Gaming in the Night Land

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I've been playing tabletop roleplaying games since 1974, starting with the old original D&D, way back when I was fresh out of high school. And now, even though I'm a grandfather, I still run a game night once a week at my house.

I first read The Night Land in Lin Carter's expurgated version for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, and was captivated. Many is the time I have cursed the German artillery shell that killed Hodgson, as well as the idiotic British ethos which destroyed an entire generation in a war that settled nothing, and left the world worse than before. But as a fan of the work, and also as an old-time roleplayer, I have often explored the possibilities of experiencing Hodgson's terrifying dystopia via playing as a game.

So let's talk about how to set up and run a Night Land campaign or scenario.

Basics

FIRST — the most important thing in such an alien setting is that you, the gamemaster, need to use a system with which you feel comfortable. If you play Dungeons & Dragons, use that. If you play RISUS, go ahead. My personal preference would be Call of Cthulhu, not only because I designed it (heh) but because it comes ready-built with a system for destroying a player-character's mind. But familiarity is the most important element so you don't hesitate or waffle when something unexpected comes up. And trust me, something unexpected will happen with people in the Night Land. The most important feature in any roleplaying game is not the system, but the players and gamemaster in any case.

Second, refamiliarize yourself with The Night Land before running the game. Yes I know you read it every year at Christmastime. Read it again while preparing the game.

Third, write a brief background on the Night Land for the players to read before the game, so they don't come in completely ignorant. If you don't want to write up a background summary, just have them read the second chapter of the book (it's on Project Gutenberg, so they have no excuse to not do so).

Fourth, pick out one of the excellent maps on this website, and print it out. Give the players a copy of the map of the area surrounding their Redoubt. You will probably want to make notes on your own copy of the map in any case. And of course, If you have decided to set up a game in another part of the world, you'll have to do your own map. This last is also true if you have the players adventure somewhere that was not visited in the book.

The Adventure

To me, the only logical place to adventure is the Night Land itself. Yes, the Redoubts are filled with potentially interesting intrigues and situations but let's face it — the kind of adventures you could have inside the Redoubt are the exact same adventures that you could have in a medieval Castle, or in the world of Herbert's Dune, or Babylon 5, or wherever. They are not particularly unique to Hodgson's world. Your players will probably start in a Redoubt, and may spend some time there before exiting forth upon an adventure. But the ultimate goal, I here assume, is to get your players out among the abhumans and Watchers.

So with that in mind, what kind of adventure do you want? Here are some adventure hooks to help stimulate a gamemaster's thoughts:

  • The players are at the Lesser Redoubt just before its fall. They experience the anarchy and horror of its demise, and then must scavenge weapons, food, and other necessities and try to make their way across the Night Land to some haven. (In the book, of course, no one made it to the Great Redoubt except Naani. You could either just say that other people made it as well, or lead your players on a path towards some other safe place of your invention.)
  • The players were trying out a rocket to escape the Earth and it was knocked down by an energy burst from a Watcher. They might be all excited about the possibilities of getting mankind off the world, only to find out one reason why it has not been attempted successfully before.
  • The layers were testing a flying machine from ancient times and it crashed. Perhaps it ran into an airless pocket and plummeted like a rock. This is a good way to get players into a completely new place never seen before. Perhaps they are in the area behind the Headlands From Which Strange Things Peer, for instance.
  • The players found an ancient subterranean rail system and in exploring it, the train crashed in an open spot where Something had drilled down from above. The tube back is blocked, so they must climb to the surface (experiencing adventures) and then make their way back.
  • The players are on a mission from the Redoubt. They must find out something, or gather something, or destroy something, and then return safely. Lots of missions spring to mind.
  • The defense against one of the Watchers has failed. Perhaps the light that blinds the South West Watcher has gone out. The players are sent to find out what happened and to try to fix matters.
  • Something from Outside has penetrated the Redoubt. This can apparently only happen if a person has somehow invited it in. Perhaps someone meddling with things better left alone has been transmogrified into a horror that now threatens the pyramid, or maybe something normally unliving like a wall, or a room, is now spawning monsters. This would give the players a chance to fight monsters without needing to venture outside, but also possibly without proper preparation, as the horrors could be a surprise occurrence.

Monsters

To do this, you will need stats for the likely enemies they may meat. This site has stats for some monsters in D&D and Call of Cthulhu format. You may want to do your own formats, of course. One of the helpful features of the Night Land in this regard is that the monsters aren't really laid out in any detail, and almost everything seems to have extra powers that don't always come into play. Hence, you can be as inventive as you like without worrying about consequences.

For instance, think of the following description of some giants from the book:

And three did be dull coloured and seeming much haired and brutish; but the other did be an horrid white, and livid-blotched; so that it did seem to my spirit that there went by, a thing that did be a very man-monster filled of unwholesome life.

Clearly the fourth giant has Something Special about it — something that made it even more loathsome than the normal giants. You as gamemaster would be within your rights to give this creature extra powers beyond that of your "normal" giants. For instance, it might regenerate from damage, or its touch spread disease, or it might emanate some demoralizing aura that hinders those who oppose it.

The biggest problem with the monsters in the Night Land is that so many of them fought in the book seem incredibly powerful. The Giants, the Night Hounds, the Silent Ones ... how can your players hope to overcome such horrors? Here are three techniques to enable you to handle the situation without weakening or undercutting the monsters' prowess.

  1. Even in the book, there are plenty of lesser monsters mentioned, like the yard-long scorpions and smaller serpents. Not every fight has to be against beings of unthinkable malevolence. There can be a whole range of horrors between the small monsters and unstoppable colossi such as the Slug. Night Pups, anyone?
  2. Your players will not be alone. Fighting as a team is far more effective than a lone man, as is demonstrated in almost any roleplaying system.
  3. You can give your players some kind of special item — for instance a tube which projects a destructive Earth Current — which they can use to save their bacon in extremis. It should have limits, however. Perhaps it can be used just thrice, for instance. So if they get attacked by a Night Hound and a litter of Night Pups they can use the project to slay the Hound and then fight the Pups on a more fair basis.

This should be enough to get people started. Post suggestions and comments for other things I should add to the descriptions.


Comments

From: Andy Robertson

We should all read Marcus Rowland's Forgotten Futures — the Carnacki Cylinders for RPG ideas in this universe.

See also Using Night Land Elements in Gaming (Part 1 — Call of Cthulhu) at The Hour-Slips.


Essay © 2011 by Sandy Petersen.