On December 21, 2022, I sat down with Eddy Webb to talk about the forthcoming second edition of the popular Realms of Pugmire system from Onyx Path, as well as how he’s incorporated disability into his game design. Enjoy!
Hi, everyone. I’m Dom Zook, executive producer here at Saving Throw. And I am joined by the esteemed Eddy Webb of Pugmire fame. Eddy, welcome!
For those who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sure. My name is Eddy Webb, my pronouns are he/him. I am the owner of Pugsteady, which is my company I use for working freelance in both tabletop RPGs and video games. I’ve been doing that for eight years now. Actually, I just did the math in my head. That’s a lot. Wow! And yeah, I am the creator of Realms of Pugmire. I started working on that back in 2014.
So it’s been about eight years since I’ve been in this world that I have creative ownership over, as opposed to most of my other work, which is usually some kind of work for hire. So I’m still happy that my baby’s going along after all this time.
Yeah, I can imagine. And I mean, for those that don’t know you have a pretty storied career working on a number of different high profile projects within Onyx Path. I think you’ve touched on almost everything that they’ve produced! And then Pugmire, which fans of the channel know as we’ve done several one-shots and series here, and we just adore it but we’re also big dog lovers here so that’s always good.
But can you tell us a little bit about what prompted the move to do a second edition?
It’s a few things. I mean, the first is, you know, like I said, I mean, it’s been eight years, actually, and it’s something that even though I’m really happy with how Pugmire came out, you know, I’ve learned a lot both about game design and about the world of Pugmire as a whole. And then also when I first did Pugmire, I genuinely wasn’t sure what was going to happen, right?
I wrote a storyand then it was “When is the roleplaying game coming out?” and I was like, I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a role playing game. And so I pitched it to Onyx Path just because I’d been working different jobs and I’d been friends with them for a long time and I was like, hey, do you want this silly game about dogs?
And they loved it. And so we did a Kickstarter and again it was like, I don’t know how people are going to be into D&D with dogs. We’ll see how this goes. I was going to be happy just to do the one book and call it a day. And so a lot of my thought in the first edition really was let’s see if we can get the one book out.
And then after that we did Monarchies of Mau and Pirates of Pugmire and some of the source books. And every time it was like, this is the next book and it might be the last one, you know? And after a few of them, it’s like, okay, I guess people are into this. And so another big piece of it was a chance to kind of make some adjustments and tweaks to really establish this as a line.
Like, this is something that’s going to have several books coming out of the gate and is designed from the start to be a full fantasy game line rather than just, this might be cool and this might be cool and this might be cool. I mean I enjoy the organic growth of Pugmire, how it came about. But it was a good opportunity to kind of step back and say, okay, I’ve learned a lot also to tweak and adjust a few things and another piece of it is the fantasy game landscape, the D&D landscape.
How people interact with D&D has changed radically since 2014. And so it’s another good opportunity to also take some of the ways that you know people have been brought on board – like virtual tabletops are now much more prominent. The bio essentialism of races is a very different place than it was even a few years ago. Just when I first did Pugmire [D&D] 5e was just starting, and now it is the most popular edition of the endeavor.
So a lot of things around Pugmire have changed and everyone has changed. So it was a combination of it’s been a number of years and I have some new thoughts and I wanted to make some adjustments to really kind of give this the best possible foundation.
That’s really exciting. And I know that it might have served the whole system better to have had an initial run of, you know, let’s do this book and then let’s do this book and let’s do this book rather than having a large release just because it kind of created this hope that new things were going to come out for it.
And almost like a, I guess, for lack of a better comparison, sort of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. You know, when Iron Man first came out, you didn’t know that there was going to be a Captain America or anything else. And so each one that came out successively added onto that. And I feel like every time you’ve announced a new Pugmire book, you know, people that I know have just flipped out and been ecstatic because, yes, it’s an exciting launch.
And then to have something added to it. So now there is sort of, I feel, that built-in fan base that might go, okay, now I need something that if I’m going to bring this into my game group, I need kind of everything sort of provided in that.
No one is probably more aware of the changes in RPGs in the last eight years than me. So many things have have changed with the advent of streaming. But I do think that the audience has kind of changed and evolved. And yeah, I think it’s I think it’s wise to kind of take another stab at it.
I think, you know, an evolution of that, right?
I’ve been calling it a new era. I mean, it’s a new edition from a technical perspective, but really it is kind of the next stage, you know? I mean, the organic release [of first edition Pugmire] was very exciting. But to use your Marvel analogy, it’s like I have reached my Avengers.
