Saturday, July 22, 2023

Game Review: Beneath the Sunken Catacombs

Paul Bantock
Publisher: Self Published
Engine: OSR-Compatible
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Amazon 

I recently spotted Beneath the Sunken Catacombs in my Amazon Recommendations. Its marketing promised a game that wasn't a retroclone, but instead was a fresh take on the original 1970s gaming experience with some modern and innovative touches with regard to classes and magic.

Beneath the Sunken Catacombs is sold at near cost for $10 (C) on, and is PWYW on DTPRG as a PDF.

It uses a Modlvay B/X D&D base, and at first glance it looks like a pretty standard retroclone, but as I read it I found some little flourish, tweak, or minor redesign on almost every page of the game, most of which I will detail below.

You will see nothing different on the character sheet of the system: It uses the standard six ability scores, ascending AC, levels, AC, 1-axis alignment, and hit points. Like Swords & Wizardry it uses only one saving throw. Characters retire at level 10. The XP system is pretty standard and uses gp-for-xp. It's Encumbrance system is a bulk system similar to that in Castles and Crusades.

Instead of different hit points for the classes, all PCs and monsters use d6s for hit points, and gain hit dice at different rates: Warriors and Dwarves gain hit dice every level, Priests, and Elves at a rate of around 2:3, and sorcerers and halflings gain a mere 1d6 every 2 levels.

There is a lot ot like about Beneath the Sunken Catacombs if you are looking for a light, fas, well-contained TTRPG. I would consider it a solid contender as a TTRPG I might give to a kind looking for a first D&D-syle game. It is very well suited for introducing D&D4e or D&D5e players into the old school style of play. It takes the heart of some of the best ideas from that era and makes them work in a B/X structure very well.

At 149 pages, Beneath the Sunken Catacombs is a very  complete TTRPG with 100 spells, 46 monsters spread almost evenly across difficulty levels, a large magic item selection,  5 sample NPCs of different levels for each class, and a large assortment of NPC hirelings and villains. It also includes a couple of unusual campaign outlines, and sample hex and dungeon crawls and a sample town,

What I Loved

"What's an OSR?" & DM Advice

The section entitles "What's an OSR?" does a great job at laying out the predominant game philosophy of the OSR as it varies from the culture aroubd modern gaming culture: players are responsible for creating story, the gaming world is open, the GM is a referee there to interpret the rules, your actions have consequences, your characters are tomb raiders, not heroes, and the game world is a living thing that changes whether the players are interacting with it or not.

The section lays out the game's philosophy clearly in just a few pages. Combined with the GM advice section, it condenses a few years worth of OSR discourse into a few concise and clever points.

The GM advice section advises DMs to start small, grow the campaign world with the PCs, to root for the PCs but not to fudge dice to protect them from failure, and not to overprepare, with lots of other useful bits of mindset and practical advice.


One of the biggest selling points of D&D5e is how customizable the characters are. You have options that let you tweak and build the character to your taste, causing a middling selection of D&D classes to appear to be a huge variety.

Beneath the Sunken Catacombs offers a page of customized variants for each of the seven Basic classes that adds a little more sense of customization: A Warriro can be modded into a Crusader with clerical powers, a brigand with some thieving abilities, a Barbarian with sharp senses that boost their saving throws, or a Swashbuckler that excles at fighting in light armor with one-handed weapons. There are at least four variants to every class.

Some of these variants add some options for non-human characters that help short-circuit the complaint many players have about race-as-class. For example there is an Elvin Sage variant of sorcerer with one fewe spells per level, but an elf's perceptive abilities, as well as Elvin Knights, Elvin Rangers, Elivn Priests and Blade Dancer variants of the Elf class that tweak it enough to make elves seem varied and let the player who wants to be an elf, but isn't interested in the basic fighter/mage combo to play something more to their tastes.

These variants go a long way to making a game that has seven classes feel like it has thirty five.

Starting Spellbook

On thing I have never been happy with is the starting spellbook mechanics in TSR versions of D&D. The rules in BtSC are very satisfying with Sorcerers sttarting with read magic, one spell of the player's choice, and two more randomly selected ones.

Thievery Rules

Much like the skullduggery die I proposed a couple of months ago, BtSC uses a system where theives have a success rate for thief skills that is a single x-in-6 number for all skikls. So, if your Thief has a thievery of 3-in-6 picking pockets, disarming a trap, or hiding in shadows all succeed if you roll a 1, 2 or 3 on a d6. it's nice, its simple, and it feels pretty fair.

