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[Let's Read] The Nightmares Underneath, 2nd Edition

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Hello everyone and welcome to my next Let’s Read! I realize it’s been a long time coming, but a lot of stuff’s been going on in life that disrupted my regular schedule. However, now that I have more time to devote to writing, I’m fulfilling my promise to those who voted for this book way back in May!

The Nightmares Underneath is an OSR game with some modern innovations. It is set in a realm called the Kingdom of Dreams, a pseudo-Middle Eastern region drawing influence from Persian culture with some Turkic Ottoman touches. Its leaders and intelligentsia speak of a golden age of science and reason, having progressed far from their pagan past. But within the shadowy corners a new threat arises: incursions from a world of nightmares find root in places of fear and sin, growing like an extradimensional cancer in the form of dungeons. The PCs and a rare few others are better able to resist the Nightmare Realms’ taint, and in order to excise these tumors they must brave the incursions’ depths, destroy its Crown monsters, and/or unfasten the Anchors (a valuable treasure or relic) holding these dungeons to the material world.

As of December 2019 the Nightmares Underneath got a new 2nd Edition. This passed by some people as it was released as an update for those who already bought the original PDF. Which is nice as people don’t have to pay double, but not having much fanfare means that there’s not a lot of discussion about it. I will note the differences where I can via Edition Changes.

Chapter 1: Alabaster and Frankincense
Our first chapter briefly details major aspects of the Kingdoms of Dreams. They’re a decentralized assortment of governments with a diversity of terrain and people, but are unified in being followers of the Law. The Law is a series of texts penned by five prophets and serve as the binding element of society. The Law’s derived from a higher realm, extolling the virtues of reason and condemning idolatry of false gods. The preceding Age of Chaos was a time when said gods demanded utter servitude and worship instead of the Divine who sent the word out via angelic messengers. It is unclear if the Divine is regarded as a deity proper or is meant to be a philosophical ideal. There are no churches or mosques in the Kingdoms: instead the Law is “worshiped” in courthouses, and its “priests” are required to be well-read in administrations of science and the state. Conversely, the “modern age” is referred to as the Age of Law.

The Kingdoms are technologically advanced by fantasy RPG standards. Gunpowder and Renaissance-era firearms have been invented, along with a high proportion of scholars, alchemists, and mathematicians being common among the upper class. Factories churn out metal goods and smog in the largest cities, and the printing press makes books of all stripes and literacy something within reach of the common folk. Technological and magical innovations mean that many people of means have access to promising new devices, although most people still live agrarian lifestyles.

The Highland Coast is a sample region of the Kingdoms of Dreams, a pre-made place for GMs to set their game and also a template showcasing the common cultural influences. The Coast is home to the land of Geth, which shares a mighty port metropolis of the same name. Hadrazzaar and Shahrazar are adjacent provinces, the former home to the rival city of Neth-Hadrazzar, and the latter a haunted wasteland populated with ruined cities and monsters. Immigration and trade with various cultures from land and sea make the area a diverse place, particularly in the cities. Common naming conventions often have two to three names per person: at the very least one has a gendered name and a gender-neutral name to be used as the person prefers. A few people have surnames: these can reflect a person’s family profession, homeland, or their noble house.

Speaking of which, the “common tongue” of the Kingdoms of Dreams follows Persian and Turkish conventions: grammatical genders do not exist, and “u” or “o”* is used instead of he/she, while reference to objects is “an” or “anha” for plural. However, gendered names often have -a as a suffix, while masculine names can be done by removing vowels from the end of a non-masculine name. For English speakers unused to casual use of foreign grammar, the book suggests using the singular “they” when referring to people. It’s not often known what gender a person is unless they’re told explicitly or you get to know that person well. We also get a table of sample names with gendered and gender-neutral equivalents across the chart.

*Persian/Turkish respectively.

In regards to race and ethnicity...for fantasy races, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and the like are never really called out, and Nightmares’ setting has a ‘human default’ in the discussion of characters and cultures. There’s nothing explicitly stating the races of the world, and the GM and players can incorporate whatever species they desire; it just won’t have a mechanical impact for the game. When it comes to various cultures, the Highland Coast typically groups foreigners in via geographical ancestry and regard their own kind as a melting pot of these different societies. Northerners are implied Mongolians that come from cold steppes; Southerners are implied Africans who hail from the rainforests and savannahs of Voss; Westerners are implied Europeans from across the Sea; and Easterners don’t have much detail besides the fact that they’re rare in these parts and have darker skin than indigenous Highlanders.

Regions of the Highland Coast are split up into three major sections. Geth by the Salt Sea is the Waterdeep/Sharn of The Nightmares Underneath. It’s the crossroads of a multinational mercantile hub situated by a river running out to the sea. Its trading vessels prioritize economics, and justify outposts in kingdoms ignorant of the Law as an opportunity to proselytize...which they don’t push too hard on the natives. Geth is also a center for the arts, and is home to many theaters, schools, houses of music, and cafes and tea houses frequented by cosmopolitan people. Light skin tones are often associated with the nobility due to said aristocracy’s penchant for blonde slaves from foreign lands, and the city’s full of such heirs bitterly fighting for their claim to minor thrones. Furthermore, we get a brief overview of Geth’s major districts, which include a Necropolis overseen by lightning-shooting towers to keep the undead at bay, a series of artificial islands owned by various nobles lining the Harbour, a Temple to Justice home to an underground complex of entire libraries and schools, and a Grand Bazaar selling just about everyone if one knows where to look.

Neth-Hadrazzar (or Neth for short) was formed by exiled nobility from Geth on the losing side of a civil war, and the populace has carried down this grudge for generations. Neth’s nobility fostered economic and marital alliances with many kingdoms, and new villages outside the city proper continued to pop up to support waves of new immigrants (both free and unfree) to support the upper class’ coffers. Corruption is rampant, and nobles often challenge each other to duels and other games in a public Dome of the Muses which also serves as a bread and circus byproduct to entertain the masses. Nethian culture does the opposite of whatever is popular in Geth at the time: shepherding is exalted over horsemanship, people paint their faces instead of wearing masks, and dark-skinned slaves from the south are preferred as concubines and have similar social perceptions of economic status and feuding heirs.

We don’t have a list of Neth’s districts, but six smaller villages outside Neth are summed up with 4-point bulletin lists: for example, Siyaghul has Mountainside, Secret Cult, Well-Defended, and Xenophobic descriptors.

And for a great built-in campaign hook, the Sultan of Neth set up a government department specializing in fighting nightmare incursions. Foreign adventurers and death row inmates seeking to commute their sentences are tasked with destroying said dungeons and killing any monsters that escape from them into the wider world.

Shahrazar is our final section, and it is not a city. It once had a golden age, but now it is a metaphorical graveyard. The only real centers of civilization are isolated monasteries who may be pious folk or secret devotees of evil ways, none can truly say. Shahrazar’s wilds and ruined cities team with monsters, much of whom are still unknown to human eyes. The legendary lost city is a rumor, alternatively condemned as a trap to lure adventurers or hidden refuges of potential allies fighting against the nightmare realm. To the north is the Vale of Serpents, a barren desert home to the ruined temples of the most wicked rulers during the Age of Chaos. Finally, the land of Voss lies to the south of Shahrazar proper: the area of Voss bordering the Highland Coast is home to nomadic tribes that wander the savannahs and mountain passes.

Edition Changes: Our chapter ends with tools for randomly generating towns and countries, from climate and cultural aspects to major industries and problems for adventurers to solve.

Chapter 2: Beneath the Sunlit Lands
The Threat of Chaos details the nature of the nightmare incursions, as well as the cosmological makeup of the setting. The planes of existence can be summed up as follows: the Pillars of Heaven are home to angels who serve the Divine and delivered the Law to humanity on Earth, which is not real-world Earth but the Material Plane world for this setting. Faerie is a plane adjacent to Earth, populated by creatures whose physical forms are manifested by their personalities, emotions, and ideologies, known as fey in some cultures and genies in others. The fey also suffer the depredations of nightmares, but are more resistant to it and have no desire of allying with humanity as a whole due to viewing them as weak.

Beyond such worlds, details become more sparse. There are known to be demons and devils who empower false prophets to work evil in the world. Such entities have been known in recorded history since time immemorial, but the nightmare incursions are more recent. It is unknown if such beings are but one manifestation of nightmares or separate, given that they’re both attracted to and feed off of mortal misery. The Realm of Nightmares is a shadowy, Silent Hill-esque world. In the slums of great cities, in households touched by tragedy, in villages whose inhabitants were slaughtered, entryways to other realms spawn. Nightmare incursions take many forms, shaping around or extending dimensionally beyond these tainted places. One thing that almost all have in common is that they’re dark, located underground, and inhabited by inhuman monsters that are formed fully from its cosmic taint. And if their Crowns and Anchors are not severed, they’ll grow in size and power, infecting more people and places and spawning entryways in once-untainted lands.

And yes, there are game rules for ignoring and/or being unable to “beat” a dungeon over a period of time, but detailed in Chapter 7.

And beyond even the Nightmares are Dwellers in the Deep, a catch-all term for creatures taken from utterly unknown realms, either as planar stowaways hanging onto nightmare incursions or by the folly (intentional or otherwise) of summoners. Incursions have the side effect of weakening planar boundaries in general, meaning that all sorts of portals and creatures can manifest as befits the whims of the story the GM has in mind.

The nightmare realms also taint humans and other creatures who lair near them or end up trapped inside, tempted, cajolled, and threatened by dreams, illusions, and whispers promising a devil’s bargain. Such is the source of all manner of wicked mages and warped beasts. Most people who enter a nightmare realm end up insane from the corruption, the effects growing worse the more exposure. But a rare few people, including the Player Characters, are capable of repeatedly entering the incursions without any ill effects in and of themselves. They can still suffer from magic, poison, and other threats therein, but the planar transition alone has no noticeable effect upon their psyche. And yes, there are game rules for this, too, in Chapter 6!

One thing that should be noted is that contrary to popular belief, the pagan faiths of the Age of Chaos are not responsible for the Realm of Nightmare. Their gods’ worshipers are menaced by the incursions all the same, and have no special proficiency over its beasts and sorcery than the followers of the Law.

Edition Changes: We get an entry on the Vale of Serpents. 2nd Edition wanted to provide more material for adventures taking place outside of dungeons, and the Vale of Serpents serves as a great excuse for ruin-delving. Sorcerer-kings ruled over this place during the Age of Chaos, their bodies interred in massive tombs warded with demonic guardians and traps. Tomb robbers are known to brave this place, home to wealth and forgotten spells of a prior era. Although there is a market for such goods, prevailing legal and cultural standards look askance at “Chaos-tainted” artifacts even should they be non-magical in origin. Texts penned are regarded as blasphemous, their lying words a risk to undoing the rule of Law. However, there are cases where adventurers can prove the safe use of such things, even more so if they can be wielded against the nightmares.

