“You are a bug. There is little time to comprehend what this means to you. Life is brutally short and brief, full of amazing colors and creatures that will dazzle, trap, and kill you in an instant. The ground shakes, your world turns upside down, and everything begins to spin. But there is one place of solace for you in the constant flux of chaos, the peaceful Cuticorium. No insect remembers where it came from, but the longer you stay around this place, the more you begin to think for yourself instead of just trying to survive from moment to moment.” This is the RPG about a small insectoid world with big secrets and dramatic connections, Cuticorium by Ulysses Duckler!
Cuticorium first crossed our collective desks as part of January’s Kickstarter Wonk crop, which . . . considering the quality we’re about to look at, is an awfully quick and impressive turnaround time.
No insect remembers how the Cuticorium came to be, but the longer they remain there the more they change – violence within the great tree is literally impossible, and some say the mysterious crystal at its heart allows bugs to live longer, think better, and feel more deeply (becoming more human-like, not that the bugs know that).
Within the tree are vibrant markets, new developments in artificially created heat and light, nascent religious orders, villages and cities and nests and places of learning. The Cuticorium’s pacifying aura means that all are safe here, even from bugs that would usually count themselves as predators and the great Beasts that would feed upon all bugs. This allows bugs to do more than just survive, exploring new dreams and goals.
Outside the Cuticorium but still near or upon it are many other places and populations of bugs as well. It’s not as safe here. Beast attacks (moles, birds, anything that might eat a bug, really) are infrequent but always a concern. Violence between bugs is possible, evidenced by a flower-covered battleground between the ants and the bees and the encroaching threat of the raider wasps. Deep waters, decomposing bodies, and dark caverns hide dangers, secrets, and resources in equal measure. Insectoid life still thrives, though, building cities and pushing back the boundaries of the unknown.
Then, there is Beyond The Tree. Bugs who come to the Cuticorium from Beyond don’t remember much of it, but it’s a vicious place where Beasts roam freely. There is great potential for learning more of the world out there among the danger, but there is also the quiet fear that traveling too far beyond the Cuticorium’s light will mean a bug loses the gifts the tree has given them, making them just another insect trying to survive moment to moment, with no hopes or dreams. Most bugs that venture out never return. Most, but not all.
Play in Cuticorium consists of scenes – you begin with one started by the GM with all of the players to kick off the plot, then every player gets to start a scene of their own, inviting along PCs and NPCs as they wish. Then the GM kicks off another scene to advance the overall plot, and you continue until you reach the climax, at which point there’s another round of player-led scenes to wrap things up and reflect on how the bugs and their world have changed. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a one shot game, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have a long campaign, whether it’s episodic or has grand arcs.
The game functions off of moves and degrees of success in a way that’s going to be familiar to veterans of Powered by the Apocalypse games, although in Cuticorium the humble d4 is the die getting the majority of the work done. 1 is a failure, 2-3 is a partial success, and 4+ is a success. Like a good PbtA game, the Moves tell you a lot about what is important in playing Cuticorium: Challenge, Coax, Comfort, Share, Offer, and Deceive are all social moves. Transform and Accept are particularly interesting, as they show other bugs how you’ve changed and help you better understand yourself, respectively. The only combat move is Scar, and even that can only be used outside of the Cuticorium! Communicating with others and gaining a greater understanding of the world around you, your fellow bugs, and yourself is the name of the game.
All of these moves deal in the most important thing in the Cuticorium: Webs.
Webs, and the tokens used to keep track of them, “represent control and understanding.” A character (NPC and PC both) can place their Web tokens on locations, other bugs, and themselves. Webs on another bug represent “everything you know about them”, and how you can use that knowledge to manipulate or support them. Webs on a location stand for what you know about the place and how much control you have over it. Webs on yourself (you start with three and can have a maximum of five) are your introspection and your understanding of who you are . Perhaps unsurprisingly, they thus do double duty by tracking your mental stability – run out and you start to Panic as instincts begin to take over, limited to rolling a single Move of your choice until you get a Web back on yourself, and if you roll a failure you either perish or flee the Cuticorium never to be seen again.
All of the Moves involve gaining, losing, giving, or taking Webs, and Webs can also be given purely narratively if it makes sense. Mechanically speaking, Webs are most often spent to re-roll dice. If the target of the move you are making has one of your Web tokens on it, you can spend said token to re-roll your d4 and keep the higher result. You can continue to spend tokens, and re-rolling dice, for as many times as you have tokens to spend on the relevant target of the roll, and for each re-roll after the first you roll a d6 instead. This is particularly valuable – and an interesting way to get players to keep spending more Webs – because it is the only way to potentially get higher than a 4 and thus improve your chances of a full success.
