Teeny-Tiny Talking Mice Have Taken Over Games

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The biggest year yet for Lilliputian gaming has come this year. This is more than Redwall nostalgia.

“Every single culture throughout history, at every single point, has stories about animals in which the animals are anthropomorphized,” tabletop game designer Jay Dragon says. These stories can be interactive with improv and 20-sided dice. Many are trying to make it happen. This Lilliputian game has been a hit in both the board and tabletop gaming communities for more than ten years, especially over the last three. The Warrior Cats books are bringing new life to the genre. It isn’t just the love or hate of players that has brought this about. Lilliputian games’ cottagecore optimism, their familiar but creative settings and the ability to hide complicated mechanics through woodland cuteness have kept players coming back to the table.

Cottagecore was a movement that portrayed a more relaxed and peaceful way of life in the summer and autumn of 2020. Cottagecore was popularized during the Pandemic Era, as sims such as Stardew Valley and Untitled Goose Game showed. It offers a more relaxed and idyllic view of a less industrialized life than the current one. Cottagecore looks forward, using the aesthetics and nostalgia of past eras to right present-day wrongs, just like the solarpunk aesthetic, or the Lilliputian genre of talking animals. We have had more time for reflection during this period of pandemics.

Brennan Lee Mulligan, a gamemaster and author of The Wind in the Willows for children and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories for adults, discovered that the 19th-century talking animal media was reacting to the alienation and industrialization in the era in which it was written. He says that people were tired of being surrounded by pollution from factories and they wanted to enjoy a simple English picnic. The rigidity of the workday and urbanization have made it impossible for people to live in places with an “abundance strangers,” which has separated them from their neighbors and communities. Although they were so 1891 and so are unfortunately so 2021, the claustrophobic isolation and smokey skies have been so 2018. You can still play a game in which your primary objective is to share a cup of tea with Frog or Toad.

Besides the current overlapping public health and climate crises, tabletop gaming is also reckoning with racial representations and violence in games, topics Lilliputian games can approach in new ways. Because the game isn’t about human vs. animal violence, it feels like playing pacifist dog in a group-building game. More than ever this year is going to see a lot of talking rats and thumbtack swords.

The Lilliputian year

Shrunken, small worlds are making a big comeback in all formats in 2021. The second season of Hulu’s Solar Opposites aired on March 26th. It was not the animation and characters that received the highest praise but a C-plot named the Wall. This plot follows a group of people who live off mice milk and candy. The viral debut of the crowdsourced Ratatouille musical was the start of this year. In February, Netflix announced a Redwall TV adaptation. March was closed with the announcement by CollegeHumor that Dropout’s next Dimension 20 tabletop Role-Playing Series would focus on mice and murder.

Five major Lilliputian expansions or games have been released or announced for 2021: Jay Dragon’s Wanderhome and the mousey Squeaks in the Deep. Root: The RPG is a TTRPG that takes place in the Wargame Root world. There are also a few adventures in the Mausritter gaming game. These five games were funded by thousands of Kickstarter campaign backers. You can learn a lot from previous Lilliputian game, including the games “swords-and-whiskers” of Mausritter & Mouse Guard and lighter fare such as Michtim & Squirrel Attack! and the engine-building games Everdell & Root. Grab your thumbtacks, and start queueing up the heartwarming Fantastic Mrs. Fox soundtrack (“Kristofferson’s Theme”)! There’s no better time than now to play tiny games.

Many small developers were unable to capitalize on the genre’s rise, which still amazes most of its creators. There were Lilliputian-themed games available in 2010 (Mouse Guard and Mice, Mystics), but 2018 saw the release of Everdell and Root. Over 70,000 players reported having played both the Everdell and Root games on BoardGameGeek.com. The website also ranks them among the 50 most popular board games. Cole Wehrle, Root designer, recalls thinking “Wow! What was in that water?” The first appearance of root at Gen Con 2018 was a big deal for Leder Games. It sold all its game materials, not just the board game, but also every stuffed animal. Leder claims that the line was “almost an eighth of mile long.” This is more than what’s on the Washington Monument to its side. These games remain popular three years later and have raised millions of dollars via Kickstarter to expand their offerings.

Dimension 20, an episodic TTRPG series, also launched in 2018. Although Mulligan was the one who suggested a murder-mystery campaign for animals from the start of the show’s existence, production took place until 2021. All 10 episodes have aired. This is the second Lilliputian campaign that D20 has produced. The first was Tiny Heist last winter, which was a combination of D&D genres Ocean’s Eleven and The Borrowers.

The genre was also used by other Lilliputian titles. TTRPG Humblewood focuses primarily on anthropomorphized birds. It draws inspiration from Leesha Hannigan, an illustrator who created high-fantasy chickens or owls. Mausritter adapted designer Isaac Williams’ mice and rat setting he used for his household games into a dense, detailed rulebook. Wanderhome was drafted by Dragon as a game to process post-pandemic trauma with a system that has no combat, with a kind and bittersweet design. These games are rooted in the stories that we likely grew to love.

The Nostalgia Factor

Jerry Griswold, an author of Feeling like a Kid discusses five themes that are common to children’s books: smallness (stylish), aliveness (scariness), lightness (scariness), and snugness. The first three themes are particularly important to Lilliputian gaming, and Griswold shows them in his examples: the cozy underground badger shelter in The Wind in the Willows; Stuart Little’s small car; the liveliness of the thoughtful, talking animals in Doctor Dolittle. Griswold says that these themes are appealing to children because they have a lot of fun activities. For example, building pillow forts and seeing the entire universe as alive and full of companions while adult literature offers fewer moments of cozy joy. Adults still enjoy the idea of living in badger dens and having multiple animal companions. (See Animal Crossing., The Tale of Despereaux., Paddington 2.). This desire is only being fulfilled by analog games.

