Hello everyone and welcome to my next Let’s Read! I realize it’s been a long time coming, but a lot of stuff’s been going on in life that disrupted my regular schedule. However, now that I have more time to devote to writing, I’m fulfilling my promise to those who voted for this book way back in May!
The Nightmares Underneath is an OSR game with some modern innovations. It is set in a realm called the Kingdom of Dreams, a pseudo-Middle Eastern region drawing influence from Persian culture with some Turkic Ottoman touches. Its leaders and intelligentsia speak of a golden age of science and reason, having progressed far from their pagan past. But within the shadowy corners a new threat arises: incursions from a world of nightmares find root in places of fear and sin, growing like an extradimensional cancer in the form of dungeons. The PCs and a rare few others are better able to resist the Nightmare Realms’ taint, and in order to excise these tumors they must brave the incursions’ depths, destroy its Crown monsters, and/or unfasten the Anchors (a valuable treasure or relic) holding these dungeons to the material world.
As of December 2019 the Nightmares Underneath got a new 2nd Edition. This passed by some people as it was released as an update for those who already bought the original PDF. Which is nice as people don’t have to pay double, but not having much fanfare means that there’s not a lot of discussion about it. I will note the differences where I can via Edition Changes.
Chapter 1: Alabaster and Frankincense
Our first chapter briefly details major aspects of the Kingdoms of Dreams. They’re a decentralized assortment of governments with a diversity of terrain and people, but are unified in being followers of the Law. The Law is a series of texts penned by five prophets and serve as the binding element of society. The Law’s derived from a higher realm, extolling the virtues of reason and condemning idolatry of false gods. The preceding Age of Chaos was a time when said gods demanded utter servitude and worship instead of the Divine who sent the word out via angelic messengers. It is unclear if the Divine is regarded as a deity proper or is meant to be a philosophical ideal. There are no churches or mosques in the Kingdoms: instead the Law is “worshiped” in courthouses, and its “priests” are required to be well-read in administrations of science and the state. Conversely, the “modern age” is referred to as the Age of Law.
The Kingdoms are technologically advanced by fantasy RPG standards. Gunpowder and Renaissance-era firearms have been invented, along with a high proportion of scholars, alchemists, and mathematicians being common among the upper class. Factories churn out metal goods and smog in the largest cities, and the printing press makes books of all stripes and literacy something within reach of the common folk. Technological and magical innovations mean that many people of means have access to promising new devices, although most people still live agrarian lifestyles.
The Highland Coast is a sample region of the Kingdoms of Dreams, a pre-made place for GMs to set their game and also a template showcasing the common cultural influences. The Coast is home to the land of Geth, which shares a mighty port metropolis of the same name. Hadrazzaar and Shahrazar are adjacent provinces, the former home to the rival city of Neth-Hadrazzar, and the latter a haunted wasteland populated with ruined cities and monsters. Immigration and trade with various cultures from land and sea make the area a diverse place, particularly in the cities. Common naming conventions often have two to three names per person: at the very least one has a gendered name and a gender-neutral name to be used as the person prefers. A few people have surnames: these can reflect a person’s family profession, homeland, or their noble house.
Speaking of which, the “common tongue” of the Kingdoms of Dreams follows Persian and Turkish conventions: grammatical genders do not exist, and “u” or “o”* is used instead of he/she, while reference to objects is “an” or “anha” for plural. However, gendered names often have -a as a suffix, while masculine names can be done by removing vowels from the end of a non-masculine name. For English speakers unused to casual use of foreign grammar, the book suggests using the singular “they” when referring to people. It’s not often known what gender a person is unless they’re told explicitly or you get to know that person well. We also get a table of sample names with gendered and gender-neutral equivalents across the chart.
In regards to race and ethnicity...for fantasy races, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and the like are never really called out, and Nightmares’ setting has a ‘human default’ in the discussion of characters and cultures. There’s nothing explicitly stating the races of the world, and the GM and players can incorporate whatever species they desire; it just won’t have a mechanical impact for the game. When it comes to various cultures, the Highland Coast typically groups foreigners in via geographical ancestry and regard their own kind as a melting pot of these different societies. Northerners are implied Mongolians that come from cold steppes; Southerners are implied Africans who hail from the rainforests and savannahs of Voss; Westerners are implied Europeans from across the Sea; and Easterners don’t have much detail besides the fact that they’re rare in these parts and have darker skin than indigenous Highlanders.