The system works, and so now I can reach the next phase and go, okay, let’s build it out with a little more intentionality. Because honestly, what I’ve learned is that Pugmire has moved from being what was honestly kind of my indie game, my fun little indie joint to, you know, this is a game line.
This is a franchise. And so being able to have a not a clean slate – this is all built on the foundation, what came before – but rather to present it a little more cleanly, a little more efficiently, clean up some of the rough edges, make some tweaks, answer some questions people have had for a long time, and then use that as a base to kind of scaffold over very intentionally know future books and future releases.
That way it feels a little more like a polished professional game line, rather than just bucket-brigading books up.
Right, right. And on that is it going to be cross compatible with the Monarchies of Mau and Pirates of Pugmire, etc.? Or is there going to be a big shift in mechanics?
No, it is. The shifts are much more iterative than substantial. So, to use another D&D analogy, it’s closer to the shift from third edition to 3.5 rather than 3 to 4 in terms of additions and changes. And one of the things I wanted to make absolutely sure I did was that there’s an appendix in the back of the book that allows you to convert first edition material to second edition, so that you break it down very explicitly. Here’s all the things that have changed.
So if you’re looking for this spell, it’s now called this, or if you’re looking for this trick, it’s now over here. Here’s a terminology change. And what they will be doing over on the Onyx Path YouTube channel is putting out some videos to show people exactly how to convert that stuff.
I did one live, I recorded it. I did it as if it were a stream. So like it was no edits, just live. And it took me 10 minutes to create a character in second edition.
Oh, wow. Yeah. So easy peasy.
I don’t want people to feel like their old books need to be cast into a bonfire and burned because they cannot possibly be used anymore. No. Now I’m going to be updating a lot of that material as well, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, I know people have spent a lot of time and love into those books now and [I want to] make sure that there’s still value there.
What other changes are there? Is there anything specific that you can kind of talk about in Second Edition that builds upon or adds to what you had in the original series?
Yeah. So basically, I guess the two rough channels are the World updates and the rules updates. So the world is kind of a nebulous few years after the first edition. I don’t believe in what’s like a Meta-Plot. The idea that there’s explicit chronology and chronological changes occur between books. You have to kind of be aware of all the stuff that happened between and I’m not doing any of that.
It’s more a soft reboot. It’s a few years later, so it gives you a chance to kind of refine a few things. But, you know, like Yosha is still a central kind of speaking character, but she’s a few years older. She’s now in her late teens as opposed to, you know, early teenage years. From the first edition, she’s learned a bit more, the tensions with the monarchies and Pugmire are probably a little more tense than they were in first edition.
There were references in the first edition to a character in Keep of the Red who was trying to unify the Badger tribes. Now that’s actually happened. The Badger tribes are now actually much more unified. So little details like that. If you’re familiar with First Edition, you go, “Oh, that’s a change. That’s a little further ahead. That’s neat.” But also it’s a chance to kind of quietly refine some things.
Like, for example, in the first edition, when I went back and read it I was surprised to realize every time I meant rodents, I used rats like mice didn’t exist. And I just put out a book about mice and rats. And so I was like, I should probably update that to be more inclusive of mice and also things like I didn’t know at the time what the Monarchies of Mau we’re like.
I knew that they’re going to be cats, I just didn’t know what they were and I hadn’t made them up yet. I didn’t know some of the setting secrets of the rodents that came out in Squeaks in the Deep. I know that now. So there’s also a chance to work some material back in, rewrite the material. It’s still written with the idea of material still largely from the dog perspective.
So one thing I think a lot of people like about Pugmire is each of the book’s setting materials are written slightly differently to take that species information and perspective into account, and I want to keep that feature so you’re not going to get the full secrets of the rodents or cats or anything. It’s still going to be told through a dog lens, but now I have enough information to tweak and adjust that so that way there’s more of a connectivity between what the dogs think is really going on and what’s actually going on with these different aspects now.
I remember with the initial release when we first looked at Pugmire before Monarchies or Pirates was released. It was very much an adventure book. It wasn’t so much of a, like you said, it wasn’t really world building. We weren’t learning a lot about anything. It was just, you know, this is an interesting take and we’re going out and we’re adventuring.
And so, yeah, I love the iterative nature of that, that with each kind of addition that’s come through, we’ve learned a little bit more about this world. And yeah, I can imagine as a creator you have that and you kind of want to go, okay, well, actually I want to kind of go back and let’s restart this a little bit now that we know a little bit more.
