What Do I Know About Reviews? Squeaks in the Deep (Realms of Pugmire)
If you haven’t encountered Pugmire before, the game uses a modified version of the 5e OGL that is the basis of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of aligning classes, feats, and the like to the core rules, however, Pugmire chops up a bunch of 5e elements and makes them a bit more modular. This particular product is a supplement for both Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau, the two core rulebooks for the Realms of Pugmire line. This product is similar to Pirates of Pugmire, in that it is not a full ruleset by itself, and requires one of those two core rulebooks to use.
Squeaks in the Deep introduces Rats and Mice as player options, as well as introducing new class options specific to those species, with an emphasis on introducing psychic powers. In addition to Rats, Mice, and mental abilities, this supplement also introduces The Underneath, the vast underground realms that run under established surface nations like Pugmire or Mau.
I was a Kickstarter backer for this product, and I am working from the copy provided to me from the Kickstarter. I was not provided a review copy of this product. I have not used the material in this product, but I have run Pugmire, and played both Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau in the past.
Sometimes the presence of cute anthropomorphic animals causes people to assume game content is going to be light and upbeat. While this is true of all of the Pugmire books so far, Squeaks in the Deep, especially, deals with a lot of potentially difficult subjects. Not only is it dealing with the marginalizations of populations and species supremacy, there are also some truly disturbing instances of body horror and graphic violence in some sections of this book. This may be doubly troublesome for some, since body horror combined with anthropomorphic animals can be potentially troubling on multiple axes.
Squeaks in the Deep
Developer: Eddy Webb
Writers: Dixie Cochran, Alison Cybe, Joshua Alan Doetsch, Travis Legge, Jessica Marcrum, Eddy Webb, and Rob Wieland
Editor: Maria Cambone
Art: Pat Loboyko, Laura Galli, Luka Brico, Shen Fei, Andrea Payne, Jeff Laubenstein, Richard Thomas
Art Director: Meredith Gerber
Creative Director: Richard Thomas
This review is based on the PDF version of Squeaks in the Deep. The PDF is 160 pages long. This includes a credits page, a three-page table of contents, two pages of introductory fiction, a full-page OGL statement, and two pages for the example character sheet.
The book is filled with half or quarter-page artwork of different anthropomorphic animals, often in cavernous environments. Sidebars and notes are often presented as actual writing from characters in the setting, along with sidebars that have images of the character providing commentary on the rules.
I have loved the format, layout, and art on all of the Pugmire products, and this continues in the same traditions. It’s clear and engaging, and while it doesn’t look like the formatting often found in D&D 5e third-party supplements, it still has its own comprehensible way of presenting its material. I think the look goes a long way to convey the idea that this is a very unique spin on the rules from which they iterate.
This supplement has the following sections:
- Chapter One: Letter Between Friends
- Chapter Two: Rodent Characters
- Chapter Three: Psionics
- Chapter Four: Life in the Margins
- Chapter Five: Guide Advice
- Chapter Six: The Underneath
- Chapter Seven: Enemies
- Chapter Eight: A Confluence of Cults
This Corner of the Setting
Squeaks in the Deep is juggling several things at once, but all of those things are tied together via the story of the rodent characters in the setting. Rats and Mice live in both Pugmire and the Monarchies of Mau, and are often treated poorly, living on the margins of society. Not only are they smaller than a lot of other uplifted animals, but there is a general assumption that the Cult of Labor Tor is prevalent among the rodent population.
In addition to living among Dogs and Cats, some rodents live in The Underneath, a series of caverns and underground locations that are expansive, and little known to the Dogs and Cats of the setting. The Underneath is the home of lost laboratories, hidden lore, and weird, alien creatures. Despite this, some rodents live The Underneath, and use the tunnels and passages to navigate between the settlements of other uplifted animals.
Much of the story of the rodents of the setting revolves around working with sympathetic Dogs and Cats to better their places in society, and finding lost knowledge and technology in deep to learn the truths of the world. While Dogs worship Man as lost deities, and Cats view Man as a species that was ascendent, but made Cats their equal, Rats and Mice are less mystical in their views, being much more likely to see humans as a species that advanced knowledge but may have reached further than they should have in their experimentations.
The Cult of Labor Tor isn’t as practical as much of the rodent population. They believe that humans left behind a set number of sacred scientific secrets that they need to rediscover in order to ascend. The Cult performs experiments as religious service, and doesn’t see restraint or safety in the practice of science as a virtue.
