Teeny-Tiny Talking Mice Have Taken Over Games

The episodic TTRPG show Dimension 20 also kicked off in 2018, and though Mulligan had the idea for a murder-mystery animalian campaign from the beginning, it took until 2021 to produce the series: all 10 episodes of the whodunit have now aired. It’s the second Lilliputian campaign on D20, the other being last winter’s Tiny Heist, a twist of D&D genres that combined Ocean’s Eleven with The Borrowers.

Other Lilliputian games fell into the genre sideways. The TTRPG Humblewood deals primarily with anthropomorphized birds, building off of illustrator Leesha Hannigan’s art of high-fantasy chickens and 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. It helps that these games have deep roots in stories we likely grew up with.

The Nostalgia Factor

In the children’s literature analysis book Feeling Like a Kid, author Jerry Griswold outlines five reoccurring themes in children’s stories: snugness, smallness, aliveness, scariness, and lightness. These first three are of particular importance to Lilliputian games, as Griswold’s examples show: the snugness of a cozy underground badger den in The Wind in the Willows, the smallness of Stuart Little and his toy car, the aliveness of thoughtful talking animals in Doctor Dolittle. Griswold writes that children are drawn to these themes because of how much of their favorite activities have these elements (building pillow forts, being generally tiny, seeing the whole universe as “alive and full of companions”)—while adult literature has fewer and fewer moments of pure cozy joy. But adults still love to imagine themselves living in badger dens or having several animal companions (see: Animal Crossing, The Tale of Despereaux, Paddington 2.). Analog games are just catching up to this desire.

Besides the pure fun of snug, small activities, centuries of Lilliputian children’s literature has created a storehouse of nostalgia for designers and players to build off of: Mice & Murder draws from The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter; Root draws from Watership Down, Mouse Guard, and Disney’s Robin Hood; Mausritter draws from Brambly Hedge, The Rescuers, and Ghibli’s Arrietty. Redwall finds a way to sneak into most games, as the Brian Jacques book series was immensely popular, especially for ’90s kids.

“Nostalgia for Redwall is pretty high right now,” Root player Evelyn Ramiel tells WIRED over Discord. “And the Root setting takes what people loved as kids (including me) from Redwall and takes out a lot of the more uncomfortable social implications that Redwall has (morally coding all the animal species).” All of the design teams interviewed for this story took special care to not code animalian factions and species for real-life cultures, a move that Root: The RPG designer Mark Truman says helped keep fantastical allegories in game worlds without bringing in concepts of racial attributes, dark elves, or orcs. “I think one of the major reasons that animalia games are doing well right now is a desire to step away from the often difficult reimagining of race that’s required to play in traditional fantasy settings,” Truman says.

“Oftentimes the human body is a very political site, kind of inescapably,” Dragon explains. Lilliputian gaming “allows distance but also closeness where you can say something about what it means to be human.”

Exploring New Genres Through Mice

The Lilliputian genre can be escapist, but more often it can use its remove from humanity and reality to help players understand what they really want to do in a fantasy world. “Wanderhome is the only game in which my character took a leisurely afternoon nap,” player Logan Timmins says. “And I as a player really enjoyed that choice and would do it again.” Your tabletop play can be dedicated to shepherding bees, tidying a fox den, collecting acorns for a squirrel-commune feast—it doesn’t have to be more complicated or violent than that. It’s no coincidence that Lilliputian games have seen their popularity rise even more during quarantine, compounded by the cottagecore aesthetic and its often queer-led appreciation for chosen families and cozy spaces. 

“I think that part of the reason why queer players in the RPG scene are interested in exploring the pastoral fantasy genre is because it puts a heavy emphasis on community and the physical spaces those communities exist in,” Root and Wanderhome player Nick Eggers explains on Discord.

The designers of Root used Lilliputian aesthetics for the opposite purpose: They had a cruel, asymmetric board game in the wargaming genre, a space typically populated by Panzer tanks and dragons. “The core problem with getting two people to play Axis and Allies is that you have to pick at the beginning of the game which one of you is a Nazi,” says Root’s illustrator Kyle Ferrin. That’s a serious barrier to play. Root’s world of bird dynasties, otter swim instructors, and the cutest possum with a sword I’ve ever seen has pulled in thousands of players to wargaming. The baked-in coziness gives more wiggle room for players to take violent actions and discover whether it’s enjoyable, for both sides—it’s easier to have your armies murdered if it’s by a cute possum, and that formula works for almost any game.


Author: showrunner