Early Experience running Out of the Abyss

House Rules for Out of the Abyss

I’ve decided to take the framework for Out of the Abyss and mold it to my liking. First, if you intend to run “Out of the Abyss” straight out of the “box”, good luck.
It is a toolkit, some set pieces, and a lot of narrative prose.

There are plenty of random tables to help move things along, but the book had disorganized core information. My guess is that not a single play tester ran this game from the published book; The information is too spread out for easy access.

What follows are the pieces that I’ve adopted to help me adjudicate the game.

From the Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve opted for a more brutal game. Characters are a bit more fragile. I had mulled over a long rest being 7 days and a short rest being 8 hours, but opted not to use that given the nature of the adventure. These are my personal preferences.

  • Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267): Character’s do not recover hit points after a long rest. They must use hit dice.
  • Massive Damage (DMG p273): Too much damage and you might be out of the fight.
  • Injuries (DMG p272-273): If you get knocked out of the fight, bad things can happen.
  • Morale (DMG p273): Because combat is more lethal, I want morale to help adjudicate monster’s. I’m not satisfied with 5E’s morale ratings, but they are an acceptable approximation.

Building on “Out of the Abyss”

The following rules build from my observations of the missing specificity in “Out of the Abyss”.


From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

Roll a d6 to determine how an encounter area is illuminated. On a roll of 1-3, the area is dimly lit by the phosphorescent moss and lichen common in the Underdark, or by faerzress (see “Faerzress”). On a roll of 4-6, the area is dark except for whatever light sources the characters might have.

And that is all you get for using Faerzress in encounters. Here is a table to help determine light. This table assumes that on a roll of 1 for illumination, using the original mechanics, there is a 50% chance that the illumination is from faerzress.

d12 Illumination
1 faezress (Out of the Abyss p21)
2-6 Dim
7-12 Dark


From “Out of the Abyss” p20:

A foraging character makes a Wisdom (Survival) check.
The DC is typically 15, but might be as high as 20 in some parts of the Underdark.

Again, that is all of the guidance you get. So I made a table to help determine the base DC for each day of travel.

d6 Food Scarcity
1-4 Limited: DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging
5-6 Scarce: DC 20 Wisdom (Survival) for foraging

I made the following resource to help keep track of the day-to-day movements of the party. I also made sure to make a small character sheet for the “friendly NPCs”; There are four NPCs per side.

I spent a few hours this afternoon, rolling the random encounters for the next 30 travel days. Some of the random encounters are straight forward and require one page in the monster manual, but others require referencing numerous pages.

Here are the first 7 days (in which my players have already engaged) and how I wrote the information in Google Sheets. As we’ve proceeded, I need to refine when the encounter happens. I take rest to mean after the characters have stopped moving.

So, when the characters force march for a total of 12 hours, its easy. Encounters happen on the 1d12 hours into that timeframe. If the characters choose to not force march then travel encounters happen 1d8 hours into traveling and rest encounters happen 1d18 hours into the rest (roll a D20 and re-roll 19 or 20).

Day Time Location Creature Space Light XP
2 Travel Webs Escaped Slave (1 shield dwarf) 5′ dark 25
3 Rest Lave Swell 10′ dark 100
5 Rest Sinkhole Blurg the Orog open dark 450
7 Rest Green Slime Giant Rocktopus 5′ dark 200

Bitching and Moaning

The campaign kicks off with 10 likely NPC allies. Yippie! They aren’t retainers or henchmen, but independent characters with their own agendas and foibles. Then the random encounters have a few cases where more NPCs can join the party.

At this point, 3 of the initial enslaved NPCs have died (Prince Derendil, Stool, and Eldeth Feldrun). And two have parted ways (Topsy and Turvey). But they have picked up two new NPCs; Blurg the Orog and Tarrant a shield dwarf. They also started with 2 extra enslaved NPCs; The drow captured the party and extra NPCs at the same time.

This has meant an extreme number of NPCs to manage; It also means that the large group moving through the underdark can rely on the law of large numbers to make sure that everyone has enough food and water. After all, anyone can forage, with each foraging opportunity means 1d6 pounds of food. From a mechanical standpoint, the extra NPCs have been a blessing. From the narrative stand point, the extra NPCs have been needless complications.

And then there is the map. Each hex is 24 miles; Huge by hex crawl standards. The map is unclear about terrain and features. It’s an abstraction that shows distance, but does not convey important information; I’m looking at you Darklake and your ambiguous boundaries. Upon my examination of the map, I assumed one idea about the boundaries of Darklake. But when I read more of the adventure, the boundaries were very different from my assumption.

