Monday, 27 April 2020

Review - Best Left Buried

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Best Left Buried is a fantasy horror game, where the protagonists are poor schmucks exploring dungeons or dungeon-like environments (called Crypts). It advertises itself as an OSR game (according to the system category on OneBookShelf), but it should be noted that the game isn't strictly D&D-esque.


System Summary
  • Characters have three Stats: Brawn (strength and endurance), Wit (agility, elegance, and eloquence), and Will (intellect and willpower). These are set to +2, +1, and +0 during character creation.
  • Vigour is basically hit points; the maximum is 5 + Brawn + number of Advancements (i.e. level). If it reaches zero, you have 50% chance of survival. Lost points return following a rest.
  • Grip is stamina, mana, and sanity rolled into one. Aside from fuelling Exertion and certain Advancements, horrific encounters also drain one or more points. The maximum is 4 + Will. The standard rule is that once it runs out, the character is lost (they die of shock or a heart attack, commit suicide, become irrevocably insane, or join the monsters of the Crypt). Lost points recover only by developing Consequences.
  • Every character has an Archetype. The Crypdigger's Guide to Survival describes the following Archetypes: Believer, Cabalist, Cutthroat, Dastard, Everyman, Freeblade, Outcast, Scholar, Protagonist, and Veteran. The Expanded Character Options also adds Dwarves, Elves, and Small Folk.
  • Every Archetype comes with a short description of their core concept, three or four abilities/drawbacks, and a number of suggested Advancements. For instance, Cabalists can ignore the first Grip loss/expenditure per day, have the Upper Hand when making Grip Checks triggered by monsters and environments, and they start with a random Affliction.
  • Except Initiative, every roll in the game is a Stat Check: 2d6 + Stat, successful if equal to or greater than 9 (but there are a few special cases, namely Observation Checks, Grip Checks, and Attacks).
  • When you have the Upper Hand, you roll an extra die and discard the lowest. When you are Against the Odd, you roll an extra die and discard the highest. Multiple instances don't stack but opposite instances cancel each other out. Three or more instances of the same type make the roll either Trivial or Impossible.
  • Observation Checks aren't modified by any Stat (i.e. 2d6 vs. 9). They are used to discover hidden objects, intricate details, and against surprise.
  • Combat is handled in 10-second Rounds, every participant having their own Turn.
  • Initiative is determined by 1d3 + Wit, rolled only once. Combatants take their Turns in descending order.
  • Movement and reach in combat is handled via Zones, abstracted spaces that a person can easily cover during their Turn. Melee attacks must target someone in the same Zone, short ranged weapons target people in the adjacent Zone, and long range weapons may target anyone within five Zones.
  • During their Turn, characters can move to an adjacent Zone and take an action (Attack, pass another Zone, escape from melee, use an Advancement, finish off an unconscious character, or something else).
  • Attacks are rolled on 3d6 (plus Brawn or Wit) against a target number depending on the enemy (usually between 7 and 11). If a combination of two dice plus Stat hits the target number, the third die is dealt as damage to the enemy's Vigour.
  • Upper Hand and Against the Odds add another die and the lowest or highest is discarded before determining whether a hit occurs. Impossible Attacks deal no damage, while Trivial Attacks deal the greater die of 2d6.
  • If the damage die is 6, that's a Critical Hit, and a random Injury is sustained.
  • If multiple creatures of the same type are Ganging Up on the same target, roll only once but with one instance of Upper Hand for each creature beyond the first.
  • When you move away from a Zone with an enemy still there, you must either use the Escape action or roll a Wit Check; on a failure they either stay put or an enemy gets a free Attack against them.
  • When a monster or NPC loses all their Vigour, they die. When a PC loses all their Vigour, flip a coin. Tails, they die. Heads, they fall unconscious (and the enemy may use the Finish Him action to kill them). If they survive, they wake up 1d6 hours later with a random Injury and a random Affliction and a single point of Vigour.
  • The Finish Him action can be countered by the Heroic Rescue action, but it takes up an entire Turn of someone, and leaving the Zone with enemies procs the usual Wit Check to escape safely.
  • Characters start with a single Advancement chosen from the Journeyman list. For every 8 Experience they accumulate they get to pick another Advancement (and gain an extra point of Vigour and Grip).
  • Any character may pick any Advancement off the Journeyman list. Some are marked as Martial, Devious, Holy, and Arcane. If you have at least two of the same type and at least four in total, you get to pick from an advanced list (presented only in Expanded Character Options).
  • Advancements are generally not too powerful (or require many points of Grip), and a lot of them grant the Upper Hand is various situations, increase a Stat, grant extra Vigour or Grip, etc.
  • Grip may be spent to fuel Exertion: for each Grip spent, re-roll one die. A single die may only be re-rolled once this way. You can influence any roll you make as well as attack targeting you.
  • When confronted with the horrific, you must make a Grip Check. It's a Will Check (against the usual target number 9). If you success, you gain 1 Experience. If you fail, you lose 1 (or more) Grip.
  • In the standard rules you can only recover Grip by spending 8 Experience for an Advancement (+1 Grip), by taking the Extra Grip Advancement (+3 Grip), or by willingly embracing a Consequence (set Grip to 5 for an Injury or 10 for an Affliction).
  • A Consequence is either a random Injury (mostly described in terms of mechanics, such as "lost a point of Brawn" or "lose an eye; Against the Odds on Observation Checks that rely on sight") or a random Affliction (such as Hoardlust or Brittle Minded).
  • Suffering Afflictions or Injuries as a consequence of other rules (such as a Critical Hit or a monster's special ability) does not reset Grip.
  • Experience is earned for succeeding at Grip Checks, seeing great sights and overcoming challenges (GM fiat), and recovering treasure. The latter is calculated as follows: every valuable item is worth +1 Experience for every neutral/positive word in its description and -1 for each negative one (for instance, a "rare Atlantean scroll" is worth 3 Experience, while a "dirty Elven mirror" is worth but 1 Experience).
  • Magical items aren't worth any Experience. Broadly speaking, they can be potions, scrolls, mortal treasures, and monstrous treasures. Potions grant a monstrous Adaptation for about 5 minutes to the imbiber in exchange for 3 Grip (due to chemical fuckery). Scrolls require at least +1 Will and the expenditure of 2 Grip to mimic an arcane Advancement. Mortal treasures are magical items that have some very situational uses (such as a marble that rolls uphill or a pencil that can never be sharpened); a total pf 36 such items are described. Monstrous treasures mimic monstrous Adaptations, but they usually come with a drawback (such as an Affliction), kind of like Trinkets in Darkest Dungeon.

