Years Below

Around Christmas time, my mind turns to Christmases past. For the most part, that means thinking about Dungeons and Dragons.[1] 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[2] 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.[3] 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[4] section.

My initial understanding of what Night Below was, was completely wrong. I read “The Underdark Campaign” and imagined it was a setting,[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.

First Descent

It is nearly twenty-two years since that first foray in to the Underdark.[9] 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.[10] 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.

Second Outing

The second visit to Haranshire was myself running for and playing alongside[11] three of my brothers.[12] Jon was a tough Dwarf fighter, Liam was a tricksy Kender handler,[13] I started as a mysterious Elf druid and then just switched to be a War Cleric[14] instead, and Kris was Synoch, a Gnome Necromancer reincarnated as a human to get the Int bonus but avoid that pesky level limit.[15] He also had a staff of the archmagi from tagging along on an adventure with some other characters.

Peak D&D.

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.

Last Night

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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.

Future Expeditions

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,[20] 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.[21]

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[22] might be a childhood friend and the characters go looking for her.[23]

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[24] 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.[25]

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[26] 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.[27] This is a really simple but really great mechanical widget representing obligation.[28] 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[29] 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.[30]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] The language all comes from D&D’s wargaming routes. Adventure, Campaign, Campaign Setting.

[6] 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.

[7] A recurring theme in D&D. I’ll return to this frontier mentality later.

[8] Including one of an inexplicably near-nude sexy druid.

[9] Darkbad, Helltown, Shadowdark

[10] And, in retrospect, doing a really clever thing by shifting the character portrayal to an ascetic mystic and guardian of Liam (the youngest).

[11] This is always a bad sign.

[12] 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.

[13] Not some sort of pervert groper, just a slightly worse version of the thief. Better skills, no backstab.

[14] 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.

[15] This in particular still makes me chuckle.

[16] The 3rd edition, or possibly the 3.5 revision. Not sure. It’s only relevant that the rules had changed a great deal.

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] Which, because they didn’t kill all the Gnolls and had to retreat, they thought they had lost.

[20] I’m playing in my younger brother’s D&D game and rather enjoying myself.

[21] Which I did in the form of orc nations, gnoll camps, slavers, and all sorts.

[22] D&D names. Jennifer would probably do.

[23] Grabbing a Conspiracymid from Night’s Black Agents would be a useful tool for looking at how the factions connect in Night Below.

[24] Witches get stitches

[25] 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.

[26] Which is probably my favourite D&D hack.

[27] As they’re doing, more or less, in World of Adventures.

[28] In the Mask variation, it represents that a person or thing is able to affect a character’s impression of themselves.

[29] 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.

[30] 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.


Beyond the Wall

On 14 April 2016 I was able to try out this role-playing game by Flatland Games. I ran the game for two of my brothers using voip and an online dice roller. Thanks to the innovation of the playbooks and scenario packs, it was astonishingly quick to set up. It’s a simple game with a lot of elegant tweaks and, while I’m not a fan of the OSR movement in games or Tolkienesque fantasy in general, Beyond the Wall really worked for me.

I’ve played role-playing games for much of my life. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a twenty-sided die was for.[1] I think playing games helped me to develops maths and reading skills[2] but also gave me a pretty safe way to pass away the summer months when I was a child. I carried on playing as an adult, probably because it’s a bit cheaper than getting drunk all the time.[3] I think it’s a peculiar hobby, when you get in to it, especially as I usually end up as the games master, a position analogous but not identical to that of a referee in healthier pastimes. Basically, everyone else pretends to be Lord Grim Grimminity or The Sourcerer of Saigon and I’m taking the role of Hannibal Lector, the inn-keep of the Prancing Pony,[4] the armies of the Dark Lord, and also that tree with the net in it. I don’t know that is speaks to anything other than having a slightly administrative bent – it’s less about creativity as it is that I’m pretty good with spreadsheets. I’m being rather off-hand about the whole thing, but I’ve had some great times with RPGs, told some fun stories, and made some excellent friends.[5]

As I have grown, my tastes in gaming have developed and, more or less, solidified. I like modern games with crunchy powers and lots of fights. I am not too fond of role-playing in the acting sense; I enjoy throwing dice because of its uncertainty, I don’t feel I’ve much of a gift for putting on the silly voices. I vastly prefer non-standard fantasy; a sort of hodge podge of influences that allows me to have wizard schools be something between a mystery cult and a kung fu school, naming conventions drawn from anything other than Ye Olde Englande, and less adoration of kings and Lost Golden Ages.[6] Also, I tend not to care for nonhumans, especially hobbits, in fantasy, for a bunch of reasons.

