As if to prove that roleplaying games know no bounds, there’s a game where you play as a bug. To be clear, Cuticorium is not a game about playing as a humanoid bug or as someone transformed into a bug. You’re a literal bug and it’s pretty amazing.
The game’s chiton-loving creator, Ulysses Duckworth (with the fantastic online handle of usducktape) was kind enough to answer a few of my questions that I’ll sprinkle through the review. To start with, I asked him to sum up the game in a sentence. “Cuticorium is a microcosm ttrpg for exploring small lives and big emotions through the lens of insects.” The term “microcosm” here is covering a few bases. Not only is the game about tiny little creepy crawlies (Ulysses’s term, so it’s alright) but it also hones in on the relationships between individual members of a small community and their shared lives.
But lots of games do this, right? I’ve previously written about Wanderhome and Turn. So why pick bugs? “I chose bugs because I love bugs,” was Ulysses’s answer, “and also this project was hugely inspired by Escher’s previous works in making bugs more relatable and human-like in order to help people appreciate and cherish them.” That would be Escher Cattle, one of the games lead artists and an entomologist by training, so this is not just a gimmick. Cuticorium is a game about bugs of all stripes and it bakes that theme into the DNA of the game to create a setting far from our human experience even as you play out emotions and social drama that is exceedingly human.
So what exactly is the setting? Well, Cuticorium revolves around the titular enclave of Cuticorium where the lives of insects, arachnids, and other bugs become longer and their consciousness expands. No one knows where the gathering spot came from originally and its exact geography is left up to the group for the most part, but the bugs in it are physically incapable of harming each other and find themselves thinking more and more clearly the longer they stay.
The community is built up within a tree that has a glowing crystal at its center, one of the dozen disconnected locations within Cuticorium. There are other locations outside of it and play groups will assuredly create more, both because they are very fun to make but also because they are essential to the mechanics of the game. Touchstone locations like this are “where communities form,” according to Ulysses, and so they are every bit as important to the game as NPCs and the world outside of your safe little tree.
And who lives in that safe little tree? I asked Ulysses just that, noting that pictures of insects, arachnids, centipedes, and others were mixed with pictures of snails, slugs, and even a crab. Is there a limit to what you can include? According to Ulysses, the game isn’t intended to strictly define “bug” as any group besides what you think of. “People lump crabs and snails and worms in there so we added them in too. I think microbes are distant enough from insects that they’d be more akin to bug pets then players.” Afterwards, though, we agreed you could probably fit microbes in too.
In many ways, Cuticorium is a classic Powered by the Apocalypse-style game. You make moves and there’s a bad result, good result, and great result. However, the moves are resolved with a d4 rather than 2d6, and sometimes that’s bumped up to a d6 with abilities. This means the dice ranges are (appropriately) much smaller and that small bonuses really change things. Because the “good” result is 2-3, though, that’s still the most likely result so your characters are driven by their choice more than bad luck.
To create this dynamic, the game revolves around Webs which are a combination of your social connections, your mental and physical standing, and your knowledge about the world. Players start with three Webs on themselves and a Web on a Location which is the setting for the first scene of the game. You gain Webs on characters through moves (see below) and they often gain a Web on you as well. Additional location Webs are earned whenever finish a scene in a location as well you roll the “great” (4+) result on a roll in a location. Both PCs and NPCs gain Webs since they’re a game currency and they can also be an in-game currency (bartering a secret for something else).
There are nine moves in Cuticorium, and all your actions will fall into one of these. Let’s start with a trio of interaction moves: Challenge is intimidation and display (aggressive social pressure), Coax is flirtation and persuasion (gentle social pressure), and Comfort is supporting and embracing (gentle social openness). Actual injury (physical or mental) is under Scar, which can be only done outside of the protection of Cuticorium, but within the enclave you can use Transform to show you are different and Deceive to lie (both of which removes your opponent’s Webs on you). With objects you can Share to exchange or Offer to give freely (both build Webs with characters) and you can also Accept to come to grips with personal truths (giving Webs to other characters in the scene).
One of these moves you pick as your Panic move which is what happens when your bug’s higher order thinking shuts down and instinct kicks in. Panic sets in when all your Webs are gone and at that point you are limited to just your Panic move, even if it’s completely wrong in the situation. A stag beetle might Challenge, an Ant might Offer, a mantis might Transform… It doesn’t matter what else is going on, they’re seeing red and shutting down a little. This is where the red-in-mandible-and-pincer nature of real life bugs enters the game. As Ulysses put it, “Insects dont have our elegant swordplay, so you can build up a lot of Webs on a bug but it all comes down to who moves first and strikes harder in the bug world.”
