B10 Night’s Dark Terror (1986)
Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris & Phil Gallagher (TSR .Inc)
Levels 2 – 4
Summary: Lord of the Rings + Beyond the Black River + Dwellers in the Mirage
I am ready. I’ve felt a bit uneasy as of late, when rereading some of my older reviews. I, who knew comparatively little, did deign to render judgement over classics like Wilderlands or difficult, visionary works like Carcosa? Some of old reviews seem quaint in retrospect, and I am tempted to revisit them. Perhaps I will at some point. But that was then. Let us see if I can handle brilliance now.
Night’s Dark Terror is another shameful omission from the Top 30 best DnD adventures of all time, consigned to oblivion along with the rest of the buck-toothed, fish-and-chips devouring subcontinent for presumably being too good, too well written, too innovative and more awesome then poor 1986 could handle. Putting the lie to Basic’s undeserved reputation as a simpleton’s game for little girls, Night’s Dark Terror pulls no punches and delivers a tightly written trek across stark wilderness having as leitmotif the battle between civilization and law and the encroaching darkness that lurks without that gradually turns into an expedition to find and discover a lost civilization and secrets that underly the very foundation of civilized man in Karameikos before facing off against a timeless evil that man was not meant to know. I still cannot quite fathom how the disparate elements are woven together into an almost seamless whole and the seemingly contradictory forces of narrative and player agency are smelted into a single unbreakable alloy.
How could this be? you clamor! Look no further then the writing credits! One might recognize them as the writers of WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAYING 1st edition, the awesome-est way to get maimed by Orcs and killed by your own wizard since Keep on the Borderlands! The influence is noticeable in anything from the more crapsack medievally feel of the town of Threshold to the hideous barbarism of the humanoids the players will surely slaughter in droves as they explore the untamed East of Karameikos.
Pacing is handled magnificently as the players are baited with a relatively mundane but believable hook and gradually introduced to the weirdness so that when it happens, it has proper build-up. The PCs are drafted by a clan of ranchers to escort a herd of white horses to Calarri Elves. As they make their way up the river by barge they are ambushed by a secret society of slavers (The Iron Ring) and are gradually drawn into a race to uncover a thousands of years old secret.
As soon as they hit the docks while the barge continues further upriver and find them abandoned the shit hits the fan! A fucking siege situation with two goblin tribes attacking the homestead has developed, and you have just enough time to get inside . B10 is full of combat but it is never boring and it is never ONLY about combat. The siege is handled in the best possible way. A map is given of the area, along with an overview of simple stats for the inhabitants, contents of each building and CRUCIALLY, CRU-CIALLY, enemy tactics. The siege plays out like you would expect a real siege to play out; war drums play throughout the night, stopping sometimes to frighten and confuse the occupants into thinking there is going to be an attack, snipers attempt to pick off exposed characters, the enemy attempts ruses to lure the characters out, sallies are made until finally at daybreak one tribe leaves off to chase down their treasonous allies while the other utters hideous death chants and attacks an masse. Morale is a crucial factor in B10 and almost always accounted for (I think murdering some Gnoll shaman later on means they chase you with morale 12 until you reach a place they avoid out of (logical) superstitious fear).
Speaking of which, humanoids in B10 are handled fantastically. It’s never just Orcs, Goblins, Gnolls. It’s Red-Blades, Viper clan, Dark Web clan. How do you recognize goblins from the Viper tribe? Because they are covered in snake tattoos! A Gnoll shaman in a cloak of human skin releases her spells by shaking her bone rattles and shrunken elf-heads with a piercing shriek! in a gnoll burial ground. Gnolls impale their dead. Orcs living in a mine worship a monstrous spider that dwells there! Humanoids in B10 exude a violent barbarism that reminds me of Howard’s Picts. But primitive does not mean stupid, and humanoids use intelligent tactics, guards are set, ambushes are prepared and other credible strategies are used whenever possible. There’s even some rivalry and infighting between different goblin tribes, lending them an air of plausibility.
