Saturday, June 25, 2016

OotA v. CoS Cagematch + Out of the Abyss Fixes & Resources

If you recall, I've previously discussed some of my personal struggles running Out of the Abyss, which you can find here in "I've Got the (Out of the) Abyss Blues" (SPOILERS GALORE), so this will be a post focused more on the positives and negatives of Out of the Abyss, with some comparisons to Curse of Strahd (warning, I've not run any of CoS so I'm admittedly less familiar with it) and then some fixes and resources for running OotA that I've made and many more that I've found.

Spoilers abound below, so don't read if you're playing or want to play Out of the Abyss or Curse of Strahd.

Last updated 06/27/2016

Click here to ignore my rant and go straight to the Fixes and Resources section.

First the good, Out of the Abyss is certainly imagination fodder. Many of the individual parts, like locations and NPCs are wonderfully done and evocative. For instance, the goblin Webrunners, Yuk Yuk and Spiderbait and the Silken Paths or the Society of Brilliance, Glabbagool in the Oozing Temple (RIP, my players say a talking Gelatinous Cube and just went into full murder mode before it could really converse).

As I read OotA the first time, I'd find myself thinking "Man, this is a great idea" every few pages. Unfortunately, when you go to try and run the adventure, what you find is that man of these great ideas aren't fleshed out as much as you'd want and that the connective tissue that should bind everything together isn't quite as muscular as you'd want either. Worse than that, the orginization of the book itself works against you as you try and run, leaving you to do a ton more prep work than you'd expect for a book that should be made for a new-ish DM to grab off the shelf and run with relative ease.

Here are some of the things I struggled with as I prepped and ran the game.

