Monday, July 6, 2020

Semi-Review/Campaign Report: How & Why I Hacked B10, "Night's Dark Terror"

A little while ago, my players finished a very satisfying play-through of the old TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror, set in the vaguely not-Slavic medieval-ish realm of Karameikos - the Grand Duchy that introduced Mystara, an old but rich D&D setting, to many of us (described in more detail in GAZ1, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos - affiliate link).

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!




PREMISE

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:

Karameikos! A land of deep forests thick with timber, mountains rich in ore, cold, fast rivers, and plains known for their noble horses. It’s also a land infamous for superstitions, though they may be well-earned; fey and dark things live in the forests (or so men say), there are wind-haunted ruins in the mountains, and outside the few urban areas the locals look uneasily into the wild places around them. 
150 years ago, the Thyatians conquered this land, outlawed the tribal gatherings of the local Tral people, and re-named the country after one of their own noble houses: Karameikos. Generations after the conquest, a sort of modus vivendi has emerged; Karameikan lords extract what metal, timber, and horses they need from the land, using some in their new towns (Threshold, Kel’ven, and distant Specularum, the capital) and otherwise usually leave the locals alone - if they don’t cause trouble. Though robbed of their tribal councils, the Tral have adapted, forming Ru’at - a word plausibly translated “fellowship, guild, faction, clan, army, club” - informal social networks that organize, protect, and police Tral society below and alongside the systems of the Karameikan conquerors. 
As fate would have it, your own path is now connected to one such Ru’at. You followed various roads across this ancient world, but they each led here: through Karameikos, and into deep debt. Your traveling funds exhausted, you have traded your promise of work up front for gold-lenders’ promises of ample recompense in future. Those gold-lenders, it turns out, are members of a Tral Ru’at with connections across northeastern Karameikos. Recognizing your various gifts and abilities, they have sent you on from the town Kel’ven to seek out a homestead named Sukiskyn. There, you are to assist with  two tasks: first, help guard a herd of horses on their way to sale, and then return to Sukiskyn to serve a Ru’at lore-keeper named Stephan, who apparently wants help with…well, the gold-changers aren’t sure. Something lore-related. Since you each owe 2,500 deben to the Ru’at, you don’t seem to have much choice anyway. So off you go to Sukiskyn. 

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:
When they first arrived, lighting torches and fires in the woods all about Sukiskyn, jeering and howling and drumming their blasted never-ending drumbeat, Pyotr whispered, “It is the Gobrach! The anthropophagi…” None of you has seen such things before, but the forms that eventually came screaming out of the woods to assault the farmstead were all too real. By torchlight, you saw dark beady eyes bugging out of bizarre, sharp-toothed ape-bat-bear faces, ringed by patchy coarse fur manes. They stood only as tall as bow-legged human youths, but in their hands were cruel weapons, and among their chirps and barks you could hear words, too, calling for creative death and the taste of blood. Some wore wolf-skins and rode wolves as they raced past the walls, shooting at anyone they could see; others only charged on foot, but wore rags and weapons all marked in red. They have come in several waves during the night, and finally burned the palisade and barn to the north, and left two of Pyotr’s family dead in the courtyard. A crowd of the beasts broke into the pens south of the main house, and drove off most of the family’s horse-herd - the animals you’d been tasked with escorting to sale. 
It’s been a long night since then. 
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...

+ Ok, bear with me on this one…you mess with arcane powers in dark holes in the world, and you’ll find some weird stuff. You find a Titan’s Tongue. This is a life-size metal sculpture of…a tongue. If someone slices off their own tongue and then puts this metal sculpture in their mouth, two things happen:
+ their own severed tongue hardens and turns into a Titan’s Tongue. 
+ the metal tongue placed in their mouth grafts itself onto the stub, softens, and becomes (what appears to be) a regular tongue. However, from that point forward, anytime the wearer puts a Titan’s Tear in their mouth to activate its power, a portion of the power is absorbed by the Tongue before discharge. The player with the Titan’s Tongue in their mouth makes a Saving Throw (if they have a Scholar or Priest background or Sharp-Witted Trait they get a bonus die on the roll). If they pass the Save, the Tongue retains an imprint of the power released; from that point forward, the wearer of the tongue may cast the same “spell” effect once per day. [Ooooooooh….any takers…? I really don’t know how your characters will react to this - as an unclean aberration to be thrown away, or as grounds for some ritual tongue-piercing as a group bonding activity…]
The players asked for some clarifications...

