The dream that I think many may dream, at least in regards to fantasy role-playing games is "How can I get my favorite older edition of D&D to work with some more modern ideas?" This dream has lead to things like the OSR movement in tabletop gaming, with many gamers' "favorite version of D&D" spiced up with some more contemporary ideas. It has brought us Swords & Wizardry. It has brought us the works of Kevin Crawford. It has brought us Castles & Crusades. I would argue that it is what brought us Dungeon World. Now, it brings us the latest design by Johnstone Metzger of Red Box Vancouver, the game The Nightmares Underneath.
Metzger has written modules for Labyrinth Lord and Dungeon World, including my favorite named module ever Evil Wizards In A Cave. He has also written a great deal of support for the Dungeon World game, including a wealth of character options. So, Metzger isn't a new name, even if he might not be a name that you are familiar with.
He has used Lulu.com and the OneBookshelf sites to slowly and quietly push at the boundaries of slef-publishing for tabletop gaming, and all of this has lead to the point where he has published The Nightmares Underneath.
There is also a version of the game on Lulu.com that features high end printing, and a dust jacket. I may have to put this on my post-Christmas list for myself.
The Nightmares Underneath are, at the core of the rules, Metzger's homage to the B/X rules for D&D, and draw a lot of their mechanical flavor from them. The rules for task resolution are derived from those that Aaron Allston used for skills in The Hollow World boxed set. Abilities are similar to this game's attributes. Where some attributes are named differently than the abilities in D&D, their functions are still mostly the same. Professions, as classes are called in this game, draw upon a fusion of influences from both D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The Nightmares Underneath is firmly in an old school fantasy game mode of design, but it is not released under the OGL like much of what you would find coming out of the OSR. In this way it shares qualities with games like Silent Legions or Godbound from Kevin Crawford.
One interesting way in which The Nightmares Underneath distinguishes itself from the D&D influence is in the Hit Dice of characters. Not only do a profession's hit dice figure the game's equivalent of hit points (called Disposition), but they are also used as a method of class-based damage determination for characters. The idea of class-based damaged isn't new, and it has traction in some parts of the OSR. The idea is that, rather than having weapons determine how much damage an attack does, the character's class does instead. This means that fighters would do more damage than wizards, because they are trained more in the arts of combat and killing. Different types of weapons can modify the damage done by a character, of course.
I like the simplicity of this design choice. It takes away the overabundance of weapon choices that can bog down the equipping phases of character creations, and I think that it also is a better simulation of what you see with combat in fictional sources.
There are plenty of professions, including the archetypes that you would expect from a game influenced by D&D: you get the fighters, magic-users, thieves and clerics to use in your games. One of the underlying conceptual ideas of The Nightmares Underneath is that the Moorcockian Law vs. Chaos conflict that you see in many fantasy RPGs has been mostly resolved, and the forces of Law have mostly won in the worlds of Mankind. The Nightmare Realms are a different place, however, and much like the Realms of Chaos from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, they are where Chaos and nightmares and monsters are born, and where they launch themselves at the worlds of Mankind.
Dungeons are where characters spend a great deal of time in this game, much like in the Dungeons & Dragons game that influenced it. However, in a way similar to Realms of Chaos, the dungeons that characters will encounter in The Nightmares Underneath are cast of Chaos and Nightmares, rather than being a physical place, like typical dungeons. This is actually similar to the approach that I've used in fantasy games that I've run, so I approve of the method.
A number of other options within the game work as you would expect them to work in a D&Dish game like this. Spellcasting is pretty much what you would expect them to work in a game inspired by B/X Dungeons & Dragons.
The Nightmares Underneath also integrates the ideas of making rolls at Advantage and Disadvantage from Dungeons & Dragons 5E. I think that this is one of the best new rules for D&D in a long, long time, so I applaud Metzger's use of them here.
Monsters work about how you would expect them to work in an old school D&D game as well. All of this means that it would be easy to not only import your favorite bits and pieces from old school games like Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord or the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game into The Nightmares Underneath, and the other way around as well. Buying The Nightmares Undeneath just as a resource for new monsters might be a waste of the potential of this game.
I recommend The Nightmares Underneath for anyone, like myself, who looks for a fantasy game with the simplicity that you found in the early years of fantasy role-playing, but at the same time is more than just a nostalgia grab. With The Nightmares Underneath you get a game that draws upon the origins of fantasy gaming, but still introduces new ideas, and isn't afraid at times to blur the lines between the schools of so-called traditional and storygaming methods of game design.
One more storygaming element to the game that I found interesting was giving mapping knowledge of place where the characters are traveling by tying it to flashbacks and confessions. Each of these are player generated bits of information about the pasts of their characters that helps to open them up to a deeper understanding of the world around them. I thought that this was an excellent way to make something as boring as overland travel and mapping into an interesting experience for the players that allows them to add to not just their characters, but to the world as well.
I think that the pieces like that will mean that The Nightmares Underneath isn't going to be for everyone, but I think that it will pay off for groups that are as adventurous as the characters that they play in their games.
One of the real flaws of the game is that there are a number of typos throughout the text. This isn't unusual for RPGs in general, or self-published games in specific, but it did cause me to drop out of my reading through of the text a few times. Still, I do think that it is a good game that tabletop RPG fans should check out.
Johnstone Metzger is a creative game designer who looks at the games he plays from different angles, and comes up with interesting new games as a result. If you aren't familiar with his work you should be. I hope that he decides to revisit his Class Warfare supplement for Dungeon World, with an eye towards redesigning the classes in it for The Nightmares Underneath. The game doesn't really need a lot of new character classes, but options are never a bad thing.