Kickstopper: Reigning Cats and Dogs

One of the aspects of Onyx Path that often gets overlooked is that it’s supposed to be a haven for creator-owned games, as well as White Wolf properties (whether still owned by White Wolf or now owned outright by Onyx Path). Part of the reason this aspect of their mission statement often gets overlooked is that it’s only been comparatively recently that they’ve been able to divert attention away from serving their various White Wolf-connected projects (including a bunch of highly time-sapping Kickstarter projects, like the morass that the 3rd Edition Exalted campaign turned into).

Among the first creators to use Onyx Path as the launchpad for an entirely new gaming franchises is Eddy Webb, old hand at White Wolf, and his Pugsteady studio. The studio is named not just for Webb’s pug Murray, but also its first in-house franchise – the Realms of Pugmire, a “future-fantasy” setting in which humans have disappeared and their pets have inherited the world.

Such a whimsical project is a great fit for Kickstarter – combining cute characters with a setting that’s well-suited to all sorts of traditional RPG action, and with a name like Eddy’s behind it which clued-in Onyx Path and White Wolf fans would recognise and trust to deliver solid content. So far, two RPGs in the Realms of Pugmire series have been delivered: the doggo-themed Pugmire (such dungeons, many treasure, wowe) and the cat-based Monarchies of Mau. Are they any good? That’s what this article’s here to tell you!


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign(s)

The original Pugmire campaign ran from January-March 2016, attracted 3239 backers and received $193,404 in pledges. The followup Monarchies of Mau campaign ran from May-June 2017 and gained 1970 backers, with $118, 534 in pledges.

What’s the explanation of the tail-off between the two? I don’t think backers were notably upset at Eddy, but I think a combination of factors may have played into it:

  • The Mau Kickstarter happened prior to the delivery of the hard copies of Pugmire, and people may have been unwilling to back one until they’d had all the rewards of the other.
  • Mau is more focused on political subterfuge and less keen on straightforward adventure than Pugmire, and may be a harder sell as a result.
  • A certain number of people may have felt that, having acquired the system in Pugmire, they didn’t fancy another game along essentially the same lines in terms of game mechanics.
  • The Mau Kickstarter was a 30 day one, the Pugmire one was a 40 day one, the extra 10 days allowed Pugmire to come to the attention of more people and gain more backers as a result.

What Level I Backed At

For Pugmire:

Good Sitting Dog
You’ll receive:
• The Pugmire physical book.
• A copy of the Pugmire PDF.
• A beautiful electronic wallpaper file featuring a collage of the art of Pugmire.
• You or your dog’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Good Dog.
• The Pugmire GameMaster’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a collage of the stunning art from Pugmire on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the GM’s job a little bit easier.

For Mau:

Best Lurking Cat: You’ll receive:
• The Monarchies of Mau physical book.
• A copy of the Monarchies of Mau PDF.
• A beautiful electronic wallpaper file featuring a collage of the art of Monarchies of Mau.
• You or your cat’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Best Cat.
• The Monarchies of Mau GameMaster’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a collage of the stunning art from Monarchies of Mau on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the GM’s job a little bit easier.

Delivering the Goods

In both instances delivery was nice and efficient. The estimated delivery for Pugmire books was August 2017; I got mine in August 2017. The estimated delivery for Mau books was May 2019; I actually got mine in November 2018. As usual, delivery on Onyx Path Kickstarters is a little beholden to the particular working process of those responsible for the project in question, though by now things have tightened up somewhat on that from Onyx Path’s side, and in addition Eddy seems to have been largely on top of getting everything in order and handling communications clearly.

Reviewing the Swag

Pugmire

Pugmire is basically a riff on Dungeons & Dragons with an absolutely adorable setting concept: the player characters are uplifted doggies, given human levels of intelligence and tool use by the benevolence of their former owners and inheriting the world in a massively distant future after the mass extinction (or ascension, or emigration, or disappearance) of humans. Vaguely remembering us under the tag of “Man” (in keeping their self-image as “Man’s best friend” – for those wanting a more gender-neutral take on dog religion “Old Ones” is an acceptable synonym), the dogs of the kingdom of Pugmire try to live by the Code of Man, whose primary commandment is “Be a good dog”.

But who is a good dog? Who’s a good dog? Is it you? Is it? Is it you? That’s what you play the game to find out.

In keeping with the pack mentality of dogs, Pugmire emphasises themes of friendship and co-operation, holding out the hope that even someone who’s currently being a bad dog can come around and be a good dog again. The dogs are not the only uplifted animals left behind by humanity, however; their archrivals, the cats, live in the Monarchies of Mau that fought a war against Pugmire some decades ago, and there are also barbarian badgers, mysterious lizards, and twitchy rats (who have a bad reputation due to the machinations of the evil cult of Labo Tor, a sect of rats who don the robes of White Mice and attempt to rediscover the 100 Theories of the Old Ones through grisly sacrifice). Of course, there is also the Unseen – the invisible demonic forces that dogs could always perceive a bit more than humans. Ever known a dog to freak out at absolutely nothing? They were trying to protect you against the Unseen, which remains a real threat in the age of Pugmire.

