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Basic Information

Rats are medium-sized rodents which are generally regarded as vermin. They are often associated with plagues.

They are also used in laboratories as test animals, and occasionally as pets.

The default rat is usually less than a foot long (excluding tail), but those that establish themselves in a place with plentiful food can get much bigger - the corpse strewn battlefields of WW1 were said to host rats as big as cats - or bigger - and the sort of rats found in grain elevators and maltings definitely seem to approach that sort of size. A standard issue rat can deliver a painful, but not especially dangerous, bite and is not generally aggressive unless trapped, starving or otherwise disordered1. Rats accustomed to conflict with humans (prison rats for example) may well be a lot more bold. Larger examples are traditional fantasy monsters.

"Rat on A Stick" appears in quite a lot of genres as primitive fast food (and is the staple of Dwarvern "Hole Food" in the Pratchettverse), and indeed is consumed in several real world cultures - although the breeds of rat that humans actually eat are generally not the same ones that infest our cities: rats are one of the very few species that SAS survival instructors directly instruct trainees not to consider as a food source. That said, very mundane rats - usually under the euphemistic name of "millers" were frequently consumed by seamen during the age of sail … a few months into the voyage, with only heavily preserved meat as an alternative, rat must have started to look like an attractive change of diet. After all, you knew exactly where it had been and had a fair idea what it had been eating…

As a traditional "enemy of mankind" rat killing provides the basis of several forms of entertainment, including rat-baiting (where a terrier tries to kill as many rats as possible in a set time) and rat-hammering (where a human replaces the terrier). Professional extermination is the job of the rat catcher, and in between the two positions a rat-hunt can provide some work-related entertainment for farm hands or plant operators and bored children can often be set to rat hunting with appropriate weapons.

Rats play a variety of roles in mythology - sometimes sacred, but more often heralds of hunger and disease. In one medieval legend (that of Bishop Hatto), rats even served as instruments of divine justice.

For some reason, rats are attracted to the herb valerian - so much so that rat catchers have been known to bait traps with it.

See Also


2. Fiction: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
3. Movie: Willard (1971)
4. Movie: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Game and Story Use

  • Use rats liberally if you want to gross out your player characters.
  • Sending starter level PCs to kill rats is a well established cliché.
  • Rats often dwell in dilapidated buildings and old sewers; just the kinds of places adventurers are likely to explore.
  • A single rat, or a small group of rats skittering in the background make a nice way to establish a creepy atmosphere, even if you don't plan to sic an enormous swarm of them on the players later on.
    • Aw, go ahead. Swarms of rats are fun.
  • A domesticated rat can make a good familiar or animal companion.
    • Just ask Ron Weasely. Wait. Bad example.
    • Just ask Willard.
      • You know, Willard? Horror movie? 1971? Geez, kids these days.
    • You could try those rats out of Trapped … they might have some ideas…
  • A lab rat that has been experimented on by Weird Science might exhibit unnatural qualities.
    • Such as high intelligence
    • Unnatural viciousness
    • Regeneration/Hard to Kill
    • Venomous or infectious bite (the latter of which a normal rat might have)
    • Trapped by Dean Koontz covers this pretty well.
  • Rats can also indicate a great deal by running away or dying - a dying rat may be an indication of disease in the area, whilst many dead ones indicate some environmental hazard (normally rats like to die in hiding, and quite often eat other dead rats, if there are rat carcasses everywhere then something is killing them off in an unusual manner) and may tell you something of its nature. Rats fleeing an area are likely to mean that there's something coming that they don't like - this could be anything from a supernatural evil, to a predator, to simple water (as in rats leaving a sinking ship).
    • Of course, a lot of rats will mean that there was a lot of something that they were eating - removal of this food source can cause a mass migration which is disgusting at the very least (see, for example, Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls).
  • For a more threatening sort of rat, consider the Dutch ship rats from Georges-Gustave Toudouze's Three Skeleton Key - already infamous for eating the ratting terriers on a ship before it had even lost sight of land, the rats go one better and eat the entire crew of a ship, before besieging an isolated lighthouse. These, thankfully fictional, ship rats are better suited to RPG use.
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