Beyond the Wall then, probably shouldn’t be the kind of thing that appeals to me, but since I grabbed some of the alpha documents way back in 2012(?), I’ve found it rather charming. The initial hook is the playbook system. In BtW you can generate a character the same as you would in any other version of Dungeons and Dragons[7] and be on your way, but the writers recommend you use the Playbooks instead.[8] Each playbook focuses on a particular concept or archetype of adventurer, and then provides some random charts to flesh out your particular iteration. It begins with their childhood and then moves on to their life in the village, how they became an adult, and who their friends are. All the while, it squirrels away bonuses to your abilities, skills and so on, so that once you have rolled through the playbook, you have an idea both of what your character can do and who they are. Character generation extends in to the creation of the village, a process shared by the whole group.

For example, last night my two brothers rolled up an Assistant Beast Keeper, Shirley, and a Halfling Outrider, Cuthbert. Shirley was the son of a smith but learned a bit from everyone. He’s the witch’s apprentice and mucks out the stables. Soon, he’s marrying in to the Miller’s family. Cuthbert is the child of famous local “tobacco” farmers, he befriended a local merchant, and became friends with Shirley when they helped the ghost of a long forgotten murder victim. Of course, they also know that the Miller intended to have the local merchant robbed, leading to Shirley’s nuptials in some no doubt humorous manner. Shirley has a pet mouse he named Queso, Cuthbert is walking around with some treasure maps. This all from about fifteen minutes of dice rolling. While they were doing that, I was able to pull out a scenario pack and, with some rolls of my own, determine that some nefarious subterranean goblins had attacked their village, abducting the local merchant for unknown reasons – that not all the goblins were on board with.

These sorts of play aids are really useful. The prompts help encourage less confident, less assertive players[9] to contribute stuff to the game and the world, and it gives everyone a stake in events. At one point, while Shirley was trying to convince Queso to scout the goblin warren for him, Cuthbert got impatient because it’s his friend down there with the cannibals. I also really liked that I could get an adventure for an evening put together in the same time it took the group to make characters –  and not some desultory hacker[10] but a twisty warren with the potential for interaction and lateral thinking. Indeed, the two of them used peaceful means to get through the first encounters – feeding (and freeing) some hungry gob-dogs, negotiating passage with the lesser king of the goblins.

Locating the game in the village, with the heavy focus on the local and personal, helps resolve some of the problems I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. The characters are not princes or chosen ones, they’re just little locals with a bit more luck or talent than their fellows[11] but not set apart from them. It’s a focus I appreciate.[12] There are miss-steps, such as the continual reiteration of what your fathers did, who your father was, rather than leaving it as parents or parents, or even switching between mother and father. While I dislike the shades of benign aristocracy in the Noble playbooks,[13] I really like that the playbooks contrast and complement with the villagers. There is a difference between the Would-Be Knight, born of the village, and the Knightless Squire, heir to the manor, informing their backgrounds so that, while both might be wielding heavy arms, their origins have an impact on who they are as people.

To return to the specifics of my game session, then, this manifested in a series of rolls that linked Cuthbert and Shirley together. Cuthbert’s motivation for leaving his comfortable hobbit hole was the tales of far-off places that a visiting Merchant shared with him. Shirley is set to marry in to the Miller’s family. This came together when Cuthbert rolled that he had seen the Miller arranging for a thief to rob the Merchant – and Shirley helped Cuthbert to disarm the whole situation. This is a purely random series of accretions that have come together to present the backstory to Orford, but it was really cool in the way it turned out. Shirley and Cuthbert are fast friends because of this event – and in Shirley’s case, it got him a fiancée.[14]

