RPG designer Freddie Taylor-Bell’s Briar & Bramble openly acknowledges the influence of The Animals of Farthing Wood and Watership Down in its portrayal of a woodland world in which players become critters struggling to survive in the face of human encroachment into nature at the turn of the 19th century.
Faced with the destruction of their home as the result of industrialisation - something that anyone who watched the distressing TV adaptation of Farthing Wood as a kid will remember - the players’ creatures set off on a journey to build a new home and community outside of humanity’s reach.
Naturally, humanity isn’t the only threat for the band of squirrels, mice, foxes, rabbits, badgers and more. (Despite the British countryside setting, Taylor-Bell imposes no hard limitations on local fauna, leaving the specific woodland species up to the players.) As the party ventures through, well, briar and bramble, they may encounter other animals that pose a threat to their survival, from wolves to hawks.
They’ll also come across communities of critters created by the GM-like Narrator player, which can include both friendly and hostile factions with their own concerns, desires and hierarchy. Communities and the environments in which they dwell are created using short series of questions that outline their relationship to the players’ characters and the wider world, with the narrator using questions and actions to interact with the players. Communities’ harmony can be impacted by certain events, with the narrator tracking on a clock the possibility of falling into conflict.
Throughout sessions, players track the locations they visit on a central map that begins the game blank, with the map-drawing element providing a sense of exploration and discovery. Whether the players’ characters survive or succumb to the unforgiving circumstances, the game concludes by players telling the tale of their journey by using the map to retrace their route.
As you may expect given the debt to classic tales of animals in peril, Taylor-Bell notes upfront in the game’s rulebook that players should expect their characters to experience the “grim reality of the animal world”, although violence and suffering to the animals of the setting can be handled in a way that keeps everyone around the table comfortable and safe.
Behind Briar & Bramble’s brutal rural setting is the Powered by the Apocalypse system originally created by Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker for Apocalypse World and since used in games ranging from Monster of the Week to the recent Avatar Legends RPG. Familiar to the engine are Briar & Bramble’s list of player moves, which see characters perform their basic actions or abilities unique to their playbook - PbtA’s equivalent to D&D’s classes - before rolling two six-sided dice to judge their success. Examples of playbooks include the negotiation-skilled Diplomat, clairvoyant Wyrd - an apparent homage to Watership Down’s rabbit seer Fiver - hunting Hound and even the Flock, which represents a group of animals controlled as a single character.
Characters in Briar & Bramble modify their results with four central traits - fierce, reflex, sense and social - that sketch out their personality and capabilities. The players’ community can also perform moves, with the narrator able to perform moves on behalf of other communities and non-player characters.
Briar & Bramble was released as a digital PDF in April via Taylor-Bell’s Itch.io page, with the designer subsequently updating the game’s core rulebook in response to player feedback. A Kickstarter campaign live until October 1st looks to crowdfund artwork and a physical edition of the RPG expected to arrive in May 2022.