The Case of the Cloned Game

This is a rare moment when I get to talk about two things I’m passionate about: game design and Sherlock Holmes!

One of the oddities of game design is the confusion around what parts of a game are protected by law, and what parts aren’t.1 For many years, it has been asserted that the rules and mechanics of a game cannot be protected, but the presentation can. This is why, for example, there are probably hundreds of platforming games where the character runs to the right and uses jump as a primary means of movement and attack, but very few of them (legally) feature a character named Mario.2 Similarly, any card game can turn a card sideways to express that it can no longer be used, but only games made by Hasbro (such as Magic: The Gathering) can use the term “tap” for this action.

In reality, the line between “rules” and “presentation” isn’t that simple. There has been a long history of video game cloning. It’s happened in the tabletop RPG space as well, and made even muddier by the d20 Open Game License and a number of successful “retroclones” that emulate previous game designs to various degrees of fidelity. Further, where public domain begins and ends is even more complex. And thus we get to the Great Detective himself.

Continue reading The Case of the Cloned Game

  1. I’m a citizen of the United States, so all my references to legality are US-centric, only because that’s the legal system I’m most familiar with.
  2. Digression: I’ve noticed over the years a certain “linga franca” in game design. For board games, references are usually to Chess or Monopoly. For role-playing games, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. And for video games, it’s Super Mario Brothers. At some point I should compile a list of “games every other game designer will assume you’ve played.”

Pugmire: Being a Good Dog, One Year Later

Spike Mutt (Poster 6)
Spike Mutt (Poster 6)

I’m at Gen Con! Today I’m cross-posting a blog about Pugmire here on my site that’s also up on the Onyx Path website. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG, or pick it up from our booth (#1103) if you’re at the show!


Around this time last year, I was finishing up a pitch to Rich for what was then called “The Fall of Pugmire.” I figured he’d be interested in my doggie fantasy world as an RPG, but in my mind it was a fun side project, something that I would enjoy making, and that might also interest a few people.

Since then, just about everyone who hears about it tells me that Pugmire is so much more than that. As you’re reading this, I’m at Gen Con. I have Pugmire promo cards, posters, and shirts in hand, all based on gorgeous art from some highly talented artists. I’ll be showing a slice of the game off for short 5-10 minute demos at the booth, while the Wrecking Crew will run full sessions of the game at the Gen Con tables. It’s still early, but signs point to Pugmire being something much bigger than I expected.

The point where it really hit me (and Rich, although he always thought the game would connect with people) was during the very first game of Pugmire I ran at Midwinter, six months ago. I had introduced the idea of the Code of Man, and the tenet “Be A Good Dog.” The players were having fun roleplaying after I gave them a small amount of world detail, as they explored an abandoned necromancer’s lair in search of an ancient relic — all typical adventure fantasy stuff. The fact that the rules were based on a familiar fantasy RPG structure helped them dive into rolling dice and casting spells like old pros. As they were in the middle of the final, climactic battle with the spirits of the dead, the battle-hardened guardian (Sgt. Leo Bulldog) fell. The shepherd quickly ran to heal him, and when Leo got back up, his player cried out “I am a good dog!”

In that moment, I got tingles. What had been a half-serious religious code had turned into a battle cry, and soon into a guiding statement for the game. The players sincerely wanted to be good dogs (and many of them were experienced Vampire LARPers, so they were quite used to playing “morally flexible” characters). The rough edges in the system, the lack of setting detail, the cobbled-together nature of the playtest — none of it mattered in that moment. Something magical had happened.

Here at Gen Con, I hope it happens again. If even one player walks away thinking that they want to explore the world of Pugmire, that they want to proactively work with other characters, that they want to be a good dog, then I will feel like I’m doing what I set out to do.

Pugmire: Is This A Joke?

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!