Within the playing of the game itself, once I had determined the motivations of the goblins and the scope of the lair, BtW is modelled heavily after pre-3rd edition D&D systems. When making attacks or saving throws, one rolls high, for ability scores, one rolls low. On first read, I didn’t particularly care for this, it’s a needless complication that will slow down play as each person tries to remember whether they roll low or high this time. There is a sidebar in BtW that explains why this design choice was made: the roll under stat check means that there is a meaningful distinction between ability scores that don’t have a differing ability bonus – so a character with a 9 strength and one with 12 will have different chances of succeeding at a task without needing to proliferate bonuses. That’s pretty sound reasoning, so I kept it.[15] And, as this session featured mostly ability and skill checks rather than the clash of arms,[16] ability checks came up a lot more often. When it did come time to throw down, the combat rules are very simple – roll, hit, damage – but there is the option to adopt stances in combat, which I’ll probably look to integrate more later. I was able to vary monsters a little bit by upping their hit points, a simple fix that I probably wouldn’t have done in a more complex game.

This simplicity is probably BtWs greatest asset and but also a liability; it’s fun to give a little narration to action, but it doesn’t have any impact on the mechanical level. It certainly lacks the heft of 4th edition D&Ds ability to declare what type of attack you are making, or even 13th Age’s variable dice mechanics. There is something to be said for reliably representing outcomes within the system itself – so a warrior knows how to ding an enemy just so and leave them dazed, or a ranger can always find such and such an amount of food. And, as always, while everyone is free to describe actions and chance the dice, magic users retain a set of mechanical tools that allow them to declare that A Thing is Happening. I think that much of the Old School methodology considers this a feature, not a bug, so I don’t anticipate it getting examined at any point.

It’s a game that lends itself well to a decent sized group or a small one. I do think that, with more players, the interactions between playbooks and how that rolls out in the village is an incredible asset. I’d even be happy to look to import the playbook method in to other games. For future sessions, I’m looking to roll out the village generation, traits, and then area and threats. BtW was good fun and I’m looking forward to future sessions.

[1] Stacking up as towers.
[2] Though not language skills. Too much fantasy has left my grammar a pitiful wreck.
[3] I never really went down the rabbit hole of miniatures wargaming. I did have some lizardmen once. I stopped collecting them after being told that painting them like poisonous geckoes was Doing It Wrong. Tough lesson, but probably saved me a lot of money in the long run.
[4] I don’t like Tolkien, doesn’t mean I can’t reference him.
[5] Perhaps, given I have never been attached to a gaming scene, it might be better described that I have excellent friends who have allowed me to share with them my strange hobby.
[6] I am partial to Lost and Obscure Relics – but the thing I want is the past to be different, not better.
[7] Roll dice, pick class, record stuff, fight monsters.
[8] They also offer loads of them for free on their website.
[9] Not a problem with the two brothers I was playing with, mind.
[10] Which, to reiterate my stance earlier, I’d have no problem with. I like fights!
[11] I’m quite left wing. This way of thinking is quite often mischaracterised as thinking everyone is the same; it’s not, it’s that everyone is equal, which is really quite different.
[12] Though I’m not saying it’s a move to speak from the margins, I think it is certainly influenced by this impulse.
[13] The Nobility playbooks also include the only specifically gendered archetype: The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. All the other playbooks don’t assign gender characteristics to the PC so generated. We could read this gendering as implying that all the other playbooks are neutrally male – especially the predominantly martial types such as the Squire and the Future Warlord, given that her skill at arms marks the NWD as transgressive. That could be a problem for some groups. We could assume that this is a (social) class rooted constraint; a Local Hero can be a woman because gender roles are less strictly enforced on the sharp edge of survival. Still, If one player is making a NWD and another making a Squire who happens to be a woman, it creates a conflict in concept. I also think, that it pays to bear in mind the source materials: that is, not that women did not fight in history, but the fiction that BtW is inspired by, which includes many, many very very popular examples of your women who rose up to fight against the wishes and expectations of their society. It is an example of importing inequality to a secondary world in service to audience expectations.
[14] Which is an interesting connection all in its own right – I tend not to focus on relationship issues within game, but here’s a fresh hook.
[15] Also, one of my players has the most atrocious dice luck, so being able to succeed on a low roll is a rare chance to shine for him. Or to fool the dice gods, depending on how superstitious you are.
[16] Shirley and Cuthbert successfully negotiated with a pack of Gob-Dogs and the Goblin King, though they would later go on to fight the King anyway. It was reasonable in the context of the game.