2nd Edition’s Chapter 2 also details Crew Types for PC parties, which sums up why the characters are all banded together along with specific advantages. Beyond the typical adventuring party, we have a criminal gang (no taboos regarding Chaos magic and artifacts, count as their own communities for purposes of Resentment scores), Official Investigators (advantage on checks when dealing with courts in ‘legit use’ of forbidden artifacts), and Political Party (ideological advocates count as their own community for Resentment, advantage on convincing said people the worth in using forbidden artifacts). The standard Adventuring Party is not left out, for they have advantage on rolls when looking for retainers and performing research, provided they spend their dungeon-gotten gains in the community and have an exciting tale to tell about it.

Thoughts So Far: The Nightmares Underneath has a notably unique setting. There aren’t many Middle Eastern-flavored sourcebooks out there that take a non-Arabic influence to them. Even so, I can see some influences from other media such as Darkest Dungeon in the portrayal of dungeons as maddening, unnatural places. Or in al-Qadim in having a similarly-named Law and an underlying Red Scare of pagan influences. One potentially problematic source for gaming groups is the socially acceptable practice of slavery; while it’s just a brief mention, the use of sex slaves in the creation of royal heirs can be particularly uncomfortable on top of that. The sample Highland Coast is brief, but we get a lot of material to work with in what it gives us. And while it doesn’t explicitly say it out and out, the discussion of pronouns and gender-neutral is a good way of acknowledging non-binary characters in the world.

Join us next time as we cover Basic Resolution Rules!


Basic Resolution Rules
Here we cover the core game mechanics of the Nightmares Underneath. Like other D&D-derived games it uses a d20-sided die as its primary means of task resolution, with natural 1s and 20s auto-failing. Instead of hit points there is Disposition, representing willpower, luck, and resilience. Damage beyond that causes more grievous Wounds which can maim and even kill if enough are accumulated. Unlike most OSR games it is possible to suffer temporary damage to one’s attribute scores, which lower the score by a certain number until the character receives rest and/or medical treatment barring some debilitating permanent results. A few classes also have Psychic Armour (not to be confused with the regular Armour Rating score), which act as a sort of “bonus hit points” against all forms of mental and magical attacks and are detracted first before Disposition and Wounds.

Overcome Attempts represent opposing and contested actions, where the “overcomer” must roll a d20 + an appropriate attribute modifier equal to or greater than the opposition’s relevant attribute score; some situations allow one to add the level of a relevant profession* to the d20 result. We have a half-page worth of common Overcome results, ranging from spotting someone sneaking (overcome their Dexterity with your Intelligence modifier), Intimidation (overcome their Willpower with your Ferocity modifier), and even attack rolls (overcome their Armour Rating [a non-attribute exception] with your Ferocity or Dexterity modifier depending upon melee or ranged attack).

Edit: You add your level on top of the attribute score modifier when the former would apply as a bonus.

Saves represent unopposed task resolution where the performer rolls equal to or under a relevant attribute score with a d20. Attempting something beyond one’s normal capabilities rolls against half the attribute, rounded down.

*TNU’s term for character class.

Advantage and Disadvantage are imported from 5th Edition D&D, and more or less work the same. But unlike 5e there is no Inspiration mechanic to grant advantage on a roll, and ‘vantages can even be applied to non-d20 rolls in a few special cases such as random tables, damage rolls, and determining Disposition. In cases where more than one dice are being rolled already, the ‘vantage rolls an extra die and discards the die with the most/least favorable result.

There are more specific examples and cases provided for the above rules: saving throws against spells and traps give the offending effect a level to determine if you save vs your normal or halved attribute (if its level is greater than yours), while saves for risky and dangerous skills determine if you save normally or halved depending on whether you’re skilled or unskilled and if you have a good set of tools at hand (being unskilled and lacking tools is an auto-fail). In the latter example, advantage and disadvantage applies for exceptionally superb/terrible tools or significant assistance/hindrance regarding the task. Finally, there are broad teamwork rules for various things, resolved as either an individual being aided or via a group collective effort.

The Nightmares Underneath’s core system is brief and broad, but the scope of it is capable of covering plenty of ground without frequently forcing GM Fiat. One interesting thing that I’ll note is that when advantage is applied on a random table where the player’s rolling, the best or worst result is chosen in the case of good/bad results, but in the case of results that don’t denote gradations of fortune the player can pick in the case of advantage. ‘Vantages are not applied on the part of players for GM-centric tables.

Edition Changes: In lieu of Overcome Attempts, 1st Edition had a much simpler Contest/Outcome Resolution where all participants rolled 2d6 and added appropriate modifiers against a static DC or opposing roll. Additionally, advantage/disadvantage did not used to apply to random tables.

Chapter 3: Brothers and Sisters in Arms
This chapter covers all of the relevant character creation info. It is similar to OSR character generation in that you roll 3d6 for your attribute scores, choose your class, alignment, and such, although there are some differences. First off, the six attribute scores are slightly different: There’s no Strength score; instead there’s Ferocity which measures your overall capacity to inflict violence and adds to your to-hit rolls for melee and to all physical damage roll both ranged and melee. Health, which is akin to Constitution, determines your carrying capacity on top of how many Wounds you can suffer before death. Dexterity does not add to your Armour Rating but adds to your initiative modifier, surprise rolls, to-hit with missile weapons, and one’s Speed rating (how many squares you can move per round) plus everything else said score usually does. Intelligence also covers perception and surprise rolls as well as general knowledge and “dungeon navigation” stuff. Instead of Wisdom we have Willpower which is more or less your mental fortitude in trying times. Charisma functions more or less the same, but can be used to reduce a community’s Resentment and people with high scores are often believed to be blessed by magic and/or the divine. Certain Professions use one of three mental attributes to determine bonus spells they start with at character generation. Attribute scores have a universal modifier, which becomes more meaningful the lower or higher it is from the 9-12 standard (ex. 6-8 is -1, 4-5 is -2, and every point lower subtracts to 1 at -5), and can go up to 20 (which has a +5 bonus).

Overall the six scores are still of relative importance despite their changes. Dexterity not applying to AC anymore makes it less god-tier than it usually is, but is still a pretty strong option. Charisma’s still strong in its use for hireling loyalty, but the increased emphasis on community goodwill in the system makes it even stronger. Folding carrying capacity into Health makes sense thematically, but Ferocity is still like Strength in that it is rather situational to certain characters. Intelligence has been broadened in that languages known are more or less a flavor choice, but it’s useful for about half the classes with spellcasting capabilities (Assassin/Champion/Scholar/Wizard) and covers “dungeon perception/navigation capabilities” which are pretty important in the otherworldly nightmare incursions. Given that Wisdom in most OSR games was most useful for gaining Experience Point bonuses, dropping it for Willpower as an all-purpose “mental defense” was a good idea given that Primary Attributes cover Wisdom’s original role as detailed under Professions.

But that’s not all! Attributes can potentially increase as you gain levels. Every level up you choose two of them (one of which must be your Profession’s Primary Attribute) and you roll a d20 and compare it to the (normal, non-damaged) score. If you rolled higher you increase said attribute by 1 if it’s 13 or higher, 2 if it’s 9-12, and 3 points if it’s 1-8. Rolling equal to or lower has no effect, unless it’s a Primary Attribute in which case it increases by 2 points if 1-8 or by 1 if 9-12.

I like this: it allows for a sense of progression, and makes it easier to shore up weaker attributes should the player wish to focus on improvement. Thus a mere score of 5 or 6 isn’t a total lost cause.

Professions are TNU’s class equivalents, and we have eight of them representing broad archetypes. Each profession has two Primary Attributes (one for Thieves) which determines how much bonus Experience Points one gets for having high scores in related fields (but you’re penalized for having a low score). They also have Hit Dice ranging from 1d4 to 1d8, which not only determines Disposition at the start of a day* but is also used as the primary damage die for wielded weapons: two-handed weapons can deal damage one die higher, but poor-quality, improvised, and unarmed weapons deal damage one die size smaller. This means that a mere dagger in the hands of an Assassin or Fighter can deal more damage than a polearm-wielding Wizard. Classes that deal automatic bonus damage under certain circumstances have a unified progression: +1d8 at levels 1st thru 3rd, +1d10 at 4th thru 5th,** and +1d12 at 7th to 9th.

Edition Changes: The automatic bonus damage cases merely rolled normal damage on a miss, but double the dice on a proper hit. In 2nd Edition said option gets stronger as you increase in level, given that there are no profession with Hit Dice greater than 1d8. It was also possible for casting classes with negative modifiers in their relevant mental attribute score to begin play knowing no spells, but in 2nd Edition you don’t “lose” spells beyond your base number due to having a low score.

*that’s right, your “hit points” aren’t set in stone.

**This seems to be a repeated typo, and I take it that +1d10 is meant to be 4th thru 6th.

A few classes also have restrictions, where their special attributes cannot be used if wearing weapons or armor too “heavy” for them, and all classes have automatic proficiencies in related Skills for purposes of saving throws and general knowledge.

All PCs use the same experience progression and the “level cap” is at 10. Well technically 10th, but at that point you have “won the game” and you either continue playing as though you’re 9th level or retire to a location with meaning to your PC. Their chosen location is never plagued by nightmare incursions again, and depending on the campaign’s accomplishments may be as large as a kingdom or as small as a farm or single neighborhood.

Edition Changes: 2nd Edition added a sort of subclass system for half of the professions in a customizable choice of a unique attribute, represented by a specific order or discipline. Each profession has around 3 options, and the Fighter gets 5. Scholars and Wizards have no subclasses, while the Champions and Cultists already have customizable options in the form of their cause and/or faith.

Assassins are part of secret orders that waged subtle warfare against their patron’s enemies. Their history dates back to the Age of Chaos, and they now find their influence dwindling in the Age of Law. Still, there’s always a use for their talents, and a few even ply their trade against the forces of nightmare. They cannot be of Good alignment or wear plate armor, but they have a huge amount of automatic Skills and deal bonus damage (even on a miss) against foes they attack by surprise or from behind. They add their level to overcome attempts involving sneaky stuff, physical attack rolls, and attack first when charging foes even if said foe has a longer-reach weapon. Their subclasses represent unique assassin orders, and have overall good choices: adding level to base Armour rating when unarmored, begin knowing and can learn spells, or is never surprised and adds level to initiative rolls.

Overall a pretty strong class.

