Pigsmoke is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that… well frankly that I didn’t understand reading the blurbs. It looked intriguing and I kept seeing it suggested, but I also found it impossible to pin down even digging into it a little bit. If you’re in that boat, or if this review is the first time you’ve heard of Pigsmoke but you’re willing to stick around, then allow me to say why you should check this game out.
To start things off, here’s the authors’ pitch for Pigsmoke:
Pigsmoke is a roleplaying game about being the faculty at Pigsmoke – America’s Foremost College Of Magic. When you play it, you and your friends will tell a story about a handful of plucky academics and their struggles against the vicissitudes of faculty life as they pursue tenure and the stability that comes with it. Also, those academics can cast spells. This does not make anything easier for them.
My pitch is somewhat simpler: Have you read the Harry Potter books and thought: “When do these brats do their homework? Who’s running this place?” Does that thought seem more interesting than the main plot, or at least as interesting? Then play this game.
Basically, Pigsmoke is the whole magical college deal (from Harry Potter, but also The Magicians or even the Percy Jackson series) but with a jaded, reversed sort of perspective. There might be ancient prophecies unfolding and dark wizards waking up but your characters aren’t really dealing with that stuff. You’re dealing with paperwork, grading, and faculty meetings. It’s the sort of dry humor that doesn’t appeal to everyone but, in my experience, when it does appeal it’s an overwhelming sort of excitement.
This sort of set up actually reminds me a lot of Red Markets. That game’s author Caleb Stokes has said (I’m only slightly paraphrasing here) that he set out to build a poverty simulator but then it seemed way too depressing so he added a zombie apocalypse to lighten the mood. Pigsmoke has that same vibe and having lived through higher ed, having watched my wife Dr. James go through more of it, and being still tangentially connected I’m here to tell you it’s depressing as hell. The material in Pigsmoke does a fine job illustrating the hilarious, infuriating trainwreck that is academia… but there is necromancy and monsters to make it all go down easier.
Characters and Moves
So let’s get into it. The structure of games Powered by the Apocalypse is to have “moves” that players attempt by rolling 2d6 and (usually) adding in abilities for the result. Getting 7-9 is a success, below that is a fail, above that is a really good success. In Pigsmoke the abilities you have (which vary from +2 to -1) are Bureaucracy (using university resources), Charisma (social interaction), Research (the smarts stuff), and Sorcery (the magic stuff).
That’s all well and good but what exactly do you do as a non-tenured professor? Other PtbA games have moves like Go Toe to Toe (City of Mist) or Unleash Your Power (Masks) and those are evocative and exciting but what do you do as a university professor? Just teach and grade stuff? Actually, sorta. Every playbook has there own moves, but here are the basic ones available to every character.
- Delve Deeper: Researching items, people, groups, etc.
- Publish: Release your work and (potentially) gain experience.
- Schmooze: Sweet-talk an NPC into doing something for you.
- Scathe: Browbeat someone into doing something or backing down.
- Teach: Just what it says. On a 7-9 you get through your class but a student complains. Been there, buddy…
- Purchase Order: You get your department to buy stuff like toner or soul amulets.
- Red Tape: Work the school system to help (e.g. give you a lab) or hurt (e.g. stick a rival with a boring class).
- Cast a Spell: Now we’re talking! Works best when doing your department’s type of magic (see below).
- Adventuring: Risking physical danger, which includes crawling into a Chamber of Secrets but also shimmying along a ledge to break into your office when you lock yourself out.
- A Small, Incestuous World: This one’s interesting. It’s triggered “when you eat or drink in a public place on campus” and can be uncomfortable or (less likely) positive. Seem’s like there’s a story here, but this is a great move for giving twists and turns in the story.
- Hospital Hospitality: A trip to the medical wing! Don’t get too excited, it probably includes some weird side effects.
Playing into the theme of grim academia, Pigsmoke has two different sorts of damage tracks. Physical injuries are handled with a status of hurt which can affect your rolls, and a second hurt status will take you out. This is a magical college, though, so any injury (up to and including dying) can be healed in the school’s medical wing. More insidious is the psychological damage of burnout which escalates through various stages of dissatisfaction until you retire, fire, or quit right there. Death may be curable but, as everyone knows, leaving an academic position means you’re done in higher ed forever.
Like other PbtA games, Pigsmoke characters are created using playbooks that you customize during the creation process. In this game there are two different kinds of playbooks, though: the type of faculty member you are and the department you work in. The eight role playbooks are…
- The Git is a real jerk of a teacher who excels at threatening and shutting people out. They even get an extra action after reducing someone to tears… yikes.