All told, if you are going to write a mega-adventure, have at least one person run the thing without any guidance from the author. There is a lot of ambiguity and misplacement of information in Out of the Abyss. I understand that proper organization is a tremendous challenge, but I believe if the authors focused on codifying the procedures, then it would be a much stronger presentation.


If you are going to run this, grab your highlighter and notebook. Scattered throughout the book is vital information; Make notes with page numbers. Make worksheets to help you consolidate information as you see fit. Scan monster entries so you can consolidate an encounter’s information.

Make more random tables. The size of the Underdark means that I’ve seen a heavy repetition of random encounters. The current random encounters imply a population and risk density of the Underdark. Consider other options.

“Out of the Abyss” is the first by the book adventure I’ve run since “The Red Hand of Doom”. I think Out of the Abyss has more interesting set pieces and ideas but its organization is rather confounding compared to The Red Hand of Doom.

It is very difficult to scan “Out of the Abyss” for pertinent information. Granted, “Out of the Abyss” leverages some of the more gritty components of D&D (i.e. starvation, exhaustion, wilderness travel), but I believe the book fails to account for the adventure being a direct reference for game play.

Out of the Abyss – Session #1

I was hesitant to run Out of the Abyss. Chapter 1 is a complicated hot mess to run. I didn’t know if I could use what was given to establish a reasonable enough beginning to the campaign.

There is an urgency about escaping at odds with exposition of the supporting cast. Do you spend a little or a lot of time establishing the various of relationships between the NPCs?

There are 10 captive NPCs and 4 NPC captors (and their support staff). That’s a lot of characters to both establish and juggle. All of this while the players are plotting and attempting to execute an escape. I also don’t believe people want to spend more than a few hours building up to the prison break.

By the end of the session two NPCs were dead, with a total of 15 characters escaping with one or two supplies each. They have several shields, chain shirts, leather armor, and lengths of rope. That’s it. No holy symbols nor spell books.

So I’m envisioning a few sessions of brutality on the horizon as exhaustion and resource management grind at them.

What worked?

Prodding the characters along. Making sure to push towards “What’s the plan? Are you doing it now?”

Showing that the drow are petty and cruel. There was an internal conflict through playing up the NPCs. Then having a fight between prisoners (PC and NPC) which devolved into breaking the spellcaster’s hands and executing the elf prince.

The player characters fleeing with the most modest of equipment. I’m excited to see how the characters are going to dig deep to escape from their pursuit.

Having now run several timed convention games, I believe I’m more attentive to table and time management.

Where did I get stuck?

The awkward transition moment from “you are helpless captives” to “lets plan all the details”. As many may know, a session that involves lots of planning and deliberation gets rather crazy.

Juggling time between different groups; Some were left in the cages to rest while others performed labor. This meant the spotlight was shifting back and forth.

The layout of the camp makes it very hard for the characters to get their equipment and escape.

What might I do differently?

I would’ve prepared even more. The content in the book is hard to scan. So I will read through the next section with a highlighter and markers.

I would not have introduced two additional NPCs into the equation. There is already a large cast of characters. The ones I introduced tied back to the previous sessions that I ran.

A jail break with 18 prisoners was insane. Too many moving parts. And there were no NPC statistics for the friendly NPCs.

There was a pinch point that I should’ve cleared out as part of the distraction. By not clearing out that pinch point, it made it seemingly impossible for the party to retrieve their equipment. They self-assessed and opted to cut their loses.

Wrath of the Autarch by Phil Lewis

Wrath of the Autarch by Phil Lewis

Wrath of the Autarch by Phil Lewis

I have been waiting for Phil Lewis’s Wrath of the Autarch since Aidan played at Origins 2013 and I played at Origins 2014. Wrath of the Autarch is a kingdom building role-playing game. Its up on Kickstarter right now…and I’ve backed it.

I wrote up a few questions that I had about Wrath of the Autarch, and Phil was kind enough to answer them. He has also assembled a Boardgamegeek Geeklist of influences that went into Wrath of the Autarch.

What was the driving force for creating Wrath of the Autarch?

I wanted to make a kingdom building game that my busy friends would actually play.

Looking back on the long development process I know you’ve made a lot of changes; What is one thing that you’ve cut or abandoned that you thought was going to be in the “final” version?

That’s a tough question! One of the hardest aspects of design was managing the long term strategic scope. How do all these moving parts: the kingdoms, factions, and regions, bounce off of each other? Early on I was really enamored with this deck building political event system. I really thought that was going to be a cornerstone of the whole thing. But it was just so fiddly, and didn’t ever quite click. Getting rid of it and putting more control in the Autarch player’s hands helped a great deal.

