Curse you, David Petersen!
This happens occassionally. Sometimes I think up some cool little idea that I think nobody else could've come up with. It might be whimsical, horrific, bizarre or just plain weird, but I feel like I just might have thought of something new. (Shut up, Ecclesiastes.) And then someone comes out with an idea pretty much just like what I was thinking. Dammit, they stole my idea. Or, in South Park speak, DEY TUK MAH DEER!
Such were my sentiments reading about Hyperborean Mice over at the Black Gate blog, by way of Scott Oden.
The ancient White Lords, albino mice with magical powers, rule over the valley of Hyperborea, but their empire is crumbling. Barbarian rat tribes, deadly predators and political intrigue threaten to bring their mousy civilization to an end. Terrible predators like foxes and owls take the place of giants and dragons. Voracious shrew clans raid the Fallows, seeking mice and rats to fill their larders. Centipedes scuttle beneath the underbrush, seeking prey. Hawks force the inhabitants to stay under cover during the day, while owls stalk the sky at night… Legendary horrors stalk the land, unique predators with potent magical abilities of their own. The terrifying Mocker, a centipede whose only voice is the imitated cries of his victims. The serpent Ssaaa gathers a cult of worshipers to do her bidding in the valley. And no mouse dares stand against dread Hoorooru, the ancient ruler of Rookswood and the enemy of the gods.
Even John O'Neil "stole" my immediate thoughts: The Secret of N.I.M.H. as written by Robert E. Howard. That was going to be my reaction! Not. Fair. If it turns out the game has literal Worms of the Earth, I'll be really dejected.
Now, that's not to say that's my idea in a nutshell. My idea has a number of differences. For one thing, a lot of elements of The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Borrowers would be present, with a few smatterings of The Animals of Farthing Wood, Watership Down, post-apocalyptic fiction, H. Rider Haggard and (naturally) Robert E. Howard sprinkled in. What follows is my idea haphazardly and sloppily written down in a melange of epic prose and rambling nonsense that might turn out into a proper idea someday. A lot of this is scribbled from when I was younger, making it practically juvenilia, but I offer it up nonetheless.
The Rodentian Age
The setting is earth (specifically a British city with a reputation for science and industry, nearby to a few suburbs and some nice woodland, TBD) following a great cataclysm: cities are desolate and shattered, vast tracts of uninhabitable wasteland stretch across the horizon. Humanity is believed to be extinct. In their absence, the vermin have risen to rule over the ruins: mice, rats, cats, dogs, foxes, pigeons. Yet from an underground dungeon deep in the ruins, a new race has come to dominance: rats, mice and hamsters of uncommon intelligence. They started to walk on their hind legs, use tools, wear clothing, create art, even speak. These rodents spread throughout the city and outlying towns and farms, their primitive civilization - and some say, their very presence - inspiring even other species to learn from them. Soon, not only rats, but many species began the upward climb to civilization.
Long after the Cataclysm, the world was at a roughly Bronze Age level of development: Rat Kingdoms controlled the safer buildings of the cities, with one kingdom riding pigeons from skyscraper to skyscraper. The emerging tree-realms of squirrels dominated the forests, Red, Grey and Black battling for supremacy, with small rural communities of mice and dormice among the fields. Barbarian tribes of mice, hamsters, rats, shrews, voles, and hedgehogs roam the undergrowth and riverbanks. Under all stretched the vast subterranean Empire of the Moles, which has spread even to the outer edges of the city.
