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Game Chef: Talking a bit more about Synanthropes

Hey, so, I was a bit quiet on Synanthropes when I posted it, because it was literally minutes before the Game Chef time limit was up for me, so… so yeah.

Synanthropes is a game about exploring humanity from the view of those creatures which live in our detritus. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for synanthropic animals; that is to say, those who dwell in ecological niches which were created by humans. Its sort of a catchall term for non-domesticated urban animals, and the borders are pretty grey–rats, for instance, would not exist as we know them without the presence of humans, whereas urban crows are just one little species of a large and more wild corvid genus, and raccoons exist in the wild just as well (if not as well-fed) as in the suburbs. Still, they are animals who dwell with humans, not because we want them to, but because, well, nature finds a way.

I’ve always felt that, in a way, synanthropes are more human than many of our closer relatives in the primate family. They don’t come from the same taxanomic family, but they demonstrate the sorts of qualities which make humans so… human. Curiosity, craftiness, a drive to explore, a willingness to dwell amongst the most dangerous predators in the world because the rewards are so good. And of course, they like human houses and human food, just like we do (regardless of the fact that they like human houses because of the spacious tunnels between walls, and human food is presented to them as massive, heterogeneous piles of slightly rotten garbage).

Humans produce waste like nothing else in the world–from literal trash to mere claimed but unused space–and the synanthropes are there to remind us that, no, it’s not really being wasted, it’s being USED. And that’s keen. It makes me sad when old buildings are demolished to make new parks, because of the arbitrariness in destroying several species’ natural-but-artificial habitat in order to make an artificial-but-natural habitat for some other creatures.

I used to keep rats myself… pet rats, not quite the same as the ones who dwelt in secret beneath my home but closely related. And I always wondered what they thought of me… they learned to recognize me as the big hand who brought the food and sometimes pulled them out of the cage to go for a ride on my shoulders or explore the desk. Was I something like a giant rat to them, recognizable as a person? Was I a god, or a titan, or a mystical figure who knew the secrets of opening peanut jars? Was I a series of disconnected images… a hand, a shoulder, an ear, some shouting about how I had a rat nose in my ear, never quite coalescing into a whole? Who can say?

So I wanted to do something with synanthropes, which led me to this game. When humanity is gone, they will remain, or something like them, moving through our leftovers, because the world contains a lot of human leftovers. If left unchecked, able to blossom and make the most of the human ruins they live in, what would they think of us? What will they become? Will they try to be like us, adapting to life in the big rooms, rather than between the walls, and creating rather than scavenging? Will these little protohumans turn into something more human?

And what, I wonder, would they think of us?

Anyway. That’s the stuff that was going through my head as I made the game.

While my sources of inspiration include literally everything I’ve ever seen/played/done, special props go to Ocean, by Jake Richmond, which is great at allowing the exploration of something unknown and mysterious without A) the need for a GM to pre-assemble the mystery, and B) the mystery being a sort of canned, procedurally-generated mess. I pretty much stole clues from that. And the character sheets are heavily inspired by Apocalypse World and its ilk, with the playbook-style sheets that help re-enforce the notion that these beings are truly unique from one another by literally giving them unique rules right there on the sheets.

As for what’s lacking, if I’m going to do a game chef post mortem, I would say that it’s the combat and confrontation rules, which ended up being sacrificed because they were ever-so-slightly too long for a game which is already two thousand words over the limit (albeit with those extra words being “optional.” I could justify optional oracle and fluff… suggesting that a major form of interaction could be optional would be one toke over the line).

Beyond that, while it’s obviously in need of playtesting and tweaking, it’s received really positive feedback thus far. I’m pretty excited, and thinking about what I can do after Game Chef season is over to finish and finalize. I feel like this year that really is something I’m interested in, more so than I was for last year’s Game Chef–not that I wasn’t fond of my game last year, but its flaws were fundamental enough that it would take an almost complete rewrite before I would be happy with it, and that takes a lot of energy to dive into when I have other, sexier projects right in front of me.

Some minor mechanical tweaks, and some playtesting to see if there need to be major changes to the pacing. Legends and mysteries could use a little re-jiggering, if only because some of them are a little too silly, and some are not quite silly enough. I’d like to give everyone a fourth set of Traits, to further connect them to their species, and a Career, to help keep them more individual. I’d like to invest in a fifth species as well, perhaps something reptilian and definitely something that doesn’t begin with “R”. Doing some research into geckos and skinks.

And pictures, pretty pretty pictures of animals.

Speaking of pictures, I’ve earned a badge, and that’s really quite exciting.


Happy Game Chef, everyone.