In Wrath of the Autarch’s development, you’ve wrestled with various iterations and refinements of Fate. What have been some of the pain points you’ve unearthed as you developed Wrath of the Autarch’s Fate implementation? And why did you decide to stick with a refinement of Fate?

This is no small topic! There were definitely a few points of tension. But so much cool technology! The biggest points of contention revolve around the creation of aspects, compels, and uncapped stress in the attack action. Note that I’m referring here about Fate Core (although similar issues probably exist in earlier versions).


Creating and compelling aspects in Fate is one of the trickier parts of the system to master. Compels are almost never used enough, even by experienced players. The creation of aspects in Fate Core can be difficult to manage, because there’s this mechanical benefit to making them – so it’s very appealing to players, but there’s also this tacit understanding that pushing that lever too much isn’t fun. That can create tension. Finally, if Create an Advantage is pushed too hard, conflicts and challenges are frequently resolved in one (frequently anti-climactic) action which utilizes tons of free invokes.


There’s also the issue that Wrath of the Autarch has no gamemaster. So what’s a compel in that structure? How is the creation of aspects limited? How can the skirmish mini-game not just be one action that inflicts tremendous stress?


In Wrath of the Autarch, the answer, which is basically fractally [see Fate Fractal] true at every level, is that there’s an action economy that restricts and plays off the resource economy. There are also aspects that exist at a variety of time scales (campaign aspects, mission aspects, and minor advantages). The longer the aspects duration, the more difficult it is to create, and the more screen time it can take.


Compels (well, compel-like things) can be motivated either by the Autarch player or the Stronghold players. For the Stronghold players, they can come into play through complicating relationships with other heroes in the troupe or through complicating aspects. There’s no action limit to using these self-compels – but there is risk. The Autarch player can bring in more complications, but those are restricted during each mission.


Finally, in service to making the mini-games more tactical, the amount of stress that the attack action may inflict is capped by the skill used to attack with. There are of course stunts and such that can tweak that. This tones down on the massive aspect invoke chain which creates anti-climactic conflicts.

Wrath of the Autarch has a very structured procedure of play. What problems are you trying to solve with the structured procedures?

The biggest driver is to promote episodic play. I really liked the idea of playing through a season of time each session. This makes it easier on players who can’t make it one night, because you’re always ending at a good spot. The troupe based play also helps there.


Because there is no gamemaster, the structure of the game propels it along and keeps this pace up. The procedure also promotes cycling between the long term strategic scope and the shorter term season scope.


Furthermore, the action economy drives the time pressure in the game. Will you have time to do what you need to this season? This year? Are you prepared to stop the Autarch?

Could you talk about the mini-games for a bit? The first Fate mini-game I encountered was from VSCA’s Diaspora.

I really enjoy having some diversity when playing games. If every night is a dungeon crawl or every night is a massive pitched battle, it can start getting a little routine. Mini-games are a way to have variety over the campaign. That’s the primary motivator – each mini-game (diplomacy, infiltration, skirmish, warfare) has little tactical elements that you can master and learn to exploit.


And yeah, Diaspora! Diaspora was the game I read that made me start thinking I could do this in Fate. The sheer variety and utility of mini-games was super interesting! Some of the mini-games in Wrath of the Autarch ended up pretty different from those in Diaspora, but they were definitely an inspiration.


Partly, I had to streamline the mini-games in Wrath of the Autarch so they didn’t run over about an hour (because the conflict mini-games are only the last third of a season). I also took some inspiration from some boardgames (the Call of Cthulhu LCG and Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line actually influenced the diplomacy mini-game).

In playing Wrath of the Autarch at Origins 2014, the session had a certain “board game meets RPG” feel to it. What has been your experience introducing Wrath to board gamers who don’t normally play role-playing games?

Yeah, most people say “hey, this is a boardgame-y role-playing game” or “this is a role-playing-y boardgame.” If role-playing-y is a word. It’s probably not a word.


The vast majority of people I have played with have already played role-playing games, though. That’s probably a function of playing it so much at role-playing game conventions. Most of my friends are all primarily into role-playing games.


I have played with a few people at my FLGS that have never played a role-playing game before, and they really liked it! They came from a strategy game background.


I’ve found that players who used to be into Birthright or Ars Magica or who play video games like Civilization, X-COM, and Crusader Kings usually love it. Even people who don’t come from those backgrounds have been pretty receptive to elements of it. It’s not a common experience in tabletop gaming, which is why I set about making it!

