I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers - Early Release

Disclaimer: when the author asked in a forum for a review of his "Dark Souls and Kingdom Death inspired game", I got curious (since I'm writing a dark fantasy RPG myself, which I call Days of the Damned) and offered to write one. The game is currently PWIW, so he didn't send me a review copy.

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers (NmotDD) is a dark fantasy RPG written and illustrated by James Vail. It is a admittedly work in progress - it was update at least once since I've checked - so it might be a bit unfair to review it like it is complete. Still, I can only review the book as it is now, so I'll tell you where it feels unfinished, even though you should keep in mind that this is partially by design.

You can find the games' website here, or buy it in DTRPG.

Be aware that the book contains "mature" themes, which I'll describe below.

The book

The whole book is illustrated by the author in a style that is very similar to the cover - dark B&W art with some digital aspects. I found it pleasing and very appropriate to the subject. Basically, if you liked the cover, you'll find this to be a good looking book.

The layout is chaotic - the book changes spacing, number of columns, and alignment for no apparent reason in different chapters. It doesn't interfere with readability, but it looks bad. Other than that, the book has a good table of contents and is sufficiently well organized.

The setting

Remember my last review? Where I mentioned Alpha Blue was more funny than shocking, and not really gory? Well, NmotDD is quite the opposite: it is dark, bleak, and not much humor - which seems to be the idea. I like this treatment; while I enjoy humor in some games, a few mainstream RPGs seem to add irony to everything for no good reason. Being dead serious creates a nice change of pace.

The first section of the book (appropriated called "Fragmented Lore") is a list of small pieces of fluff that contain children sacrifices, pregnancy horror, torture, slavery, sexual violence, gore, and so on. The writing is not bad - it does a good job of highlighting some aspects of the setting (for example, it goes full gonzo with multiple planes and strange technology while still keeping a serious tone) - and the pieces are short enough that they don't become boring, but it does seem gratuitous to show this stuff all at once.

The setting is further explained in Chapter 8. "This is a bleak world of greyscale desolation" sums it up quite well. The world is shaped by slumbering alchemists/architects that can alter reality with their twisted dark dreams and are in constant war with one another. Killing them releases a dark energy that makes pulls pieces of other realities and makes things worse, which seems like an interesting source of complications but might make a fight against them a bit pointless.

There is an adventure in the end that really resembles Dark Souls, where the players start naked in a labyrinth and must find a way out though (too) many puzzles and adversaries. Curiously enough, this is in many ways a "fun-house" adventure, in which things attack you for no apparent reason (well, other than the fact that you're traversing a world of surreal horror, obviously), the doors have riddles written in them, etc. As the adventure ends, the characters must face the outside world... and find ways to survive in it.

The setting maintains a good balance between classics like Dark Sun or Ravenloft and something really extreme like Black Sun Deathcrawl, where everything is doomed and everyone is going to die regardless of your efforts. It actually fits the bleakness of the Dark Souls universe without being unplayable or too depressing, and it scores a few originality point for relying on psychology and surrealism instead of the stuff we usually see in most horror RPGs (Gothic, Tolkien, Lovecraft, religion, etc.). It is a fine background for dark, weird adventures.

The system

The system is quite simple: roll one or more d10s, pick the highest, and add your skill rank (1 to 5) to the total. 10 or more means a complete success, with partial success and disasters relying on your Stress level (which raises with various efforts and diminishes with rest and relaxation). Skills are created by the player, with a clever mechanic: you don't raise skills, but get more specific skills that are higher than the broader ones. A rank 5 skills would be extremely specific.

Characters also have Doom Points, "the character’s unseen death clock". You have a minimum of 10 doom points and (basically) must roll under this score with a d100 whenever you risk death... which happens often.

Combat follows a similar pattern, but it adds too much detail and some strange characteristics. Players can choose which body part to attack (although the effect is apparently the same) but NPCs roll randomly, which seems like a huge disadvantage for them. They also can hit the hand instead of the arm, for example, but the hand, unlike the arm, has no separate injuries, so it isn't really clear how this works.

Character advancement is messy. You spend XP to gain OR lose skills and "psychic anomalies", which are double-edged qualities (unlike the beneficial "aberrant traits" that you can take at character creation in exchange for some permanent wounds if you choose to be an aberration). I cannot say I appreciate this system, although I can see the point; the game is more about danger and despair than character optimization.

The system has "modern" sensibilities; mechanics are "unified" and most rules are intended to deliver an specific experience: seeing your doom points increase until you die. Nothing is easy here: you must find food and water everyday, build your own weapons and shelter, deal with permanent injuries and hemorrhage, explore an unknown and uncaring universe, track encumbrance, take stress to light fires, etc. And things get harder as you go.

These craft/explore/survive mechanics are the coolest part of the book, in my opinion. Although a bit complex and fiddly for my tastes, they seem to create very interesting challenges if you take them seriously, in a way that reminds me of the popular web-based game A Dark Room. This is stuff you don't often see in modern RPGs.

Tables, Magick, and GM advice

In addition to system and setting, the book is filled with tables and lists for creating characters, places, cultures, monsters, equipment, etc. These are also quite good, and you can use most of them for your dark fantasy games even if you are playing a different game. Specially worth of mention is the creature creation part; I cannot resist giving you an example:

Form: Serpentine 
Movement: Swim/Burrow 
Flesh: Slimy
Aberration: Wings 
Head: Ragged Teeth
Damage Delivery: Constrict
Optional Special Ability: Undead/skeletal: Vital body parts are no longer vital. Can't be killed, must be destroyed.

Cool stuff, right? Or try the weird objects, where you can get things such as a Vomiting Tree made of mud, with eyes and electrical surges. I feel compelled to mention my own book contains lots of tables that are similar to these (here is one small example), so I might be naturally inclined to like this kind of stuff, but I think some of these charts are really good.

The Magick chapter, while seemingly novel and flavorful, has two pages and seems half-baked - or completely free-form. I hope it gets expanded in the future while maintaining some of the simplicity of the games' skill system.

The GM advice is sensible and solid. All the good stuff is here: listen to your players, roll only when needed, etc. It also has some useful advice that is specific to this particular game.

In conclusion

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers is, at this point, an interesting promise. It doesn't seem quite finished or, honestly, entirely playable right now, but what we have is intriguing enough that it come become a very interesting game in the future. Since you can download the game from free (or pay what you want), it is worth checking out if you're interested in indie dark fantasy games at all.


  1. Eric, thank you for the review. Just to clarify, the body locations determine what armor can be used against an attack, so getting hit in the hand would be an arm injury, but gloves can reduce the damage. I'll be sure to clear this up in the next update. Also, I have some sample character builds on the website if you'd like to see how the double-edged psychic anomalies can synergize with each other to optimize characters. Anyway, definitely some notes for me to take away from this, thanks again!

    1. My pleasure! Yeah, that makes sense. Good luck with the book!