  • As many other reviews have noted, OotA has no plot overview, no plot summary and doesn't even begin to explain the plotline until Chapter 7, which is 116 pages into a 254 page book. And even then, it's not fully explained how the plot was set into motion until Chapter 11 and there's no explicit timeline of what happened before the PCs were captured to help the DM. Searching through the book, I couldn't find any timeframe for how long it had been since Gromph Baenre unleashed the Abyssal Lords in the Underdark, but so here is a tenative stab at the first half of the adventure:
    • 3-6 weeks before play begins, Gromph completes his ritual, Demogorgon tears through Menzoberranzan. This is predicated on the Drow of Velkynvelve not having gotten word yet that this happens and that Demogorgon then travels to the Darklake, which takes 20 days per the travel table.
    • 1-3 weeks after play begins PCs reach Sloobludop and witness Demogorgon attack rise up out of the Darklake. This is predicated on the PCs spending a few days in Velkynvelve before travelling the 8 days to Sloobludop and figuring that they spend a few days lost in the Underdark.
    • 3-10 weeks after Demogorgon rises out of the Darklake the PCs make it out of the Underdark. This would give time for the players to go from Sloobludop to Gracklstugh, then Neverlight Grove, then Blingdenstone if they really wanted (or the DM railroaded them, as thouse are chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6.)
    • 12 weeks after they escape King Bruenor summons them to Gauntlgrym and asks the PCs to return to the Underdark to figure out what is going on. This is explicitly given at the start of Chapter 8.
    • So, that's around 5 to 8 months time in game. Which would be incredibly useful for the PCs to know when they get to Gravenhollow and might reasonably ask just how long ago this whole Abyssal Lords in the Underdark kerfluffle has been going on... Also frustrating, while the start of chapter 11 gives travel distances to and from Gravenhollow, there's not a travel distance table for the second half of the adventure like the table in chapter 2 for the first half of the adventure.
  • There's no advice for helping players create PCs for the adventure. Here's what you get:
The setup of Out of the Abyss is such that the characters need have no connections with events in the Underdark, or with each other, prior to the start of the adventure. They can meet and get to know each other as prisoners of the drow. Players who would like their characters to have a stronger Underdark connection can choose from the background options in appendix A.
"Prisoners of the Drow" assumes the characters start at 1st level, and that they will achieve 2nd level (if not 3rd) by the end of the adventure. Given the challenges of the adventure and the dangers of the Underdark, you can start the characters at a higher level (2nd or 3rd) to make things a bit easier for the players.
  • Here's Appendix A from the Wizard's of the Coast site for you to see how little it adds... For me, reading through the alternate bonds, I wasn't really struck with inspiration for any character concepts. 
    • Fair warning, the alternate features provided will make the Underdark survival challenges of the start of the adventure much easier for the PCs.
    • And for the Bonds...
      1. You kinda like the Kuo-toa, okay, but until you see them slaughtered by Demogorgon, all this does is make you kinda like Shuushar and incline you to head towards the Darklake to get to chapter 3
      2. Makes you want to spend extra time with Stool, who seems to be far and away the player favorite of the initial NPCs, so that’s not super needed. Would also encourage PCs to head to Neverlight Grove, chapter 5, which seems to me to be one of the easier bits to cut, if you wanted to cut.
      3. Here’s the first bond that ties you to Gauntlgrym, which will make your PC more likely to agree to the quest that is the second half of the adventure, but doesn’t do much for the first half.
      4. This is another one that doesn’t help as much with the first half, though at least Zhentarim membership could be useful in Chapter 4 Gracklstugh
      5. The very vaguest of mentions of the Stone Giant library from the second half of the adventure. A DM would have to work to give information about the library in the first half without letting the PCs visit it, because they won’t know what they need from the library until the second half of the adventure.
      6. Ties the PC to a Svirfneblin and Blingendstone, and while Blingendstone is one place the PCs are allowed to escape from the underdark, it’s also one of the locations that’s more distant from their initial starting point. Probable one of the better substitute bonds, because it provides an NPC name that could carry weight with any deep gnomes the PCs encounter on their way to Blingendstone, which is not something that either the Kuo-toa or Myconid bonds have.
      7. This bond ties you to one of the least interesting of the initial NPCs, Eldeth Feldrun, who knows little about the underdark and has unhelpful attitudes about underdark natives (“corrupt dark dwellers”) but at least it might give a PC a reason to keep her alive? Though it doesn’t help tie into the plot at all…
      8. Gives a bond that makes the PC want to hunt down a random NPC (Ghazrim DuLoc) from Chapter 9 who has a magic ring they need… So yet another bond for deep in the second part AND the DM would need to remember to maybe have another NPC, perhaps the Zhentarim enjoy from chapter 8 mention that Gharzrim is in the place they’re going or they’re not going to realize their big story moment is at hand and there is a chance they could even miss it.