One question I get regularly is whether Pugmire is a joke. Given that I’ve been responsible for some pranks in the past when I worked with White Wolf, it’s somewhat of a fair question. The short answer is obviously “it isn’t,” but there are nuances to the question that are more complex beyond the obvious “this is a real game that is being made.”

For example, it isn’t a typical Onyx Path game on the surface. It’s not using pools of d10s, it isn’t gritty and dark, and it’s not geared to an adult audience. Over the past nine years I’ve gotten pretty good at working on those kinds of games, and I’m happy to keep doing so, but part of the reason for developing Pugmire is that I wanted to try something different. (That’s one of the great points of working with Onyx Path over White Wolf for me — Rich is able and willing to try new ideas that wouldn’t fit in the original company’s structure or business plan, and I have ownership over this thing I created to boot.) Given that this game doesn’t fit that established mold, I can see why some folks would assume it’s a joke.

Similarly, the game does have humor in it, but I maintain that it isn’t a funny game. We as players laugh at the idea that there’s a religious tenet of “Be A Good Dog,” but the characters in the world take it very seriously. It’s somewhat like the humor in Paranoia.1 Again, if some folks see funny bits, it’s easy to mistake that the game is a joke.

One of the trickiest parts as I work on the game is allowing humor without making the game “funny.” So far I’ve used the term “light-hearted” to explain the nuance, but it’s something that you really only get once you dive in. Some of the playtest groups were nice enough to post quotes or anecdotes on social media so I can read them, and most of those posts are gags. I take that as encouraging — people are excited and having fun with the game, even at this early stage. When I’ve run the game myself the level of humor changes depending on the group, but there’s always at least some laughs.

The reason it isn’t a joke, and why I’m adamant on that point, is because a “funny game” can really only be funny. A light-hearted game, however, can include more depth and options. One of the images I keep in my mind is something Rich mentioned during one of our many chats about the game: the dog who mourns the passing of their owner by lying down outside their room or their bed. That’s the overall tone of how dogs feel about the loss of Man. In fact, the very first version of the game was much darker. It was closer to the so-called “normal Onyx Path game” in ethos, and that elegiac tone was a central focus (as an example, the original title was “The Fall of Pugmire”). In one of my first playtests, some of the players at the end remarked at how the game can be “dark as shit.” So, paradoxically, I feel it’s very important to keep that so-called “Onyx Path flavor,” even though the surface of the game obscures it. But if I wrote Pugmire to be nothing but gags and jokes, it would be hard to get to that spectrum of emotion.

Is it a “serious” game? Hell no: it’s a game where you play dogs wielding magic and swords to rescue iPads from ancient ruins. I not only accept that, but I want to make that a feature. I don’t know about other people’s gaming groups, but mine generally tend to joke around during the session anyhow, so it’s nice to write a game that leans into that. But it’s also a game that addresses dealing with loss, ethics and religious dogma, casual racism, and nationalism. None of that is necessary to play and enjoy the game, but it’s there if you want to dig into it.

Is Pugmire a joke? No. Because it can be so much more.

  1. Although over the years its parody meta-humor has bled into the game itself.

I’ll Be At Gen Con!

I’ll be at Gen Con this year! Most of my time will be working the Onyx Path Publishing booth (#1103) or having various business meetings. However, if you’re interested in coming to see me talk on a variety of topics, here’s where I’ll be!

 

Thursday, July 30th

1pm – 2pm: Freelancing for Onyx Path (Crowne Plaza Hotel Indianapolis-Dwtn-Union Stn)

5pm-6pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

 

Friday, July 31st

10am-11am: What’s Up With the Classic World of Darkness? (Crowne Plaza Hotel Indianapolis-Dwtn-Union Stn)

2pm-3pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

5pm-6pm: Autograph Signing (Booth #1103)

 

Saturday, August 1st

2pm-3pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

3pm-4pm: Dive into Pugmire & Cavaliers of Mars (Embassy Suites Indianapolis Downtown)

 

Sunday, August 2nd

10am-11am: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

1pm-2pm: Autograph Signing (Booth #1103)

 

Pugmire: The Rules of Being A Dog

Jack Rat-Terrier (Poster 4)
Jack Rat-Terrier (Poster 4)

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!


