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 (Dungeon Master's Guide (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 Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (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.
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.
|1||faezress (Out of the Abyss p21)|
A foraging character makes a Wisdom (Survival) check. The Difficulty Class (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.
|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 Non-Player Characters (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).
|2||Travel||Webs||Escaped Slave (1 shield dwarf)||5'||dark||25|
|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 Non-Player Character (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 Dungeons and Dragons (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.