There are no classes or playbooks in the game, and no stats or attributes to speak of, so you’re not adding any numbers to your rolls. Narratively speaking you have a Desire, a dream of something greater that the bug received when they came to the Cuticorium, and a Shame, a dark secret and/or something terrible they did to survive in the days before coming to the tree. Mechanically speaking you have two Features, “unique physical or mental traits” that define your bug; exact species is less important, and the book makes it clear that you don’t have to map 1:1 with a real species anyways. Broadly speaking a Feature will usually do two things: provide a new way for you to use Webs, and change how you interact with one or more Moves. Camouflage lets you spend a Web after a scene that you weren’t a part of ends to say that you were there all along, gaining Webs for what you may have seen or overhead, and lets you politely decline the results of a 2-3 on a Deceive move you make if you don’t want to deal with the partial success. A bug with Wings can’t have the Scar move used against them unless the attacker has a Feature of their own (like Camouflage, actually) that gives them an advantage, and can more easily claim and discover locations.
Oh, speaking of which, another big use of Webs is tied into interacting with locations. Essentially, once you reach a certain threshold of Webs on a location, you can spend some of them to change or expand it. Claim Territory makes a location into, well, your territory, which interacts with a few Moves/Features and also means you can always join a scene there, even if you weren’t invited. Exploring lets you create a new location connected to the one you had Webs on via a secret passage, including naming, describing, and assigning unique features, and gives you first dibs on starting a scene there. Discovering lets you change an aspect of a location – building a shelter, finding a new food source, or uncovering something unnoticed by other bugs are examples provided. This makes the oft-vaunted, oft-neglected RPG pillar of Exploration a huge part of the game.
There are some additional rules as well, such as how the bugs might deal with a Beast when one shows up and what risking a journey into the world Beyond The Tree means, and there is even guidance on how you might play Cuticorium as a solo journaling game (you’ll need a d20 to tap into the random tables the GM would otherwise be using). There are also some optional rules for ways to gain Webs faster or make life for the bugs a little safer, and while ‘advancement’ in Cuticorium is by default purely narrative via learning things and exploring locations there is a rule that could let a bug gain an additional Feature.
The Actual Book
I have one small bone (or… bit of exoskeleton, I guess) to pick with Cuticorium as a product: there is no table of contents or index to work with. For some games this lack would be lethal, for Cuticorium (given the straightforward mechanics) it’s luckily at most potentially frustrating. However, I’m willing to cut this book even a bit more slack than I usually would on this point because of one of its best features as a product: the art.
The quality of the art in the book, which was a stated priority of the Kickstarter, is impressive from cover to cover and all the way through. Melisa Echavarria, Escher Cattle, Steven ‘Ski’ Nosov, Danny ‘Crab Boy’ Dreamcider, and Hibi were clearly great picks for this project. Then the map of the Cuticorium, double-sided to show both the inside and the outside of the tree, is so nice looking that the physical version could be framed as an art piece for your own home.
The quantity has to be noted as well – in the PDF version (not counting the plaintext one created for reading and phobia-related accessibility purposes, another feather in the game’s cap) it’s presented in two-page sheets, and there is literally not a single one that doesn’t have art, a quote from a character, or both. That’s not quite true for the physical book – there are some pages for you to write your notes in as well that don’t have any art, I suppose. This makes the book gorgeous to look at, but between all the great art and the very neat layout, it also makes it a very easy read, even without a table of contents or an index.
The art and notes aren’t just for being pretty and making the book easier to read, though, as I think they put in a fair amount of work on helping the reader get a feel for the setting and the kinds of characters they’ll be playing. There are samurai wasps, creative weevils, grasshopper musicians, mosquito spymasters, stylist beetles, academic caterpillars, and even battle-hardened hermit crabs and ascetic snails (which imply that the stricture of only having ‘bugs’ as player characters is a little looser than at first glance). There’s drama between the Queens of the Ant Legion and the Sweet Bees, strange artifacts left behind by the Colossi, academic efforts to study the Beasts, a burgeoning government in Rootbend City, and secrets in both the dark places of the tree and in the world beyond.
On top of all that, in a great example of the soft prep being done for you, there’s an excellent soundtrack for the game by Daniel Elsberry. With many of the tracks associated with specific parts in and outside the Cuticorium, the music is great for helping set the mood, and is independently enjoyable. You get the soundtrack as part of the download on itch, but don’t take my word for it, you can give it a listen here.
Cuticorium is, both in appearance and in design, a work of art. It has some recognizable game design DNA, but has clearly used its own Transform move to evolve and lean into a world of social connection and learning secrets. The basic conceit of the game’s setting is genuinely charming, and (because I do feel like I should acknowledge it) even if bugs aren’t your thing there’s still a lot of value here – rename Webs, maybe design some new Features, and you could basically just use most of the mechanics in a bug-free micro world of your own creation.
For my own part, though, a spider archaeologist or a butterfly explorer sounds pretty cool.
You can find the PDF only version (and remember, by PDF only I mean including the maps, the character sheet, the soundtrack, the plaintext version, and even an adventure) for $15.00 on itch.io. You can find the 4.7″x5.8″, 132 page color softcover book on Indie Press Revolution for $20.00; in the Related Products through that link you’ll also find a Print&PDF version and another that has the physical, double-sided map.
How will you and your fellow bugs alter the miniature world of the Cuticorium – and Beyond – forever?
Thanks to Duckler for sending us a copy of the softcover book and the map for us to review!
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