The next section concludes with the characters being asked to recover the stolen horses captured during the raid and the Rancher’s brother who was taken in the attack. The adventure turns into…a hex crawl! But its made more interesting because its a hex crawl with a purpose. The brother was taken by goblins…but no one knows where one of the tribes is based. Its a hex crawl…but with a purpose! Using the steading as a base of exploration!
The hex crawl is a thing of beauty, albeit a little sparse. I think the more directed nature of the adventure should last your PCs a while. Random encounters are presented as optional, in addition to optional encounters that may be employed whenever the GM sees fit, a mature attitude towards the GM that is maintained throughout the module. But there’s friendly (and not so friendly) NPC’s to talk to. So somewhere between a hex crawl and a pointcrawl. The optional encounters do something I’ve seen few people (Peter C. Spahn among those few) do, which is use mundane encounters to offset the strangeness. You find a murdered traveller and his donkey, you lose one of your belongings and have to backtrack, your horse gets lamed etc. etc. Contrast this with encountering a shapechanging forest spirit that ONLY cares about protecting horses, finding a bunch of elves who are watching a forsaken island that holds their sacred relic (stolen by pixies), strange grave tombs in the distant west, or a Gnomish miner whose dwarven employees have been disappearing…sub-quests that should take you anywhere between half a session to a session to complete.
Dark Terror is aptly named and handles its supernatural evil with a weight that is also not seen ENOUGH. Three tombs stand on a ridge. THERE IS A CIRCLE OF BARREN SOIL AROUND EACH. DO YOU GO INSIDE?!? There are tonnes of undead in this module and even the usual suspects like Ghouls and skeletons seem more sinister and terrifying, bursting through plaster walls or lurking in secret tunnels. Unnerving supernatural trap, a goblin layer inside an inexplicably petrified forest [3′], a spider that may as well be Shelob’s younger, sexier sister, a clan of werewolves and you will be weeping bitter tears knowing that your party might not get to see all of this splendid dark fantasy goodness. The tombs and the ruins later on in the game are already foreshadowing the lost civilisation of the Hutakaa in the form of art objects and living fucking statues  that the PCs will later discover, setting the stage in a way that is non-intrusive.
Keeping track of who knows what and in what order to present certain events is perfectly possible, but some note-taking can be required. This is not a game you run at a convention. This is something you run as a rite of passage so your PCs, or at least some of your PCs, may cast off their dungeon-crawling crysali and emerge as beautiful hex-crawling butterflies, while the one or three others that didn’t make it and have no hope of resurrection before they rot into oblivion  may be given a sky burial, assured their new 1st level characters will be treated with compassion and understanding.
The Act structure necessitates a little bit of railroading but to the module’s credit, several non-intrusive methods of keeping the game going are provided if one goes off-track, and most of the assumptions are fairly sensible . The game on certain occasions offers the option of bypassing certain encounters altogether though of course, enemies that escape or are kept alive return to plague the players at a later time. Accountability. I like it!
By dealing with the forest spirit and interrogating some of the goblin prisoners, the players are eventually led to the real place of the horseclan’s brother, the ruins of Xitaqua! Play the Kitchen/The Orgy from the Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack as your characters sneak through ruins and murder goblins and their tame rock baboon pets, overlooked by a terrifying tower. And then follow in quick succession two of the worst sort of fuck you encounters I have had the displeasure of seeing in an official TSR module, bringing the module to a grinding halt. It reminds me of The Dark Tower of Calibar , where every fucking monster just happens to have EXACTLY what it needs to make the encounter as fucking asinine as possible.
