Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 24 September 2023

Lizards & Birds & Pirates, Oh My!

The Ages of Man have long since passed and the Old Ones are no more. They bequeathed the world and their relics to the ones… Well, whether it was the ones they worshipped or the ones that served them, it does not matter. For the beliefs and attitudes of the ones they worshipped and the ones that served them—in the Monarchies of Mau and the Kingdom of Pugmire respectively—matter little when you are far out on the Acid Sea, with only the plastic hull of your to protect you from the corrosive waters and your shipmates to rely upon. As pirates, sailors, and treasure hunters you set out from the ‘safety’ of pirate havens such as Waterdog Port, whose ownership has long been disputed between the Monarchies of Mau and the Kingdom of Pugmire or Port Matthew, the trade port in Monarchies of Mau, ready to keep your ship from being eaten away, hoping you do not encounter Acid Sharks or one of the dread Kraken, or worse have one of your crew possessed by a Stormcaller, a demon of the weather, but hoping that you do discover new lands, buried treasure, or a ship to capture! On your hip you have strapped a sturdy cutlass, whilst stuffed in your belt is one of the new gunpowder flintlock pistols, intricately carved from butt to the end of the barrel, and when that is not enough, your crew’s Alkalist can throw bombs that explode or heal, and your crew’s Rimer will sing you a song or tell you tale that will keep your spirits up. Many a Dog from the Kingdom of Pugmire and Cat from the Monarchies of Mau has sailed the Acid Sea, but few truly answer its call. More ready to heed the call are the transient Species, itinerant travellers and traders. They are Lizards—Geckos, Serpents, and Turtles—and Birds—Parrots, Crows, and Sparrows—and together they are the
Pirates of Pugmire.

Pirates of Pugmire is not a standalone roleplaying game, but is rather described as a ‘Chronicle’ book that works with Monarchies of Mau and Pugmire—either separately or together. Published by Onyx Path Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it expands upon the world of Pugmire, best described as a combination of the anthropomorphic, the apocalyptic, and the fantastical genres, adding new Species and Callings to play, new Knacks, plus an entirely new environment—only hinted at in either of the core books—to explore and experience. Part of that experience includes a mini-campaign set on the high seas which takes the Player Characters from First Level to Sixth Level. Like both core settings, Pirates of Pugmire does involve action, intrigue, and very much exploration, but this is an expansion setting where the Player Characters (and others) make their own families formed of different species rather than the packs of dogs or the clowders of cats. Where on land, the cats and dogs take an interest in the legacies and artefacts of the Old Ones—of Man—they do so from a primarily scientific or academic point of view. Nothing quite so dry in
Pirates of Pugmire. Pirates are only interested in treasure and there is plenty of treasure to be found—and if not found, squabbled over and stolen—if the pirates sail far enough, but in addition to facing the fearsome monsters of the Acid Sea, every treasure has a dangerous legacy and legend to it. So, the pirates had better hope that there is only a grain of truth in some of these legends.

Pirates of Pugmire includes plenty of fiction to get the tone and style of the setting—swashbuckling action, intrigue and squabbling, and so on. The book is illustrated with full colour painted artwork and the text is accompanied by commentaries from three in-game characters. These are Polly of the Seven Blazing Feathers, who is new in the Pugmire setting, and Princess Yosha Pug and Sabian Sphynx von Angora, who will be familiar from Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau, respectively. The first of the two families introduced as playable Species are the Lizards, who are primarily desert nomads, known as traders and excellent storytellers and the high value they attach to salt. This mineral is used in cooking, to aid water retention in their arid homes, in their religious rites, and as a component to their Akalist’s magics. The three Lizard families are Geckos, charismatic, agile, and able to blend into different cultures with their Chameleon Knack; Serpents are reserved, strong, and intelligent, and able to cross different terrain with their Slither Knack; and Turtles are slow and wise, but can take partial cover their Hunker Down Knack by withdrawing into their shell. All Birds dress to show off their plumage, yearn to return to the Sky Kingdom, a real place to some, more metaphysical to others, and have a difficult relationship with Cats. They are divided into three ‘nestes’ and the closer a neste is to the Sky Kingdom, the greater its influence in Bird society. Parrots are talkers and performers who Spin any tale or story to their advantage with their Spin Knack; Crows are tough and quiet, with a love of trinkets and ornaments, and have the Glide Knack; and Sparrows are flighty and prefer song as the means to tell stories, and with their Soar Knack, the only Bird capable of actual flight.

