The Undercroft #9 (OSR) (Priority Review)
The ninth installment of „The Undercroft” clocks in at an impressive 64 (6’’ by 9’’/A5) pages of content, already sans cover, editorial, etc. My review is based on the perfect-bound softcover of the ‘zine, which, while meaty enough, unfortunately does not note its name on the spine.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request for a prioritized review via a direct donation.
This zine’s content is designated as OSR in a general sense – most of the content assumes LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) as a default system, but the degree to which the material is faithful to the system varies by author. However, the thematic fealty is evident: This is a ‘zine for mature audiences, and this issue in particular tackles sometimes puerile and sometimes horrifying, really dark themes. If you’re sensitive to such themes or easily offended, you might want to skip this issue.
Okay, so first thing you need to know, is that this zine contains a surprising amount of classes, fleshed out until 10th level, with the first being Benjamin Baugh’s “Skinned Moon Daughter” – the skinned moon is a rare phenomenon in the north; daughters born under its auspice are…different. They spook animals, making for poor hunters and fishers, but they do change – born with a wolf’s stomach, they can subsist on carrion, undergoing changes as they indulge; ultimately, when maturing, they learn the song of the Skinned Moon, and can then proceed to coat themselves in blubber and fat, to eb swallowed by creatures, which they then control from inside for a month. The class gets d6 HD, has Wisdom and Charisma as prime requisites, may use one-handed and thrown weapons, and usually are clad in a beast, and thus wear nothing. The class caps at 10th level, and has a minimum Constitution of 9. I love this class for a narrative game, though it does require an experienced referee to pull off, as the beasts can potentially be vastly superior to the other characters. That being said, controlling a beast of more HD than the daughter becomes unreliable, so this needs to be considered carefully. Cool: Twins born under the Skinned moon can combine their powers, and being married to one comes with blessings…but also restrictions, making the class feel like something taken straight out of myth. As you could glean from the note on prime requisites, the class is balanced more for LL (Labyrinth Lord), OSE (B/X), etc. and does require some conversion when used in LotFP – or in Wolf Packs & Winter Snows, which seems like the perfect system for this class.
The second class presented would be the Doctor, penned by Patrick Stuart. The class is essentially an archetype for the fighter class, using the chassis for attacks, HD, saves, etc. – however, the doctor may not cause LETHAL damage and no class features work while encumbered. The doctor can heal damage caused by trauma at the rate of 1d4 per 10 minutes of work. Additionally, in combat, the doctor can prevent death of a target of -4 hit points or lower: On the doctor’s and referee’s turn, you roll off with a d10: The doctor gets their Intelligence bonus to the roll, the referee the number of HP the target is under zero – there are three stages, and a doctor’s success moves up a stage, a referee a stage down. If the doctor triumphs, the target stabilizes at 0 HP; if the referee prevails, the target dies. 1/session, the doctor can identify a process or item – personally, I prefer in-game time to designate mechanics. Doctors also get a control hold that behaves like a garotte and inflicts d6 damage, with damage pausing only at exactly 0 hp. At 2nd level and every even level thereafter, you get to roll a d6 and gain a new ability – these include e.g. getting essentially advantage on all saving throws versus magic, but at the cost of magic never working for you due to your rationalist outlook. You could be an atheist, immune to clerical magic – but also their healing, and incapable of keeping silent in the face of agents of the divine. I generally like these double-edged abilities, but couldn’t help but feel that, when used back to back to other classes in LotFP, this one feels very…special? Not in a necessarily bad way, mind you, but I couldn’t help but feel that it should have been a part of a whole array of such class tweaks. On its own, it feels oddly specific. I also am not the biggest fan of rolling for class features, as that can kinda wreck your planned character story, but that’s easy enough to rectify.
