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  • Beneath the Missing Sea: A Tale Best Left Buried RPG review

Beneath the Missing Sea: A Tale Best Left Buried RPG review

AL Updated October 06, 2020
 
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Beneath the Missing Sea: A Tale Best Left Buried RPG review
There Will Be Games

“Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

– Ishmael

Ishmael was right, his musings universal. Whether in its proximity or in its absence- that vast untamed beast the sea remains a commanding, bewitching presence. The last true mystery. The font of a thousand stories and the eternal backdrop for harrowing heroism and ambition-dwarfing scale. Briny old dogs with a flagon full of tall tales mass at its corroded lip to share rimes of all the myriad woes and wonders that have transpired upon its surface, and to ponder with relish and reverence what may yet lurk beneath that infinite blue-green canopy.

Oh to see beneath this glittering jewel. To upend its vast, suffocating brimful and cast an eye below, to the shoals and shores yet unexplored, where the refuse of the ages gathers sifted, and leviathanic graveyards dot the horizon.

And here, as in all things – it is wise to be careful what you wish for.

Unearthed, unclothed

Emerging out of the unyielding chrysalis of the ongoing Old School Renaissance, Best Left Buried by SoulMuppet Publishing is one of many recent contenders vying to put the mystery, the darkness, the plague, death and madness back into forefront of the fantasy roleplaying genre. Originally published in two slim volumes, and recently compiled into an expanded and deluxified hardback, this rules-light take on proceedings borrows from the likes of Call of Cthulhu in its attrition-with-madness take on sanity, Dungeon Crawl Classics in its largely expendable roster of Player Characters (or Cryptdiggers), and any number of other indie darlings in its predilection for obtuse theme framed within the familiar setting of a cavernous delve circa 1974.

Best Left Buried 01

In keeping with its brevity, the agency of creation is thrust firmly at the feet of the GM (or Doomsayer, in the game’s own delicious lexicon), with the over-arching premise resting entirely on the notion that expendable groups of mercenaries gather in camps at the mouths or lips of yawning crags and portals in the earth. From here, they pitch their banners in defiance of mortality and plunge into the black, from whence they seek to extract secrets and plunder, yet more likely emerge as a trembling patchwork of scars marked by madness and death.

Though framed in canonical horror, the trappings are threadbare, the worldbuilding perfunctory, the lore emaciated. At first thumb it is a disappointment, like a system in search of a setting. How odd it seems then, that such a setting now emerges not from deep within claustrophobic caverns but from the wide and rusted, shell-jagged expanse of a wayward sea.

Beneath!

Far from a crutch for the less authorially inclined, the best adventure modules and sourcebooks have the capacity to bring a system to life. They imbue the sterility of mechanics and the amorphous potentia of tables with a strange sentience as the possibilities reveal themselves in imbuing each statistical premise with the fleshy narrative that upends a story from its slab. They speak of people and places that both set the pragmatic parameters and offer the players a sense of themselves as autonomous agents both in opposition to and occupation of a space and place. They shoot the world through with spice and let it breathe, cooling on the sill to be consumed. And here, in the salt encrusted, sandblasted wastes of the Andrussian Basin, we find such a space and place.

The Sea is gone. Not evaporated. Not channelled to tributaries. Gone. And in the wake of its flight, communities lie upended. Their livelihoods, their culture and their sense of purpose as vanished as the very waters from which they were derived.  And but of course…into this vacuum stride the curious, the opportunists, the redeemers. The players. Factions and individuals with interests sinister and benign have gathered here to both restore and reap from the recent un-deep. And to a man they are beset by wyrdness and plague.

Best Left Buried 02

By unshackling itself from its initial intent as a framework for the purity of dungeon delving at this early stage in its run of published materials, Best Left Buried has spread its wings and offered glimpses of the full potential on offer from the pens of Sam Sleney and Zachary Cox. With ‘Beneath the Missing Sea’ they have condensed both story and sourcebook into a sandbox style hex-crawl that offers a compelling narrative fraught with both languid wandering and fever drenched urgency.  And in doing so with such attention to setting, they have imbued their world with a life, culture and seed of inspiration from which numerous campaigns can spiral both inwards and outwards as the characters, intentions and creatures that dwell here form the narrative and cultural skeleton for a greater world and its people, its parlance, its promise.

