Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Nightmares Underneath: Review

My interest was piqued when +B. Portly flashed an image of a mysterious gorgeous tome on G+. Given the fact that I've been running a campaign set in the dreamlands for more than a year now, when I heard that this book was an OSR supplement about the nightmare realm bleeding through into reality, I felt I had to take a look. Unlike many other names in the OSR whose work I know well, I'm not familiar with +Johnstone Metzger 's ouevre. I bought his module Evil Wizards in a Cave a ways back, and it did not make much of an impression on me. So I wasn't sure what I'd be getting. I was delighted to discover that this book is very, very good--good along an unusual number of dimensions.

The book is aesthetically attractive as a physical artifact. You can order it as a hardcover from Lulu with a dust jacket that makes it look like an antique gilded tome. (Buyers beware, Lulu dust jackets have a tendency to curl a bit.) Within the text is laid out in an effective manner with baroque embellishments that don't interfere with the presentation of the material. The generous illustrations are mainly collages of heavily altered public domain images, including paintings. Some are (probably) original pieces drawn by Metzger. The alterations fit the setting and feel of the book. It does a wonderful job as I hope these images convey.

The setting of the book is distinctive and evocative. It is a world of high islamic civilization. The forces of law and reason have conquered the forces of chaos, including the idolatry of the pagans. It is less the wild world of the Arabian Nights, than the orderly civilization of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. Here the scholarly interpretation of the law and scripture reigns supreme, and there is great respect for art, science, and technology.

But beneath the bright sunlight of faith and reason, a dark inverted world grows. In cramped and claustrophobic spaces, incursions from the realm of nightmares spring. They are inhabited by horrors, that often draw in their wake strange and numinous creatures from the astral deep or the inhuman realms of faerie. They corrupt surrounding human settlements, feeding on their traumas, their obsessions, their sins, and their fears.

The players are the rare individuals who are drawn to these incursions, and who, for reasons unknown, are immune to their corrupting influence that destroys or bends ordinary people to its purposes. The party is a band of pariahs, perhaps murder hobos, self-seeking adventurers, who operate outside the normal social structures. Society tolerates them and makes space for them, not because it approves of them, but because they are its only defense against the darkness below. This is a pleasing and original take on a cluster of concepts from early D&D including the original opposition of law vs. chaos, as well as the assumption that the party will be a bunch of self-seeking treasure hunters operating outside of the bounds of ordinary social life.

These nightmare incursions tend to appear in wild and remote places, near enough to a human settlement to feed on its fears and desires, although they can also pop up in the middle of civilization. All possess an anchor, an object that is associated with great emotion, a human  heirloom, often quite valuable. The anchor is what ties the nightmare realm to the waking world--removing it causes the incursion to collapse. Each incursion is the seat of a Crown, a single type of nightmare embodying the theme of the incursion, a theme connected to its location and its anchor. The idea, which warms my heart, is that each incursion will be conceptually tight dungeon with mechanics, aesthetics, and foes suited to its theme.

For example, a nightmare incursion might exists in the ruins of a city decimated by the famine of a great siege. It has grown in the tunnels that the desperate residents clawed in their final attempts to escape the city. Among the few survivors, a corrupted cult has arisen, worshipping the nightmares that have extended the cramped tunnels into a strange inner space. In return for their sacrifices, the cultists are blessed with an insatiably hunger and the rich bounties of endless feasting. The mechanics of the dungeon would all be about desperate resource depletion, and the Crown would be some horror with a distended belly somehow representing the union of imagined gluttony and desperate hunger.

These incursions appear in inter-related clusters. The (level 1) incursions connect to the waking world, and most resemble it. But as one travels deeper in to further levels closer to the nightmare realm, one leaves the trappings of our reality further behind. For example, perhaps a great collector has gone missing. His heirs have noticed that several of his prize possessions are missing. In their search for these rare treasures they discover a strange and impossible tunnel in the back of one of his curiosity cabinets. They fear the worst. And they are right: the tunnel leads to a series of interconnected nightmare incursions, each representing the history of the relevant artifact, overlaid with the obsessive jealousy of the collector. The collector himself now resides in the deepest incursion as a host to the Crown of this level. His incursion is a glittering dungeon of intricate and impossible puzzle pieces arranged with the loving care of his possessions. It's strange traps and jeweled Escher spaces have attracted alien entities from the astral depths.

