I like to put my biases up front, for all to see. Going into this review, you need to know that I love my dog. Even when he wakes me up at two in the morning to go outside, or because he’s barking at the squirrels that are running along the outside of the house. Unless, just maybe, he’s trying to warn me about the Unseen.
The Pugmire RPG is a game about playing uplifted dogs in a post-apocalyptic setting, where dogs, cats, and other animals have formed feudal kingdoms from the ruins of what Man left behind. The game, from Onyx Path, Kickstarted back in January of 2016, and the PDF of the final product is now available. The companion RPG, the Monarchies of Mau, recently completed a successful Kickstarter as well.
The game itself is built on the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons engine, as expressed in the latest version of the OGL from Wizards of the Coast, but the game has its own unique tweaks.
A Book Full of Good Dogs
This review is based on the PDF of the final product. The book comes in at 258 pages, which includes a character sheet, an extensive 14-page index, the standard OGL page, and 20 pages of Kickstarter backers.
The book itself has parchment colored backgrounds, and several full and half page illustrations, as well as repeated portraits of the dogs narrating the rules. The pages are filled with illustrations of anthropomorphic dogs in armor and fantasy clothing, fighting opponents like giant mutant insects.
While the artwork conveys some whimsy, the art is largely presented as the same kind of fantasy artwork you would find in high end fantasy RPGs that do not feature dog protagonists. The art leans towards “realistic” depictions, rather than comical or cartoonish, for whatever value of realistic you assign to a dog wearing armor and carrying a sword.
There are some sidebars expanding on the information presented in the chapters, and most of these take the form of two of the iconic dog adventurers discussing their personal feelings on the topic at hand. Whenever the iconic dogs are narrating a piece of the rules, the text is given a different font and color to denote that dog’s commentary.
Overall, it’s a very attractive book that isn’t going to look out of place next to other Onyx Path books, or next to D&D or Pathfinder releases.
Dog’s Guide to Adventure
The opening section of the book contains a few pages of in-universe fiction, and then moves into an explanation of the theme, mood, and type of action in the game. It cites some inspirations for the game (D&D and Watership Down may be obvious, but it also lists sources such as Thundarr the Barbarian), and explains, very broadly, the d20 resolution mechanic used by the game.
Chapter One—The Journal of Yosha Pug
This is a quick overview of the setting, told from the point of view of one of the iconic dog adventurers depicted in the game. There are some side notes from another character, to add some nuance to what is being presented. The information is more of a “modern”, high level presentation of the setting. What is dog society, what are things called, who are dog adventurers—that kind of information is presented here.
I’m not usually a fan of presenting setting information ahead of mechanics in a core rulebook. My brain is always racing forward to get a look at what the mechanics do, and what they reinforce. This overview is relatively short, and does something very important for the game. It introduces the Royal Pioneers as an explanation for who dog adventurers are and what their exploits look like.
Presenting an imaginative, open-ended world with tons of adventure opportunities is great, but without an assumed starting point, the GM must spend time refining their vision of the setting, and then making sure it is consistent with how players see the setting. An assumed role and starting point does a lot to get people on the same page, quickly.
The final part of this chapter includes the narrator’s view of the Code of Man, the principles that dog society are based upon. These are important, as they tie into the themes presented later in the book.
Chapter Two—A Good Dog
This chapter details character creation. While the game is built on the OGL engine, from the start, there are some notable deviations. Terms like ability scores and proficiency bonuses may be familiar to anyone that has played 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but, callings, breeds, and backgrounds have broader applications than class, race, and background as presented in the OGL.
In broad strokes, artisans are arcane spell casters (and can feel more like bards than wizards, depending on the tricks your character takes), guardians are fighters, hunters are rangers, ratters are rogues, shepherds are clerics, and strays are barbarians. But while those generalizations are functional, they don’t tell the whole story.
