My Body is a Cage: a material review

Cover of My Body is a Cage by John Battle. Image © 2021 John Battle. Used with permission.

By day, life is ordinary. You go to school and learn things you don’t care about. You earn money working at a job you hate. Some days are good. Most days suck.

By night, you delve into bizarre dungeons. If you’re lucky, you’ll wake up a little bit richer. If you’re unlucky, you won’t wake up.

My Body is a Cage by John Battle with contributions by Alex Damanceno, Ema Acosta, Jim Gies, Josh Domanski, Maria Mison, Nevyn Holmes, and Julie- Anne Muñoz. All images © 2021 John Battle, used with permission.

That’s your life in John Battle’s My Body is a Cage.

In this RPG, player characters lead dual lives. They must endure the mundane travails of the waking world, but they must also the survive the fantastic—but very real—hazards that populate their dreams.

My Body is a Cage uses dream as a metaphor to embed the act of playing an RPG within an RPG. But this game is far from ethereal. It uses physical materials to provide players a concrete, kinesthetic experience. It collapses and combines multiple functions into those materials, making an elegant but still complex and challenging system. And in the process, it points back at gamers and some of the reasons we play.

The Book

Printed on 11″ x 8.5″ pages in landscape orientation, My Body is a Cage resembles a children’s picture book more than it does your typical RPG rulebook—but not in a bad way. This material choice serves two crucial functions.

First, it establishes a nostalgia that bolsters the escapist motif. Imaginative experiences—whether in books, movies, or games—help to distract from our daily woes, and the physical format recalls a time in our lives when we had significantly fewer of those. Simultaneously, it also emphasizes through contrast the persistent mundane struggles that the game incorporates mechanically and as narrative devices.

Second, the physical presentation prompts readers to pay attention to the book’s visual dimension, and My Body is a Cage doesn’t disappoint. Every single layout is radically distinctive (including the presentations of the ready-to-play dungeons by Alex Damanceno, Ema Acosta, Jim Gies, Josh Domanski, Maria Mison, Nevyn Holmes, and Julie- Anne Muñoz), and some of the avant-garde strategies force the reader to slow down and engage more with the book itself in the process of absorbing its content.

Overall, these features make My Body is a Cage as interesting as an experimental text and artbook as it is a technical document for playing a game. I’d daresay it’s also a valuable reference for graphic designers and layout artists seeking inspiration for their own nontraditional work.

The book has no table of contents, index, or even page numbers, but once you get a feel for the overall sequence and how each topic is visually presented, navigation is a fairly simple matter. The system itself is so lightweight that, after some time playing, you’ll only need to reference a few tables.

Finally, the 24″ x 18″ fold-out map provides a critical resource during play. It depicts the characters’ home town, but it also imparts mechanics for how PCs can engage with the waking world and the benefits and risks of doing so. This approach strongly incorporates the map as a play material instead of using it as a simple reference, and its heavy paper will help it survive many sessions’ worth of unfolding and refolding.

Dice

The d6 is the system’s workhorse. The standard roll is 2d6 over 10. To improve chances of success, players can add dice from their dice pool. Players grow their dice pool by engaging the game’s mechanics (using stats and skills) and roleplaying (portraying their characters’ traits and relationships).

But dice aren’t used exclusively to augment rolls. They also function as XP that players spend to advance their characters. By making dice a resource with two competing values, My Body is a Cage forces players to balance risk with short- and long-term reward. Using physical dice as currency gives literal weight to the player’s choices and provides a concrete, visuo-spatial measure of scarce resources.

But you won’t roll only d6s. The game’s initiative system uses the full range of standard gaming dice. Players can take up to three actions on their turn, and they’ll roll a different die for each according to its difficulty and/or complexity. The lowest total acts first.

Like the d6-as-resource system, this approach to initiative forces players to balance opportunity (getting a lot done on a turn) with its cost (potentially acting late, after the situation has changed, as a consequence of attempting more).

Other Materials & Mechanics

My Body is a Cage moves beyond dice by implementing other materials that play a formal role. Although familiar from other play and game activities, they’re used to novel effect as RPG mechanics.

At the start of a session, each player chooses a card corresponding to an archetypal fantasy-RPG character class. Each card has a different grid of character moments corresponding to the chosen “class.” Players mark off boxes to add a d6 to their pool, and when they mark off a whole row, column, or diagonal, they’ll gain 10d6.

This Bingo-card approach gives a direct, concrete reward for playing in-character (contra the standard abstract, arbitrary XP). Moreover, it encourages players to find ways of realizing character moments they may have otherwise looked past or opted against.