For more information checkout:

Running a Fifth Edition Character Funnel

This past Tuesday I ran part one of two part D&D 5E 0-level Dungeon Crawl Classic inspired character funnel adventure (i.e. many enter far fewer leave). I’m not going to go into a session recap, but I will go through the character creation.

Character Creation

Each player created 4 characters by rolling the following:

Random Stats

Players could choose one of two methods for each character they created:

Method #1

Roll twelve (12) sets of 3d6 straight down keeping order (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha). This method is by far my most favorite method for D&D stat creation.

Method #2

Roll 4d6 straight down keeping order and optionally replace one stat with an 8.

Here is the Ruby script used to generate the simulation data.

Bell Curve Showing Method 2 (i.e. 3d6 clumps) around +5 or +6 and method 2 (i.e. 4d6) has higher standard deviation.

A visual distribution of the likely modifiers based on each of the stat methods.

Random Race

Based on the results of a group poll, we wanted a plurality of races. The following tables generated that.

Table 1: Random Race
1d20 Race Source
1 – 9 Human Player’s Handbook
9 – 18 Common non-human Roll on Table 1A (d20)
19 – 20 Uncommon non-human Roll on Table 1B (d120)
Table 1A: Common non-human races
1d20 Race Source
1 – 2 Dwarf, Hill Player’s Handbook
3 – 4 Dwarf, Mountain Player’s Handbook
5 – 6 Elf, High Player’s Handbook
7 – 8 Elf, Wood Player’s Handbook
9 – 10 Half-Elf Player’s Handbook
11 – 12 Half-Orc Player’s Handbook
13 – 14 Halfling, Lightfoot Player’s Handbook
15 – 16 Halfling, Stout Player’s Handbook
17 Dragonborn Player’s Handbook
18 Gnome, Forest Player’s Handbook
19 Gnome, Rock Player’s Handbook
20 Goblin (Eberron) https://goo.gl/eYjUk9
Table 1B: Uncommon non-human races
1d20 Race Source
1 – 5 Aasmir Dungeon Master’s Guide
6 – 10 Tiefling Player’s Handbook
11 Changeling Unearthed Arcana: Eberron
12 Elf, Eladrin Dungeon Master’s Guide
13 – 14 Elf, Drow Player’s Handbook
15 Genasi (1d4 for element) Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
16 – 17 Gnome, Deep Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
18 Goliath Elemental Evil Player’s Companion
19 Shifter Unearthed Arcana: Eberron
20 Warforged Unearthed Arcana: Eberron

Random Background

My 0-level adventure is set by the sea in a small community. So the table reflects that distribution.

Table 2: Random Background Generator
1d20 Background
1 – 3 Guild Artisan
4 – 5 Sailor
6 Acolyte
7 Sage
8 – 9 Criminal
10 Entertainer
11 Folk Hero
12 Hermit
13 Noble
14 Charlatan
15 Soldier
16 – 17 Urchin
18 – 20 Outlander

Random Extra Languages

Some of the players wanted help choosing their language. So we referenced the following.

Table 3: Random Starting Language
1d8 Language
1 Dwarvish
2 Elvish
3 Giant
4 Gnomish
5 Goblin
6 Halfing
7 Orc
8 Exotic – Roll on Table 3A
Table 3A: Random Exotic Starting Language
1d10 Language
1 Abyssal
2 Celestial
3 Draconic
4 Deep Speech
5 Infernal
6 Primordial
7 Sylvan
8 – 10 Undercommon

Musing about Upcoming Campaign (and System)

Its looking like I will be facilitating a face to face regular RPG game. And now I’m looking at the systems that I’m planning to suggest to the group:

Of particular note, Dungeon World is not on the offering. One of my players has requested a bit more “crunch” than Dungeon World. And as I pressed him for more information, it sounded as though he had worn through the playbooks. He has just started a D&D 5E game and enjoys the diverse characters within a given class.

Whitehack 2nd Edition is on the list because the rules are a streamlined revisitation of D&D 0E with some more modern sensibilities. I believe there is enough “crunch” to this game even though the rulebook is quite compact. At present this is one I want to see in play.

D&D 5E is on the list because at its heart, my game table has been a Dungeons & Dragons table. I’ve run 2E, 3E, and played 4E. And 5E is an amazing re-engineering of previous editions with attention to some modern developments (bonds and aspects).

Wrath of the Autarch, a dark horse but one with a lot of appeal. First its heavily inspired by Birthright, so that’s a huge plus for me.

