Friday, 9 March 2018

Review: The Nightmares Underneath

This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).

The Nightmares Underneath is a monstrous game sewn together from various bits of both classic and modern games; it combines both old-school and modern design sensibilities in an exemplary way. The basics are simple, but it seems quite complex at first as it addresses a plethora of situations that may arise in play.

The premise of the game is that the mortal realms (collectively called the Kingdom of Dreams, where law and science provide the ruling ideology, as opposed to most fantasy setting's pagan idolatry) are threatened by incursions from the realm of nightmares. The upper levels of these dungeons resemble the mundane world to a certain degree, but the deeper one goes, the more surreal and alien (dare I say nightmarish) they become. Most people are helpless against the influence of these nightmare dungeons and their denizens', except for the player characters.

System Summary
  • The game uses both attribute scores and modifiers as part of its resolution system. Contests are "2d6+mod, higher wins", non-binary resolution is "2d6+mod, consult table" (just like the classic reaction rolls), whereas binary task resolution is "d20 roll under attribute" for unopposed tasks (or under half score for difficult tasks) and "d20 (+mods if apply) vs. target's attribute" if opposed.
  • Attack rolls are handled as opposed task resolution (d20 + modifiers), only against the enemy's Armour value (although firearms have special rules). Saves are unopposed rolls, and the tested attribute depends on the effect.
  • If someone is skilled at something (which isn't handled through a list; it comes organically from a character's background and profession), such checks also fall under the unopposed binary task resolution.
  • Virtually any sort of roll may have advantage or disadvantage (roll an extra die and discard the lowest or highest result, respectively).
  • The attributes are basically the same old six but under different names (Charisma, Dexterity, Ferocity, Health, Intelligence, and Willpower). Modifiers are derived as per the B/X tables.
  • There are eight professions (i.e. classes) available: Assassin (sneaky fighter), Bard (heals and casts spells), Champion (a flexible paladin with alignment-based special abilities), Cultist (cleric; outlawed in the setting but presents compatibility), Fighter (hits really hard), Scholar (a mixture of all the other classes), Thief (sneaky and good at finding things), and Wizard (casts a lot of spells). Each has a couple of restrictions (regarding alignment and armour), some basic skills and suggested backgrounds, primary attributes (used for XP bonus calculation and potential attribute increase), and an HD type - plus some special abilities.
  • Hit points are called Disposition, and they are re-rolled after each rest. HD also determines a character's damage with weapons.
  • AC (simply called Armour) is ascending.
  • Characters start with 3d6 times 10 cyphers (the standard currency of the setting), and this 3d6 roll could also serve as a social class roll (which has a score and modifier just like attributes).
  • XP is awarded for recovering treasure from the nightmare incursions (1 XP for each cypher's worth of it). Each profession uses the same XP table, although primary attribute scores may adjust the amount of XP gained. Each level grants an extra HD and a chance to improve two attributes (plus profession-specific things).
  • There are a handful of simple subsystems for adjudicating downtime activities and urban situations, including buying and selling equipment, hiring people, handling contacts, conducting research, inflation, investing in civilised institutions, decreasing the accumulated resentment from the population, and tarnishing the reputation of others.
  • Spells have levels but they interact with character level in a different way (determining the difficulty of rolls). Spells can either be performed as rituals, read off scrolls, or cast from memory (each option having different parameters). The spell is always cast, but there usually is a roll to control it; otherwise, a mishap occurs.
  • The dungeoneering rules cover the usual parameters (time, light, mapping, movement, searching, and evasion). Encumbrance is based on Health (4 + Health modifier encumbering items, and small items equal to Health score). Encumbrance is a binary state; you are either encumbered (lower speed, lose initiative, can't swim, etc.) or not.
  • Surprise is a 2d6 roll, conflating the traditional 1d6 per side check. Initiative is an individual 2d6 roll against the monsters' Speed score.
  • Combat is turn-based. On their turn one may either move and perform a simple action or stay in place and perform a complicated action. A non-definitive list of possibilities for both types are provided.
  • Once Disposition is lost, further damage (in case of the PCs) is subtracted from Health, and each time there is a chance of mutilation and such.
  • Overland travel is very simple. The time a journey takes is based on distance and terrain. Guides, maps, or memories might be required to get to the destination, otherwise orienteering rolls need to be made lest the party gets lost.
  • Another way to get to a location (substituting reliable maps or guides) is making a confession or having a flashback. They have to relate (at least tangentially) to the actual destination, and they must be negative experiences or events.
Things I Liked
  • a summary of chapters is included after the table of contents, pointing out which chapters need to be referenced when
  • there is a cool summary concerning the use of characters from other games, and it comes with a nice in-fiction justification
  • for some people the many different resolution systems in this otherwise very rules-light game is a huge turn-off; however, I find the presentation makes the system easy to comprehend
  • starting equipment tables, one for each social class, oozing with flavour
  • all characters are capable of casting spells; spellcasters are just more successful and versatile
  • no distinction between arcane and divine magic
  • simple but powerful rules for handling the population's increasing resentment towards the characters (they could be used without modification in most OSR games)
  • the institutions subsystem is extremely flexible; the examples in the book include (among others) a hotel, a tea house, and a necromancer's guild
  • the implementation of special maneuvers is superb: if the total result on the attack roll is 20+, you deal damage and execute the maneuver; if less, the enemy chooses between taking damage or suffering the consequences of the maneuver
  • I like how non-combat injury directly affects Health, while grappling (as part of combat) still cannot bypass Disposition (I actually need to see how it changes actual play tactics)
  • mutilation obviously causes problems (no two-handed swords for one-armed bandits), but the text explicitly states there are no further numerical disadvantages (the reasoning is that the rules do not model the game world's phyisics but provide a gameable context)
  • even though they are more resistant, even PCs may get nightmare curses (part mutation, part corruption; curing it releases the actual nightmare into the physical realm); these are really cool
  • confessions and flashbacks might sound too story-gamey, but they actually feed into another mechanic in the game: nightmares can take inspiration from the negative emotions and events revealed by them (plus it invites the player to come up with some fucked up background suitable for dungeon delvers)
  • the dungeon creation tables have very similar steps to traditional dungeon populating tables (they don't determine layout but help with distributing the content), but they are written specifically with this game's thematics in mind
  • simple but flavourful restocking procedures
  • one-page descriptions of the players' and GMs' goals and responsibilities, similar to the Agendas in PbtA games but tailored for the old-school approach
Things I Disliked
  • there are mostly just guidelines for magic items; a handful of unique ones would have greatly enhanced the chapter
  • spell descriptions are flat and not really inspiring
  • I generally like how dungeon level interacts with the resolution system, but I suspect the penalties might be too severe (I need to see it in extended play to form a strong opinion on this one)
  • sometimes the author's prose becomes way too purple (fortunately, it isn't true for any of the parts that need to be quickly referenced during play)
  • there are detailed hit locations, yet the part about how injuries heal says "look it up yourself"

