[Let's Read] The Nightmares Underneath


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Greetings. Inspired by thirdkingdom's excellent [Let's Read] ACKS Core Rulebook thread, I present this Let's Read of Johnstone Metzger's The Nightmares Underneath.

About the Author's Previous Works

The Nightmares Underneath (TNU) is Metzger's latest work, released in November of 2016. The author is best known for his work in the Dungeon World universe, through his Red Box Vancouver label available on Drivethru RPG. The author of the highly regarded Class Warfare -- which mechanically pulls apart Dungeon World's chargen and provides a structured system for players and GMs to construct their own Dungeon World classes -- and Adventures on Dungeon Planet -- which takes Dungeon World into the science fantasy genre -- as well as seventeen other RPG books/supplements, what distinguishes Metzger's work is his mechanical acumen coupled with a gonzo creativity and heavily-infused art. This is evident in his four books of themed Dungeon World bestiaries, and is perhaps best epitomized by Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn, an ambitious and essentially self-contained science fantasy Dungeon World riff that breaks all expectations for what a one-man shop can produce. One might think of Metzger's middle works as acid-fueled space journeys to Alpha Centauri and back in a customized one-person star yacht, to the soundtrack of a three-headed Ziggy Stardust.

Spoiler: Show
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preview art from Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn
But Dungeon World isn't Metzger's only love. His early entries to the market were three short adventures for Dungeon World and Labyrinth Lord (the Moldvay/Cook B/X retroclone): Knives in the Dark, Evil Wizards in a Cave, and The Third Verse. If this goes well, I'd like to write at least one of these up, as well.

The Nightmares Underneath

All that brings us somewhat full circle to The Nightmares Underneath, which I'd label Metzger's love-letter to the OSR. It's a lavishly illustrated, thoroughly original take on the dungeoncrawl RPG using a custom system that draws heavily on modern design (5e's Advantage mechanic, Apocalypse World's custom Moves) while still capturing the essence of oldschool gaming. It'll be too modern for the OSR diehard, and too oldschool for the staunchly modern gamer, but for those of us who like to straddle that rich terrain in between, this one's an absolute treasure.

So, I'd like to tell you about it.

The unique conceit of TNU is that the PCs are that rare breed of individual who have demonstrated they might be able to survive the world's ever-increasing encroachment of dungeons. "Encroachment", because in TNU dungeons are living other-planar entities bubbling their way into the gameworld's universe. They're sentient, they're malevolent, and they need to be destroyed else all civilization will fall.

Other notable features of the game are:

  • mechanics for turning town-based organizations into NPCs through PC interaction and involvement, evolving said organizations into mechanics-granting institutions
  • character alignments affect PC's interaction with their class, magic, and the above-mentioned institutions
  • the use of variable HP pools for the PC, from day to day and rest to rest (sometimes you're just off your game, which requires a tactical adjustment)
  • set in an Enlightenment-era, Reason-based caliphate
For this read-through, I'll be using the premiere hardcover version of the game printed by Lulu, but you can follow along with the Metzger-provided free non-art PDF. The hardcover clocks in at 426 pages. The art-free PDF has 333 pages, so simple math informs us that the hardcover boasts 93 pages of full-page art.

You can also pick up an art-full version of the PDF, but I advise purchasing this game with more foresight than I did. (As aside, I'll state that, while I have close to 1000 PDFs in my collection, I have purchased very, very few physical copies of games in the last decade. Within the OSR movement, I only have Vornheim, Yoon-Suin, and The Nightmares Underneath.) TNU's impact on me was this: I grabbed the free no-art PDF, and within two hours was so impressed with it that I purchased the art-full PDF. I then realized my life would be incomplete without a physical book in-hand, so the following day I purchased the premiere hardcover version at Lulu, which Metzger recommends as the best print version for its quality, black linen cover, and dustjacket.

If you find yourself taken by the free no-art PDF, do yourself a favor and jump straight into a hardcopy version. If you get yours at DTRPG, I believe you also get the art-full PDF as part of the purchase (Lulu don't play that game, though).

the Lulu version is a US Trade sized hardcover, with a black linen cover and dustjacket, binding that lays flat, and black and white art
Johnstone Metzger said:

The Nightmares Underneath is an old school role-playing game with a strong horror theme, set in a fantasy Middle East where dungeons are invading nightmares intent on the destruction of civilization. In the Kingdoms of Dreams, all is right with the world—except for one thing. Even though the Law has triumphed over the powers of Chaos, banishing idolatry and superstition in favour of science and reason, humanity is still threatened by a dangerous, otherworldly force. The Realm of Nightmares invades the physical world, sending incursions in the form of dungeon to undermine and destroy society.