Bards are a party’s heart and soul, keeping their spirits up where others may fall. They cannot be of Evil alignment or use plate armour, and their automatic Skills veer mostly towards the performative and social as well as “bardic knowledge” picked up from stories and news. They can transfer their own Disposition to allies on a 1 for 2 basis (lose 1, grant 2) as a simple action, add their level to overcome rolls for performances, and allies gain advantage on re-rolling Disposition in their presence during rest periods. Their subclasses are quite diverse: begin knowing and can learn spells, add level to initiative rolls and a few roguish/thief-like Skills, and add their level to physical attack rolls.

The Bard’s rather different in that the default class is more of a morale-based healer, and it’s Skills are better-used in the community than the dungeon.

Champions are the setting’s Paladin equivalent. But they’re closer to 4th and 5th Edition D&D’s interpretation of the class, which can hold ideals besides Law and Good. They cannot be of Neutral alignment or use their special attributes while hiding their Alignment (defined as keeping quiet and avoiding displays of religious/ideological symbols upon their person). They don’t have many Skills, their automatic ones in regards to the tenets, rituals, and talking points of their cause plus a single hobby at GM discretion. Their base special attributes include granting advantage on Disposition or Psychic Armour rerolls to companions who share their Alignment, can auto-detect those who share their Alignment, auto-detect the presence of magic that requires or targets their Alignment, and advantage on all saves against magic that targets their Alignment. They add their level to physical attack rolls and social overcome attempts to defend the tenets of their Alignment.

Overall a rather situational class best used in parties of a shared worldview. But their subclass options open them up to the meat of choices. Their bonus class features, secondary Primary Attribute, and free equipment is based on whether they champion Chaos, Evil, Good, or Law. Champions of Chaos gain spellcasting capability but cannot cast spells of the Law school, Evil deals bonus automatic bonus damage even on a miss with a certain subclass of weapons (axes, bows, swords, pole arms, etc) chosen by the PC, Good allows the laying of hands to restore lost attribute score points and removal of Wounds, and Law can transfer Disposition to allies much like a Bard can.

The Champion is a good combat-heavy class, although it’s a bit mixed in practical play. I’ll talk about Alignment proper later, but Champions of Chaos and Evil are in a sticky situation in that their ideologies can easily generate increased Resentment in communities and as such make things harder for the rest of the party. In Chaos’ case you’re either a pagan worshiper or, if secular, some variety of radical that wants to overthrow the feudal social order. For Evil, you just like to hurt people and spread suffering. In the case of Law you literally follow the principles of the Divine’s Law given that a copy of said holy text is part of your bonus starting equipment. While spells are still an attractive option, about half of the subclasses are much easier to insert into typical adventuring parties right out the gate.

Cultists are the Clerics of the setting, but what makes them different is that they serve the pagan gods of old and thus their faiths are illegal. They cannot be of Lawful alignment, and must ‘tithe’ half their earned XP to their cult and ‘buy back’ this lost XP via donations of cyphers (TNU’s gold piece equivalent) towards advancing their cult’s cause. They can use shields and light armour and can choose two types of weapon groups in which to be proficient, but lose their special attributes when using other kinds of weapons and armour. Their automatic Skills include those particular to their religion, how to hide their religious affiliation, as well as one mundane occupation. They add their level to physical attack rolls with proficient weapons, can know and learn spells, chooses one “privileged school” of magic particular to their faith,* and can choose one creature type which they can “turn” much like a normal Cleric. As there are only six creature types in this system (beasts, dwellers in the deep, faeries, golems, humans, undead), the choices are broad in that there are no real bad options.

*meaning that when randomly rolling for known spells at chargen, they can roll on a more limited table of relevant spells rather than the entire table.

Overall Cultists are decent fighters much like their standard OSR class, although they have more versatility in that their choices for weapon proficiency, turning, and even spells can be customized. They do have a bit of a role-playing challenge like the Champion in that being an illegal faith means that they can get in trouble with the law and generate Resentment more easily.

Fighters are exactly what you think, and have absolutely no restrictions for their class. They get a decent amount of automatic Skills related to manual labor, wilderness survival, and generic ‘soldier things’ plus bonus hobby/background Skill(s) at the GM’s discretion. Their special attributes include automatic bonus damage on all physical attacks, can increase their Disposition to their level whenever they start a fight if their current value is lower, and add their level to all physical attacks and overcome rolls involving intimidation. Their five subclasses represent various cultural traditions and fighting styles, and have some good options: advantage on rolls in finding and hiring martial retainers, add level to initiative, grant advantage to ally’s attack roll vs. a target (or group of related targets) you hit, armour is technically weightless for carrying capacity as long as you wear it, or can fight unarmed at no damage penalty and attack first when charging even if a foe has a longer-reach weapon.

The Fighter is rather straightforward in what it does. Their automatic bonus damage is a real killer, in that unlike the Assassin’s ‘sneak attack’ they are dealing this bonus damage all of the time. An Evil Champion may hit said the same ratio of damage with the same frequency, but only with a single weapon type, whereas the Fighter is a threat with any non-magical attack. I was a bit surprised that the class is also a very suitable Ranger-type, in that none of the other professions have Skills related to wilderness survival (sans the Bard but for “travelling”).

Scholars are the jack-of-all-trades class. They are learned folk who seek to apply their knowledge in solving the world’s problems, be that in a laboratory, the courts, or the nightmare incursions. They cannot be of Chaotic alignment, use their special attributes when wearing non-magical plate, and gain no damage die bonus for non-magical two-handed weapons.* Their automatic Skills are all avenues of law, medicine, and philosophy plus an additional academic field or non-academic hobby or job. Whenever they spend a Turn searching, they always find hidden things in a dungeon of their Level or lower and always save against their full Dexterity score when searching a dungeon regardless of its level.** They also have Psychic Armour and roll their Hit Die (1d4) to determine its value just like Disposition, can use any magic item and its benefits regardless of whatever restrictions it may normally have, and begin knowing and are capable of learning spells. They can roll on more specific tables for spells depending on their alignment should they so choose: Battle for Evil, Healing for Good, Law for Lawful, but Neutral has to do the full d100 randomized results.

* a rather unique call-out in that other classes don’t specify the magicness of restricted equipment.

**this means that they’re great trap-detectors.

Scholars also restore twice as many attribute score points and Wounds as normal whenever treating someone’s injuries, and can auto-restore attribute points/Wounds equal to their level provided their patients haven’t been injured for more than a day. The Scholar can only do the latter once per patient until said patient suffers another injury, and can only tend to a number of patients equal to their level (and can select themselves for self-healing).

Despite the lack of subclasses, Scholars already have a lot of things going for them. They aren’t very good in combat, and in D&D terms are akin to a triple-classed cleric/thief/mage (or cleric/thief if they’re Good). They have a bit of a different role than Bards or Lawful Champions, in that they are healers but for the more long-term and debilitating conditions.

Thieves cover all manner of criminal professions that require cloak and dagger skullduggery, but aren’t as martial as Assassins. They cannot use their special attributes while wearing plate, and have a Skill list near-identical to that of the Assassin’s. They add their level on initiative rolls and overcome attempts regarding sneaky stuff and social trickery, can search an area faster and more in-depth than other Professions which normally require a full Turn. Thieves also automatically find something hidden in a dungeon of their level or lower if they spend a full proper Turn searching. Like Scholars they save vs their full Dexterity in higher-level dungeons. Their subclasses represent specialized crimes: advantage on perception/search/research for a place they plan on breaking into, advantage on persuasion and social rolls involving deception, advantage on rolls for finding and hiring retainers in the criminal underworld, and advantage on rolls when calling upon favors and contacts among criminals.

The Thief, much like the Fighter, is good at what it does. Comparisons to the Assassin will be inevitable; they are much better at finding hidden things and (barring one of the Assassin’s subclasses) can act quicker when it comes to initiative. However, the Thief is like the Fighter in that it’s the one of only 2 classes that cannot start with and learn spells, either by default or via subclass, and the Assassin is overall a better fighter in combat.

Wizards are #notlikeotherspellcasters. Whereas a Cultist, Scholar, or other profession can delve into the mystic arts, they typically do so in the pursuit of an unrelated cause. Wizards dedicate themselves fully to the study of magic as an end in and of itself. Their restrictions more or less mandate nothing heavy: can’t be encumbered, cannot wear plate armour, and cannot use a shield if they hope to use their special abilities, and gain no damage bonus from two-handed weapons. Their automatic Skills include science, letters,* magical knowledge, and other hobbies and jobs at the GM’s discretion. Not only do they have Psychic Armour like a Scholar, they begin play knowing spells and can cast spells better than others. If they fail to control a spell they can lose 1d4 Willpower to avoid miscasting,** and if they are at risk of having a spell become corrupted or a formula being destroyed they can prevent this via a successful Willpower save. Furthermore, when rolling to determine what spells they start with, they can choose for each spell whether they roll on the full spell table or the table of a specific school of their choice. This allows them a more tailored variety of spell options than other classes.

*unsure if they mean the writing of letters or the written word in general.

**which is sort of like a critical fumble in that something bad happens depending on the results of a random table.

The Wizard has no subclasses, but it doesn’t really need any. They are defined by their spells, and have a lot of versatility in this area. The only area they can’t fill in for is being anything other than a fragile glass cannon. They aren’t great as mundane skill users beyond a few “smart things” which the Scholar is better at.

After the Professions proper we have miscellaneous details, including reiteration of common rules and stats in one location as well as a d100 table of every spell in the book, separated into ten schools of magic with ten spells each. I will cover the spells in question and said schools proper in Chapter 5.

Alignment gets a one page write-up, and is a bit different in TNU in that it still has the good/evil/law/chaos axis axiom, but is different in that you can only be one: if you’re Good, you cannot also be Lawful. Alignment represents the highest ideal for a character rather than a mixture of traits. Good and Evil are pretty much the same as in normal D&D, although in the case of Evil it mentions that said individuals are capable of ‘being nice’ or having friends but are all-consumed with a desire to hurt people. They may or may not be able to channel these urges into specific venues, aka a hated group vs. wanting to hurt everyone in general. Chaotic people are individualists and believe in non-coercive and non-hierarchical social structures...although this makes one ask how this factors into pagans and Cultists, who tend to pledge allegiance to a higher power. Neutral characters care mostly about personal gain and/or their own close social circles as opposed to following a greater cause. Law are those who wish to maintain societal harmony, and in the Kingdoms of Dreams often goes hand in hand with following the tenets of the Divine’s Law.

This alignment system is bound to raise questions like any other; this section implies that foreigners unknowing of the Divine’s Law can still be Lawful, although the Champion’s bonus equipment being a written copy of the Law seems to tie said alignment to an objective cosmic order. The association of Chaos and paganism elsewhere in the book also hints at this, but Chaotic people (and Champions of Chaos) can also be advocates of secular ideologies. I can see an Evil PC being potentially doable in the vein of a Dexter Morgan who learned to channel their sadism against socially acceptable targets such as monsters and the nightmare incursions. Although like with any gaming group, this requires some Session 0 talk and proceeding with caution.

