Friday, June 12, 2020

Secrets Under Stone Review

Secrets Under Stone is a terse indie game focused on Gothic Fantasy Roleplaying. The game's system is an adaptation of the rules found in the Fighting Fantasy solo game books and Advanced Fighting Fantasy roleplaying game. Previously, I hadn't been convinced that the Fighting Fantasy system was a good fit for full-on roleplaying games; it works really well for solo game books, but characters consisting of three stats that are basically Hit Points, Saving Throws, and How Good You Are at Everything Else never felt deep enough for a satisfying roleplaying game experience. Secrets Under Stone addresses that by splitting How Good You Are at Everything Else into three broad ability scores: Brawn, Knack, and Knowledge. Such a small change, yet it feels like it grants so depth to the characters you can create.

Although I don't tend to prefer random character creation, the rules for it in Secrets Under Stone are fairly clever: roll d66 six times to determine your character's starting skills. Each skill comes with one piece of adventuring equipment. Total up how many skills you rolled that are connected to each of the three abilities, and do a little maths to determine your starting ability scores. As an example of what a character looks like in Secrets Under Stone, here's a character I rolled up:

Brawn 5, Knack 5, Knowledge 6
Stamina 12, Luck 8
Skills: Religion: dominant, Halberd fighting, Random language (Faery), Nature lore, Sneaking, Navigation
Equipment: Frightful relic, halberd, exotic tome (fae lore), poison vial and recipe, compass, rucksack, dagger, lantern with oil flask, 5 provisions, 14 silver coins

The chances for success in Secret Under Stone look a little low for my tastes (there's potential for a lot of whiffed rolls), but advancement seems like it would be speedy, at least initially. Task resolution is handled by simple 2d6 roll-under ability score tests, with relevant skills providing a bonus to the ability score under consideration.

The Gothic elements of Secrets Under Stone emerge most strongly in character creation. Although many of the skills and items that characters can start with would be at home in any vaguely early modern-influenced fantasy setting, skills like spiritualism and equipment like the frightful relic set the tone. The Gothic atmosphere is also subtly enhanced by what isn't included here; the absence of more traditional fantasy magic goes a long way toward emphasizing what the game is and isn't about. 

While there isn't an explicit setting in Secrets Under Stone, the implied setting is hinted at through player-facing options such as Rituals and Contracts. Rituals, despite the magical-sounding name, really cover any extraordinary abilities a character might gain from deep knowledge of a given subject. One example of a Ritual in the book is an Archaeology Ritual that allows you to produce convincing forgeries. Contracts are pacts with supernatural Patrons that allow for characters to gain boons and knowledge beyond their usual abilities. Of course, these benefits have requirements and carry the treat of your character becoming accursed. 

One thing I like about the style of Secrets Under Stone it is that it isn't written in that whimsical artiste tone that really grates on my nerves. (I thought we had reached the nadir with the grimdark artiste tone, but little did I know that there was another level of hell awaiting that was even worse!) Secrets Under Stone is written in a straightforward manner, with good editing and the occasional textual flourish, which I greatly appreciate.

It is a shame that the art in Secrets Under Stone is all drawn from the woodcuts and illustrations we've seen often in similar indie roleplaying game products because the game deserves bespoke art. I get it, though, art is expensive. Also, I do wish there was a bit more content, particularly in the bestiary, which eats up available space with mundane animals. I would have made a few different choices here and there, but all in all I think Secrets Under Stone is a solid little game. The real test of a game is the answer to a simple question: would I play this? In the case of Secrets Under Stone, I unreservedly would. Despite my minor critiques, this is a very concise and thoughtful game.