Besides new Knacks such as Sailor and Marine,
Pirates of Pugmire introduces six new Callings. These are Alkalist, Crusader, Gundog, Mystic, Rimer, and Torpedo. The Alkalist devises potions and concoctions as both balms and bombs that can both be thrown; the Crusader is a warrior with strongly held beliefs who fights for what is right; the Gundog is a warrior who uses the new gunpowder weapons and treats his weapons with reverence; the Mystic draws upon the power of the sea for his magic; the Rimer uses song and dance as misdirection; and the Torpedo uses stealth to strike hard and fast. There are some limitations in terms of Species and Calling. A Dog can only be a Crusader or Gundog and a Cat a Mystic or Torpedo, but any of the Callings from either Pugmire or Monarchies of Mau. There are no such limitations on Lizards or Birds and both have a different view on each of the Callings as explained by Polly of the Seven Blazing Feathers. All six Callings give a general view of what each thinks of the other five Callings and some sample Backgrounds.

If the mix of Species, Callings, and Knacks are engaging and fun, and make you want to play a Pirate Parrot or Gecko, the new mechanical elements of
Pirates of Pugmire are not always as successful. The good include Signed Knacks, such as the Signed Captain Knack which enables a Signed Captain to command a fellow crew member to reroll a die once per day aboard ship or the Signed Sailing Master Knacks which grants Advantage on all navigation rolls. Signed Knacks become available when the members of the crew sign the ship’s Articles and become Signed. Ship’s Articles are a way of enforcing the attitudes of a captain and his crew. Thus, Articles such as ‘Every pirate of the crew gets an equal share of the spoils’ and ‘This ship is a democracy, except when boarding or being boarded.’ represents a very different ship to one whose articles include ‘Prisoners are dead weight’ and ‘Never give an enemy comfort or mercy’. There are new seafaring spells such as Briny Deep which inflicts the sense that one is drowning on a target, Rough Seas which makes the seas around a target vessel or kraken choppy and the equivalent of rough terrain, and Suppress Gunpowder, which temporarily makes all gunpowder nearby inert. These are all great spells, flavoursome and genre suitable, as is the way that Pirates of Pugmire treats gunpowder. Originally seen as an Alkalist novelty, gunpowder and gunpowder weapons have been taken up by pirates everywhere—but not all pirates. The Gundog and Torpedo Callings are immune to the effects of Gunpowder Panic. Anyone within hearing of a gunpowder weapon being discharged who does not have the Exotic Weapon Aptitude Feat or Pistoleer Feat must make a Charisma saving throw to avoid gaining the Deaf and Scared Conditions. This keeps gunpowder scary and powerful and meaningful for the Callings that have it, without every Player Character having access to it.

Also detailed are the dangers of the Acid Sea, which constantly corrodes a ship’s plastic hull, sometimes reducing its Seaworthiness to the point where the ship is unsafe, hobbled, or simply adrift. If its Seaworthiness is reduced to zero, the ship will sink. Not every ship has a plastic hull and in game terms, a ship will need to have its Hull or Seaworthiness improved when built will outfitted with one. Ships are treated like a Player Character except their only stats are Artillery, Hull, Seaworthiness, and Speed. Only a few ships and ships weapons are detailed, but what is apparent is that these ships are small with crew numbers ranging between six and twenty, so the scale of them in
Pirates of Pugmire is actually quite small compared to that of the actual Age of Sail. As good as the other mechanical details are here, the ships are themselves underwhelming and the rules for ship-to-ship combat glossed over, relying on narrative detail perhaps more than the other rules in Pirates of Pugmire actually do. There are, however, lots of good explanations as to why a Cat, Dog, Lizard, or Bird might take up the life of a pirate or sailor, as well as what the various roles are aboard ship and what they do. In terms of piracy, Pirates of Pugmire is very much less “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” and more swashbuckling and storytelling. The intent is that the Player Characters are adventurers and explorers rather than dangerous, lawless buccaneers.

One pleasing mechanic which pulls the Player Characters together in
Pirates of Pugmire, is how Fortune is used. Fortune in the game can be spent for various effects, such as rerolls or to cast a spell if the Player Character has no spell slots. In Pugmire, Fortune is a collective resource shared between the party, but in Monarchies of Mau, a Cat can have his own Fortune as well as access to collective Fortune. This remains the same in Pirates of Pugmire, which adds separate Fortune resources for Birds and Lizards, but once a ship’s crew has signed the ship’s Articles, then Fortune can become a collective resource between all of them. In this way, Fortune models the Player Characters becoming a family.

