Best Left Buried Deluxe Edition (BLB)
This game clocks in at 152 pages, 1 page introduction, 1 page editorial, 1 page character sheet, leaving us with 149 pages (A5/ 6’’ by 9’’) of content. My review is primarily based on the offset-printed hardcover, which is a sturdy tome; it’s glued, but expertly so, and takes a lot of punishment. The paper is super-thick, glossy, and indeed pretty deluxe. The stark black aesthetics of the book’s cover show a white shovel on a mound of earth, and the book has its name and creators on the spine, making it easy to locate in the bookshelf. It should be noted that the book makes copious use of bolding, allowing the reader to easily parse rules-relevant information. I have also consulted the pdfs.
I moved this review up in my reviewing queue because I wanted to cover this book back in spring, and then, well, COVID-19 happened, and I’ve been scrambling ever since. However, it’s now or never. Why? Because there currently is a kickstarter for Best left Buried: Deeper, a second edition of sorts.
What do I mean with “of sorts”? Well, it has more content, streamlined presentation, etc. – but the content of this book actually remains valid. All Best Left Buried materials released so far remain fully functional with the new edition – so thinking of Best left Buried: Deeper as an expanded edition probably makes most sense.
Now, among my readers, the only people likely to be familiar with this game would be fans of the OSR, but Best left Buried can’t really be called an OSR-game anymore; the engine is radically different, using d6s, and taking some obvious inspirations from a variety of games, including Traveller. That being said: While I’d call Best Left Buried a rules-lite game in how easy it can be learned, it does differentiate itself from its compatriot systems in a crucial way: You can run Best Left Buried for fans of systems like Pathfinder, D&D 5e and 13th Age without boring them or frustrating them due to a lack of options. How? Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s briefly talk about the setting, because it is quite important to contextualize the genre, because this *is* a genre-system in how it is presented.
Best Left Buried is a dark fantasy/horror game, which, as many of you know, are my first loves when it comes to roleplaying. However, unlike let’s say most of the more recent LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) supplements, the game does not focus on a historical setting and all that entails; Best Left Buried focuses on bringing dungeoncrawling and horror together; it is very much a fantasy-horror game, focusing on blending the experience provided by many classic modules (or OSR gems like Matthew Finch’s Demonspore) with a focus on horror.
If that sounds awfully obtuse to you and requires too much previous knowledge of RPGs, I have another summary pitch for you: Picture Darkest Dungeon without the repetition and grind, and with more options. If you’re as big a fan of Darkest Dungeon as I am, then this got your attention.
Best Left Buried has three Stats (the ability scores, essentially): Brawn, Wit, Will. Brawn is physical prowess and toughness. Wit is the stat used for agility, both mental and physical. Will represents the intellect – recalling obscure factoids, reading body language, etc. Characters start with +2 in one Stat, +1 in another, and +0 in the third. The default assumption is that regular people have +0s in every score. Best left Buried has two values that measure your survival: Vigour (Brawn +6), and Grip (think of this as a combined mana + stamina + sanity); You begin play with 4 + Will Grip.
Then, you choose an archetype (essentially a kind of class, but more freeform) – you get to choose from Believer, Cabalist, Everyman, Freeblade, Outcast, Scholar, Protagonist, Veteran. The Everyman archetype, in case you were wondering, would be the archetype that allows you to dabble in everything. These archetypes provide two abilities, and a drawback – if you’re a believer, you’re assumed to have the Guided by the Gods affliction, which makes you essentially convinced that the voices that talk to you are commands from above – Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Dancy Flammarion comes to mind. Cutthroats can’t make a heroic rescue; the dandyesque dastards have a harder time making Grip checks prompted by monsters or environments, freeblades have problems resisting the lure of gold, and protagonists don’t do well at lying – you get the idea. Like in most good dark fantasy/horror games, you have abilities, but also a drawback that is very much conductive to roleplaying. As an aside: Veterans start with an injury, which can, in what I assume to be a nod to Traveller, potentially result in death at character creation when e.g. using the random character creation tables in the back of the book – easily enough to mitigate by allowing for Injury choice, and unlikely, so a nice easter egg on a rules-level.