I recently passed another milestone on Pugmire. I took the material I sent during my closed alpha playtest and started rewriting it all, based on the feedback I got. From that, I’m planning to have an early access document at some point later this year, because I definitely want people who are interested in Pugmire to be able to give it a whirl.

Which leads me to answer one of the most commonly asked questions since we announced the game: what system will the game use? After a lot of debate, exploration, and testing, I’ve decided to base the game on the d20 OGL. It’s inspired by the design of 5th edition D&D, as well as the recent wave of “old school” retroclones, with a dash of Onyx Path/White Wolf design ideology.

So what about using pools of d10s? In chatting with some of the team making the upcoming  Onyx Path house system (codenamed “Sardonyx”), I’m convinced that it also could be a good fit for the game, and for a while it was my Plan B. Rich and I have seriously talked about the possibility of putting out a parallel version of the core game in the Onyx Path system, if things go well. I’m also considering doing a translation guide that allows conversions to other open systems such as Fate Core, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, and the like. But in the end, a lot of the language I and others have used to talk about the game is heavily based in old-school fantasy gaming, and my playtests reinforced to me that this is the best way to go with the game.

But it’s not just filing off the serial numbers of an existing system. I’ve spent a lot of time challenging core assumptions, adapting new ideas, and seeing how each piece impacts the others. For example, rather than having a pre-constructed set of abilities, I want to present a series of options so players can pick the “tricks” that make sense to them. I also needed to find ways of mechanically representing some of the concepts unique to Pugmire, such as the artisans. Here’s a quote from my current draft to illustrate:

Last year, I discovered how I could use my focus to create fire! Unfortunately, I accidentally burned down the trees in front of Mr. Hound’s house, but I apologized for that. I know I have it under control now! — Lady Yosha Pug

Artisans are social dogs that love to study masterwork relics and the magic they create. Because it requires a lot of time to master such relics, many such dogs come from the middle and upper class: the puppies of merchants, shop owners, nobility, and the like. As such, many of them also love culture and society, and they find that working with other dogs helps them in their understanding of magic.

Artisans are something between a wizard, a sorcerer, and a bard. I redesigned and moved a lot of pieces around until I got the right feel from the mechanics. Similarly, guardians are more than just “fighters,” but also have some leadership abilities as well — more like warlords or fighting generals.

Another piece are breeds. There are far more dog breeds than fantasy races, and I knew very early on that there was no way I could give mechanics for all the dog breeds that people were excited about — covering them all would take a whole book (and that may be a book I make someday). So I had to find a way to allow people to create their own breeds, but still give them some differentiation. I think the current system (bundling them into distinct groups) works pretty well, but I need to hammer on it a bit more.

So that’s where I’m at, seeing if the dozens of small tweaks and changes make sense. Does a Corgi barbarian work? Do games end up feeling like the fiction bits I’ve put together? Is it the right balance of “classic fantasy RPG” and “lightweight adventure game”? I think we’re getting to the point that people who are early fans can bring their own hammers, or at least play around in the world while the full game continues developing.

Pugmire: Not Just Pugs

Sgt. Leo Bulldog (Poster 3)
Sgt. Leo Bulldog (Poster 3)

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!


Since Pugmire is a project I own, I don’t have to worry about NDAs, and I’ve chatted about it on social media because that’s a thing I can do. In general people have been very excited, particularly when I was talking about it during the release party of “Winter of Man” in Sojourn, Volume 2, a story set in Pugmire (and actually the story that inspired the creation of the RPG). Since the name of the game has “Pug” in it and I talk about pugs a lot, a few people have assumed that the game is all about Pugs.