The justification for dungeoncrawling in this setting is that adventurers are raiding nightmare incursions, to find the treasure that keeps an incursion anchored to the physical world. Once the treasure is looted, the incursion is destroyed, and the adventurers profit. Individual creatures made of nightmares can be killed, but as long as the incursion exists, it will continue to spawn more. This is reflected by a countdown die, used in addition to encounter checks for wandering monsters.

Basically, I wrote this game in order to incorporate all my favourite house rules into old school D&D, in a setting where I could run any kind of dungeon I wanted to, and incorporate as many horror elements as I like to. Which is usually a lot.
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From beyond the veil of sleep, inhuman forces invade.
The Nightmares Underneath
An old-school fantasy role-playing game.
The hardcover opens with five pages of artwork. The first page is the image above, followed by a two-page spread showing a forlorn child in an arch-covered room illuminated by light through a grated window. The leftmost page in the spread is black, with grey ink depicting what look to be tentacles reaching for the lit room, or its contents. The art here (and throughout the book) is evocative, emotionally-gripping, and beautiful, and of a quality that would allow it to be displayed in a gallery. This is, in no way, your standard RPG artwork.

While there are multiple styles of artwork in the book, something about much of it reminds me of Dave McKean's covers on the Sandman comics, or perhaps the movie MirrorMask, as they are often superimpositions. Others, however, are more standard. All of the artwork makes excellent use of the black-and-white format of the book. While most of Metzger's Dungeon World books are color, the black-and-white serves admirably for this subject matter. I don't know that I'd want to see these images in color, because this medium works so well for them.

As I stated in the first post, simple math will imply that there are 93 pages of full-page art, though some of those have some text on them, as with Chapter pages.

Let's move on from the art, though, shall we?

The same page that tells us that the book is written, illustrated and published by Johnstone Metzger in Vancouver, Canada in November of 2016 also gives us a list of twenty Direct Inspirations and a list of playtesters. Inspirations include Mentzer, Moldvay, Cook, Gygax, and Arneson as well as Vincent Baker (somewhat obviously), but also works like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Call of Cthulhu, Kult, Metamorphosis Alpha, and at least two source books on Middle Eastern cultures.

This is followed by a three-page Table of Contents dividing the book into five Parts.

  • Part One: Some Words of Introduction (which includes two chapters on the setting)
  • Part Two: The Rules of Play
  • Part Three: A Bestiary of Monsters
  • Part Four: A Slight Appendix of Additional Material (optional rules and random tables)
  • Part Five: Indices (twelve pages, including a General Index, Index of Spells by Level, and Index of Tables)
This is followed by four pages of art, including two framed images of women which might be character portraits (a Persian(?) woman holding an expressive flame in her cupped hand, and a bare-shouldered African woman looking out past the viewer), and a chapter page.

A quick scan of the artwork of the book reveals it to be culturally diverse, with plenty of women depicted as well as people of multiple ethnicities and cultures. Middle Eastern, Asian, and African peoples seem to outnumber European peoples, and the women are all dressed appropriately for the scenes depicted. I don't recollect any nudity, and something like chainmail bikinis would seem drastically out of place next to the art of this book. Where the material might be construed as salacious, it's tastefully done. (I'm looking at an image on p. 216 of a woman walking away from a reclining man sleeping with his head on a pillow. The man is not wearing a shirt, but the woman is fully clothed. A dalliance is suggested, though that doesn't explain why the woman is shielding a scimitar with her body from the eyes of the man, should he awaken.)

Part One: Some Words of Introduction

The text of the book opens with two paragraphs about what a role-playing game is, two paragraphs on what you need to play, and a paragraph that explains that while TNU is a complete game, it can also be used as a toolbox that can be looted for your other games. Each of those sections is separated by a header, and it all fits on one page.