Then, you choose weapons and equipment from a list, and you’re essentially already done. Character creation takes less than 5 minutes, and the archetypes come with suggested Advancements (you do get to choose one of those), but we’ll come back to those later.
The base mechanic of Best left Buried is the Stat Check – you roll 2d6 and add the Stat’s modifier, if any. If you meet or beat 9, you have succeeded; below 9, you have failed. The target number is ALWAYS 9. You can, however, have the Upper Hand, this game’s equivalent of advantage – then, you roll 3d6 and discard the lowest die. Working Against the Odds is the system’s disadvantage – roll 3d6, and discard the highest roll. Against the Odds and Upper Hand cancel each other. If you have 3 instances of Against the Odds more than Upper Hand, a task becomes impossible; conversely, having 3 instances of Upper Hand more than Against the Odds means that you automatically succeed, because the task is trivial.
Observation checks are 2d6 rolled flat against 9. Rounds are assumed to take 10 seconds, and initiative is determined by rolling a d3 and adding Wit (and later, miscellaneous modifiers), taking turns from high to low. Being surprised deprives you of your first Turn’s action. The terrain is split up in Zones – you can move one Zone per turn. Note how there is no concrete dimension given – this is intentional: 20 meters of open terrain might take as long to traverse as a cramped 1,50 m crawlspace. During the character’s turn, they can move and attack, move again, use an Advancement (more on those later), escape (Wit check), and enemies might finish characters. Other actions are also possible. If you fail the Wit check to escape, you must either stay in the zone, or a monster in it gets an attack against you.
Attack rolls have a target number that usually ranges between 7 and 11, with a base target number of 8. Attack rolls are usually rolled with 3d6: If two of the three dice + the Stat used exceed the target number, you hit – and deal the third die as damage to the target’s Vigour. If two of the three dice + the Stat would not suffice to hit the target number, the attack does nothing. If an attack is trivial, you roll 2d6 and deal the higher die as damage. If the damage die against a target is a 6, it is a Critical Hit and the character or monster must roll an injury. Important: Monsters can gang up on you. You really don’t want that, as the horde will eliminate you; it’s also not an option for characters, which I approve.
Dying reminded me of the amazing “Fear & Hunger” indiegame – when you’re reduced to 0 Vigour, you flip a coin. Tails, you die. Heads, and you’re unconscious and return to consciousness after d6 hours, but gain an injury and an affliction. In combat, a monster can Finish an unconscious character, which can only be prevented by a Heroic Rescue. To do that, another character must be in the same or adjacent zone – this might require a Wit check to come to the aid of the character. A Heroic Rescue has no downsides – apart from one: The rescuer loses their next turn.
Characters can spend Grip to push themselves to Exertion, which lets them reroll a die, but you can’t reroll a reroll. Alternatively, you can spend Grip to cause an opponent to reroll a single die. Grip is also sanity – so there are Grip checks; this is a Will check against, bingo, target number 9. If you beat the check, you gain a point of Experience, but if you fail, you lose 1 Grip.
While we’re on the topic of combat, let’s briefly talk about equipment: Weapons are classified as hand, heavy, light, long, thrown or ranged, and use Brawn or Wit. They have damage modifiers ranging from -1 to +1, and may decrease initiative by up to -1. Optional gunpowder rules are included. Shields increase the target number to hit you by one, as does basic armor. Plate armor provides more protection, but requires 2 Brawn and decreases initiative. Armor does NOT hamper spellcasting.
Resting is required to replenish Vigour: Camping in an unsafe dungeon might well not replenish any VIgour; 6 hours of rest, single watch shift in a relatively dry cave with rations etc. nets 3 Vigour, and resting in a guarded base camp, on the surface etc. nets you 5 Vigour, while sleeping in a proper tavern replenishes 6 Vigour and 1 Grip. The game has easy rules for grappling, some conditions, and from encumbrance, drowning and suffocating, falling, etc., all of the usual suspects are covered.
