Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Retrospective: Night's Dark Terror

Most of my retrospective posts focus on games or game products produced between 1974 and 1983, the period I call the Golden Age of D&D, because it's the period when the game was still expanding outward rather than inward. It's also closely associated with my early involvement in the hobby, when I paid a lot more attention to the games and game products released than I did in later years. Consequently, if I remember a product published after 1983, it must be memorable in some way, whether good or bad.

1986's Night's Dark Terror is pretty solidly in the former category. Written by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher, this "Special Basic/Expert Transition Module for Levels 2-4" was one of the last products of TSR UK, whose legacy is still a matter of debate amongst fans on this side of the Atlantic. The module thus combines dungeoneering with wilderness travel and a thin structure in order to provide the PCs with purpose as they adventure throughout the uncharted reaches of the Dymrak Forest of northeastern Karameikos. The module book itself is 56-pages long, contains extensive maps, and 120 die-cut counters for use in adjudicating the siege of a trading outpost by humanoid raiders. Even if its contents hadn't been excellent, Night's Dark Terror is an impressive artifact in its own right.

But, as I stated above, module B10 is indeed excellent, something all the more remarkable given the date of its publication. If one were to examine TSR's output in 1986, there are few standouts among its adventure modules. Between the large number of Dragonlance offerings, the "super-module" compilations, and a large number of licensed properties, such as the Red Sonja modules, one cannot really call 1986 a banner year for the company. More importantly, module design had, by 1986, begun to seriously embrace the principles of the Hickman Revolution, making Night's Dark Terror, with its rambling, (largely) unfocused presentation seem like even more of a throwback than it was.

For the most part, module B10 is a location-based adventure. The characters travel from place to place as they wish, either purely for their own reasons or to follow up on clues and hooks they've encountered earlier. There are times when NPCs or circumstances somewhat heavy-handedly point, "This way to adventure!" -- such as the capture of an NPC's brother by goblins and dogged pursuit by agents of a powerful slaver whose headquarters is nearby -- and these do weaken the module somewhat. However, in its authors' defense, I should point out that they take pains throughout the text to state that "There is no set order in which [fixed encounters] take place," meaning that it is up to the referee to determine how and when to use them rather than sticking to a rigid structure or timeline independent of player decisions.

Night's Dark Terror is a solid Silver Age module, filled with Gygaxian naturalistic details, such as weather and moon phase charts, designed to enhance verisimilitude and facilitate certain encounters (such as the presence of lycanthropes, for example). Indeed, it's filled with details of all sorts, providing the referee with dozens of random and fixed encounters to use as the PCs wander throughout the uncharted wilderness. While far from a true Judges Guild-style hexcrawl, Night's Dark Terror nevertheless provides a mini-sandbox setting that has great utility even after the antagonists and threats that it details have been defeated. There are plenty of unexplained elements, unresolved conflicts, and mysteries in its pages that an enterprising referee could easily use it for many, many sessions without exhausting its possibilities.

It's often said that the "basic" D&D line had a great deal more going for it throughout the Silver and Bronze Ages, when compared to AD&D, at least as far as its modules and supplementary material go. I'm not yet convinced that's true as a blanket statement, but I do believe there are some forgotten gems in the line, Night's Dark Terror being a prime example. It's a pity that the model it puts forth was not more widely embraced and employed by TSR (or the hobby generally), but that's no reason for the old school renaissance not to do so. In fact, I'd love to see a new module written in this style. Something to do after I finish Dwimmermount perhaps?

19 comments:

  1. I always thought of B10 as one of the best D&D modules ever.
    TSR UK really put out some great modules in its days

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  2. I managed to track down a copy of this module on the cheap a couple of years ago, and it's unlikely I'll ever let it go. Wonderful stuff, easily among the best products TSR UK released.

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  3. This is a brilliant module! I just used to enjoy reading it, not just playing it, but I was disappointed that the Gazeteer of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos failed to capture the same vibe.

    BTW, you've referred to it in the text of your blogpost as B1 in several places though - should it be B10?

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  4. Andrew,

    Thanks for noticing that; my brain is obviously not working at 100% capacity this morning.

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  5. There is an OSR module of somewhat similar fashion but on a smaller scale by the name of "Under Siege!" by Moritz Mehlem.

    http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=81577&src=FrontPage

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  6. I'd certainly put B10 in the top 10 D&D/AD&D adventures ever, and possibly in the top 5. It's an entire mini-campaign in 56 pages, and it's the type of rip-roaring action I like, complete with mystery, a siege, and a pulp-style lost valley. Can't go wrong.

    Steve

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  7. I believe that two of the authors were hired by GW after TSR UK folded, and went on to create the excellent WFRP. Sometimes GW does know what it's doing...

    Also, strange that a Graeme Davis worked on WFRP. I'm sure he gets confused with Graeme Morris. Is it that common a first name?

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  8. B10 certainly is one of my top 5 TSR modules of all time!

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  9. Yes indeed, Bambra and Gallagher were also part of the design team for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay the same year as this was released.

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  10. One of the best modules! Great to see it get the spotlight. Love the kartoeba.

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  11. B10 Has been a "Holy Grail" for me. Tried to find a nice copy for years. Finally got it. It does not disappoint. An awesome design. One of the best modules I've never run :/ (though I'd love to).

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  12. My favorite module! Didnt know what I had gotten my hands on when I first bought it. Thanks for reviewing it :)

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  13. TSR UK produced some of my favorite (A)D&D products, and Jim Bambra was a top writer, in my estimation. In fact, I like most of the adventures to come out of the UK, even the heavy-handed ones; they had an "authentic" feel for me that was often lacking in US products, which often felt like small-town America in medieval garb.

    B10 is one I missed. I'll have to look for it. There's a copy on eBay right now, but, at $250, it's a bit rich for my blood...

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  14. I will have to check the shelves to see if I have a copy. I think that I have, but certainly have not given this module more than a cursory look. From your retrospective, it sounds like a suitable bookend to the TSR (UK) modules that began with U1, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Of course, I agree with the comments about the scenarios from here in the UK being better. Not just patriotism, but a preference for their historical verisimilitude.

    I have to wonder though, what the authors of B/X10 would have gone on to write for D&D had not TSR (UK) been prevented from publishing any more.

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  15. The Helm's Deep - type siege in this game remains to this day one of the most gripping experiences for my players.

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  16. Speaking of the TSR UK design team, while I liked the 'U' series well enough (especially U1), I think that their best work can be found in the 'UK' series (that is, aside from B10 and X8 for the D&D line, both of which are superb).

    UK4 especially is brilliant!

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  17. Thanks for posting this review, I managed to miss this one back in the day. I'm a huge fan of what the TSR UK design team folk put out, both for D&D and the stuff that they did for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition. Wonderfully designed modules which bleed atmosphere. Also as a Brit it showed my impressionable 15 yr old mind that we too were allowed to write and publish big adventures :)

    In a modest way I'll be commenting on their legacy over at my new OSR blog

    http://sorcererundermountain.d101games.co.uk/

    and hopefully continuing the tradition of the UK in a series of modules, with the "Albion Adventures" moniker later this year/early next.

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  18. There's a copy on eBay right now, but, at $250, it's a bit rich for my blood...

    B10 is good but it's not that good. Heck, I don't think any module is that good, honestly.

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  19. One of my all time faves! Thanks for bringing back some memories.

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