Gaming Discussion > General D&D Discussion

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

<< < (2/2)


Chapter 8: A World Full of Nightmares
Edition Changes: 1st Edition used to have a Chapter preceding this one called Wandering the Wastes which had rules for overland travel and was quite brief in length.

This GM-centric chapter has all of the tools needed for creating ruins, nightmare incursions, monster design, and similar things. Quite a bit of this material is common advice and suggestions we’ve heard in many other supplements, so I’m skipping over those in favor of the new stuff.

Creating Nightmare Incursions provides the universal rules of such dread places. Incursions manifest in places shadowed from the sun, and due to their extradimensional nature are not bound by physical constraints. However, their interiors are almost never spacious; such places are only located deeper than any human explorers have gone, and any ‘skies’ located within are illusions. Incursions are made up of one or more Lairs, which are treated as dungeons unto their own with their own Anchors, Crowns, and Levels.

Nightmare incursions have four general types: Deathtrap dungeons are full of traps with hardly any monsters; Heretic Temples are primarily inhabited by corrupted humans who serve the nightmare realm; Monster Hordes are a beacon to (non-nightmare) monsters, either corrupting their minds like Heretic Temples or offering them some boon or resource to tempt them; Spawning Pits are full of monsters of the nightmare type. All lairs are capable of hosting Corrupted Outposts, adjacent physical spaces in the material plane which otherwise protect or conceal the lair entrance and has additional dangers; it’s counted as a dungeon of its own, but one level lower than the lair itself and has no anchor or nightmare monsters. Furthermore, the layouts of lairs can differ and connect to each other in various ways as a kind of dungeon network or megadungeon. Tunnel Incursions are simple linear progressions: each additional lair’s entrance is at the end of a previous one, while Hive Incursions are nonlinear and maze-like in outline. Zone incursions directly overlap the physical world, always in a place shrouded against sunlight.

Each lair also has an anchor, which is bound up in human emotions and thus is the literal lifeblood of said lair. The value of anchors are randomly determined via 2d6 + lair level, meaning that higher-level lairs can be more valuable. Alternatively, they can be a magic item. We also have a list of tables for determining the Profession/NPC type for corrupted humans, trap types and accompanying effects, and potential sources of inspiration for monsters. Non-nightmare monsters range from standard fantasy to the creepy via brief descriptions (drowning pool selkie, corrosive amoeba, etc), whereas the table for Nightmare monsters is exclusively horror-themed (ghosts of your failure, burrowing parasites, the untouchable feast).

Edition Changes: The tables for monsters provided specific examples from the Bestiary back in 1st Edition as opposed to inspirational descriptors. Given that said monsters were of variable level this resulted in a rather broad threat range.

Creating Nightmares list a table of various emotions and how incursions and monsters keyed to them may manifest, and also common monster types they attract. Characters who die inside nightmare incursions have their memories and fears learned by the dungeon, and are then incorporated into its foundations. The GM is advised to ask a series of questions to the player of a dead PC: “who are you leaving behind?” “Who do you blame for this untimely end?” “What great hopes and dreams die with you?” and other tragic queries are provided.

Monster Stats provides the GM with tools to create enemies of all stripes. In most cases things hew closely to OSR standards, but with a few exceptions:

They have attribute scores, like the PCs.

They don’t provide Experience in and of themselves.

They have a Level indicating their overall level of threat, as well as guidelines for determining how many special abilities they have. Monsters are typically at or near the level of a lair, with deviations meant to represent particularly dangerous individuals or pitiful hordes. They add this level to their attacks (barring some that are non-combatants or rely upon indirect means of harm) and skills in which they are proficient.

A Surprise Rating is given for how difficult or easy it is for PCs to take notice of said monster. Armour Rating.

The major size categories are Tiny (cat and smaller), Small (child-sized), Medium, Large (horses), and Huge (elephant and larger). Creatures cannot deal damage via conventional means to those who are at least two categories larger, although poison, explosives, and the like can help.

Monsters roll their Disposition just like PCs, although particularly large and supernaturally resilient beings may roll three Hit Dice. Tiny creatures typically have 0 Disposition and fall down in one easy stroke.

Monsters of Level 4 or higher are recommended to have a bonus damage die akin to Fighters, the ability to attack more than once in a round, or have an Area of Effect attack.

There are seven creature types. Beastlings include mundane animals as well as “animal people,” oozes, and chimeric creatures such as lycanthropes, manticore, griffins, and the like. Dwellers in the Deep represent aberrations, alien life forms from deep sea trenches, and things beyond time and space. Faeries include the eponymous creatures of European folklore but also goblins, trolls, genies, and dragons who are regarded as the “gods” of faerie-kind. Golems are artificial constructs of all types. Humans and Undead are self-explanatory. Nightmares are the unnatural spawn of the nightmare realm, made manifest from mortal fear and sin.

Creatures of the Nightmare type have special features. Only nightmares as a creature type have alignment restrictions: they are either Chaotic if their primary purpose is to destroy social order, or Evil if they seek to corrupt and destroy individual bodies and souls. Additionally, they are always vulnerable to a particular substance or environmental effect and are immune to one conventional source of harm. Furthermore, they cannot leave the presence of a lair for long: 1st thru 3rd level nightmares can stay outside for weeks but crumble in the presence of daylight; 4th thru 6th can only be out until the next sunrise and then die; 7th and higher are unable to visit the physical world at all barring some unique MacGuffin or ritual.

