Why Pigsmoke, PBTA role-playing game on a magical university, can't do everything that was proposed? And not even half of what was proposed?
I am hesitant to say that a game is badly made. Especially if I find out that it is bad after buying it. In a way in which we all want to show ourselves smart, fashionable and competent, taking such a blunder is not beautiful. Especially if you spent money on it, especially if you spent it twice taking first the English edition and then the Italian one.
I'm talking about Pigsmoke.
What is Pigsmoke about?
A role playing game Sourcerous Academia. Published by Certain Death in 2017, written by Chris Longhurst, distributed in Italy by Space orange 42.
Su Pigsmoke they play the teachers of a magical university called Pigsmoke. These professors and professors will have to face all the inconveniences and oddities of a university where skeletons in the closet (real), failed alchemical experiments, mysterious magical artifacts, and of course the inevitable young people chosen are on the agenda. But not only! In addition to the magical challenges, there are also problems with the very slow university bureaucracy, the nepotism of the barons, the favors to be done to those in duty, and the inevitable publications. The goal of the characters of Pigsmokein fact, it is obtaining the mystic Fixed Place, including professorship, assistant and decent salary.
Therefore, Pigsmoke is a role-playing game that is characterized by its two souls. On the one hand it is evidently inspired by magic schools to Hogwarts, with all the problems that can face those who live in the Wizarding world. On the other, Pigsmoke wants to propose the stressful life of a researcher, who teaches at the university, but without yet having a permanent job, and therefore is at the mercy of bigger fish. All this, of course, is seasoned with a good dose of irony.
Two words on the Italian edition of Pigsmoke
I have both the English version, taken with the Kickstarter, than the Italian one. The need to purchase the Italian version emerged with the fact that the author used a very specific vocabulary to refer to the bureaucratic part of university life and I needed a professional to translate certain expressions into Italian in order to facilitate the game for everyone. Red Tapefor example, it is the name of a move that describes the interaction with the bureaucracy, because for some reason in the Anglo-Saxon world if you say "red ribbon" everyone understands having to do with a monolithic and Byzantine bureaucracy; unfortunately, we needed an equivalent in Italian that I was unable to find on my own.
At any rate the Italian edition was accurate, with all the limitations of a translation, and is very faithful to the original. I am very happy, for example, that they kept the original illustrations inside (something never to be taken for granted in the panorama of indie publishing of the GDR), and that they also kept the two essays present in the game.
Unfortunately they have not done a good job with regards to i player's aid, since one booklet had been copied in place of another and totally lacked a sheet with the basic moves common to all players, which is the basis of the game.
But I'm not here to talk about the materials, but about the game itself.
Session 0: the funniest part of the game
In many PBTA (role-playing games with the Apocalypse Worldthat is I'm Powered By The Apocalypse) it's as fun to make characters as much as to create them. In this game, the zero session where the characters are created and the school is particularly fun.
The characters are made by combining two booklets. There are in fact the booklets that determine what kind of academic you are: the slacker, the sgobbone, the super popular one, the university baron or the one who lives on reflected glory. The roundup of booklets in this section will make you understand that you are going to play horrible people, or at least decent people. Then there are the department booklets, which indicate the magical specialties of your field of study: Divination, Alchemy, Fantastic Beasts, Spells & Illusions and more.
I found them very nice, and unlike role booklets they can be shared by the characters. So, there can't be two Sgobboni at the table, but there can be two professors of Relics and Enchanted Objects, maybe one is a Baron and the other an Intrallazzatore. This idea of the two booklets is nice, because it generates many combinations of characters (a good thing for the longevity of the game) and allows you to possibly have a couple of characters under the same academic roof, which is the closest thing to relationships in this game.
Another very fun part of session 0 is create school, the rector and the departments. You do this by answering questions in the manual and if you have players with a taste and a sense of humor, nice ideas will come out.
The only flaw of the game are the bonds: there are a couple of questions to be answered that are used to create NPCs related to your character, strange starting situations or possible subplots but they do not have a strong impact on game mechanics such as bonds in Dungeon World or the strings in Monster hearts. This causes characters to be created that have no strong ties to the other players' PCs and this will impact the game a little.