This was a dangerous world. In the cities, tribes of feral cats and dogs dominate the streets and most of the buildings, gulls terrorize from the air, while the descendants of displaced zoo animals and exotic pets have become the monsters of Rodentian myth and folklore. In the woodlands, gigantic predators are ascribed an almost supernatural aura: shrikes, adders, owls, badgers, stoats, polecats, weasels, kestrels, eagles, and more. The barbarians of the rivers battle constantly against the predations of otters, grass snakes, cormorants, and the mighty herons. In the underground of woodland and city alike, the weird creatures of the past became the blasphemous terrors of the present: the Bald Ones, the monstrous evolution of the eucocial Naked Mole Rats; the tentacle-faced Star Moles who worship the Many-Armed One that lurks in the subterranean waters; the Worms of the Earth that dwell in eternal darkness - unless they are disturbed. Even beyond natural dangers, there are hazards of the environment and unnatural remnants of the Cataclysm to contend with: terrible creatures twisted and warped by the Cataclysm, strange phenomena that cannot be predicted or avoided, grim and frightening sorcery and secrets.
Such is the world of the Rodentian Age.
(Rat warrior by Emir)
The true history of the Rodentians is unknown to the rats themselves. They have little memory of their origins, and even their earliest ancestors could have no understanding of the greater world which brought them into being. Rodentian mythology honours a pantheon of gods they call The Artisans, great beings many times their size, noted for their lack of tails, small ears, flat faces, long limbs and mostly hairless bodies. There were many of these deities, and at one time they were spread across the world, but after the Cataclysm - a great war between the Artisans and their foes - they left for the heavens, leaving the world for the Rodentians. Many branches of Rodentian religion have evolved: some sects believe that it is up to the Rodentians to bring the gods back to earth to usher in a new golden age; others believe that the Rodentians themselves must ascend to godhood, and bring the non-sentient beings of the world into the light of intelligence. A particularly radical sect believes that the Rodentians were created as the instruments of the gods in their war against their foes.
The remains of the Artisans and their people are seen throughout the city and suburbs - their unintelligible runes, their great works, and of course their Cyclopean buildings. Even among the skeptical or atheistic Rodentians who believe the Artisans were simply a prior civilization of giants, there is an undeniable veneration and awe of the truly colossal structures around them.
In reality, the Rodentians were experimental subjects in a genetic laboratory, where human scientists were studying the use of certain techniques to increase intellectual capacity, using rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, and as-yet-classified animals as tests. They had made great strides in the early 21st Century, where rats could develop astonishing feats of problem-solving and thought processing, overtaking even dolphins and cephalopods, almost approaching true sapience. What's more, this process was discovered to be infectious, as animals brought in contact with the animals began to show similar advances. The Artisans of Rodentian myth were in fact the deified memory of the scientists, consultants, technicians, security and even janitors of the lab, who towered like colossi above the diminutive rodents. In the cataclysm, the underground laboratory was shaken apart, but the animals survived, and escaped into the wild.
The Rodentians established a rude civilization in the less devastated ruins of the city. They interbred with normal rats, whose children adopted the intelligence and capacity for advanced thought of their parent. Within a few generations, the Rodentians grew from humble hamlets formed around food stores, to bustling villages spread across a room, and eventually towns spread across halls and foyers. Though no Rodentians have colonized an entire building in the city, some in the suburbs have turned the surviving bungalows and single-detached houses into glorious citadels. Contact with the Rodentians has seen some of those closer to them adopting some of their intelligence, though in unpredictable ways - some form fledgling civilizations of their own, others become twisted and altered by the knowledge of what they are.
The Rodentians applied their inventiveness to make impressive homes, buildings and monuments using the detritus of human civilization, through trial and error, often using them in ways somewhat unorthodox compared to their intended purpose. Houses were constructed from toolboxes, chests and office files; staplers, hole punches, and tape dispensers were the construction machines. Tools and weapons were made from household items: rapiers made from needles with a thimble or button forming the cup hilt; halberds from steak knives, pocket knives, razors, forks, scalpels; ceremonial arms from slotted spoons and letter openers; spears made from skewers; axes from lames and pizza cutters; war hammers from meat tenderizers and reflex hammers; bows made from paperclips and elastic bands, with toothpick arrows. Some of the more vicious kitchen utensils like blenders, graters, potato ricers, mandolines, egg slicers are used as torture and execution devices. Larger devices like drills and corkscrews have seen use as siege engines.