Undead and Golems (which represent artificial beings in general) have no Health score. While they have Disposition, they cannot recover from damage (wounds, attribute loss) unless they have some life-draining attack or from outside magical aid. Damage beyond their Disposition is applied to Ferocity which imposes a disability of some kind once it equals half their Ferocity and are killed once it is equal.

I find this last bit rather interesting, as it contradicts the early claims of 0 Disposition means a fallen opponent in Chapter Six. Are undead and golems meant to be far sturdier by design, or are these rules meant to be used for “boss level” creatures of this type?

There’s also a list of Benefits and Special Powers, as well as Flaws and Weaknesses to further customized creatures. Generally speaking a creature should have one benefit per level, with flaws cancelling out benefits on a 1 for 1 basis. Creatures with more or less net benefits than their level are considered stronger or weaker than average for determining overall threat assessment. Of particular note are Presence Effects, which are “always on” effects which radiate out from a creature, such as supernatural fear, a cloud of poison gas, or a shroud that sucks all light within a certain radius into it.

Edition Changes: An actual bestiary was provided as its own Appendix in 1st Edition (which I will review) but was excised in 2nd Edition due to later plans for a proper bestiary sourcebook.

Creating Ruins covers those heretical tombs in the Vale of Serpents and various non-nightmare related dungeons. They operate on slightly different sets of rules: for one, they’re more likely to contain magic items among their treasure on principle, and do not have creatures of the Nightmare type unless an incursion is inside or nearby the ruins. Ruins have their own 5 types: Empty Ruins are bereft of value but may have squatter inhabitants; Gates of Darkness have a portal to other realms within of some kind; Monster Fortresses are more or less what they sound like; Next of Evil have a mixture of human and monster inhabitants; and Sealed Tombs are places that remain untouched since its construction and thus any inhabitants within are invariably some kind of immortal being.

Edition Changes: Ruins creation rules are a new feature of 2nd Edition.

Rival Adventurers can be encountered in ruins, whose intentions and general Profession and social classes are determined via a die roll. Other potential inhabitants include Corrupted humans (only found in Gates of Darkness and Nests of Evil) who have some connection to the nightmare realm; Guardians who are golem or undead servitors; typical Monsters; and of course Nightmares, who are the rarest result and won’t be in appreciable numbers unless in a Gate of Darkness or from a nearby incursion.

There’s miscellaneous tables for determining the overall history and conditions of the ruins. What Age where they built? What kinds of historical items and records exist? Tables for generating room types are provided on an appreciable d100 table, and a d6 roll for the Surrounding Area explains why said ruins haven’t been taken over or are well-traveled (rough terrain, magical curse, hostile natives, etc).

Running a Nightmare Incursion is the final section of the final chapter proper, and mostly concerns rules for determining encounters within and what happens when an incursion is left to its own devices. The Anchors and Crown have special rules: an anchor is an object whose purpose is immediately known whenever a PC or other being immune to duration-based nightmare curses sees or touches it. Once an anchor is removed from a lair, the dungeon fades out of existence, expelling its non-nightmare contents back into the material plane or an adjacent lair if buried deep within a tunnel/hive network. In the event that the destruction of a lair ‘cuts off’ an access point to a lair, said incursion remains adrift in the nightmare realm, but may eventually take root in the material plane if it attaches itself to another lair or some magical item or ritual allows transportation into it.

Every nightmare incursion also has a suggested Expected Value of the worth of its treasure in cyphers based upon Lair Level. I really like this touch; given that all Experience gained is via recovered treasure from incursions or ruins, it is handy for the GM to know how well-stocked to make their dungeons and more accurately gauge campaign length.

The Crown is a predetermined monster (usually the strongest kind) or a group of monsters of related types that show up together. They can be encountered at a fixed place in the dungeon, but also encountered anywhere within the incursion due to the Countdown Die’s rules.

For determining random encounters, an Encounter Die ranging from d4 to d12 (depending on the ‘crowdedness’ of the dungeon, relative danger of fixed encounters, how ‘nightmare’ heavy the monster population is, etc). The Die is rolled once every Turn, if they are particularly loud, or entering a new area with no fixed encounter for the first time. A 3 or less indicates some type of risk: encountering a wandering monster or NPC, the PCs’ light sources or ongoing spell durations are unexpectedly taxed from an environmental hazard, or some other troubling event of the GM’s imagination. There’s also a Countdown Die, a secret value which is determined by rolling the Encounter Die and counts down by 1 whenever a living thing dies in the PCs’ presence, the PCs move to a different area while carrying the Anchor, or the Encounter Die is rolled for a random encounter. When the Countdown is reduced to 0, the Crown appears and attacks the PCs, and if they survive a new Countdown Die is rolled. Splitting the party makes the Countdown track separately, and reunification uses the lowest Countdown Die result from then on out.