The setting of The Nightmares Underneath is the Kingdom of Dreams, a realm where reason and law have triumphed over chaos and false gods. It is not a perfect world, mind you, but it has a more modern feeling compared to a generic fantasy setting. The example region, called the Highland Coast, is inspired by Iranian and Ottoman cultures and aesthetics. It can be changed without breaking the game if one so inclines; the relationship of the mortal realm and the nightmares is more crucial to the game, however. I can certainly imagine a mashup of The Nightmares Underneath and Ghastly Affair, or even Silent Legions with a little reskinning.

The dungeons (i.e. lairs of nightmare creatures) have levels that determine their difficulty. Each lair has an anchor (an object infused with strong emotions; usually quite valuable) and a crown (the nightmare creature that controls the lair). The anchor may be hidden, but the PCs always realise what it is upon seeing the item. If the anchor is removed from a lair, the lair loses access to the waking world (although PCs can't get trapped if they remove the anchors in the wrong order or something). It provides a compelling raison d'être for dungeons and dungeoneering, reinforcing the idea that expeditions are virtually heists (while also translating a core gameplay element of Oblivion into tabletop gaming).

So far a single adventure module (City of Poison) and a huge tome of magic (The Nameless Grimoire) have been released as official supplements (plus the author's megadungeon, called Dungeon Full of Monsters has notes on using it with TNU) - hopefully there will be more (and fan material, too!).

The Nightmares Underneath was designed by Johnstone Metzger and released through his publishing imprint, Red Box Vancouver in 2016. It is currently available in PDF+POD combo at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG, and Lulu, either in softcover or hardcover. There is also a free sans-art PDF available at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

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