Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4.
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) rates number 3 on this list of great adventures for introducing D&D’s most compelling elements in a mix that gives players freedom to roam and dungeon masters an easy scenario to run.
Night’s Dark Terror ranks number 1 because it succeeds on all those counts, plus it adds innovative episodes, poster maps and counters, and more flavor of the fantastic. Make that “flavour,” because Night’s Dark Terror came from TSR UK.
The similarities between adventures were by design. D&D Creative Director Mike Mearls calls Night’s Dark Terror one of the best D&D adventures ever made. It inspired Lost Mine of Phandelver.
When TSR decided to support the D&D Expert Set (1981, 1983) with an adventure, the TSR UK team of Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher drew the assignment. Since the Basic Set introduced players to dungeon adventures, the new adventure needed to introduce the wilderness.
“As a team we brainstormed the plot outline, and carved up the work between us,” Phil Gallagher said in an interview. “Jim worked especially hard to coordinate the adventure elements, Graeme and I obsessed over the language and grammar, I took charge of the lay-out and design, and we all wrote stuff and swapped it back and forth between us.
“We felt we could create something unique—a Basic-Expert crossover with an open-ended structure, different from the rather linear dungeon crawls that were around at that time.”
The team succeeded. In a product history, Shannon Appelcline describes the achievement. “To date, most wilderness adventures had either been largely freeform hex crawls, like X1: The Isle of Dread (1981), or else tight railroads, like N2: The Forest Oracle (1984). Instead, Night’s Dark Terror deftly combines fixed locales and ongoing events with a multi-episodic structure. The result allows for a lot of sandbox play while still supporting a strong narrative—a very difficult mix in roleplaying adventures and one that’s seldom been matched.”
The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror.
After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. “The PCs then explore more than 20,000 square miles (52,000 km2) of wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, with the minions of the Iron Ring slavers waiting for the PCs at every step,” writes Gus L.
Even with a grand scope, players will always see options for their next move. “The entire adventure is laid out not as a linear progression, but rather as a huge area where many bits of information are gathered, and many different clues and hints lead to the same climax.”
Unique, fantastic elements give the adventure a sense of wonder uncommon at low levels. Among many touches, I like the shapechanging horse who becomes a patron and the goblin lair built in stone trees in a forest petrified by magic.
On release, Night’s Dark Terror seemed to attract little interest in game stores. Perhaps the title misled potential buyers by suggesting a horror scenario. Also, in the United States, D&D fans tended to spurn basic D&D material in favor of Advanced content. But over time, the adventure’s reputation spread. Before the adventure became available as a PDF, copies fetched hundreds of dollars.
Still, reviewers took notice. In his 1991 book Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick describes Night’s Dark Terror as an “outstanding wilderness scenario.” In a review for White Dwarf issue 78, Graeme Davis writes that he can’t imagine a better module to match with the Expert Set box. In a Dragon 124, reviewer Ken Rolston calls this “the best-illustrated and best-designed module I’ve ever seen—and the adventure and campaign material is every bit as remarkable as the graphic presentation. A classic.” Agreed.