But what happens when nightmare incursions are left to their own devices? Such Growing Dangers occur for every 2 weeks an incursion persists after discovery by the PCs. A d6 table and a related chart based on the dungeon type determines how the nightmares work their will upon the world. The incursion can spawn a lower level lair (level 1 lairs cannot do this), grow in size or level, lure humans into it in some manner to suffer terrible fates, attract/spawn more monsters, or its inhabitants go out into the world and attack nearby communities. If a lair reaches level 9 it stops growing in power, but there’s a 1 in 6 chance every week that it will destroy the nearest human settlement in a cataclysm or absorb the place and its inhabitants into the nightmare realm. If such a dreadful event occurs, the incursion and any joined lairs fade away and leave but a lifeless wasteland where it once stood.

And before you ask, the value of a lair’s anchor and treasure does not increase in the event they grow in level; PCs who hope to ‘wait out’ an incursion for promises of greater reward merely put the world in greater danger.

Edition Changes: In 1st Edition there was a final section, NPC Adventures, which was for generating NPC adventure parties who also fought against the nightmare incursions. Tables were made for determining their Profession, Alignment and Levels (but never higher than 4th) and there's a 2d6 + modifiers table for determining their level of success against an incursion. 2nd Edition dispensed with this section.

Thoughts So Far: These are some pretty good rules. I particularly enjoy the concept of a Countdown Die which represents the ever-lurking threat of being watched, and the rules for incursions wrecking woe in the world for PCs that neglect them put a blatant timeframe for party action vs rest and retreat. I do find it interesting how monsters and dungeons have Levels which are tightly wound together, unlike other OSR games which take a fast and loose approach to threat levels within the world. The rules for creating monsters are welcome, although given that they roll 3 hit dice at most they are more fragile than monsters in other OSR games save for golems and undead.

Join us next time as we cover a Bestiary of Monsters!


A Bestiary of Monsters
Edition Changes: This bestiary was only in 1st Edition.

While the Nightmares Underneath is compatible with plenty of existing old-school bestiaries, the unique flair of its world mandates the creation of some new monsters. And we have 37 entries, even more if we count stat blocks which have stronger versions of said monsters and/or monstrous servants dependent on the main monster. For the sake of brevity I’m not going to cover every single one, instead opting to highlight the creatures I find most noteworthy.

Abductors are winged nightmares that look like birds with the faces of bearded men. They specialize in carrying off people in their talons to take into the nightmare realms, and if they’re the crown monster they kidnap locals once per week.

Adepts of the Flame are the nightmares formed from the fearful memories of pagan fire worshipers slaughtered with the coming of Law. They take the forms of faceless humans with blood-colored flesh and wield swords made of fire.

Beastmen are humans with animalistic features, either from human magic or nightmare influence. They live in the wilds under a strongman with bodyguards, and are viewed as savages by human society.

Cavemurdered are nightmares formed from the memories of those who died underground. They look like mangled humans with fleshless skull faces (which can be used to create Death spell-related formulas at a cheaper rate), and their mere presence makes objects weigh heavier and thus can easily Encumber adventuring parties. They hold a bundle of snakes in their hands which they use as weapons.

Changelings belong to the Seelie Court and possess a wide variety of magic. They are fond of the ephemeral flow of reality and can change the physical forms and personalities of others. They demand esoteric services as payment, such as giving up one’s newborn child, servitude in Faerie, or the destruction of Lawful institutions.

Dragons are the gods of Faerie. Unlike the gods of humanity they walk among their worshipers in physical form. But those are beyond game statistics; the ones given stat blocks represent those banished to the material plane. The mortal world is poisonous to them, its planar makeup reducing their power and mental faculties over time. Still, dragons are very formidable opponents, having a wide assortment of automatic powers and a table of special powers to choose from. Their breath weapons are versatile, including not just the typical energy types but other options such as life draining, confusing clouds, blinding light, and Dexterity-draining slime.

The Eclipse Wolf is a unique creature capable of traversing realities. It is a horse-sized canine of amazing physical and mental acumen, and its presence causes the sun to be blotted via a solar eclipse along with emitting air vibrations that hinder human senses. It manifests in supernaturally-attuned areas when visiting the material plane, and its body parts can be harvested into valuable components for alchemy and magic (advantage on the casting of Illusion spells).

Faerie Nobles use the stats of 3 existing types (Changelings, Frostlings, Sun Court Fey) but have a much greater chance at carrying some unique treasure or magic item.

False Children are nightmares that take the forms of children they kidnap and/or kill near or inside nightmare incursions. They can sprout deadly monstrous body parts (claws, spider legs, stingers, etc) and attack with them, and those who kill them automatically fail the next roll they make. Observers are magically compelled to mock the unfortunate soul when this happens.

Frostlings are unseelie fey who delve too deep into the nightmare world and become...well, more evil than usual. Their faces take the form of loved ones who gaze upon them and emit a paralyzing cold around their bodies. Their flesh can be harvested to gain advantage on controlling cold-based spells. Sadly they don’t have much more creativity beyond this.

Glass Thieves are nightmares formed from members of a thieves’ guild destroyed in infighting as its members succumbed to greed. They look like people dipped in now-dried molten glass and wield extremely sharp knives as weapons. They can automatically steal one piece of equipment with every attack they make. Their crystal knives can be sold as treasure, but anyone who owns one for more than a day risks developing a nightmare curse (PCs are immune) as though being in an incursion for an hour and can spawn a new incursion over time.

The glass thieves’ treasure is problematic in the sense that it can heavily discourage players from selling treasure in the future, which is the main means of generating wealth and thus Experience in the game.