Scarlet Heroes is on the list in part because I love the Red Tide campaign tooling. I would love to have a system that requires little in the way of translation for that tooling. Since I’ve been considering a Sandbox campaign, I would like to use Sine Nomine products – the gold standard of sandbox adventuring.

I decided to add DCC RPG to the mix based on a conversation about character funnels. DCC recommends that players start with a few 0th level characters, fragile and weak, then send them through a funnel and see who survives.

When I bring the games to the table I’ll ask the players what they are after:

  • Do you want a “story arc game” in which encounters are always feasible for the characters to overcome? This will result in a more “railroaded” story being told.
  • Would you rather have a “sand box game” in which characters choose where to go, and reconnaissance is greatly rewarded as encounters are not tailored for character level? This should result in more emergent stories.
  • What style of Fantasy are we looking for? I had talked a bit about Eberron’s pulp-noir feel, but I have a campaign map brewed up as well.
  • How do you feel about starting with a character funnel? Make 3 or 4 characters and lets play some disposable characters to see what “sticks”

I played in a D&D 2E Birthright in which the GM started everyone as 0-level characters and we played a few sessions. The GM took notes and when we hit level 1, he handed us a standard class with a few tweaks to show our character’s nuances. It was an interesting experience in which the players had to rely on player skill to overcome challenges.

One thing is clear, I will bring to bear numerous resources from the OSR that I’ve been accumulating. More on that later.

Fate Point Economy: All the Glories of Accounting and Fiduciary Obligations

It is no secret, I dislike Fate. In the hands of an awesome GM, it is a great game. But that is true for any game. However Fate has always come off as a system that assures a particular outcome; Narrative consensus.

In the Fate games that I’ve played there comes a point when someone invokes the meta-aspect “I’m going to MATH this!” and proceeds to burn through many free invokes and a few fate points. And they “win” the conflict.

The narrative beats may feel like the “good guys” are on the ropes, but the underlying mechanical economy appears to insure, through actuarially asserted models, that success will happen.

One of the consequences of invoking the meta-aspect “I’m going to MATH this!” is the extended moment of aspect scrounging. It always reminds me of the old Wheel of Fortune segment in which the winner for the round would buy stuff from a show room; “I’ll take the porcelain dalmatian for $400 and the crystal ash tray for $200 and…”

And while there is a concerted table effort to scrounge up all related aspects related to the meta-aspect “I’m going to MATH this!”, this process invariably feels like the table is awarding participation ribbons for attending a graduation ceremony for 2nd grade.

So how would I solve this?

Invocation of Aspects give Advantage or Disadvantage (as per D&D 5E). And Advantage or Disadvantage does not stack. In other words, you get one invocation in your favor.

Does this break Fate? Perhaps. But unless you are a vetted Fate GM (and you know who you are) I won’t be playing Fate‡.

‡ – Unless it is the Diaspora mini-game for Spaceship conflict. That mini-game is fantastic. Or Wrath of the Autarch, which on my last playing had mini-games and inherent time constraints, thus removing the ubiquitous “I’m going to MATH this!” moments.

My take on a terrible law

This past week has been a whirlwind. I was away at a library conference in California; Meeting with friends and colleagues. As news broke about SB 101 awaiting Governor Pence’s promised signature, I was saddened.

Many of my friends and colleagues already experience discrimination, and now it is to be accepted as legal. I felt powerless, but I looked around me.

There were several committee members for two upcoming conferences will be in Indianapolis: DPLA-fest (Digital Public Libraries of America festival) and Open Repositories.

I informed them  of the current state of the legislation and asked that they review their code of conduct and see how it reconciles with Indiana’s climate.

Within the day there were initial responses; Perhaps timid, but I understand that the response comes from a loose affiliation of people gathering for common professional cause; Not social cause.

But they responded, adding their voice. And I am proud to associate with these organizations.

They reminded me that we are all in this together. And I saw other voices chiming in; Not with bluster and politicking, but with measured delibedration, acknowledging that boycotting an entire state can damage those they are attempting to support.

But I want this to go further, Indiana is not the only state that has similar ordinances, laws, etc on the books. I would like “discriminatory climate” to be a deal-breaker for locations of all future events of conferences I attend.

But not a silent deal breaker.

I want to see open letters, calls for transformation, and conversations about their decision making process.

I want to see conferences already committed to locations to collaborate with their hosts to build a code of collaboration and co-mingling.

I want to see this, so that I can acknowledge and celebrate baby steps towards improving the human condition.

In an era of internet anonymity and animosity, I want people to see that there are allies around them. Not just people, but institutions, federations, gatherings, and congregations. Each willing to say I’m not just open for business, but I’m embracing the humanity in each of us.