That’s not true. It’s a game about dogs, not just about Pugs. Pugs are one of the noble families, but they are not the center of the universe. In fact, there weren’t any Pugs in the pre-generated characters for my first playtest slice, specifically because I want to make sure the setting and the game holds up outside of one particular breed. The breeds live, work, and exist together. To give an example of this cosmopolitan mix, here’s a short excerpt from “Winter of Man”:

“It’s been snowing for more than a year,” Yosha Pug said. “I have a manuscript here that explains what we need to do.” She shuffled the books in her paws to get a particular one, and nearly dropped them all onto the keep’s stone floor.

Sister Picassa Collie adjusted her shepherd’s robes to free her paws, and plucked the errant tome from the middle of the young pug’s burden. “Is it this one with the glass screen, my lady?” she asked.

Yosha nodded, her ears bouncing on the side of her head. “Yes, thank you. In there is a legend about the Weather Tower. I think we’ll find something there that will end this long winter.”

Pan Daschund tried to snatch the book out of Picassa’s hand, but she raised it out of the hunter’s reach, touching the glass front of the book with her paw to advance the text. He huffed in annoyance and went back to adjusting his shortbow. “It’s weather, Yosha. You can’t…”

Rex Pyrenees crossed his arms across his massive chest as he stood behind the diminutive hunter. “It’s Lady Yosha to you, old hunter.”

Here you’re introduced to four characters. Their breeds act as surnames, their families and social units inside the kingdom (and indeed, inside their society as a whole). Lady Yosha Pug is a noble, and she’s certainly one of the key protagonists in that story, but she is just one dog, and part of just one noble family (albeit the noble family now on the throne). In my playtest notes, I had another noble named Kingston Hound, part of the prolific Hound family. The Hounds have a number of branch families (such as Blood-Hound and Fox-Hound), making them a significant political power in the game.

The society is feudal, so the various families have bits of land that they control at the leisure of King Puckington Pug, although over time a couple have broken off to form their own kingdoms — something I haven’t quite figured out the details of yet, but I know I do want more dog kingdoms that aren’t necessarily run by Pugs.

Can the game be just about Pugs? Sure, if you wanted to run it that way. In the same way that Vampire can be run to focus on just one clan or covenant, Pugmire could focus on a single breed or collection of breeds. But the default assumption is that the players will play a mix of breeds, including mutts.

Pugmire: The Code of Man

Princess Yosha Pug (Poster 2)
Princess Yosha Pug (Poster 2)

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!


Before I talk about Pugmire, I want to talk about the dog in this picture below.

Sanford
Sanford

This is Sanford. He is a rescue pug that we fostered for several months while we help him get to his forever home, and when I first wrote this post he was playing with a squeaky toy behind me in my office. We loved (squeak) having a guest in our house for a while (squeak), but some people we’ve talked to have mentioned how lucky and blessed Sanford is (squeak squeak squeak) to have someone who is willing to act as a foster family for him.

And that got me thinking about a comment I copy-and-pasted from one of my original Pugmire posts.

Can you tell us anything about Pugmires Mythos, what’s the common beliefs among the peasants and what major religions that they worship or is it to soon?

As I mentioned before, the dogs have deified humanity and following in their footsteps. We as a race (collectively called “Man” by the dogs) are somewhere between a pantheon of dead gods and a philosophical construct: Man existed before, but what the dogs know about Man is a hodge-podge of legend, anecdote, racial memory, and inconsistent archaeology. Part of what they know is that Man uplifted them, giving them intellect, a voice, and the ability to manipulate tools. One of the reasons Man did this may be because dogs were the animals closest to Man, for isn’t it said that dogs were Man’s best friend?

If you believe that a race of people that you can’t see are so far above you that they can change who you are, and that everything you have is somehow thanks to that race… well, that’s really close to a religion. In fact, many common phrases in the dog language use “Man” where we would use “God,” such as “Man-damn it” or “for Man’s sake.” The kingdom of Pugmire created the Church of Man to help other Dogs, to learn more about Man, and to follow the ideology Man has laid down for dogs… according to them. It’s a code which they follow, compiled from what they’ve learned and what they feel is right.