In terms of background,
Pirates of Pugmire adds a host of new creatures, such as the Acid Shark, the Globster, rotting sea life infused with necrotic magic, and Stormcallers, weather demons which possess crewmembers during storms, and crew like the Crow Lookout, Mouse Gunner, and Otter Boarder. Colossal Foes are added too, for example, the Kraken, which has two hit locations—Kraken Tentacles and Kraken Head, complete with different Hit Points and attacks. Treasure is important in Pirates of Pugmire because every artefact—major and minor—has its own legend and notoriety. Ranging between one and three, the latter represents both how well each treasure and its legend are widely known and the Notoriety that its discovery, recovery, and possession will grant a pirate. Effectively, the greater the Notoriety of an item of treasure in a pirate’s possession, the more widely known and recognised and easy to find he is. Beyond the magical effect that the treasure may bestow, this Notoriety is the only way a Lizard or Bird can benefit from a treasure. Neither can absorb a masterwork item or treasure like Cats can or Dogs can improve. Not every treasure has a beneficial effect, and as you would expect, many are also cursed.

In terms of setting,
Pirates of Pugmire describes several locations. These start with two ports. The first is Waterdog Port, whose founding triggered the War of Dogs and Cats and after numerous vicious Alleyway Skirmishes, the city’s leaders tired of the war, established the city’s independence, and made every species welcome. This includes Rats and Mice, Otters and Weasels, and Badgers, although none of them are particularly detailed in the setting. The other is Port Matthew, the Monarchies of Mau’s shipping capital, designed with a warren of tunnels and bridges to prevent successful assault by outsiders. Port Matthew is less welcoming as a city, especially to Birds, although in both cities, the Lizards have gained a reputation as arbiters when issues want to be settled. Both cities are nicely detailed, and include their history, species found there, politics and prominent leaders, and various locations. Beyond the waters of both harbours, Pirates of Pugmire details several locations far out to sea. Most notably, the more lawless archipelago of Dalmatian Cove, consisting of several islands of different character and all together shaped like a crab. In many cases, it is possible to get from one island to another via ships, ropes, and wrecks held fast between them. Several other locations are also detailed and they are followed by a number of story hooks using the previously described locations.

The three scenarios at the end of
Pirates of Pugmire, together called ‘Going on Account’, make further and more detailed use of the locations as well. Together, ‘Rotten Rats’, ‘The Race’, and ‘Heart of the Storm’ make up a loosely connected campaign that takes the Player Characters from First Level to Sixth Level. The looseness means that the Game Master will need to develop some adventures of her own, but all three scenarios end with a ‘Future Stories’ section which add more story hooks for her to use in addition to those earlier in the book. ‘Rotten Rats’ is a land-based adventure, set in Waterdog Port, in which the Player Characters are hired to recover a treasure—the Lost Flask of Bobby Golden—which can transform any liquid into something beneficial. The problem is that the city’s Rats are said to have it and they are not dealing with anyone as tensions are high in the city between the rodents of Waterdog Port. The Player Characters will need to work out the cause of the tension and perhaps ease it if they are to learn any clues. This is an investigative scenario, whereas ‘The Race’ takes them to sea—whether in their own boat or one they hired—to get to an island which is said to appear only once every ten years, find the treasures hidden in it, and come back. Of course, there are rivals racing with the Player Characters as well as those not ready to race, but ready to steal what the Player Characters have already found. Lastly, in ‘Heart of the Storm’, the Player Characters’ ship is caught up in the worst weather possible on the Acid Sea, almost shipwrecked, and forced to land on Stormheart Island where they find more shipwreck victims. The Player Characters need to delve into the island’s history to find out what is going on and perhaps a way of getting off. At the end of ‘Going on Account’ the Player Characters will be able to return with the treasure they were seeking and perhaps more. Although it does need fleshing out with extra content between the three adventures and the adventures themselves are fairly linear, ‘Going on Account’ is a nicely detailed and fun mini-campaign.

Pirates of Pugmire is well presented. The artwork is excellent, whilst the cartography is okay. Perhaps the only thing really missing would have been maps of Waterdog Port and Port Matthew.

It does feel as if there is something missing from
Pirates of Pugmire. Perhaps it is that mechanically, it feels underwritten in places, and that it would have been fun to see Fortune used to help the Player Characters swashbuckle some action or the ship’s combat rules developed a little more. Nevertheless, Pirates of Pugmire expands the world of Pugmire in pleasing fashion, sending it out to sea and into another genre where the Player Characters have a bit more freedom and are less beholden to their families. Once aboard a plastic-hulled vessel, together with content developed herself, the Game Master has everything she needs to run anthropomorphic action adventures on the Acid Sea and let the Player Characters become Pirates of Pugmire.

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