Brutalising the Fantasy Heartbreaker

Not every Old School Renaissance-style roleplaying game is a Retroclone, a roleplaying game based on Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Dungeons & Dragons, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Yet some roleplaying games do take their cue from the brutal, unforgiving nature of how those games were played in the nineteen-seventies, and then emphasise this nature. Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival exemplifies that. Published by Soul Muppet Publishing and inspired by Questing Beast’s Maze Rats, Best Left Buried is a fantasy horror roleplaying game in which characters venture into the crypts and caves below the earth in search of secrets and treasures and there face unnamable monsters, weird environments, eldritch magic, and more… Whilst deep underground, they will be under constant stress, face fears hitherto unknown, and the likelihood is that they will return from the depths physically and mentally scarred, the strangeness they have seen and the wounds they have suffered separating them from those not so foolish as to descend into the dark.

The setting for Best Left Buried is implied to be the early modern period, which may include the use of firearms should the Doomsayer—as the Game Master is known in the roleplaying game—allow it. It is a low magic world, or rather the Cryptdiggers—as player characters are known in Best Left Buried—have access to few spells and indeed few are described within the game’s pages. Both players and Doomsayer are warned though, that using spells is akin to bring a hand grenade to a knife fight and that there may be consequences…

A character in Best Left Buried is defined by three stats—Brawn, Wit, and Will, two derived factors—Vigour and Grip, and Advancements. Brawn is both athletic prowess and endurance, Wit is both mental and physical agility, and Will is both mental acuity and resistance. Vigour is represents a character’s ability to take damage, whilst Grip is both a character’s ability to take mental damage and power spells. Advancements are special abilities or stat improvement, such as Extra Brawn, Wit, or Will, or Spirits of the Beyond which enables a character to reanimate a corpse to fight for him for a single combat, or Eyes of the Hawk to gain an advantage or ‘The Upper Hand’, for sight-based observation checks. 

A character also has an Archetype, a cross between a Class from other Old School Renaissance retroclones and a background. Ten are given, each with their own Advancements and Affliction—an Affliction being the opposite of an Advancement. For example, the Cut-throat has Silver Tongue which gives him the Upper Hand when making a Wit check to deceive an NPC; Tricks of the Trade which once a day enables his player to re-roll a Wit check when the Cut-throat is engaging in illegal or illicit activities; and Honour Amongst Thieves which prevents him from conducting a Heroic Rescue of another player character or NPC unless they are also a Cut-Throat. The ten Archetypes are Believer, Cabalist, Cut-throat, Dastard, Everyman, Freeblade, Outcast, Protagonist, Scholar, and Veteran. Of the ten, Protagonist and Scholar feel closest in design to the Fighter and Magic-user of standard Old School Renaissance retroclones.

To create a character, a player assigns +2, +1, and 0 to his character’s Brawn, Wit, and Will and derives Vigour and Grip from them. He then selects an Archetype, plus another Advancement from the standard options provided (further Advancements can be selected by surviving the Crypt and gaining Experience Points). He also gets to choose some extra equipment beyond the basics that each character starts the game with. Then—and this is the first hint at the brutality of the game—he is expected to create at least two more. Characters also get two weapons and several pieces of equipment.

Gunther Nerius
Brawn 0 Wit +1 Will +2
Vigour 6 Grip 8
Advancements: Been There Done That, I’ve Seen Things, Spirits of the Beyond
Affliction: Already Slightly Gone
Equipment: Axe, crossbow and ten bolts, three doses of medicines, chisel and hammer
Background: Gunther Nerius is a doctor whose experiments into resurrection saw him accused of necromancy and grave robbing, then hounded out of town and after town. His research lead him to the Cult of Blossoming Heart, dedicated to life from beyond the grave. He wanted its secrets, not its philosophy and time and time again plunged into the Crypt on its and his own behalf, finally learning how to restore a corpse to life—at least temporarily. Although the Cult of Blossoming Heart has been broken up by the authorities, Doctor Neruius convinced them that he was never a member. Some of the remaining cult members believe he was responsible for its break-up and have sworn their revenge.

