Sunday, 4 November 2018

Let's Read Best Left Buried, part 2

Chapter 3: Advancements

More so than Archetypes, most of the character customisation lies in Advancement choice. There are 30 "Journeyman Advancements" to choose from, meaning none have any talent-tree-style prerequisites. Nor are they restricted to any Archetype. They do have tags after their name like [Arcane] or [Martial]. Currently this is just fluff, which the game explicitly encourages you to reskin if desired.

Fortunately for those who baulk at reading 30 options, the game provides a shortlist of suggested Advancements in the previous chapter, under each Archetype. I've also mentioned to @jellymuppet that the Advancement list, and other parts of chargen, could use numbering. Even if the game assumes nonrandom chargen, it's nice to *facilitate* randomness. He agrees and has added it to the to-do list.

The promised "full version" of the game will have extra lists of Advancements exclusive to each tag. To take these exclusive Advancements, a character must be mid-level and already have three talents with that tag. @jellymuppet has told me these are more powerful abilities, not just rare/hyperspecialised ones. Think Fireball, not Nystul's Magic Aura. He's kindly sent me the "full version" draft, but I haven't read them yet. I want to judge the current game on its own merits, not on what I know is in the pipeline.

Also, since none of the Archetypes balance their abilities by adjusting core stats or weapon proficiencies, it'd be trivial to add the Archetype abilities you like to the Advancement list and make this game completely classless.

Most of the Advancements fall into one or more of the following buckets:

  • grants The Upper Hand on certain Stat checks (e.g. Wit checks to escape in combat, or Observation checks to smell something)
  • Spells and other abilities that cost Grip to use
  • a small passive stat boost (e.g. +1 Wit, or +3 Grip)
I like this mix of effects. Much like 5e D&D's Fighter class design, or like the choice between taking a feat or ability score increase, there's room for players to keep their character mechanically simple, or introduce resource management mechanics. And since Grip is a universal resource that everyone has and which interfaces with other game systems, it feels more grounded than, say, Superiority Dice.

It also means every flashy ability you have detracts from your pool of rerolls, much like Stunts in Fate, and using them inches your character ever further to their demise.

As for the "spell" Advancements, let's look at the basic attack and healing spells:

  • Fire & Lightning Strange is the main magic attack, even monster abilities like Firebreathing refer to it. Despite the name, when you select it you choose an element to fluff the attack as. Using it costs an action, and 1-3 Grip. You get to make a Will-based attack from up to one Zone away, and the damage die is multiplied by the spent Grip.
  • Lay on Hands, barring any potions etc found in the dungeon, is the main source of magical healing. For 1 Grip and an action, you heal Vigour in the target equal to d3 + your Will. This doesn't specify a range, I assume it's melee.

So now I'll go through the rest in order, calling out ones I particularly like or tht have some issues.

Arcane Wards lets you spend Grip as a reaction to decrease incoming damage. I like this, but I wish you could shield adjacent allies with it. Also, consult your GM whether this downgrades a critical hit to a normal one.

Battle Frenzy is the equivalent of barbarian rage. Costs 3 Grip to enter, its benefits are expressed solely with The Upper Hand & Against the Odds rather than 5e's flat damage boost. Forces you to attack foes in melee every turn until the end of the combat or you end the frenzy early with another Grip point.

Child of Prophecy works similarly to the 5e Diviner Wizard's class feature. At the start of each day you roll two d6 and record the results. You can swap in one or both results whenever a roll is made that day. I like this mechanic and wish 5e hadn't locked it to diviners. It'd make a better feat than Lucky.

Concoctionist lets you make two kinds of potion, chosen from a list referencing the monster abilities. The default flavour is that you make the potions from monster corpses. Making potions costs 1 Grip each, but drinking them inflicts 3 Grip damage. The monster abilities are well-named, so a player will have a good idea of what the potion will do without you having to show them GM-facing rules.

You can take this advancement repeatedly, learning two new potions each time. I would houserule that a character can go into "Advancement debt", i.e. they don't have to wait until next level-up to distill the essence of the shadow-wreathed monster they just fought.

