Night Below review [5/5]


Before there were adventure paths, there was Night Below. Night Below is a boxed set adventure for the 2nd edition of D&D. Unlike an adventure path of today, which is a string of connected adventures designed to be played in a certain order, this is presented as a campaign setting with an overarching story but a lot of room to customize.

For production values alone, Night Below is a tremendous product. The box is packed with three adventure books, full-color DM reference cards on cardstock, a player handout packet, three full-color fold-out poster maps that include site maps and key tactical maps, and a separate monster folio. The artwork is all of decent to great quality, and the editing is solid. For the original price of $30.00 US, it was a steal. Today it is not as easy to find, and you’ll pay a premium for it, but I would argue that it is still worth it.

The real value of this set, beyond the production quality, is the campaign itself. I ran a game up through most of Book 1 but unfortunately had to cut my campaign short. Some of the rest of this review will be based on play experience, but some of the later review is based just on a read-through. Naturally, there will be some spoilers.

The campaign is pretty clearly divided into three separate chapters. The first chapter comprises the area of Haranshire and the adventures in and around the town of Milborne. The second chapter is an Underdark exploration that culminates in an assault on the City of the Glass Pool. The third and final chapter is all about discovering and then destroying the final menace.

Throughout the chapters, a lot of advice is given for DMs to lead the party through a recommended progression from one stage to another. This is typically done in order to get the party to an appropriate level before jumping to the next level, so that they don’t get in over their heads. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chapter 2, where an NPC almost literally tells the party that they need to gain more equipment and experience before they can hope to bring down the final enemy, and then sends them on side quests with those goals in mind. For some, this can appear to be a railroad. Indeed, in the hands of a DM who just wants to follow the script, it will certainly become a railroad. However, that is only one way to look at the adventure.

The beauty of Night Below is that, while there is a recommended progression, there is very little in the campaign that actually requires the party to follow that progression. The Haranshire chapter of the campaign is explicitly setup as a sandbox, with a large number of different adventure locations and ideas for sidequests that a DM can use. Even the scripted storyline includes breaks in the action where the DM is suggested to insert sidequests of his or her own. There is enough intrigue and enough backstory here to provide a wealth of play without ever getting too far into the main storyline. There is one glaring plot contrivance near the end of Book 1 with the doors guarding the orc caverns, but that is easily ignored.

By the time the PCs have reached Book 2, they are well into the storyline, following a string kidnappings into the Underdark in an attempt to discover the mysterious forces behind them. One might think that the story would become much more of a railroad in the confines of the caverns, but even here the campaign is careful to provide multiple options of proceeding through the caverns. There are only a handful of guaranteed encounter areas, with the Svirfneblin, the caverns of the Grells, and the City of the Glass Pool, and a lot of flexibility as to how or if other areas are tackled.

One thing to keep in mind is that, in keeping with many adventures of the time, there is some heavy-handed advice provided in the books, especially in Book 2. This is most commonly done when describing interactions with NPC groups, such as the Rockseer Elves or the Svirfneblin. In these situations it is easy to ignore the heavy-handedness and provide a more free-form roleplay experience, as nothing in the storyline actually requires a particular outcome from any of these interactions. There are benefits to be gained from the various groups, for sure, but nothing that must happen for the story to continue. For groups who prefer more freedom, I would recommend such an approach.

The second chapter of Night Below also raises another point about the campaign, which is there is the potential for a lot of hack-and-slash. The campaign presents a lot of the encounter areas as simple hack-and-slash affair, and for some groups this could be a turn-off. However, the presentation of the areas masks the potential that is there. Nearly every major encounter area has multiple opposing factions and some interesting NPCs, so there are huge opportunities to introduce roleplay, intrigue, and creative solutions to these encounter areas. For groups who don’t want a hack-and-slash experience, all of the tools are already provided for a different kind of experience and just need a DM to breathe a little bit of life into them.

Book 2 culminates in a fantastic assault on a Kuo-Toan city, the City of the Glass Pool. This presents a very creative method of tracking the social collapse of the city, with the goal being to accumulate a certain number of Social Collapse Points to effectively shatter the society in the city. It is an intriguing system with interesting effects, and the system could easily be used for other campaigns to model how a group of PCs might bring about social unrest. The book provides the opportunity to skip the City of the Glass Pool entirely, but it describes some very good reasons for not doing just that. As usual, the choices are in the hands of the players.

The third and final chapter in Night Below is an open area of adventure on and around a sunless sea deep beneath the earth. The end goal is to locate and destroy the stronghold of Great Shaboath, and multiple encounter sites in the area provide opportunities to gather allies or gain loot and experience. There is, of course, a suggested progression through these encounter areas, but it easily adapts to a sandbox-type of environment. During these adventures, there’s a good chance the party will attract the attention of the masters of Great Shaboath, adding additional spice as the party tries to muster support for an assault while their steps are dogged along the way with assassination attempts and ambushes.

The campaign culminates in a truly epic assault on an alien city. The adventure provides options for both frontal assaults and covert infiltration, with clear goals that require thwarting a world-spanning plot for domination. Even the most experienced groups will be put to the test here, and players will need every bit of help that they’ve managed to acquire along the way. If they manage to prevail, they can truly feel like they’ve accomplished a heroic task.

All in all, Night Below is a large, sprawling campaign that takes players from humble beginnings to an epic climax far beneath the surface of the world. While the presentation of the story can tend toward a hack-and-slash railroad, the designers put in a wealth of material to allow groups to take the campaign in many different directions according to their own preference. With some adventures it is difficult to see how to change the style to something else, but with Night Below all of the information and tools that a DM needs are already there. For excellent production quality and excellent adventuring, I give Night Below 5 out of 5.
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Now that OotA is about to be released the hype about the Underdark cannot get any bigger. Looking around I found your review and it has been very useful (I saw the cover image of this product many years ago at a hobby store but I didn´t know until today anything about it). This boxed set along with the boxed set of Menzoberranzan sounds like the perfect combo to get ready for OotA!
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What a great boxed set this was. I didn't run it completely as a campaign, but rather inserted several portions of it into my pre-existing storyline. Even without utilizing every bit of it, I still got a TON of mileage out of this product. The reviewer is spot-on, this was a terrific value, even if you just plan to chop it up and use individual components of it; there are a myriad of good artwork, ideas, NPCs, player handouts, and all kinds of goodies to draw upon.