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Out of the Abyss: A Surprisingly Difficult take on the Underdark for Organized Play

The third D&D encounter season features Out of the Abyss [1], the newest hardback adventure for D&D. The first three seasons of D&D Encounters took a published product–in this case Out of the Abyss–and separated the first few chapters to run as an introductory adventure. It turns out that this adventure breaks new GMs… largely because the beginning subverts so many D&D tropes.

Fair warning: spoilers for the first session abound in this post.

The Program

D&D Encounters is set up as an always low level, easy to join and try out D&D game. In both 4th and 5th edition, the adventures run on Wednesdays, with short sessions of about two hours the norm. It’s a casual after work campaign at the game store, explicitly run on a drop in basis.

Because new players are so common, it’s good to have some pregenerated characters available to pick from. Some characters were released for the whole Rage of Demons season. Unfortunately, this season the characters [2] are better fitted for the weekend Expedition play–they’re from the Hillsfar region and fit its plots.
Out of the Abyss book image

We start where? With what equipment?

The characters begin imprisoned by the drow. They’re manacled and shackled, stripped down to underclothes. For experienced players, this provides an exciting additional challenge. You’re not a normal first level character who can take on goblins and orcs in a fair fight, you’re a first level character without equipment or freedom. It will make for impressive stories… but it’s a different story than traditional D&D. That difference from settled expectations can make it great for a home group, but it’s a challenge for organized play.

One of the frustrations is that the character sheets are all “wrong”, since they’re built around the PCs with their equipment. So you need to be ready to work through the math for the brand new players the program is designed to support. It’s a lot to juggle on both sides of the screen… even before you start playing the world around the PCs.

An orc prisoner

The Menagerie

The PCs don’t start out in the cell alone. Along with the PCs are another 10 prisoners, who each have a quirky backstory. None of their fellow prisoners are human. Two can be quickly described–there’s a dwarf and an orc. Beyond that, there are elves and gnomes–but they’re the deep variants, Drow and Svirfneblin, so standard images and personalities don’t work.
Then there are even stranger ones; I held up pictures of the creatures from the Monster Manual to show how alien they look.

How alien they sound is another issue. While the NPCs have interesting backstories, only the dwarf and orc speak common, and the orc’s isn’t the best. If you have a PC who speaks Undercommon, they’re at the center of the story, since they can actually talk to most of the critters. For a group without a character who speaks Undercommon, you’re down to gestures.

Prisoners, Meet Your Captors

The PCs are supposed to be exposed to their captors, which include four named and detailed Drow, and an assortment of guards and soldiers. If the PCs investigate, they can learn about the rivalries and divisions among their captors… but in the three tables I’ve played at and run, the players haven’t learned much about their captors before breaking out. That’s a shame, since their captors are recurring villains. Once the PCs are running, it’s hard to show the players who their captors are–if they’re close enough to talk, flight has failed!

Solutions

Be Explicit: Head off miscommunication by being upfront about the story in your pitch. Let the players know that this is an unusual season of adventure; rather than brave deeds by polished heroes, this adventure is survival heroism. Let them know that the start of the season is like a prison escape movie: it’s about the accumulation of small advantages, learning the timing of the guards, palming cutlery, etc.

Start Small: If you can, tap extra GMs for the this Encounters season. The heavy roleplay of the early season works best when the PCs interact with their fellow prisoners and captors. They’re less likely to interact if they feel like a complete team–they’ll spend their time interacting with each other and plotting their strategy, rather than looking for allies and for captor’s weaknesses to exploit. Similarly, waiting on other players’ dialogue and for your turn when parallel scenes are being run is worse the more players you have to wait on.

The other part of Start Small is to break up the PCs when they’re out of the cell on work details. Be sure to mix them with NPCs, which can make interaction with even the strangest NPC feel more natural, because they’re working together to solve tasks. You might do well to keep the PCs on opposite shifts (half working, half in the cell). Once the PCs are all outside the cell, it’s easy for one player’s impulse to get everyone fighting the guards or running away early.

Take it Home Of the three Encounters seasons to date, this module is the furthest from straightforward heroic play. While it can run as public play, it’s not the best introduction to D&D–because it’s so unlike most D&D. At home, though, the adventure can really shine. I still advise that you pitch the adventure to your players as starting off with a prison break–you might even skip equipping characters altogether, just working out improvised weapon and punch attacks.

Out of the Internet Abyss…

Are any of you running or playing Out of the Abyss, at home or at a store? How did it go for you? Did great characters come out of that start? Which NPCs did your players enjoy interacting with, and which ones did they ignore (or worse)? Did you find or create any good resources for the season–if so, please link to them!

At our store, a few tables made it through the Encounters material and are continuing into the rest of the hardback book. We restarted the season in January with extra GMs to catch new players and offer a new “jump on board and experience the whole season” point. Though this time, the other GMs are running Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apocalypse… which makes sense, given how straight forward they play in comparison.