And it was fun to do honestly. I mean it was nice to kind of go back. It was also interesting to go back and say “what did I write six years ago?” And when you’re working on it constantly, you get it in your head and so when I’m working now, I’m working with teams on future books.
I know, It’s just this, this, this and this but all the small changes are constantly happening in my head, in the memory sheets to a degree. So being able to go back to the texts relatively fresh and read it again, it’s like, oh, actually I have made more changes over time than I realized.
This is moving more to the rules side where I thought I had put it down a certain way and I realized I hadn’t. So for example, Breeds are now called Upbringings because breeds were always meant to be how a dog is trained, right? Because something I learned from dog breeders as I was researching the book initially is that a lot of the breed behavior that we believe actually comes down to how we tend to train those breeds and how much is their prey drive.
We keep certain stages that you can get to and from full prey drive further and further back. So you have Companions with almost no prey drive. And then you have runners and workers knowing that you’re further and further along. But when I wrote it, I was like, I don’t think at the end the audience is going to accept that.
So I kind of made breed a little closer to race because I thought that’s what fantasy gamers would want. And then after I did that, I was never comfortable with it entirely. And so I was like, no, I’m just ditching that. And cats have houses and I felt like that was closer to where I actually want it to be.
I didn’t begrudge the breeds of Pugmire, and each game since then has been more or less in that vein of “It’s how you grew up.” And then it’s just amusing that now that D&D conversation has moved towards, hey, maybe we should produce, you know, bio essentialism. So that’s one thing I did back so now upbringing and breeds those two categories are the same.
Like if you had a companion before, it’s a companion now. And they work the same way. But if you are a pug, but you were raised by, say, you know, big, strong worker dogs, you could still check the worker upbringing. That’s not quite as connected as it was before.
I like that concept because, you know, if I grew up as a fighter, my skills as a fighter would be more honed than they would be if I were a farmer or whatever, rather than, you know, who I was. What my environment was that I grew up in and stuff like that, kind of more influences what those factors are. I can see that and I think that would be really fun for a pug to be that [worker dog].
I’m just thinking back to our dear departed Harold, who was our studio pug and picturing him doing anything other than sleeping and snoring.
And that’s the thing is like, you know, there still are tendencies. I mean, those tendencies are generally ones that we put on them. But like, if you really want to break the mold now, it’s kind of give more explicit permission. And that’s a lot of what I did this time around. Honestly, it was kind of make some of the implicit permission explicit. And give rid of some of the fluff.
Like another thing I did is I got rid of ability scores – it’s just modifiers now, because frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a 15 or a 16, it matters if you’re +1 or +2. Right? That’s the part that really matters. There were very few things in Pugmire that required you to have a score of any kind.
So I just got rid of all of that and we calculated the math and how characters progressed and how the numbers kind of work together, which is only really interesting to me and maybe five other people in the world. But it’s not anything the book requires you to know. It’s just to understand that things get a little wobbly at certain points in the character progression over the years, I’ve noticed. And so I kind of tweaked and adjusted some damages here.How the tricks work out there.
But then really also things like spells. I was never entirely happy with how the spells worked because they didn’t take advantage of the ability to cast at higher levels like D&D 5e did. And considering I had moved to spell slots, there was no real reason not to.
So it’s something we really reworked. And as a result of that, where we actually combined a lot of spells together that originally had been separate spells. So like, Cure Wounds and Inflict Wounds are now just one spell. They’re just really two sides of the same spell. And then we have the ability to cast spells at more powerful levels. And then sometimes like we have a spell that’s just “create a cloud.” But then Cloud Kill is just a higher level version of that spell being cast.
So it means that each spell you pick is going to be more useful. As you get more powerful in level, you won’t really have spells that you will then not use later. And also it just means that we have more room to put more spells in, because now if I can take Cloud Kill and Cloud and Stinking Cloud and all of those spells and cram them together into one spell, I mean that’s a few hundred words I can use to put more spells into the book, right?
So it’s a lot of that kind of stuff, you know, refining how the monsters work. The monsters are a little more explicit now. I was never happy with how low level monsters and high level monsters worked. And so I actually have now key words of minion, which basically the main change is they have the exact same stats, but they only have one stamina point.
So it is meant to be the kind of characters you can mow through like that battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings where you’re just mowin’ through characters that’s what they’re there for.
And then there are legendary characters, which is a keyword, and basically it triples their stamina points and increases their damage. So now anything can be legendary, anything could be a minion.