The shepherds of the Church know the works of Man, and are well-versed in the nuances, interpretations, and expansions of the teachings. However, not every dog has the patience or capability of knowing so much about what came before. As such, the Church has boiled down most of the tenets into a simple code, called the Code of Man.

1. Be a good dog: The core tenet, and the one most debated philosophically. It’s clear to scholars that this was really important to Man, but what actually comprises the behavior of a “good dog” is a subject of intense debate. It’s also the tenet that many of the Church of Man go back to — any infraction of the other tenets is an indication that you may not be a good dog.

2. Obey the master: Dogs should obey those that are in charge. This hierarchical structure is what allowed the dogs to build a kingdom, and it has resulted in a quasi-feudal government. Some dogs, however, feel that they are their own best “master,” or that only Man has the right to be called “master.”

3. Bite only those who endanger you: “Bite” isn’t necessarily literal here — it means inflicting harm (and sometimes dogs will use it colloquially, such as “don’t bite my tail” to mean “don’t mess with me”). But one of the agreed-on tenets of being a good dog is that you only bite when you are endangered. Of course, what constitutes “danger” is also debated.

4. Protect your home: Although “home” can be broadly defined, this is probably one of the least controversial tenets — most every dog can agree that guarding and protecting your home, your family, and those around you is a good thing. If you can justify protecting your home, you can probably get away with “biting.”

5. Be loyal to those that are true: Dogs were valued by Man for their loyalty, and that should extend to other dogs (and indeed, to anyone else). But what is disloyalty? If you betray a friend to save a group or your family, are you still true? Are you really a good dog?

6. Protect all from the unseen: Long ago, dogs have tried to warn Man about dangerous things (ghosts, demons, spirits, the possessed, people of ill intent, or even just bad things about to happen). They barked fierce cries of warning whenever unseen danger was near, but unfortunately Man never listened. Over time, some dogs lost their ability to sense such things, but they still feel it is their duty to protect all people from hidden danger.

7. Fetch what has been left behind: Dogs also seek to retrieve the relics still undiscovered in the world, and bring them back. The Church of Man helps to identify, authenticate, and in some cases activate these relics, but any family that can claim ownership of an important or powerful relic can be elevated to nobility. The Church teaches that fetching such items brings dogs closer to Man, but some pariahs (and even a few other dog kingdoms) feel that such pursuits are mercenary and smell more of cat logic than something a dog should be doing.

The Code of Man is what all the good dogs of Pugmire are expected to follow. Those dogs that do not follow the Code of Man are bad dogs, at least in the eyes of some. Some bad dogs (and even some good dogs that don’t agree with some interpretation of the tenets) decide to leave Pugmire, or are forced out. These are the pariahs, dogs that have cast off the leash of civilization and strive to be good dogs outside of anyone else’s code.

Different kingdoms have different ideologies. The monarchies of the cats, for example, also believe in Man, but look on them as a race of treasured servants that left without telling their master where everything was. They value Man and Man’s teachings, but more as a collection of good suggestions rather than societal laws. They certainly wouldn’t create a code based on that.

Which leads me back to Sanford. He looked at everyone in my family as a rock star — he was really happy to see us, and just wanted to be a part of whatever we were doing because he thought we were so cool. But what would happen if all of us were gone? What would he tell his puppies about us, or the other dogs he meets? And what would other dogs think of him when he talks about the people that saved him and gave him a home and presented him with presents and love without anything in return? Would Sanford be a prophet to his people?

Probably not; he never quite figured out that the laptop isn’t a place to sit on, after all. But these are the things I think about as I continue to work on Pugmire.

Writer. Gamer. Sherlockian. Usually Not Dead.

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