A helpful tool for the early story are Third Games’ Out of the Abyss Jailbreak NPCs [3] pdf. It’s great to be able to share pictures and descriptions of the other prisoners, and it has stats for when they get into trouble.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Out of the Abyss: A Surprisingly Difficult take on the Underdark for Organized Play"

#1 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On January 19, 2016 @ 8:07 am

I have been running the hardcover Out of the Abyss at a local game store as Expeditions after getting my group up to about 3rd level, and you’re right – it is a difficult module… on two levels.

First, it’s just straight out HARD. The monsters listed can easily make for a TPK, especially in later chapters (the PCs are in Blingenstone right now, and we very nearly had three 4th-level characters die outright, with NPCs filling out the party as cannon fodder.) Be prepared to adjust on the fly if necessary.

Second, it can be difficult for DMs due to the sheer number of options and amount of information. Many standard Adventurers League Expeditions modules are pretty linear. OOTA does a great job of giving the DM a huge sandbox … but it is a HUGE sandbox. The DM definitely needs to do his or her homework just to be able to deal with players being able to go off in any direction.

All that said, the book is awesome! It doubles as a setting book and an adventure path. DMs could easily use the book just to create Underdark stories – there is that much detail and information. But beware: the learning curve is steep indeed, for both DMs and new players!

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On January 19, 2016 @ 9:27 am

Once the players broke free, how did you generate the encounters between the breakout and their next destination? Did you roll them at the table, or roll them in advance and prepare them to present travelogue style? Did you use many of the random events, or have them hit the key encounters and hand wave the rest?

Thanks for the voice of experience!

#3 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On January 20, 2016 @ 7:05 am

I generated random encounters ahead of time – kind of using dice, but really just mix-and-matching what looked coolest to me. I also didn’t use ALL the random encounters suggested. The book says that traversing the Darklake the DM should roll for encounters every 4 hours … for a trip that could take a week! (Granted, some of them are just, like, “You hit a rock and some people fall out of the boat,” but still.) We would still be there playing random encounters today. I also added my favorite two set encounters for the first leg of exploration (the web surfers and the Oozing Temple – also a deadly challenge if played just wrong .. and boy did they play it wrong), and held some back for later, just in case.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 19, 2016 @ 10:25 am

Let them know that the start of the season is like a prison escape movie: it’s about the accumulation of small advantages,: That is really spot-on advice. As you say, players need to know that from the get-go. I’d say that adventures that have that as their aim are largely unappreciated, and it is neat to see Wotc explore that kind of storytelling. But as you point out, this might not have been the best venue for that story.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On January 19, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

If you don’t make it clear, then your group’s understanding of their imprisonment is divided. Some will see prison as a challenge, but others will see the jail as a mere backdrop to the later adventure.

If too many people think the prison is just 15 minutes of backdrop before the real adventure begins, then frustration lies only a few steps behind. I have known short scenarios and novels that use the “You were arrested for damaging the bar, so you have no choice but to take the mission” opening. If you think the drow prison is color like that, you’ll be unhappy when you find out that’s false.

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On January 19, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

This scenario broke a friend of mine. She and her brother went to the Encounters night for a ‘fun’ night of gaming as something they could do together. She described it as the most awful thing she’d ever played and she was seriously worried it had put her brother off of face-to-face gaming forever. It was apparently a three hour session of futility and frustration. They accomplished nothing and ended without any idea of what they were supposed to be doing.

To me, it sounded like it was a failure on the GM’s part. Based on what you described of the scenario, I can definitely see that happening if the GM doesn’t know how to adapt to the unique opening of the campaign.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On January 19, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

I would agree with you if the scenario had been picked by the GM for a given gaming group, but in this situation we have a set scenario in which pick-up gamers are being asked to join in. Almost the inverse of the usual fixed game group situation.

As soon as I read the introductory paragraphs in the article I got a sinking feeling. A less “encounters friendly” scenario I couldn’t design if you asked me.

Given that the *point* of the Encounters program is to pull new players into the hobby and get them hooked at the point of sale, I’d have to say a solid fail in the Encounters design team here.

It brings back stories from that Pathfinder pirate adventure path that everyone hates on toast.

In point of fact I once was forced to play a Conan game that began this way, and I hated it a lot. The party started as weaponless prisoners in unfriendly lands littered with press gangs. We spent much of the post-escape time hiding, which for some unaccountable reason had the GM snarling that we were not being very heroic.

We pointed out that he designed the adventure and had removed all weapons from our reach, then clad all his press gang soldiers in plate mail. What did he expect?

Pretty much the final straw for me was the acquisition of a “hunting bow” at great cost and threat to life and limb, only to find it would not put a dent in the common-or-garden wolf, a creature only slightly less ubiquitous than the press gangs.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On January 19, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

As a store owner or as a GM, that’s my tremendous fear. The futility is thick upfront, to reinforce the power of the drow captors–but it’s a terrible introduction to roleplaying as a hobby. Particularly for new gamers, who see Harry Potter and other nobodies overcome tremendous odds with will and resolve–but nary a scavenged dagger or scrap of food attended to.