So now, rather than having to recalculate all the characters you can just slap this keyword on, change a few numbers, and then you can have a big boss version of anything. If you want to have a legendary version of a bone bug, for some reason, you absolutely could. And you could have a minion version of a demon, if that makes sense for your story.
I wonder if the Wizards of the coast came and, like, was like, what? What is Eddy doing with Pugmire? Because we could really put this in! I say that because a lot of the things that you’ve done, I mean, Pugmire was already iterative of 5th edition and if you were familiar with D&D, you could easily get into Pugmire.
But honestly, the way I kind of looked at it and we sometimes resented it was for people new to RPGs. It was almost a more accessible way of learning D&D if that’s what you wanted to go into, because it just sort of it had more common sense to a lot of the issues, especially running it, you know, the things that you have as a GM. You got to know challenge ratings and kind of work out the math.
But these changes sound, especially those kind of quick changes for minions and legendary creatures, like it just will immensely help a GM kind of concentrate on, you know, what they’re going for rather than having to go, okay, I need to have three of these two of these and one of these.
So I’m going to do a hot take here. I am actually a fourth edition apologist. I actually think fourth edition D&D is good. But one of the things I loved about Fourth edition D&D was exactly that – encounter design was so easy. You could just take bits and pieces and snap them together and make an encounter.
And so one of the things that always bugged me about challenge writing, for example, in 5e is that it’s a line buried in the monster manual. It says that challenge rating assumes that a challenge rating, say, 3 monster is equivalent to four level three characters. So it’s four of the party. It always bugged me because, at least anecdotally for me, most of my groups are either five or three players.
So that’s one of things I re-did with all my math is that I changed the challenge ratings equivalent. So if you have three level three characters and you throw 3 CR3 monsters in you’re going to have a good, really tough fight, but it’s survivable.
And that way it’s much easier to see because just add the levels of my players together and then put that number of CR in and I’ll have a good, solid, tough battle. And then yeah, like you said, like though the keywords are there for, “wow, this is much harder than I thought.” You can just flip some of those to minions and make them 1 HP if you want to mow them down, or if it’s really easy, make it higher. I also added in, pulling back from ancient history, but also something I think is getting a kind of renaissance is morale.
Because one of my goals also with this was I wanted to make charisma more useful because Pugmire is frankly a game where we’re talking and charisma is still not a useful stat in 5e as written.
So one of the things I wanted to do is I’ve reframed charisma to be about social awareness instead of just personality. So some of these saving throws and skill checks that fell to Wisdom for, “Hey, you can’t talk me out of this.” I’ve actually moved to Charisma.
So you’re aware of how they’re trying to socially maneuver you. And so all of the monsters have to make a Christmas saving throw to decide if they want to stay in the combat. And basically in each stat block is here’s the conditions in which they will make a morale check.
And most of them are “you hit this number of stamina points,” but sometimes it’s like all of your minions are down or your leader has fled. And also Guides can make up their own criteria if they want to. But again, it encourages players. Like if you have a tough fight, you don’t have to fight them til they’re dead.
You can scare them off and there are ways to kind of encourage them to flee. And it also gives Guides a way to kind of say, well, they just ran away if the fight’s getting a little too tough. But then the players don’t have to know that that’s not a Guide decision to go, oh, well, maybe they failed their morale check.
So by putting it into the mechanics, the social aspect takes a little more of a forward feeling in the game because again, I think something that Pugmire has, over time, proven does really well. And I just wanted to add something in that people could just say, Listen, I just want to talk to the evil tree thing and tell her to stop hurting my friends.
Right? And then you can make them check and go, okay, evil tree things not hurting your friends. You’ve convinced it!
Yeah, that’s great. Combat options, combat options, combat options. Huge fan of that. So with a second edition on the horizon, what will future Pugmire releases look like? Do you have any idea of what the future holds?
We do have a plan and of course no plans survive first contact with the industry. So I understand that all of this may change, but one of the things I am doing with Realms of Pugmire is that there’s now only one core rule book. It’s not split between Monarchies and Pugmire. Because one thing I noticed with Pirates [of Pugmire] and then with Squeaks in the Deep is that doing source books for both rule books became increasingly unwieldy and also just to be blunt, sales wise, people were buying Monarchies of Mau as if it were a supplement, not as a core rule book, which means that sales were probably easily half of that of Pugmire. So one of the things I did is that in the back of the book, there are ways to make cat and rodent characters using the core Pugmire rules to make emulated versions of those.