I love that each installment of the Realms of Pugmire books have provided a different point of view. No one society is absolutely correct in their view of the world, and all of them have positive and negative aspects to their worldview. In many cases, this worldview is centered on the inherent rightness of the society in question, which is, in turn, questioned by another society in the setting. This means that, on a broad scale, the setting is much less about finding out who is right, rather than finding out what is true.
If you want to know how profoundly this hit me, in my Pugmire game, I was happy with the theme of the Cult of Labor Tor causing problems between Dogs and Cats, and using the Cult as the force that was agitating tension between the societies. Now that I’ve read this book, I feel guilty for not introducing a rodent point of view that wasn’t entirely the Cult of Labor Tor, given how often both cultures reduce all rodents to potential members of the cult. I respect anything that causes that kind of retrospection.
Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau introduced multiple families of Dogs and Cats from which characters could draw their traits. Rodents are a bit more constrained, with a choice between Rats and Mice, with specific upbringings available to them. Mice have Speedy, Wise, and Charming available to them, while Rats have Strong, Robust, and Smart available as choices. These choices provide ability score bonuses for the character.
Because of the modularity of Pugmire, just about every character choice allows a character a new set of knacks that they can choose to learn as they level up. For example, as the character advances, they might take knacks (basically feats/class abilities) based on their calling, type, or background. Because rodents often live among other uplifted animals, they gain access to backgrounds that appear in Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau as options, as well as the rodent-specific choices, deep dweller, field rodent, or refugee. The only background options they are barred from are acolyte, disciple, or noble, since they aren’t likely to be part of the ruling or religious class of the societies where they dwell.
The following callings (basically character classes) are available to rodent characters:
- Analyst (careful and precise knowledge gathering psions)
- Psychic (psychics with flashier effects like healing, body modifications, or energy damage)
- Rascal (roguish characters focused on physical pursuits)
- Ruffian (front line fighters)
- Strategist (sort of a clinical bard or warlord)
- Trickster (roguish characters focused on technical ability)
An interesting aspect of all of these callings is that in addition to gaining calling-specific knacks presented in this book, each of them has a list of other callings from Monarchies of Mau or Pugmire from which they can also draw knacks. I appreciate that while this lets them save some design space by referencing previous material, it also lines up with the “story” for rodents, as they pick up knowledge from the societies that they live within.
While some of the callings are more dedicated psychic characters, the knacks available to Mice and Rats allow almost any of them to have their naturally occurring psychic powers awakened. As with the previous Pugmire offerings, this means that when a character gains a level, they have access to things that feel like traditional class abilities, but they might also take knacks based on their upbringing or their background. Not only does this allow for some customization, it also means that characters can “multi-class” without having multi-class rules, at least to a limited degree.
Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau both have proprietary spellcaster archetypes, and spells that are slightly different for each society based on the spellcaster using them, psionics are more differentiated from the magic of Dogs and Cats. While they mechanically work the same way, with a character spending a number of their available slots equal to the level of the power to trigger the power, the magic of Dogs and Cats cannot detect psionics as magic, and it can’t dispel or counter psionic abilities.
This is an interesting distinction in the setting, given that even though Dogs and Cats may see their abilities as magic, it’s actually the manipulation of artifacts to access ancient technological abilities left behind by Man. Rodents understand that their psychic abilities are inborn and based on science, and it’s the disconnect between internally generated psychic abilities and externally generated technology that makes the two types of power incompatible.
Psychic abilities all have a “tell,” in part to compensate for the idea that Dogs and Cats will be saying words, making gestures, presenting objects, dancing, etc. to cast their spells. In this case, psionics will have a “tell” that appeals to one of a creature’s senses. A psychic’s eyes might glow, they might let off a low hum, or a specific scent may come off of them when they are using their powers.
Psionics are divided into the following colleges:
- Galvanism (energy manipulation)
- Humorism (body modification)
- Insight (divinations and sense modifications)
- Parapsychology (illusion, communication, direct psychic damage, dimensional barrier manipulation)
Just like spells in Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau, there are “basic” psychic abilities that don’t require slots to use, which are effectively cantrips, and powers that range from 1st to 5th level, requiring from one to five slots to be spent to manifest them.
Exploring the Underneath
There are several tools provided for exploring the Underneath. There are several encounter regions that can be placed into any location the PCs are exploring, as well as passages with some basic traits that the Guide and slot in between larger locations to add details to long-term travel.