Goblins are faeries who mine and toil, and their blood can infect items and deal damage to their wielders (and Willpower if at 0 Disposition) from sheer mental repulsion.

Hive Mothers are nightmares taking the forms of women with gigantic wings. They can conjure imps to attack at range, and those who engage a hive mother in close combat are encircled by their wings which reduce Speed and initiative ratings.

Humans are a catch-all category of 5 common stat blocks for the types of people PCs are likely to meet. Peasants, Proles, Scholars, and Servants are the hapless noncombatants who represent the common folk, while Bandits and Mercenaries are more martial (but not very bright) level 1 people. Nobles are usually accompanied by 1d6 servants and/or guards, and Cultists know one random spell per level. With the exception of Cultists, each of them are level 1. Humans who have Professions (no stats here) have the benefits of said class features, but all non-Professional humans are considered to be level 1.

Iridescent Globes are floating bits of protoplasm from some alien world. They have no quarrel with inhabitants of the material plane or nightmare realms, but their mere presence causes the land to change. Their attacks are random magical effects ranging from unpredictable teleportation, having effects happen twice due to time manipulation to curses, and the expected energy attacks. If left to roam for a month or more in an area, the very landscape becomes incomprehensible to human perception.

Lamprey Golems are one of the only golem monsters in this bestiary. They’re created by wizards to guard aquatic locations, and can bite, constrict, and/or squeeze through extremely small spaces depending on the material they’re made from.

Locust Butchers are nightmares spawned from the famine-causing bugs of the same name. When the nobility sent out their soldiers to forcefully take and hoard what little food remained, the death and hatred spawned in their wake became ample fuel for the nightmares to form such monsters. Locust Butchers can force targets struck by their swords to give up their most prized possessions on a failed Willpower save, can summon sense-impairing smoke, and explode into a cloud of locusts when they reach 0 Disposition.

Revenants are one the few undead creatures in this book, animated by the nightmare realms by the souls of those who died violently. Revenants are murderously jealous of the living who do not have to suffer like they do, and when in packs have increased Morale when in the presence of a leader (same stats but max Disposition).

Rittersnakes are beastlings formed from the bodies of foreign crusaders who disturbed nests of parasites in the Vale of Serpents. They transformed into snakemen,  their plate armor and weapons the last vestiges of their human origins. Rittersnakes can lob burning spittle as a ranged attack, their lairs smell terrible and impose disadvantage to non-Health based rolls, and they can hijack the bodies of freshly-slain human and animal corpses by beheading them.

Shadows of Pain are formed from the memories of childhood fears and abuse, from schoolyard bullies to violent parents to doctors with syringes. They wield weapons in line with said torments, and deal their own damage types and certain debuffs. Syringes can cause paralyzing cold, for instance.

The Simurgh is the only good-aligned monster in this entire bestiary, save for randomly-generated Human alignments. It is a legendary bird with a human face. It knows many spells  and can offer words of wisdom and even minor services if a character succeeds on a 2d6 social roll, with modifiers based on alignment. Simurgh are foes of nightmares and are more inclined to defend people from them even on a lower social result.

Skull-Faced Fiends strike at adventuring parties at their weakest links: their hirelings! If they are able to sneak up on a party, they whisper in the ears of said people, instilling fear and paranoia to get them to abandon their patrons in exchange for safe passage out of the nightmare incursion. A promise that is never honored.

Sun Court Fey are lawful seelie faeries. They are skilled artists and hunters, and carry bronze muskets which fire angry wasps. Their courtiers, paladins, and visionweavers (better attribute scores, and armour in the case of paladins) are their peoples’ front line of defense against the nightmares, but they have no patience for humans that do not respect their authority.

Thaumaturgists are Scholars that specialize in magical alchemy. They belong to a Guild of the same name, and ones that are Chaotic in alignment have been corrupted by nightmares and may be allied with monsters and/or nightmares if found in an incursion. They have exotic components on their persons as treasure, and higher-level members among their number know more spells.

Thorn Priests are nightmares formed from the genocide of pagans carried out by soldiers of the Law. The last surviving members of a particular sect who practiced flagellation cried out for revenge upon their dying breaths, and the nightmares granted their wish. Thorn priests are plantlike humanoid entities who have thorny tentacle attacks that can force those struck to attack random targets on a failed Willpower save. Their bodies brim with a certain spell that is automatically cast upon their enemies once killed. Incursions formed by them are full of sharp metal blades, rocks, and thorns which makes the environment deal damage under certain circumstances (being pushed into a wall, having to go through a tight passage, etc).

The Underfolk are human beastlings who live in underground caves and abandoned cities, away from the light of day. The alien depths of their subterranean homes are at higher risks of nightmare incursions, and as such they are valuable sources of knowledge to adventuring parties that make nonviolent contact with them. Underfolk have been known to ally with the lowest social classes of humans (more due to closer living space) against such dangers and the more mundane threats of living in the streets.

Wasp Riders are two monsters in one: alchemically-grown giant wasps with a mounted golem rider wielding a magic-infused whip. Nobody knows who invented such beings, but the golems’ evil intentions point to minds inimical to social harmony.

Wound Men are nightmares given form by the PTSD of war survivors. They look like mutilated people with enough weapons sticking out from their bodies that would kill a normal person. Manufactured non-magical weapons that strike their bodies have a chance of being absorbed into their forms and cannot be taken out until combat’s end. They can rise again as weaker forms unless at least two of their limbs are amputated, and weapons stuck in their bodies that are not removed from an incursion in 1d4 Turns can combine together into an artificial human-shaped conglomeration of metal implements.