      9. The Vaguest of vague bonds about “people you loved” taken in a raid by “creatures from the Underdark”… I mean, okay, I guess this one could be adequate, but a DM would have to push a player to elaborate on who was taken and how long ago and by what kind of creatures, but it could at least provide some motivation for wanting to wander the underdark for a bit and for maybe not wanting the Underdark to go completely to shit just in case their loved ones are still out there when the final battle happens.
      10. Yet another Gauntlgrym bond. This makes 3 if you count the Feldrun bond as one.
  • NPCs from Chapter 1 have preferences on where they want to go and where they can guide to, but this is not in their chapter 1 summaries, but instead it's at the start of chapter 2. Some, but crucially not all (or even most) of the NPCs get write ups in Appendix C: Creatures but not enough to make referring to that appendix useful.
  • Keeping the NPCs from Chapter 1 straight and not letting the game get bogged down into NPC theater can be a challenge. For the most part the NPCs are interesting, but there are a few definite duds (I'm looking at you Eldeth and Ront) and a few that seem to really grab PCs (Stool, Buppido and Derendil) but I wish they'd introduced a few later or cut a few. Any DM running will definitely want to check out the Fixes and Resources section for some help with the starting NPCs.
  • The map provided in the adventure is a full 8 ½ by 11 page of the book, but the adventure only takes place in the top half, making it worthlessly tiny. There are also too many colors. 
    • What it needed was a map more like the Isle of Dread hex map or probably actually four...
      • The Darklake and areas south and east down to the Long Chasm and Chasmleap bridge. Maybe as far north to Menzoberranzan?
      • The west edge of the Darklake from Gracklstugh south and west to encompass the entire Labyrinth.
      • The north edge of the Darklake from Neverlight Grove up to the top of the Wormwrithings and east to Menzoberranzan.
      • Gauntlygrym east to the Wormwrithings and south to the top edge of the Labyrinth
  • Travel times are in days, pace is in miles per day… and with the pursuit and random encounters and getting lost it’s unlikely PCs would travel full days meaning you’re always recalculating distance.
    • And like I said above, that's just for the first half of the adventure, the second half just has travel times to a location at the start of the chapter about the location, sometimes in days (Chapter 12), sometimes in miles (Chapters 11, 13, 14 and 15) and sometimes not really at all (Chapters 16 & 17).
  • There are lots of things in Chapter two, like Fungi, sections you’ll refer to often, in chapter 2 instead of an appendix about Underdark travel and features.
    • In general, if you need to reference something it'll be in the first half of Chapter 2, but it would have been nicer if all the Underdark travel and general features like Fungi were given their own appendix.
  • To start the PCs should have very little in resources and it should be a struggle to just survive finding food and water, not getting over encumbered hoarding everything they come across and not getting lost in the Underdark but...
    • Having any Underdark native makes it much, much easier.
    • Having high Wisdom characters makes this much easier as many of the travel actions use Wisdom or an associated skill (like Survival or Perception)
    • Even 1st level spells like Create or Destroy Water and Purify Food and Drink (both on the Cleric and Druid spell list) make it much easier.
    • Keeping track of the amount of food and water, the encumbrance and rest before exhaustion can be time consuming and too fiddly for many players (and DMs, frankly)
  • During the first half of the adventure the PCs are pursued by Drow after they escape Velkynvelve and OotA provides a half page going over the "Pursuit Level" but it's not well laid out in a way you'd actually be able to easily use.
  • Some of the chapters start with an objective or goals (like Chapter 15 which has a "Goals" heading on its first page) and some end with a summary (even labelled as "Developments" in chapters 15 & 16) but this is not consistent. Likewise, some chapters begin or end with suggested levels that PCs should be at, but this is also not consistent...
  • OotA is pushed as a big sandbox adventure but then many locations and big plot points are railroaded. 
    • It's hard to imagine the PCs avoiding seeing Demogorgan rise up out of the Darklake, and the book at least gives the PCs a chance to go willingly or be drug off to that appointment.
    • Chapter 7 (again, not chapter 2 where I expected it first) has the list of locations where the PCs can escape the Underdark...
      • Blingdenstone
      • Gracklstugh
      • The Wormwrithings
      • Farther Afield
      • Portals
    • This is maybe a half a page and as you can maybe guess, it's not super helpful to the DM and there's not much advice for DMs whose players assume, as mine did, that it might be easier to escape the Underdark.
    • Then once the PCs escape they're called back by King Bruenor of Gauntlgrym in chapter 8 but he does not offer the PCs any incentive to do so... and the adventure sort of relies on the players being invested in the adventure or waiting their PCs to just be generic "D&D Heroes" willing to do the right thing for no other reason than they were asked nicely (and not really all that nicely if you just use the box text).
    • The second half is less constrained in that the PCs need to get to the Stone Giant library to get some knowledge but half a couple options of how to make their way their and then half to gather up items for a ritual and can get those in any order and finally have a choice of who they want to screw over with an Abyssal Lord brawl (or if they want to be "Generic D&D heroes" and not screw anyone over).
So interesting but disjointed, free but also very railroady in sections, and above all disorganized. How does it compare to Curse of Strahd? (spoilers again, so if you're planning on playing CoS but running OotA, skip click here to skip down to the Fixes and Resources)