Regions of the Highland Coast are split up into three major sections. Geth by the Salt Sea is the Waterdeep/Sharn of The Nightmares Underneath. It’s the crossroads of a multinational mercantile hub situated by a river running out to the sea. Its trading vessels prioritize economics, and justify outposts in kingdoms ignorant of the Law as an opportunity to proselytize...which they don’t push too hard on the natives. Geth is also a center for the arts, and is home to many theaters, schools, houses of music, and cafes and tea houses frequented by cosmopolitan people. Light skin tones are often associated with the nobility due to said aristocracy’s penchant for blonde slaves from foreign lands, and the city’s full of such heirs bitterly fighting for their claim to minor thrones. Furthermore, we get a brief overview of Geth’s major districts, which include a Necropolis overseen by lightning-shooting towers to keep the undead at bay, a series of artificial islands owned by various nobles lining the Harbour, a Temple to Justice home to an underground complex of entire libraries and schools, and a Grand Bazaar selling just about everyone if one knows where to look.
Neth-Hadrazzar (or Neth for short) was formed by exiled nobility from Geth on the losing side of a civil war, and the populace has carried down this grudge for generations. Neth’s nobility fostered economic and marital alliances with many kingdoms, and new villages outside the city proper continued to pop up to support waves of new immigrants (both free and unfree) to support the upper class’ coffers. Corruption is rampant, and nobles often challenge each other to duels and other games in a public Dome of the Muses which also serves as a bread and circus byproduct to entertain the masses. Nethian culture does the opposite of whatever is popular in Geth at the time: shepherding is exalted over horsemanship, people paint their faces instead of wearing masks, and dark-skinned slaves from the south are preferred as concubines and have similar social perceptions of economic status and feuding heirs.
We don’t have a list of Neth’s districts, but six smaller villages outside Neth are summed up with 4-point bulletin lists: for example, Siyaghul has Mountainside, Secret Cult, Well-Defended, and Xenophobic descriptors.
And for a great built-in campaign hook, the Sultan of Neth set up a government department specializing in fighting nightmare incursions. Foreign adventurers and death row inmates seeking to commute their sentences are tasked with destroying said dungeons and killing any monsters that escape from them into the wider world.
Shahrazar is our final section, and it is not a city. It once had a golden age, but now it is a metaphorical graveyard. The only real centers of civilization are isolated monasteries who may be pious folk or secret devotees of evil ways, none can truly say. Shahrazar’s wilds and ruined cities team with monsters, much of whom are still unknown to human eyes. The legendary lost city is a rumor, alternatively condemned as a trap to lure adventurers or hidden refuges of potential allies fighting against the nightmare realm. To the north is the Vale of Serpents, a barren desert home to the ruined temples of the most wicked rulers during the Age of Chaos. Finally, the land of Voss lies to the south of Shahrazar proper: the area of Voss bordering the Highland Coast is home to nomadic tribes that wander the savannahs and mountain passes.
Edition Changes: Our chapter ends with tools for randomly generating towns and countries, from climate and cultural aspects to major industries and problems for adventurers to solve.
Chapter 2: Beneath the Sunlit Lands
The Threat of Chaos details the nature of the nightmare incursions, as well as the cosmological makeup of the setting. The planes of existence can be summed up as follows: the Pillars of Heaven are home to angels who serve the Divine and delivered the Law to humanity on Earth, which is not real-world Earth but the Material Plane world for this setting. Faerie is a plane adjacent to Earth, populated by creatures whose physical forms are manifested by their personalities, emotions, and ideologies, known as fey in some cultures and genies in others. The fey also suffer the depredations of nightmares, but are more resistant to it and have no desire of allying with humanity as a whole due to viewing them as weak.