To me, this is the best part of Cuticorium. You could run a game of people from a small village or office workers or something and use these same moves, just rewrite Webs as Bonds or something and it works as a little ecosystem. This game neatly creates an ecosystem simulator and that’s really fun. But the Panic moves mean that every once in a while the story turns inhuman and that’s awesome. There are also Features (as in “creature feature”… I don’t know if that’s on purpose) and you pick two of them to create your unique species of bug. There are physical adaptations (like Spinneret or Proboscis), “cultural” aspects (like Hive Mind or Thanatosis, as in playing dead), and meta ones that change how you interact with the world (like Large or Aquatic). From these building blocks (which each come with two abilities) you should be able to make the bug of your dreams.
“I wanted it to be mix and match so that players could play any type of bug that exists, or think of new bugs” Ulysses told me. “I generally don’t like class based systems. I designed all the features from the top down then later went back to make sure they fit in good combinations and covered all the bases.” I’m always skeptical of “this should cover everything” system and I’m not convinced there aren’t holes here but I can’t spot any so far. If you do, you can probably create your own with a little experimentation. Plus you have written permission in the book to create bugs that don’t exist in real life so you truly have no excuse to just go for it.
A story of Cuticorium is first and foremost about social drama. In addition to the aspects mentioned so far, characters all have shames and desires which will propel them into conflict with the community and each other even though there’s a peacebonding in affect that prevents them from actually attacking anyone. For plant-eaters and decomposers, staying in Cuticorium is an option but there are still dramatic currents in there. Predators need to leave the enclave to hunt and eat and all bugs are drawn by curiosity to the wilds outside.
“There are layers of protection,” Ulysses explained to me, “the outer Locations are dangerous but frequented and there is lots of community that cross through, of stay in the outer locations. Then the world beyond the tree is much more dangerous in that it is just the outside world and has all the dangers of nature to a bug.” In between scenes you can interact with locations that you already have Webs on. Spending Webs on a location can change it up in one of three ways depending on how many Webs you’re willing to spend. Spending two Webs that you have on a location you can Discover it by changing up an aspect of it (adding a construction, switching up the general vibe, etc). For three Webs you can Explore to add an adjacent location and for four Webs you can Claim Territory which makes it a location you can jump into whenever you like. Gathering Webs and spending them to shape the world is just another way to use the game’s currency and the fact that its intertwined with all the other systems really deepens this world building.
Again, these locations can be inside Cuticorium or out in the wilds but lets talk about those wilds for a minute. They’re scary, folks. To underscore the small scale of bug life in the enclave and danger in the outside world, when you venture beyond Cuticorium you run into enormous moles, gargantuan birds, froghemoths and anything else you can imagine. There aren’t specific rules for specific animal types, they just roll in opposition to your rolls… and they roll d20s against your d4s and d6s. Bugs can team up but even five bugs together can pretty easily be smashed by a beast out in the wilds so the danger feels real.
That’s how the game mechanics interact with story and setting (plus there are lots of helpful tables) but the system is also very flexible. I asked Ulysses what might be completely outside of the scope of Cutcorium and his cheeky response was coconut crabs because they’re just too big (babies are allowed). More seriously, he told me that there’s not much in the game that you can’t do and things were left fairly open so that players could portray their favorite bugs.
And what about those who don’t like bugs? What if you (for some strange reason) dislike creatures with multiple, grasping legs and small chewing mandibles… all those eyes staring… the rasp of their dry, horrible chiton… Alright so cards on the table I’m a big fan of arthropods generally and I’ll happily read and look at bugs for hours with fascination. When they’re near me, though, I can feel my skin crawl. When I worked at a nature center I happily traded presentations with my coworkers, draping snakes around my neck several times a day so that I didn’t have to get within ten feet of the hissing cockroaches…
For real, though, Ulysses and the Cuticorium team have made a lot of effort to accommodate people who are fans of the game but not of bugs generally. The digital game coms with a plaintext version without bug illustrations which should be easier for insectophobes to read through. For a game of Cuticorium itself, Ulysses advises that “I would try to have the bugs be more human rather then less. That worked for one of the playtester who liked it better when the bugs looked more humanoid.”
And this is fantastic because I really like this game. If a story about community and relationships between tiny little creatures appeals to you then don’t let the bug theme stand in your way. If you love bugs as much as the Cuticorium team and want to skitter all over then there’s plenty of opportunity for that too. Check it out and have fun!