Side effects? Really? What could possibly go wrong? Just kidding. You do know a tiny bit about these things from various whispers in the most ancient of lore. In a nutshell: the Titans' Tears themselves - despite their odd name - seem to contain powerful energy that was meant, one way or another, for the benefit of humankind since near the beginning (whether that energy was willingly stored up or sequestered away in an attempt to retain it from humankind, either way it was energy meant to assist humans in their tasks in the Order of Creation). 

The Tongues...are different. 

There are some other processes or powers that are reputed to have similar effect - (essentially making Titans' Tears a sustainable resource) - and there is some chance that you might yet encounter those - but the Titans' Tongues are the product of very ancient arcane experimentation by human sages, long ago, who wanted to contain and accelerate whatever powers they could obtain. They found a magical method of preserving power, but one that required pain and defacement as part of its cost. This is to say that the Tongue is an object meant to manipulate something healthy, using rather unhealthy methods. You do not know of any clear direct negative side-effect (or mechanical/rules-based penalty) for using it, but it would mean making something a bit askance from the Order of Creation a literal part of your own body. There is some chance that beings highly attuned to that Order might recognize it and react negatively toward you. It is a high-powered item, but not necessarily a nice one. 

Also, if you think about the way it works, there's a good chance that the tongue sitting in front of you used to belong to the gobrach Lord Vlack. Anybody want to wear his tongue? :-) 

So a bit of a moral/aesthetic dilemma for y'all. Any further questions while we're in the ruins of the Wolfskull Lair?
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? 


10 comments:

  1. I've been reading some other stuff about B10 and, while I don't know if I'll get around to using it at any point, this post has given me a lot to think about. I'd also be interested in learning more about the Order of Creation as I'm trying to figure out a religious/cultural logic for a very Law oriented society myself.

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    1. Thanks! I may elaborate at some point on the "Order of Creation" stuff and how I handle religion in my campaign world.

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  2. I got B10 when it came out and ran it. It stayed in my mind all these years as the single best D&D module I actually ran. Generally, in my view, the UK modules were far better than the US-originated ones. I don't know why that is. But yes, B10 is an amazing piece of work.

    What I recommend is to drop tiny seeds hinting at the ultimate destination of the module. If you're too obvious it will give it away. But drop bits of history about Hutaaka and then, when they get there, they'll all feel that shiver of wonder at finding something lost.

    I'm so happy for you! Have fun.

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    1. Agreed - lots of room in B10 for subtle foreshadowing. I'll try to mention some of that when I write up Part 2 of this overview...I definitely scattered a variety of breadcrumbs. :-) As I added some stuff to the end-goal in the ultimate destination (to be discussed in my Part 2), I offered hints/warnings about that too. The Barrow-Mounds on the ridge were a great place to begin sowing those seeds - with examples of iconography hinting at the region's history...jackal-headed lords interacting with ancient chieftains, etc.

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  3. This is cool. Thanks for the write-up. Looking forward to the next segment!

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  4. Finally got around to reading this post in it entirety.

    I love what you did so far, especially with the added challenge of adapting it to play-by-email games, which have a tendency of dying fast if my time in CoC play-by-post game went.

    I also enjoy the fact that you used debt to make NPCs actually move get involved the quest.

    Can't wait for the second part.

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    1. Thanks, stay tuned! Yes, the play-by-email dynamic can go wrong quite easily but is a wonderful resource when it goes right.

      The "Abominable Fancy" blog had some very insightful posts a while ago on setting up a PbP/PbEM game, like this one:
      http://abominablefancy.blogspot.com/2017/03/play-by-post-advice-on-characters-plus.html

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  6. Liked the fact you changed the name of the Goblins. I also prefer to use a different name for ‘standard’ creatures in scenarios so I don’t get ‘oh, Goblins’ and thus get people filling in what their idea of goblins is like: including the ‘oh, no biggie’ response you mentioned. I also tend to have ‘humans only’ player characters. Would this module and the Grand Duchy product you referred to be hard to file off the serial numbers? I’m already thinking that “Gobrach” is a great alternative name for Goblins, so if this is possible to do with other D&D-isms without too much effort I’m thinking this could be a good mini-campaign for a real change of pace for my group.

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