TotM/Tile Compromise 

BtSC assumes that the game will be played Theatre of the Mind, but offers a few pages of rules, some rules enhancements, and some valuable advice on running a game using minis  on a 5' square grid.

Attacks of Opportunity

D&D has always had some kind of rule about taking free shots at fleeing opponents, most of which have been a proud nail in the game's design. They made the most theoretical sense in D&D3e... but there were so many opportunities to use and abuse attacks of pooprtuity in D&D3.x that they slowed the game to a crawl. Especially once those DEX 20 Half-Orc fighters with spiked chains started spamming them.

BitC has an Attack of Opportunity that is codified byt very limited in use and scope. I find it is an excellent compromise betweent he confusing free attack on a fleeing opponent and the long list of AOO triggers in 3.x

Simplified Overland Travel

Overland travel has a tidy section that covers traveling overland by foot or mounted with a simplified watch system and codified random encounter rules that are fast and easy to use and simple to implement.

Nonlethal Combat

I have never seen nonlethal combat handled quite the way it is handled in BtSC. Characters attempting to hurt a creature without rsking killing it deal only 1d3 damage, but the target drops unconscious when it drops to 0hp without risk of dying.

Wilderness Encounter Advice

Beneath the Sunken Catacombs offers some good advice for adding dimension to wilderness encounters with several practical examples. For example, having a Wight encounter appearing as the discovery of a forgotten barrow, with the PCs acidentally freeing the wight if they figure out a way to open the heavy door.

Overall Solid Combat Deaign

Combat design in BtSC runs on a chasis of B/X, but there is enough added to it to make it feel very well thought out. Common dirty tricks like disarming, tripping, shoving, feinting, throwing sand, etc., are covered in an appendix as examples of how to execute a set of simple heuristic tools for handling combat edge cases.

Combined with the smart attack of opportunity reimagining, the innovative way non-lethal combat is handled, clear and simple critical hit rules, and some solid rules on poison, infectious wounds, disease, paralysis, etc., combat feels really solid without being as sluggish and encumbered as WotC-era D&D. It is an excellent compromise to give formal tools to guide rulings for OSR crowds, and satisfactory combat options for people more used to modern iterations of the game.

Like in Holmes Basic D&D and Blueholme, most weapons do D6 or D6+1 damage. Monsters and most NPCs roll D6s for hit points making HD a pretty good guide to how many hits a monster is going to take, which I have come to appreciate as I have played in an extended Tonisborg campaign as of late.

Lingering Poison

Poison takes on a horrid new dimension in Beneath the Ruined Catacombs, as it is still a save or die effect, but once a character has failed the save, they have a d6 rounds to save themselves, flail helplessly, or do one last brave act. This slower death adds a lot of potential tension to play.

During my playtest, the delay gave my thief time to save his life when he caught a poisonous dart and failed his save (a dose of antivenom lets you retry the save.) But the kerfuffle and panic alerted some gnolls in the next room who were able to burst through the trapped door and take my thief hostage. The battle ground my party's resources down severely. I'd say it succeeded in generating tension!

Narrative Attributes & Dicing Advice 

Some of the best advice offered in BtSC is having to do with the use of attribute checks... or more to the point not using them. Beneath the Sunken Catacombs advises GMs to look at PC Attributes and simply allow success when their score suggests they ought to be able to achieve a task. It also has systes for making checks that make them a little simpler (a task I wasn't sure I thought possible), and most importantly solid advice about not letting dice drive the game when they can be soundly skipped.

Loose 1:1

One of the most interesting things I noticed in Beneath the Sunken Catacombs is that it recommends using 1:1 time in the same manner that I, Ben Milton, and Stephen Smith use it. This is the first time I hae seen 1:1 time in its more modern incarnationappear in an OSR game book, and I think it is covered brilliantly.

Meaningful Upkeep

One of the most ignored aspects of AD&D that has been cut, or largely ignored by the OSR is Upkeep. AD&D expected PCs to expend hundreds of gold per month on living it up, making connections, research, religious service, etc. Failure to pay out hundreds or thousands of gold pieces - based on level - slowed a PC's ability to heal, and gave them separate chances of disease, parasitic infection, or crime to afflict them between adventures if it was neglected.