Instead of class abilities, callings, breeds, and backgrounds all grant one trick, which is an amalgam of class abilities, racial abilities, and feats from the OGL. As a character advances in level, they can pick up advancements, which can be used to increase ability scores, learn new tricks, or refine old tricks. Because each aspect of the character has a separate list of tricks, a character can be as invested in their breed as they are their background or their calling.
It is a flexible system, and feels like it would be easy to explain to new players. While much of the depth of the OGL still exists in this system, it is made even more modular, and easier to digest, one bite at a time.
The down side is that some tricks may not synergize as well with other tricks, and without an assumed baseline of class progression, it can be easy to create a character that can attempt a lot of things, but isn’t especially competent at any one thing, or that is hyper-specialized at one thing that may not come up consistently in the game.
Chapter Three—Playing the Game
This chapter begins by introducing more context for the d20 + stat resolution first mentioned earlier in the book. All rolls have the same tiers of success or failure, based on being at or above the target number, below the target number, or rolling a 1 or a 20 on the die.
- What a triumph or a botch looks like in combat is a little better defined than what it looks like for ability checks or saves. In combat, a triumph lets you roll double your damage dice on an attack. A botch may either cause you to take disadvantage on your next action, or grant your opponent advantage on their action against you, as appropriate.
- Advantage and disadvantage works the same as it does in the OGL, by rolling an extra d20 and either taking the most advantageous roll or the least, depending on if the roll has advantage or disadvantage.
- Fortune is a mechanic like the inspiration mechanic from the OGL, and it can be spent to reroll a d20 check, but instead of being specific to one player, there is a “Fortune Bowl” that holds all the fortune generated by the party. If the party agrees with it, a PC can spend a point from the fortune bowl to reroll the die and take the best result. If a character voluntarily fails a check that is related to one of their personality traits, they add a point to the fortune bowl.
- Initiative is a hybrid of traditional d20 game initiative resolution and the initiative system used by games like Marvel Heroic or Dresden Accelerated. Characters roll to see who goes first, but then that person decides who goes next after their turn.
- Instead of forcing characters to mention when they would be vigilantly looking for traps or ambushes, characters make a wisdom save to see if they would think to check for a trap or an ambush.
- It is possible for a character camping out in the wild to only get a partial benefit from rest.
- Stamina dice (like hit dice from the OGL) can be spent to offset failed death saves, in addition to recovering stamina during a rest, or even restoring spell slots during a rest.
- The anosmic condition is added to the OGL conditions—losing the sense of smell is thematic for dogs, and some spells allow characters to smell, rather than see, auras
There is a sidebar mentioning that the game, by default, doesn’t worry much about precise movement, and I would agree, but given that some of the runner breed tricks, specifically, deal with granting more speed to a character, I would be careful abstracting movement too much, so as not to undercut player choices.
Overall, there are some recalibrations of standard d20 assumptions that might be worth analyzing even outside of their specific application in Pugmire.
The magic chapter explains how spell casting works in the game rules, as well as in the setting. On the surface, while there still appears to be the traditional split between arcane and divine magic, the setting details unveil a bit more nuance. Artisans find some object that lets them channel their magic, while Shepherds are infused with the Blood of Man to gain access to their powers. These details hint at one of the underlying themes of the game—that the “magic” of the setting is at least partially super science left over from the time of Man.
To cast a spell of higher level, characters spend additional spell slots from their total allotment of spell slots, so a 3rd level spell requires the use of three spell slots. Most damaging spells don’t scale the way they do in the OGL (i.e. having a base level, with additional damage or effects when cast as a higher-level spell), but healing spells often scale above their level.
Dog magic tends to avoid illusions or necromancy, and it’s noted in the text that this is an intentional flavor decision, as other species, such as cats, have access to different types of magic, as shaped by their nature and cultures. Dogs are more about direct damage, protection, and healing.
Note: I have run Pugmire using the starter rules, but only at 1st level. Because there are no cantrips, some of the 1st level spells do feel like more of a hybrid of 1st level spells and cantrips, and I had players reluctant to take spell casters at lower levels. I am very curious to see spellcasting at play in higher level games.