The encounter areas run the gamut from monster lairs for the new creatures introduced in this book, to a fairly large Great Laboratory area that is populated by members of the Cult of Labor Tor. There are also a few sample settlements included in this section, so if you want a place to allow your characters to rest and restock, you can always have that next randomly generated tunnel lead to a friendly town of eyeless Mice that think nothing exists in the universe except their settlement.
The Great Laboratory, especially, shines in this section, as it is a full synthesis of creepy horror, weird science, and the kind of humor shot through the rest of the Pugmire books. For example, because many of the uplifted animals don’t have context for the societal elements left behind by Man, you have instances like the Science Fair being the most sacred time of the year for the Cult, and when presentations are made during this time, the cult chants the holy chant of Dio’Rama. I especially appreciate the intercom message where it is announced that an indescribable creature has escaped, and the voice on the intercom proceeds to fail terribly at trying to describe it.
This is, however, also where the book gets its most gruesome. There are some wonderfully sick experiments that backfire on the scientists, which may not work for everyone. However, the most disturbing instances in this section are those places where the members of the Cult aren’t the ones suffering from the horrible backlash of their experiments.
I really like how this section is structured, and I would love to see more “Underdark” style areas detailed in this manner. I like the idea that you can pick an encounter zone A and B, and then decide how many different hallways the PCs encounter, with their unique hazards, and you have yourself a few days of exploration.
This section also introduces an additional player option, one of the Mice of Allthere’is, the eyeless Mice from the settlement mentioned above. This is housed in this section because the Guide may not want this as a general option until the PCs have had a chance to find Allthere’is on their own.
This section includes a wide variety of adversaries, including many that have lairs detailed in the previous section. There is a range of Rat and Mouse NPCs to use in the game, as well as Technological devices waiting to latch onto a creature’s nervous system, robot dragons that freeze things and collect samples in their “bellies,” multi-headed crystalline birds, swarms of biting doll heads, hungry caves, plants that grow through people, and of course, phoophs.
Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau have a section on creating Legendary creatures, but unlike D&D 5e Legendary creatures, this was mainly a function of doubling or tripling the damage done by the creature, or the stamina points that creature has. The dynamic battles section of the book introduces the concept of adding actions at the end of the round, divided up into either environmental or adversarial. There aren’t specific examples of these, but it’s good to see the design space officially “open” for Pugmire games.
One of the things I really appreciate about Realms of Pugmire adventures that I have seen is how the scenes are structured. There are usually a series of bullet points summarizing how the PCs got to this scene, what the point of the scene is, what the obstacles are, and what scene or scenes characters might go to depending on how this scene is resolved. It makes for a very approachable adventure design.
One of the reasons that I mention this is that the example adventure puts this structure to good use, because it can be started in either Pugmire or the Monarchies of Mau, and then it converges into The Underneath depending on the clues that the characters pick up in both locations.
The adventure really plays into the themes introduced in this supplement. Rodents are caught in the middle between Cats and Dogs. The climax of the action is in The Underneath. The antagonist is a rodent that was originally part of the Cult of Labor Tor, and it involves extremist cults from both Pugmire and Mau that both believe in the supremacy of their species. The PCs have to find out what the rogue rodent scientist is doing to agitate increased presence from The Unseen (invisible demons that plague the setting), before the local cults throw both nations into war against one another.
This supplement really brings the Realms of Pugmire full circle. While rodents may not be the political force that Dogs and Cats are, they are ever present in the setting, and the only real glimpses we’ve had of them in the past is in their function as antagonists. If the greatest strength of the Pugmire line is that it portrays multiple points of view, then this is an exemplary product to display that strength. In addition to having rules and elements that flow well into the narrative that has been established, the modular way that The Underneath has been presented as a space to explore makes it extremely flexible, as well as easy to implement.
I would have liked a few more examples of using Dynamic actions in a game, possibly with a few more general samples that might be bolted on to different encounters. While you can always look to D&D design for inspiration, the numbers between the two games don’t work exactly the same, and you’ll have to do some adjusting on the fly if you take some established Legendary or Lair actions to convert them.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
As much as I love Pirates of Pugmire, and I don’t want to disrespect all of the fine lizards and birds out there, this feels more like the perspective piece that best highlights the trends that were started in Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau. In addition to being a solid addition to the Pugmire line, the adventure design and the modular exploration tools for use with the Underneath are worth a look for anyone playing in similar level-based fantasy exploration games.
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