Text in general in the book makes use of formatting, lists, and both publishing design and graphic design to make the book feel very readable without being over-produced. I feel a bit like I'm reading a book put together by Luke Crane of Burning Wheel fame (famously reverent about the value of a well put-together book), who is another of the Direct Inspirations listed on the previous page. There's something reverential about the choice of paper quality and page layout. It feels like a book much more than it does an RPG manual. That's a plus, in my ledger. (It doesn't hurt that the book is of the size of a piece of literature.) It's very clear that Metzger put effort into making this tome a worthy inclusion on my bookshelf, compared to RPGs that are more haphazardly/chaotically put together or shoddily constructed despite being rich with incredible ideas.

There's then two pages of discussion about the Contents of the book. The author addresses the reader directly, in a conversational tone that is nonetheless efficient in its communication. The overall effect is that I feel welcomed into the book, and feel as though I can entrust the author with my time and energy. This text isn't dry, like many RPG manuals, nor is it so flowery and fanciful that I have to be in a certain mood to want to spend time with it.

A critical paragraph explains how to read the book. I'll share it here, so you have a sense of authorial voice, in addition to its message:

page 15 said:
You can read these sections, and the chapters within them, in whatever order you fancy. There is no pressing reason why this book must be consumed from start to finish in order, like a novel or a scholarly thesis. In fact, the rules chapters have been arranged alphabetically for ease of reference, not because you need to understand one before reading the next. If you are going to play this game but not take on the role of the GM, the chapter most important to you is probably Chapter 3.
I'm going to follow this instruction early in this Let's Read, skipping ahead to character information before circling back to the setting introduction, as I'm sure some of you want to get into the meat of the thing, and I'm waxing overlong in this blow-by-blow of my general impressions.

First, though, there's a page about Using Characters from Other Games, which advises that "other old-school fantasy games" can access the Kingdom of Dreams by "sleepers" traveling beyond their normal plane of existence, and goes on to give general conversion information for the Attributes, Classes, and Alignments of TNU. There's a short discussion of converting HP into TNU's unique conceit (called Disposition), as well as a paragraph about how to return home from the Kingdom of Dreams and what happens if your character dies there. (It's only your Dream Self that dies there, and so you awaken back on your home plane, but without any of the experience or possessions that you might have otherwise returned with. Perhaps more significantly, if you died in the Kingdom of Dreams, you may never again enter it.)

This section closes with two pages of art (a framed portrait of an African woman who might be a scribe and a second framed portrait of two Persian men who could easily be brothers).

The next section, Chapter 1: Alabaster and Frankincense, opens with a two-page art spread for the chapter page. It's 35 pages on the stock setting of TNU, but we're going to skip ahead to some of the rules of the game. We'll come back to the Kingdom of Dreams soon enough!
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[/table]from the DTRPG publisher-provided free preview of the paid art-full PDF

Part Two: The Rules of Play

After another two-page art spread for the chapter page, we get five pages of Basic Resolution Rules divided by full-page art of a woman in a head and face covering wielding a long-dagger with a Sphinx statue in the background (see next post).

Contest Resolution

The author discusses how to use dice to derive "chance" (1 in 3, 1 in 6, "even odds", percentage chance). Contest Resolution will be familiar to players of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games: 2d6 + modifiers vs a target number or an opponent's roll. However, if one's Profession is "particularly relevant", the GM may allow one to add
one's level to the roll (in which circumstance, the opponent in a contested roll -- person or monster -- may do so as well, should their Profession or status as Monster be particularly relevant).

TNU also uses the d20, though, as we'll see in just a moment.


As in Dungeon World, Weapon Damage is rolled with various types of dice, dependent on the base HD of the character's Profession (Fighters get a d8, Wizards get a d4, etc.) Some types of damage reduce Attribute scores instead of Disposition (TNU's version of Hit Points).

Disposition scores are determined by rolling all of the character's Hit Dice, every time. (i.e. a L5 Fighter rolls 5d8, versus simply adding 1d8 to what they had at L4. This will seem obvious in a moment.)

Some people hate Dungeon World damage determination with the rage of 100 Uruk-Hai. I actually mostly like it, because it completely separates the mechanics from the fluff of a character. If you want your Wizard to use a two-handed scimitar in TNU, you absolutely can, but they're never going to be as deadly with it as a Fighter. I suppose the objection comes because people don't like a Fighter doing more damage with a dagger than the Wizard with their 2-handed scimitar, but it doesn't really break verisimilitude that much for me, and why shouldn't a Fighter be fucking deadly with a dagger?