Memorable imagery abounds as the random rolling flats of the wastes are etched with set-pieces that both embrace and subvert nautical tropes to great effect, borrowing the weight and legacy of ancient mariners from the collective canon before relishing in macabre twists. This duality both informs the players with its thematic heavy lifting before upending their expectations in a fashion that demands awareness and a knack for contingency. A giant albatross named Coleridge, a society of merfolk, the oaken bones of a doomed vessel, a committed cult of ascetics, a snake oil salesman and the blood of a leviathan harnessed by terrible industry. And at the centre of it all the mad Marienn, doomed wizard and Ahab analogue signposting the perils of obsession.

Images and themes are cribbed from antiquity and re-spun on the dry ocean-bed, the rickety walkways of Coiner’s Shelf and the abandoned, rot-stalked streets of Brost.  It is a space and a place both familiar and oblique, both fuzzy and fully-formed.

Just don’t expect it to hold your hand.

Best Left Buried 03

Harnessing the emptiness

In presenting this tome as ‘Module by way of Sourcebook’, the scribes at BLB have both given and taken away. Presented as a field guide of sorts, it compartmentalises its information in a fashion and layout that offers an open ended and expansive experience that will consequently be nigh-on maddening for any would be Doomsayers seeking to read and run this in a linear fashion.  There are a number of entry points and primary narratives at play here, but it’s not until you have absorbed the book in its entirety that you will be able to lay claim to any firm grasp or understanding of them or how they might unfold. A brief summary at the outset offers glimpses, but in order to best imbibe this thing’s salty nectar, you’ll be best served by an initial reading spent marinating in the essence of this place. Then only once seeped to the skin in its parched brine should readers conduct a more thorough lung-busting dive, replete with note taking and transcription to best facilitate the many and varied potential paths-less-travelled that wayward parties are seemingly always wont to traverse.

By way of example- each primary location, NPC and McGuffin are afforded their own section in the book, and whilst this is functional in its way, it spreads information thin throughout, with stat-blocks, tables, descriptions and even plot threads being walled off from their point of origin in a manner that will necessitate a lot of frantic flipping in-game unless the aforementioned meticulous prep has been duly undertaken.

The introductory flavour text and explanation for any given scene may refer you to an entirely separate section of the book for details on the various NPC’s, another for the creatures, and yet another for the Items that reside therein. In doing so it renders many plot points and thematic conceits obscured until such cross-referencing has been completed. Although this works in favour of the tome as living sourcebook for future inspiration, it is an absolute ball-ache when it comes to engendering a smooth narrative session, and whilst not an uncommon choice in layout and publishing, the inclusion of truncated stat-blocks and bios in these segments to complement the more robust cast of character and bestiary sections nestled at the back would have worked wonders, especially for harried 21st century dreamers whose free-time comes at a premium.

Best Left Buried 04

To the gills

And yet when the puzzle pieces are snapped together, each location duly comes to life. As a collection they are singularly unique yet cohesive, and whilst they form the individual vertebrae of a larger living story, could each easily and happily be transplanted into myriad other climes to add flavour to an existing campaign, tangents to a tired troupe or hooks to harangue the jaded. Further facilitating this is a section on converting the game for d20 systems, so one’s enjoyment of the bounty on offer here is not predicated on the adoption of the BLB ruleset, and as with most tomes of this ilk, an inventive runner will be offered many incentives to hack it to pieces on the scaling table extracting innards, de-boning and garnishing as they see fit.

In short, with a little work you’ll find nestled within this hardback spine the groundwork for less of a one-shot distraction and more the rudiments of a uniquely realised campaign, nay a world. Where it succeeds it succeeds admirably – in bringing to life the sights, sounds and smells of an environment that is both familiar enough to be a shared vista in the planes of the collective imagination, and alien enough to surprise, delight and dismay. Its locales feel authentic and lived-in despite their otherworldly trappings. Its characters abound with both humour, hope and tragedy, and it counts amongst its prominent events, two of the most memorable pieces of world-building and villainous motivational backstory to ever be torn from the archetypal libraries and left bleeding on the ocean bed or staring blankly towards the horizon in melancholy contemplation.

Wheezing as it lures, despite its exposure to the air – it breathes. So give yourself to the sea that it may return. Your sacrifice will be ferried in whispers from coast-to-coast.

Check out ‘Beneath the Missing Sea’ and other things Best Left Buried here.