You level up every 8 experience points gained, and gain 1 Vigour, 1 Grip, and an Advancement when you do. And this is actually the entire system; a lot of these more detailed rules are not required to be known by the players at first, only the Doomsayer needs to grasp them. Oh yeah, that’s the name for the GM. I LOVE it: “Doomsayer, may …“ Most kickass referee-name ever.
Okay, Advancements. Advancements are what one aspect of makes this game so incredibly compelling to me. Advancements are essentially like feats, class abilities, etc. Starting characters get one Journeyman Advancement for free. This means that even two characters of the same archetype with the same Stat distribution can play radically different. This is where my assertion that this game can engage fans of complex games stems from: You have more differentiation between characters than in some 5e classes at 1st level. These Advancements are very diverse: Ears of the Owl, for example, nets you the Upper Hand on Observation checks. Battle Frenzy lets you spend 3 Grip to enter a frenzy that forces you to attack the closest target, but nets you Upper Hand on attacks, and attacks against you are Against the Odds. The frenzy may be stopped prematurely for another point of Grip. Okay, cool. Extra Brawn, Grip or +1 to one Stat are also here. But that’s not the end. You see, some Advancements have one of 4 descriptors: Martial, Arcane, Holy, Devious. Once a character has taken a total of 4 Advancements, and if 3 are from one of these special types, they unlock new special Advancements. (As an aside, in one of the few unfortunate rules-relevant glitches herein, the overview rules state that 2 suffice, when all other sections clearly state that 3’s the magic number.) A character who has Battle Frenzy (Martial), Horde Killer (Martial), and My Shining Armor Gleams (Martial) would, for example, qualify to take the exclusive Martial Advancements. If you haven’t noticed: The names of the Advancements are AWESOME and ooze flavor, and indeed, apart from the boring Extra X Advancements, all do come with flavorful fluff. To give you an example:
“Thaddeus spoke the name of his God, and his sword lit with cold licks of holy flame. It swung with righteous force and took the head of the Crypt-thing clean from its shoulders.”
It’s a small bit, but it makes you want to take these Advancements. So yeah, there is a ton of room to specialize, but jacks-of-all-trades are similarly very much valid. Much like in more complex systems, there are a ton of possible builds, which provides something for this game that many rules-lite games lack: Replay-value for prolonged campaigns that derives its appeal not solely from the story, but also from the system used. Additionally, experienced Doomsayers can take abilities from complex games and translate them to Best Left Buried with relative ease.
Injuries and afflictions are, in case you haven’t guessed by now, essentially just what the names suggest – adventuring is a dangerous job for a cryptdigger, and justifiably so. Cryptdigger? Yep, that would be the default name for the PCs. It’s also a component introduced in the Doomsayer-section that is important, so let’s talk a bit about that. Best Left Buried assumes the option to scavenge settings together, the hacking part so popularized by the OSR, with some neat ones noted, but there is a default region, the 13 Duchies of Lendal. These regions…were a surprise for me. You see, the regions are NOT hellholes; the world itself is pretty wholesome in comparison to many settings in the genre…and that’s where the nomenclature comes in. There are companies, organizations, which act as adventurer’s guilds of sorts – these share a few traditions (such as a special coin) and seek out Crypts. Not dungeons. CRYPTS. To dig them and potentially, well, encounter and potentially unleash things Best Left Buried. The cryptdiggers are exceptional beings within the world, but the Archetypes also render them damaged to some extent – and indeed, the general assumption of the game is that the murderhobo economy can help you climb the social ladder, at potentially ghastly costs. There is a reason why your character tends to have a failed career as a background… The fact that dungeons are, well, called CRYPTS also adds a sense of transgression to the very act of adventuring as tomb-robbing. This establishes a dark tone, but never drifts off into full-blown nihilism, instead focusing on, well great dark fantasy/horror gaming.
