Monday, 7 May 2018

Review: Pugmire

This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).

Pugmire is a DnD-esque game about uplifted dogs exploring a post-Man world. The dogs (along with other uplifted animals, such as cats, rats, badgers, and lizards) are capable of using tools and language, and they have built their own society upon our ruins (the details of mankind's disappearance are kept intentionally vague). It is a very upbeat and moderately cinematic game: a beacon of optimism in the despair of murderhobos and grand futility of gonzo adventuring. It's post-apocalyptic from our point of view, but to the characters, the Ages of Man are parts of their mythology rather than history, and the remnants of our civilisation are more like holy artefacts than archeological evidence.

Pugmire is built on the 5th edition chassis. It is a comprehensive but very simple system (comparable to Perdition or The Nightmares Underneath, I would say). Not necessarily old school in the strictest sense, and its gaming philosophy might deviate too much for some OSR enthusiasts. I still included it in the series because Pugmire is a prime example of what I would like to see more of: familiar systems tweaked where necessary in order to support a particular campaign framework (even if the implementation falls short).

System Summary:
  • Task resolution is 1d20 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus (if applicable) vs. target number (usually 15). Advantage and disadvantage mechanics are also included. Natural 1s are called botches, and natural 20s are called triumphs.
  • HD and HP are renamed to stamina dice and stamina points, respectively.
  • Special abilities are called tricks. Starting characters get three altogether, and one new trick can be learnt after each level-up. Some tricks can also be refined, increasing bonuses or slightly tweaking the mechanics of a trick for the better; this counts as learning a new trick.
  • Classes are called callings. They determine stamina dice and stamina points, two primary abilities, choice of two skills, starting equipment ("rucksack"), weapon and armour proficiency (called Aptitudes), and a calling trick (chosen from two).
  • The six available callings are the following: Artisan (scholars and magic users), Guardian (melee fighters and defenders), Hunter (ranged fighters and explorers), Ratter (rogues), Shepherd (priests in the Church of Man), and Stray (feral warriors and wanderers).
  • Races are called breeds. They grant a bonus to an ability score and a starting breed trick. The seven available breeds are the following: Companion, Fettle, Herder, Pointer, Runner, Worker, and Mutt. Each comes with a list of suggested families (to put it simply, family is a diegetic thing, and breed is purely mechanical).
  • PCs also have a background of the the available eight (such as Merchant and Soldier) that grants proficiency in two skills, a couple starting items, and an extra trick.
  • There is a Fortune mechanic replacing Inspiration, and it has more uses (chiefly rerolls, spellcasting beyond limitations, interrupting the initiative order, and activating certain tricks). It is also handled as a group resource rather than an individual one.
  • Initiative is rolled only once. The character with the highest score starts, then they name who comes next. When everyone acted, a new round starts and the last person to act may name the first person to go (they can name themselves, too, because they haven't acted in the new round yet) - an initiative system inspired by Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (something I have posted about a couple years ago).
  • Spellcasters (Artisans and Shepherds) have spell slots and known spells. Each spell costs spell slots to cast equal to its level (1 to 5, while basic spells cost none). No memorisation is needed; spell slots work like spell points, really.
Things I Liked:
  • very beginner-friendly approach, complemented with an 18-page introduction to the setting from the POV of Princess Yosha Pug (and commented by Pan Dachshund)
  • multiple notes are written in sidebars (coming from these two characters), reminding the reader of basic things and offering advice and alternatives
  • the GM's chapter starts with a brief overview of the setting that sums up the high concept really well
  • pre-generated characters
  • a d6 table for each Calling helping out with the character's background
  • coins are minted plastic (courtesy of Man)
  • ammunition handling is abstracted (after combat, a Dexterity save vs. 10 must be made or the ammunition is expended)
  • separate speed values for running on 2 and 4 legs
  • Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws (although there are only 6 examples for each)
  • different types of tests made on the d20 have different names, making the rules clearer in my opinion (ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws)