While Beneath the Sunken Catacombs does not go nearly that far with its upkeep system, it has a per week upkeep that PCs are expeced to pay during downtime to cover food, lodging, and supplies needed for their class. If a chracter does not pay this price they cannot regain hit points, recover from disease or infection, or  perform certain downtime activities like research or creating magic items.

This system doesnt' demand staggering amounts of expense that would make a king blush, as AD&D did, it does make upkeep feel meaningful.


in D&D5e, Xanathar's Gude to Everything added useful and actionable mechanics for things PCs were likely to do during downtime. It may have been the one thing I really liked about any of the 5e supplemental material.

BtSC borrows the Xanathar's style downtime options to cover working for a living, bed rest, training (which lets you spend saved gold for even more XP).

I thought that this was a pretty useful addition to the game, but I might have liked to see more options such as recruiting hirelings and henchmen, building a faction, consulting sages, religious service, and homesteading, but as is, it is a solid selection for low-level PCs.

I especially liked that spell research required decent upkeep and a sizable location, but granted a 2-in-6 chance of learning a new random spell,, which, given the sensible costs, is in hard competition with scribing Scrolls or brewing potions.

Spell Overcharge 

Spell Overcharge is a mechanic where an Elf or Sorcerer PC may sacrifice an additional spell the same level as the spell they are casting to get a more powerful "overcharged" version.

This feels a lot like the way 5th edition handles scaling spells, and reminds me of some of my favourite mechanics from The Dozen Dooms at the same time. It also reduces the scaling of spells like fireball, by giving them a flat damage total and a higher overcharged version of it.

I have found in play, my PCs ended up blowing through half their spells really fast when things went South.

Necromancers actually work!

A lot of thought has been put into rejiggering spells in BtSC. Spells have shifted around in level, and in many cases two different, related spells have been turned into regular and overcharged version of one spell.

Its clear that Beneath the Sunken Catacombs put especial thought into making the Necromancer villains - and PCs for that matter - functional. Animate dead has been brought down to  second level spell, but requires both overpower and a sacrifice of a 50gp onyx to make the spell permanent. 

In most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, being a Necromancer is a sucker's game. You need to be at least 7th - if not 9th level before you can begin making your undead army. If you reakky want to control the undead, you are way better off being an evil cleric, with all the complications that introduces. Having the ability to actually use the arcane arts to create undead minions before you have ridiculous levels of achievement makes this a far more sensible type of villain to use.

This though has been put into re arranging the levels and functionality of a lot of spells.

When I played through my playtest, I found the re-arranged spell list made spells feel very impressive, but required a little more tactical thought to use. Confusion as a 2nd level spell was impressive, but not overpowered with the redesign, for example.


Once you get into the content -- the spells, creatures, and magic items -- there are a lot of little flourishes that I appreciate that give the game its own flavor, such as commune only being usable three times per year, ogres and orchards neighbors racially interconnected, or that there are belts, bags, and sacks of holding.

Monstrous Classes

One of the appendices to the game suggests a structure for a monstrous campaign that has mutants, beastmen, troglodytes, and orchards as character classes that fill similar roles to the four human classes. While certainly no everyone's cup of tea, it is a cool embellishment.

Encounter Suggestions

A rather lengthy appendix offers at least one, but usually two or three examples of how to  relate interesting, challenging,  and flavorful encounters with each of the monsters in the book.

Sample Material

BtSC includes one level of a sample dungeon, a sample overworld map, and a sample town to get new GMs started. It's a rare inclusion in OSR games, and a much appreciated one.

Growth Points

AI Art

AI-generated art is definitely a controversial topic right now, and a design choice that not everyone will appreciate. I personally will go into it my thoughts in another place.

Character Portrait of my solo
game character Molly Hyaline
generated with NightCafe
The specific atwork here is generated by NightCafe, a for-pay web-based system that uses the Stable Diffusion engine and a limited selection of Stable Diffusion and Dall-E models. Style options are limited unless you are an advanced user. I have experimented a bit with NightCafe in order to get a few different art pieces of one of my current solo characters, some of which didn't turn out too bdly... but given my prompts are pretty dsappointing.

If we are to take the art in Beneath the Sunken Catacombs as illustrations for a TTRPG manual, I would say it is a bit disappointing. It suffers from the weird, organic twists and turns that Stable Diffusion-based art tends to create that are a bit npleasant to look at. Objects tend to fuse together in odd ways and characters often look contorted or uneven.