Again, now that I’ve made those rules, I could pull the bits and pieces that are absolutely necessary and say, you know, Intelligent: If you use the smart upbringing for rats, you can use, you know, the pointer upbringing to roughly equivalent that, you know, these spells are roughly equivalent to these spells for cats. But then what I’m going to do is I’m going to put out a dog, cat and rodent players guide.
And so for the cat and rodent players’ guides, those would be all the character creation rules for those characters rewritten from Monarchies of Mau, rewritten from Squeaks in the Deep, and are going to be then presented in there with of course all new information plus more. So if you want to play a full featured cat, all you need is Realms of Pugmire and the Cat Player’s Guide. If you want the full feature rodents, Pugmire and Rodent Player’s Guide.
The Dog Player’s Guide will be much more of a traditional players guide, which means new Callings, new spells, new tricks for characters. Kind of, you know, additional material for players that will also be useful for other species.
And then the setting material is going to be put out into campaign books. So there is going to be a Kingdoms of Pugmire setting book, and that’s going to have setting material as well as a long campaign, closer to the D&D campaign books that have been coming out the past few years. Monarchies of Mau will actually be then, you know, here’s all the monarchies, much were detail about the monarchies and then some adventure set in the monarchies that will link together to get you from level one to a certain point. Same with Squeeks in the Deep. So the second edition of those books are going to be a bit more in the mold of Pirates [of Pugmire], but larger. So that’s going to be here’s a whole bunch of setting material, here’s some new stuff. Each of them will probably, depending on how things go, feature a new playable species.
So right now I haven’t nailed down like, for example, like birds, birds seem to make a lot of sense in the Monarchies of Mau book. So if you want to play cats [go with the] Cats [book]. But then the setting book will also have an additional player type. It’s not going to be as prominent as the top three because I still feel it’s dogs then cats and rodents. And then the other playable options are kind of the rough tier that we will go with.
But I still want to continue to offer new options at a nice, steady pace. So I want to try to find species that map well with the setting that’s coming out because again, I think Pirate’s was a good model, but I think it was too slim a book. I was trying to do a lot in a very small space and some slightly bigger books can do a lot more.
So that’s kind of the current idea. And also we’re looking at partnering with people to do virtual tabletop support much sooner than we did previously. We’re looking at trying to get some more adventures together and there’s some other things we’re kicking around that haven’t quite been nailed down yet. But the main thing is that I went to design this book knowing that there were at least six, seven, eight books on the horizon. Not is this the only book I’m going to get.
So I could make some strategic decisions to say, okay, I need to put this into the book now because I need to build off of that for these books later.
That’s really interesting actually. So basically the second edition books are going to be updated and expanded versions of the books that have already come out?
Unless there’s something I need to get rid of or radically change, my goal is that eventually all the first edition material will get some kind of update to the second edition. Like Pirates is kind of a question mark at the moment. I think all of that material is going to get carved up and put into other places, but I don’t 100% know that yet.
And I also recognize that it will probably be a few years before these books come out. So I want to make sure that there’s time between you can still use those books. But yeah, eventually like the new Monarchies of Mau book, it will have all the setting material of Monarchies of Mau, but also a lot more because again, one of the areas that I’m a little unhappy about in retrospect is that each monarchy did not get much information.
And I mean, they are each a nation state. And I treated them like a neighborhood. So being able to say, cool, here’s ten pages on Mau. Here’s ten pages on Siberia and here’s ten pages on Rex. Being able to go a lot deeper into each of those and show the diversity and politics and the intrigues between those houses I think will do better and it will work better if those are all support books rather than trying to cram them all through core rulebooks like I did.
Similarly with the Kingdoms of Pugmire book I have never really talked much about Mutt Town or Houndton, and those areas that I’ve fleshed out in bits and pieces through support materials. But being able to say, “Here’s an actual map of Houndton and all the stuff around it, here’s the main players in Mutt Town, and here’s how all these different cities relate to each other.” Maybe even talk about some of the villages around.
Having a big meaty book that details all that and then gives you adventures and reasons to go through all those places and do interesting stuff in those places I think will better support and help to grow the world. So it’s not going to be like again, the first edition is going to ultimately, eventually become replaced because we’ll have this material, but it’s not going to be, oh, you’re buying the same stuff again. It’s going to always be that you’re getting a lot more. You’re getting this PLUS – every single time.
That leads me into the next question, which is crowdfunding. So is going to go to Kickstarter or will you be using another service?
