Thursday, June 16, 2016

I've Got the (Out of the) Abyss Blues

As I put on twitter recently...

Now, partly this was being down 3 players and having a 4th arriving late (out of a group of 7) but partly it's due to a dissatisfaction with the Out of the Abyss campaign. Especially now that I've got Curse of Strahd to compare it to I can see it's short comings (not that CoS doesn't have it's own shortcomings).

Spoilers below the break, so anyone who might play Out of the Abyss or anyone who is playing Out of the Abyss will want to break off reading here (yes, this means you Bob). If you're not going to play, have played, are running or thinking of running, continue below to read my big problem with OotA and what I plan to do about it. Then in a few days, I'll post some more thoughts on issues with OotA and CoS and fixes I've created or found.

So here, in a nutshell, is my biggest problem with Out of the Abyss, and one, that I unfortunately, did not realize would be as big a problem until I started running it.

Running it as written, Out of the Abyss provides very little to help motivate PCs (or players, for that matter) to care about the plot. In fact, for the first six chapters, the first 116 pages of a 254 page book, OotA doesn't even clearly spell out the plot.

So, mistakenly wanting to preserve the mystery, I didn't tell my players what the plot would be, which boils down to (A) Wander around the Underdark looking for a way out, figuring out along the way that the Abyssal Lords and tons of demons are loose in the Underdark and (B) getting talked into going back into the Underdark by the Dwarven king of Gauntlgrym to figure out why all the Abyssal Lords are loose and deal with that.

Where that leaves me know, is that my seven PCs have no strong ties to the plot, they were captured by the Drow of Velkynvelve, escaped and have been wandering aimlessly around the Underdark, through random encounters and the side treks from Chapter 2, they know there are demons in the Underdark but not that the Abyssal Lords are loose as well. This has led a few times, to the players making remarks about not being sure what to do next or if it was worth exploring a location because all they know at this time is that they want to get out.

With the last session before we went on my wedding hiatus, I'd put off having the PCs reach the kuo-toa city of Sloobludop, since I really wanted all the players to be in attendance for the reveal of Demogorgon rising from the Darklake and the reveal of the real story of Out of the Abyss. This played into my postponing once again this last Sunday, as having a bare quorum of PCs didn't seem quite like the best time for the big plot reveal.

Plus, the way it's written, the plot reveal comes off as a bunch of NPC theater that the PCs just happen to be there for. They're captured (or almost captured) by Kuo-toa, either brought to Sloobludop as sacrifices to Leemoooggoogoon the Deep Father (Demogorgo or talked into going and then pretending to be sacrifices to Leemoooggoogoon by the high priest of Blibdoolpoolp the Sea Mother

Here, too, is my big fear, that the players will take this big plot reveal and just use it as motivation to get their PCs out of the Underdark faster, ignoring more locations that they could explore to find the knowledge and tools they'd need to deal with the demons in the second half of the campaign or that they'd get out and then not feel much pull when King Bruenor invites them to Gauntlgrym and tries to talk them into going back into the Underdark. Even odder, the book, in it's short section about Bruenor's plan, seems to assume that DMs can just coast on players wanting their PCs to be heroes and offers no reward or incentive, or suggestions for DMs to entice reticent PCs (or players).

It doesn't help that Out of the Abyss, like Curse of Strahd (at least from hearing Thomas' experience running CoS - warning CoS spoilers) requires lots of prep, which is a bit puzzling given that these two books are Wizards of the Coasts big tentpole mega-adventures. So the cost in time and effort of me continuing to run OotA makes the inevitable hiccups of running a game (like PC death, players wondering aloud at the table if they should bother with things) seem even larger.

After coming close to just throwing up my hands several times running OotA as I realized that I've used a few of the things I was really enamored with (the intelligent gelatinous ooze, the Silken Paths) but I've decided that since I spent $50 on the book and some nice digital maps I should buckle down and try to at least get it to the half-way point and let the players decide then if they want to take on the quest to go back into the Underdark.

So my plan for OotA is as follows...