Money, Equipment, & Social Class rounds out this chapter and is quite lengthy in covering a lot of material. In the Kingdom of Dreams, cyphers are the main currency and represent a variety of metal coins so named for having royal cyphers, seals, and other designations stamped upon them in mints. Paper money in the form of bank notes exists, and coins can be broken up into smaller pieces for fractional costs. PCs start play with 3d6x10 cyphers plus clothes befitting their social station and a home or a job for free. Alternatively they can roll for a random set of starting gear depending upon their Social Class.

Carrying capacity is simplified in comparison to D&D. All items are divided into Tiny Items (carry as many as you want provided you have enough pockets and bags), Small Items (anything you can fit into a pocket), Regular Encumbering Items (strapped to body or carried in one hand), and Large Encumbering Items (require 2 or more hands to carry proficiently). You can carry a number of Small Items equal to your Health score and a number of Encumbering Items equal to 4 + your Health modifier, although Large Encumbering Items count as 2 Regular Encumbering Items past the first Large one of its type and 3 for every item thereafter. When your number of Small and/or Encumbering Items exceeds your limit, you become Encumbered.

In most cases equipment is on a table and has no description unless a special rule calls for it. Much like OSR D&D, armour is affordable for most PCs barring the heaviest varieties. Unarmoured has a 10 for your AC/Armour Rating, whereas Light and Heavy Armour are 13 and 15. Shields and Tower Shields add +1 or +2 respectively, while plate armour is a hearty 17 but at 1,500 cyphers is well out of a starting PC’s price range. Barding exists for animals but is much more expensive than their bipedal counterparts.

Edition Changes: Being mounted used to give you +1 Armour Rating vs attacks from the ground, but no longer. The Armour Rating of more nimble animals such as dogs and horses is lower (now 12, used to be 13). Barding now gives either a default Armour Rating, or increases the base value by +1 or +2 depending on whichever value is greater.

Weapons are a bit odd in that we have a table of different types and prices. However, the specifics of weapons are much less important on account that the damage die is guaranteed to be the same due to keying off of a profession’s Hit Die. Basically if it specifies it can be wielded 2-handed, or is a polearm (for changing and guarding against charges) the weapon in question doesn’t really matter. Things are different when it comes to ranged weapons: each entry gives an approximate range in yards, and bows shoot farther than crossbows and firearms. Crossbows and firearms need to be reloaded via one round’s worth of action. On the plus side, crossbows tend to be cheaper, while a bandolier of holstered pistols can be packed together as a single Large Encumbering item. What this means is that regular bows are overall a superior choice unless you’re on a budget.

Social Class is an optional rule. Depending on the GM, the 3d6 result of someone’s starting money result is their Social Class, which is a 7th attribute score. Or the GM can allow players to choose their Social Class if they’re feeling generous. This attribute replaces Charisma when dealing with legal and social institutions and also on first impressions when meeting law-abiding people of the Kingdoms of Dreams. The middling results (6 to 15) cover a wide range of peasants, middle class, and community figureheads ranging from slaves, laborers, and criminals of varying degrees of “respectability” to knights, wealthy merchants, and barons at the upper end. The outliers (4-5, 16-17) cover most slaves and financially destitute people or nobility and community leaders. The terrible 3 means that you’re a homeless vagrant, an expendable slave, or deemed innately “spiritually unclean” by virtue of birth. 18 means that you’re royalty or belong to a powerful noble house. Being privileged has its privileges. A score of 13 or higher grants you one free piece of non-armour equipment as a family heirloom.

Random Starting Gear is divided into a set of tables for each relevant Social Class modifier. And they do a good job of giving balanced, relevant options even if you’re of low ranking. A few results even given unique options that you cannot buy, like a magic item or some special relic with an implied adventure hook. Each table also has automatic free starting equipment based on your class and whether or not you know any spells. I’m not going to go over each of the results, but showcase some interesting options. Barring a few exceptions these are not results in and of their own, but often come with other equipment:

A pistol that fires the concentrated anger of a forgotten civilization’s people and never needs reloading.
A magical cloak that has the protection of heavy armour and lets one sneak around like a thief.
The good will of an innkeeper who can grant the PC free room and board.
Rivalry with a noble house that prevents the PC from rising in status.
An official deed to an empty piece of land gifted to the PC by their elder sibling.
A piece of treasure gained from tomb-robbing: the player tells the GM the name of one person who died on the expedition and why their PC misses them, and the GM then tells the player what item it is.
A ring that makes one immune to acid, cold, or heat based damage (player chooses one) when worn.
A letter from the nightmare realm offering the PC a crown of their own should they betray their royal kin.

Thoughts So Far: There’s quite a bit of changes to a few D&D traditions ruleswise, but in most cases they’re either for the better or better reflect the base setting. I do like the peculiar touch of a world where “arcane magic” tied to science and learning is praised, but religious “divine magic” is distrusted. Each of the 8 Professions have their strong points, and there’s a good bit of options for customization. The compromise between a full skill system vs OSR minimalism is a nice touch too.

Breaking off classes from pre-selected spell lists while giving them options to roll on specialized tables, is another “compromise option” between restriction vs. pure versatility. Between that and subclasses, TNU professions are overall broader in scope than their OSR counterparts yet still manage to emulate the functions of said roles in a recognizable way.

I have some mixed feelings about a few things. In most OSR games various classes had different “to-hit” progressions in the form of confusing matrices or descending AC. TNU is closer to 5e in having an ascending defense score, which I like. But adding one’s level to physical attacks for the martial classes or for “favored weapons” makes said classes noticeably stronger in a straight-up fight than others as they gain levels. Even a Thief, who is less frail than a Wizard, isn’t going to be hitting any more accurately if both of their Dexterity/Ferocity scores are the same. I’m also a bit unsure whether I like Social Class or feel that it’s an unnecessary complication. Royal status doesn’t count for much when all you have is your party and retainers while out in the wilds or deep in the dungeons, but it does provide some minor yet notable advantages and/or disadvantages and I do like the Random Gear Charts.

Join us next time as we cover community support, social institutions, and other Sims-like rules in Chapter 4: Carousing in the Kingdoms of Dreams!


Chapter 4: Carousing in the Kingdom of Dreams
Dungeon-delving is but the midway point of the adventure, for its beginning and end often take place in a community or other place of normalcy. To better give the PCs something to fight for beyond a settlement to sell their incursion-gotten gain, The Nightmares Underneath has a detailed set of various rules in providing benefits and hindrances for interacting with and investing in communities.

Between Adventures & Buying and Selling
Downtime between dungeon delves mandates the spending of cyphers for living expenses. If the PCs are planning on going right back into an incursion or ruin this is unneeded, but applies when one or more weeks of time pass between expeditions. Generally speaking it’s good to be at a higher standard of living: being homeless or on the streets prevents recovery of Wounds, lost attribute points, and start with less Disposition, and living poorly has results likely to cause you to lose all of your money. Living well is the “middle road” which can grant you a bonus contact on a Charisma save, and living like the rich can also give you contacts more easily as well as potentially running into some kind of trouble (scandal increases Resentment, gain an enemy, etc). There’s also rules for living as a servant for a wealthy client, which has the advantage of living well for free but you have to balance your work/adventuring life. Staying or being committed to an asylum has varying standards of living, but first-class institutions let you ignore the negative effects of a nightmare curse* for the next adventure.

*a corruptive mental influence gained from misfortune in a nightmare incursion.

One thing I forgot to mention is that the character generation rules explain that PCs are by nature some variety of social outsider even if high-class. The war against the nightmare incursions dominates their life, and there must be one in-built reason why they cannot work a normal job and one reason why they continue the fight. As such, there’s not really rules for plying a trade between adventures beyond GM discretion such as offering to use magic for a nobleman to fund an expedition.

When it comes to buying and selling goods, it really depends upon community size. Villages and towns have less wares and there’s a “purchasing limit” in comparison to cities. Additionally, an influx of wealth into a community can risk inflation, and some truly excessive sums will be outright refused as the local economy is incapable of handling such wealth. There’s a list for when inflation occurs and for how long it lasts until market forces return things to normal. And even that duration can be longer due to social instability, such as becoming an “adventurer’s hub,” a local war brewing, known nightmare incursions not being dealt with, etc. Generally speaking it’s very easy to cause inflation in rural villages with dozens or hundreds of cyphers, but when it comes to cities PCs won’t make a dent unless they start throwing around thousands or tens of thousands of cyphers. There’s also price lists for PCs who seek to outright purchase (not rent) buildings and lots: they’re close to OSR standards in that you usually need at least a few thousand cyphers for a respectable building, while grand palaces and temples easily reach six-figure sums.

In the Kingdom of Dreams, some goods are generally not available for sale on the open market due to laws and/or an extremely low supply. In regards to magical items, most of them are typically found in ruins of forgotten ages or custom-made by mages. The magic item economy is done on an individual level and by sellers seeking out wealthy buyers who have a need for said item. Transaction of items with an obvious pagan origin or that can be identified as being from the Vale of Serpents is illegal, their use can increase Resentment when used in public, and bring the law down on the PCs unless they can convince the community that they can be trusted with its use. The book advises that when creating or importing magic items from other rulesets that they should lean towards the “obviously magical” and to not have simple effects.

I do like how these rules encourage the PCs to be smart with their money rather than throwing it around willy-nilly. The inflation of prices is definitely a penalty as it applies to all goods and services which can really hurt when buying more expensive things. I know that most D&D editions and OSR rulesets don’t have “magic item shops,” although given the setting’s high magic nature it does seem a bit odd that we don’t have things like merchants selling clockwork pets to wealthy families or vendors hawking lockets inscribed with treatises of the Law to ward off evil. I can understand  concerns about devaluing the wondrous awe from putting a price point on a Holy Avenger or the casting of a Raise Dead spell, but more utility and/or “household magic” wouldn’t be out of place in the Kingdoms of Dreams’ “Fantasy Golden Age of Islam” aesthetic.

Creating Institutions
Institutions are businesses and organizations that provide gear, assistants, and services to PCs that create and/or support them. Generally speaking institutions have three tiers of power, each requiring a minimum amount of invested cyphers before they can upgrade to said tier: Notable for 100, Significant for 1,000, and Exceptional for 10,000 cyphers. Higher tiers can provide more services, and Exceptional ones become immune to destruction unless the entire community in which they’re based is destroyed or they’re attacked by another Exceptional institution. Institutions also have dominant alignments depending upon the donors; in the case of multiple PCs of differing alignments supporting the same one, the institution is Neutral.

