Episode 82: Dogs Have a Nyarlathotep?

This month, Roger and Mike consider gaming as animals, and the Good Monster.

We mentioned Ars Magica, Bunnies and Burrows, Call of Catthulhu, Magical Kitties Save the Day!, The Secret Life of Pets, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards and Feline Wizards books, Saberhagen’s Dracula stories, The March North, The Screwfly Solution, The Screwtape Letters, and Have His Carcase.

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


Playing an animal… I once ran a homebrew science fantasy campaign (I called it Horse Chosen) where the PCs all had telepathic Companion Animals (horses, obviously). The session where all the humans had been drugged unconscious and the horses had to solve the plot was very entertaining to run. The players were very inventive at coming up with ways for horses without opposable thumbs could get things done.

I think a campaign of animals being portrayed ‘realistically’ would probably run into the same problems that running a proto-caveman/apeman game does. Namely, if you are running a culture with no recognisable economy, politics, job roles, and so on, you very quickly run out of things for the PCs to do. Run away from angry mammoth, defend camp from hungry sabretooth, go bison hunting, gather nuts and berries. Rinse and repeat.

Also, as zoologist, I point out each individual animal has ALL the survival skills necessary to, er, survive. So all the characters will be very similar, unless you are doing some sort of multi-species Jungle Book or Animals of Farthing Wood game, which drifts towards anthropomorphism and fantasy tropes. It’s not like real world wolf packs have warrior wolves and hunter wolves and primary school teacher wolves and accountant wolves…

The exception being those species of ants where they have caste dimorphism: where some are big soldier ants, others small worker ants, etc. It wouldn’t be much fun for the player who rolled up the winged drone ant or the honeypot ant! Much as it wouldn’t be fun to play Rogue Trooper’s rucksac or helmet, if and when Worlds of 2000AD does a Rogue Trooper sourcebook for their RPG!

I bought the Blue Rose RPG because I wanted to see how they handled sentient animals as a character type. Those are Narnia type fantasy animals, though they are telepathic rather than talk out loud. I’ve also played in a one-off game of Mouseguard, but the mice have swords, etc.

For playing a sentient but dim machine, I’d recommend the Cthulhu Hack scenario Valkyrie Nine, where the PCs are all maintenance robots on a lunar base, wondering where all the humans have gone. And David Wake’s novel, I, Phone where a smart phone has to try and prevent its owner being murdered.

On VampireTM and playing a monster… I like actions to have consequences in my games. If you kill people the cops are going to be running a murder hunt, regardless whether you are an undead creature of the night or a totally human mugger with a knife.


Whartson Hall did a good job with playing animals in the Cats game and a couple sessions of Slideways. If I remember correctly the Slideways sessions did include a mechanic along the lines of rolling against instinct to have an idea.

A version of playing animals in the Wizard Familiar space I’ve toyed with is that familiars are demons but they are required by the summons to play the part of the animal. I’ve wondered if that would give the players access to that meta level to keep it fun. The “I know I need to do this but I’m required to act like an owl so I can’t” could be an experienced part of being a familiar. Imagine that signing up to be a familiar is like showing up to be cast as an extra and the magic is a director yelling.

I’ve been watching The Good Place partly on recommendations around this space. It occurs to me that inability to obtain sufficient data to make a moral choice is a key component of that piece of media and the discussion from the podcast. I confess my undergraduate sessions of vampire tended toward the “something worse is out there” variety. I would treat that differently today. However the inherently harmful nature of being a vampire worked with certain players well as a spice. Some resisted it altogether but the table was for fun not arguments. I have yet to find any group for whom that conflict is a full dish, much less a meal.

Perhaps indicative is Wraith, which required the shadow to be played by another player and not by the GM. Character vs self may not be interesting at the table if the PC is both or if the GM (who by role knows The Answers ™ ) is playing a part of “your” character. Maybe Unknown Armies has some answers there with self as a axis of the madness meter. Arbitrating if a character has acted against their sense of self goes back to alignment and thieves stealing from the party in D&D it seems.

I would echo that intrinsically evil created creatures reflect on the creators more than the creatures. Removing that seat of choice from a group presented as sentient seems to be a core problematic area at the roots of the hobby. As a counterweight, comfort of a known correct answer seems to be a key attraction of all fantasy.

I’m reminded of a GURPS game in which one player created a vampire hunter PC. During a session he was discussing killing vampires. Another PC asked if they collapsed to dust or something. The player fumbled and looked to the GM who said “no, they just, y’know, scream and bleed and die.” The player looks around the table shocked and says “oh no. I’m a serial killer.” I’ve always been amazed that he played along with that moment and didn’t argue about being set up or anything. But key result from that moment, for the rest of the game, the player didn’t want that character to make it. He knew the character was doing more harm than good and from that moment forward the player wanted the story to provide a moment to remedy that harm. Maybe we are just suckers for redemption narratives and heel/face turns.


Turning the party into rabbits in SlideWAYS was the only chance I was ever going to get to run Bunnies & Burrows.


I can see this getting very frustrating, but at least it’s in-character frustrating.

It drifts all too easily into the sort of things that racists say to justify themselves.

For some years I’ve had an idea for an adventure that I’ll probably never write, where the twist is that the PCs are actually murderously insane, and the plot as presented (hunting vampires or whatever) is their delusion. But it really wouldn’t be much fun to play unless there were a very strong redemption component to it.

(Or maybe I’ll write the adventure where the players come to think that’s the case, but all the nice people saying “there there you’re all right now” are actually minions of the vampire conspiracy…)

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Really enjoyed running John Wick’s Cat! game with my players, they basically played how they imagined their pets thought and acted.


Sounds like it could be a Buffy episode. In fact I think maybe it was.

That’s a pretty heavy bait and switch to pull in the table. A lot of people would lose their shit over that. I think I’d enjoy it and probably it’d relieve the inherent problems I have with the Vampyre schtick. Somehow I find the idea of playing a nosferatu as in VtM quite difficult, so maybe a clearly labelled mature, twisted game of being Hunters might cure me of it.

However, I have had D&D/fantasy players get very uptight when they realise that the monsters in my fantasy games are and always have been fully rounded cultures. Not that I stop them killing the orc babies… that’s the role they choose…