Daniel Sell is up next, with pretty much the antithesis to this approach of the singular – “Everybody is an adventurer” replaces all default classes with a general class, the adventurer. Everyone starts with 16 in all saves, and a fighter’s experience and level progression, and a +1 attack modifier. Each level, you choose fighting, learning, or cunning. Fighting nets you +1 attack modifier d8 HD, -1 on poison and breath saves, and -1 to a save of your choice (can also be poison/breath); learning nets you 2 skill points, d6 HD, and -4 to “saves of your choice” – okay, how many? Two? Three? No clue. This issue also extends to cunning, which nets you d6 HD, “2 points lost from saves of your choice” (how many??), and 3 random spells from any class or level. You cast spells as you wish, with a MP (Mana pool); you calculate this by adding your highest and lowest ability score. Casting a spell costs the spell’s level in mana, and you recover 1 MP per hour of rest; if you usually wouldn’t eb able to cast a spell due to not meeting its level requirements, you pay double MP. Still, this means that you can theoretically cast 9th level spells at 1st level. I really dislike this system. It feels rushed, its eliminating of level caps makes magic-users frickin’ OP, and the ambiguous verbiage regarding save progression isn’t impressive. Odd, usually Daniel Sell’s designs tend to be precise and well-wrought. If you want a modular class engine for LotFP; I’d consider the system presented in Undercroft #4 to be superior to this one.
The final class selection here in would be presented by Evey Lockhart – not one, but 4 new classes are provided, all with starting equipment noted, all with a theme of being broken, ostracized and volatile – if the world of her Stark Naked Neo Savages and Sanguine City States series is ever fully realized, it’ll be these classes I’ll use to play in it. The classes are intended to replace the standard LotFP classes, but imho work well enough if inserted as a single class. The detached are numb and make for excellent tanks – while sedated by alcohol etc., they take less damage, are immune to emotion effects, and always act first when not surprised. Okay…so what if two detached participate in a combat? The fallen was once something more – and still has the Preacher-esque ability to issue command a limited number of times per day…and they can cast a few spells…exactly ONCE each. Not ONCE per day, ONCE…it’s the last dying fire inside, and each new level unlocks an additional exceedingly potent such spell. Pariahs are foreign, ostracized…they are a bit like a cross between specialist and fighter, potentially able to pick up Bushcraft and Languages quickly, and might be familiar with strange weaponry. Perhaps the most interesting of these new classes, though, would be the partners in crime. Yep, you get to play two utterly co-dependent individuals. The class acts as a variant skill specialist, and is pretty powerful, balanced by the fact that you have some serious baggage from the past…and, well, the fact that this co-dependency is really nasty. Playing these should render you really paranoid of AoE damage…that being said, the partners in crime *are* seriously stronger than the other classes; some minor tweaks and more things to do for the pariah and detached would have been nice.
The supplement has more to offer, though – Barry Blatt, who gets the whole historic angle rather well, presents 101 uses for a hanged man, drawing deeply from medieval and early modern superstition, though the article’s title is somewhat misleading, as it instead can be likened to a brief occult research system, with the moss of dead man’s hair being of particular interest here, and modular steps provided; this may be me being a prick, but I wasn’t a fan of part of the article being outsourced to a blog, but yeah. As a whole, I enjoyed this, and I’d certainly love to see Mr. Blatt tackle an entire book of such step by step procedures for harvesting and applying strange substances.
Luke Gearing provides something rather disturbing (and appropriately-illustrated by Sean Poppe) – The Sickness. It’s essentially a magical STD that transforms you slowly into a grotesque, slimy tumor thing of orifices and secretion – statted as a monster, btw. And yes, this is scary and one of the instances that needs to be handled with care. Speaking of such stuff…
…was LotFP’s “Fuck for Satan” not enough of a screwjob (haha) regarding players? Are you fed up with your party and want to TPK them in arguably the most stupid and dumb way I’ve ever seen in a published offering? Okay. The ‘zine has something for you. Chris Lawson’s Cockdicktastrophe. It’s not a monster in the traditional sense. It’s a penis with penis hands, penis-eyes, etc., and if you are tired of warning players away from a locale, this is essentially a multi-page cut-scene without any player agency or stats. It’s just “everything becomes penis and fucks, you die.” It has an illusion of choice, but that’s it. I never thought ‘d say this…but I liked the penis-monster in FFS more. This is probably the worst article in the entire run of the Undercroft. I don’t see any serious use at a table, and even in gonzo tables, it has no agenda. Wasted page-count, imho. The comic-like artwork is kinda cute, though.
Finally, we have the largest article herein, “Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth”, penned by Ezra Claverie; like the author’s other offerings, this one has a backdrop of a strange blend of the fantastic, horrific and colonial themes, and makes me really crave a fully-realized campaign setting. But before I go further: This is not for the faint of heart – the subject matter deals with anti-natalism, stillbirths, (forced) abortion and nihilism.