Fair warning, I haven't gone through Curse of Strahd as much as I have OotA, so this might be a more cursory comparison, heavy on the structural simliarities and differences and partly informed by Thomas' take on prepping and running CoS

  • Callooh callay! The first thing you get when you crack open CoS, after a Foreward and Introduction is a section on "Running the Adventure" with a page long "Story Overview" followed by an "Adventure Structure" and "Character Levels". OotA needed this badly and hopefully this is a harbinger of WotC hearing complaints and fixing it, but I guess we'll have to wait for Storm King's Thunder to see.
  • The Taroka card reading section in Chapter 1 seems poorly laid out and like it would be hard to do at the table, making it better to do a pre-read and prep it as the DM. There's also no suggestions for adjusting it by removing cards, like Thomas did, to help structure the adventure to make some locations and NPCs more optional if you're on a limited time schedule.
  • Chapter 2: The Lands of Barovia seems to be more like what Chapter 2: Into Darkness of OotA should have been and seems to serve better as a one stop general questions spot, though I still think that both could have been better maybe as an appendix.
  • After Chapter 2 the remaining chapters are just put in the order that the designers think PCs would arrive at them, mostly East to West going by the map. This is a little odd because then Castle Ravenloft is chapter 4 when players are unlikely to visit it until late in the adventure.
    • Pull out map is useless at the table, having too many DM only markings but the half page map in Chapter 2 would have been much better as a larger full page map so you could make out details, but at least it's easier to read than the OotA map.
  • Just like OotA the NPCs are hard to organize, not all of them are in Appendix D Monsters and NPCs and for several I would come across their name and then search for their write up so I could understand what was going on, like Yeska and Milivoj in St. Andral's Church in Vallaki (Chapter 5) where in trying to understand who knew about the saint's bones and who took them and why and who had them currently I found myself flipping back and forth between three or four pages. 
    • Would have been nice to just have a sidebar that spelled that out. 
    • Even worse, there is no index and the page of contents is very sparse, so if you just had Yeska/Milivoj/Sts Bones jotted down in your DM notes it's not easy to find the page where you'd find the information on them because not even St. Andral's church gets an entry in the contents, so you'd have to dig around based on the entry "Areas of Vallaki" 
    • Though, in CoS' defense, there is a listing of Maps on the table of contents, which is useful.
    • Apparently this is enough of an issue that the DMs kit and screen you can get through the DMs Guild has an Index of Named Characters... 
  • Appendix A – Character Options - Which you can see courtesy of WotC here.
    • Much easier to imagine them sparking a PC idea for a player
    • Includes a Gothic Trinkets table, OotA could have used an Underdark Trinkets table.
  • Appendix B Death House
    • Have just glanced through this, but it's well regarded and a nice intro adventure. This is another thing that OotA could have benefited from, a kind of intro adventure that would have set up PCs to be adventuring in the Underdark when they were captured by the Drow and taken to Velkynvelve.
  • Appendix D Monsters and NPCs
    • Just curious that this is titled different than OotA, you’d think that WotC would have a style guide for this shit.
  • Appendix F: Handouts
    • Unfortunately these are nearly unreadable and I really can't imagine using them at the table.
Overall, while there are still issues, I could imagine picking up Curse of Strahd, reading it through two or three times and running it much more easily that OotA. And the pitch, though familiar, seems a bit easier too, whereas Out of the Abyss seems to be "see if your disconnected PCs who aren't native can survive the Underdark and then if you give a shit when you get out and the Dwarf King orders you back in" (harsh but kinda how I felt about it two weeks ago) CoS' pitch of "Get sucked into a land of horror and figure out how to defeat the powerful vampire who rules it" does make a ton more sense.

