40 Days and 40 Nights of Pugmire

Yesterday, the work of over two years reached a new level, as Onyx Path launched the Kickstarter for Pugmire.  I spent 10 hours at my computer, doing last-minute preparations and then talking to lots and lots of excited people as the game funded in an hour. As I’m writing this, 24 hours later, it’s passed 300% funding, and it’s still climbing. I’m a little stunned at the whole thing, when I’m not smiling so much it hurts.

Typically in these kinds of situations, I would say that I’ll try not to talk too much about my current project. I would beg forgiveness for the amount of discussion that I’ll have for the duration of the Kickstarter, and plead tolerance as my friends are awash in forty days and forty nights of Pugmire.

But I don’t want to apologize, because I’m excited. For once, I’m not shackled to NDAs. I don’t have to check with a committee of people on what I can and can’t say. I can make decisions, try new things, make horrible mistakes, and ultimately enjoy the hell out of this because it’s mine. And it’s clear that lots of other people not only want to talk about it with me, but also want me to do more with it.

So, this is a thing you’re going to hear a lot about in the coming months, but not necessarily in my personal spaces (like this one). If you want constant, up-to-the-minute updates, follow the Kickstarter, check out the Pugmire Facebook group, or follow Onyx Path or Pugsteady on Twitter. And if all goes well, there will be another huge thing coming that I won’t shut up about. I understand that self-promotion can bug some people. Personally, I love it when people are enthusiastic about something they’ve made, even if it’s not my cup of tea, but I understand when it feels like they only talk about the latest thing they’re shilling.

However, this world of dogs and cats means a lot to me. It’s not just a silly little game I’m knocking out to make some cash — I’ve never worked that way, and many folks can attest to the blood and soul I’ve poured into the World of Darkness. Rather, Pugmire is about proving that all of my plans and ideas and partnerships and opinions on how a world can be built and presented to a community can work. It proves that when I have total control, I can pull together a plan that is creative, exciting, and sustainable. It demonstrates to the world — and more importantly, to me — that I can build something from scratch.

There’s a lot more of me in this than normal, and a lot more of me to come. It’s a flood: 40 days and 40 nights of me grinning like a mad fool as I build the ark I’m floating on, all while watching more and more people falling in love with a piece of my soul.

… lost the metaphor there. So, yeah. I’m going to babble about dogs and cats for a while. Sorry, but not sorry.

Reflections and Predictions

As some of my readers know, I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions. If I need to make a change in my life, I’d rather do it right away, instead of waiting for an arbitrary date. However, people are drawn to ritual, and the end of one year before the start of another is a good time for reflection, as well as assessing the path forward.

The best way to describe the past year would probably be “evolution.” 2014 was really a year based on reorienting myself after a life-changing layoff for me and my wife, so success was very binary: can I continue to earn money in my chosen career? Having established that the answer is “yes,” 2015 pushed me in new directions, beyond my comfort zones and established networks.

Some of it has been amazing: if you had told me in 2014 that I would be writing for Futurama and working with the lead writer of that show, I would have laughed. Some of it has been painful: a handful of friends and peers have tried to undermine me and my efforts. I’ve found areas where I can be a better friend, professional, and mentor, but I’ve also learned that sometimes the only answer is to walk away and move on to the next project.

I’ve embraced more of my production skills without sacrificing the creative side of my life, and I’ve reached a point where I need to turn down interesting work so I can focus on what’s best for me and my family. I’ve learned to cook, I’ve written software, I’ve taken proactive steps to help with my allergies, and I’ve become interested in the politics of freelancing, self-employment, and small businesses.

I can’t point to a specific thing I’ll do more of in 2016. Due to the nature of schedules and planning, some projects and initiatives that started in 2015 will see light next year, showing a continued evolution. I’ll make a few more enemies, most likely, but I’ll make a lot more friends. I’ll make some cool stuff, and I’ll make some colossal mistakes. I’ll keep celebrating the victories of my friends as much as I celebrate my own. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll finally get good at reading contracts before I sign them.

In the end, I’m taking bigger, more calculated risks in the coming year. Parts of it will suck, and parts of it will be amazing. I hope that all of it will make me a better person.