Chapter Five—World of Pugmire
Yosha Pug’s journal dealt with the setting in broad strokes, explaining what life is like for a dog in the setting, explaining the more commonly understood conventions in the setting. This chapter goes into more detail about settlements, history, other uplifted animals, and factions at play.
A good amount of space is assigned to Pugmire itself, specifically the city and its wards, which include a section of the city that houses most of the uplifted animals, that are not dogs, living in the region. It is notable that while cats and badgers are often portrayed as antagonists, some of them live and work with dogs on a day to day basis, so the other species aren’t so much portrayed as bad or evil, as they are sometime at odds with dog society. There is a movement in dog society that flatly hates other species, which is portrayed in a very negative light.
Other settlements are introduced, in less detail than Pugmire, showing allied realms, a trading port with even more interaction with other species, and some details of the wilderness around Pugmire.
There are some glimpses into other societies that make the setting feel deeper than just the perspective of Pugmire might allow, with lizard traders, a somewhat uneasy peace with the cats, and general distrust of the badger barbarian tribes. The specific dogmas of the Church of Man, almost all drawn from the Dogs imperfect understanding of the relationship of humans to canines in the past, are a lot of fun, and are so logically extrapolated that it’s easy to fall into roleplaying them.
Chapter Six—Guide Advice
Much of the Guide advice chapter is written for people approaching their first RPG, and it holds up. There are a few pointers specifically about this setting that are worth noting.
- While it could be inferred from the earlier chapters, this chapter explicitly states that the Royal Pioneers, dogs that belong to an adventuring organization directed by the crown to “fetch what has been lost,” have been included to give the Guide an easy way to explain what adventurers are in the setting, and what kind of adventures they are expected to have.
- Plastic coins, which are the currency of Pugmire society, are measured in groups, rather than individual coins (as in, you have many, or a few, etc.), and the GM is encouraged to adjust the broad cost of things based on the situation. Dogs don’t keep close track of the value they assign to things. It might take “a lot of coins” to pay for something and only leave an adventurer with a “few coins” or even no coins. Significant gains are made from “fetching what has been lost,” not buying lots of gear.
- There is a section on hacking the game that mentions house rules for dog families and keeping the same breed tricks available, dynastic play, playing at higher level than 10th, and multi-classing. Most of these didn’t jump out at me, except the multi-classing suggestions, which essentially say that once a character has advanced two tricks normally available to them, they can take one trick from another calling and can refine that trick, and only that trick, to gain some extra benefits.
This section also mentions that, since this game is based on the OGL, there are resources from which a GM may be able to draw items and inspiration.
Note: Having run the game at 1st level with the preview rules, I can say that it is a little tricky to include OGL creatures from outside sources in the game. At the very low end, it works fine, but just a bit higher CR being used against the PCs, and it feels like Pugmire PCs might have it rough.
The chapter wraps up by suggesting that if a group likes the setting, but may want to explore other rules, there are some other games that are recommended. The book then mentions Onyx Path storyteller path games, Fate, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, and 13th Age. I won’t say any of those seem inappropriate for the game (although AW feels a little harsh, unless you hack the system a bit), but the list of suggestions doesn’t have much in the way of advice on how to utilize those games. I realize that’s not within the scope of the book, but it seems odd to even suggest that limited range of games without more context or guidance.
Masterworks are relics of Man that dogs can sometimes recover from ancient ruins across the world. Many are analogous to magic items from the OGL, but there are a few new items that are flavored to be a bit more “weird science” than fantasy.
Some of the more “weird science” objects are fun to evaluate from a modern perspective, such as the strange exploding eggs that dogs sometimes find, or the staff weapons that use crystals to fire powerful beams of light.
Characters can spend their advancements to refine a masterwork, so that a character might find a +1 weapon of some sort, and invest in it to give it special properties. If an item can be advanced in this manner, the entry calls out the potential refinements.