The prisoner is kept in a room where everything is invisible. Upon seeing the players, the mage you are after runs into the next room, while the prisoner warns the players about a Minotaur in the room. The Minotaur has a magical sword that allows him to detect invisibility. Bullshit. It already makes no sense outside of the context of the story. The wizard flees into a room with six paintings, which are actually secret doors. He will cast spells from the room behind one of his paintings, gaining suprise while two living statues with two attacks per round animate and attack you. I still find this section sort of credible, even if a 6th level magic user getting off a sleep spell and possibly a hold person spell on a party of 2-4th levels is fucking crippling, and that doesn’t even include the casualties THEY WILL have taken from the fucking invisible minotaur. Chopping through the painting? You get 1-8 damage (save for half) and stunned for 1d3 rounds, no save. The Wizard then casts fly, uses a bizarre explosive device to blow a hole in the wall and flies off after casting mirror image on himself. See, the reason he needs a magical explosive device that is not even statted up is that the tower, you see, has no windows or balcony so thieves trying to climb it CAN CHOKE ON DICK and just get attacked by giant vampire bats. Blaaaaaaaaargh. I am throwing up in my mouth.
Did Grahame get sick and ask his mentally handicapped doppleganger, Brahame Durris, to write this in his stead? Is Jim a secret Tleilexu Facedancer giving us a hint before the end? Is it the long arm of Lorraine Williams? This part fucking sucks and is UTTERLY INCONGRUENT with everything that came before. The adventure doesn’t give that much of a big stink whether or not the Wizard lives or dies so why the fuck go to such extravagant lengths to keep him alive? To punish the party? Fuck off.
Sounds like a big fucking adventure already right? We are barely half way. The PC’s discover the second part of the secret that reveals the hidden valley of the Hutakaa, the very thing the Iron Ring was searching for! Join Stephan in a cat and mouse game as the PCs both stalk and are stalked by bands of the Iron Ring whilst they travel to Riffilan and Threshold and even beyond. Their incentive: COLD HARD MOULAH!
The overland section does a good job of setting up an atmosphere of urgency and menace, reminiscent of the halfling’s flight to Rivendell. There are ambushes, spies in the various villages, parties in persuit, slaver camps on the move etc. etc. I give the game even further credit for making Threshold, AN ENTIRE SECTION of the adventure, essentially optional, though an opportunity to unload some of their by now thousands of gold pieces, replace some of their hirelings and deal with the Iron Ring once and for all is probably too good to pass up.
Threshold is the last frontier town before the forbidding mountains and you can already see traces of Warhammer Fantasy drip in. Filthy streets, widespread poverty, areas fallen to crime, Threshold is a rough, though ultimately lawful place. Little optional encounters like an old lady emptying her chamber pot, bands of begging urchins or a homeless man trying to give his war dog to the party since he won’t make it till the end of winter really sell the flavor of the place.
The section in Threshold is BASICALLY a mystery but a very light one, requiring little but common sense to persuade the Iron Ring to act and set a highly deadly ambush…that the PCs can avoid if they are clever since one of the Iron Ring, a Wererat, fucks it up and before that it is HEAVILY telegraphed that its an ambush. If the PCs go regardless, they get to go to an abadoned inn with boarded up windows in a bad part of town in the middle of the night. I don’t know at what level you are officially allowed to drop a Troll onto parties but I am pretty sure it’s not levels 2-4. Nice. My compliments on not having the entire investigative adventure be one big boring railroad and introducing some forks in the road and punishing stupidity (blatantly advertising for henchmen will have the Iron Ring infiltrate a thug in their ranks for example). Additional bonus for introducing consequences for escaping enemies.
Section 4 of 5…FUCKING ROXXX. It’s linear as all hell and with good reason. During their stay in Threshold the PCs figure out, if they ask, that the reason these mountains are not settled is because of A FUCKTONNE OF THE DEATH’S HEAD GNOLLS. OH SHIT IS THAT FOG?!? Turns out the Ancient Road to the valley runs RIGHT PAST the GNOLLISH BURIAL GROUND. You didn’t by chance murder THE GNOLL SHAMAN THAT IS WATCHING OVER THE BURIAL GROUND DID YOU?!? OH SHIT. After that its a race between you, various bridge like obscales, ledges and rockfalls and 170 gnolls, 4 ogres, 8 leaders, 4 bodyguards, 1 chieftain and 8 boars. Uh…shit.
