by Mike Shea on 7 March 2016
This article is one of an ongoing series of articles covering the fifth edition D&D adventure, Out of the Abyss. In this article we're going to cover chapter 4: Gracklstugh. Here is a list of previous articles:
Like previous articles, this article will be packed with blackened soot-covered spoilers.
There are many different factions at work in Gracklstugh and all of them play rough. There's some subtly to their actions but much of their actions and reactions will be direct and hard. These aren't the drow houses of Menzoberranzan we're talking about. Duergar have the bawdiness of dwarves with the dark streak of slavers in league with Asmodeus.
It's easy to run Gracklstugh as a city full of straight villainy that constantly harries the PCs but its more fun to give the PCs some wiggle room. The various factions of duergar can see a lot of value in using outsiders to further their own gains, even if they're not as subtle about it as the drow. Nearly any duergar group that runs into the PCs may see the greater benefit of using the PCs as pawns in their own struggles rather than just crushing them with hammers.
The constant roar of its furnaces, the continual hammering of iron and steel, and the ever-present choking smog define Gracklstugh. Reinforce these traits often as the PCs travel through the city. The section on Grakle-lung on page 54 is a fun way to directly inflict this strange city's effect on the PCs but simply describing the clang of stone, the heat, and the continuing red haze will reinforce the strangeness of the city to them.
One of the random encounters includes a run-in with a drow emissary house. This encounter can be very useful to reintroduce the PCs to the threat of the Mizzrym hunters who still, after all this time, want to find those escaped slaves. You don't have to roll this encounter randomly and you don't have to randomly choose a house if you don't want to.
There's been a lot of interesting things going on with house Xorlarrin and House Baenre in the various R.A. Salvatore books recently, so they're great houses to introduce. If you aren't inclined to read these books, you can catch up with a few wikipedia summaries of the books including Night of the Hunter and Archmage. This sort of background can make these drow come to life and help in their motivations in how they deal with the knowledge that the escaped slaves of Velkinvelve are alive and well in Gracklstugh.
One of the more interesting struggles is the symbiotic struggle between the dragon Themberchaud and his followers / captors / would-be assassins, the Keepers of the Flame. Both Themberchaud and the Keepers want the PCs to recover the missing dragon egg from the Gray Ghosts down in Whorlstone Tunnels. The Keepers want the egg so they can murder Themberchaud and put a younger and more easily controlled dragon in charge of maintaining the furnaces. Themberchaud doesn't want any of this.
One way the PCs can learn about this plot is through a secret derro slave who actually works as Themberchaud's spy against the Keepers of the Flame. The Keepers are too arrogant to think that a derro would be able to serve the dragon as a cunning spy. This spy of Themberchaud can be the main contact between the red dragon and the PCs as they move through Gracklstugh.
The PCs are left with an interesting choice here. Do they want the anarchy of a rampaging red dragon in Gracklstugh or do they want to succumb to the order of the city and give the egg over to the Cult of the Flame?
Either choice could have interesting consequences. Perhaps if the PCs choose to give it to the Keepers, Themberchaud escapes through the use of a pygmywort mushroom to confront the PCs about it later.
Whorlstone Tunnels are the main dungeon in this chapter and, regardless of why the PCs arrive here, it should be a nice fun dungeon crawl. The primary goal, regardless of the path they took, should be to follow the insane derro, Droki, as he leads them into the den of the Gray Ghosts. The lump of black metal he has is a perfect way to inflict some demon-lord type madness into whoever touches it. You can roll randomly to determine which demon lord's power might have touched it and what the object may look like. If you want, roll 1d8 and consult the list below:
This list can work all over this adventure if you want it to. Whenever you roll for a random encounter, you might roll on this list to see which demon prince might influence or flavor the encounter. It's a great way to continuously reinforce the invasion of the demon princes.
The infliction of madness in Out of the Abyss is one of the fun strengths of the adventure. Unfortunately, once the PCs acquire remove curse, the effects of madness have little consequence. Instead, consider going with the more difficult rules that long-term and indefinite madness requires greater restoration to cure. Remove curse and dispel evil can still remove the effects of short-term madness. The madness score, however, can never be removed and continues to rotate as the PCs acquire new madness effects.
Madness can come from just about any form in the game. It might be the insane eye of a follower of Juiblex or a maze-like pattern scrawled on a wall in blood. It might be the gaze of Demogorgon himself or an idol to Yeenoghu. It might be the hunk of metal carried around by Droki. Madness is a fun thread that weaves continually through this adventure.
The strange mushrooms in Gracklstugh that let creatures grow big and small can have a lot of play inside and outside the Duergar city. Remind your players about them if they don't seem to be using them and give them some freedom to come up with creative ways to use them that you might not expect. If they're careful, the PCs will keep a bunch of these to use later. It's also very possible that a pygmywort lifted by Themberchaud's derro spy can save the red dragon from his fate at the point of a Duergar ballista.
As the PCs explore Gracklstugh, consider what seeds you can throw in that will lead the PCs to the next chapter in the book, be it Neverlight Grove or Blingdenstone. If you'd rather run the adventure a bit more open-ended, plant seeds for both and see which way the PCs head. Whatever faction the PCs end up aligning with should give them the solution they need to move onward. This might be an introduction with a caravan master. This might be access to an ancient portal that cuts 80% of the travel time down. This might be a strange stone that knows the way. When your PCs first arrive at Gracklstugh, we should be thinking about how they'll leave it and where they're going next.