NPC reactions use a more familiar drop table: drop a die, and its spatial location (not its rolled value) determines an NPC’s current attitude. But instead of adjectives or descriptions, My Body is a Cage uses a spread of emojis. This purely visual depiction aligns perfectly with the book’s nature, and it provides an entirely different latitude of GM interpretation.

Many RPGs—though certainly not all—treat equipment, gear, and tangible objects (including bodies) as purely verbal and numerical abstractions. My Body is a Cage takes a more physically interactive approach to representing characters’ embodied existence in the fictional world.

Players determine starting equipment randomly, but not by rolling on a table. They’re given a word search, and they gain the first two items they find.

During play, inventory slots double as HP. Damage and status effects will fill slots and make certain items inaccessible until the character heals. Instead of erasing and rewriting an HP value, the player crosses off slots and potentially makes difficult choices about short-term capabilities.

Players also randomly determine the treasure they find, but again, not by rolling on a table. Instead, they’ll use a paper fortune teller. This material makes a smaller, embedded game out of the typically rote mechanism of assigning loot, and it ties player choice to outcome and prolongs their anticipation of reward.

Fight Back Against Life

Life in My Body is a Cage’s waking world is a life most gamers know well, even if they’re not living it right now—but I suspect many of us are. We cope with school and with work in hopes we can eventually pursue creative activities that hold greater intrinsic value. But until then, and between those two obligations, we manage to seize a few vacant hours and live lives that aren’t our own.

Although it’s presented as a sharp boundary, the line between waking world and dream-dungeon is highly permeable. Players use the same stats in each. NPCs like the dream merchant (who obliquely represents a play group’s dungeon master) exist in the waking world but cater to the PCs’ needs in the dream world. And choices the PCs make in each realm affect their performance in the other.

Aside from using dice to purchase character advancements, players can exchange them for money. With money, they can enjoy greater material comforts and convenience in the waking world, and if they’re able to invest enough on an ongoing basis, they earn a return in the form of more dice. But if they have no dice left to spend at the end of the session, the system punishes them with an additional flaw (which other characters can exploit to earn extra dice).

Players spend pooled dice at the end of sessions, at the boundary line where the players—rather than characters—step away from the game/dream and back to the economic, political, and social demands and expectations that dictate our daily lives. This seems inevitable for players, but it’s less so for the characters played.

When a character dies in the dream world, they split into id, ego, and superego (each composed of two stats). These components linger scattered throughout the dungeon, and the character remains asleep until they’re reunited.

This is a trope called sparagmos. In western myth and literature, it represents a loss of heroic power or agency and is often portrayed as physical dismemberment. In My Body is a Cage, sparagmos takes the form of debilitating psychological fragmentation.

The waking world’s NPCs take this fractured form within dungeons. If the PCs gather these fragments together, the NPC undergoes growth or an exciting event in the waking world.

Resurrecting PCs and developing NPCs situates the embedded game/dream as a point of intervention and an opportunity for personal psychological unity. The gamers (those who consciously and intentionally crawl the dungeon each night) inherently embody this integration. Non-gamers (the NPCs) don’t.

What does this say about our conditions on the other other side of the magic circle’s bounding line, the one we cross when we stop playing My Body is a Cage (and other RPGs) and go back to our real-life waking world? The characters get to convert dice to money; what does the player walk away with? What cage do they take it back to?

Each character delves into the dream-dungeon to finance their creative ambition. The book cites pursuits like making webcomics and YouTube channels. But the RPG-within-an-RPG structure points explicitly toward gamer culture (which certainly doesn’t exclude webcomics and social media).

In this context, My Body is a Cage is “about” creativity in the gaming space—not just within a game but outside as well. We use our gaming experiences to make things: writing blogs, producing podcasts, and designing new RPGs. If we’re lucky, we’re able to cash in our dice for a little bit more money so we can spend more time playing games we love and making things we and our peers value.

My Body is a Cage targets mature players who understand the strains adult life imposes. At the same time, it revels in material reminiscences of bygone days: the book’s size, orientation, vivid colors, and engaging designs; the paper fortune teller and word search; and let’s be honest, a huge number of gamers started rolling polyhedral dice in middle school and high school. All these components take us back to a time when we could devote more of ourselves to imagination and play. But the game contrasts these pursuits with the waking world’s all-too-real demands.

The game and the book want us to play, but they also want us to think about those demands, about how they cage us and our creative ambitions, and how we react to those restraints.

My Body is a Cage’s endpapers are its only unadorned surfaces. They are easily overlooked, but as a design choice, they speak volumes. When we open and close the book, the flat black leaves quietly ask us: are you drifting off to sleep? or are you just now waking up?


My Body is a Cage is available digitally from DTRPG and itch.io. Print copies are available from project NERVES.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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