There’s a few sample institutions covering broad types, but also general guidelines for PCs and GMs making their own: such features include the buying/selling of rare goods, access to special types of NPC retainers, protecting the reputation of its members and promoting their causes, and/or providing information that isn’t readily available elsewhere. A few are rather generic types: Hotels grant an easier chance of gaining contacts and faster recovery against maladies during rest, Tea Houses put you in contact with those of a certain occupation or social class depending on its alignment, and Universities grant you ‘vantage on research material, a one-time opportunity to increase Intelligence or Charisma, and is treated as its own settlement for Resentment scores.

The more notable institutions I caught wind of are a Communist Party (provide international contacts, chance for +1 Charisma/Willpower, and revolutionary retainers willing to undertake violent action against the government), a Necromancer’s Guild (can autopsy corpses via mundane and magical means, ID undead types, and sell healing spells to you), and Thieves’ Guild (add public speaking to your Skills, can hide out in a safehouse between adventures, counts as its own settlement for Resentment, don’t care about chaos/pagan magic, and can sell you stolen items at 50% market value).

Edition Changes: 1st Edition had a Druggist, who could provide drugs and poisons which could heal and/or deal damage to various types of attribute scores along with more unique conditions, provide ‘vantages on certain tasks, and so on. Geographical Societies could provide maps, guides, and wilderness expeditions. 2nd Edition removed those options, and replaced them with Communist Party, Thieves’ Guild, and Vice Den as options.

I like the rules for institutions. It reminds me of some “domain management” sourcebooks in various D&D products but with the advantage that it allows for small-scale organizing rather than the head of state affairs that such rulebooks usually expect. The Communist Party stands out the most, if only because the book doesn’t detail whether or not a capitalist economic system has arisen in the world of TNU. Most of society seems medieval/early Renaissance at best, and the mention that the teachings of the Law are compatible with a communist society implies that the Divine is not really a god or religion in the traditional sense given said ideology’s anti-religious underpinnings.

Dealing With People
Contacts, retainers, persuasion, and keeping up a positive image are the order of the day in this section. In classic OSR fashion we have a 2d6 + Charisma modifier for determining a person’s initial first impression of you, and a 2d6 + Ferocity modifier for determining how people react to you if you use threats and intimidation to get your way with them. Trying the ‘soft approach’ via Persuasion is a bit more complicated: the GM chooses one or more conditions the PC must meet in order to change someone’s way of thinking. Once said condition(s) is met, the PC saves vs Charisma (or half if the request is major) or the GM can use the 2d6 + Charisma modifier alternative table for the final result. The latter choice has a gradual gradation of success/failure as opposed to the saving throw’s binary result.

There are also rules for smear campaigns and character assassinations, either done by or to the PCs. Generally speaking, being the target of such an attack has a chance of causing Resentment increase and Charisma damage for more extreme results. Bards are good at this and add +1 to relevant rolls, but conducting such campaigns requires the expenditure of cyphers for distribution of leaflets, spreading rumors, paying off the right people, donating to charitable causes, etc. Charisma lost in this fashion can be recovered as normal, but also requires paying money to the community or a successful Willpower save to truly and fully recover.

Contacts and retainers are the rules for when the PCs need to get the aid of specific individuals rather than social institutions. Contacts are broad in focus and rules, and there’s a list of various occupations and what information and services they can provide. When a PC makes use of their contact they roll 2d6 and add appropriate modifiers based on circumstance (same social class, part of an influential organization, being hunted, etc). Low results mean the contact is unable to provide aid or ends up in danger themselves, while middle and higher results can provide aid but at a price or favor of varying expense. A roll may not be needed at the GM’s discretion if the service is easily attainable within the contact’s scope of expertise.

Retainers are NPCs hired to accompany the PCs on their adventures, or manage day-to-day affairs like accounting and looking after mounts outside the dungeon. They are not a diverse assortment from all walks of life, but are varying degrees of the socially misfortunate due to the risks involved in braving nightmare incursions or associating with ones that do so. Marginalized and oppressed groups, refugees and the homeless, junkies and the heavily indebted desperate for fast money, and the suicidal are but a few potential backgrounds to be rolled for in determining the story of one’s hired help. When you factor in the case that retainers by default are not immune to the maddening taint of the nightmare incursions like the PCs are, this makes a morbid amount of sense.

Retainers are found after a day or so of searching, and a Settlement Die is rolled to determine the likelihood of finding prospective employees along with modifiers based upon the PC’s reputation: the larger the settlement, the higher the die and thus the easier it is to find people. Retainers tend to be generic low Hit Die humans, although high rolls on the Settlement Die may net you one or two NPCs with class features (Assassin, Bard, etc). 2d6 + Charisma modifier rolls are made when determining the terms of employment and also for determining loyalty and morale when being ordered to do something dangerous beyond what is regarded as reasonable for their occupation. A PC’s Charisma also determines the maximum number of retainers they can employ at once, and already-hired retainers will stay on for 1-2 weeks or until the party’s next expedition in the event of Charisma damage. Full-time employment wages for NPCs are more or less uniform and determined primarily by their social class: 40 to 90 cyphers a month are ‘commoner’ wages, while 100 cyphers or more represent those who are ‘living well and in comfort.’

I like these rules, particularly the tables and entries that allow for fleshing out retainers. The system has a clear bias for recruitment in larger urban centers and among the poor, but that makes sense in the context of the setting and really drives home the fact that being an explorer of otherworldly nightmares is something nobody really does unless they have to

Dealing With Settlements
This section covers social affairs, but at a macro-level. We have rules for conducting research, whether via libraries or “word on the street” contacts. It’s a 2d6 + Intelligence modifier role with varying degrees of success and failure (falsified info as worst result and 1-3 pieces of info at higher results), and some results may grant Opportunities which are basically adventure hooks and leads to places or NPCs relevant to the researcher’s quarry.

Resentment you may recognize as that thing I was talking about in prior chapters. Each PC (and in some cases NPCs) has a Resentment score that begins at 0 but increases due to bad behavior, having their name smeared, and other forms of running one’s reputation. The GM rolls a Settlement Die every time a PC’s score increases to see if they wore out their welcome (and also whenever they throw a public event or make another major appearance). Rolling equal to or lower the Resentment score causes the character to become hated; inhabitants refuse to help or associate with them, and prices of goods and services double or even triple. The next time their Resentment score increases, the community uses force to drive out the character. But even if a PC manages to avoid this fate, individual circumstances may cause hindrances, such as harassment from law enforcement, local organizations shunning the PC, or earning the enmity of an individual who sets out to make the PC’s life hell. As larger settlements have larger dice, one cannot as easily get away with pissing people off in smaller towns and villages.

There’s a short but broad list of crimes and actions which can cause Resentment, but there are some cases which bear special mention: going around using magical items from the Age of Chaos in an obvious manner prevents a character from reducing their Resentment score unless they convince the courts and/or public it can be used responsibly. Resentment increases due to crime happen only when the PC’s guilt becomes widely known, and proving one’s innocence from this and character assassination can reverse the Resentment increase. Additionally, crimes committed against marginalized and oppressed groups do not increase Resentment provided it does not affect the larger community as a whole or their employers/owners are inconvenienced by their abuse. If someone under the PCs’ protection dies or goes insane in a nightmare incursion and are a valued member of society, this also increases Resentment.

Resentment can be reduced by donating to charitable causes via cyphers and/or significant action on the PC’s part. They can also assume a new identity, and if they’re able to pull off such a disguise the Resentment goes down to 0 (or gain the Resentment score if impersonating a known individual).

Edition Changes: The Resentment rules are more specific in the anti-Chaotic bias of communities in 2nd Edition, and explicit rules and examples are given in this regard.

Justifying the Spoils
Edition Changes: This entire section has been added for 2nd Edition.

So you got this fancy new magic rod that can exorcise demons, brain-parasites, and other bodyjackers guaranteed! But unfortunately it blasphemes the names of the five prophets with every activation, or maybe it has runic symbols carved into it associated with a genocidal sorcerer-king. Even if people know that it works, there’s always going to be the question of whether or not the cost of spiritual damnation is worth it.

The final section of Chapter 4 has got you covered! It’s an entire mini-game for PCs making their case in court, whether it be an official courthouse of the Law or a legal team representing the interests of the state visiting the party’s rinky-dink town. In short, a wannabe Chaos-wielder needs to first gather a group of citizens, a law firm, or a person in a position of authority to lobby on their behalf. They must then state their case for why they should be allowed to make use of said blasphemous item, usually some degree of “we can use it against the nightmares or a greater evil.” An opposition lawyer then presents a series of inquiries asking the defendant magic-wielder how they plan on countering any potential side-effects :unexpected conversion to paganism, a foreign ruler invading to seize it, the item being a ‘weirdness magnet’ for monsters and evildoers, and so on and so forth. Various saving throws are done by both sides during the course of the legal drama; there’s a range of final results, from having your case thrown out to being able to use said item with varying levels of restriction. If the magic-wielder succeeded in presenting a legitimate use of the item, they no longer raise Resentment for using it in public.

I like this mini-game, although I can imagine it getting a bit tiresome if performed for every such magical item. Then again, it’s only for a certain variety of artifacts, and then only if the PCs wish to use it in public. It’s a good means of allowing a party the ability to make use of their treasure without making the setting’s authorities hidebound and obstinate against its use, as is in the case of a lot of ‘low magic’ settings.

Thoughts So Far: I surmised much of my thoughts in the relevant entries, but overall I like the settlement-based rules provided in the Nightmares Underneath. The work is good enough to be used in other settings and OSR-adjacent systems, and the only real setting-specific material is the ban on “blasphemous items.” But even that can be reconfigured in covering a more generic ‘black magic” style of spellcasting.

Join us next time as we open up a spellbook and learn how to Cast Spells and Other Enchantments in Chapter 5!


Chapter 5: Casting Spells and Other Enchantments
Earlier Edits: For those reading along, I wanted to mention that I overlooked one little thing regarding equipment. The rules proper show up in Chapter 6, but heavy crossbows and firearms dispense with the need for a regular attack roll. Instead, the marksman saves against their Dexterity score, or half their score if the target is taking the dodge action, is behind cover, or is more than 50 feet away. If successfully saved, damage is applied normally. This means that such weapons are still useful besides the classic bow option, particularly if the wielder has a very high Dexterity score and the enemy is otherwise hard to hit due to a high Armour Rating.