  • Offer my players the option to stop now, or to continue, but take alternate bonds for their backgrounds that will tie into the plot more.
    • Previously I'd had the Players just pick Ideals for their PCs and skipped the other D&D 5e background bits because I find that they're often too vague or can just become excuses for bad PC behavior.
    • I'm in the process of drafting up some alternate backgrounds and bonds for Out of the Abyss, that I'm hoping to put up on DM's Guild.
    • I intend to get this done regardless of whether my Players decide to continue as re-reading the existing OotA bonds in appendix A of the book reminds me that they could be done better.
  • If the players agree to continue, I also want to retcon a few other things (or at least remind players that they occurred) so that the plot of "figure out why there are demons and Abyssal Lords in the underdark" doesn't come as such a surprise as it might if it's not emphasized.
  • Re-focus on upping the fantastical, as the Ten Foot Pole review notes, WotC sold OotA as a whimsical Alice in Wonderland inspired adventure but does not entirely deliver on that. I've also been realizing lately the I like my games to either really embrace the fantastical and not worry to much about "realism" or to be realistic, but the more I run and play D&D 5e, the more it seems like striving for realism in 5e is not the way to go, the way you could get a more realistic feeling world with D&D 2e or the OSR Fantasy Heartbreakers or even a game like Reign.
  • Make sure that after the PCs escape Demogorgon they run smack dab into some Drow and re-establish Ilvara Mizzrym, the Drow Preistess as a nemesis. Maybe she'll have to had come up with a kind of Mad Max-esque torment/punishment for Jorlan Duskryn, the drow warrior who helped the PCs escape.
  • Let the PCs find a route out of the Underdark early and then have it blocked by demons also trying to get out and let the PCs clog it, cutting off their escape but also the demonic access to the surface. Hopefully this will help the players become convinced that when they are asked to head back into the Underdark by King Bruenor that the demons are not just an underdark problem. 
  • Have Dawnbringer, the intelligent sword that the PCs discovered, be more like an NPC and less afraid of the dark and have abandonment issues, which is how it is by the book, but I think the plot is better served by a Dawnbringer that wants to ensure that demons are slain and good is served. Still playing around with a few options and perhaps this would be a gradual switch but as it is now, the sword is useful mechanically, but not that much to the story.
  • Have each player roll on the Abyssal Lord table Sly Flourish provides in his write up of Chapter 4 and start focuing the demonic dreams and visions (and possibly more) for each PC to a specific Abyssal Lord. Hopefully this will be another way to make the PCs feel like they're tied to what happens even after they escape the Underdark. Plus I like the specific Abyssal Lord madness tables from Appendix D of OotA better than the one in the DMG I think.
Hopefully refocusing on these and trying to center the story more, even if the PCs and Players still take a while to fully grok the full extent of the plot.

Next time, because it's another long rant, a more general post on the other issues with (and strengths of) Out of the Abyss, how they compare to the issues and strengths of Curse of Strahd, as well as some of the resources I made for myself to use to run OotA and others that I've found.


  1. So, rereading this, just a thought here: I don't think this is the first time you've mentioned canceling a session so more players could be there, possibly even in conjunction with big reveals. I wonder if the structure of your group being more casual is a hinderance, and if missing big sessions might inspire some of the players to be more regular. Or possibly missing some XP or whatnot for being absent. For some people the reward might just be hanging out with folks and having something to do on a Sunday, but story or mechanical rewards may be useful too. I just keep thinking of this as I'm thinking about XP for this edition.

  2. Just a note for others who might run this in the future, since I faced some of the same issues after the second or third session. I took the Demon Lord write-ups at the back of OotA and wrote up a one-sentence summary of each of their philosophies, disguising the obviously-evil bits in more neutral or misleading language, and handed the list to the players and asked them to tell me which one their characters most identified with. At the beginning of each session I handed each of them them a one-paragraph description of a horrific dream related to their demon.. It really helped set the tone, and amp up the feeling that there was something seriously wrong, well before they got to Sloobludop and other civilization.

    It also helped to make a few of the random encounters in the first part eerie and weird -- cave fishers with fungal growths, a lost kobold gibbering about the walls trying to eat him, a dead drow lying peacefully on his back with no signs of struggle, and many of the humanoids they bothered to talk to reported being on the move because things "just weren't right" where they came from.


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