I *love* Eldritch Pact. You immediately pick two extra Advancements for the price of one, but gain a random Insanity (or Corruption, if you have access to the "full rules"). Also, obviously, your patron will also demand services from you, with dire consequences if you refuse. It feels like a great way of bringing in some 5e warlock flavour, in a way that makes sense in this ruleset, and actually feels more like "power at a price" than the 5e Warlock class. It also makes a good template for paladin oaths, extraterrestrial symbionts, etc.

Horde Killer is really neat in its effect. Basically this game handles a mob of creatures attacking together as a single attack roll with multiple instances of The Upper Hand. e.g. 4 tuber-people attacking the same character will attack just once, with 3 instances of TUH, which as I'll explain in Chapter 4 is an auto-hit. Having Horde Killer cancels out two of those instances.

I See Truth in the Stars is where the Grip system really starts shining. You nominate an amount of Grip to spend, and the GM gives you an correspondingly detailed omen for the next adventuring day. If Grip were just mana that regenerated with a long rest, there's little reason not to dump all remaining Grip each day into this, and spamming this ability might soon spoil the fun for the GM & other players. But with Grip that's difficult to regenerate and representing fragile sanity, the choice to trade it off for information has much higher stakes.

Knife From The Shadows is this game's Backstab/Sneak Attack, and it currently has issues which I've raised with @jellymuppet. When attacking an unaware enemy, you attack with The Upper Hand and deal double damage on a hit. Except I would have thought an unaware enemy would *already* grant The Upper Hand.

My Shining Armor Gleams imposes Against the Odds on *all* nonmagical weapon attacks made against you, no action or Grip cost required. This might be unbalanced if it was a game that catered to wilderness travel and urban adventures, but in a dungeoncrawl it's not hard for a good GM to provide a mix of magic and nonmagic monsters so the character feels powerful but not invincible. Also, if you're going to make me spend time writing abilities on my character sheet, they'd better be powerful enough to be worth remembering. So well done on that front.

Shadow Glamours lets you spend Grip to get The Upper Hand on stealth-related rolls, or to visually disguise yourself for a minute. I like how this is a sort of "complete package" i.e. in 5e D&D, why can't I cast disguise self in a way that camouflages me? Well with this, I can.

Spirits of the Beyond lets you spend 1 Grip to zombify a corpse "until the end of the combat", which is a little disappointing as that would be a cool power to use for noncombat problem solving.

Toxic Blade is similar to Concoctionist, in that the poisons you can craft reference monster abilities and are debuffs rather than save-or-die. For readily-craftable poisons, I like this approach. Maybe poison traps were originally built with these poisons, but over centuries the Crypt has infused them with more malicious energy. So instadeath poisons can still be a thing in his game (if desired), but only as nonreproducible treasure.

I'm torn about Trap Breaker and the other Observation check-related Advancements. Decoupling Observation from any Stat means that *anyone* can scout/search for traps, which is a very nice old-school feature. You can even go fully old-school and remove Observation rolls entirely without debuffing any Archetype. But then these Advancements enable one PC to specialise in such rolls, which undermines that flexibility. I'm not saying they should be removed, but they might require discussion within a group for whether these Advancements should be allowed, and how scouting should be handled.

Weapons Master is like a cheaper, weaker Battle Frenzy, except it works with ranged weapons and doesn't dictate your actions.

There's a bit of duplication of effects. Weapon Master and Battle Frenzy is one example. Tough As Nails gives +1 Vigour per Advancement the character has (i.e. +1 hp per level). Extra Vigour does the same thing. Each Advancement has other benefits, I feel they could use revision to be more distinct.

Finally, there's a note on destructive magic, reminding GMs that attack spells should scar/change the battlefield, especially if they miss, and that intelligent foes will retreat if they see they're outmatched or that foes have unexpected abilities. There's no explicit "Morale check" mechanic, so this is a welcome piece of advice. I'd also apply it to gunpowder weapons (much like LotFP).

Overall this is a nice set of Advancements. Apart from the wide pool of utility/ritual spells, the combination of Archetype and Advancements lets you approximate a pretty good variety of new-school D&D classes/subclasses. It reminds me of Gavin Norman's BX Warrior and BX Rogue, and his posts under his old City of Iron blog that ported mechanics back and forth between BX and 5e. And as I've mentioned at, I think some of those ideas, e.g. eldritch pacts, auguries, are more interestingly executed here than in 5e.