The Doomsayer section also provides the usual suspects – deities of the setting, advice for running dark games (including the very prudent one that NOTHING BEATS COMMUNICATION). Advice for making traps have sense, for crafting monsters (not some generic entry, but unique critters…), you get the idea. It is here that the eminently hackable nature of Best Left Buried comes to the fore for the doomsayer: Much like with Advancements, it’s very easy to e.g. add certain special abilities from Pathfinder, 5e or another game by distilling them down to the basics, perhaps combine them with one of the many critter-generators popularized in the OSR. In many ways, Best Left Buried manages to have its cake and eat it, too. It should also be noted that the game does offer a “nice” version where Grip can be replenished more easily, thus partially negating the downward spiral theme, so if you want the game less gritty, you have the option.
Resting tables, mishap tables, setting information, and a brief introductory adventure (2 levels, and it features a deadly MOTHBEAR!) complement the section. The module also involves cat mummies, degenerate goblinoids, and paranoid madmen. Just saying…
The appendix section also sports rules for demi-humans, i.e. elves, dwarves, etc., including unique afflictions.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the game is very tight as well, but does have a very few components that slightly mar the experience. Not to a degree that would become too problematic, though. Layout adheres to a crisp, clear 2-column b/w-standard, with a TON of cool b/w-artworks by Ben Brown – these generate a holistic, unified atmosphere that perfectly complements the prose. The cartography is b/w and provided by Patrick Eyler – it is neat, but player-friendly, key-less versions would have been nice. The deluxe hardcover is a sturdy, high-quality tome, and compiles the Doomsayer’s Guide, the Cryptdigger’s Guide and the Expanded Character Options; its main downside is that it has neither a ribbon, not does it stay open when put flat on the table, which makes actual use at the table a bit more cumbersome than it should be. I can’t recommend the pdfs as highly as the hardcover, though – the pdfs lack bookmarks, which makes navigation supremely annoying. If you want to for the pdfs only, I’d suggest rounding down.
I’ll come right out and say it: Zachary Cox’s Best Left Buried is currently my favorite rules-lite game. BLB play smoothly and swift; it’s super-easy to explain and has a low barrier of entry, but at the same time, it offers a ton of means to differentiate between characters. The rules are smooth and almost perfect regarding the ability to hack other systems and integrate pretty much whatever into the game. But where this REALLY sets itself apart, is with its abilities to sustain long-term campaigns. Even though it is a rules-lite game per se, you still get to feel like you’re playing a NEW character when your cryptdigger bites the dust, because you actually do. The Advancement system allows for a TON of different options, and while spellcasters can probably toast some serious enemies, they pay for these capabilities with Grip. Same goes for your barbarian-like guy with Battle Frenzy. This tapping into the same resource is an important balancing tool. Best Left Buried manages to provide MEANINGFUL character advancement, but injuries and afflictions also generate this wonderful spiral of escalation that characterizes so many dark fantasy/horror games.
Is this game perfect? No, but I LOVE it to frickin’ bits. To the point where I’d e.g. rather use this system to play the old, non-historic LotFP-modules and many similar adventures. If you love your fantasy gritty and horrifying, your heroes flawed and/or tragic, then this game delivers in SPADES.
My final verdict will be 4.5 stars, and I’d usually round down for the respective comfort detriments of the book not staying open and the pdfs having no bookmarks. But frankly, I don’t want to. This book hits its tone so perfectly, it deserves rounding up and gaining my seal of approval. Note that, if dark fantasy or horror gaming is not something you’re as fond of as I am, you should probably round down for these comfort detriments. However, as far as I’m concerned, this also gets my “Best of…”-tag for how incredibly well it nails its theme. If you like dark fantasy/horror gaming, you owe it to yourself to check out this game – particularly if you want to teach roleplaying to new players.
If the Soul Muppet crew doesn’t totally drop the ball, then Best Left Buried: Deeper may well become one of my all-time favorite games.
…and the deluxe version I’ve reviewed here? It may very well become a collector’s piece. Just saying.
You can get the Deluxe Edition in pdf here on OBS!
Want just the player-facing basic rules? You can get the Cryptdigger’s Guide here!
Want just the GM-facing basic rules? You can get the Doomsayer’s Guide here!
The specialized Advancements and expanded options can be found as a stand-alone booklet here!
(Oh, and yes, these will all be updated to represent the new version!)
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