While I don't think it would be easy to crank out dungeons like this, the section on creating a nightmare incursion provides a lot of tools to help. Best of all, the bestiary contains a wonderful trove of Crowns that serve as excellent examples. The bestiary is really freaky and wonderful. The entities from the Astral Deeps and Fairie are just as good.

My favorite Crown from the bestiary, Wound Men.
This book is not a campaign setting. It is an entire game, complete with its own rule set intended to support play in this setting. (In this, it resembles the incredibly tight OD&D variant rules recently put out by +Gus L tailored closely to his Apollyon campaign setting.) Sure, I can come up with rules for hexcrawling in a verticle jungle if I have to, but the truth is that I'm not a rules guy--at the end of the day it's hard for me to get very excited about rules. I use the AD&D lite rules (LL AEC) because they're comfortable, and don't require me to keep track of very many things. But I enjoyed Metzger's rules. My impression is that like his pictures, they are a collage of existing rules from a variety of sources, artfully manipulated and altered for his purposes. I can really only scratch the surface here for you. Let me end by telling you about some of the rules.

Stats are renamed versions of the list we all know and love, 3d6 in order. The classes are flavorful and, although corresponding mostly to AD&D classes, are quite different in their execution. Every class can cast spells drawn from a single list, although not necessarily very well. Each also has a few mechanically elegant abilities. Clerics are replaced by cultists. They do not have a separate spell list, although they can turn the hated foes of their cult, drawn from a small list of the entities found in the setting (including mankind!).

When it comes to combat, variable weapon damage is used, but it's determined by the hit die of your class instead of the type of weapon. This is an elegant solution to the aesthetic ickiness of weapon restrictions. Although fighters (along with thieves) are worse spellcasters than other classes, they automatically do damage in combat. If they hit they do damage twice. Combat also uses a version of +Logan Knight 's Grit and Flesh, to track the difference between temporary damage and real lasting wounds.

The skill system is elegant. If you are trained in something that would actually require training to do, and have the proper tools at hand, then you must roll the relevant attribute or lower on a d20. If you either are untrained or lack the proper tools, then you must roll equal to or under one half the relevant attribute. There is no official list of skills, although the classes all come with a general description of what they are skilled in. The player is also encouraged to come up with a background for her character on creation. She is trained in whatever it makes sense for her to be trained in. This avoids the cumbersome non-weapon proficiency lists (or, heaven forbid, the skill system of 3x.) and keeps things nice and loose. It also encourages players to think about who their character is a bit before play.

Now this skill system might seem to put a lot of weight on attribute scores, especially in a 3d6 in order system. But every time you go up a level you get a chance to raise two attribute scores, one of which must be one of the two prime attribute scores of your class. If you roll higher than the attribute it goes up one or two points depending on how low it is. As characters advance in level, they have a decent chance to bring any low stats up to a reasonable level, and a fair chance to get a prime attribute up to a reasonably high level. I find the interaction of the skill system with the attribute increases a nice synergy. I haven't tried it, but I bet it would work pretty well in play.

Probably my favorite rules innovation in this game is a nice early domain game of institution building. As PC's begin spending money in town, they build up the institutions where their coin flows, whether it's a tea house, druggist, university, court, or a necromancer's guild. As the institution grows in stature, the player acquire contacts and gains more favorable interactions with them. There's also a chance that the institution eventually acquires the alignment of the character who funds it. I think this would be a lot of fun, and lead organically to intrigue and engagement with a richly developed setting outside the dungeon. There are also some fun rules for inflation and building resentment to the players.

In short, you should buy this book. It's beautiful. The setting is evocative. The core conceit of the dungeon as nightmare incursion is fun. The bestiary is nuts. And the rules are interesting.

