Friday, 7 April 2017

A Review of the Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger

TLDR; It's James Raggi and Vincent Baker yin-yanging each other on top of a giant pile of every interesting rules development from the last seven years.




WHAT IS IT?

The Nightmares Underneath is Johnstone Metzgers capacious, comprehensive and very fat game. It's a system and a world. The system draws most heavily from various old-school D&D variants but has a huge, and wide, range of influences, making it very much its own thing. It may or may not be a heartbreaker.

There's a really interesting list at the front of the the book which includes several different versions of D&D (but not 5th? even though advantage/disadvantage is used?) and a bunch of storygame stuff. (Chris McDowall you are there, you not reading this is punishment for not obsessively reading my blog.)

The setting is a quasi-Islamic medieval world, one based slightly more on real history than fantasy archetypes. It has the usual modern liberal fantasy-synthesis  in which societal and political structures, social codes and specific aesthetics are yanked from the past with the patriarchy, slavery and enthocentrism which, in reality, would justify, intermix with and often support those elements, turned waaaay down. (This is not a criticism of that synthesis, it's just my description).

I'll discuss the systems piece-by-piece as I go through the book. The general idea of the setting and aesthetic can be described more readily.



THE SETTING

A rationalistic, scientific and lawful (in every sense) pseudo-Islamic society, threatened by, and at low-scale war with, a plane or reality of Nightmare which infiltrates the 'real world' in a manner similar to what I imagine the House of Leaves or a Thomas Ligotti story is like (I have read neither).

The nation is called the 'Kingdom of Dreams, so there's your theme. Dreams and Nightmares, or more specifically, Reason being corrupted by the Unconscious. A world where things work, but then a horror movie happens.


  
The rationalism, reasonableness and self-confidence of the society make a specific and deliberate contrast with the unusually squamous, chaotic and dreamlike incursions of the Nightmare Realm.

Metzger isn’t the first person to come up with the idea of Dungeons as the infiltration of another reality, Chris Tamm at Konsumterra in particular has his red-brick dungeon-dimension thing, it’s practically an emblematic Scrap Princess idea and I'm sure other people have brought it up as well. This is the first time I have seen a fully-realised game system built around it though.

The PC's are special in this setting because they are one of the few people who do not go instantly fucking nuts in a Nightmare incursion. Instead they go very slowly nuts, meaning they now have the duty/opportunity/legal requirement to fuck about in dungeons.

It is the purpose of the PC's to banish and collapse the reality of Nightmare Incursions, the fact that they are actually destroying the dungeon by raiding it is another big difference between this and standard lemniscate D&D setting. Our PC's restore order, they do not impose it on the frontier.

The cosmology is arranged in a way roughly similar to any medieval pseudo-platonic situation. Heaven on top. Earth in the Middle. Deep, dark stuff 'underneath'. The Nightmare Realm sends its tendrils up like a big squid and tries to hook onto our world.

This is very slightly different to Cosmic Horror. The Nightmare Realm isn't Lovecrafts (or later writers) horrifically-indifferent Outer Dark. It is related to us, concerned with us and shaped by us. The Outer Dark still exists, as does an inferred Hell with demons and devils, as do monsters of the material world, as does the realm of Fairie, with Seelie and Unseelie courts.

There is a slight tension between the primary engine of the game, based around the Nightmare incursions, and all the other stuff that might turn up alongside it. Nightmares are always the main band, but depending on the concert, they might come supported by scary fairies, classic monsters, lovecraftian-entities or just good old cults &' criminals. In the same way, there is an area of the imagined world described that is very much like a standard D&D borderland, a desert where an ancient empire once existed, now full of dungeons and snake people and whatever.

If Metzger had just kept it to the Nightmares he could have made this a shorter and more focused book. Clearly that isn't what he wanted. He's lost a little in clarity and drive but has perhaps gained in the ability to incorporate the setting and ideas into other D&D worlds, thereby making it more modular and useful.

The use of Dreams as a motif is an interesting trend in DIY D&D/OSR circles as well. They turn up a little in VotE, David McGrogan is writing his 'Gently Smiling Jaws' set inside a Crocodiles mind. We are pushing, collectively, against the borders of the kinds of places you can set D&D and it looks like the psychosphere is the next place that is going to get colonised.