From spells to magic items, this chapter covers all things magical in the world of the Nightmares Underneath. The spells which mortals can cast are in fact sapient formless beings from the distant realm of magic, and desire to be used as such. There are other forms of magic beyond that which is known (aka the stuff monsters and NPCs can do), but PC-friendly magic functions under a set of commonly-known rules. All (non-divine) mages make use of spellbooks which contain all of their known spells, and its presence is required when in the process of purifying corrupted spells. Spellbooks come in all shapes and sizes, but ones made by Chaotic casters tend to have unsettling supernatural tinges to their foundation (weighs too heavy for an object of its mass and material, throbs when touched, written in human blood, etc) while ones made by Lawful casters are often scientific, formal, and beautiful works of art treated with care. But their universal feature is containing a collection of written formulas, usually a number equal to caster level for the tomes of NPCs. Divine casters, meanwhile, have no need for such things but typically have holy symbols which aren’t strictly necessary but often carried out of a sense of obligation. Characters with a relevant Profession and/or subclass automatically learn new spells as they level, chosen randomly, but can choose for a specific spell if they have a spell formula on hand of the desired spell or can find and pay a mentor willing to teach them a specific spell.

Spells in TNU are similar to that of other OSR/D&D games, but with a few exceptions. One, barring the exception of Champions of Chaos, there are no class-specific spell restrictions. Second, spells are not limited to a Vancian per-day formula, and casters can cast spells of any level. While mages can theoretically be cast an infinite amount of times per day, every attempt they must make a save against their casting attribute, known as Controlling a spell (half their score if casting a spell of higher level than their own level). Spells that are miscast have a d8 table of general unintended consequences: they’re cast on a different target, the spell has the opposite effect, is cast at half power, etc. Furthemore, knowledge of that spell becomes corrupted, meaning that every time the caster casts it again they take 1d4 damage to a random attribute score, to a minimum of 0.* Corrupted spells can be purified in hours or days,** representing meditation, consulting occult matrices. In short, casting spells can take a potential toll on the caster’s mind and body, and higher-level spells are more difficult to control and purify.

*which typically means falling unconscious, becoming invalid, or death in the case of Health.

**the duration being longer for spells higher than one’s level.

Edition Changes: In 1st Edition, the Vancian system was still in place. Spells cast normally due to one’s Profession were limited in how many spells they could memorize to cast per day, and were ‘prepared’ via a ritual lasting 1d4 hours. The maximum amount being the caster’s level plus their Intelligence modifier. Once a spell is cast this way, it is gone from the caster’s memory, much like typical D&D mages. Additionally, scholars and wizards used to have the ability to learn new spells from formula via reverse-engineering it and paying time and money in research. Now in 2nd Edition they have to wait until their level-up just like everyone else. Another addition to 2e includes a new miscasting table pertaining specifically to spells involving spirits: that dearly departed ancestor you planned on contacting may instead bring a demon’s attention!

Spells can also be cast from formulas, which are akin to scrolls in being magical written text and anyone can cast from them, although they also have chances of miscasting and corruption (the formula itself becomes corrupted). The third way that spells can be cast is as rituals, which can be done normally or via a formula. The spell takes a number of hours per spell level to finish casting, but can never be corrupted as a result of being cast this way, and having assistants equal to spell level grants advantage on the save to control it.

The arcane/divine division still exists in TNU, albeit the divine option is presented as an optional ruleset that all classes (even scholars) can choose. The text doesn’t outright state it, but heavily implies that you cannot be Lawful when the source of your magic comes from an otherworldly patron*. Said patron can be a deity in the traditional sense, but can also cover spirits of various kinds, demons, lovecraftian entities, and so on. Being a divine caster comes with benefits and drawbacks: on the downside said caster cannot create or learn from spell formulas** and they can only give consumable magic items to people in service to their patron. But on the plus side they gain advantage on controlling spells when casting rituals and auto-succeed on said attempt if they have a number of assistants who worship or are allied to said patron equal to the spell level. Additionally they can delay the effects of attribute damage from corrupted spells while performing tasks and quests given to them by their patron; the damage comes all at once after the caster completes or defies said task. They also don’t use spellbooks, and instead have holy symbols or sacred texts which are tangential to the need to work their magic.

*Edition Changes: 1st Edition was explicit under the hindrances list.

**but can still cast them while reading aloud.

As there is no “save vs spells” in TNU, all six attributes are used: Dexterity for when swiftness is in order; Health for resisting necromancy, disease, and the like; Willpower to avoid enchantment and involuntary shapeshifting, and so on. Ferocity is even used, to break out of magical bindings or avoid incapacitation by such things which sounds rather limiting in scope. Furthermore, characters who are under the effect of an enchantment have various means of ending it beyond just waiting out the duration and saving throw: a variety of options are given, such as being confronted with direct evidence contradicting the spell’s reality, applying anti-magic substances to oneself, voluntary possession by a spirit antithetical to the enchantment’s nature, etc.

Spells and Spell Schools
There are 100 spells and 10 schools of magic in the Nightmares Underneath. For the sake of brevity I’m not going to cover each one, instead covering the broad diversity of choices by school. We have quite a bit of iconic D&D options (Charm Person, Detect Magic, Magic Missile, etc) but also a few familiar entries have interesting twists: Protection from Evil, for example, doesn’t provide a static bonus vs. a being of Evil alignment but rather imposes disadvantage on all forms of intentional harm directed against the caster.

Edition Changes: Generic spell descriptors such as duration, effect, & range are much more detailed, with their own entries and typical designations on what they plausibly cover. In the case of Range’s example, Infinite denotes no limitations on distance, Senses means being able to see, hear, touch, or otherwise reliably detect the target, etc. Additionally, some spells have an additional sentence or two in clarifying previously-vague territory or have been altered to be more or less powerful.

School of Battle is more about improving one’s ability to inflict and resist violence as opposed to direct damage spells. Its spells include effects such as granting a single weapon (or entire squad) advantage on attack rolls, allow a weapon to strike targets as though they were unarmoured, grant immunity to non-magical projectile weapons, the ability to manifest and throw eldritch darts, and so on. It’s a very good school on account that even its lower-level spells can make a big difference in the party’s ability to harm the opposition.

School of Divination lets the caster know about things they wouldn’t or shouldn’t It includes limited scrying (only locations the caster knows to exist or an unknown place beyond a door they know of), the ability to detect evil intentions rather than the alignment itself, the ability to detect poisonous items, creatures and poison in a person’s system, the ability to detect traps which include natural hazards and shoddy construction provided that someone is intentionally planning to use said hazards against others, the ability to detect the corruptive influence of nightmares and those tainted by them, among other things. Divination is another solid choice, and has a lot of utility depending on how the caster makes use of it.

School of Enchantment includes spells that affect one’s emotional state. It includes the classic Charm Animal/Person/Monster array (which all end immediately if the caster betrays the target), the ability to instill fear in a target, grant immunity to all forms of fear, and can allow a target to re-roll their Disposition or Psychic Armour (or add Caster Level to current Disposition is the result is lower), and force a target to tell the truth and they cannot choose to remain silent if engaged in conversation, as but a few options. I do have to like that the “restore hit points” spell is enchantment rather than healing, although the School of Healing covers attribute loss and proper Wounds.

School of Evocation covers the creation of things, but unlike summoning (which mostly creates sapient beings) evocation focuses on items and energy. It includes the obvious blasty holdovers like throwing magic missiles, rainbows that deal random energy damage, and spraying acid at targets, but also includes spells that can create bridges and inanimate objects, a pair of ghostly hands to safely touch things at a distance, and the ability to make a touched object shine (which the caster can choose to make permanent until dispelled if desired).* It’s a good mixture of offensive and utility effects, although the results feel a bit unfocused in comparison to other schools.

*a massive boon considering that infravision/darkvision isn’t really a thing PCs can get barring an appropriate magic item, and most nightmare incursions are dark and dreadful places.

School of Healing focuses on purging maladies from the body and soul. It’s purely a defensive school, containing spells that can heal wounds, regenerate lost body parts, cure instantaneously and make said target immune to a specific disease for a year, remove non-magical poisons and other impurities from food and drink, restore someone’s Disposition at a cost to the caster’s own, and even raise the dead but no more than 1 day/caster level! This school is always a solid choice.

School of Illusion confounds the senses much like Enchantment confounds the mind. In addition to the detection and creation of illusions of various sizes and senses, the school also contains a renamed Mirror Image (Duplicate Images), the ability to blow itchy, sticky, or blinding faerie dust over an area, making an object appear more valuable than it really is, the ability to send a message (words, images, or even emotions) to a known person or location regardless of distance, and of course the vaunted invisibility which lasts until the affected target commits a harmful attack/spell or has said spell dispelled. Illusion is broadly useful in utility, although unlike D&D none of the options have a Phantasmal Killer style effect that causes damage from sensory shock. It’s a purely utility school, but a strong one.

School of Law relates to holiness and the protection of others from malign influences. A surprising amount of spells involve the immobilization of targets, whether it be summoning constricting chains or the Immobilize Animal/Monster/Person chain of spells. It is notable for having one of the few 9th level spells in the book, Forlorn Encystment, which imprisons a target in a time-frozen prison deep within the earth. Its other spells include a selective multi-target dispel magic centered on the caster, and Protection from Chaos/Evil.*  But its most broadly useful spell is the creation of Holy Water: with one flask per caster level created, this sacred liquid can harm nightmare, undead, and non-lawful and non-good extraplanar creatures. But that’s not all! It can give advantage on saves to control spells if used as a consumable in the casting of a spell! School of Law is all over the place; a good amount of its spells involve restricting a target’s mobility in some way, and two protect the target from harm. Holy Water is perhaps the most broadly useful, as advantage on controlling checks is a very strong option for any spellcaster no matter their specialization.

*The former imposes disadvantage/grants the affected target advantage on beings of Chaotic alignment, a rather odd feature in comparison to Protection from Evil which is ‘intent not alignment’ in function.

School of Quintessence is a peculiar school. In post-AD&D terms it would be known as ‘metamagic,’ as it pertains and relates to the enhancing of existing spells. As such a caster who knows spells only from this school is of limited use in a proper campaign, a PC whose spell options are only Quintessence can reroll their results. Quintessence spells are often cast as part of, before, or after a spell of another school is cast. Quintessence’s options range in effects from being able to ignore range restrictions when using objects that were part of or have significance to the target, can have a spell trigger later based upon a contingent event, the ability to counterspell magic afflicted upon the caster, the ever-useful Dispel Magic, and the ability to double a spell’s area/duration/damage/etc in exchange for suffering 1d4 attribute score damage. Quintessence’s usefulness widely depends upon the spell array of a caster, but is quite broad in application.

School of Summoning edges a bit into Evocation’s territory in that a few of its spells can create items, but are more restrictive: Create Food and Drink vs Evocation’s broader Create Object. But it’s strong suit is summoning NPC allies of various sorts to aid the caster. From the humble invisible servant who can also telepathically communicate with and fight to defend the caster, to elementals and a broad Summon Monster, the duration of said summons are often keyed to the relative power of the being. A steed to ride upon lasts for 1 hour per caster level, while elementals last for 1 turn.* Summon Monster lasts for 1d8 rounds or until the being completes an assigned task from the caster, whichever comes first. Summoned minions can be of variable level as well, depending on the spell in question. Given that action economy is a boon in just about every RPG with combat, and there’s no limit to how many summoned creatures a caster can have at once, it’s a very strong school.

