In the latest version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide there are guidelines in how to build adventures and scale them so they fit the different character levels. The different Tiers of Play are helpful to any Dungeon Master creating his own adventures and figuring out how to scale the events of his story. This is also visible in many published adventures, especially in a personal favorite, Night Below, created by Carl Sargent.
Night Below was published in 1995, under the AD&D version of D&D. This was one of the boxed campaigns that TSR published at that time and was originally intended to invoke the same atmosphere as the old D-series did. The box contained three campaign books, score of maps and many handouts. The PCs were to start at 1st level and go beyond 10th level, though in the campaign books the DM is encouraged to add side-treks and mini-adventures, to ensure that the PCs have enough experience to be able to handle the higher level encounters.
Though the campaign isn’t set in any specific setting many believe that Sargent intended it to be set in Greyhawk. The fact that the campaign includes the Sunless Sea and heavy Underdark trekking without meeting any drows supports this. But it is easy to adjust the campaign to almost all settings.
The overall tone of the campaign is quite Lovecraftian, where there’s a lurking and almost all-powerful tentacled aberration entity, eager to take over the world and plunge it into madness. For a Lovecraft enthusiast, like myself, this is simply too interesting to resist.
The opening chapters of the campaign introduce the PCs to a small region called Haranshire where two different settlements can be found, along with many interesting locales. The two settlement soon become familiar to the PCs and the valley acts as a decent sandbox for the players, where they can both investigate and interact with many different characters and encounter monsters and thugs.
Haranshire is a great local region for the PCs to earn experience and find both mentors and allies. The two towns, Thurmaster and Milborne, offer plenty of roleplaying opportunities and introduces the PCs to the many NPCs in the region, along with score of rumors and adventure seeds. Many encounters offer diplomatic solutions, immersive roleplaying and Hack-n-Slash, suiting all playing styles.
The PCs, following different adventure seeds and side treks along with the main storyline, should be 4th to 6th level before entering the Underdark. The sandbox, that is Haranshire, offers many opportunities for creative Dungeon Masters and many one-shot modules, e.g. many available in the dmsguild.com, can be easily added to this campaign, with few adjustments.
This fits perfectly to 5E Tiers of play concept, which can be found on page 37 in DMG. PCs on level 1-4 are local heroes, characters who are still learning how to be an adventurer, still wet behind the ears and mostly poorly equipped.
The status quo is upset
When the PCs enter Haranshire they are waylaid by bandits, who try to overcome any spellcaster in the group. As they enter Thurmaster they quickly learn that priests and wizards have gone missing of late. The reason for this, unknown to the PCs, is that the Aboleth Savants, the most powerful Aboleths, are building a massive artifact, powerful enough to enslave the surface races, and need to sacrifice many magic-using creatures. As the story progresses the PCs learn more about the Aboleth’s plan and the dire threat it poses to not only Haranshire, but the world.
As the story progresses into campaign book 2, the setting changes. Haranshire now serves mostly as a home base, as the PCs start to venture down into the Underdark. The tone of the adventure also takes on a darker hue and more encounters call for violent solutions, though of course there are opportunities for other kind of play, e.g. getting into the Svirfneblin city and the Rockseer elf discovery.
Finding their way deeper into the Underdark takes the PCs through many extremely dangerous passages, where monsters range from troglodytes and trolls to behirs and adult shadow dragons! Not many of these encounters offer different solutions than drawing your sword or call forth a spell, as the story is written.
Creative Dungeon Masters can easily add more encounters and use the rules for Underdark Travel introduced in Out of the Abyss, for the travel to the City of the Glass Pool is probably the most taxing and monotone part of the campaign. This part can be, in the right hands, a goldmine, for the story itself offers plenty of interesting NPCs and a chance for the PCs to explore in full the different factions of the Underdark, even earning some allies on the way.
When the PCs have dealt with the City of the Glass Pool they should have ascended to 10th or 11th level, which means they are almost on third tier, Masters of the Realm.
Social Collapse Point System
When the PCs reach the City of the Glass Pool their objective once more changes. Instead of just hacking their way through scores of monsters, they need to turn to hit-and-run tactics, where stealth, cunning and cleverness prevails, for they need to make sure that when they leave the city, to go deeper into the Underdark in search of the Aboleth artifact, that the Kuo-Tuas are neither a threat nor a hindrance on the way back. The PCs can opt to ignore the Kuo-Tua city but that would leave out a great part of the campaign.
The Social Collapse Point System can easily be modified and updated to 5E. The main objective of the PCs is not to slay every kuo-toa, but they need to be resourceful and make sure that they cripple the leadership enough to make sure that the city no longer poses a threat to them.
…to world shaking threats!
When the PCs finally reach the Sunless Sea they are slowly discovering the scope of the Aboleth threat. They need to explore the Great Cavern, where they not only find difficult encounters and possible treasures, but also possible allies and many opportunities for roleplaying, e.g. dealing with the Tanar’ri task force or the Mind Flayers priests, leaving the PCs with interesting choices and moral questions, e.g. is the enemy of my enemy my friend?
As the Campaign reaches it’s climax the PCs attack Shaboath, the great city of the Aboleth. As soon as their attack begins all hell breaks loose and they need to be clever and organised. They need to take out four towers, in order to succeed and the alliances they have made on their way can really make a difference, for the PCs not only need to outfight, outsmart and outlast the Aboleths, for there are many different evil creatures in the city, all eager to be on the „right“ side when the Tower of Domination is ready. Finally the PCs enter the Grand Savant’s tower, where in the end they need to fight the Grand Savant.
Night Below is in my opinion one of the best campaigns TSR published and is up there with Dragonlance Classics and other great campaigns. Though it needs considerable work on the DM’s behalf, it’s more than worth it, for it offers not only many great sessions, encounters and a good story, but it also fits perfectly with the Tiers of Play ideology and pits the PCs again and again against monsters and interesting NPCs. The story also has many layers, e.g. the many political factions of the Underdark, and every kind of PC will have a chance to shine.
One thing I also like about this campaign, a point often overlooked, is the fact that there’s a good balance in NPC’s gender. This is something that maybe doesn’t bother some DMs or is something they don’t notice, but for me this matters. Many NPC’s, both community leaders, adversaries and allies, are female and not cliches like mistress in distress or femme fatale. I find this part of Sargent’s story modern and more in line with how I would like to portray a fantasy world.
Of course, this campaign is not flawless. As mentioned earlier, it needs considerable work on the DM’s behalf, e.g. there is no boxed text and at times the DM must roleplay many different NPCs at a time, and combats where the PCs have many allies with them can get slow. Trekking through the Underdark is a hazardous and difficult task, one that needs careful planning, foraging and scouting ahead. Reading through Out of the Abyss is therefor almost a must, for it offers solutions to many of these problems.
Even though Night Below is only available for AD&D it is easy to adjust and modify for newer versions, like 5E or Pathfinder.
I highly reccomend it.
Thorsteinn has for long sailed the Astral Sea, eager to broadcast his heretical gospel to the uninitiated.