Beyond such worlds, details become more sparse. There are known to be demons and devils who empower false prophets to work evil in the world. Such entities have been known in recorded history since time immemorial, but the nightmare incursions are more recent. It is unknown if such beings are but one manifestation of nightmares or separate, given that they’re both attracted to and feed off of mortal misery. The Realm of Nightmares is a shadowy, Silent Hill-esque world. In the slums of great cities, in households touched by tragedy, in villages whose inhabitants were slaughtered, entryways to other realms spawn. Nightmare incursions take many forms, shaping around or extending dimensionally beyond these tainted places. One thing that almost all have in common is that they’re dark, located underground, and inhabited by inhuman monsters that are formed fully from its cosmic taint. And if their Crowns and Anchors are not severed, they’ll grow in size and power, infecting more people and places and spawning entryways in once-untainted lands.
And yes, there are game rules for ignoring and/or being unable to “beat” a dungeon over a period of time, but detailed in Chapter 7.
And beyond even the Nightmares are Dwellers in the Deep, a catch-all term for creatures taken from utterly unknown realms, either as planar stowaways hanging onto nightmare incursions or by the folly (intentional or otherwise) of summoners. Incursions have the side effect of weakening planar boundaries in general, meaning that all sorts of portals and creatures can manifest as befits the whims of the story the GM has in mind.
The nightmare realms also taint humans and other creatures who lair near them or end up trapped inside, tempted, cajolled, and threatened by dreams, illusions, and whispers promising a devil’s bargain. Such is the source of all manner of wicked mages and warped beasts. Most people who enter a nightmare realm end up insane from the corruption, the effects growing worse the more exposure. But a rare few people, including the Player Characters, are capable of repeatedly entering the incursions without any ill effects in and of themselves. They can still suffer from magic, poison, and other threats therein, but the planar transition alone has no noticeable effect upon their psyche. And yes, there are game rules for this, too, in Chapter 6!
One thing that should be noted is that contrary to popular belief, the pagan faiths of the Age of Chaos are not responsible for the Realm of Nightmare. Their gods’ worshipers are menaced by the incursions all the same, and have no special proficiency over its beasts and sorcery than the followers of the Law.
Edition Changes: We get an entry on the Vale of Serpents. 2nd Edition wanted to provide more material for adventures taking place outside of dungeons, and the Vale of Serpents serves as a great excuse for ruin-delving. Sorcerer-kings ruled over this place during the Age of Chaos, their bodies interred in massive tombs warded with demonic guardians and traps. Tomb robbers are known to brave this place, home to wealth and forgotten spells of a prior era. Although there is a market for such goods, prevailing legal and cultural standards look askance at “Chaos-tainted” artifacts even should they be non-magical in origin. Texts penned are regarded as blasphemous, their lying words a risk to undoing the rule of Law. However, there are cases where adventurers can prove the safe use of such things, even more so if they can be wielded against the nightmares.
2nd Edition’s Chapter 2 also details Crew Types for PC parties, which sums up why the characters are all banded together along with specific advantages. Beyond the typical adventuring party, we have a criminal gang (no taboos regarding Chaos magic and artifacts, count as their own communities for purposes of Resentment scores), Official Investigators (advantage on checks when dealing with courts in ‘legit use’ of forbidden artifacts), and Political Party (ideological advocates count as their own community for Resentment, advantage on convincing said people the worth in using forbidden artifacts). The standard Adventuring Party is not left out, for they have advantage on rolls when looking for retainers and performing research, provided they spend their dungeon-gotten gains in the community and have an exciting tale to tell about it.
Thoughts So Far: The Nightmares Underneath has a notably unique setting. There aren’t many Middle Eastern-flavored sourcebooks out there that take a non-Arabic influence to them. Even so, I can see some influences from other media such as Darkest Dungeon in the portrayal of dungeons as maddening, unnatural places. Or in al-Qadim in having a similarly-named Law and an underlying Red Scare of pagan influences. One potentially problematic source for gaming groups is the socially acceptable practice of slavery; while it’s just a brief mention, the use of sex slaves in the creation of royal heirs can be particularly uncomfortable on top of that. The sample Highland Coast is brief, but we get a lot of material to work with in what it gives us. And while it doesn’t explicitly say it out and out, the discussion of pronouns and gender-neutral is a good way of acknowledging non-binary characters in the world.
Join us next time as we cover Basic Resolution Rules!