A shortlist of staple low-level 5e effects that I would consider homebrewing Advancements for:

  • shapeshifting into animals
  • wild magic surges
  • animal companions
  • unarmed strike/grapple specialist
  • protecting allies with shields (real or magical) 
  • silent image and other non-self illusions
  • two-weapon fighting?
Oof, the post is already pretty long! I guess Chapter 4 will wait for next time.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Let's Read Best Left Buried, part 1

Best Left Buried is a short-ish ~17,000 word game by @jellymuppet, who blogs here

It's an OSR RPG very much focused on the dungeoncrawl, i.e. no wilderness or stronghold-building rules.

The full game is $6.50 on OBS. A free sample (Chapter 2: Making a Character) is here . The author is also working on an expanded edition that includes more Advancements for high-level PCs, and more GM-facing rules and random tables.

The mechanics are similar to Maze Rats, except with much heavier player-character customisation, thankfully without complicated talent trees. The sorts of numbers the engine spits out also look well-suited for kitbashing with PbtA games, and the Grip subsystem feels pretty storygamey.

Basically, the author, like me, is someone who fell into the OSR after starting with 5th edition. This game is an interesting example of cross-pollination, and it's worth looting for ideas, particularly if you want to run an OSR game but all your players expect character generation/level-up rules that are nonrandom, customisable, and have no "dead levels". It's certainly prompted me to rethink my Knave hack (see last post) that adjusts the system to be closer to 5e D&D.

(still working on that, btw. I have a list of cantrip-items I'm editing)

It's also entirely d6-based, though some rolls call for a d3.

Layout-wise, it's black-and-white, some nice evocative art, simple 2-column layout, the font size is large enough to print and fold into a booklet. The game is still a bit rough around the edges. There are some typos, unclear wordings, nothing too major.

So let's take a look!

Basic Mechanics

But first, I have to cover some of the basic mechanics. TBH this is one of the weaknesses of the book, it's not structured in a way that makes sense reading cover-to-cover, and I found myself having to jump ahead to contextualise what, say, a Heavy weapon critting on a 5 or 6 means. This also limits the utility of the free preview chapter.

There are three main Stats, Brawn, Wit and Will. Their starting range is +0 to +3.

Each character also has a pool of Vigour (i.e. HP) and Grip, a "coagulated mix of stamina, mana, and sanity". Vigour recovers with rest as you'd expect, but Grip is harder to recover. Downtime outside the dungeon recovers at *most* 1 Grip, in practice Grip will be recovered by *voluntarily* taking a Consequence (i.e. a Madness or Injury). You die/retire at 0 Grip. At 0 Vigour, you have equal odds of dying immediately or surviving with Consequences.

There is an optional rule that cuts out this "take Consequences to recover Grip" subsystem, if you happen to find it distasteful or just too storygamey for your liking. Under that rule, Grip just regenerates with a daily rest.

You can spend Grip to reroll dice, force enemies to reroll dice, to cast spells, or activate other character powers like a battle frenzy or an inspiring song. It can also be depleted by witnessing horrible monsters or events.

The most common roll is the Stat Check: roll 2d6 + Stat, trying to equal or beat a target score of 9. This target score never changes, instead difficulty is modeled by an advantage/disadvantage mechanic.

Observation Checks (corresponding to 5e D&D's Perception, Investigation, and Insight) are a bit of an exception. They have no associated Stat, so are just rolled on 2d6.

The other oddball is the Grip Check. This is just a type of Will Check, but some Archetype features specifically care about them, and they have special consequences for success (gain 1 XP) or failure (lose a point of Grip)

Initiative Rolls are d3 + Wit + modifiers from weapon or armour.

An Attack Roll uses three d6, and the armor score ranges from 7 to 11. The attacker chooses two dice to add together, along with the relevant Stat, and compare to the armor score. If it's a hit, the remaining die result is the damage dealt, which may be modified by weapon type. If the modified damage die is a 6, it's a Critical Hit and the target takes an Injury. If no pair of dice would result in a hit, the attack misses.