Pugmire Crowdfunding News!

Hey all! I know things have been quiet on the Pugmire front lately, but I wanted to take a moment to give you an update on the Pugmirecrowdfunding campaign.

First off, back at Gen Con we said that we would have the crowdfunding campaign by the end of the year, but that isn’t going to happen. Partially, it’s because Rich and I have been keeping a careful eye on milestones, and we made that decision that we didn’t want the excitement for Pugmire — which is Onyx Path’s first creator-owned game — to be eclipsed by the Changeling Kickstarter and Onyx Path’s other announcements. But mostly it’s because we’ve been looking into some amazingly cool opportunities to show that Pugmire can be something really special. We both want this to be more than just a game, but a world that people all over can enjoy. It’s still up in the air how many of these opportunities will end up being a part of the campaign, but all in all I think the wait will be worth it.

And the good news is, the wait won’t be very long! Once the Changeling Kickstarter ends, we’ll take some time to get things ready for Pugmire, and then we’re hoping to have it active in the third or fourth week of January. After some debate, Rich and I decided that we’ll stick with the Kickstarter platform for the campaign, although we both want to try some new things this time around to get as many people as possible excited about Pugmire.

One of the things we’re trying is making a playable game available the day the campaign launches. I’m calling it Pugmire Early Access, and it’ll be more than just a manuscript tossed up for review. It’ll have some art and layout work done, to give you an idea of what the full game will look like. If all goes well, then backers will be able to start playing Pugmire as soon as they pledge, so everyone will know if it’s the right game for them.

In addition, part of the goal of the Kickstarter is to get Pugmire into retail. I’m a big believer in buying and selling games online, but I also know that many people get their first taste of games from their local stores or from retail booths at conventions, and we want to try and support that.

Those are just a couple of the ideas we’re exploring for this campaign. We’ll make more announcements as the date gets closer, but for now keep an eye out in the second half of January. And until then, remember to be a good dog!

Ratings War: A Personal Milestone

In case you missed it, my interactive novel, Ratings War, went live yesterday. It’s only $1.99 for the next few days, so check it out on iOS, Android, Kindle, or Steam. And watch the cool promotional video! Implant cameras in your eyes to win the news wars of 2061.

I’ve been working on this game for over a year now, and it’s a big milestone for me. It’s my first shipped video game title where my name is front-and-center. I’ve worked on a couple of other shipped projects that I’m very happy with (and a couple that haven’t seen the light of day), but this one was primarily mine. I pitched it, I outlined it, I wrote it, and I coded it. I still worked with a team (namely the great folks at Choice of Games), but there’s a lot of me in Ratings War.

Second, this is my first novel. For years I’ve had a mental block on writing them. I’m not entirely sure why that was, but in my head I couldn’t write a full novel, even though I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for role-playing games. Ratings War clocks in at 80,000 words, even if you don’t read every word in each playthrough. It might not be something you can put on a shelf, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a novel (and luckily, SFWA agrees). Now whenever I get that mental block, I can tell myself that I’ve written a damned novel, so I can write more.

Third, it’s the first project I coded from start to finish. The scripting language I used, ChoiceScript, is pretty friendly compared to Python, but I was definitely writing code. I wrote the entire thing in SublimeText, and I regularly had to debug it, recompile it, run automated testing, and figure out what the hell I was thinking when I wrote that code six months before. So while it’s my first novel, it’s also the first computer game that I built primarily by myself.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it’s a game that is inclusive, in the way I feel games should be inclusive. This was something I wanted to do from the beginning, and not only did Choice of Games support that, but they pushed me to go further. I wrote this game (which has one obvious and one hidden romance option) so that people of any sexuality and gender identity could be the protagonist. I reached out to non-binary people as well to make sure I handled that correctly. I switched things up where I could. I used lots of pronoun variables. I wanted this to be a game where all of my friends could have fun, and I hope I accomplished that.

Ratings War is not something I could do a few years ago. There’s a lot of post-2011 me in that game, and I can see how much I’ve grown, and how much I can still improve. I hope other people will see that as well, and have some fun being a cyberpunk journalist to boot.

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.

Writer. Gamer. Sherlockian. Usually Not Dead.

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