It began with the bottom shelf of a corner video store…
Friends had discovered a movie so cheesy and hilarious that all of our group had to watch it, and watch it we did- many times over. That movie was Evil Dead 2 and it opened our 11-year-old eyes to a world of campy horror and schlock sci-fi. Weekend evenings now included a trip to that store to rent what looked like the most ridiculous thing we could all find. We’d pop the tape in the VCR and die laughing. A genre that had once been mysterious and, frankly, a little terrifying (when you only looked at the covers of the slasher flicks), became a target for mockery and delight. While my personal tastes involving horror and sci-fi have since shifted to wanting to be terrified and amazed, I remember those days fondly, and can still enjoy the B-est of movies.
When it comes to gaming though, despite whatever shenanigans may occur during a session, I prefer to play it without irony. I’m aiming to instill the same feeling in others that I get when watching something like “Hereditary” or “The Expanse” (with the players’ permission of course). I do have one friend, champion of the b-movie, who loves running sessions of zombie movie games or other cheesy science fiction flicks, and though I always enjoy playing in them my GMing tastes aren’t always geared to running those games.
Though I haven’t had the chance to do a thorough playtest review of They Came From Beneath the Sea! I’ll tell you that, having read it, it is an excellent example of how to design a game to match a genre and is a horror game I’d happily run. Beyond the great design, there’s a really key element for me that makes TCFBTS! stand out, which I’ll save for the end of the review.
TCFBTS operates under Onyx Path’s Storypath system, presenting it in its most metagamey form. Now I don’t mean that in the “in-character/out-of-character knowledge” metagaming that ruins everyone’s fun, rather TCFBTS is a very “meta” game, explicitly meant to emulate the cinematic nature of its genre.
If you’re not familiar, here’s Storypath in a nutshell. It’s a d10 die pool system. When rolling you take dice equal to your level in an appropriate Skill (learned ability) and Attribute (inherent capability). You roll them together and count the dice that equal 8 or higher. If you get one you Succeed and achieve your goal. If you don’t you fail but may receive a Consolation (something that may aid you later – learning through failure). Now just succeeding at a roll doesn’t stop the action, that one success triggers Enhancements (bonuses from circumstance or gear or ally), which will add to your total Successes. You’ll then use those to buy off the Difficulty of the test, then any Complications (circumstantial negative effects), then purchase Stunts (fancy stuff that can modify the narrative by creating Complications, Enhancements, or increasing the Difficulty of rolls against you), then finally, using the remainder to determine the level of Success – routine or awe-inspiring.
TCFBTS becomes meta with the introduction of “Trademarks”, character-defining features of Attributes and Skills that give you bonus dice and allow Directorial Control (where you spend Successes to alter details of the current scene like bringing in the police or having a weapon misfire). There are also Rewrites, granted as a result of a failed roll without a Consolation, or a Botch (terribly failed roll). You use these to activate a few game features that affect the narrative, but are required to pitch them to the table and come to an agreement. One example used is ending a scene early to allow the PC to get past an alien causing them trouble, but other possibilities include the player understanding the alien language through “Bad Dubbing” (though you still need to explain how your character might know what was said and act on it), or a “Deleted Scene”, which adds something to the current Scene based on the “deleted” events.
If that’s not enough, there are Quips. Since what would a cheesy movie be without one-liners, they’ve been worked into the rules. Players draw a set of them from decks and play them (uttering the quip), then everyone votes if it was a fitting use. If so, the PC receives the bonus listed plus extra dice – so get pithy, players!
Characters are designed by selecting a series of Paths. These include the Archetype (the fundamental nature of the character, of which there are five, like “G-Man” or “The Mouth”), the Origin (their background), and their Ambition (what drives them). The Archetypes are exceedingly flexible and a wealth of characters can be built off them. Paths determine where you allocate Skill points, contacts and connections, and available Trademarks, among other things.
The three fields of play in TCFBTS are, appropriately, Action, Investigation, and Drama. Each is handled very efficiently with the Storypath chassis. They all run via Skill tests, with Enhancements, Complications, and Stunts providing further detail. Stunts increase your Damage output or the Difficulty to hurt your target, “Attitudes” can be an Enhancement or Complication in social maneuvering, and Successes accumulated in investigation/research actions can be used in some great ways – firm answers, side clues, gathering basic evidence (for which every roll gets to automatically set a die to 8 so you don’t miss essential information), or as Enhancements later when the clue becomes relevant. I especially like how weapons don’t necessarily give a bonus to damage or fighting, they just permit certain actions narratively (specific elements of weapons are indicated by Tags, which do things like make the attack deadly.)
Other fun parts of combat are the increase in dice added to a roll the more injured the character and that a death scene pauses all action to give the expiring individual their big dramatic exit.