What I Liked
  • The core of the system is very simple to grasp. The way advantage/disadvantage works feels (to me) much better with 2d6 than 1d20.
  • I like the sort of free-form advancement process where any character can pick any talent - hardly a new concept, but it's still nice for variety (as I'm usually way too much into class-based games).
  • The game feels a lot like Torchbearer or Darkest Dungeon in the sense that the characters only get marginally better and they are virtually always at a disadvantage, fighting for treasure and survival in an uphill battle. A sort of permanent low level experience done fairly well. That doesn't even change even with the advanced abilities (unless Grip recovers by other means than Consequences - then it's just fantasy superheroes all over again).
  • The way attacks and damage are handled skews the expected damage output in such a way that it's more likely that easy-to-hit targets suffer more damage, whereas tougher opponents likely suffer less damage from a single attack.
  • Gunpowder weapons are treated like another range weapon, except that they ALWAYS have the Upper Hand; however, it takes a minute to reload one, so they are likely only to be used once per combat. It makes them feel special, but not overpowered compared to other, more consistent weapons.
  • Random character generation rules outlined in Extra Character Options.
  • Troika-inspired monster moods arranged by type: general, abomination, great beast, critter, tribal, construct, cultist, guard, otherworlder, brigant, and civilian. For instance, when meeting a group of acolytes (cultist category), they are either (1) enraptured, (2) suspicious, (3) paranoid, (4) deceptive, (5) ensorcelled, or (6) violent. Of course, like reaction rolls in old-school D&D, these are meant to be tools for the GM to spice things up and help them improvise, not a replacement for common sense.
  • The game comes with a short setting (The Thirteen Duchies of Lendal), a map, a few ideas for Crypts that fit the milieu, a handful of NPCs, and a short treatise of religion (all in 19 pages). Nothing revolutionary, but it's always nice to have a map as a springboard for adventures.
  • There's a sample Crypt of two levels described over 6 pages (plus 3 pages for 4 monsters).
  • In the Doomsayer's Guide there's an optional rule for resting. A six-sider is rolled and recovery based on the quality of the camp (shocking, poor, basic, good, special). Carousing requries the expenditure of 1 to 3 Experience, and that many extra dice are rolled, and the highest result is applied. However, there's a chance of a mishap occurring (again, based on quality, from 3-in-6 to 1-in-6), and those results are added up when carousing. There are separate mishap tables for urban environs, camping in the wilderness, and resting in the Crypt, which is pretty cool.
  • Compatibility with Best Left Buried can be declared freely as long as it's clear that the product has no affiliation with SoulMuppet Publishing. The mechanics are expressly free to reuse as well.