The rest of Pigsmoke: problems
Here things start not too beautiful.
The ending of Pigsmoke: the permanent position as an alternative to enhancing the character
First of all, the game has one final mechanics: when the character completes the track of tenure he will become a tenured professor, nobody will undo him from his professorship and therefore his earthly worries will end. He will greet the characters as he ascends to the academic Olympus.
Many PBTAs have a similar mechanism. They are such as becoming an adult super hero in Masks, or withdrawing your character safely in Apocalypse World. But this is provided as an alternative among the advancements to choose from, usually among the "advanced" advancements that can be unlocked after a certain experience threshold. In Pigsmoke instead it works differently: every time you have filled the experience track (five boxes) you can empty the last box (going back to four) and mark the one in the track of tenure (consisting of ten boxes).
Basically, postpone unlocking advancements to advance the career track, placing it as an alternative therefore to the advancement of the character, and not as a consequence of the character. "I experience, I grow as a character, I become a tenured professor"; this process would make sense, but instead the game lets you choose between improving the character and being able to withdraw it. In the time that a player has gained three advancements another can say "Boom! I'm role-playing, goodbye beggars! " . Which leaves me a little stunned.
The problem is complicated when you go to see how you experience it Pigsmoke.
Get experience on Pigsmoke: extremely slow growth
It marks itself experience in three cases: when we publish research, when we teach and when we are victims of mental compulsion. Let's analyze these methods in detail, starting from the last.
Experience through submitting to a mental compulsion
When a player use a move with the tag "compulsion" he is using a move that alters people's behavior. If you do it on a player, the player can do "naah", or behave as imposed by the player and score experience.
This is the rarest way to experience for a player, because it depends on whether another player has a move with this tag (symbolized by a nice brain), who wants to use it on your game and you prefer to experience it (and that what he says) rather than behaving as you want. In fact, in two campaigns of Pigsmoke, no one has ever experienced this way so far.
Experience through publication of articles: a very slow way
Another way of experiencing is publish an article of magical studies. Funny isn't it? NO.
Before publishing you will have to fill a special track (not marked on the card) of sources to be collected to complete your studies. The only way to fill it is to make a hit with the move Dig deeper, which adds one or three points on the track (of six boxes to fill in). Experiencing in this case requires being successful on the move two to six times, and having time to do it. Indeed, Dig deeper it's a move exhausting, and such a move can only be made once a week.
To publish you can also resort to help from other characters who will contribute to the paper, and it is the only thing in the game that comes close to a form of collaboration between players. This mechanic means that every two to six weeks of play (if you do more than a week per session, congratulations to you!) You can have a publication, and therefore score an experience point. Yay!
Experience through teaching
The last way to experience is the most constant: use the move Inseparare. It can be done once a week (but it isn't time consuming), and guarantees with success to make a valuable experience box. It will therefore be the most used move in the game, made practically every week of the game. The point is that it is written really badly. In fact, to be a frequent move it is written like this:
When you teach, whether it's a lesson or a seminar, roll + Charisma. With a 10+ everything goes according to plan and you can score experience. With 7-9 experience marks, but one of your students will look for you in your office to submit an uncomfortable problem or question. If you don't solve their problems, the resulting stress or complaints will force you to mark a Exhaustion Tick.
Therefore, To teach it doesn't offer different choices, alternatives, mechanics. The outcome in case of 7-9 is always that of a problem in class, which the facilitator must invent every time and without examples provided by the manual. Imagine a similar move, used by all players at almost every session: repetitive, not very varied and whose outcome is difficult to determine in short terms. The consequences of the move can go a long way, with the risk of losing it. And the exhaustion track is the only way you can lose your character, so there is also a risk factor.
In other PBTAs, gaining experience is not the goal of the move, but an accessory fact (when, for example, you pull on marked characteristics such as in Apocalypse World) to the move, or a form of compensation for bankruptcy (as in Dungeon World where experience is scored at every 6-). Instead, by To teach experiencing is the goal of the move, and instead of making moves as a reaction to what happens or to achieve one's goals, it is done only to experience. I didn't like this conformation of moves very much, I must say. In fact, I find that the concept of PBTAs is quite distorted.