*10 minutes, a common descriptor in pre-3.0 and OSR games.

School of Transformation involves the alteration of people and objects which already exist. It spells include the ability to transform non-magical items into other items of the same relative mass, allow the target the ability to effortlessly walk on walls and ceilings, cause two objects within sight to become strongly magnetized to each other, shapeshift into an animal and gain its features (but no bonus damage or venom), and make a creature suffer double damage against a specific source of harm. Transformation is a very good utility/buffing school, and has a nice “double damage” debuff which I expected to see under Battle. The animal shapechange ability is pretty good, and the “item-alteration” spells are instantaneous in duration meaning that they may as well be permanent. The only limit is the player’s imagination... and perhaps the laws of conservation of mass.

Magic Items
Edition Changes: This entire section has been added in 2nd Edition. The 1st Edition section was a mere 1 page of brief guidelines.

It wouldn’t be a proper retroclone without magic items for PCs to loot as treasure, and the Nightmares Underneath does not disappoint! The setting does have a few key differences than others: one, alignment-restricted magic items are strongly discouraged. They might grant a better bonus in the hands of a shared alignment, but ones which are practically nonmagical in anyone else’s hands aren’t really a thing in the Kingdom of Dreams. Secondly, while there aren’t Magic Item Marts, PCs are capable of crafting magic items to a limited extent. Formulas and spell containers specifically, the latter being a catch-all term for potion-like consumables. Casters need to spend a number of days or weeks (respectively) equal to the imbued spell’s level and pay a number of cyphers times the level depending on the quality of materials they have at hand. Outright permanent magical items cannot be crafted by the PCs, only found or taken.

Edition Changes: Crafting magical formulas is much quicker in 2nd Edition, in days times the spell level rather than weeks.

Although the Kingdoms of Dreams are making great strides in (arcane) magical research, the majority of magic items lay within the ruins of the Vale of Serpents. Even in such enlightened times most people assume that magic items in general are instruments of chaos, even if they’re not…

...which kind of makes the whole “go to court to earn the right to use forbidden magic” mini-game a lot more difficult and hindering of a game mechanic than it needs to be.

There are six types of magic items. Arcane Accoutrements, which provide a +1 (or +2 for alignment-appropriate wielders) to various common rolls or attribute scores; Arcane Tools, which grant advantage to rolls related to the item’s purpose (weapons apply to attack and damage rolls, tools to saving throws for their related skills, etc); Charged Items which contain a spell within and can be cast/miscast and are recharged via obscure measures (buried in a grave, fed fresh blood in Wounds, submerged in expensive alchemical fluids, etc); Spell Formula, which are scrolls save that anyone can read and use them;* Spell Containers, which the creator “casts” ahead of time and whose effects (and miscast) takes effect once the imbiber makes use of it; and finally, Unique Magic Items, which are special enough to have a category all their own.

*unless specifically encrypted via code.

Unique Magic Items are a catch-all category for gear that are mostly either permanent in function or always-active barring a rare few exceptions. We have a d100 table of results, with instructions to cross out a result rolled and replace it with one of the GM’s own creation to ensure that each item is truly one-of-a-kind. I won’t go over all of them, but there’s quite a bit of cool entries such as:

An amulet that can prevent Wounds via siphoning the wearer’s Willpower at a 1-1 rate.

Plate mail which rings when struck, dealing damage to those who hit the wearer in melee.

Incense which if smoked communally creates a telepathic bond among the users.

A keffiyeh which if thrown over the top of the wearer transports them to the land of Faerie.

A self-repairing orb which if broken can change the weather to that of the breaker’s choice.

A life-draining horn which if blown can send violent vibrations that can destroy a wall or standing building.

A portable kitchen in a box which compresses an entire meal’s worth of food into a highly-nourishing pellet.

A flare gun whose noxious gas forces disadvantage on all rolls to those who breathe in its fumes.

An animated suit of plate armor that can carry objects for the attuned wielder and instantly surround said wearer’s body via command.

A waterskin perpetually full of water, but whose elemental spirit will be violently offended at not being drunk if used for other purposes.

Thoughts So Far: The magic system of the Nightmares Underneath is both recognizable and quite different than the Vancian system to which most gamers are familiar. Still, I overall like the changes; getting rid of spells-per-day in favor of making casting inherently risky still places a limit preventing frivolous use of sorcery. Keying spell level to character level is a choice that I like, and wish base D&D did this rather than the confusing array used now: “Wait, so I need to be 5th level to cast 3rd level spells?!” The spell selection is broad and versatile, and there’s enough magic items to populate a campaign’s worth of dungeons for enterprising adventurers. I don’t have many criticisms or negative things to say about this chapter besides the public association of magic items in general with the forces of Chaos. Which seems a bit odd with the initial setting, which has anti-undead lightning rods in Geth and spell formula and containers being something casters in general can craft. Add the fact that scholars are a celebrated occupation who take well to magical knowledge, and one cannot help feel that the Nightmares Underneath is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

Join us next time as we get into the nitty-gritty of dungeon-delving and various rules in Chapter 6: Raiding the Nightmare Realms!


Chapter 6: Raiding the Nightmare Realms
The past few chapters focused on the player-facing side of the rules, from character creation to community bonds. This chapter delves into more specific rules of the game beyond that provided by the Basic Resolution Rules section, most notably dungeon exploration and combat.

Braving the Underworld
It wouldn’t be a proper retroclone without exploration of mysterious ruins, monster-filled caves, and other such places. Said rules can be used for more generic styles of dungeons than just nightmare incursions.

Time passes during dungeon exploration in three ways: “in real time” when PCs are moving quickly but not in combat, where time is not measured save via use of the encounter die (in the following Chapter 7) or when light sources are at risk of dying out. In combat, time is measured in rounds which are generally less than a minute each but no hard and fast value is given. When PCs are moving carefully and searching, time is divided into 5-15 minute increments known as Turns. Turns during exploration phases don’t prioritize “order of actions” like in combat and rounds and so PCs can do anything that makes sense in the context of the time frame regardless of Speed or initiative order. For those wanting chronological exactness, there’s 1d6 rounds per minute, or 2d10 minutes per turn.

As for light sources, lanterns with glowing insects are the longest-lasting but need special drugs to keep them alive, while candles burn the quickest and emit the least light but are the cheapest. Torches and lanterns occupy a middle ground. Short/long rests in a dungeon automatically use up candles and torches, while lanterns lose 1 hour worth of fuel. You never want to be in complete darkness; you cannot attack anything that you aren’t physically touching, and moving carefully takes 6 times as long.

The quality of mapping and movement is divided into careful/quick results, where the former for maps allows cartographers in the party to get accurate GM handouts. If quick it can be inexact or even nonexistent depending on the party’s level of recklessness. Searching areas is easier to do for people with high Speed ratings, as that lets them cover a wider area (100 x Speed) in a single turn. When moving quickly only thieves may search for traps, secret doors, and hidden treasure, but when moving carefully anyone in the party can. Barring the class feature exceptions of Thieves and Scholars, searching in most circumstances takes a Turn, and a save against Dexterity is made, or half the score if the dungeon is higher level than the searcher. Disarming traps are a second roll beyond finding them via a search: assassins and thieves can safely disarm them via the same Dexterity score rules, but those of all other classes cannot disarm traps when in a dungeon level exceeding their own.

This is quite different from other OSR games, where said thieves often had trapfinding and disarming as an exclusive ability. However they’re not as frail due to a d6 Hit Die instead of a typical d4, and experience progression being unified removes a lot of the class’ ordinary weaknesses. Thus, having a thief-type character in the party goes from being a near-necessity to an advantageous choice.

For encumbrance, we covered the limits and item types back in Chapter 3. But what happens when you become Encumbered? Well, you always act last in initiative, cannot choose the dodge action in combat, cannot make attacks of opportunity, start drowning when swimming and cannot swim at all, and can only move and search half your Speed rounded up. There’s no true “max weight” provided, but if you don’t have the backpacks, pockets, or hands to manipulate and carry material the GM is within their rights to point this out.

Dungeon Encounters
Encountering humans in the nightmare incursions uses the same rules for individual social interactions, although said people are most assuredly corrupted at best, evil at worst, if they’ve been in there for any appreciable length of time. Encounters for monsters, the far more common fate, is covered here. Generally speaking monsters are either found wandering as part of a potential random encounter when a Turn’s exhausted or in a predetermined location set by the GM. Distance between the monsters and party is closer if the latter was moving quickly instead of carefully. Surprise rolls are done when one side or the other wishes to do an ambush. A party’s leader or look-out rolls 2d6 + Dexterity or Intelligence modifier and  adds the monster’s Surprise Rating. 0 to 6 the entire party is surprised; 7 to 9 both groups are aware of each other and interaction/combat happens normally; 10 or higher the PCs become aware of the monsters first and have a window of opportunity to plan actions. The group that has the advantage of surprise has one free round in which to act; surprised PCs cannot use dodge or make attacks of opportunity.

Interaction rolls for monsters are 2d6 + Charisma for the PC leading the conversation if the party displays no violent intentions. 0 to 3 the monster attacks with advantage on morale. 4 to 6 powerful or cowardly monsters attack or flee as normal, while others threaten the PCs but don’t initiate combat unless they deem it worth the risk; 7 to 9 the monsters are cautious and keep their distance, but may be possible to parley with; 10 to 11 the monster is neutral and stays out of the party’s business but may chat with them. 12 and higher the monster is friendly and may be willing to aid the PCs depending on the circumstances at hand, although ‘friendly’ in this case can just as easily mean the monster views the party as a useful pawn for its schemes. Monsters of the Nightmare type are akin to white blood cells for their incursion lairs, and as such are always hostile and never listen to reason.

If a rapport is struck up with a monster, the GM has a table and list of potential motivations, reasons for being in the incursion, and in some cases alternate attributes besides Charisma for overcome rolls.

Evasion is a detailed “running away/give chase” rule. Simple resolutions are an overcome roll of a PC vs their opponent’s Dexterity. But longer chases use 1d20 + Ferocity/Health modifier + Speed vs the enemy’s Dexterity + Speed. Each party takes turns doing overcome attempts until a certain number of failures by either party is reached. Said number being determined by how far apart the parties are when the chase begins. Obstacles that hinder movement force a save against an appropriate attribute; failure counts as a failed overcome roll in addition to whatever other consequences the obstacle imposes.