Right now we’re looking at Kickstarter. Onyx Path actually has been looking at other services over the years. So I’ve been trying to be vague and just say “crowdfunding” because you never know. I’m not going to go into details, but there was one campaign, we went to one platform, it didn’t work out, so we had to quickly ship another platform.
So it’s better to say crowdfunding. But right now we’re still looking at Kickstarter and we’re actually looking at a late January release. But again, that depends on us getting our stuff together over the holidays. If, if Kickstarter approves it. And of course in all that, I’m in the process of moving from Atlanta, Georgia to London, England. So a lot moving pieces going on.
Yeah, there’s a whole ocean there!
Right? Because I am the best at planning, let me tell you.
Wow. Well, that’s exciting. So towards late January is when we can expect to see the Realms of Pugmire second edition coming out. I am very excited because I’ve been a fan of Pugmire since it was brought to my attention.
And honestly I wanted to say I’m glad we were able to do this because Saving Throw Show was one of the first channels to actually start playing Pugmire and it was a really huge boost during the early days. So you guys always have a soft spot in my heart because you’re one of the early adopters to be able to say, We really love this and we’re really excited about it.
That’s awesome. Thank you! We did one shots and we’ve done a couple short series and stuff. And I mean, just when you talk about having books that are going to have even more worldbuilding and more options coming out, that’s just super exciting to me because that was that was one of the best parts. Sort of building and playing Pugmire was, you know, you can take the animals that you know and you can kind of draft them into this kind of character and make it work.
And that was one of the things that just really touched me about it, but also just, you know, interested me about the whole system. So I’m stoked to see what happens next.
And actually that’s a good point. One of the changes I’m making, I forgot to mention when I first made the game, I was thinking people would approach it a little like a traditional role playing game, and that’s why we had ready made characters in there. So here’s some characters you can play right away or act as inspirations for your characters.
But your point is something I’ve seen constantly over the past six years is that most people are more inclined to make their own animals as their player characters. So I actually pulled the pre-made characters out and now I have what I call template character creation at the end which can be random if you want to make a completely random character. But otherwise you pick and choose packages and then just write the information down.
And basically it’s a step by step chart. It’s like you pick your upbringing and then you write down all the stuff on your character sheet and then you pick a concept and you write down all the stuff on your character sheets and keep going through making choices. You write down on your character sheet and again, about 10 minutes later, you have a full character at the end because I wanted people who wanted to make their dog but didn’t want to be overwhelmed with full character creation. Or to be able to say, okay, well, my dog’s kind of mischievous so Ratter looks right, so you write some stuff down.
I don’t know what I’m writing down, but it’s relevant and they can look up all the rules at the end. So it kind of makes some decisions for people who want to just try to emulate their dog as fast as possible. And also for people who like are doing quick pickup game or whatever. That’s the other reason why I did it.
And also as a designer, I’ve been getting really enamored with random design systems again after 20 years and seeing some of the values in them. It’s interesting to get back to that stage, but the initial design was that, yeah, like you said, most people want to play their dogs and I love that. I think it’s an amazing thing because I have seen so many people who didn’t like role playing because they couldn’t get their head around playing a fictional character.
And I pointed out, when you’re talking to your dog and you’re doing silly voices for your dog, that’s real. Playing.
Yeah, exactly! That’s why I feel Pugmire is a really good intro for RPGs. It’s a concept that people already kind of have that innate ability to role play, especially with their pets, and it just kind of brings that out because they already know this character. They live this character really, you know, and it’s not even like, oh, it’s this heightened version of myself.
It’s my dog or it’s my cat, you know, and that I know I don’t have anybody talking back to me about what that character is, you know, it’s just what I see. So it’s a very kind of primal ability. That’s what I really like about it.
Well, that’s all exciting and I am stoked for all of it! But what I really want to talk about is your advocacy for people with hearing loss.
What does that look like and has that crossed over into how you design RPGs?
Oh, absolutely. So I have had hearing loss pretty much my entire life. I actually have a bone-anchored hearing aid on the side of my head here because my hearing loss is profound enough that over the ear hearing aids just weren’t quite sufficient for my needs. So I actually have a device, it’s basically a titanium stud in my skull. And then there’s a little speaker that clips on to it that vibrates my skull. So sound actually is vibrating on my head. It’s super cool. I’m really excited it’s Bluetooth enabled and everything. I love it. Yeah.