Mechanically, Best Left Buried requires no more than four six-sided dice. When a character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls two dice, adds the appropriate stat and attempts to beat a target of nine or more. If the character has ‘The Upper Hand’, then his player rolls three six-sided dice and discards the lowest, whereas what the character is attempting is ‘Against the Odds’, his player rolls three six-sided dice and discards the highest. Although it possible to get multiple instances of ‘The Upper Hand’ and ‘Against the Odds’, but they do not grant more dice, but instead cancel each other out. However, three or more instances of ‘The Upper Hand’ and the situation is trivial and no longer needs a roll, whereas three or more instances of ‘Against the Odds’ and the situation is impossible and cannot be attempted. Should a character fail, then he can Exert himself. By spending a point of Grip, he can reroll a die and use the new result instead.

Observation checks work in a similar fashion, but are harder given that no stat is applied. Combat works slightly differently though. The target is eight or more, which can be modified by shields, armour, or a creature’s monstrous armour, but instead of rolling two six-sided dice, a player rolls three six-sided dice. He selects any two of the three dice which together with the addition of an appropriate stat ensue that he beats the target. The third die becomes the damage die, modified by the weapon or Advancement used for the attack. If the character has ‘The Upper Hand’, then his player rolls four six-sided dice and discards the lowest, whereas what the character is attempting is ‘Against the Odds’, his player rolls four six-sided dice and discards the highest. Damage is deducted from a target’s Vigour, whilst any attack which inflicts six damage is a critical hit and inflicts an injury.

For example, whilst descending into the Crypt to explore a Cult of the Blossoming Heart outpost, Doctor Nerius encounters a cultist who recognises who he is and runs off to alert his fellow cultists. The nefarious Doctor has a crossbow with a bolt ready and fires at the fleeing cultist. The Doomsayer rules that Doctor Nerius has ‘The Upper Hand’. His player rolls 3, 4, 5, and 6. Dropping the lowest die gives him 4, 5, and 6. The 4 and 5 together are enough to ensure a hit and the 6 becomes the damage die. With a yelp, the cultist is hit and staggers to the floor, clutching at his back… The damage of 6 is counted as a critical hit, which means that the cultist also suffers an injury.

The nature of mechanics mean that success is not guaranteed—in fact, it is difficult to achieve and the players should be looking for the characters to be getting one or more instances of ‘The Upper Hand’. Combat is pleasingly simple, handling both attack and damage in one roll, a player needing to ensure that his character can successfully attack even if that means giving up the best die that would have inflicted the most damage. Combat is designed to be deadly, but whilst a monster or NPC is killed when their Vigour is reduced to zero, a character is not necessarily so. Whether or not he dies is up to a flip of a coin. A tails result and he is dead, but on a heads result he is rendered unconscious. This lasts several hours and leaves the character vulnerable to a killing blow by a monster or an NPC. So a character rendered unconscious had better hope that his allies survive any battle long enough to defeat the enemy, prevent him from being finished off, or pull him from the fight. The misery continues once the character wakes up though as the last blow will have also inflicted an Injury upon him, like losing a hand or a point of Wit. 

Where Vigour has a singular use in Best Left Buried—measuring the amount of damage a character can withstand—and is easier to recover, Grip has multiple uses and is not easy to recover. One use is to fuel Exertion attempts, another is to power certain Advancements, such as Fire and Lightning Strange or The Holy Song of War. It is also a means to measure both Sanity and the loss of Sanity when a character is exposed to the terrifying, mind twisting events, monsters, or environments of the Crypt. This requires a check against a character’s Will. If failed, the character loses a point of Grip, but if successful, the character actually gains an Experience Point. So a character can learn from traumatic and terrifying events, but for the most part, the character will be losing it from his experiences in the Crypt, representing the spiritual decay and physical ruination are likely to suffer by delving into the depths.