The more advanced relics of the Artisans are treated as holy objects by some, and archaeological discoveries by others. Those electronic devices that are powered by a self-contained electrical source, and that still function, are believed to be works of magic: torches, electric shavers, fans, game consoles, mobile phones, sound recorders, laptop computers, portable televisions, even toys are the center of science, commerce or religion depending upon the Rodentian community.
And Some Other Stuff
There are a few different species of rats and mice in Britain. The Rodentians would obviously be those white Laboratory Rats/mice/hamsters/gerbils which founded civilization. Black rats and brown rats could be the barbarian sub-species given sentience by early admixture with the Rodentians.
Cats and dogs would be perennial menace, but since the "infectious intelligence" of the rats could give rise to other animals, perhaps eating enough of the Rodentians would give the cats and dogs a measure of intelligence themselves. The most terrible cat of all could exact tribute from frightened mice. Imagine a feline Smaug. With Eartha Kitt's voice. "The Beast from the Abyss" indeed.
There's a species of tarantula in Oklahoma that keeps "pet" frogs to eradicate pesky ants or other threats to its egg sack in its lair, much like how it's believed humans keep cats to eradicate mice and rats. I think you see where I'm going with this: "The Tiny Frogs of Ulthar," where the little frogs are venerated by sentient spiders. A neat twist from what you might expect, that the frogs worship the scary giant spiders. The problem of there being no tarantulas in Britain can be explained by feral pets - maybe prior to the Cataclysm there was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Tarantulas series that caused an explosion in tarantula pets - that adopted their interesting relationship with local amphibians. The Naked Mole Rats and Star-Nosed Moles would be escapees from the zoo. Oh, the Tarantula and the Tiny Frog should be friends...
Mounts are a problem, since it's hard to imagine what could be the "horse" for rats: most mammals of Britain of the right size are predators. I suggested pigeons for the city-dwellers. The most logical choice seems to be Guinea Pigs: they're already largely domesticated, they're bigger than rats, and there's a variety of breeds. Other pet species like gerbils, hamsters or chickens could be used as pets or beasts of burden. As a bonus, there could also be a tribe of Rodentian Guinea Pigs akin to the Mearas. Pigs could fulfill the role of war elephants. Insert your own Black Sabbath joke!
Parrots, budgies, parakeets, cockatoos, lovebirds and other such birds kept as pets in Britain are already remarkably intelligent: in the Rodentian Age they could be sages, prophets or dark wizards with a little nudging. Some individuals could retain some of the language of the Artisans, too, passed down from the centuries.
I really want to have a tortoise who's like this grand, ancient sage who actually remembers the Artisans. Tortoises live for a long time, after all.
Rats with some of the more... bizarre genetic experiments would be ripe for Lovecraftian horror. Hairless rats are already ghoulish-looking. Who knows what else went on in that lab...
There are lots of mysterious sightings of big cats in Britain. Cats are to Rodentians what Dragons are to humans - imagine what the Beast of Bodmin would be like! Then there are escaped animals from zoos and safari parks. Imagine lions, tigers, leopards, ostriches, bears, even rhinos and elephants roaming the ruins of a British city - and to a mouse, they'd be veritable titans. Even fairly mundane animals like chicken, geese, sheep, pigs, cows and deer would be like dinosaurs to mice. The predators would have an easy time of it, since the many liberated farm animals would provide a plentiful food source.
As for commentary, one could easily insert the "barbarism vs civilization" theme into the mix, as certainly some Rat or Mouse Kingdoms have degenerated into something like Xuthal or Xuchotl. There's also the obvious "tampering with nature" stuff with the lab creatures.
Well, that's all I had. I'm sure there are plenty of other cool aspects of British Wildlife that could take on a whole new meaning when you shrink yourself down, and think from the mouse's point of view.
Disclaimer: if any of the above ideas actually made it into the game... cool! But also lame, since I thought this was the stuff that wouldn't make it in, and that I was being all original-like.