THE ART

The art is curious. Metzger has used almost entirely public-domain images ("written, illustrated and published by Johnstone Metzger") but he has done so in a novel and unique way.

Firstly, he must have become an expert in scavenging through the many varied places you can now get public-domain images. It’s a surprisingly tiring and un-fun job beachcombing the data-banks and he must have put a hell of a lot of time into it. That's effectively a skill of its own.

Then he's taken a range of images, largely from orientalist paintings and 19th century/early 20th century book illustrations and then changed them in a variety of ways, applying filters and adding layers, visual elements, re-drawing parts and bringing everything into line so it all expresses a particular aesthetic.

I can tell, most of the time when I'm looking at something that used to be an oil painting. A few are obvious, there is a theme of female portraits with what I'm sure is weapons and swords added, but for the rest of it I have no idea when I am looking at an illustration or which parts were added by Metzger either his own creation or cut & pasted from another image.

I can't emphasise what a huge and complex job this must have been and how fully and distinctly the art is integrated into the aesthetic as a whole. There is a lot of art.

Really you could write a full review on exactly what he's done, how he's done it and what that means for the aesthetic impact of the book and the relation of its world. I'm not really qualified to do that. Long story short - Apocalypse World + Orientalism + Golden Age of Illustration. The one thing I miss is colour. Islamic civilisation had a talent for luxury (orientalist I know, but probably true) and you feel it a lot less in black and white. That is a rather churlish complaint though, considering the scale of the achievement.

As well as the page-by-page full-bleed images there’s quite a lot of digital patterning and general layout stuff, tables, maps and informational layout.

Informational design by-page is within tolerances with a handful or telling spatial shifts made in order to keep particular informational clusters on single pages and on opposing-page spreads where possible.

Informational layout as a whole is more complex. There are a lot of highly interactive rules systems, many of them arranged to produce complex feedback responses across the play of the game. A more radical guy might have shoved rules and combat right at the front, since they will be references more regularly, buut it's always hard to tell considering the range of ways an RPG book has to work and the large interlocking scales and types of information. It has what looks like a full, and useful index, an index of spells and an index of tables, along with a full table of contents. Informational hierarchy by page is clear, broken by headings, sub-headings, bullet-points, page break lines, tables alter-tones by row, rules sections for the elements of fictional positioning and big chunky page numbers on opposing corners.

I might still disagree in some cases about the compiling of different elements of rule consequences and decision trees inside paragraphs. But that could be a taste thing.

Essentially, he's done a full publication job on a 400+ page book. For one guy its pretty impressive.




DICE MECHANICS

He uses ALLLLLLLL the rolls. This is perhaps a formalisation of the way any DIY D&D DM might play, yanking dice mechanics from pretty much everywhere, but here we have them listed. So this will all be blindingly intuitive for any hipster 'plugged in' to OSR rules development, but god knows what anyone else would make of it.

- A * in 6 d6 roll for chance events.

- A 2d6 + modifier roll for contests.

- A straight d* roll for damage. (Your Hit Die is your damage die here).

- An Apocalypse World roll for complex-outcome stuff.

- A d20 under attribute roll for unopposed task resolution (1 crits, 20 fails).

- A d20 under half (rounded down) attribute roll for unopposed task resolution where you don't have the skill or the stuff.

- A d20 + modifier over opponent attribute roll for opposed task resolution, including combat (20 crits, 1 fails).

PLUS

- The advantage system from 5e, which can be applied to most of the above.

- Saves! This depends on the level of the threat. Your level or below means roll under attribute, higher means roll under half (rounded down) attribute.

AND

You can lose attribute scores from a lot of attacks and effects so you better keep track of those, and your original score for when you heal up.

Now again, this is not a huge step away from what a lot of DM's might be doing already, but holy fuck that's a lot of decision methods. Your attitude to this will probably be a reflection of your attitude to the whole game, the rules are a distillation of the Metzger-ness of the whole thing. If you thought either "Cool, loads of stuff for me to use" or "Eh, I'll just do whatever the fuck I want" then read on. If you noped the fuck out then The Nightmares Beneath may not be for you.