In the ‘nice’ version of the roleplaying game, Grip simply regenerates after a night of full rest, but as designed, Grip in Best Left Buried is a finite resource and when it is depleted, a character either dies from the shock, loses the will to live, or runs off and becomes a Crypt denizen, a monster to encountered like any other… As a character’s Grip dwindles, his player does have the option of the character suffering a Consequence. These can be Injuries, from a wound or attack, which harm the character physically, or Afflictions, which affect a character mentally or socially, and can be flaws or insanities. If a character is rendered unconscious as the result of an attack and survives, then he will suffer an Injury, but a character can also voluntarily suffer an Injury whilst in combat or an Affliction when not in combat. So a character might lose a point of Will or roll on the next stat check ‘Against the Odds’ as an Injury, or suffer a Debilitating Dread of something found in the Crypt as a Growing Affliction or suffer from Hoardlust as a Character Flaw. They can also suffer from Corruption, but sadly, this is only described in Best Left Buried: The Deluxe Edition. All add colour and character to the now suffering Cryptdigger, but by choosing one, a character’s Grip is reset. Essentially, their trauma has manifest as a symptoms obvious—sooner or later—to their fellow Cryptdiggers and to society at large when they return to the surface. Of course, they are fun roleplaying aspects too.

Lastly, Best Left Buried presents monsters, or rather it presents the means to create them. Instead of giving a list of monsters, it provides monster adaptations, like Blinking or Flesh-Gorging with which the Doomsayer is expected to design and inflict upon her players’ Cryptdiggers. Further, the Doomsayer is not expected to name any monster she creates, but describe to her players and have them name it, and so make their experience more individual, more particular to them and their Cryptdiggers rather than them have just some standardised experience.

Physically, Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival is well presented. The artwork is variable in quality, the cover and the frontispieces to each chapter are far better than individual illustrations, depicting the grim and perilous nature of the Crypt. The book could have been better organised though, perhaps presenting the core mechanics before character generation.

The main problem with Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival is what is not included in its pages. There are elements like Corruption, which have been saved for Best Left Buried: The Deluxe Edition, but the main problem with is one of the world itself. Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival implies the nature and danger of the Crypt and it certainly showcases the consequences for any Cryptdiggers delving into its depths, but it leaves the nature of the Crypt as well as the world and society above unexplored. There is no advice for the Doomsayer on creating the weirdness and wonder of the Crypt below, nor specifically on running the game, and nor is there an examination of what the Cryptdiggers are delving for or an example monster nor crypt to help the Doomsayer get started or serve as inspiration. As the designers intended, Best Left Buried is playable as is from the pages of Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival, but leaves the Doomsayer with a lot of work to do in terms of setting up and running the game from this book as presented.

Now Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival is actually designed as the player’s book as much as it is for the Doomsayer and a further supplement, the Doomsayer’s Guide To Horror, is specifically written for the Doomsayer and addresses these issues with advice on designing dungeons, running games, and telling stories, as well as rules on treasure, experience, and magic items. Essentially the problem is that Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival is not as explicit as it should be about the fact that it is for the players first and foremost, and that should the Doomsayer require more, then she needs to refer to another book, whether that is the Best Left Buried: The Deluxe Edition or the Doomsayer’s Guide To Horror. It does advise as such in the foreword, but it could have been more clearly stated both there and on the book’s cover. So any prospective Doomsayer does need to be forewarned before deciding which of the books for Best Left Buried she needs to purchase.

As presented, Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival gives the Doomsayer and her players everything necessary to play the game in solid little book. Grim, perilous, and designed to be debilitating in play, Best Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival is the basis for a decent little heart bruiser of a roleplaying game, but the Doomsayer may find it wanting.

Source: rlyehreviews

Brutalising the Fantasy Heartbreaker