This does mean that on a roll of, say, 4, 5, 6, the attacker has leeway in deciding which dice to hit with, and how much damage to deal. This has some niche applications.

There's an advantage/disadvantage mechanic called The Upper Hand and Against the Odds. Unlike 5e D&D, multiple sources do stack, and they cancel each other out on a one-for-one basis. i.e. if there are three reasons why The Upper Hand applies to a roll, and one thing that's Against the Odds, it comes out to 2 instances of The Upper Hand. There's some complexities to the way they stack that I'll cover later.

Combat is structured pretty similarly to 5e D&D. Everyone rolls initiative at the start and gets ordered highest to lowest. There's no 5' grid, the terrain is broken up into zones much like The Black Hack or Fate Core. When your turn comes up you can move up to one zone and perform an action. Monsters have similar stats to PCs. A list of monster abilities is provided, but no actual monster writeups, as they're intended to be bespoke horrors unknown to the players.

There's a simple XP system to level up, though which tasks grant XP, and how much, is left to the GM to decide. Levelling up gives +1 Vigour, +1 Grip, and a new Advancement. Advancements are generally powerful, so characters *will* get more capable but not much more resilient, and they're always circling the Grip drain.

As the game says, "The Crypt will take you in, make you rich and powerful and then destroy you."

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 1 is brief at two pages, first an opening crawl and then an introduction. The crawl's prose is a *little* purple, but together they set the theme of the game and the general design goals -- to be short, low in mechanical complexity but still have PC customisation, make decisions have costs that can't be trivially recovered from (i.e. no getting everything back with a long rest, and definitely no resurrection), model the inevitable physical and mental debilitation of anyone foolish enough to dungeoncrawl, and to have bespoke monsters the players don't already know how to fight.

Chapter 2: Making a Character

This is the longest chapter in the book, covering all aspects of character generation (Stats, Archetype, Equipment) other than the list of Advancements.

Despite old grognards being the likely audience for this game, the chapter opens with advice on how to come up with a memorable character who will be a proactive agent in the game world. It's good advice -- it's better to learn the easy way rather than the hard way that a moody loner with no connections to the world just isn't actually that fun to play.

Players assign +0, +1 and +2 in any order to their character's three Stats, Brawn, Wit and Will. If these modifiers seem small, remember a Stat Check is made on 2d6, not d20.

Brawn covers everything you'd expect Strength or Constitution to do. Wit includes social charms, stealth, thievery, and quick/lateral thinking. Will covers spellcasting, intuition and knowledge.

As mentioned above, Observation rolls have no associated stat. I like this decision, it allows everyone to try to scout, search for traps, dig through the corpse's clothes for clues.

Characters start with Vigour equal to 6 + Brawn, and Grip equal to 4 + Will.

They choose an Archetype from the 10 provided, which are like your background or race choice in 5e D&D (currently the game is humans-only).

They also start with one Advancement, which are this game's feats/talents/class features. The next chapter lists all 30 of them TBH calling them "Advancements" is counterintuitive when you start with one (though I guess you could start at 0th level), and the word *may* be similar enough to Archetype to cause player confusion. Playtesting would figure out this kind of stuff.

When you level up, you get another Advancement, and +1 Vigour and Grip. Your Brawn, Wit, and Will never improve, unless you take certain Advancements that increase them by 1.

That's right, unlike typical OSR games, this has entirely nonrandom character generation & level-up. Now I love random chargen, but it's not to everyone's taste, and if you worry about players cheating it means chargen has to be done at the table. It's not hard to *make* chargen random if so desired. And don't worry, there are random tables for determining what horrible things happen to characters during play.

Also unlike a typical OSR game, starting characters are more bulky and competent. On average they'll take 2 hits to reduce to 0 Vigour, and even then have a 50% chance of survival. Spending Grip to force enemies to reroll makes combat more surviveable, though not without long-term cost. Compare to a 1st-level Basic D&D or Maze Rats character, who really ought to avoid combat whenever possible. This is more of that 5e influence creeping in.