I'm going to skip ahead through Char gen to combat because that interfaces most with the dice mechanics and because it also has some extreme examples of Metzgerfication. Not trying to put you off, just aiming to lay it all out.


FIGHTIN'

A neat thing to begin with, Metzger directly tells you to draw a sketch map for combat, which I and a lot of people already do, but I think this is the first time I can remember seeing it formally advised. I like that he said that.


Ok, so, STATS;

Charisma - is now Charisma.

Dexterity - is now Dexterity.

Strength - is now Ferocity, less physically-related and a little broader and more abstract but works in combat a similar way.

Constitution - is now Health. Again, works in a similar sort of way but is now something similar to 'Flesh' in Wolf packs and Winter Snow and Logans rules.

Intelligence - is now Intelligence. This is often used as a perception stat instead of WIS.

Wisdom - is now Willpower, related to morale and generally going crazy.

Hit Points -  are now Disposition but they way it/they combine with Health is, again, more like Grit and Flesh. Disposition is re-rolled every day and can be re-rolled and come back between fights in some circumstances.



HOW HEALTHY ARE YOU?

Well you might not know. The rules for when you do and don't re-roll disposition are a little bit blurry, first as to exactly when you do or don't have to re-roll and when you can re-roll;

Page 226 - You re-roll after a full nights sleep or after 4 hours rest with a proper meal.
               - After a "short rest" you may re-roll.

page 232 - After an hour resting, eating and re-hydrating. You can re-roll if you want unless you have already done "a full days work" (?)
               - When you sleep for 6 or more hours "depending on how exhausted you are" you *must* re-roll  disposition.

Secondly as consequence of that, the difference between a game where you roll Disposition when you wake up, so you know exactly how tough you are feeling that day, and one where you roll just before a fight, so you have no idea how tough you are before you need it, is pretty massive, especially at low levels where your fighty-guy might get a 1 or an 8 on the die.

I would personally go with not rolling disposition until combat or danger so players had to think more and didn't know how well they would fight, but since its not clear in the text, you will be deciding that largely yourself.


HITTING PEOPLE

Hitting people is mercifully simple in hand-to-hand, at least to begin with. He has kept AC and it works the usual way (starting from 10 rather than Raggi's 12).

Shooting people, well;

There are three different classes of ranged attack, with multiple different fictional positioning mechanic alterations each depending on target speed, cover and time spent aiming.

- Firearms & heavy Crossbows. Roll under your own DEX.

- 'Regular' Missile attacks. d20 + modifiers against AC.

- Thrown items (not knives & axes made for throwing) Roll under DEX or half DEX depending on circumstance.
               >Unless they are dodging, in which case roll d20 against their DEX & try to get over.

I'm summarising a lot here.

Now, as above, I actually like a lot of these rules when taken on their own. I noted specifically that I intended stealing them when I was reading the book. I like that gunpowder feels different mechanically to arrows. But, again, holy fuck Metzger that's a lot of situations and a lot of mechanics.

People can dodge, grapple and run around. In a neat move, closing with someone with a longer-ranged weapon gives them a free attack, which I like, there's also an effective overwatch shot for firearms and prepped ranged weapons, which I also like.

Rules I don't like, even on their own;

Rolling your HD for damage - not fond of this.

Oh and Fighters do damage on a miss, which I think is a bullshit rule.



GETTING HIT

There is a Hit Location table, and not the simplest version possible either, which I would consider to be this;

    1
  2   3
 4     5
   10
  6   7
 8     9

There's a d6 column for close combat, a d20 version for ranged attacks and a second column in the first table for specific areas of the head. and face.

Shields can be splintered and helmets can be splintered if your head is hit but there are no head-specific doom options. There is a roll-under mechanic for when you lose health. Unlike Into the Odd, this applies to the area hit not your whole self, so if you get hit in the head, lose health and fail to roll under I suppose that puts you out. That's never stated explicitly though. There are rules for bleeding and rules for shock.

There is a 2d6 roll for whether you can heal, but when it comes to how long it takes to heal we get this;

"Injuries heal as they would in real life. You can look it up yourself, this is a game, not a medical textbook."