The chapter also introduces wonders, which are artifacts beyond the power of normal masterworks. Dogs can sometimes understand some of the workings of the masterworks they recover, but wonders are powerful items beyond a dog’s ability to comprehend. They have more potent effects than masterworks, and serve a similar purpose to artifacts in Dungeons and Dragons.
Refinement is a concept that is worth looking at in other d20 games, but it is another example of where characters could hyper-specialize in an area and not be as well rounded as they might otherwise be. Dogs are assumed to “own” something once they find it, so a GM shouldn’t permanently break or steal their masterwork, which helps to mitigate the potential problems of “specializing” in a masterwork item, but it still introduces the potential feeling that the item is more special than the character.
This section has a wide range of opponents for a Pugmire game. Included are other uplifted species, animals that are unchanged by Man’s experiments, supernatural creatures like undead and demons, and mutant creatures like giant insects, and half-cat, half-dog giants.
The cat NPCs presented hint at what might be coming up in the Monarchies of Mau book (necromancers, monks, and assassins all appear in the cat entry), and I love the rat cultists who are obsessed with performing the experiments of Man on other creatures to gain enlightenment.
There is a chart showing assumed ranges of stamina, proficiency bonuses, and damage per round at different enemy levels. If you have the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons and Dragons, you will notice the similarity to a similar chart in that book.
There are also some optional rules for minion opponents (who have one communal pool of stamina and less stamina individually than regular opponents) and guidelines for legendary creatures, giving them more stamina than normal, and special abilities that trigger under certain conditions.
Chapter Nine—The Great Cat Conspiracy
The final section of the book is a sample adventure for the setting. I am a fan of books including sample adventures. I may never actually use them, but they serve as a template to show the assumed style and structure of adventures in the game, straight from the creators.
In this case, I think the adventure is sound, although I’m not convinced that the structure was the best choice. There are several NPCs presented at the beginning, who have additional plot hooks that go beyond the adventure presented. There is a starting hook to explain how the PCs interact with the plot, and a series of numbered encounters.
The encounters may not happen in sequence, and at the beginning and the end of most of the encounters, there is a section explaining what encounters may feed into that encounter, and what encounter the GM should go to next depending on how the encounter was resolved.
In general, I like this, but a half-page flow chart showing the possible directions for the adventure might have made it even clearer. The adventure introduces the NPCs first without much background on what this specific adventure is about, and this might cause GMs to wonder what hooks tie into this adventure and which ones exist to build on in the future. Despite these structural issues, the adventure reinforces that assuming any species is automatically good or evil is something only a bad dog would do.
The game presents its subject in a fun and engaging manner, and manages to create a unique space that utilizes elements of D&D, post-apocalyptic settings, and anthropomorphic animal games, in a way that lets them flow well together. There are some mechanical innovations worth looking at for other d20 games.
The game manages to be light and entertaining, while having a surprising amount of nuance. The presentation of the rules and the conversational tone make the OGL rules easier to comprehend than other games built on the same system.
Visiting the Backyard
The open-ended nature of character advancement makes understanding the individual components of the rules easy, but may not spell out the interactions between those rules very clearly. It can be easy to build a player character that doesn’t have a broad range of skills, or that is only effective under the right circumstances, and a character that is only good at what they do in some circumstances might become frustrating.
It is a minor complaint, but Pugmire is a game that is just close enough to other OGL based games that some of the rules changes may not be easy to remember, and while some of them offer interesting alternatives to the traditional rules, they may not be different enough to warrant “unlearning” the assumed baseline.
TL/DR Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The game is great fun to read, and seems to be a more intuitive way to introduce the OGL rules to a broader range of players. The setting is a new take on some traditional tropes that should be worth looking at, and if you are a mechanically minded player of d20 games, the game provides extra value by presenting alternate means of resolving situations than are seen in other OGL games.
And dogs are awesome, so there is that.
If you have thoughts on Pugmire that you would like to share, ideas for upcoming reviews, or questions or comments on the review process, please chime in below, and thanks for your time!