Others, I'm sure, like for weapons to be distinct. An axe should perform like an axe, mechanically, and a spear should be a spear. As we'll see when we get to the Character professions, TNU is much more interested in utilitarian distinctions. So, this system works for the game. If it doesn't work for you, you could probably swap in a weapon damage system from your favorite OSR game.

Disposition is going to be weird for the majority of readers, when we get there more fully. I like the idea of it, but am not sure how it plays out in practice. You'll see when we get there. Let's discuss it, when we do.
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Part Two: The Rules of Play (continued)

Outcomes and Task Resolution

For actions that might have multiple different outcomes, or if the GM wants to determine the degree of effectiveness, a 6 or less on that 2d6 roll is a very poor result, 7-9 is a mixed result, 10-11 is a good result, and 12+ is truly excellent. This, again, will be familiar to players of PbtA games.

However, there's another Task Resolution system in TNU, which uses full Attribute scores instead of only their modifiers on the 2d6 roll. There will be times when you roll against an Attribute directly, trying to score under either the full Attribute score or half of it. The situations discussed here are for:

  • Unopposed task resolution, dependent entirely on your character's ability: roll equal to or lower than the full Attribute on the d20
  • Attempting something beyond your capabilities: roll equal to or lower than half Attribute score, rounded down
Further, if you're attempting one of these actions and it's resisted by someone/something you're in conflict with, you'll be trying to roll equal to or higher than one of their attribute scores on the d20. You can add your level and an Attribute modifier to this roll, but a natural 1 always fails and a natural 20 always succeeds.

As clarification, Metzger states here that attacking in combat, making saving throws, and testing your skills are the main uses of the d20 resolution system, and using special powers occasionally falls here as well. The earlier 2d6 mechanic is for simple resolution of conflicts.

One thing to watch for in the remainder of our read-through is how clear it is when to use which system, as currently it's not very clear. With 2d6, roll under d20, and roll over d20, we'll want some clarity in order to understand how it works for ease of play, and systems that use too many different resolution mechanics can be befuddling at the table. (Beyond the Wall suffers from this, for some people.)

I really like the PbtA 2d6 mechanic, as it allows easily for constructing custom Moves as a GM. Were I to run a game of TNU, I suspect I'd cobble together some of the custom Moves from The Perilous Wilds, and would enjoy the freedom to construct many more for specific cities, organizations, foes, situations, etc. Once you're familiar with the basic structure (6 and under fails, 7-9 succeeds conditionally, 10+ succeeds), it's really lovely how easily custom rules fall into place.

I also like how the d20 Task Resolution works, which will be detailed in the next post. I'm uncertain, though, how the two work together.

Advantage and Disadvantage

The Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic is then discussed. If you have an "obvious or significant advantage", roll an extra die and discard the least favorable. If you're "hindered by an obvious or significant disadvantage", roll an extra die and discard the most favorable. Advantages and Disadvantages cancel each other out, so only roll those extra dice if you have leftovers after advantages and disadvantages cross each other out.

Advantage/Disadvantage can be used for any roll except random table results, including chance rolls, Damage rolls, and Disposition (HP) rolls.

Attribute Loss

Your Attribute scores can be temporarily reduced. Any task resolution referencing those Attributes uses the new value, not the old one. Reduced Attributes can be restored through rest and medical treatment.

This pretty clearly gets brutal when you're rolling, say, Skills against half an Attribute (as we'll see in the next post) and you suffer Attribute damage. Your ability to succeed at Skills is quickly going to go out the window.


If you have a special power that's not a spell and you use it against another character (by which I interpret NPC or PC), use the Task Resolution system: roll 1d20 + level + Attribute modifier vs the target's Attribute score. You'll want to roll higher than their Attribute, as cited above.

Powers can be affected by Advantages and Disadvantages. The author references outside influence, like inebriation or magical assistance.
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Part Two: The Rules of Play (continued)
Metzger divides this section up here with the above art. Despite being from the paid version of the book, I'm taking liberty to use it here because it's included in the preview of the paid PDF at DTRPG. If you're curious about the artwork in TNU, check out that Publisher Preview, as Metzger generously provided 36 pages for it.