But one thing I noticed is that hearing loss is usually an invisible disability, and particularly the way that hearing loss is marketed to people, particularly the elderly, as kind of a shameful disability. And so a lot of hearing aids will actually have features like “You can’t see it! People won’t even realize you’re wearing it.” So it’s a very different disability from like, say, eye weakness.
Glasses are so normalized, whereas hearing aids aren’t. So I noticed that lots of times people wouldn’t even realize that I had this disability. And so around the time when I got the bone-anchored hearing and I’m like, Well, gig’s up, you know, I can’t really hide this anymore. I was really trying to hide it.
But now people are always going to know that something is wrong and they’re going to correctly equate it with my hearing. And so I said, I’m going to start kind of talking about this a bit more and more open about it. And I actually started because I worked on a few video game projects and one of them happened to have a character with hearing loss in it and they hired me to write and I said well, funny you should mention that I also happen to have hearing loss. And let me tell you all the things doing wrong.
Right? Exactly. And I realized that that’s something that I could do more about. And so it’s something I’ve been a little more vocal about. Some role playing games I’ve worked on I’ve actually had the designers come back to me and consult with me on specific, they say, art choices to represent a deaf or people with hearing loss.
I’ve tried to work more characters with hearing loss or characters who were deaf into my writing and my character designs, and also I try to just basically normalize disability. And I’m tactical about that, right? There are certain games where I talk about it differently than other games. So Pirates of Pugmire, for example, like you mentioned, there’s basically a sidebar saying, Yeah, pirates have disabilities, they have peg legs and they have claw hands and stuff.
And basically it’s like it’s exactly as impaired to that as much as you want it to. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t because that’s how pirates in fiction work, right? Because Long John Silver just gets around just fine with a peg leg. So I wanted to call it out and say disability matters. This is a game where you see a lot of disability, treat it respectfully, but otherwise have fun.
Don’t worry about it, because that’s not the game where you want to really dig deep into that. Separately I wrote on and developed a game called Trinity Continuum: Anima which is a cyberpunk game and of course we’re going to talk about cyberware. And as a side note, it was really fun writing a game about being traumatized by a massive world event and being stuck indoors for long periods of time with that was a rite of passage. So that was a really fun time, I tell you what!
We talked a lot about disability and so how we positioned cyberware was pretty different from a lot of cyberpunk games. If you are using it as assistive aid, it just works. We’re far enough in the future at this point that assistive aids more or less work and if it’s there to replicate or emulate abled ability, it just does.
And you could just see you have cyber limb and go on with your life. If you want your cyber limbs to be funky, like shoot bullets or spikes or to eavesdrop on people from a mile away, then yeah. You’ll need to add points on those because that’s a superpower effectively at this point. But it’s very clear Cyberware has to do something special that’s beyond abled ability before it actually matters mechanically.
But also the big conceit around Anima was a mental implant and I actually got some people who were neuro-atypical to write in the book because I wanted to make sure that we’re talking about that. It’s like how can we present that accurately? And one of the things that was exciting but also concerning when we wrote about it was that we developed some extremely exciting ways or extremely encouraging ways that I want to have this in my head because it can dispense medication, a very specific level directly into your brain, without having to remember to take your pills.
It can help to manage and cut off excessive stimuli so that you won’t become overstimulated. It will allow you to directly put information into your brain. So you don’t have to worry about the anxiety about remembering people’s names or pronouns all that stuff could be directly regulated. And it can also rewrite your memories, but let’s just not worry about that part, you know?
So if you could see why people would want to have this adopted, to set up the whole conceit of now everyone has this and there are weird things going wrong with this. But that all stems from me starting from thinking about how I represent disability? How do I represent it in my work, how do I help other people understand it?
And so just being able to talk to people about it, and also because I’ve been open about it, I have found a lot of other disability advocates, which has been great because sometimes people say, ask me how to represent X, and I’m like, not disabilities are the same, I can’t tell you how to represent this specific disability. I can tell you about the disabled experience, which is also complex and multi textured, but I can say generally don’t do these things. But if you want some sort of example, talk to my friend over here who’s an advocate on this specific disability.
It’s fascinating because I think people get hung up on accurate representation. People kind of feel like, oh, if you’re going to put something like that in, you’re going to have issues playing the game or whatever. But you don’t. You can have it and still play a game normally.
And that was like, for example, I had the ability to consult on Cyberpunk Red, which I was excited by because I’ve been a huge Cyberpunk 2020 fan for most of my life. It wasn’t much work. I just kind of looked over it and they asked me, will you look over this point?
