by Mike Shea on 12 October 2015
In September 2015 Wizards of the Coast released Out of the Abyss, their third campaign adventure for the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This sandbox adventure throws our poor band of PCs into the depths of the Underdark where, with little more than the cloth on their backs, they must make their way past the worst creatures vomited up from the depths of the Abyss.
This is the first article in a chapter-by-chapter series containing tips and tricks for getting the most out of this adventure. Stay tuned over the next few months for further articles.
Keep in mind that this article and future articles about Out of the Abyss are packed with spoilers. If you're planning to play in it, you probably want to stop reading right now.
And now, the tips.
The first chapter of Out of the Abyss puts the PCs in, quite possibly, the worst situation they could start in. The PCs have been captured by a drow raiding party and are currently held prisoner as they await transportation to Menzoberranzan to fill in Gods-know-what role. Sacrifice? Slave? Who knows.
Our band of level 1 PCs find themselves caged with few items and surrounded by drow guards, elite soldiers, and quaggoths - giant hairy nasty creatures. Any of these creatures are more than a match for the PCs even if they were well armed, and they certainly are not. Combat as a means of escape simply isn't possible.
"Killer" DMs are going to love this and it might even be loved by players who enjoy tough challenges. Others, however, might not get as much joy from it. 1st level 5e D&D is already rough and removing their weapons and equipment doesn't make them feel any more heroic or powerful.
Don't be an ass. Don't punish PCs for things they can't really control. Don't kill them over and over, particularly as this adventure begins at level 1. Make it clear to them that combat isn't likely to succeed.
If you want to be nice, consider running them through an intro adventure that gets them to level 2 or 3 before they're captured. Phandelver from the Starter Set works well for this purpose. If the PCs are level 3 when they begin Out of the Abyss, combat suddenly becomes a potential option.
If you DO choose to run your PCs through an intro adventure, don't try to shoehorn in some scene where they are all captured by drow. Few groups enjoy a battle that's one-sided from the beginning. Instead, just fade away from their last victory and then describe how they awaken with little memory of being captured as drow sleep poison tends to steal away short term memory. Since you have to railroad them into prison anyway, just do it and get it done.
Given their precarious position, good players will come up with interesting ways to learn about and eventually escape Velkenvelve, the drow outpost of their imprisonment. Reward these ideas. Don't shoot them down if they don't fit the story you had in your mind.
As DMs, we'll get the most out of this adventure if we don't plan things out and let the story grow from the decisions of the players when facing the situations in which they find themselves. This gives us excellent practice at learning to let go and watch the story evolve as players make choices and the dice hit the table.
Instead of having three ideas in your head about how the PCs could escape, take a good read into how Velkenvelve is arranged and watch as players discover their own ways to escape.
There are a ton of NPCs in Out of the Abyss and it can be hard for both you and the players to keep track of them all. Write their names down on 3x5 cards and keep them on the table so both you and your players can keep track of who's who. You can also associate them with a particular miniature if you have them on hand. Physical representations of each of the NPCs can help keep track when there's so many of them.
Given the chaotic nature of the first chapter, it's likely not all NPCs will survive and the number of NPCs the party will interact with over the rest of the adventure will be cut way down. That said, even if the party loses track of one of the NPCs in the chaos of the battle, that NPC might come back later on in the adventure. This is a nice reward for those players who take the time to remember them early on.
As you introduce each of the NPCs and perhaps include them in various scenes, keep track of which ones seem to resonate with the players. Do they like Stool the myconid or find Sarith's grim nature alluring? Take note of it. You can give players a good idea about each of these NPCs through conversations taking place in the jail and by including different NPCs in the various odd-jobs the PCs might undertake while they learn more about the jail.
The NPCs who can aid the PCs in their initial escape into the Underdark might be particularly useful. Ensure they players at least have a chance to get to know them. If they could care less about them later, that's fine too. It is nice for them to have the opportunity to meet up with a useful guide, though.
The NPCs who can act as (somewhat) useful guides include: Stool, Shuushar, Sarith, and Jimjar.
If you DO decide to go with the survival horror theme, enjoy the tyranny of inventory management. The PCs may find themselves running into the underdark with a 10 gold piece gemstone, a length of 5 foot of spider silk, and an ornery poisonous spider. How they survive against Demogorgon and Zuggtmoy with five feet of spider silk is the fun of an adventure like this.
If you are a DM who tends not to track things like food or spell components, you may want to for this adventure. Starvation might be a real enemy and a big motivator for the choices of the PCs. Enjoy the tyranny of inventory management and watch how it affects the story.
More on this in the next article.
Out of the Abyss is all about the rising of the demon lords. Foreshadow this with nightmares and visions. Demons attacking Velkenvelve can be a great way for PCs to get a shot at their escape. Seeing flocks of Vrocks attacking the stalactite towers will bring a good deal of fright and atmosphere to the situation. Use the right opportunities to present the theme of the adventure.
It can help both you and the players if you embrace the idea that this campaign plays out much more like a survival horror game than a game of high adventure. As one player put it, this is the "Dark Souls" of D&D. Choices matter. The land is dangerous. The PCs can easily find themselves lost in dangerous caverns without even food in their bellies. They might not have decent weapons for some time. For players who enjoy this sort of game, this can be a blast. For others, it might take some discussions for them to appreciate it.
If all else fails, you can always switch to "easy" mode by starting them off at a higher level and giving them easier access to good equipment. The "Dark Souls" of D&D isn't for everyone.
Stay tuned for further articles about Out of the Abyss in the coming months. In the mean time, keep your eyes open and watch out for those that stir in the dark.