Monsters by Type: 8 Beastlings, 5 Dwellers in the Deep, 10 Faeries (11 if we count Faerie Nobles as separate entry), 4 Golems, 8 Humans, 16 Nightmares, 3 Undead. This includes sub-entries for stronger versions of the same creature type. As you can tell, the bestiary is appropriately Nightmare-heavy, with quite a bit of Beastlings and Faeries. Humans are the next most common type, but barring Thaumaturgists they don’t have much variety of special abilities. There’s a surprisingly low amount of Undead which are the rarest creature type, and we don’t have many Golems either.

Monsters by Level: For monsters that have specific level entries we have 15 1st Level, 14 2nd Level, 12 3rd Level, 4 4th Level, 2 5th Level, 1 6th Level, 1 7th Level, 0 8th Level, and 0 9th Level. We have 5 creatures of variable level: Changelings 1-6, Cultists 1+, Dragons 1-9, Thaumaturgy Mentor 1d4+2, and Underfolk 1-4. The bestiary is heavily weighted towards lower-level encounters, but after 4th level we start to see a dearth in material.

Thoughts So Far: Although nowhere near as big as some other OSR bestiaries, the monsters provided in the Nightmares Underneath are original and depart from the standard fantasy faire enough to make things feel quite different. The material is rather front-loaded level wise, and the GM will need to do more work and/or conversion for higher-level parties.

I do like how dragons are faerie gods and don’t correspond to the chromatic/metallic flavor, and a lot of the nightmares correspond strongly to some rather common traumas and misdeeds. Entries such as the Cavemurdered and Skull-Faced Fiends have abilities that are tailor-made to take advantage of adventuring parties in ways that wouldn’t make sense for an “organic dungeon ecology,” but fits in well with the themes of nightmare incursions. The few Dwellers in the Deep monsters (Eclipse Wolf and Iridescent Globes among others) feel appropriately alien and indecipherable, and the Adepts of the Flame and Thorn Priests show that the rise of Law was not a golden age for all. Groups like the Sun Court Fey, Simurgh, and Underfolk are some neat choices in that while two of them aren’t necessarily Good (Underfolk are actually Evil) the fluff of their entries imply that they can be used as allies of convenience when fighting nightmare incursions. That’s not something you see in a lot of D&D/OSR products and adventures by default, whose monsters are often always hostile or set up in a manner that they don’t have much incentive to work with the PCs against a greater evil.

There are a few weak points in this bestiary. There are criminally few undead creatures in a “horror-themed” retroclone. While I understand that the PCs are intended to be a world above the common folk, the non-Thaumaturgist and non-Cultist human stat blocks felt a bit too weak overall in being universally Level 1. Although in this case increasing their levels is trivial by boosting their attack and skill bonuses, so I don’t think I can knock them too hard for this. The faeries are heavily geared towards European folklore, and I was a bit surprised to see no mention of genies in spite of being iconic Middle Eastern monsters.

Join us next time as we cover a Slight Appendix of Additional Material!


A Slight Appendix of Additional Material
Edition Changes: Mission-Based Experience, Playing Blackjack, and Additional Professions are only present in 1st Edition. Contest Resolution, Equipment Breakage Rules, and Zero to Hero Disposition were introduced in 2nd Edition. Additionally, the rules for generating settlements and kingdoms in Chapter 1 of 2nd Edition were originally in the Appendix for 1st Edition.

The final section of the book contains an array of material that either can’t fit anywhere else or make alterations to the core resolution rules of the game. The material therein is thus optional.

Contest Resolution introduces a replacement of d20 with 2d6 to give attribute modifiers in opposing tasks a more noticeable impact. This is an optional rule in 2nd Edition, but was a lot more common in the default rules for 1st Edition. Additionally, there’s a PbtA style Non-Binary Resolution where the results range from “total failure” to “yes but [insert complication]” to “yes, and [exceptional result].”

Equipment Breakage Rules is a two-way street. Lucky Saves allow a PC to let their helmet or shield break if they’d be hit in the head or arm/torso respectively as a means of avoiding gaining Wounds. Additionally, weapons and tools being used for an overcome roll or save can break on a critical failure (1 or 20 respectively). In the case of a natural 20 hitting an armoured target, their Armour Rating for that armour is reduced by 1.

Zero to Hero Disposition harkens back to 1st Edition, where PCs and NPCs roll a number of Hit Dice equal to their level, with no modifiers for good/poor rest. This gives higher-level characters a lot more staying power.

Troupe Style Play solves the dilemma of an incapaticated PC needing to rest for weeks while the nightmare incursions grow worse. Players create a pool of characters, any combination of whom can be shared as a whole or a certain amount per player. Every time the group takes a new expedition into a dungeon, one PC per player is chosen to form an adventuring party while the rest of the party stays in civilization and performs downtime actions.

Mission-Based Experience dispenses with leveling up from treasure in favor of a more personalized array of accomplishments. A PC levels up by completing 3 missions, and guidelines are provided for a number of complicating factors known as Elements. The higher Level a PC is, the more Elements are included in a mission.