The game is set in the 1950s, meant to reflect our world, but weirder and campier – through the rose-tinted glasses that era is frequently viewed. This is explicitly intentional and the authors acknowledge the time as being horrible for anyone who didn’t conform to the accepted “norms” of back then. While the game doesn’t focus on those themes and subjects, you’re, of course, free to do as you wish at your table. The chapter does a good job of positioning the “silver screen” setting intended by the game. Regardless of the aforementioned rose-tint there is still mention of changing social roles, the HUAC and Red Scare, subcultures, and more. It’s presented pretty well actually, as what begins as a very matter-of-fact discussion about the 1950s in the United States and Europe transitions almost seamlessly into the subject matter of TCFBTS! when it mentions Zombie Stalin. From that point, our POV narrator starts to include the other antagonists in her overview and we get to see just how weird this world really is.
For a game like this you want a good set of antagonists and the Threats section is stellar. Each time I read an entry where I thought “this is my favorite” I’d turn the page and think “no, wait – this one is.” Each entry includes a summary, the Threat’s goals, a story hook, and their statistics along with any special rules. There are lots of options s to choose from, giving you material for countless stories. They’re organized into a variety of categories for easy reference, so I’ll list my favorite of each. Ah, that’s too hard, so here are my favorites:
- Destroyers: The territorial Moreau-vian Shark Clans: part- human part-shark in various combinations. Teenage Shrimp: once motorcycle rebel who are a radioactive shrimp and was grown to immense size when a cure was attempted. The Uranium Man: a giant monster of uranium and radioactivity besieging America’s power plants.
- Enslavers: The Gigantic Pillbugs: pretty self-explanatory but they have the capacity for understanding human speech and are fond of bad puns. The Suspended: blob-like creatures that entice humans beneath the waves for unknown purposes.
- Invaders: The Brain-eating Eel: parasites responsible for the death and rebirth of Joseph Stalin. The Prefecture of the Pod: an advanced society of whales and dolphins with extreme contempt for humanity, manipulating surface agents for their aims.
- Primordials: The immense, ravenous Centopus, octopus with a hundred tentacles. The Oblique: a creature of pure water, surviving and reproducing by draining water from other living beings.
- Spies: The Seahorse People, transformed into humans to serve their Empress on the surface world, aiming to infiltrate human militaries and seize control. The Were-lobsters, who spread their curse and faith in the ancient leviathan.
- Terrestrials: technically “Spies”, these are humans in service to the Threats. The occultist in me is fond of “The Church of the Wave Ascendant”, a formerly harmless esoteric society that was co-opted into serving the dwellers in the deep and returning humanity to the grasp of Mother Ocean.
To this point we’ve been given a lot of content and rules to best emulate the aquatic b-movie sci-fi/horror genre. Now how to bring it all together? As my previous reviews indicate, I appreciate the Gamemaster sections in Onyx Path books – I think they have very good writers. TCFBTS is no different, as it focuses in on how to use this book to properly replicate the source material. The advice given is just as good for a newcomer “Director” as an old hand – in fact, the content actually helps guide one from a newcomer to a veteran GM through its discussion of presenting theme and tone and structuring play to match, and how to manage the level of preparation and detail to put into your stories. I particularly like the 3-Act breakdown when designing stories. What I wouldn’t have thought of, but which could be extremely useful, is the section on what kind of movie is being emulated: low/big-budget, Art, or Exploitation, and how to use description and events to highlight their features, along with when to give characters Experience points specific to the style.
The Director’s chapter also gives a sample sandbox setting (the Delaware beach town of Lewes), which contains history, geography, and people of note, including how a good number of antagonists from the Threats chapter fit in. Plot hooks run rampant though it’s up to the Director to flesh them out. There’s also a sample story set in the Hawaiian town of Hanamalu featuring the danger posed by one of the squickier Threats (though still one of my faves). It’s designed specifically for new players and Directors, following the earlier outlines. The Director’s Notes are really good and follow basic, sensible guidelines on storycraft – like taking the time to help the players care about their environment so the threats have meaning and impact.
I said I’d tell you the part that really sells me on TCFBTS! and this is it: it’s presented almost without the tongue-in-cheek manner that ruins “should-be cheesy” movies for me. I’ll explain by comparing “Evil Dead 2” with “Snakes on a Plane.” After my first viewing of “Evil Dead 2” I remarked how it was actually a pretty decent plotline, the execution was just what made it funny. After viewing the first “Evil Dead” I would say I was correct – not much funny about that one. Why “Evil Dead 2” worked was it never self-referenced or admitted it was schlocky. “Snakes on a Plane” however, takes a ridiculous premise and regularly points out how ridiculous it is, thereby ruining the movie for me. I get it, it’s silly, but the characters shouldn’t be the ones drawing attention to that.
While the players may have the meta-knowledge that calling a movie “Snakes on a Plane” hilarious, they’re not the protagonists – their PCs are. The rules in TCFBTS! allow the players to be Sam Jackson running Ash Williams through the story of “Evil Dead 2” and not “Evil Dead.” This allows the story to have the impact of being played straight, like C.H.U.D. or “Shaun of the Dead” even, allowing hilarity but with character consequences and impact. It’s a very good design and presentation, which makes me quite like the game!
If you are prepared to combat horrors from the watery depths of the world of the 1950s, purchase a copy of They Came From Beneath the Sea! from IndiePressRevolution or the below affiliate links!