The 10 Archetypes are Believer, Cabalist, Cut-throat, Dastard, Everyman, Freeblade, Outcast, Protagonist, Scholar, and Veteran. Protagonist is your "Chosen One" sort of character, while Everyman is a loose catchall that requires some GM approval for their abilities.

Most of these grant two beneficial features, and one penalty. In a touch that I rather like, they only confer abilities at 1st level, and they don't restrict characters' Advancement choices. In fact, none of the archetypes have spellcasting -- all spells are handled via Advancement selection. There are also no weapon/armor proficiency rules, so a Scholar can don plate armour and a greatsword just fine.

Most Archetype abilities are either:
* a virtual point of Grip that refreshes daily but can only be used in thematically appropriate situations,
* having The Upper Hand (or Against the Odds) in similar niche situations
* starting with an Injury or Insanity.

Each Archetype has a shortlist of suggested Advancements, but again there's total freedom to pick "crossclass" Advancements, and the suggestions are more about reinforcing the archetype's theme than any mechanical synergy.

There are no rules for races, though the author is thinking about how to model them, and is leaning towards a custom Archetype. I'd go the other route and "lock" their starting Advancement to a custom one unavailable to other characters, and put a restriction on how they can order their stats. For example, a Goblin might have "Can eat anything organic" and "cannot start with Brawn higher than Wit".


Each character starts with 2 weapons, basic armour, rations, torches, and 5 pieces of equipment picked from a list. This list includes typical adventuring gear, but also extra ammunition, shields, and plate armour.

There are no encumbrance rules here, a note in Chapter 4 basically leaves it to common sense.

There are also no prices -- this is a game about dungeoncrawling, not shopping.

Weapons are divided into 6 broad categories:

  • Hand weapons are your typical one-handed swords and axes, use Brawn to attack, and can be wielded 2-handed for +1 damage.
  • Heavy weapons *must* be wielded 2-handed (for the same +1 damage), impose an initiative modifier of -1, but critical-hit on a damage roll of 5 or 6.
  • Light weapons cannot be wielded two-handed, but are finesse weapons, attacking with Wit instead of Brawn.
  • Long weapons are your reach weapons, i.e. can attack into the next Zone, but have an initiative modifier of -1. Like hand weapons, they can be wielded in one or both hands, so spear-and-shield is thankfully supported by the rules.
  • Throwing weapons can also attack from one Zone away, can use either Wit or Brawn, but have -1 damage when used in melee. Also don't worry, if one of your starting weapon choices is a throwing weapon you actually get three of them to throw.
  • Ranged weapons use Wit, are always two-handed (with no damage bonus), can attack from up to 5 zones away, but attack Against the Odds when used in melee.

There are no rules for two-weapon fighting beyond the suggestion that a main-gauche be treated as a shield, but as there are no rules for encumbrance or cost, *attacking* with twin axes or something can just be treated as wielding the one axe in both hands.

Some guidance for modelling exotic weapons like whips, and optional rules for gunpowder weapons, then follow. The latter are more in the vein of Lamentations of the Flame Princess than, say, gunslingers from Pathfinder or 5e -- you won't be reloading matchlock muskets in the middle of combat.

Unarmored characters have an armour score of 7. Basic Armour, which everyone starts with, gives +1 armour. Plate gives +2 armour but -1 Initiative, and requires at least +2 Brawn to wear. A Shield gives +1 armour but occupies a hand.

One rules issue here: Basic Armour says it doesn't prevent characters from casting spells, while Plate Armour doesn't clarify either way. Since spells are no different from any other other Grip-fueled Advancement, and refluffing of Advancements is encouraged, I assume spellcasting in plate armour is OK, and the note under Basic Armour is intended for people coming from games where magic-users must be unarmoured.

Finally, there's the suggestion that you should roll up two backup characters so you're ready to go when your character inevitably dies. There's also some brief discussion about the assumed campaign trajectory and source of replacement PCs -- low-level characters are part of a large cryptdigging company camped near the dungeon entrance. They're the expendable scouts, but if they survive and level up they'll take on more leadership & logistics responsibilities, including recruiting new expendable scouts.

Next time, Chapters 3 and 4: Advancements and Playing the Game!