Playing Blackjack dispenses with the use of ability score modifiers for “roll under” actions such as saving throws. A character rolls 1d20 and adds their attribute score. If a character gets 21 or higher they succeed, and 20 or lower fails. In the event that the GM has players who prefer using this means of rolling and others who do not, players must declare “blackjack” before rolling to clear up any confusion.

Additional Professions provides four more classes. The reason that they’re optional is that they imply various aspects about the setting that may not gel with what the GM has in mind, such as explicit nonhuman races.

Berserkers are basically D&D Barbarians. They have an impressive d10 Hit Die, cannot use special abilities while wearing heavy armor, and must spend half their accumulated wealth on earthly pleasures; if they do not they suffer disadvantage on all rolls until they defeat a “worthy foe” (level or greater). They have Skills pertinent to wilderness survival, equipment maintenance, and knowing customs of martial cultures. For special abilities they add their level to attack rolls, treat their Armour Rating equal to their Ferocity score if they have a weapon in hand, and can attack a number of foes equal to their level within weapon range every round. They can make attacks and move as part of this, but can’t attack the same foe twice or reload between attacks.

Overall Berserkers are rather simple in play, and unlike D&D Barbarians they are less about raw damage and more being able to take out large numbers of opponents easily.

Disciples are D&D monks. They practice a personal philosophy and gain powers from its ideals. Their Skills are left to the player and GM depending upon their philosophy and lifestyles. They cannot use their special abilities when Encumbered or wearing plate, and must give half the wealth they make to others or in service of their ideals. Their Ideals are chosen from one of four virtues and are a mixture of blatant rules (give all of your money away, cannot sneak up on enemies) to role-playing restrictions (must confront the enemies of civilization wherever you find them, must defend the weak from harm, etc). For basic abilities they have 1d6 Hit Die, add their level to attacks, have an Armour Rating equal to 10 + their level when unarmoured, roll against their Willpower save in lieu of other attributes for phenomena related to mental and physical endurance, and have a number of Special Disciplines equal to 1 + their level + their Willpower modifier.

Special Disciplines are mostly at-will or always-on abilities representing the Disciple’s training, and while they may appear magical are in fact mundane in origin. They include things such as being able to hold their breath for a number of Turns equal to their level, advantage on saves vs damaging (and non-damaging for a separate Discipline) spells, able to harm and touch incorporeal creatures and those immune to non-magical damage, can throw enemies or objects a number of feet equal to 5 x their level, able to walk on water, walls, and fragile places normally unable to hold a human’s weight, and gaining a number of additional attacks equal to their Willpower modifier.

Disciples are heavily geared towards being mobile fighters, and most of their powers are a mixture of utility vs. offense. The only one that can be potentially overpowered would be the one that grants bonus attacks per round equal to Willpower, but the rest are broadly situational.

Fey Knights take heavy inspiration from the time when being an Elf was a race and a class, specifically a fighter-mage hybrid. However, the class can represent all manner of feylike magical beings who aren’t like other people. They have 1d6 Hit Dice and earn half Experience, meaning it takes twice as long to level up. They are Skilled in magical knowledge, etiquette, the arts, faerie culture, and equipment maintenance. For special abilities they add their level to attacks, can choose to keep a cast spell memorized (aka not spend a spell slot) by suffering 1d4 Intelligence damage, begin play knowing and is capable of learning spells, and has d6 Psychic Armour.

Furthermore, each Fey Knight can choose from one or more Supernatural Heritages, which reflect the type of fey they are and/or their Court. Each comes with one beneficial trait and one hindrance. For example, Dark Elves have advantage on sneaky stuff but their Resentment always starts at 1 in new settlements, while Fall Court fey have advantage on controlling Divination and Illusion spells but disadvantage on controlling Evocation, Healing, and Summoning Spells. Golden Age fey is perhaps the most attractive to mage-heavy types, granting mastery over 1 bonus spell per level but takes double damage from weapons made of iron. Ouch!

The Fey Knight is a neat concept, but doesn't feel truly unique given that they’re a blend of existing class features for the most part besides Supernatural Heritage. Their d6 Hit Dice makes them more fragile and pack less of a punch than Assassins, Fighters, and Champions in physical combat, and their halved Experience really hurts. WIth the Chaos Champion already existing and Professions like Assassin getting a magical option subclass, they won’t make for an appealing class in converting to 2nd Edition.

Halflings represent all manner of small folk that seem all the rage in fantasy settings. They have 1d6 Hit Die, get no damage bonus from two-handed weapons, cannot hide or be stealthy when Encumbered or in plate armour, and have less Encumbrance allowance due to their size. They are Skilled in maintaining equipment and households as well as athletic, sneaking, and wilderness survival stuff. When it comes to Special Abilities they can find hidden things like a Thief can, have advantage on saves when their size works in their favor, have one group of weapons as Favored which lets them add their level to attack rolls with said weapons, and have a Luck Score equal to their level that refreshes after a long rest. Luck may be spent to reroll a roll of their own or ignore a die result of damage from any source of harm.

To further customize their ‘race,’ Halflings can choose from Morphological Features which are akin to a Fey Knight’s Supernatural Heritage. For a few examples, Gnomes have mastery over 1 Illusion spell per level but have disadvantage when rolling Disposition, and Goblinoids deal 1d8 damage when wielding favored weapons but suffer disadvantage on rolls when influencing people in settlements. Morlock may be a blatantly good option as they can see in the dark (great for dungeon delves!) but suffer disadvantage to all rolls in direct sunlight. Notice that it specifies direct sunlight and not bright light in general.