There Will Be Games

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Beneath the Missing Sea: A Tale Best Left Buried
Beneath the Missing Sea: A Tale Best Left Buried

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jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #312861 06 Aug 2020 18:29
Goddamn, I can't tell if you love or hate this game, but you certainly burned out a thesaurus writing this review!! While I love hyper-thematic RPG sourcebooks there does need to be at least the bones of a good RPG system in there or it might as well be a D20 or whatever supplement. I feel like a lot of games like this that rely heavily on eldritch fantastical art and atmospheric encounters need a narrative source to put everyone on the same page. Lovecraft based games have been doing this for decades, so whenever someone wants to put their spin on that type of storytelling I just want to read the novel that they are drawing from.

Steampunk, which seems to be fading (??? in the absence of cons I can't tell anymore) always seemed to be an aesthetic in dire need of a really good source novel. This type of material feels the same to me.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312864 06 Aug 2020 18:57

jason10mm wrote: Goddamn, I can't tell if you love or hate this game, but you certainly burned out a thesaurus writing this review!! While I love hyper-thematic RPG sourcebooks there does need to be at least the bones of a good RPG system in there or it might as well be a D20 or whatever supplement. I feel like a lot of games like this that rely heavily on eldritch fantastical art and atmospheric encounters need a narrative source to put everyone on the same page. Lovecraft based games have been doing this for decades, so whenever someone wants to put their spin on that type of storytelling I just want to read the novel that they are drawing from.

Steampunk, which seems to be fading (??? in the absence of cons I can't tell anymore) always seemed to be an aesthetic in dire need of a really good source novel. This type of material feels the same to me.


Hahaha no Thesaurus but I may have been reading too much Patrick Stuart before bed of late.

The BLB system is actually really cool. It has a few innovations such as the 'Grip' system (a kind of sanity as currency spin a little like DCC's spellburn in implementation but more universal) as well as a cool premise. I just felt the initial ruleset booklets were lacking a little thematic flavour but with a range of modules/sourcebooks out now there is plenty of inspiration to draw upon. I have some others in the mail so they might well feature here in future too.

BTMS itself is definitely not Eldritch and atmospheric at the cost of playability. It's actually quite conventional compared to some of the more esoteric veins, titans and observatories out there. It just happens to masterfully conjure up a world in microcosm tucked into the dry bed of the basin. Plus as soon as you start throwing doomed mariners, albatrosses and salt encrusted ruin into anything then the salt water tends to immediately rush to my appendage. (See also 'Sea Evil' by EEE)
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #312871 07 Aug 2020 09:10
So what is a "hexcrawl" anyway? I'm imagining it is a freeform sand box type adventure where you wander a map and each hex could have a new event, but there is no arcing overplot to worry about. Kinda like a lot of the old school DnD modules before the metagame took over.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #312872 07 Aug 2020 11:16
That’s the basic idea. Explore an uncharted wilderness full of weirdness. Any plot develops organically out of play.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312891 07 Aug 2020 18:30
Essentially yeah. However in this case there is a definitely a plot/mystery to be discovered/unravelled. There are numerous ways it might transpire and be resolved however, if at all. More work for the Doomsayers but more emergent possibilities for the players :)
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #312895 07 Aug 2020 21:59
Hah, remember when being a DM meant you just rolled dice for the monsters? Now they gotta provide a dozen distinct voices, manage several player specific plot arcs, set up improv encounters on the fly, and be reasonably attractive and photogenic for steaming :p
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312898 08 Aug 2020 04:23

jason10mm wrote: Hah, remember when being a DM meant you just rolled dice for the monsters? Now they gotta provide a dozen distinct voices, manage several player specific plot arcs, set up improv encounters on the fly, and be reasonably attractive and photogenic for steaming :p


Kids these days. They just need a good stint in the Army to sort them out. When men were men and women were men and games were men. Get off my lawn.

I don't think anything has fundamentally changed about running a game. A good DM always brought character and improvisation to the table when bringing what is essentially a block of numbers and a map to life. In fact, in a lot of ways things have come full circle with the osr and zine culture at the moment. As far as being telegenic-am I the only one who thinks Matt Mercer looks like a cross between the singer in a Christian rock band and Billy Mitchell? :/
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #312900 08 Aug 2020 12:01
Ditto on Christian rock band guy for Matt Mercer.