And I was one of several people they approached about disability counsel, which is fantastic. I have nothing but praise for R. Talsorian for for taking those steps, especially because the way those were represented in the 90s has not aged well and they wanted to do better. So I respect that. But I remember one of the conversations we talked about was finding the right level of fiction for assistive devices because my implant is a very rudimentary cyborg functionally, right?
It’s like I have a metal device in my head and it has electronic components associated with it. And I’m like, I don’t think people want to roleplay things like I have to clean around my implant every day. And for a while I had to take drugs to avoid rejection and there’s a two week period where I do adjust to hearing things in double because I’m hearing through my ears and through my skull. So my brain actually adapted to that.
That’s all really part of the experience of having hearing loss. But they want to, from a fiction perspective, from the I want to portray this experience authentically and respectfully. You don’t need to go into that detail. You need to go into the fact that, okay, it’s not the abled experience and it is distinct from the abled experience.
How do we reflect the distinctions as they matter to the game and then ignoring the rest because the disability identity is actually, I think, unique amongst all other marginalized identities in the fact that it’s not an identity that everyone has for their entire life. And it’s also not something you were always born with. Sometimes you are but sometimes people get them later in life.
And going from abled to disabled people have lots of different reactions to that. And sometimes they’re really negative like I joke to people as a matter of course, people are like, Oh man, it must be cool to be able to mute people on the train. Yeah, let me tell you all the awesome things I can do because I have a hearing aid.
I mean, I joke about that, but at the end of the day, I would love to have abled hearing, right, I don’t want to live like this, but I have lived my whole life like this. I don’t know if I would be the same person if I had abled hearing. My identity would change. And so part of portraying disability respectfully is understanding that some people are indeed really angry at their disability and some people want to dig into that.
But you don’t want the game to tell you, no no, you should be mad about this or you should feel like less of a person about that. The characters should make those decisions. And so that’s a big design distinction. You don’t want to have a game like, say GURPS, I’m just going to pick on GURPS for a second, that’s like, yeah, you’re blind, so you get ten points to, you know, do computers better, but otherwise you deal with it.
Instead, you want the player to go, okay, so I actually want to deal with the fact that my character had sight and is now blind. And so please give me penalties. Please make it harder for me because I want to overcome those that want to to work through that experience.
And if everyone at the table’s okay with that and as long as it’s being played respectfully, that’s great. But then if another player is like, okay, well, I’m missing leg, I just want to be a bad ass fighter, can I just get a cyber leg on it and call it a day? They should also have that option.
It’s when disability gets sort of compromised by the character creation economy and used as a sort of funding source to do other things. That’s where, I feel, it kind of steps over a line.
And that was a lot of 80s/90s-era game design.
Oh yeah! Well, we’re just about out of time. Thank you for talking with me. What else, other than Pugmire second edition, which I’m sure is taking 60 hours a week to go through, are you up to?
The short answer is you can always go to my website https://pugsteady.com, and that’s kind of where my stuff is. And I do have a monthly newsletter, if people want to get more of a regular update on what I’m doing. But the high level is aside from Pugmire, I am also the executive producer of Onyx Path Publishing and like you said, I have touched at this point just about every game Onyx Path makes.
I have written on World of Darkness, Chronicles of Darkness. Most of the Trinity Games, Scion, They Came from Beneath the Sea and the equivalent games. So while my job as producer is also to make sure those games are going, people are getting the resources they have and all that stuff going on, making sure the new games are getting out to the light of day and are putting out in a sustainable way.
I am currently consulting with a company called the Bodhana Group who are a group devoted to using tabletop role-playing games in therapeutic settings. And they’re in the process of creating their own role playing game that Onyx Path is going to publish called Branch Riders. And so basically I’m the person coming on as the team’s person who’s made games before and be like, cool, that’s really great, but how can you actually make this and do you have the money to do this? And have you thought about the design behind this? So crushing their dreams, which is, which is great fun.
Yeah. Always a good place to be.
And then every once in a while I also write scripts for the YouTube channel Extra Credits, where I talk about various parts of the tabletop industry. In fact, earlier this year  I did a video called Paper-pocalypse where I talked about all of the things the pandemic had done to screw up the industry in 2021, and it turns out it got worse in 2022!
So it was great to look at that video. It’s actually more optimistic than what actually happened. So I’m sorry about that.
I thought, Well, thank you so much. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me and chat. It was amazing, as usual.
Thank you for having me. I always love being under that.
Yeah, well, we’ll always have you back and very much looking forward to Pugmire second edition. Bye!