Here's my verdict in a nutshell: B10 is really good, more a flexible campaign platform than a single adventure, a somewhat-open, sandboxy romp, and great fun. All that being said, the module as written needs some TLC to avoid railroading, maintain logical coherency, and get the most bang for your buck - but the module's flexibility allows all the modifications needed to whip it into really fun shape. Recommended - but so are some changes.
If you'd like to snag a copy, DriveThru has it (affiliate link) right here: B10, Night's Dark Terror.
If you're up for the long version, then read on; below, I offer a mini-review and campaign report, focusing on the ways I changed the module - and why. There are already quite a few online reviews of B10, and you should check them out too if you're shopping for adventures. Rather than just reinventing the wheel, I'll try to lay bare some of the design considerations that went into how I used B10. This post will probably be most useful to GMs who are familiar with B10, or who (might) want to run it. In other words, I won't try to do everything that a great review does, but I'll drill down into the nitty-gritty of actually running this thing.
No doubt there are many other fine ways to run this module; here's what worked at our table.
But first: SPOILERS AHEAD.
So much spoilage. More spoilage than a black suitcase full of shrimp left on the back porch all weekend in July. In order to break down what works in this module and what I found necessary to change, I will thoroughly spoil every major element of this module - and you should know that some of the module's greatest player joys involve the slow resolution of mystery. You really shouldn't read this post if you are, or may soon be, a player in this module. Otherwise, read on!
Here's the basic idea with B10: you've been hired to escort horses for sale to market up in Karameikos' desolate northeast. But the nearer you get to your employers' homestead, the more you see signs of trouble and disorder - culminating in a nasty goblin siege that descends on said homestead right as you arrive! Presuming you survive that lengthy battle, you then learn from local refugees that most of the neighboring settlements were also attacked - and your employer's brother, Stephan, has been kidnapped by the goblins! Your new employer's family commission you to go find their missing kinsman, kicking off an open-ended exploration of a substantial (and generally interesting) stretch of Karameikan wilderness. After many shenanigans, if you're able to track down and rescue the kidnapped Stephan, you discover that a vicious slaving cabal - the Iron Ring - is behind the goblin attacks. The Iron Ring is trying to wring (sorry...) from Stephan the tools to locate a forgotten ancient city, Hutaaka, reputed to be chock-full of fabulous treasures. Determined to stop his former captors/tormentors, Stephan now commissions you to join him on an urgent quest to find Hutaaka first, and liberate its treasures before they can enrich the Iron Ring. But the lost city holds terrible mysteries that may make it hard for anyone to plunder it...
Ok. That's the outline of B10 in a nutshell. I'll break things down in closer detail bit by bit. If it seems that this overall 'plot' seems...well, plotted, hinting at the plot-heavy approach of post-Gygaxian TSR, well, yeah, you'd be right. But (as I'll discuss) the individual pieces actually do allow a very flexible, open sandbox, with just enough structure for the players to have solid hooks to hang onto as they figure out what else they want to accomplish.
SYSTEM AND MECHANICS ISSUES
Yeah, yeah, system doesn't matter (except, of course, for when it really does). It will be worth noting that we ran B10 over the past year using two different systems, each somewhat outside the mainstream. For most of Autumn 2019, Winter, and much of Spring 2020, we ran this as a play-by-email, using my own homebrew rules that I cheekily called '74 against Thebes (it was...kind of an OD&D + ancient history nerd joke...). These were an evil hybrid of elements from Searchers of the Unknown, OD&D, Swords & Wizardry, Knave, and who knows what. I think they worked quite well.
The play-by-email format is important to note, because it influenced my campaign design decisions significantly for the first half of this campaign; PBEM has its own strengths and weaknesses, and pulling it off well can require careful thinking about pacing and the kinds of decision points that are most likely to keep robust play going well.
When COVID hit, alas, and the season of the Zoom drew nigh, we switched to weekly face-to-face (well, comparatively) play over video-chat. We also switched to a new rules-set - not because of deficiences in '74 against Thebes, but because I'd developed a mean hankering to run some PbtA gaming again, after several years "off" of that approach. This time, however, I was determined to run some PbtA action as fully in keeping with OSR principles as possible. (No, no, this actually can be done. I think I've mused on that in an earlier post).
This does mean that our second half of playing through B10 had a different flavor again, this time one that particularly rewarded set-ups with room for chaotic consequences and factional power-struggles spilling over (spoiler alert: they did).
With both systems, we also used magic items called 'Titans' Tears' which are gem-like spells that activate and fire when popped in the mouth. They are each 1-shot/1-use, but have no level restrictions; a little bit like Numenera cyphers, I suppose, but generally using typical D&D spell effects.