You can find links here to a free version of the PDF (no art), or to buy the full version of the PDF, as well print copies in hard and softcover. Metzger has also released a free (PWYW) pdf of a sample module which can also be purchased in print. You can get find links to both here.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Zyan Above

Zyan Above. Sidney Sime
The great city of Zyan soars over the dreamlands on a fixed orbit. It rests on a rock of reddish hue, seven miles east to west, and four miles north to south. From the bottom of the rock springs the White Jungle, an immense riot of fungal blooms, teeming with life tailored to this inverted phantasmagoria. On its topside, the terrain of the rock has many changes of elevation, with sheer cliffs, hills and hollows. Off the western edge, a small separate island keeps time with its larger sibling. It is connected to the main body by a soaring bridge, on which an honor guard always stands in white lacquered armor, secured by chains against the howling wind.

Bridge to the Sunset Palace. Svetoslav Petrov
The Sunset Palace. Sidney Sime
On this island a palace rises, majestic and elegant, with domes piled upon domes, and towers climbing into the sky. This is the Sunset Palace. Its towers are cleverly fashioned to form narrow channels, where clouds, snared by the inexorable gait of Zyan, roll down towards a central dome, pouring like a heavenly river through the great arched windows of the courtier's ballroom. On the palace's western face a glorious stained window reaches six stories high, rich with the iconography of the royal line of Zyan. Through its colored panes, a council chamber can be glimpsed. At the head of a great table, a monstrous orchid springs through the floor, its petals dangling over a jeweled ivory throne. Ever since the malaise came upon Zyan, this orchid has drooped and lost its lustrous sheen. It is as old as the city, and it is said that when it dies, so too will the hope of Zyan.

Chimes. Dulac
Moving eastward, across the bridge from the Sunset Palace, one crosses onto the raised western plateau of the main island. The neighborhood set atop this great cliff is called Chimes. The buildings here were once bright and elegant; now they have a falling down charm. Between woody hills nestle cozy manses with sunken courtyards and jangling chimes. At the center of the plateau, a great hollow descends gently to mossy woods, through which a sparkling stream runs. Its once manicured paths were stocked with splendid peacocks from which the hollow takes its name. Its paths are now wild and overgrown, and the peacocks have, through generations of haphazard rutting, grown surly and garish.

Along the northern edge of Chimes stands the Stable of the Guides, a clean building with soaring columns, and fine martial statues of bronze. Piers extend from darkened holes out over the Endless Azure Sea. There the Guides once housed their mounts, the great kestrels that soared on the screaming winds that cut across Zyan. The art is all but lost; now only two ancient kestrels, the last of their line, keep the blind stable master company.

A Great Kestral Returns to The Stables. Moebius
Further east, down the cliff that sets the western plateau apart, seven sets of narrow steps run into the three neighborhoods below: Volish Hill, Pentacle, and Cusp. Along the stairs that descend into Pentacle is set the Vertical Market, a series of arcades carved directly into the living rock. Under bright silk pavilions, the merchants hawk their wares. Here spices spill from open tins, beneath dainty candies hanging form colored stings; there lie piles of ancient books, cast off casually from a noble clan's library, their faded titles inscribed in languages no longer read. At last, one comes upon the little cages of jeweled serpents, opulent singing birds, and capering yellow monkeys of the White Jungle below.

Observatory of the Horoscops. Phillipe Druillet
Of the neighborhoods at the base of the cliffs, Volish HIll is the most uneven, with steep stairs that climb past buildings, clinging improbably to the hillsides. Numerous antique footbridges connect high points, sometimes passing over one another. Atop the largest hill, a tower rises like a crooked finger. This is the observatory of the Horoscops, the guild of soothsayers and calendar keepers. From its top, a great telescope, extending from the painted dome, is trained on the heavens above. Copper pipes run from the observatory south, passing from building to building until they snake down the sheer cliff of the rock of Zyan. These are the periscopes trained on the heavens below, relaying crucial astrological information about the movements of the astronomical bodies below.