Assess a situation: the strange version of Pigsmoke
Another unusual thing is the alteration of a type of move that exists in all PBTAs. Assess a situation, also known by other names, is the classic move in which the character obtains information on the situation and the surrounding environment by asking questions from a list to which the master must answer.
In Pigsmoke the move that takes its place is Dig deeper, which has as primary use to ask questions to the MC about the various unusual facts that happen in the university, but which is mainly used to accumulate (instead of questions) sources to complete their research. The bad thing is that the move remains time consuming even when it should be used to collect non-research information. So, Dig deeper it can always be done only once in the whole week and in theory it would keep the character busy for all his free time. So every week your PC will have to decide whether to investigate some mystery that happens on campus, or to do his job.
In this sense, remember a lot Ars Magica, where you begin to reluctantly send your wizard to adventure because this would have meant that he would not remain to study and become a more powerful wizard.
The academy, this unknown
One thing I noticed is that the game also has few ways to make characters interact with each other: I'm not part of a group like in Masks, are not competing for the same resources as in Apocalypse World, are not mercenaries with a single target like in The Sprawl nor in the same class as in Monster hearts. Each in its own department, to look after its own research and academic achievements, without really competing with others (it is not that there is only one chair). The characters could each go their own way and never cross each other without doing anything wrong.
The master is invited to propose interdepartmental research to which multiple subjects collaborate, and can use its moves to group or divide them, but it is forced and certainly not spontaneous as a thing. The only way players can help each other (there is no move to help each other, unlike many other PBTAs) is to participate in research together, but it ends there. Having no deadline to present their studies and being able to open an infinite number of projects, this cooperation is not mandatory.
Let's say that's not the case in academia: there are a lot of deadlines and deadlines to be respectedwhich is a source of considerable stress for young academics. Moreover, it's strange not to see competition for university resources and funds. In fact, for some research it will be necessary to ask for further funds to Pigsmoke, but this will in no way affect the funds available to other departments, lowering the level of competition between the characters.
Speaking stress, it must be remembered that although accumulating stress is the only way to lose characters the master cannot inflict it directly on the players. Only moves in which it is possible to take it as an option inflict stress, and always at the choice of the players.
Magic and academic life: two universes that communicate little
Pigsmoke aims to combine two very different narratives in one game. First of all, there is the Potterian narrative, but on the teachers' side, with all the problems related to the use of magic. Secondly, there is the will to reproduce academic life in a realistic way. This bivalent approach would not be a problem in itself, but it becomes a problem when magical and academic moves struggle to meet.
In fact, in some cases to play Pigsmoke it appears very worldly, since the moves to teach or to research alone offer no magic cue. In these contexts, which, let us remember, are those with which it is possible to experience and therefore should be privileged, every magical or supernatural aspect of the work is left to the imagination of the player.
Therefore, it seems that two can be played Pigsmoke. The first is the one in which one experiences, and it is the more purely academic one, where magic plays a marginal role, more of flavor than anything else. This Pigsmoke Academic tends to be very repetitive, since it requires that the characters always make the same two moves each week: teaching and doing research. The second one Pigsmoke it is one in which one enjoys using magic, creating absurd situations and strange magical hitches. This Pigsmoke it is much more varied, but it prevents you from gaining experience, unless the players are all charmers who control people's minds.
The problem, therefore, is that these two Pigsmoke they cannot be played together.
As for Undying we are faced with a product released too early on the market and without enough playtest. This Kickstarter product attracted a lot for what it promised to do, but once played out of a one-shot it reveals all its weaknesses.
Pigsmoke he would like to give a limited experience, ie he would tell a very specific type of story. However, he can't do that either. The reported academic life is not academic enough. Magical life is not magical enough. And most importantly, the two do not meet well.
A complete overhaul of the experience system could be the first step towards a significant improvement. In addition, it is absolutely necessary to insert a deadline system for the publication of a research, and to give for each research the needs to be satisfied (equipment, experiments, and the like). Finally, it is essential to significantly improve the move of Teaching, giving it more examples of negative consequences.
If you play Pigsmoke with people who are inside academic life, like students or professors, expect some bleeding. If you are a gamer who enjoys homebrew, get your hands on this game and let us know.