Apart from the sheer fun of small, intimate activities, decades of Lilliputian literature for children has provided a wealth of inspiration to designers and gamers. Root draws his inspiration from Watership Down and Mouse Guard; Root takes its cues from Disney’s Robin Hood and Disney’s Watership Down; Mausritter uses Brambly hedge, The Rescuers, Ghibli’s Arrietty, and Ghibli’s Arrietty. Redwall can sneak in to most games. The Brian Jacques series of books was extremely popular with ’90s children.

Evelyn Ramiel, a Root player tells WIRED Over Discord that there is a lot of nostalgia for Redwall right now. Root takes the Redwall setting that many people loved growing up and removes some of the less comfortable social implications (morally coding all animal species). Root: Mark Truman, the RPG designer, says that this allowed for fantastical allegories to be kept in the game worlds, without including dark elves or other racial concepts. Truman believes that one reason animalia games have been so successful is the desire to move away from traditional fantasy setting’s difficult reimaginings of races.

Dragon says that the human body can be a political site. Lilliputian gaming allows for “distant but closeness,” where one can speak about the human experience.

Explore New Genres through Mice

Although the Lilliputian can provide escapist entertainment, it is also able to use its ability to remove players from reality and humanity to make them realize what their true goals are in a fictional world. Logan Timmins, player says Wanderhome was the only game where my character took a relaxing afternoon nap. As a player, that was a great choice. I would definitely do it again. Your tabletop can be used to care for bees or squirrels. It doesn’t need to be complicated and violent. No wonder Lilliputian game popularity has risen during quarantine. This is compounded with cottagecore’s queer-led love for selected families and comfortable spaces.

“I believe that part of why queer RPG players are interested in exploring pastoral fantasy genres is because they place a strong emphasis on community and physical spaces,” Root and Wanderhome player Nick Eggers explained on Discord.

Root was designed with Lilliputian aesthetics. It served the opposite purpose. They created a brutal, asymmetric wargaming board game, which featured Panzer tanks, dragons, and other co-creators. Kyle Ferrin, Root’s illustrator says that the problem in getting two people to play Axis or Allies is the fact you must choose at the start of the game whether one of them is a Nazi. This is a major barrier to playing. Root has a world full of bird dynasties and otter swim instructors that have attracted thousands to wargaming. Baked-in coziness allows players more freedom to engage in violent acts and find out if they are enjoyable for them all. It’s much easier for your armies to be killed if you have a cute possum to blame. This formula can work for any type of game.

Mausritter, an OSR game (old-school Renaissance), is equally cruel. One bad roll can destroy your character. It’s also fascinating to see the juxtaposition between snug and deadly. Mulligan told WIRED that there is something to be said about the juxtaposition of snug/deadly.

Limitations of Design for Smallness

Players can get lost in the world of Lilliputian gaming once they enter it.

Mulligan states that “Nerds love to try to apply logistical realities to fantasies that aren’t built on a framework of logistics.” You read The Wind in the Willows and you’ll notice that Mr. Toad has a car. Not every animal has pants. He’s also friends with horses, the horse pulling his wagon.

These problems can be solved by designers using Humblewood which makes monstrous and less-sentient animals seem fantastical like an elemental Lion. Kyle Ferrin developed the root world’s basic rules of sentience. Only similar-sized woodland creatures behave like humans. Fish are not allowed because predators require a food source that they feel good about eating. “It is your call to figure out how to deal with the Goofy/Pluto problem,” Dragon says about animals not described in Wanderhome‘s corebook. It can take more effort than necessary to create perfect or consistent Lilliputian logic. It’s something I feel comfortable with saying. At a point you have to yell “Stop! Relax!” Mulligan states, “We’re not going down this road any more.”

A character’s height can also affect the difficulty of any challenge in-game (combined if they lack opposable thumbs). Mulligan’s Tiny Heist campaign had one goal. He wanted to get a roll quarters. It is possible to avoid a cat, which can lead to boss battles in the dragon style. Isaac Williams says that if you think of yourself as a tiny mouse adventurer, everything becomes an enormous, monolithic problem to solve. This megadungeon is your home. The fun of Lilliputian games is in the transformation of everyday items and locations. Tiny Heist’s set design, which includes Tamagotchis that can be used as slot machines, to visit a hospital within a rec centre first-aid kit, is a good example. It is comparable with Flushed Away sets such as the Big Ben dishwasher or the Ice Cube torture machine.

Don’t forget to mention that everyday animals can be made into characters for Lilliputian games. Dragon states, “It makes it very instant.” Dragon says, “Oh, that deer I drove home would make an interesting character.” But more often the inspiration comes from someone’s fursona. This is the animal persona of furry community members. Sometimes, a pet is the inspiration. A Wanderhome Kickstarter Backer lost their cat and wanted to know what level of support was required to have their pet inscribed inside the TTRPG. Dragon suggested that they donate their pet to an animal shelter. A cat no longer lives in the Lilliputian realm of Wanderhome. The cat is clutching a dagger, and it’s protected by a bear.

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Publited at Thu, 9 Sep 2021 11:00:45 +0000

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