The obstacles are well done, requiring more player cleverness to handle then particularly high rolls. One annoying thing about this section is that it seems set up to murder your mounts, having no less then 4 seperate natural obstacles that are dangerous primarily to mounts and going to such extreme lengths as siccing two griphons on the party at some point (which will be primarily interested in grabbing and carrying off a horse). That part is annoying but I get it. What is not annoying is the chase itself, which ends on a suitably believable note (the Gnolls are terrified of a gatehouse containing enchanted statues since they are proof against nonmagical weapons and the gnolls don’t own any). Good job on making this, and a later statue fight, avoidable by clever or inquisitive players as well.
The final act is…magnificent. EXACTLY WHAT WE NEED. The Hidden Valley of the Hutakaah. Two factions, the fox-men Hutakaah and their degenerate Traldaran servants strive for control in a landscape haunted by the walking dead and plagued by an ancient horror that is no longer appeased by the Hutakaans. They are both assholes, they both blame the other party for their misfortunes and will attempt to do away with the party the moment they no longer need them. The way this is handled is stellar, descriptions of each faction, EACH MORE THEN TWO HUNDRED STRONG, behavior, psychology, motivation, followed by a list of optional events the GM can implement to ensure the PCs get to meet both parties. Enemy prisoners trying to sway them to their side. A Hutakaan ceremony to disrupt the undead. The remaining Iron Ring members ALSO entering the valley. It gives you the freedom such a dynamic situation requires while also providing some handholds so the GM can get started. And then you must steal climbing lizard mounts to escape with your treasure intact.
Is this where I discuss the other stellar atmospheric features, the special caste of traldaran that can project their voices like a weapon, the houses of the Hutakaa haunted by undead Hutakaans living out paradoies of their former lives, the shattered temple with its intelligent undead menagerie. Kartoobah, an almost literal clone of the Dweller in the Treshold AND THANK GOD FOR IT, that comes in the night and delivers hideous death to its prey.
The Temple of Pflarr, where these evils can be fought is…confusing. It takes a while for the encounters to sink in. It doesn’t help that it uses letters to denote the type of room, but then not every room type has the same content. The temple has a lot of magical traps, a bit too many if you ask me. I like my traps telegraphed, otherwise the game slows down. Monsters here are a perfect combination of statues, jackal-headed undead, oozes and KARTOOBAH. What I dig is the labyrinthine tunnels of Kartoeba’s lair and the way you enter it, fucking terrifying, the HUEG HUEG vaults containing the last riches of the Hutakaans which can be plundered to one’s hearts contents, the nonlinear nature of the temple and the way some components of the purification ritual are scattered throughout the temple. Also props for including some areas where the PCs can figure out the history behind the Hutakaans and the Traldar, if they have not already picked it up. While its not the strongest temple ever, this section is STELLAR overall.
In summary: HOLY SHIT. B10 serves as an epic length rite of passage for any Basic players making their first steps into a larger world. Seamlessly combining narrative, hex crawling, factions, cloak and dagger stuff, horror and large, tactical combats, it is by far the most ambitious and impressive of the B series, stuffed to the brim with new creatures, the odd magic item and atmospheric treasure. While not without its flaws (I thought the confrontation with the Iron Ring magic user broke my suspension of disbelief and sucks dick) as a whole it is probably the coolest thing your 2-4th level PCs are going to be doing in Karameikos on any given day. There is tremendous care in the encounters, the presentation is top notch, the art is terrific basic dnd and communicates the atmosphere and the map is gorgeous. A Masterpiece of oldschool gaming in every sense of the word. *****
 Dungeon #116
 Alternatively, you can attempt to fight two tribes worth of goblins including dire wolf cavalry in a forest while they have nightvision and you do not.
 A very good, atmospheric place to have your DnD in.
 Have you ever fought a fox-man statue that fired streams of grey ooze from its finger-tips? Now you damn well have!
 This applies to anyone dying after Threshold, which happens to be ruled by a 14th level patriarch, not bad Treshold, not bad at all!
 Is it a railroad to assume your PCs will co-operate if provided adequate financial incentive to do so?
 Dungeon #1