Fixes and Resources for Out of the Abyss

Quick Fixes

  • Start PCs at 2nd or run an intro adventure if you want all the PCs to know each other before they're captured. (Suggested by Sly Flourish)
  • Tie the PCs into the Underdark with bonds. 
    • See my Character Seeds and Alternate Bonds for Out of the Abyss document for examples and options, but I started my game without implementing this and even after the PCs escaped from Sloobludop with Demogorgon wreaking havoc one of my players remarked that...
      • "I mean, that was interesting... And something bad obviously happened... But it still felt like a vignette in sketch show of us getting out."
    • So it seems like players and their PCs will really see the adventure as "Get out of the Underdark" so you'll want to have them have some unfinished business or ties to the Underdark for the second half of the adventure to help entice them into accepting King Bruenor's quest to fix the Abyssal Lord problem.
  • Simplify carrying capacity and encumbrance. Food and Water requirements are relatively simple to enforce with Exhaustion, but especially since PCs will start with no equipment and scavange, encumbrance could get time consuming to track. Here's the system I use, which is included on the Player Knowledge Sheet as well. It does not use the encumbered status for carrying capacity but instead just applies the heavily encumbered penalty.
    • The simplified Carrying Capacity system allows a PC to carry weight equal to their Strength Score multiplied by 15 (so STR 10=150Lbs) and a Push, Drag or Lift limit that equals double your Carrying Capacity (so STR 10=300lbs).
    • If a PC exceed their carrying capacity,-20' speed and disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls and saving throws that use STR, DEX or CON.
    • While pushing or dragging weight in excess of their carrying capacity their speed drops to 5ft.
  • Limit Jailbreak NPCs
    • If I were running a second time I'd be tempted to
      • Leave Ront out completely or have him killed by the Drow almost immediately.
      • Leave out Prince Derendil or have the PCs encounter him in the tunnels after they've escaped, where they'll be more familiar with how the other Quaggoths behaved and he'll ring more immediately as odd. But leaving him with the party at the start they were tempted to have him do all the fighting.
      • Use only Asha or Jorlan instead of having Asha egging Jorlan on.
      • Have the PCs run into (perhaps save?) Jimjar after they've escaped. That was he's still around to point out that Topsy and Turvy are weird, but not cluttering things up.
      • That would leave these as the NPCs the PCs might escape with
        • Buppido
        • Eldeth
        • Sariith
        • Shuushar
        • Stool
        • Topsy
        • Turvy
      • Then you've got 7 to manage instead of 10. And you could quickly cut that down to 5 by
        • Having Eldeth make a heroic sacrifice to help the PCs escape.
          • Just don't forget she needs to make a PC promise to take her belongings or news of her death back to her family in Gauntlgrym
          • Has the added bonus of getting rid of the NPC who would egg on the PCs to be hostile to Underdark natives.
        • Have Sariith or Stool die early on. They both want to go to Neverlight Grove, so either could get the PCs motivated to go there. Killing Sariith would probably be easier for the PCs to handle but Stool dying could really break the player's hearts and maybe he asks for them to bring his body to be fertilizer for the grove?
  • Plan the Journey/Teleportation Circles/Keep track of days
    • This is suggested in the Power Score Guide, and it's worth reading down just for this, it's down in the section about chapter 2, but basically he provides a daily outline and some example days.
      • Roll to see if the group gets lost.
      • Roll for random encounter (page 25). Roll a d20. 14 or higher is a random encounter.
      • Make foraging rolls.
      • Did anything happen that would cause the drow to catch up?
      • Make Camp. Roll for a random encounter again.
    • I'll be doing this for the journeys my players make to Gracklstugh, Neverlight Grove and Blingdenstone.
    • I'll also be borrowing his idea of sprinkling in Teleportation Circles early in the adventure for PCs to use later on.
    • Related, keep track of the days, eventually the PCs will make it to the Stone Giant library of Gravenhollow and they'll ask how long the Abyssal Lords have been in the Underdark and you'll need at least a rough idea so you can give them an answer.
  • Add some enticements to King Bruenor's Offer
    • Now, my players are some time away from getting out of the Underdark and then being summoned to the audience in Gauntlgrym, but my plan is that King Bruenor will offer to help outfit the PCs for their return trip and I'll try and supplement the PCs magic items with a focus of giving out any treasure that the group missed earlier (or equivilents).


  • Created by Antagonist Relations

    • Player Knowledge Sheet - Update coming soon
      • Need to revise to update how I'm using backgrounds and to move the madness/ideal section to a separate page so it's optional. Also need to update the language to be less specific to my game.
      • Contains an overview of the simplified rules I use for
        • Exhaustion
        • Long-Rests
        • Carrying Capacity/Encumberance
        • Travel and PC travel duties
        • Vision and Light
      • Suitable for players.
    • Simplified Encumbrance Sheet
      • The full table for the simplified encumbrance system I use.
      • Suitable for players.
    • Exhaustion Tracker
      • Made to track the time that PCs spend without food, water or long rests and to calculate exhaustion.
      • Also has a spot to list PC ideals.
      • Meant for DM use, though the task of tracking these could be passed off to a reliable player.
    • Drow Pursuit Tracker
      • Sheet to track the current pursuit level and previous events in the Drow Pursuit of the PCs.
      • Also includes the pursuit modifiers in an easy to read table.
    • Character Seeds and Alternate Bonds for Out of the Abyss
      • A rough first draft that I hope to eventually put up on DMs Guild as Pay What You Want.
      • Comments welcome.
      • Meant for DMs, will have a section for DMs to share with their players in its final version.
    • Underdark Magical Item Properties for Out of the Abyss
      • Another rough first draft of a document that I hope to eventually put up on DMs Guild as Pay What You Want.
      • Would replace the optional magic item properties table from the DMG.
      • Comments welcome.
      • Meant for DMs.

  • Created by Others that I've found useful

That's it for now. I'll try to keep this updated as I find more.

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