Dude, you created a location-specific detailed damage system in a game where you included rules for what happens if you come into contact with a chaotic good apothecary, you couldn't do a chart for this?

There is a really good boxed-text description of the effects of crippled characters which I like a great deal. I'll just reproduce a small part here;

"In this game, you should be describing and modelling your fictional world with words, not with numbers. The numbers are there to add the elements of chance, risk and uncertainty - the game part of a role-playing game. They are not meant to model physics or to create some kind of realistic world. They exist to create an interactive experience and to add weight to the choices you make within the framework of what this game concerns itself with."

Ok, now we are gonna roll allll the way back to;



CHAR GEN

So, we have; Assassins, Bards, Champions, Cultists, Fighters, Scholars, Thieves aaand Wizards.

These are called 'Professions' not classes, which doesn't quite fit with the idea of 'Fighters' but whatever. And I'm not sure if 'Wizard' is a profession, don't know how you pay taxes on that one. Self-employed?

Champions are kinda-Paladins and Cultists are effectively-Clerics. Cultists sounds much better than Cleric anyway. Scholars are healy, theify magicy people.

The picture of the Bard here looks like exactly the kind of Bard Zak would most like to stab, and the description backs that up;

"A bard is the soul of any company. What fighting force could maintain its morale, if it lacked such inspiration? A world without music and laughter, or the fire of oratory, is a dull, greyish hell that few could stand for long. But with a bard behind him, a man feels like he could take on the world, if he wanted to!"

-_-


This uses an attribute-increase roll very similar to ItO, except, with more rules and specifications and special circumstances. I think the end result is that PC's are going to advance their 'core' attributes quite quickly to the mid range and above. I'm really not sure how I feel about this. I'm sure it makes sense according to the system of the game but I have spoken in the past in favour of uneven or out of place attributes and how they can create discontinuities and difficulties that can lead to real role playing opportunities.

There is a motivation table to help you work out why you are an adventurer, I liked it. There are also social-class based equipment tables.  You roll gold as per normal and you can buy stuff as usual or roll on this thing. It's tremendous fun and anarchic, if you are a worthless untouchable you can get a laser gun at level one.

Right next to this example of Metzger writing well and with flair, or at least high energy, we get a pretty good example of the other side of his writing persona, he has a tendency to ticker-tape prose common mostly with American fantasy writers; repetitive, redundant, with repeating re-statements, low regular runs of sound and rueful euphony. Over-description. Or as Metzger would write;

"The author indulges systematically in over-describing elements in the text. This is a process whereby items, rules artefacts or playing concepts are depicted or related via written words, which appear as type (black regular marks on a white page or screen which convey sound fragments as part of a written language) even through their content and meaning might be considered blindingly obvious both to any intelligent reader, and even, in some cases, to an unintelligent reader via the simple accumulations of context from previously described elements."

The description for runaway;

"Runaway: This person was a serf, servant or slave but they left that position."

No shit.

It isn't all like this and he is good a fair amount of the time, but it's an element.

Another thing I dislike is the extra XP you get for having a core attribute for your class within a certain range. So for a thief if your DEX is 16+ you get an extra 1 per cent XP. I'm not sure why I hate it. It smacks of old Gygaxian bullshit where you corrall people into playing the right class for their stats. The only reason people aren't going to be doing that is if they either have shit stats or if they are deliberately playing against type and trying to be interesting in which case why fucking punish them?

More Metzgerfication;

I thought not, it's not a story the Jedi would tell you.

- Metzger is really into alignment. We have Chaotic, Neutral and Lawful crossed with Good, Neutral and Evil. 

EDIT - It has been pointed out to me below that I got this wrong. Chaotic, Neutral, lawful, Evil and Good are all seperate alignments. They do not cross over. I find this a little odd conceptually. Evil means likes doing harm and Neutral is described as "maybe the most self-serving of all". The whole thing strikes me a little queer but perhaps it would work in play.

Alignment interacts a lot with some classes, opening up certain paths and abilities and closing others. Evil characters may not become Bards.

