The Curious Case of the Violent Rabbit
  • The Curious Case of the Violent Rabbit

    The Dread Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is legendary among tabletop gamers. It turns out that the diabolical rabbit has precedent in medieval manuscripts before it was finally imported to tabletop role-playing games.

    A Brief History of Killer Bunnies

    In medieval times, the rabbit was primarily used as an allegory for purity, helplessness, and fertility. Pliny the Elder classified rabbits in his Natural History:

    The fertility of rabbits is enormous. By eating all the crops, rabbits brought famine to the Balearic Islands, to such extent that the people there petitioned Augustus to send troops to fight the beasts. Rabbits are hunted with ferrets.

    Given their reputation in medieval manuscripts, rabbits are the least likely candidates for violence. Which is of course, why they were satirized as as murderers in "drolleries," in which a traditional portrayal was flipped to represent the opposite:

    In medieval manuscripts the image of the rabbit’s revenge is often used to show the cowardice or stupidity of the person illustrated. We see this in the Middle English nickname Stickhare, a name for cowards, and if the we take a look at the Poke list, we’ll see a lot of tough hunters cowering in the face of rabbits with big sticks. In the 13th century epic Roman de Renart we even have the character Coward, who is a hare, capturing an armed man who drops his sword at the sight of him and ends up being dangled from a stick.

    Rabbits, it seems, have been killing humans in fiction for some time.

    The Dread Killer Rabbit

    The impact of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) on fantasy gaming cannot be overstated. It was released a few years after the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons, making it a perfect companion for the shenanigans that many players got up to. When the Dread Rabbit debuted in the film, it launched an entire trope around it -- the Vorpal Rabbit -- a seemingly harmless creature that was actually quite lethal. The Vorpal Rabbit was certainly in keeping with the aforementioned medieval drolleries. Were the drolleries the inspiration for the Dread Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog? Marjolein de Vos theorizes:

    Who knows, maybe Graham Chapman, or John Cleese, or Eric Idle, or Terry Gilliam, or Terry Jones, or Michael Palin (writers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) came across Pliny’s writing and took inspiration from it… in the end most of them studied between Oxford and Cambridge; Chapman, especially, studied medicine and might have given a look at Pliny’s work…

    Eric Idle even gave de Vos' article a shout out on Twitter, so it's entirely possible. The Dread Rabbit wasn't the only influence on killer bunnies however. There was also Watership Down (1972), which was turned into an animated film (1978) that surprised some parents by its violence. Which brings us to the first debut of violent rabbits in tabletop role-playing games.

    Rabbit Role-Playing

    Watership Down was the inspiration for the tabletop role-playing game, Bunnies & Burrows (1976), published by Fantasy Games Unlimited. Players took on the role of rabbits struggling to thrive in a world of predators. It featured several tabletop RPG innovations:

    ...being the first game to allow players to have non-humanoid roles, and the first to have detailed martial arts and skill systems. Fantasy Games Unlimited published a second edition of the game in 1982, and the game was modified and republished by Steve Jackson Games as an official GURPS supplement in 1992.

    Anthropomorphic rabbits later appeared in Gamma World in 1978 and became the iconic -- and sometimes silly -- monsters known as hoops:

    Hoops are actually 2.6 meters (8'5") tall, mutated rabbitoid creatures that stand erect on their hind legs, and are able to leap over objects as high as 8 meters (28 feet). They are intelligent, telepathic, and have mass mind. A mutation peculiar to the hoops is their ability to transmute metal objects into rubber. The hoop must touch the metal object to be transmuted. All metal within I meter of that point turns into rubber (must all be in contact). Hoops have manipulative forepaws. They appreciate the power of Ancient weapons, and seek to obtain and use them.

    They were introduced, in much the same fashion as rust monsters in D&D, to balance out PCs with too much metal weapons:

    Hoops were originally introduced to the game as a balancing factor for characters that the GM felt had got out of control. As most significant armour (low and high tech) is metal based it is easy for the GM to rule that a Hoop can render it ineffective. Needless to say this has lead in many groups to the immense dislike of the race. Another bone of contention for many players is that very few GM's would let a player choose Hoop as a playable race, mainly due to the effectiveness of their peculiar mutation and how it would neuter otherwise challenging encounters with deadly robots.

    It would take a few more years before deadly rabbits appeared in D&D. One of the earliest rabbit monsters was the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing , which debuted in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980):

    A wolf-in-sheep's-clothing is a vegetable monster that lurks in undergrowth or grassy meadowlands, creeping from place to place by pulling with its root tentacles. The body of the creature resembles a tree trunk, with a vertical maw full of jagged teeth. Its eyestalks are 10-15 feet long and it can sprout a growth that resembles a small furry creature to attract prey.

    The next year, the Fiend Folio featured the Al-Mi'raj, a dangerous horned rabbit inspired by Arabic poetry. The first formal representation of a bunny as a violent psychopath manifested in the computer game dungeon crawl, Wizardry (1981). It was called the Vorpal Bunny, no doubt in part due to the ability of the Rabbit of Caerbannog to decapitate foes:

    This creature is also known as a "Vorpal Bunny", a name which comes from the monster of that name in the original Wizardry game from 1981, possibly inspired by the Monty Python movie and is named after "The Vorpal Blade", a fictional sword used to decapitate the title creature in the Lewis Carroll poem "Jabberwocky". The name also spread (via Dungeons & Dragons) to other games such as Quest for Glory and Ultima Online.

    Hoppily Ever After?

    Like the medieval drolleries that inspired them, vorpal bunnies are a popular trope because they embody game design dissonance between what's described in-game (a cute, fluffy bunny) and the power level of the creature -- a challenge that bedevils role-playing games to this day where physical size equates to power.
    In role-playing games where literally "anything can be attempted," a harmless rabbit could certainly be a dire threat. But players might not view a lagomorphic monster -- created with the sole intent to surprise the PCs by letting down their guard -- so charitably. Happy Easter!

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. ppaladin123's Avatar
      ppaladin123 -
      Awesome. Can you do one on all the snails knights are always fifhting in tapestries? I assume the flail snail comes from that.
    1. Gorath99's Avatar
      Gorath99 -
      Quote Originally Posted by ppaladin123 View Post
      Awesome. Can you do one on all the snails knights are always fifhting in tapestries? I assume the flail snail comes from that.
      If you don't mind a (short) video instead of an article, you might enjoy this:
    1. Sunsword's Avatar
      Sunsword -
      I think one could argue that Jaxxon from the early issues of Marvel Comics' Star Wars series adds the story.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Reminds me of a fun game I bought at my first Gen Con in the mid 80s: Wabbit Wampage.
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