That said, there are lots of them, and they create their own kind of twisted, and eerie vibe that I appreciate.

As someone whose art skills have attrophied a bit over the years, and who has a hard time drawing at nearly the speed he writes, and zero bdget for his TTRPG creations, I understand the appeal of tools like AI to provide Art that is otherwise difficult to make or expensive to acquire. Even sifting through public domain archives can be time-consuming and frustrating.  I think in this case the quality of the art NightCafe lets the game down a bit.

Bestiary heading image from Beneath the Slumbering Catacombs
created by Paul Bantock using NightCafe

Chokepoint Advice 

While I generally appraciate the combat design and the advice on finding compromises between using minis on a tiled grid and Theatre of the Mind, I was very disappointed by advice on chokepoints. BtSC suggests that all doors be assued to be 10' wide wooden doors with high archways to prevent combat from being played entirely through choke-points.

Honestly, it doesn't make any sense to me, as huge double doors don't make a lot of sense in mant dungeons, and players ought to be rewarded for using clever tactics to give them some advantage in combat.

Page Cross Referencing

Beneath the Sunken Catacombs doesn't cross-reference pages particularly well. This left me scratching my head about some rules, as I had forgotten a detail or rule from one part of the book. For example, bandages are listed as an item in the equipment section, which are easily skimmed over. In the section on healing, it mentions that once after each combat PCs can regain some hit points by bandagng their wounds, but you had to skim back to the equipment list and read the description of bandages to realize that bandages restore 1d6 hp. Either repeating the information or offering a page reference would be extremely helpful, but is seldom done.

Encounter Frequency 

Beneath the Sunken Catacombs does not use the ususal Dungeons & Dragons time structure during exploration; instead it recommends that most PC actions take one minute and that they can choose to either move their movement rate or all take actions during that time frame.

The game recommends rolling for a random encounter ever 5 minutes that pass. Even if you adjust for the different time tracking methods this seems like insanely frequent chances for wandering monsters. I would pare it back to 10 so that PCs could do about the same amount of things that they could do in two turns in D&D.

Milestone vs XP Tables

During the early portion of the book, leveling up by milestones  is mentioned, and confused me greatly, as while there are XP for levels listed, XP and leveling up are not detailed until the GM section. This seems language left over from an earlier edit.

Magic Innovation Overhyped 

The Amazon marketing for Beneath the Sunken Catacombs suggested that it was going to seriously overhaul the magic system of D&D. I felt a bit let down when I saw spellbooks and vancian spell slots. Wile the re-jiggered spell list and overcharge mechanics are both good, they are a lot less of a change than I was expecting.

Heavily Weighted Reaction Table

The reaction table for monsters makes friendly reactions less likely than the traditional tables and make hostile reactions far more likely. This makes combat more frequrnt than I care for.

Treasure Disconnected from Challenge 

The game uses a single treasure table to generate all treasures, making it possible for low level characters to be able to find vast treasures, which means that with XP for GP, low levels might pass by very quickly.

Uninteresting Magic Items

Honestly, I found the magic item section a bit bland. there were a lot of varitions on a theme. Give the care with which spells were modified, I would have liked to see a similar level of tweaking done to the other half of the magic equation. In fairness, so much energy was expended on equipment, gear, spells, and monsters that I am almost asking for a superhuman effort here.


I was pleasantly surprised by Beneath the Sunken Catacombs! It takes a lot of what has appealed about the three most recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons, simplifies them, and makes them work in a way consistent with the rules-light Moldvay B/X D&D approach to the game, offering combat manouvres, attacks of opportnity, combat grids, subclasses, and metamagic while keeping very friendly to players coming at the game from an OSR angle. And there is a lot here for rules hackers to plunder.

It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was definitely full of pleasant surprises. I can see this one developing a cult following very easily.

Personally, i hope to one day see a Master version that includes dominion rules approached with the same innovative spirit.


  1. I've always played that "Read Magic" is a skill, not a spell. It helps that 1ed thieves slowly gained the ability to read magic - almost as if they were learning a new language, not casting a spell.

    1. I like that approach. It's not far off from how I handle it in Deathtrap Lite where reading magic, detecting magic, and identification are all included in a skill called Analyze Dweomer that anyone can learn with enough time and discipline.