Again, with a well warned group, it’s a good adventure. I bet that Aaron, above, is right–that Out of the Abyss is a great Underdark source book wrapped around the adventure. I just wished they’d figured out how bad an idea this adventure was for introducing new players to the game.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On January 19, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

Roxysteve > That Conan game sounds like it could have been fun… if the GM had let you wrestle swords from guards five minutes into your escape. That’d have encouraged your group to take on more risk, maybe, just maybe, becoming the heroes he’d envisioned.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On January 20, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

<*nods*>

#11 Comment By Angela Murray On January 20, 2016 @ 2:12 am

From what I call of her description of the game, they tried every ‘Escape Movie’ trope they could think of and just got smacked down again and again, to the point that she was pretty sure no one at the table had any intention of coming back. It sounds like something a good GM might be able to make fun, but a weak or mediocre GM would just set the frustration volume to 11.

What do you do as a store owner? Is there a way to play damage control if you see a disaster like that going down?

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On January 20, 2016 @ 9:14 am

It depends in part on how many tables are running and what the player experience looks like from a distance, since it’s rare that we get to sit at a table for the night’s adventure. If there are complaints afterward, or it looks like misery, we’ll talk with the GM–but usually after the session instead of interrupting the game.

The best solution is to have lots and lots of good GMs volunteer their evenings to run adventures in the store, so mediocre ones can play or get coaching from good GMs as they take on tough adventures. Unfortunately, we usually have to beg to ensure that there’s any GM for the table–having the luxury to pick among good GMs is rare.

That is not a subtle slam against our GMs; we really do have a vibrant community. With some cajoling we can get 4 or 5 GMs most Saturdays, and we had more than 5 GMS offer up their Wednesdays at the beginning of the last Encounters season.

I appreciate everyone who makes the effort to help out. I wish we had resources enough to mentor more consistently; this season I was able to sit at a table as a player for a couple of weeks and offer advice to the new GM after the session, but usually (as now), I’m running games instead of coaching. It’s a challenge!

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On January 20, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

*<nods>*

#14 Comment By John Beynon On January 19, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

Thanks for this useful post, Scott! I think you are spot on with your concerns about OOTA. What follows are my own experiences DMing the first four chapters of OOTA. Caution: Spoilers Ahead

I have been DMing OOTA since day one of the new Encounters season, and I do find it very challenging to run.

On the one hand, I love the NPCs, and my characters got fairly attached to them. When they are included in initiative order, however, combat becomes overly complicated and drawn out. I’ve finally decided to have some of the NPCs get abducted (one died and another never joined the group), just so I could keep the combined number of PCs and NPCs to a minimum.

The various adventures in OOTA are highly unstructured. While I devised a satisfying way for the NPCs to escape Velkynvelve, it really took my filling in a lot of gaps in the written adventure to make a decent escape work story-wise. Chapter 2: Into Darkness at least includes some dungeon crawls with maps, monsters, and some of the elements you hope a fifty dollar campaign book will include, but the chapter on the Darklake is very underwritten. It is supposed to take 20 days to get from Sloobludop to Gracklstugh, but all the DM has to work with is a couple of random encounter tables and a short-lived (but admittedly awesome) encounter with demonic forces among the Kuo-Toa.

Then there are all the complexities of survival and navigation in the Underdark: maintaining a good travel pace, foraging for sustenance, locating potable water sources, the persistent possibility of getting lost, light sources or the lack thereof, faerzress and its effect on spellcasting, madness levels, drow pursuit rates, the potential lack of suitable weapons and gear, language barriers in the Underdark, tracking damage to keelboats on the Darklake…the list goes on and on. It’s pretty overwhelming to keep track of everything.

In spite of all this, my players seem to enjoy the campaign, for the most part, and they’ve stuck with it to Gracklestugh, a chapter I find easier to run than the previous two. I do feel it’s crucial to keep player count at no more than six if you end up doing anything at all with the NPCs; otherwise you’ve potentially doubled your ideal table size, and that can really slow things down.

#15 Comment By Scott Martin On January 19, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

Thanks for the report from the line, John. I’ll look over the Into the Dark dungeons for my next session–they just fought free and are running only a few steps ahead of the pursuit.

#16 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On January 20, 2016 @ 8:41 am

This campaign book is very near and dear to this particular Gnome’s heart for the obvious reason. πŸ™‚

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On January 20, 2016 @ 8:56 am

I didn’t notice your [4]. Congratulations!

Was public play something you discussed at all while creating the book, or were you just building the best Underdark adventure you could, with home groups as your mental default?

#18 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On January 20, 2016 @ 10:02 am

I wasn’t really involved in the high-level discussions, but it was impressed upon me that this campaign was designed to be less linear and more sandbox-y, which in my experience is more suited to home play than public play without modification.