Around Christmas time, my mind turns to Christmases past. For the most part, that means thinking about Dungeons and Dragons. When I was a child, from about the age of 12, Christmas would be when I’d get D&D books and boxes. But it’s that first D&D Christmas that sticks with me, in the form of Night Below.
I’ve written about the Night Below before, elsewhere, but that’s disappeared in to the internet. I remember first seeing Night Below at Volume One, a defunct UK bookshop. It was a regular stop off on my route home from school. There began a habit that continues to today, where I feel no more at peace than when I get to browse the bookshelves. They had an extensive RPG section.
My initial understanding of what Night Below was, was completely wrong. I read “The Underdark Campaign” and imagined it was a setting, where you took on the roles of the various gribbly beasts of the underworld in some alien brew of warmongers, machiavells, and lunatics all conspiring beneath a sky of stone.
I was no less delighted on the Christmas day when I opened the big parcel and inside was the big box. The paper torn aside, the lid lifted, and inside books and maps and all sorts of wonder. I sat down to read it, alongside all my rulebooks acquired at the same time.
Night Below takes place in a generated-for-the-adventure setting of Haranshire, intended to plonked down just about anywhere. At the top of every page, a strange little Otus-like Bugbear crawls across a header; it starts with little sections on character training, gold as xp, and why can’t Elminster sort it? These are all very pressing questions for an RPG, believe it or not. There’s a map with names like Thornwood, Broken Spire Keep, full page black and white illustrations that border on the camp. There are a dozen factions and threats, with about half of them in the first book alone. I admit that it was the first book, the Evils of Haranshire, that grabbed me.
I resolved to run it immediately.
It is nearly twenty-two years since that first foray in to the Underdark. Some parts I can remember vividly. I know that I had all of my brothers join in, plus one of their girlfriends. I can remember some of the characters: Rick, the oldest, played a fighter who pretended to be a wizard; Jim and Kris played a pair of scallywag illiterate mercenaries who absconded with the cargo and headed down the river to The Other Village, only to get eaten by a giant frog. My oldest brother dropped out and my mum took over his character. There was friction between Kris and Lucy (the girlfriend of Jim) where she put caltrops on the bedroom floor and he stomped over them in dwarf boots.
It was all pretty ludicrous. I don’t think it lasted for more than three sessions. It was also peak D&D… or so I thought.
The second visit to Haranshire was myself running for and playing alongside three of my brothers. Jon was a tough Dwarf fighter, Liam was a tricksy Kender handler, I started as a mysterious Elf druid and then just switched to be a War Cleric instead, and Kris was Synoch, a Gnome Necromancer reincarnated as a human to get the Int bonus but avoid that pesky level limit. He also had a staff of the archmagi from tagging along on an adventure with some other characters.
I remember only little bits about this one: Liam getting in to tricksy shenanigans. Kris and I levelling armies with our magic. I think we got the furthest of all, about the entrance to the Sunless Sea, before we just got bored and gave up. Turns out all the power of the gods doesn’t override the fact that the second book, Perils of the Underdark, is just a bit of a slog.
It would be a few years before I’d turn again to Haranshire. This last attempt is also, to me, the greatest. We didn’t get as far as the second attempt, but what we did do was really good. I had a great time converting it and running it.
A new version of D&D had been released. I’m not entirely sure what made me turn my attention back to Night Below, but I decided to carry out a full conversion of the module to the new runs and then run it. Liam and Jon were still in, and joined by my oldest friend Rob.
For whatever reason, the group convened with no magic: Rob played Kennan Oakhelm, a zealous goblin hunting ranger; Liam was Leonard de Molotoff, Gnome Fighter with a custom crossbow; Jon was Bleck, a half Orc Barbarian. I loved the whole group but Bleck remains, without reservation, one of my favourite characters in a game ever, ever. It’s not in the least that he was a cliché busting, stereotype avoiding iconoclast. Quite the opposite. But Jo played Bleck to the hilt as a lusty, loud, face smacking warrior for muscles. He was also the leader and, thanks to playing an impatient glory hound, the group never stopped moving.