NO FEUDALISM, THANK YOU, THIS IS THE IRON AGE
Our campaign also had one other big difference worth noting up front: I re-set Karameikos as a faux-Iron Age setting rather than a faux-medieval setting. Often this resulted in only cosmetic differences, but none of the usual assumptions were on the table about the feudal hierarchy, etc. I was entirely willing to re-write canonical Mystaran lore as needed or desired.
Since our earlier interactions were done over email, I have a record of those stages of the game. Here's how I described the setting and pitch to the new players:
The module actually has the PCs just going to Sukiskyn to make money, but I've learned from Into the Odd / Electric Bastionland that starting out without money and in terrible debt can be a much more effective way to channel players toward adventure!
THE SIEGE OF SUKISKYN
The module opens with a troubled journey to the homestead of Sukiskyn, and then a really dramatic siege of that homestead by rampaging goblins. As already noted, the aftermath of this battle propels PCs into a search for Stephan, a kidnapped local.
I trimmed the opening very heavily, for two reasons. First, our play-by-email format meant that unnecessary chaff risked losing initial momentum, a really bad idea early in the campaign. Second, a few of these opening elements feel awkward to me, sort of like very modest railroading to get the players to the desired 'inciting moment' from within the narrative - rather than simply starting the narrative closer to that inciting moment. For example, the module has players arrive at Sukiskyn right after the attack has closed in; someone from the farmstead is supposed to come out and dramatically wave the players in to come take shelter with them just at the last minute...via boxed text. Never mind that I can easily imagine some PCs wanting to turn and run away from the battle...which effectively nerfs the beginning of the module.
Instead, I just started the action in medias res:
Sukiskyn is burning. Two of the homesteaders are dead; their bodies lay for some time backlit by the flames rising from the northern palisade, until another wave of attackers dragged away the remains…after which the sound of hooting, jeering, and tearing flesh was only drowned out by someone wailing hysterically inside the besieged homestead. At least it’s quiet now; even the drumming in the woods has stopped. Actually, that may not be a good thing.Then a little backstory to clarify what the honk was happening, then I opened with what is supposed to be the climax of the whole siege, the final charge by the enemies. Worked really well for PBEM format; trying to play through the whole battle over email from a cold start would have taken an eternity, without having much clear motivation as to what the point of it all was.
I never described the foes as goblins; for some reason, I think I thought that saying "goblins" would trigger "oh, no biggie then" in my more experienced players' minds. Here's how I introduced what have become a regular in the campaign:
The players seemed to take these critters very seriously, and I think this approach - evocative description rather than familiar name - really helped early on.
Obviously, the players survived the fight (it would be a short campaign report otherwise).
A SANDBOX (SOME ASSEMBLY MAY BE REQUIRED): THE SEARCH FOR STEPHAN
After fighting off the gobrach, my players learned that other foes from the Wolfskull gobrach clan had kidnapped, Stephan, brother to the head of household at Sukiskyn. The PCs were told that if they could rescue Stephan, their debts to the Ru'at would be considered paid in full.
Instead, in the module, there's first some sort of cul-de-sac-ish business with chasing after horses stolen by goblins - but oh no, they were already sold off to horse-thieving bandits, so you can either pay through the nose to buy back stolen horses, or fight bandits. Ok. But this whole thing felt a bit unnecessary. In the module, however, Pyotr (in charge at Sukiskyn) asks the players to go find his brother in exchange for half the value of the horses they were supposed to escort to sale - so I guess there is a point in chasing down these horses, but ... I dunno, just having the players be really deeply in financial debt to these locals, and then having the locals be sincerely willing to clear said debt should they get their brother/son back, seemed more emotionally compelling both from the players' and NPCs' perspectives.
Now, it should be as easy as any D&D wilderness mission: since the Wolfskull clan has Stephan, go journey overland to their lair, nab him, and you're done. But, there's a problem. To quote the module:
If they accept, the party's main problem is that no-one at Sukiskyn knows where the Wolfskull lair is. In order to get the search underway, therefore, it is up to you as DM to determine how much, and what information the party can gain from the homesteaders, the Ilyakana refugees, and any goblin captives they may have.
Yeah, this is kind of a problem, since it's saying that all progress on the module comes screaming to a halt unless the GM will whip up some reasons for making future progress possible. Hrrmmm. I have the sense from reading some discussions of B10 that some parties have had to just wander around, hexcrawling through the wilderness to see whether they happen to find any Wolfskull goblins hiding under a rock. Hexcrawling is all well and good, but probably not as an efficient response to an abduction by violent and potentially man-eating enemies.