I'm going to skip ahead again

There are rules for what to do when you get back to your settlement with all your cash and these are largely interesting. There are rules for investing in or interacting with certain businesses, institutions and professions are broken down by importance and by alignment so you can have, for instance, an exceptional Lawful Geographical society, a notable evil druggist, a significant Chaotic necromancers guild and all of these will and won't do certain things.

"It's not a story a _neutral_ apothecary would tell you."


These all potentially intermix with some of the cities only slightly described in the opening spiel about the Kingdom of Dreams to make a really potentially quite interesting and odd city-based section of the game where you run around trying to find a chaotic neutral printer to print your screed against the lawful evil explorers guild.

There are rules for making contacts, making friends, living high, living low, having enemies and rules for character assassination. Lots of stuff on finding employees. Even a section on the kinds of inflation you will create when you try to dump your treasure in some shitty little village and drive up prices. There are rules for causing and reducing resentment in villages and towns and all the many and varied ways you can piss off the people around you.



MAGIC

There are 100 magic spells split up into 10 schools. Choices made in char gen open and close access to some schools for some classes. I think the spells were intended to be largely level-less, with effects and durations based upon caster level. Except they aren't because they have levels and lots of extra crap.

Description is dry and ticker-tapey - if you like that it shouldn't be a problem. They are generally within the range of standard expected D&D spells. I think these are based upon Wonder and Wickedness, or the idea of them being level-less is. W&W is better. Healing stuff is a school and not a separate thing.

I have never read a spell memorisation section without being so bored to shit that I blacked out & that is equally true now but that's not Metzgers fault, spell memorisation is just boring as shit.



DUNGEONEERING

Light, movement, traps, encounters, none exactly the same but all within the tolerances any old-schooler will be familiar with. If someone wants to do a deep dive on the details of encounter distance, light economy and whatever, they can probably give you better information on exactly how this is going to play out.

We see more traces of another Metzger thing; Dungeon level is very important. Much more than in most games I am familiar with. The difficulty of things in and out of the dungeon depends on level and if you are level 3 and in a level 4 dungeon part then you are in the shit because things are going to be much harder.



GOING MAAAAAAD! o_O

the Nightmare Curse table just reads like my Meyer-Briggs description. Abnormality, anomalous Sensation, Anti-Social Lust Parasite, Anything To Kill The Pain, Apostasy. It's really creepy, paranoid and fun. Mutual madnesses could serve to bind together a party over time as you will need your dungeon-bros around you to help ameliorate all the terrible mental shit you've got going on.



WILDERNESS TRAVEL

Orienteering - exactly as boring in this as it is in every other game. nearly as dull as researching spells. I nearly passed out reading this, not Metzgers fault, just dull unless you are doing it irl.

There is a weird/interesting storygame confession/flashback thing here that helps you lock places in your memory so you don't get lost on the way back from places. I didn’t really understand it at first reading but it meant to be part of another feedback system in the game. The Nightmare incursions feed off fear, so by finding out the secret fears of the PC's you can incorporate them into the Nightmare incursions. Another thing which makes them quite different from normal dungeons, as we shall see in the next section.

There's a very short section on seafaring, which doesn't seem fair since ultra-deep spaces and islands would both seem perfect places for Nightmare incursions.




MAKING NIGHTMARE INCURSIONS

This is the most original, interesting, difficult and storygamy part of the book. It's also where it swings the widest from being 'a bit like James Raggi or Chris McDowall' to 'a bit like Vincent Baker'.

First big difference is that these Nightmare Dungeons are built around a particular object that links them to the real world and allows them to exist. This is something like the cursed object from a horror movie, but it could be anything closely linked to negative human emotions for any reason.

For some reason I can't get the idea out of my head that this could be an evil sofa (which it theoretically could) but it could be anything.

So unlike most dungeon raids, you are not there for the money, you are there to get to the deepest Nightmare level, get the sofa and get out. As you leave the incursion should collapse behind you. The sofa is called the 'Anchor' and there are rules for creating one. Lets try to create a level 5 'Anchor'.

So it’s worth 600 'Cyphers' (Gold equivalent)
It's just one encumbrance to carry.
It's a tool or toy.
It's Austere
It's in an Abstract style.
It's gold.
And elegant.
It's covered.
It’s an axe?