  • group checks (such as trying to sneak past some guards as a party) are handled such that every member rolls individually, and if at least half of them succeeded, the group collectively succeeds (I like this approach because no player is left unengaged this way)
  • I'm a little on the fence about fortune points, but I definitely like the idea that it's a group resource
  • sleeping in the wilderness necessitates a DC 10 Constitution save or stamina points are not refreshed; expending a ration allows a reroll
  • only moving away from melee range (that is without using an action to disengage) provokes an attack of opportunity (and it costs a reaction, too, so it's easy to keep track of); ranged attacks within melee range simply have disadvantage
  • no negative stamina points; damage at 0 points just counts as a failed death save (the third failure results in character death as usual in 5E)
  • the setting is painted in broad strokes only; we get a little info on history, culture, factions and organisations, other species, and descriptions of Pugmire and nearby locations, but everything is kept small
  • a family that recovers and protects a relic is granted nobility (in fact, this is the only way to attain nobility)
  • there is a cult of rats called the White Mice, who carry out terrible experiments in the name of science
  • the power of relics can be enhanced through refinement (can be done instead of learning a new trick as with all refinement), and the benefits are permanently applied to the relic
  • even though the setting is open and can support multiple campaign premises, there is one baked-in to help out people (i.e. the PCs are members of the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire, seeking knowledge and relics)
  • general guidelines what the GM needs to do, including not being a jerk
Things I Disliked:
  • the font choice for the introduction (from the POV of an in-game character)
  • handwaving (well, abstracting, rather) money and equipment, even though I completely understand the reasons behind it (it's probably not something I'd change if I ran it, because it would impact the "feel" of the game too much)
  • advancement happens after each story or two; I prefer objectivity and transparency when it comes to advancement (and I generally prefer goal-oriented rules to "sessions attended"); I'd probably make a house rule for this one
  • slang terms (only 5, but still); I find them completely unnecessary (unless they are proper terms for things that describe the setting, such as Sleepwalker in Mage: the Awakening or Siskur-dah in Werewolf: the Forsaken); plus, we usually play in Hungarian anyways, so words spent describing slang and accents don't do much for me (YMMV)
  • the relics and fixes (i.e. consumables) are generic and uninspired (the wonders show potential, mostly in their forms rather than powers, sadly, but there only 6 of those described)
  • although I like how it says that if there's no conflict, at most make it an ability check or saving throw but never make it a proper scene, I still don't like the "prep scenes" approach, because it's easy to fall into railroading the events from there (I would've preferred it saying "create NPCs, think up the locations and possible events that might take place, and what sort of challenges stand between the party and their goal"; very similar advice but not quite the same)
  • considerations when to ignore the travel rules (e.g. when they have a map, don't roll if they get lost) should have appeared right next to the rules themselves and not in the GM chapter
  • I love that there's a paragraph about difficulty numbers and the chances of success considering different characters, but the actual percentage values are off and it makes me sad

The world of Pugmire is described in about 30 pages, devoting it mostly to what dogs think about Man and their contemporaries. The book isn't depressing or terrifying at all, but it shows the reader the darker side of the world (such as the still remaining hostility after the War of Dogs and Cats). The game is quite optimistic, but this way it actually matters, and I like it a lot. The city of Pugmire gets its own section, and there are quite a few cool rumours and locations (there is word of a secret reanimator machine in the chapel, and racist members of a local gym regularly rough up cats living in the Riverwall area). Some other nearby areas are also paid some attention, such as the noble estates of Houndton (and the haunted Castle Transylvanian-Hound), the free-spirited Mutt Town, and Waterdog Port, where dogs know the secret of making acid-proof boats to sail the Acid Sea. There are hints of a larger world but nothing substantial, inviting players to make their own.

Pugmire was chiefly designed by Eddy Webb and published in 2017 by Onyx Path Publishing. It is available at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG in both PDF and physical formats.

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