To be clear, this wouldn't be too hard to address by having somebody know something. But the module, as written, adds some insult to injury here. Basically, whenever/however the players do finally discover the Wolfskull lair, if they can infiltrate it successfully they will learn that Stephan was there, but now he's been relocated to some other place called Xitaqa. And if/when the PCs return to Sukiskyn to ask whether anybody has heard of Xitaqa, they'll hear...Nope...but, oh, funny thing, one of our old-timers does know this crazy old legend about a centaur-spirit out on the moors, and if he really exists then he might know where Xitaqa is.
Which is cool, and fine! But...ummm...how come nobody mentioned this supernatural tour guide when we were all desperately racking our brains to figure out where the Wolfskull goblins might live?
In fact, Loshaad - said supernatural centaur spirit - is a watchful protector of horses in the region, and he seems to keep pretty effective tabs on everybody who might be messing with horses anywhere near Sukiskyn. I'm pretty sure that goblins who've been running off horses from homesteads would qualify there.
The fix is trivial, in my opinion, but it requires re-ordering some of the content as written in the module. You just have the family mention the centaur-guy right away, as soon as it becomes clear that nobody has any clue where Stephan might actually have been taken.
In no way does doing so prevent a rich series of overland journeys mixing random and fixed encounters. My players set out east to find Loshaad, the centaur-spirit. Meeting him, he told them (as per the module) that he would exchange information if the PCs killed two dangerous werewolves who'd been preying on wild horses in the area. The PCs agreed, but first they headed off further east to the local barrow-downs (quite pragmatically thinking that they needed more magical loot/weapons before fighting werewolves, and realizing that a row of ancient barrows might do the trick).
The barrows in the module are ok. I re-wrote them, not because they were bad, but they just didn't suit my aesthetic taste at the time. More significantly, I used the barrows to start planting clues about past history and other things in the sandbox setting - in this case, an ancient necromancer-lord named Nuromen. If that name rings a bell, it's because it comes from another module, BLUEHOLME: The Necropolis of Nuromen (affiliate link). As I thought about populating my little Karameikan sandbox, I decided to drop said Necropolis into the map (I used it to replace the stuff on the Island of Lost Dreams within the sandbox map, which I wasn't personally crazy on; but sticking Nuromen's old lair on the island in that lake looked like great fun). As it happens, the Nuromen module even has goblins who've been searching around the place recently, which fits in perfectly with what's going on around the B10 sandbox. And B10 has this weird, old row of barrow-mounds...so I added a slab at the barrows proclaiming it to be the edge of Nuromen's former territory.
Later, a random encounter that called for "elves" gave me the perfect excuse to drop in the 'hook' from the start of the Nuromen module, which has a fey princeling appear to ask PCs to go retrieve a stolen crown or something like that from the necropolis. The PCs ended up demurring politely, since they were hot on Stephan's trail, but I can say that the sandbox itself in B10 is one that allows very easy slotting in and out of content.
Oh, and the barrow-mounds are where one player character died in the jaws of an undead-possessed rabid cave bear, teaching the party that age-old lesson: hey, don't split up the party in an OSR game when you don't need to.
They got their loot (and they got their replacement PC, another debtor sent along to reinforce the search for Stephan by the concerned family's Ru'at). They tracked down, fought and killed the werewolves (and one PC got bitten and infected). Then it was off to Loshaad, who revealed that there had been a TON of gobrach activity of late at two sites (Xitaqa, and the Wolfskull lair) and that Stephan was probably at one of these. He also told them where they could find each of these sites.
Then the party hoofed it back to Sukiskyn where a sympathetic healer was able to cure the bitten almost-lycanthrope. The party deliberated over where to go, and decided...to head southeast to the Wolfskull lair.
Big, epic fight there. My hat's off to my players for clever tactical play against great odds here. They won, they rescued a human prisoner, and they learned...that they'd chosen wrong, and Stephan had been taken to Xitaqa. So off to the north they went, ready for a big showdown.
Oh. One other thing. The players did find one particularly disturbing magical item in the gobrach shaman's chamber at the Wolfskull lair. I included it more as a colorful illustration, as a sign that there were kinds of powers at work in the world that were very much not aligned with the PCs' values. Not, you see, as something really to be taken seriously, much less harnessed...
The players asked for some clarifications...
The PC who got bitten by the werewolf way back when? Well, he decided he wanted the tongue. Ewwww.
LET'S BREAK FOR A MOMENT...
This is getting quite substantial, so I'm going to stop for a break between posts here.
Is this helpful? Do you have other ideas for making B10 click and run well?
Just to be clear, B10 is a really good module, and the various criticisms here shouldn't detract from how much fun, and how mysterious, it can be for players.
For now, I'll close Part 1 of this discussion with a few rhetorical questions - like How would changing rulesets mid-campaign change the shape of play? Or How did I handle the urban adventures in Threshold? Or TANSTAAFL, so popping that cursed metal tongue into his mouth probably had some unpleasant long-term consequences, right? Right?