the above caveats in mind, however, Bunnies and Burrows is still a fantastic game. The setting is highly evocative, and manages to achieve a richness and complexity while maintaining brevity and simplicity — a characteristic largely lost in later games, and which some story games are only now reviving. Character creation is quick and easy, and game play is fairly intuitive. Players find it simple to grasp their roles within the game and from the beginning have an understanding of their relative weakness compared to most critters in the world. This contributes to a sense of real satisfaction when they accomplish their goals. One player also commented that he enjoyed the development system, as it added an element of additional satisfaction to successful rolls.

Another plus to the game is that any given rabbit can do most anything, albeit not as well as a rabbit specializing in that area of expertise. Fighters can disarm traps (though not as well as Scouts) and Empaths can make herbal concoctions (though not as well as Herbalists). Most of the character classes have some special ability or talent unique to them, but most bunnies can do most things, assuming they have a reasonable score in the appropriate characteristic.

RATINGS

Since this is my first review, let me quickly define how I think of the tworating categories

Style — the physical object. What it looks like, feels like, reads like. Includes things like layout, art, punctuation, and design.

Substance — the idea of the thing.What the author was trying to accomplish by making it, and how well the author succeeded. In rough terms a measurement of how much the product appeals to me in concept and execution. Includes things like the ideas in the setting, cleverness and innovation in mechanics, and how the game plays when you sit down at the table with it.

In choosing an older game to review, I knew that I would run up against the problem of how to rate it. If this were 1977 (and (I were a pimply-faced teen still living with my parents) I would give this game an unequivocal 5/5 rating – most likely with a nerdy *snurk snurk* for daring to place it on a pedestal next to D&D. Thirty years later the competition has broadened considerably, and there is so much more to compare B&B to that placing it in its rightful place becomes more difficult.

If B&B 1st ed. were published today for the first time, I would likely rate it at a 2/3. The setting, both in theme and execution, is nice — but games based on books in whole or via inspiration are nothing particularly new or innovative anymore, and while the mechanics do some clever things there are other systems that unquestionably do them better these days. The whole book could really do with a good editing, and some of the sections need to be reworked and rebalanced.

But just as it is unfair to judge the game entirely by 1977 standards, so to is it unfair to judge it entirely on the RPGs of today. If other games and systems have surpassed it now, one must still give credit for the innovations that B&B introduced to roleplaying —

  • First roleplaying game to allow non-humanoid player characters
  • First roleplaying game to have detailed martial arts (“Bun Fu” rules)
  • First roleplaying game to make a serious attempt at a skill system

There have also been claims that it was the first RPG to appeal equally to women and men. I am not certain how you would measure this, but I know I had two girls in my B&B RPG group — one of them was the GM! (Thanks Heidi!) To the best of my knowledge it was also the first game to deal with issues of sex and reproduction, albeit with a couple of tables.

Taking all this into consideration, I give the game —

Style 2: as a physical item, the game is showing its age. Layout is inconsistent and the game lacks a meaningful index. The method of numbering rules sections has long fallen out of general use, and presentation of certain sections, such as the rules for herbalists, could use a good rewrite for clarity. Artwork is somewhat sparse,and is rather poor quality by today’s standards. Fortunately, the rule mechanics are simple enough that these flaws do not make the game unplayable, or even interfere significantly with one’s enjoyment of it.

Substance 4: from what I saw of our actual play group, people got into the setting and the characters quickly and easily, and had a lot of fun with it. Although the information on actually running the game is sparse, it seems to be enough to inspire people to want to get into character, hop out of their warren, and have some adventures! That many of its mechanics have been redone, and redone better by others in the intervening years is unsurprising, and shows how many of the ideas that now loom so large in game design stand on the shoulders of this early and revolutionary effort.

The game is, of course, long out of print, but copies still surface occasionally on eBay. If you have a chance to pick one up for a reasonable price, I recommend it. Alternately, the game has been converted to both GURPS and RISUS if you want a somewhat more modern take on the game.

For those interested in reading further —

Follow the discussion on RPG.net.

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