What I Disliked
  • No Oxford comma.
  • A large number of typos, despite crediting eight (!) editors (they probably did more content editing than copy-editing or proofreading).
  • The Scholar Archetype feels rather weak on paper. One of their abilities is that taking Afflictions resets their Grip to 11 instead of 10; however, they also lose +1 Grip the first time each day, so that's pretty much cancelled out, and they're only left with a single ability (ask questions of the GM about secrets and esoteric knowledge in exchange for Grip)
  • No price list for equipment, despite treasure being central to the game (the reader is kindly recommended to take a look at Traders & Merchants or a different online source).
  • I don't really like how the player-facing rules are set up. The Cryptdigger's Guide explains the character creation process, Advancements (only Journeyman Advances, though), the basic rules of the game, and general monster stats (presumably because potions often mimic monster abilities, here called Adaptations). Expanded Character Options, on the other hand, includes character creation (including demi-human Archetypes), Advancements (Journeyman and the rest), and an optional random character creation process - literally only half of the book (31 pages out of 62).
  • I'm getting tired of every game having a new term for the GM (here called Doomsayer).
  • I'm also tired of reading about how these neo-old-school games compare themselves to modern games. It's the reverse of many heartbreaking fantasy games that describe themselves as "unlike in D&D...". So annoying.
  • Having a list of monster abilities is fine, but there are no sample monsters (except those 4 in the sample adventure in the Doomsayer's Guide).
  • One of those monsters has a special Advancement (Paltry: the monster is Against the Odds on Attack rolls), and I'm not sure why it wasn't included in the standard monster Adaptations list.
  • Despite being a game about looting dungeons, the rules only say the following about encumbrance: "Characters can carry as much stuff as a regular human can. If they are carrying too much, their movement may be slowed or they may find themselves Against The Odds for some checks."
  • The "rules" for falling are even more laughable: "If a character falls off something, they will take some damage to their Vigour depending on how far they fall. If they fall a long way, they will probably die."
  • I get that such a meatgrinder of a game needs a constant stream of schmucks, err, player characters, but I'm not too convinced about having a Company of up to 50 dungeoneers camping outside the dungeon, err, Crypt and making well-planned assaults into the unknown. Even though it virtually works out the same as in old-school D&D (with a nearly constant supply of hirelings, planned forays into the dungeon, strategising and whatnot), for me it cheapens the horror of the whole (compare that with The Nightmares Underneath where PCs are privileged in the sense that they are resistant to Nightmare Curses to some degree, thus occupying their own social stratum).
  • Despite the talk of all the horror, the book just doesn't feel horrific enough (maybe Esoteric Enterprises spoiled me with its bestiary section). It's the kind of game that talks more about safety at the table than actually describing terrible things (which means there are about as many terrifying things in the book as in any edition of D&D).

The Cryptdigger's Guide and the Doomsayer's Guide together have about 39k words over 144 pages (for comparison, S&W Whitebox 1st printing has 33k words over 72 pages, Adventure Fantasy Game has 35k words over 108 pages, and Dark Places & Demogorgons has 41k words over 203 pages).

Best Left Buried is a nice little rules-light game; alas, I'm clearly not the target audience. Dungeon crawling (Cryptdigging?) is central to its premise, yet it feels like the mechanics do not really support it. There are procedures lacking for too many things (encumbrance, chases, dungeon stocking), and the advice section feels too general. It's like the poor man's Into the Odd (albeit with a naturally superior roll-high system) with more built-in abilities and drawbacks (whereas Into the Odd is very much gear-based when it comes to "special" things). A handful of larger adventure modules were dropped, so those could be fun, but the base game feels incomplete to me.

Best Left Buried was written by Zachary Cox and published in 2018 by SoulMuppet Publishing. The rulebooks are available on OBS (Cryptdigger's Guide and Doomsayer's Guide), but if you want the extra options, you should get the Deluxe Bundle. In print they are usually available through Melsonia or Exalted Funeral (see the publisher's page).

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