They accomplished a lot across Haranshire. They got caught in the middle of an Orc/Goblin war. They busted up several smugglers rings. In one of our best set pieces, the core trio managed to hold off an army of Gnolls on their home turf. They even managed to crack parts of the mystery around the abductions in Haranshire and pursue the middle-management villain to his lair.
It fizzled out in the end due to external factors, but it remains one of my top campaigns.
It’s been, then, nearly ten years since I last ran Night Below. Every few years, I do crack it open and have a look over either, as above, to reminisce, or so below, to think of what I would do with it now. I’m not running anything and I’m sans group, so it’s purely academic, but I like the theoretical exercise.
I focus on the first book. There’s two reasons for this. First, most obvious, biggest, is that the Evils of Haranshire is just better than books 2 or 3, by quite a large margin in the case of Perils. It’s a very nicely fleshed out area, with two population centres, a bunch of vibrant locales, multiple enemy centres all coiling in to the central conspiracy. It has several notable characters to interact with, ranging from cranky wizards to bizarre cults and on up to a restive green dragon. It also encourages you to add more details.
The last attempt I made was a full conversion of the campaign – and I’m pretty glad I did. It meant I read through everything in the module and translated every detail. That was third edition D&D and that kind of full scale build was pretty much mandated by the scope of changes between editions. It’s not really possible to run orcs from 2nd edition as is in 3rd. More than that, though, it meant I had to relearn what is going on, who is where, and what’s going on. It’s quite good prep in general.
The latest version of D&D is, I think, probably fully capable of running Night Below almost as is. It more or less plays as a revised and tidied up version of 2nd edition, almost as if the two editions between had never existed. With only a little bit of a fudge around Saves, it probably works. But I don’t think I’d do that. On the other hand, there are other options.
The characters in the as is Night Below are positioned as outsiders coming in to town and finding its problems. This is very true to the origins of D&D; it’s not really fantasy or mythic, D&D is a western I Tolkien costume. PCs are the persons of no name, the magnificent seven, hired guns brought on to deal with the restive natives.
What if I were to take another angle? Haranshire, especially the little towns of Milborne and Thurmaster, is positioned as the home base for a party, from which they will venture certain fathoms beneath the surface. But it could just be home. If modern D&D is a good enough fit for Night Below, Beyond the Wall could be even better, seeing as it adopts the Saving Throw and ability check models from older games.
In the context of the campaign, then, the characters would have all grown up in Haranshire, either in one or other (or both?) of the towns, or perhaps in the even smaller hamlet of Harlaton (where Milborn is the ‘big city’). The conspiracy in Night Below targets people they know; the abducted apprentice Jelenneth might be a childhood friend and the characters go looking for her.
Something I’d give thought to if I approached the campaign from this way, would be how recently the conspiracy started. In the original campaign, the solution and cause are both outside forces interfering with Haranshire. In this iteration, it’s a novel even disturbing the country idyll. I might prefer, then, to have the roots of the abductions stretch much, much further back. Magic users have always found it hard in the Shire. No one investigates because it’s only scary people that get taken and that’s a release anyway. The characters, then, are those who seek to protect their home not just from monsters, but also from the complacence that has let the monsters thrive.
Of course, one of the things that disillusioned me from Beyond the Wall was the complete lack of mechanical oomph behind inter-personal relationships, whether that’s between characters. D&D derived RPGs put the majority of their focus on combat resolution, less on noncombat challenges, and massive amounts on magic. For some this is a feature, for me it is a bug. Despite its origins as a D&D mega-campaign, Night Below opens with the intention that characters should be forming relationships and bonds with the people of Haranshire; friends, mentors, allies. Of course, the game leaves the arbitration of all that in the hands of the referee.
There are a lot of D&D adjacent and derivative games that integrate some sort of relationship mechanic. 13th Age has the Icon dice. You could do something similar in Haranshire with the various NPCs as the relevant power players or, rather, agents of the power players in the area. I would almost certainly need to do some custom Icons, simply because the conspiracy in Night Below adds powers that don’t have a presence in 13th Age, namely that of the tentacled horrors in the deep and the people that love them. This would be helpful in the long stretch as the characters move out of the Evils and on in to Perils and Sunless Sea.