Halflings come off as specialized Thieves but with less Skills. Their Luck is pretty good in that it grants them limited metacurrency that can turn around a bad situation.

Random Tables are well...random tables of all sorts. They include reasons why monsters may be a threat to civilization, physical and personality traits to flesh out NPCs and monsters, tables for a wide variety of items and treasure types, jewelry designs, and the subject of scholarly texts, journals, and other written documents.

Money provides more detail for tracking encumbrance for coins. Generally speaking, keeping coins in pockets and small containers is more encumbering than keeping them in larger sacks and backpacks. Meticulously packed coins and bars count as being even less encumbering than either option. Coins with a hollow center and tied together via a string count half as much for encumbering purposes, and gold coins and bars are ten times more valuable than silver counterparts.

Thoughts So Far: I have mixed feelings on a lot of these rules, although given their optional nature it may be due more to personal tastes. I do like Troupe Style Play and Equipment Breakage which feels in keeping with the ruleset. The new Professions didn’t leave any strong feelings in me, although I liked the Disciple the most in terms of having many versatile options. Alternate dice resolution material such as Playing Blackjack and 2d6 Contests feel a bit unnecessary, as the ruleset as it is is not that confusing to me. Zero to Hero Disposition can be a good alternative for more “heroic level” style adventures, but given that PCs already have a buffer of “Wounds” may not gel well with the default setting. Mission-Based Experience can be good for groups that want to “level up by plot,” but given that its Elements system introduces a new amount of book-keeping it doesn’t seem a worthy alternative for higher-level play. The loot-based advancement of the base systemworks rather well in my opinion, and there’s plenty of things for PCs to buy with their money.

And that is it for the Nightmares Underneath proper! But there is one more thing to review that was included with the 1st Edition PDF. A conversion manual for those who are less fond of the OSR and prefer a system more...Worldly.

Join us next time as we cover A World Full of Nightmares, a Powered by the Apocalypse conversion of the Nightmares Underneath!


This system hack was released as an additional PDF to the base book as opposed to a product of its own. Between this and the 2nd Edition rules update, one could say that The Nightmares Underneath is 3 products in one. I will admit that I have not played Apocalypse World, although I have read a bit of Masks, so there are chances I may misunderstand some system features. But overall the rules here read quite cleanly and simply and I hope that fans of the system can grok the gist of things.

A World Full of Nightmares is a 32 page book. Its “core rules” are self-contained, but there are a few references made to the main sourcebook of the Nightmares Underneath for things like magic and nightmare curses albeit with appropriate changes.

Character Creation is a straightforward affair: there are three major classes of Arcanist, Rogue, and Warrior, and the six attributes are the same but arranged as modifiers of +2, +1, +1, 0, 0, and -1. These modifiers apply to 2d6 rules which are the prime resolution mechanic. Arcanists master one spell per level and do 2 damage in combat, Rogues get to ask 1 extra question when they search and deal 3 damage in combat, and Warriors can wear a suit of plate and deal 4 damage in combat. Each class has a list of 9 special abilities to choose from at each level, and can choose from each other’s lists beyond 1st level but not 2 levels in a row. Said Special Abilities are quite broad, including things such as adding +1 modifier to an attribute, +1 (or the rare +2 bonus) on things such as damage, Disposition, certain Basic Moves, and some things that aren’t specific to die rolls but open things up narratively like being able to be impossible to detect nonmagically by hiding in shadows.

Alignment and Motivations are the same as in the base system, but when you act in accordance with said goals you get 1-2 additional xp at the end of the session. Your other main means of gaining experience are recovering valuable items from a nightmare incursion, and you need 3 xp times your current level to level up.

Health and injuries are simplified, where Disposition is a primary health score without Wounds and is equal to Level plus Health modifier. Damage of NPCs and monsters in the base system are converted from Hit Dice to a rating of 2-6, and Armour Rating is converted to Armour which directly reduces damage. PCs (and only PCs) may opt to ignore damage by taking a debility, which imposes a -1 to all rolls for a specific attribute and serve as the generic ‘debuffs’ but can apply only once per attribute and thus do not stack. Encumberment still exists but is highly simplified (encumbrance is 4 + Health) and you cannot roll a 7 or higher when Going Into Danger (initiative and avoiding hazards basically).

Basic Moves are PbtA’s signifier for common narrative actions which are resolved via 2d6 + modifier. 6 or less imposes an unfavorable result, 7 to 9 indicates success but at a cost, and 10 or more indicates sterling success at no cost and/or grants a bonus positive feature. There are 11 Basic Moves which cover a variety of actions: for example, Cast a Spell is 2d6 + Intelligence and can range from being cast correctly (10+), miscast if higher level (7-9), and miscast regardless of level (6 or less). Fight is 2d6 + Ferocity whose 7 to 9 result deals damage but the enemy completes an intended action/threatening move; 10 deals damage, prevents the enemy from acting, and grants an additional boon; 6 or less deals no damage and the enemy completes their action/threatening move, and the GM can describe narratively how the fighter is now disadvantaged. Volley is similar to Fight but is 2d6 + Dexterity, covers ranged combat, and has different advantages and complications (running out of ammo, collateral damage, etc). Search is 2d6 + Dexterity and the PC can ask a number of pre-arranged questions based on the result which the GM answers honestly (How can I avoid the danger here? Who or what was here before me? etc); 6 or less reveals something disadvantageous to the searcher or makes the current situation worse. Recover has automatic results (recover Disposition) but the 2d6 + Health roll is made for seeing how many debilities one can remove (6 or less can only be removed via magical healing).