Huh, so an abstract ceremonial axe held under a sheet of some kind. That sounds ok.
It's linked to an emotion off Grief, indicating nightmares related to amputation, melancholy and weight, death, suicidal ideation and undead, and the faces of those who have died coming back to haunt the living.

So I suppose winding sheets covering tottering corpses of the person who had the original axe, the sheets are all stained with blood, but if you pull the sheet off its just a superarachnid of severed limbs, and they all come together to form the giant severed-limb face of someone you know?

So that gives us some idea of what to make for our crown on level 5.

And this thing will be associated with a particular kind of Nightmare creature that will just keep re-generating so long as it is there. If I can get it out then they will go away and the incursion will be blocked off from this entry to the world and have to either retreat back to the Nightmare Zone like a big tentacle or try to latch on to a pre-existing incursion somewhere else. Yep, un-cleared 'lairs' can latch back onto the world in other places and you can encounter them elsewhere later on possibly.

And of course, to cover your costs for all this dicking around you will probably need to sell the cursed thingy in question to some weirdo, and there is an even chance another incursion may try to form around it, or that the weird in question will try to use its power to do just that, forming another gameplay loop.

Because these are horror-movie spaces, they don't need to look or be like normal dungeons and can move into horror-movie territory, the passages and rooms can be natural caves, crystal and glass, the insides of an infinite sinking ship, the same room repeated again and again, the inside of a modern tower block, whatever you want.

There are four main 'types of Nightmare Incursion

- death-trap dungeon (Tomb of Horrors style)
- heretic temples (Conspiracies & Cults)
- monster hordes (Classic)
- spawning pits (Extra Nightmares)

The way lairs and levels are described they are quite abstract so you could apply them to pre-existing dungeon maps or any kind of space. The arrangement can be linier, linked like a House of Leaves style, or as part of an above ground Zone, so Castlevania style.

The way the Anchor relates to human emotion, it seems to me that we are being shown one fragment of a larger game through an old-school prism. This could just as easily be an investigatory CoC game where you find out the tragic story of the object and try to do something about it, or maybe use your specific knowledge against the Nightmares using it to manifest, or it could be some hippy game where you do a similar thing but it’s all about coming to terms with your negative emotions and whatever. We are being shown a tactical solution to a problem with multiple potential solutions.

Again, even though you could technically put an Owlbear or an Orc in here, it's going to be a bit embarrassing for them if you do. It'll be like Peter Jackson wandering into a Werner Herzog film. Maybe if you make the Orc pale and hairless and a memory of a fathers abuse, or the Owlbear a giant stuffed toy full of children’s scalps, that might work.



RUNNING THE NIGHTMARE DUNGEONS

Monster advice re each having a specific plus and weakness is kinda good but leads to slightly box-ticky stuff later on. Box-tickyness is arguably a flaw with the game, see the chaotic-evil apothecary stuff earlier on.

Some basic shit again on running dungeons but maybe the reader has never heard basic shit, "press down the clutch to change gear" is vital knowledge the first time you hear it

There are actually three kinds of encounter

- Fixed encounters, like a normal dungeon.

- Random encounters, again like a normal dungeon.

- Countdown-timer encounters. These are new. From the moment you start crossing boundaries the active nightmares in that zone start hunting you and they will turn up, and they can just appear out of thin air or in the reflection of a bathroom mirror, horror-movie style, so that's new.

- There are also some creatures with special encounters. One kind, even when you take them all out, as you go to leave the dungeon there is always one final one waiting on the threshold to stop you, because it's a horror movie.

A Strejcek-style 'overloaded encounter die' is also used to add stuff like enchantments and magic wearing off or the lap going out as the Nightmares eat your light.

Feedback in the hands of a subtle DM could be very useful/important if they get it right. The horror-movie and alter-reality aesthetic and imaginative structure opens up a lot of strange and novel potentials not usually available in dungeons.



MONSTERS, EXTRA PLAYER OPTIONS AND TABLES AT THE BACK

The monsters range in quality. Many have some kind of recoverable ingredient or substance, I like that. The Dragons as failed Fey gods addicted to material stuff and developing mad obsessions works well. Sun-Court Fey have bronze muskets that fire wasps, will steal that.