- The Networker is a professor who knows everybody. They can pull in their many contacts to help or get people to open up to them.
- The Politician is a career professor who is particularly skilled at working the levers of bureaucracy.
- The Rockstar is that up-and-coming scholar who’s really going places, although it’s still an academic pace. They need to keep publishing, though, or their reputation crumbles.
- The Slacker does the minimum to keep their departmental standing. They’re a pain to work with but they’re great at managing their burnout damage.
- The Fake is a weird role. They aren’t really magic-users and will fail at any truly magical actions. They make up for it with, extra research maybe? Seems like a neat idea but I’m not sure it works.
- The Albatross hides behind others and excels at glomming onto other people’s accomplishments. They’re good at manipulating people and gaining reputation.
- The Workhorse is that rare academic who’s great at getting things done. They carry the department on their shoulders and calming situations.
These roles get combined with departmental playbooks, but the departments are (of course) bizarre and magical.
- The Department of Life and Death is a fancy name for necromancers who pry into undeath for publishing credits.
- The Department of Mindbending is with scholars of telepathy, illusions, and mental discipline. Don’t worry, though, they’d never abuse it…
- The Department of Foresight teaches clairvoyance and divination, though it’s more on the scale of messing with people’s business than securing portentous grants or anything.
- The Department of Elements has professors specializing in particular building blocks of the universe (earth, wind, fire, water, thunder, lightning, light, or darkness). They use those building blocks to hold conferences and argue about which element is best and stuff.
- The Department of Alchemy transforms materials, makes potions, and enchants items. They can build themselves prosthetics and use technomancy too.
- The Department of Calling, Bind, and Sealing Away, or CABSA for short, is an academic department about summoning demons. They can cut deals and boost their actions with extraplanar help and it probably doesn’t backfire any worse than other departments.
- The Department of Paraveterinary Medicine raises cute and fluffy magical animals and sometimes sics them on their enemies.
- The Department of Artefacts and Relics has more academic wizards than practical ones, but they have some of the most amazing toys.
Another interesting aspect of characters in Pigsmoke is the inclusion of teaching assistants. These are “semi-player characters” similar to Supporting Characters in Star Trek Adventures, allowing you to multiply the number of scenes you play in. When your main character is doing something else you can play your TA, and when they’re both around the MC controls your TA like they would any NPC.
Teaching assistants are simplified versions of professors without much substance to them, just like in real life (kidding!). They have a specialty based on your apartment and anything having to do with that they roll with +1. Everything else they roll with at -1. This is fairly straightforward and (like STA‘s Supporting Characters) it’s a good way to have an extra character on the table that doesn’t eat up a lot of time and mental energy. You can leave your TA as just a rubber stamp with a name or you can work to develop them into a fully-fledged character that you care about.
Threats and Plots
So those are the characters you’re going to be portraying. The challenges they’ll face include threats, characters and monsters you tussle with, and plots, events that you want to foster or stop. The book has a great selection of each of these.
The Pigsmoke book includes a great guide to making your own threats as well as a number of prewritten threats to include in your game. Threats are grouped into five categories: Family (people you like, which isn’t the same as saying “allies”), Magical (paranormal beings), Peers (other faculty members at Pigsmoke University), Students (the masses grabbing for your attention), and University (any of the administrative folks of Pigsmoke). These can be narratively useful Threats (like a significant other, a new hire, or a loudmouth student), mysteries to solve (like the library ghost or an ancient wizard), or actually threatening enemies (like the paranormalist investigator trying to expose everything).
There are also six pages brimming with plot hooks for your Pigsmoke games, including three detailed hooks for each department and four general prompts with some guiding questions. There’s no introductory adventure but that’s alright since this game will likely be pretty freeform. There are also numerous examples of the rules in play scattered through the rest of the book so at this point you should have a definite idea of what the game looks like.
It’s a quirky idea but I really like it. I think your main challenge might be finding a group that wants to roleplay the demoralizing grind of academic life but if you have one of those then this game does it better than anything I can think of or even hypothesize. I hesitate to say that this is a perfected game but I can’t think of a single area to improve the mechanics in terms of the academic department theme. It could maybe use a heavier magical tone but that’s also up to your gaming group and you can borrow from multiple other games for that, including a PbtA games. If the pitch for Pigsmoke at all appeals to you then I recommend you check this game out.