by Mike Shea on 2 November 2015
This is the second in an ongoing series of articles discussing how to best run the D&D adventure, Out of the Abyss. Our series began with Running Out of the Abyss Chapter 1 and it's worth starting your read there.
These articles are intended for dungeon masters who are running Out of the Abyss. If you plan to play in this adventure, stop now and move along.
When the PCs begin this chapter they have a lot going against them. They likely don't have any food or water. They likely don't have any weapons or equipment. Instead, they're lost in the caverns of the Underdark with a band of bloodthirsty drow hunting them down.
As the first session begins in this chapter, it's worth reinforcing these challenges. Don't give them solutions to these problems and don't assume they will follow one path or another. Lay out the problems and the situation and enjoy it as they come up with interesting ways to deal with these problems.
For those who prefer an adventure that walks the PCs through the story step by step, Out of the Abyss is likely to disappoint. Chapter 1 gave us a small sandbox with the PCs trapped in Velkinvelve and offered various potential ways to escape. Chapter 2 sticks the PCs smack in the middle of the Underdark with thousands of miles all around them to explore. This is more of a great desert than a small sandbox. The choices they make here could result in huge differences to the rest of the game.
Chapter 2 gives us many tools to help us run a long exploration of the Underdark. These come in the form of random locations, random monsters, and a handful of small adventure sites we can place into the rest of the adventure. We can likely get the most out of this adventure by avoiding leading the PCs down any one particular path. Will the PCs choose to head to Gracklstugh? Will they head to Sloobludop? We really don't know.
And that's fine. The best thing we can do to prepare our Out of the Abyss games is read through the material in the adventure and be ready to improvise as the game runs at the table. This won't be comfortable for a lot of DMs who prefer a nice path to follow, but the results can be both surprising and fun. This is great practice for the lazy dungeon master.
We probably don't want to run the entire adventure this way, but early on it can be fun to dig deep into the issues of inventory management. If the PCs find drinking water, how do they carry it? How do they start a fire? How do they keep a steady supply of food on hand as they travel through the caverns? How do they defend themselves against a band of drow hunters with nothing but rocks and petrified stalks of mushrooms?
Again, this probably isn't the way to run the whole game. Once they've properly outfitted themselves and clearly know how to keep themselves fed and healthy, we can let this go and get back to focusing on the high adventure. Early on, however, the threat of starvation, dehydration, and a lack of suitable equipment can be an interesting threat indeed.
If handled incorrectly, random encounters can be really boring. Move for a day, roll a d20. If you roll less than a 13, move on. What if, instead, we showed them what they might have otherwise missed? What if we show them what came before or give them the chance to notice a band of monsters before stumbling upon them?
When traveling, have one of the players roll 1d20 and use the result to determine what tracks they might find leading into another tunnel. Many times the PCs might ignore them or they might use a survival check to determine what sort of tracks they are. If it's something they want to go after, they might hunt the monsters down.
The Underdark is a living breathing place. Creatures travel through all the time. By showing them what came before, you can add the fun of a potential encounter without having them constantly ambushed by monsters.
The same works for interesting chambers. Even if they miss an encounter roll, you can roll on the locations list and describe a place they might notice down another corridor. Likely they'll give it a miss, particularly if its hostile, but it's still interesting to see.
The only disadvantage of this is that you might run out of encounters or locations if you're using them all the time. There are only twenty encounters and locations in this chapter so don't do it TOO much or one encounter or location will start to feel a lot like another.
Focusing on the survival aspects of Out of the Abyss gives us a chance to return to the 40 year conversation of player knowledge versus die rolls. Some DMs prefer a game where players make smart choices and these smart choices help their PCs navigate deadly pitfalls. Others prefer to focus on the skills of the PCs and the results of their d20 rolls. There's no reason, however, that we can't do both.
Let's say a player has a good idea about how to store water for the long journey in the Underdark. If it makes sense and has little chance for failure, don't force them to roll. If, on the other hand, they are having a hard time figuring out how to store water, give them a chance to roll a survival check and the PCs might learn a good way to do so.
Some players are better coming up with good ideas while others prefer to use the brains of their PCs. There's no reason we can't use both in our game.
As we can, it behooves us to foreshadow the demonic threat that has taken over the Underdark. The Underdark is a weird place anyway but we can make it even weirder with strange discoveries. This might be a pool of demonic blood or the corpses of beings who tore themselves apart with madness. It might be the remains of strange rituals conducted by demon worshipers or even the demons themselves. Exposure to strange spores might give them a horrifying vision of Zuggtmoy, demon queen of fungi. This is also our way to invoke the strange bouts of madness that occur in this adventure.
This madness, potentially a disease they catch from a nest of gas spores, can itself be a motivation for their exploration of the Underdark.
While we don't want to force the PCs down any one path, we can plant a lot of seeds to give the players some good ideas where they might go. Which NPCs they happen to be grouped up with will also guide their way. Does Eldeth want to join up with the dwarves at Gauntlgrim? Does Shuushar suggest they head to Sloobludop? Does Stool show them a fantastic vision of the myconid lair? Any of these might be options they can find.
Whatever path they choose, they're likely to head towards Darklake so it's worth spending the time to understand how this strange set of underground waterways actually looks. Keep an eye out for our look at Out of the Abyss chapter 3 where we cover this fantastic underground lake.