There is no visual description for the monsters, which I quite like as the DM must look at the image and interpret it themselves.

There are player options, in case you couldn't tell that Metzger missed the 90's there is a god-damn 'Blade Dancer' class. You can play a fucking Hobbit or a fucking Elf if you really want to. More interestingly, you can play a Child, which sounds like fun.

At the end we get a range of tables of the 'Boring but Useful type.



SO WHAT DO YOU THINK THEN, BE IT FOR GOOD OR ILL?

It has, almost to a ridiculous degree, all of the good and bad aspects of a heartbreaker. It’s mainly good.

The concept is gold and if not entirely, absolutely original (what is?) in the wholeness of itself it is very original. The world of order and the infiltrating nightmares is a great idea. The creation and construction of the Nightmare infiltrations is a welcome new string to the bow. The concept of yanking out the sofa to collapse the dungeon is excellent,  as is the concept of the bits of the extra-dimensional dungeon searching around and trying to re-connect elsewhere. All the titting about in-town with printers and apothecaries and hotels is great fun, surprisingly great fun. The equipment tables. You got some elegant flows, or at least decent attempts at elegant flows in the feedback responses for the PC decaying brain state and the nightmares they have to fight.

It would work more perfectly in its current order/nightmares polarised imagined world state than in the more rambunctious standard D&D world, if you just started throwing in nightmare dungeons into your standard melange world then they will lose something, but every campaign has some tight-ass kingdom where things generally work, and you need shit to happen there, and this would work well there, the more tight-assed and self-confident the society the better the Nightmares will pop.


The Bad

It would take almost as much work to run it as-written as it took Johnstone to make it, except he made it slowly in his head, through play, where all the many, many decision trees and dice mechanics made sense because they grew from his experience, you will have to absorb all of this in one go.

There are a lot of highly-interacting rules systems, some of them quite abstracted (for an OSR game), many using entirely different dice mechanics, if you like highly cohesive systems I can see you liking this for its completeness and interconnectivity but also possibly hating it for its “irrational” design and the multiplicity of its parts.

It’s over-complicated, unless you like that, in which case it’s just capacious and detailed, or unless you were going to hack it anyway, in which case it’s just good fuel


The admirable.

It’s an impressive and well-created thing for even a publisher to make, for one guy it is truly a heroic effort.

The writing has a range of qualities, as stated above, but I found the good more than worth the bad.

The godamnn Lulu dust cover warps like the fucking Enterprise so I had to take it off to read it, but it still looks a bit classy and mysterious underneath so maybe the hot girl on the train will think you are reading experimental eastern European fiction. It nearly is experimental fiction.


Lulu won’t deliver to the UK from the UK storefront, but if you log into the US storefront you can order to a non-US address. You can also wait until you get a Lulu code to bring down the price.

Here is RPG.NOW

and here is LULU

Here is the whole thing (bar the illustrations) FREEEEEE



7 comments:

  1. "Metzger is really into alignment. We have Chaotic, Neutral and Lawful crossed with Good, Neutral and Evil."

    The alignment rules are really key to the game, and I think you've misread them. There are no "cross"-alignments: one is either Good or Neutral or Lawful, not Lawful Neutral or Neutral Good or whatever. I quite like the way Metzger has given each alignment an intuitive, well-supported identity in the game world that has real consequences. This would fall apart if you started including hybrid alignments.

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    1. My apologies, I have added an edit to reflect my mistake.

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  2. Finally finished reading your super long, super helpful review. Good take on the book. Also worth noting that there's a free version -- everything but the pictures. That fact alone convinced me to shell out for the full edition.

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  3. Thank you for doing such an extensive review, Patrick. I appreciate your perspective.

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  4. Hey, I tried to make not-boring spell memorisation rules. Lemme know when you wake up from the blackout: http://galacticfun.blogspot.com/2017/04/patricks-spell-mnemonics.html

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  5. That's some weird spam from Cactus.

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  6. Sorry if it's spammy, Christopher. Could you say why?

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