Another option, and one I prefer, is to steal Bonds from Dungeon World or, better, something like Influence from straight Powered by the Apocalypse conversions like Masks. This is a really simple but really great mechanical widget representing obligation. It can be used to help others… or for others to compel your aid.
I mentioned that I consider every few years how to execute Night Below. The influence idea ties a lot in to an idea I had for a Savage Worlds conversion that involved one of the characters being created as a minor noble, the Baron of Blanryde, and told to clear up Haranshire and make it profitable. What I wanted to do was play around with the politics of the area and, in particular, explore how exactly a novitiate adventurer goes about (or fails) to conduct their feudal obligations.
That feudal obligation links in to the Beyond the Wall idea of Haranshire as not just a base, but as home. If, on some symbolic level, the descent in to the earth represents a journey of discovery, then there needs to be a connection at every level. That’s probably why my mind always turns back to Night Below around this time of year. It’s a piece of my childhood that I can turn over in my hands and so continue to do so in my mind.
 I used to run a Christmas one-off RPG for friends. This year, my younger brother got in on doing that. I played a shirtless hobbit barbarian called Dirty Bilbo. It was pretty fun.
 For me. I was introduced by my brothers Jim and Rick and I’m sure they must have been gifted game books at some point.
 As was Games Workshop but I found – and find – GW an uncomfortable place to pop in to. There was always an aura at GW that clearly broadcast that I was not welcome. Never the case in the bookshop.
 Initially, this would be a D&D section but, as the 90s wound on, Storyteller games would start to be included. I think there might also have been some GURPs.
 The language all comes from D&D’s wargaming routes. Adventure, Campaign, Campaign Setting.
 I still remember that my parents were mortified when they thought they’d got the wrong thing when I said it wasn’t what I thought it was. I’m pretty sure I explained that I had misunderstood it, rather than they hadn’t gotten me exactly what I had asked for.
 A recurring theme in D&D. I’ll return to this frontier mentality later.
 Including one of an inexplicably near-nude sexy druid.
 Darkbad, Helltown, Shadowdark
 And, in retrospect, doing a really clever thing by shifting the character portrayal to an ascetic mystic and guardian of Liam (the youngest).
 This is always a bad sign.
 I have a lot of brothers and that means I tended to spend most of my childhood with them. Means I’m totally unable to relate to normal people.
 Not some sort of pervert groper, just a slightly worse version of the thief. Better skills, no backstab.
 That’s right, I went from one of the most powerful classes to the other of the most powerful classes. The intention was that the group needed a healer. Didn’t work out like that.
 This in particular still makes me chuckle.
 The 3rd edition, or possibly the 3.5 revision. Not sure. It’s only relevant that the rules had changed a great deal.
 Poor Rob. In my defence, he asked me to teach him D&D many years ago. I think it’s in his top three regrets.
 At points, the group would also be joined by my other brothers: Kris was a defrocked Bard/Cleric; Jim showed up as Kul Daeruk, a half Orc Rogue; Rick was a Dwarf Necromancer.
 Which, because they didn’t kill all the Gnolls and had to retreat, they thought they had lost.
 I’m playing in my younger brother’s D&D game and rather enjoying myself.
 Which I did in the form of orc nations, gnoll camps, slavers, and all sorts.
 D&D names. Jennifer would probably do.
 Grabbing a Conspiracymid from Night’s Black Agents would be a useful tool for looking at how the factions connect in Night Below.
 Witches get stitches
 I’ve just got Cubicle 7’s the One Ring and the passage of years could be an interesting way to get back to this.
 Which is probably my favourite D&D hack.
 As they’re doing, more or less, in World of Adventures.
 In the Mask variation, it represents that a person or thing is able to affect a character’s impression of themselves.
 For those who know Savage Worlds, it bears mentioning that my conversion had little to do with the rules of SW or even what it is good at.
 An Echo, Resounding could do this. I haven’t read enough of it, but it would also allow me to link back to the acquisition of wealth and the accrual of power – Night Below defaults to ‘Gold as XP’ in the traditions of D&D. There is something interesting about this, again, talking about the origins of D&D: It’s very much a game informed by libertarian ideals, the accumulation of wealth and minimisation of risk – and the ever tempting lure of betrayal to gain more loot.