The wall of Cusp. Ian Miller
In Cusp, the most northerly of the three neighborhoods, the city begins to spill down a great incline to the north that eventually becomes too steep for homes. A wall has been set here, running between tightly packed houses that lean together against the harsh boreal winds. In a plaza in this tilted neighborhood, there is an amphitheater with a festival air about it, with several stages, bleachers, and raised platforms, with ringing bells, and instruments for performers. Leading onto one end of the central stage from an adjoining building are a pair of great doors, fifty feet high, painted in gaudy colors. This is the Theatre of Justice, where the Inquisitors Guild metes out its spectacles of punishment, the most gruesome and anticipated of which involve their cruel puppets.

Inquisitors Puppet (15' tall). Sha Sha Higby
Beyond the walls here, where the rocks spill steeply down to the edge of the island, narrow ledges jut, supporting lonely twisted trees that cling in the harsh wind to barren rock. Here one may find among the stones--if one know where to look--an ancient stair leading down to tunnels. On the northern side of the island, the cliff face is riddled with baroque gates with blowing grotesques, facing the Endless Azure Sea. Past the gates the tunnels can be seen, with aquamarine tiles, and strange statuary. These are the Catacombs of the North Wind, built when the Zyanese still nurtered the hope that they might propitiate--and perhaps control--the demon winds that blow across the Endless Azure Sea. Bitter experience taught them the futility and danger of such hopes.

Floating Islands. Roger Dean
Past the shore of the main island here, several small islands float, making a broken and irregular barrier against the biting North Wind. Here fantastical birds nest by icy pools of turquoise water. The last island is long and thin, ending in a jutting spire of rock. From this isle dangle cages that hang from chains, spinning over the depths of the Endless Azure Sea. This is the Farthest Isle, where traitors were made to hang until their flesh, cut and frozen, gave up the semblance of life.

As one moves east, past the strange neighborhood of Pentacle with its obscure shrines and eerie mirrors, the neighborhoods become seedier and more dilapidated. In Gutter, the crowded buildings and narrow streets, with their networks of tautly stretched clotheslines, give way to sudden hollows, where silver grasses grow, and groves of forlorn trees stand. An especially steep hollow cuts through the neighborhood like a gash, with a dark narrow wood winding along its base. Nearby a building rises above the shabby dwellings, with outdoor altars of an evil aspect, dangling censors, and elaborate drains that empty into the massive sewer grates below. This is the Abattoir of the Fleischguild. In porcelain chambers, the carvers here sacrifice a constant stream of beasts and men to propitiate the endless hunger of the unrelenting archons.

Abattoir of The Fleischguild. Alan Lee

At the eastern end of the island, one finds Turnabout, most wretched of the neighborhoods of Zyan. Here the dwellings are crumbling and overtaken by nature. The cats of Zyan swarm here most of all, holding their secret councils beneath rotting floorboards, where the rats are plentiful. Among the of half reclaimed buildings of Turnabout sits a large monastery, imposing in its modesty. Within its courtyards massive dinner tables stand at which the abject receive dialy sustenance. Over them presides a statue with a fat belly, its swollen limbs contorted in strange and painful poses. Through other windows one can glimpse rows of hospital beds, and penitents cells filled with instruments of self-torture. This is the Monastery of the Benefactors, who see in the neediness of Turnabout an opportunity to injure themselves through the giving of charity. It is said that the madhouses and leper colonies they maintain beneath the monastery are places to be avoided at all costs.

The Lotus Dens of Turnabout. John Blanche
The denizens of Turnabout cannot afford to maintain the trappings of decency, and so wear masks of paint, often cracked and running. Having lost their fruitless ambition, what coin they can scrounge buys reveries on the rotting cushions of the lotus dens. Strange cults flourish propounding heretical eschatologies and bizarre practices. It is whispered that even dolorous Golumex, the shunned archon, finds his adherents here. The population of Turnabout has already lost all hope. Perhaps this is why the rest of Zyan Above has turned its back on their need. For they see in their painted faces the future of Zyan and are ashamed.

A Heretic Praises Golumex. John Blanche