GM Section gives a sample list of problems, complications, and consequences for rolls based on a variety of situations, whether the risk involves an character, an environmental obstacle, and so on. In combat the special abilities of monsters and NPCs are considered to be Threatening Moves, and in lieu of initiative the GM asks players what their characters do and have them perform the Basic Move that is most appropriate to their stated course of action. Once the rolls of PCs are resolved, the GM describes the actions of NPCs performing their intended actions if capable. Go Into Danger and Hold Steady are suggested to cover what would ordinarily be saving throws, skill checks, and attribute tests for various task resolutions.

Since counting individual cyphers is not a thing and PCs can just as easily advance via role-playing their Alignment and Motivations, currency and valuable items are abstracted into three categories: Units of Purses, Valuables, and Fortunes, and for how long said units can help you live poorly, live well, or live like royalty. Similarly said units can be spent to improve Institutions: Purses make them Notable, Valuables Significant, and a single Fortune Exceptional.

The Nightmare’s Curses provide alternate rules to said maladies. They trigger whenever a character takes a debility inside a nightmare incursion and they fail to Hold Steady, which is interesting as only PCs are capable of opting for such debuffs. Are NPCs assumed to get them automatically? Most nightmare curses function the same in a World Full of Nightmares save where the rules are changed. For example, Your Secrets Bought and Sold would impose disadvantage on a PC’s rolls when interacting with a certain monster type, but in this variant they suffer -1 to rolls involving said monsters instead.

Card-Based Lair Creation is a variant means of dungeon generation, the rationale being that level disparities are less dangerous in an Apocalypse World Engine game than the base system. The GM takes a deck of playing cards minus the Jokers and lays them down left to right until there’s at least one spade and one diamond. The first card of each suite and its order of magnitude informs an element of the dungeon. The suite of Diamonds represents Anchors and what kinds of valuable items (or groups of items) hold the incursion together. The suite of Spades represents the Crown, and we have 2 tables showing results from the bestiary and generic adjectives for the GM to invent. All diamonds after this are counted as spades, and all diamonds/spades after the first represent other monsters in the lair. The suite of Clubs represents various types of traps, and their position relative to the crown/anchor cards represents their generic location and roll: they may pieces of the nightmare realm itself, are set up to defend the anchor, and so on. The suite of Hearts represents the lair’s ties to the outside world, representing various groups and their relationship to the incursion. Like traps. the card’s position relative to the anchor/crown cards indicate the specifics of said relationship (in one case they may be potential allies for the PCs!).

Optionally, 2-3 more cards drawn can be keyed to the lair’s sins, with each suite representing a variety of related themes. Results indicate how these negative aspects of human psychology manifest in the lair.

Thoughts So Far: A World Full of Nightmares is a rather simplistic system, but from an initial read seems capable of recreating the experience of the Nightmares Underneath in a rules-lite way. The fact that the base system already has a lot of 2d6 + modifier tables means that said rules can be easily ported over to the Apocalypse World system. The major thing I noticed is that a few of the standard classes may not be so easily represented at Level 1: a Champion of Chaos would need to start out as a Warrior, but at a later level must choose an Arcanist Special Ability to grant them mastery of additional spells. The Bard’s Disposition transfer is now a Warrior Special Ability, even though the class best fits the Rogue conceptually. There are a few other details that will need ironing out, such as how bare-bones spellcasting is: a few spells have some outs even if cast correctly, like Charm Person allowing the target a bonus save to break free of the influence depending on circumstances. Said bonus save doesn’t seem to be a thing in this system, where players roll all of the dice.

But overall I have no major quarrels, and feel that actual play will help me get a better view of things.

Final Thoughts: The Nightmares Underneath is truly something special in not just the OSR, but among tabletop games as a whole. It combines various familiar fantasy elements and tropes into a novel blend, and its mechanics feel both fresh and daring in their relative newness for D&D-alikes while also being straightforward and internally consistent. I ran a few sessions of this as a GM, and while I had some new system hiccups the rules overall did not feel labyrinthine or jumbled to the point that I was regularly making things up on the spot. The setting is also really cool, and the concept of nightmare incursions is broad enough to host a variety of dungeons that may not make ordinary sense for the world and terrain in a more typical setting.

I hope that those reading along had as much fun as I did writing this review. I’m feeling quite elated and look forward to writing for another product, but as of now I’m unsure what to review next. I already have some books in mind, but I’ll give it a few days before deciding on one and making my first draft.

Until next time, faithful readers!


For what it's worth, I realize that I mispoke on a rather important game mechanic and made the appropriate changes in Basic Resolution Rules. When it comes to adding level to overcome rolls, they're added on top of instead of as a substitute for the appropriate attribute modifier. Here's the changed text:

--- Quote ---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.
--- End quote ---


[0] Message Index

[*] Previous page

Go to full version