In case that sort of stuff bothers you, consider this to be your TRIGGER WARNING. Oh, and SPOILER WARNING as well.
All right, only referees around? So, we have essentially a micro-setting that is roughly Polynesian as intended backdrop, though changes to other settings are very much possible; this culture has developed a strange and much-ostracized tradition, the “Circle of Unbirth” – think of these individuals as fervent anti-natalists, including their 12 sacraments and ritualistic magic, which includes causing stillbirths, quench any form of sexual appetite, etc. – and in this region, rules by the 12 clans, these beings may actually be helpful. You see, an inscrutable entity with insufficient comprehension of the mortal sphere ( somewhat akin to the one in Rafael Chandler’s “No Salvation for Witches”), the Generative Authority, has tainted the land, and the article presents the tools to make an adventure out of the horrors that happen due to its meddling – births will result in zoa, i.e. from the monstrous births will be birthed more things attached to it – think of Human Centipede, save that the new things sticking to the old ones grow ever more in mass with every birth – a table of zoön mass in kilograms, with comparisons noted, is presented, including the associated HD. There are also subtables that let you determine the type of creature the zoön’s latest part resembles, usually represented by a 12-entry table (mammal table is only 9 entries); weird: table #3 (probably amphibians) is missing from the ‘zine – you roll a d6, and table #3 is just not there.
What do you do with these monstrous births? Singular occurrence? Full-blown local or global apocalypse? All that’s up to you. Same goes for the role of the circle – are they an evil opposed to the cosmic evil? Truly DARK saviors in this time of horrors? The article provides some guidelines, but is, as a whole, about as uplifting as reading Philipp Mainländer. Unlike many comparable modules, I don’t see a way in which you can make this premise funny – it’s GRIMDARK in the most extreme form. It’s not my place as a reviewer to comment on the like, but even as an ardent fan of Ligotti and someone with pretty nihilistic convictions, I don’t see this being fun for my group. YMMV, of course. If you want to really out-edgelord someone, this toolkit will do the trick.
Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level, but not as tight as usual for The Undercroft. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard, and the original artworks by Matthew Adams, Jeremy Duncan, Sean Poppe, Anxious P. and Cedric Plante deserve special mention – I particularly loved Cedric Plante’s stylized renditions of the skinned moon daughters.
Benjamin Baugh, Barry Blatt, Patrick Stuart, Daniel Sell, Luke Gearing, Evey Lockhart, Chris Lawson, and Ezra Claverie really did deliver something here; it feels, in many ways, like a means to edgelord LotFP, and frankly, in many ways, it’s successful. This tackles seriously taboo subjects, with particularly Ezra Claverie’s adventure toolkit/mini-setting being pretty much the bleakest piece of RPG-material I’ve seen in a while.
That being said, I think this may be the most uneven Undercroft I’ve read so far – the classes range in precision and power by quite a lot; then again, I’d used the moon daughters and Evey’s wicked classes in a heartbeat. Daniel Sell’s article disappointed me big time with its imprecisions. Patrick Stuart’s fighter archetype is per se cool, but uneven as well, with some abilities significantly better than others, and a sense of a global context missing; it feels like a teaser for a longer book I’d enjoy, but on its own, the doctor feels a bit forlorn. Luke Gearing delivers big time with his monster, and I’ve made clear that I really don’t enjoy the waste of a pages for a prolonged “haha, you die”-troll for players. That may be me.
More so than any Undercroft before, this issue is a matter of taste; personally, I frankly didn’t like a lot of the content, with some aspects feeling rushed, tables cut, material on an external blog, instead of where I need it when I want to use the material at table and have the booklet before me.
That being said, I can see people loving what I didn’t – I certainly know quite a few black metal fans who’d really get into the bleak adventure outline presented by Ezra Claverie; I can see people love Patrick Stuart’s doctor. And I can see an annoyed referee getting a kick out of the prolonged read-aloud “hehe, you die”-troll. I just can say that this issue…wasn’t for me.
As a reviewer, this leaves me with the mechanical glitches here and there, which contribute to the overall notion of a rushed issue in comparison to earlier offerings. Still, it is VERY hard to not get something cool out of this ‘zine. Hence, my final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
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