Bones Deep is a subaquatic setting for Troika!, the Science Fantasy roleplaying game of baroque weirdness published by the Melsonian Arts Council. Published by the Technical Grimoire Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a toolkit to run adventures on the bottom of the sea, sandbox fashion, in which Skeletons explore a whole new world, discover its secrets, get involved in the various sea factions and their feuds, and begin to make a new life for themselves. Inspired by real deep-sea life, it combines this with strange fantasy to present twenty locations, such as the Graveyard Lake or Kelp Forest; some fifty creatures, including Otters, Shark Hydras, and Witches; and some thirty-six spells, all ocean themed, like Air Bubble, Coral Shaping, and Undertow. It includes a handful of stories to help start a campaign, including finding out what the secret plans of the Cephalopods are, curing Wizards, repairing the Sunken Barge—a space barge which fell to the Earth and crashed into the sea, and is now occupied by a Necromancer! The Sunken Barge is one of the few mapped locations in Bones Deep.
Given that Bones Deep is written for use with Troika!, it should be no surprise that Skeletons in the setting are lightly defined, primarily by their Skills, Backgrounds, Abilities, and Drives. A Skeleton is first defined by his Background. There are six in Bones Deep. The Newborn is recently hatched, learns skills quickly, and is confused with flesh still clinging to his bones. The Carver turns to scrimshaw in pursuing the deepest of arcane secrets, channelling magic through the runes he carves into his bones. The Keeper misses the sensations of his former flesh and so offers his ribcage, skull, and the kelp on his arms as home for various creatures who will follow his commands. The Junker remains fascinated with technology and tools, so salvages debris from the seabed and tinker with gadgets it embeds into his bones. The Shifter has realised that just as his Skeleton is no longer limited by its former fleshy home, his bones are no longer limited to the humanoid form, so with effort shift into different forms which possess different skills. The Infested not only recalls his hatching with horror, he is also home to a squirming parasite that changes him, torments him, and wants it to consume him.
Skeleton creation itself is very simple. A player selects or rolls for a Background, notes down the details, and that is it. He can however, also roll on the ‘Skeleton Generator’ table at the back of the book to determine whether his Skelton is spooky or scary, and what Allegiances, Conditions, Past Life Memories, Clothing, Fleshy Life Skills, Drives, and Quirks he has. These are all optional, intended primarily for use with NPCs, but useful here.
Base Skill: 4
Drive: To Salvage
5 Taking Things Apart
2 Spell – Torpedo Throw
2 Spell – Protection from Rain
1 Gadget Fighting
Tinkering Tools, Flowlantern, 3 Flares, Old Coat Rack, Umbrella, Gadget – Bounding Shield, Gadget – Charged Wrench
Mechanically, Bones Deep makes only a few changes to Troika! Drives replace the standard means of healing Stamina and recovering Luck, whilst Stamina becomes even more important than usual. It represents a Skeleton’s energy, motivation, and will to keep going. Whilst a Skeleton no longer has the needs of his former fleshy coating—oxygen and food, love and intimacy—he can still suffer damage. Bones can be broken, crushed, burned, and fall under the influence of necromancy. Spells also cost Stamina to cast. The major ability that every Skeleton possesses is being able to absorb memories. This is a Luck test and if successful, the Skeleton can learn about an object’s past, a creature’s emotions, and the recent changes to an environment. He can also communicate with fish using the same method. However, if a Skeleton fails to absorb a memory, he suffers a Memory Mishap, which can lead to the loss of memories, spells, or other weirdness.
The bulk of Bones Deep can really be divided into two long sections. Almost a third is devoted to a lengthy bestiary of fish, cephalopods, cetaceans, crustations, and jelly fish, plus witches and wizards. Whereas over two thirds of Bones Deep is dedicated to various locations, which run from the Jungle and Silt Rivers and along the Shore Line to Sulphur Spires and Sargasso. Each location includes a description, an associated table of events or things which can be found there, plus nearby locations. For example, at the Graveyard Lake, the table is ‘2d6 Things Dredged from the Lake’. One location is mapped out in detail, the Sunken Barge, but there is a table of encounters too, plus several stories that the Game Master can develop into fuller scenarios.
Physically, Bones Deep is cleanly and tidily presented. All of the undersea creatures are very nicely presented and the writing never less than engaging or interesting. In the particular, the book is full of small details bring the setting to life. For example, the Air Bubble spell creates a bubble of air that can choke a water breather or drag someone to the surface because of its buoyancy or the Teleport spell that underwater that leaves behind a vacuum that causes a shockwave when the caster teleports and compression when he arrives at the desired location that forces him away from the intended destination. Both spells take into account the physics of the subsea environment. All of the creatures have a ‘Mien’ table which determines their behaviour, which for example would be practicing Swordplay, Practising Pacifism (Badly), Swordfighting (Angry), Swordfighting (Mating), Swordfighting (You), and “You talkin’ to me!?” for the Blade Eel, a creature created by the Necromancer “as a living pun”. These various tables lend themselves to a game designed to be run with a minimum of preparation—that is, once a game is got going.
Bones Deep does not have a starting point. There is no beginning scenario, and for all of its atmosphere and flavour and detail, instead of there being a way into the game and setting, the Player Characters just are. Which for a setting as odd as this is a potential problem for some players and their Game Masters. There are plenty of adventure hooks within its pages, but not an easy starting point. Similarly, there is no break between sections in the book. Flip over from one page and you find yourself in a completely different section of the book, going the section on spells to the one on creatures. It is disconcerting.
Bones Deep explores a brilliantly alien world brought to life. It could easily be adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice, but as a Troika! supplement, it is pleasingly self-contained, but could work as a region for Player Characters to explore as part of a Troika! campaign. On its own, Bones Deep is a weird and wonderful and wet standalone campaign setting.