When you're trying to avoid a spell, trap, or some other disaster, you'll be using the d20 Task Resolution rules. If the danger or dungeon level, or the level of the character putting you in danger, is not a higher level than your character, you roll equal to or lower than your full Attribute score. If the threat is a higher level, you roll equal to or lower than half the Attribute score, rounded down.

Did you catch that? Dungeons have levels, and if you're in a dungeon that's higher level than you, you have half the normal chance of resisting its shit.

  • Charisma attacks are against your leadership, reputation, and social prestige.
  • Dexterity saves are against breath weapons, collapsing buildings, earthquakes, explosions, "falling pianos", and other situations involving quickness and agility
  • Ferocity will apply to saves vs capture and confinement.
  • Health saves resist disease, paralysis, poison, and toxins that destroy your body, as well as death rays and physically corrupting magical energies.
  • You're going to avoid ambush, fraud, "misleading intellectual charlatanism", and theft with your Intelligence.
  • Willpower overcomes amnesia, confusion, fatigue, mind control, and other mental attacks. Plus resisting mutation.
That's a really useful list. Not only is it our first exposure to the Attributes of TNU, it gives us a comprehensive list of the types of threats characters will face in this game. I'm liking that there are Charisma attacks. Mutation? That doesn't bode well.

You don't get a save against effects when the effect is caused by a roll against your Attribute (like an attack). Accidents, spells, and traps are kosher. Success on a save typically indicates half effect. In instances where half effect doesn't make sense, you avoid the effect altogether.

You can get Advantage/Disadvantage on your saves. The examples given refer to "powerful outside influences", with magical defenses being the most common, but drugs or large amounts of money could also cover that.

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Part Two: The Rules of Play (continued)


If you're undertaking a task that is dangerous and risky, or that requires some degree of skill, the GM can ask for a roll against the governing Attribute. Examples are provided for each Attribute; they're fairly self-evident, but some call-outs for experienced gamers:

  • Intimidation is governed by Ferocity (the Strength Attribute)
  • Perception is governed by Intelligence
  • "Willpower is used for the most unpleasant kinds of tasks and those where self-control is paramount."
If you're skilled, and you have the proper tools to hand, you're rolling equal to or lower than the full Attribute.

If you're skilled, but only have the minimum necessary in equipment or tools to do the job, you're rolling against half the Attribute score, rounded down.

Similarly, if you're unskilled but have a good set of tools for the task, you're rolling half Attribute.

If you have neither the skills to complete the task nor the proper equipment, you're shit out of luck.

Remember Dungeon levels? They remember you: some tasks (including standard dungeoneering tasks like searching for traps) want to know your level and the level of the dungeon you're roaming around in. If the dungeon level is equal to or lower than yours, you count as skilled. If the dungeon level exceeds your own, you count as unskilled.

A boon: places outside of the nightmare realm will always count as lower level than you.

There's a clarification. These skill rules don't apply to conflicts or contests between characters, but rather things characters do "independent of each other" like crafting, giving medical attention, picking locks, recalling knowledge, searching dungeons, or translating ancient tomes. They are explicitly called out as not for "foot races, knife fights, or wrestling matches".

There's further exposition: what skills your character knows is determined by your character's choice of Profession and your description of the character's background and history. The GM will be the final arbiter of which tasks require a skill roll, what Attributes pertain, and whether or not the character has the requisite skills and tools.

There's Advantages/Disadvantages here, too: if you have "tools of the most excellent quality, of vastly superior workmanship and ingenuity, or you have excellent assistance", you get Advantage. You have Disadvantage if you're using "shoddy, inferior tools in the attempt, or someone is sabotaging your attempts".

The text here mentions "your description of the character's background and history". This is one of the areas that TNU shows its modern roots. There are no rules in the game for Background/History, other than this bit here. You get to make it up, like in most oldschool games, but here it does confer limited mechanical effect, in that it helps define what skills you might have, which is a substantive boon on those d20 Task rolls.

And that's it. Those are the Basic Rules of The Nightmares Underneath. There are plenty of situational rules, but with these five pages and the rules contained within the Character Professions, you can essentially run the game.

The section concludes with two pages of art. They're in the free Preview for the paid PDF, so I'm dropping them in here, as well.

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Next up: Character Professions
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FYI, I broke up the earlier posts into more bite-sized nuggets. I know it can be overwhelming to have to digest too much text at once. I'm hopeful that the use of images and text formatting also helps.
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