Pugmire’s system is based on the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which if you are going to pick a system with an Open Gaming Licence (which allows third parties to use the system in their own products) is a pretty decent one for this particular product; the key rules for 5th Edition D&D are reasonably simple, with most of the complexity (or lack thereof) coming in when it comes to character creation and spell selection – so by providing a fairly slimmed-down set of character creation rules and a limited selection of spells Eddy Webb is able to keep things simply enough to make this both a nice approachable game for beginners as well as a gentle, cozy game for more experienced gamers.

The material you get in the single core rulebook might not be as deep and extensive as the core 5th edition D&D hardcovers, but it’s a complete-in-one-book game with sufficient depth to allow for a good amount of play. Level progression is capped at 10th level so as to avoid the need to bring in higher-level spells, which also helps set the parameters of the world – it means that characters can get reasonably powerful without becoming flat-out superheroic.

A bespoke set of character classes is provided for the game to suit the world of Pugmire, though by and large they are recognisable translations of existing D&D classes – the rough, tough strays who prefer to live in the wilderness free from the leash of civilisation, for instance, are clearly modelled on D&D barbarians. As far as spellcasting classes go, “Magic” in the setting of Pugmire works on the Sufficiently Advanced Technology principle; your cleric equivalents are the Shepherds, members of the Church of Man who are injected with a certain serum (implied to be some sort of nanotechnology stuff, or possibly human genetic material) which unlocks hidden capacities to use their faith in the Old Ones to create magical effects, whilst Artisans are your mage equivalents who work magic through their focus – a hypertechnological artifact from the time of the Old Ones they have learned to do tricks with through tinkering.

Interestingly, spell acquisition is done through levelling up (you get two new spells per level by default) and buying Tricks (the equivalent to D&D’s Feats); you have some picks of Tricks at first level and get the option to take more as you go up in level. Each time you pick the Artisan or Shepherd spellcasting feat, you need to choose whether to unlock the next level of spells (and use some of your level-up spells to buy spells at that level) or whether to buy additional spell picks at your current levels, forcing you to choose between unlocking higher levels of power earlier or going broader with your magical abilities – and also forcing you to choose between increasing your range of spells and buying other Tricks.

Another interesting system tweak is the handling of Fortune, a pool of points that can be used to get various advantages in the heat of the moment, which is the local equivalent of 5th Edition D&D’s Inspiration mechanic. Rather than each individual player having a pool of Fortune, which is how D&D handles Inspiration by default, you get a communal pool people can dip into and into which the referee adds tokens whenever a player earns one through entertaining play, or through choosing to botch a roll in a situation where it would make sense for their character’s personality traits to work against them (the example given is a player deciding it’d be more fun to have their character who’s trusting of cats to get completely duped by a Mau spy). This is a nice tweak to the mechanic which helps emphasise the community-oriented basis of the game.

Dog breeds are handled as familial lines in-setting; in system terms you don’t select an individual breed so much as a general family of dog (like “Companion” covering pugs and shiba inu and the like) which individual dog breeds can be held to fall into one category or another of. This is where a lot of the cute comes in. The artwork generally does an excellent job of providing cute anthropomorphic doggywoggies which are still very clearly dogs in their general facial features and don’t seem to be especially “furry” in their execution – the overall style is highly reminiscent of Redwall book covers and the like.

Capped off with a rather nice sample adventure which usefully ends with all sorts of potental ramifications for the kingdom and different directions possible for future adventures, Pugmire is one of the most fun things anyone’s done in the 5th edition D&D design space. Cute wuzzy animal D&D is not an altogether new idea – in particular, Pugmire is greatly predated by Simon Washbourne’s Woodland Warriors, which is based off a highly house-ruled take of the original “0th edition” D&D rules. However, the dog-focused assumed style of play, combined with the somewhat different setting, makes Pugmire feel like its own distinct thing, and left me eagerly looking forward to Monarchies of Mau.

Monarchies of Mau

Mau did not disappoint. From a rules perspective, it’s largely the same deal as Pugmire, with some cat-appropriate tweaks. The monarchies are a plurality who’ve been brought together into a single political unit by one very clever cat, who died a year ago and whose successor still hasn’t been chosen. They’re not as good at agreeing with each other as the dogs are, so the precepts of their culture aren’t the subject of the same level of consensus – a few concepts like the fight against the Unseen are universally accepted, but each major house of the realm (and the Shadow Bloc of cats without a noble house) has its own precept it considers important too. System wise, rather than earning Fortune communally and requiring consensus from the group, cats earn Fortune individually, and can volunteer to pool their fortune if they wish but don’t have to. Cat magic is more powerful but more prone to dramatic blowback effects, cats regard the Old Ones as having worshipped them rather than the reverse, and cats can learn potent secrets by breaking valuable relics of the Old Ones.

On the whole, then, Monarchies of Mau is another hit. I wasn’t so keen on the introductory adventure this time, but on the whole the book delivers on expectations and expands the world of Pugmire interestingly.

Pugmire/Mau Gamemaster’s Screens

They’re landscape oriented, they’ve got useful information on the referee-facing side, they have adorable doggies/kitties on the player-facing side. It’s hard to screw this sort of thing up, and Onyx Path didn’t screw it up.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

How could I regret being both a Good Dog and a Best Cat?

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Just Right seems correct to me. I like having the actual books, they’re nice objects, I don’t need much more than that.

Would Back Again?

I already have! Specifically, I am backing Pirates of Pugmire, a game about sailors on the high seas of the game’s setting, with mixed crews of cats, dogs, and other animals besides.

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