Edition Changes: In 1st Edition, Evasion was a simple 2d6 + Speed vs 2d6 + Speed resolution. Obstacle rules were still in play.

Harm and Violence
This covers combat as well as the various maladies that can afflict the inhabitants of the Kingdoms of Dreams. But before we go any further, we learn about how Disposition and Wounds work. Unlike other OSR games you do not get more Disposition as you level up: instead at a point between getting up for the day and the first combat, you roll double your Hit Dice (just one if you’re sick/lack sleep/etc) and add the results. If the result is lower than your level, you use your Level instead. When you are reduced to 0 Disposition, further damage causes Wounds; every time your Wounds score (starting at 0) increases you save against your Health or suffer an injury that prevents reliable use of a body part determined via a roll on the table. When you get more Wounds past your Health score you suffer a mortal wound (a permanent injury) and go unconscious on a series of failed saves, and Wounds equal to or greater than your Health score cause death. Injury outside of combat from traps, natural hazards, etc deal Wounds directly and bypass Disposition. Said traps and hazards that are d10 and higher pose a serious risk of death.

Disposition can be rerolled during an hour long short rest accompanied by food and drink, but a long rest makes the roll mandatory. Wounds and attribute score damage recover more slowly* and having a mortal wound means that you need medical attention or risk death or further injurious results. NPCs and monsters typically do not keep track of such things, and are considered to die/be defeated when they reach 0 Disposition. Attribute score damage to a monster/NPC can be resolved via doing Disposition damage instead.

*1 Wound per day if less than half Health, 1 Wound per week if treated by a healer if greater than half Health until they drop to the halfway point.

Edition Changes: Disposition was calculated much like typical Hit Points in 1st Edition. You rolled as many Hit Dice as you had levels to determine the results. Instead of Wounds, PCs took damage to their Health score and accompanying mutilated body parts and injuries.

Generally speaking, characters who suffer physical disabilities from wounds don’t suffer penalties in the use of said body parts; the only time it should come into play is if the loss prevents one from being able to do an action at all as opposed to still being able to do it but with difficulty. So you can totally play a character with an eyepatch and not suck at ranged combat!

Damage to attributes is more or less straightforward and recovers at the same general rate as wounds, but different things happen when you hit 0 in one of them. 0 Health is straightforward in that you die, but 0 Dexterity/Ferocity leaves you unable to move. 0 Charisma causes you to be unable to communicate or understand anyone else; you cannot fight and desire to be alone, but you can move and take care of your basic necessities. 0 Intelligence renders you insane, erratic, and unable to understand simple concepts and cannot rest to recover lost attribute points unless forced to by an outside party. 0 Willpower makes you lie motionless without a will of your own, and will do whatever task is asked of you by another.

Edition Changes: Characters who have a 0 score are effectively helpless and are at risk of losing Health over time unless they have access to food, water, and rest, with medical attention speeding the recovery. A 2d6 table is applied to those who are recovering on their own, with only a 10+ representing true progressive recovery.

PCs in the Nightmares Underneath have more staying power than in other OSR games in that they have “bonus hit points” equal to their Health score on top of rolling for Hit Dice. However, the additional detail on Wounds makes the game still feel gritty and in keeping with its horror roots, as characters who charge into battle are at high risk of suffering long-term damage even if they make it out alive.

General combat rules hew closely to other OSR games, so I’ll outline some key differences:

Initiative is determined by PCs rolling 1d20 + Dexterity modifier. An enemy combatant has an initiative result equal to their Dexterity score.

Morale is not a binary attack/flee. It is rolled as 2d6 + their morale modifier, and the lower the result the more likely they are to outright flee vs tactical retreat/fighting defensively/fight to the death (said last result only being possible on a 12 or higher).

Actions are broken up into two types: Simple and Complicated. Simple actions are quick exertions and can often be done in tandem with moving during combat, like drawing a weapon and attacking, choosing to dodge, throwing/pulling/pushing an object that requires little force, etc. Complicated actions require more time and precision and cannot be done while moving; it includes such things as reloading a crossbow or firearm, casting a spell, aiming a ranged weapon, sprinting (double speed) instead of normal movement, etc.

A character’s movement is their Speed rating, which is x5 for determining how many feet they can move in a round, or x10 when sprinting. Given that the average Speed of a human is 7 and is modified by Dexterity, TNU PCs tend to be more agile than in D&D and other retroclones unless Encumbered.

“Attacking from behind” is an automatic hit and inflicts damage. Assassins ignore non-magical armour. Attacking this way can be done via stealth/surprise, if they are occupied by 2-3 other enemies depending on whether they’re in an open vs confined space (and not if they’re backed into a corner), or if left vulnerable via a Special Attack Maneuver.

You can choose to Dodge as a simple action; you cannot perform any harmful action while doing so, but any successful attacker must make an overcome vs your Dexterity score or miss. Versus attacks which force a save, you save vs half your Dexterity.

Grappling is simplified. It counts as an unarmed attack, but once you get a grapple you can inflict further damage at your full Hit Dice rather than a die lower and must overcome their Health score instead of Armour Rating.

“Charging” doesn’t mean a literal charge, but any form of movement where you are moving into the melee range of a target.

There are two major ways to attack when it’s not your turn, but in both circumstances force you to give up your turn during the round and you cannot have already acted. They are having a weapon with a longer length when someone charges you (there’s a table for weapon lengths, and readied non-thrown ranged weapons count as the longest), or via an attack of opportunity when another foe moves past you. Attacks of opportunity don’t have to be literal attacks, but can involve other hostile actions like grabbing something from them or performing a Special Attack Maneuver.

Special Attack Maneuvers represent disarming/tripping/pushing/etc where you attempt to make them more vulnerable to a future attack. You overcome a relevant score (usually Dexterity) and use an appropriate attribute modifier on the d20 roll. If successful, they either get disadvantage on an action, are disarmed of a held item, or are placed somewhere unfavorable (advantage/disadvantage as appropriate).

Edition Changes: In 1st Edition this was resolved as an attack; 20 or higher applied a full effect, but a hit that was 19 or lower let the target either suffer normal damage or the maneuver’s effect (their choice unless they’d be reduced to 0 Disposition, in which case they suffer the maneuver automatically).

Positioning is a catch-all category for gaining ideal terrain/placement. It’s a save vs your Dexterity and is done as part of movement, but failing the save imposes some type of risk (cannot attack this round, fall prone, etc). Success grants you advantage on an appropriate action.

Edition Changes: In 1st Edition this was resolved as an attack roll which succeeded on an 11 or higher.

Fighting with a weapon in each hand is considered the same as fighting with a two-handed weapon (use damage die one higher than your Hit Die).

All monsters have attribute scores, but they do not apply the modifiers to their attack and damage rolls; they are already dangerous enough and said scores are there for purposes of skill rolls and saves.

There’s quite a healthy amount of options for combat, and no entry is at risk of becoming muddled in minutia and cross-referencing: everything you need for a rule at hand is on the page proper, and relevant rules from earlier chapters are handily reprinted!

The Taint of Corruption
This section covers the risks of braving the nightmare realm. From insanity to warped biology to the attention of inhuman entities, nightmare curses are more or less a nightmare creature living inside someone’s body. They’re permanent when gained, and even treatment in a sanitarium can only suppress their influence. When someone with a nightmare curse dies, said creature leaves the body immediately and may either die immediately from natural sunlight or go to enact wicked plots in the material plane. Outright cures are handled via GM Fiat in the form of adventure hooks like finding a skilled exorcist or powerful artifact.

NPCs must save vs their Willpower whenever they enter and then leave a nightmare incursion if they have spent more than an hour inside, unless they are of higher level than the dungeon. If they spend more than 24 hours they must make a Willpower save each day Edition Changes: vs half their Willpower in 1st Edition); every failure imposes a new curse, and they cannot physically leave the incursion until they make at least one save. PCs, and a rare few NPCs, are not at risk of gaining curses merely from time spent inside. PCs (and NPCs too) are at risk of gaining nightmare curses whenever one of their attributes is reduced to half its normal score or less while inside a nightmare incursion, and must make a Willpower save (half if dungeon is higher level) to avoid gaining one.

There are 36 nightmare curses to be gained on a d100 table; some of them may even be gained multiple times, reflecting a different manifestation of said curse. They range from the typical mental instabilities and compulsions to bodily changes and have creepily thematic names. A few of the more notable ones include:

Anti-Social Lust Parasite: You gain a sexual behavior that your culture regards as socially unacceptable. People who find out about your fetish can react to varying degrees of hostility on a 2d6 + Charisma modifier roll (attack, physically distance themselves from you, judge you on everything, 12 or higher they’re cool with it). Edit: yeah, this sounds like either a reroll or ask the players about it ahead of time.

Apostasy: Memories of the nightmare world become overwhelming whenever you visit or interact with an Institution and thus cannot gain its benefits.

Enemies Everywhere: There’s a 1 in 6 chance someone conspires against you every day you spend in a settlement. This persecution stops when you kill said conspirator.

The Heresy of Stigmatism: Whenever you take Disposition or Wound damage you bleed profusely and make a noticeable mess (this doesn’t do extra damage).

Infected Attribute: You suffer disadvantage whenever rolling a certain attribute for a save or skill test as long as you remain outside a nightmare incursion. Said attribute manifests as tell-tale signs, like spitting blood for Health, twitching for Dexterity, having dreams of alien worlds for Willpower, etc.

Living Hand of Glory: One (or both if gained twice) of your hands steals unattended objects without your knowledge. This happens on a 1 in 6 chance whenever you’re alone and near valuable handheld objects.

Masked: You believe that your face reveals your soul and must wear a mask to prevent the nightmares from getting inside. You cannot use any of your class features or re-roll Disposition as long as someone else can see your face.

Xenos: Other people can sense the taint of nightmare due to minor unnatural phenomena happening around you. Your Resentment score begins at 1 in every new settlement and can never be reduced below 0.

Your Secrets Bought and Sold. The nightmare realm gives a certain type of monster (beastling/dweller in the deep/etc) valuable information about you. You suffer disadvantage on all rolls against said monster type.

Thoughts So Far: The rules for exploration, combat, and nightmare curses are all serviceable and strike the right balance between “too complicated” versus “too barebones.” Just about every important situation or concept can be adequately covered for the former two, and the nightmare curses are a good means of showing the toll veterans endure. Hirelings are at much greater risk in the Nightmares Underneath beyond quick hit and run expeditions lasting less than 6 turns, and conscientious players may be hard-pressed to take them inside. That they and other cursed beings can spawn monsters upon death can really up the stakes. I do fear that players who grow savvy to these rules may prioritize speed over care, although the book takes this into account with the quick vs. careful speeds of exploration.

Join us next time as we cover Chapter 7: A World Full of Nightmares!


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