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”.

Illumination

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

Foraging

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.

Advice

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.

An Ongoing Thought Experiment for an Adventure Conversion

Below is an attempt at creating a random underground adventure framework that escalates and would move you towards your eventual locations. The charge is very much inspired by the Angry DM’s blog post on Abstract Dungeoneering.

A Work in Progress

I’ve been kicking around a conversion of Wolfgang Baur’s “Kingdom of Ghouls” from Dungeon #70. It is a fantastic 2nd edition adventure that I’ve thought about running on occasion. Instead of True Ghoul, I’ve opted for Ghöl as it simply looks better.

I’ve created some of the monsters (i.e. the Ghöls, Drider, and Ichtha-Gogs (a deep one type race with fish heads)) but haven’t given them much of a spin. Coordinating a game day and travel work against me actually playing games.

Legend

  • d❖ – Roll Adventure Dice
  • d☮ – Roll Adventure Dice and consult Refugees/”Allies” table
  • d☯ – Roll Adventure Dice (Larger die ≥ smaller then unfavorable result; Otherwise favorable)
Distilling an Underground Adventure
Roll d❖ – Location d❖ – Event d☮ – Refugees/”Allies”
1 Narrow passage way Transition to Surface Human
2 Wide passage way Evacuees [d☮] Dwarf
3 Honeycombed small caverns Tunnel collapse! Deep Gnome
4 Wide passage way Hidden cache of supplies [d☮] Deep Gnome
5 Narrow passage way Treacherous vapors Deep Gnome
6 Honeycombed small caverns Holed up, and unlikely allies [2d☮] Deep Gnome
7 Wide passage way Transition to Glimmerfell Dark Elf
8 Large cavern Recent Skirmish [d☮+d☯] Dark Elf
9 Honeycombed small caverns Haunted location [d☮+d☯] Dark Elf
10 Dried river bed Ghöl scouts Dark Elf
11 Large cavern Bubbling spring [d☯] Duegar
12 Fungal grove Transition to Sunless Sea Duegar
13 Dried river bed Transition to Sunken Library Duegar
14 Underground lake Ghöl border garrison (captives [d☮]) Duegar
15 Fungal grove Skirmish in progress [d☮ & Ghöls, d☯] Troglodyte
16 Petrified forest Shattered City [d☮] Troglodyte
17 Large cavern Ghöl platoon on the march Troglodyte
18 Honeycombed small caverns Transition to Ghölheim Troglodyte
19 Wide passage way Slavers [d☮] Kuo-toan
20 Narrow passage way Despoiled graveyard [d☮] Kuo-toan
21 Dried river bed Vein of rare metals Kuo-toan
22 Petrified forest Ghöl Emperor on the move Kuo-toan

Adventure Dice Advancement

  • d4 – (begin here)
  • d6
  • d4+d6
  • d4+d8
  • d6+d8
  • d6+d10
  • d8+d10
  • d8+d12
  • d10+d12

Are they “pressing on”; Step up Adventure Dice (d4 → d6)
Are they “retreating”; Step down Adventure Dice (d6+d8 → d4+d8)

R is for Red Hand of Doom

The Red Hand of Doom (wikipedia entry) by Richard Baker is a 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons mega-adventure.  When it was released, I remember reading about it and thinking “This sounds very close to the H-Series Bloodstone Pass Saga, so I’m going to get it and run it.”  And I’m thankful that I did.

What made this unique was the excellent character interaction.  There was Averron, the ranger who was seeking vengeance on the warlord of the Red Hand armies.  Slade, a male bounty hunter on the cold trail of a woman who had escaped.  Aversanno, an elven wizard archer who, along with his diabolic familiar, was hungry for power.  Gabe, the austere halfing druid who was tasked with protecting Glib, his younger brother.  Glib was a carefree halfing freak-show (bard / cleric aspiring to be a geomancer).

Setup

The campaign started in the hearth of Glib and Gabe’s parents inn.  They needed to investigate some marauders.  It was here that the heroes stumbled into a greater story.  The hobgoblins of the mountains were hiring mercenary ogres to join their ranks and crush the Elsir Vale. Glib and Gabe’s mother insisted that they all needed to warn the Elsir Vale.  The parting conversation between Gabe and his mother was “Watch out for your brother.  If anything happens to him, I won’t forgive you.  Now take this healing potion.  It is for Glib’s use only.  But you should keep it safe.”

Events

The party traveled south to the Elsir Vale, and had several memorable encounters: a sneaky hydra, an assault on a fortress, defending a village from a raider attack, and a handful of truly memorable battles with dragons.

The first dragon encounter was well planned, but poorly executed.  They had protection spells and buffs going, but didn’t know that the dragon could move so fast.  It almost ended in a complete loss, but thankfully they were able to retreat.

The second dragon encounter, much later, was memorable as it was a multi-tiered battle with different fronts to defend and hold.   The combat remains an all-time favorite:

During the combat, as Slade and Aversanno gave chase to a severely wounded dragon, leaving Averron, Gabe and Glib alone.  While cleaning up the minions, Averron was charmed by a hidden foe. Averron, with a look of sorrow, chopped into his dear friend Gabe, slaying him and rather remorsefully dumping his body in a watery grave.  The hidden foe, using a disguise spell, then appeared as Gabe and told Averron to go after Glib.  Glib was able to shake Averron from his charm, and they turned to defeat the imposter.

Details

During each of these combats, Slade, would always enter his barbarian rage with a high pitched scream;  You see, Slade was in fact the woman which “he” was trying to find.  Slade figured the best way to find her daughter was to track the people looking for her.  But the attention to detail was great.  At every point, Matt made sure to leave clues about Slade’s nature.

Gabe and Glib interacted as an responsible / irresponsible brotherly pair.  Gabe was always keeping a watchful eye on Glib, who’s antics and direction were chaotic.  Glib was carefree, while Gabe was world weary, and struggled with his family relationships.

Aversanno, with promises of power from his wicked familiar, eventually sold his soul for even greater power.  The familiar’s influence didn’t stop there; Knowing that Averron was seeking vengeance, the familiar offered power to Averron for his soul.  Averron accepted.

Conclusion

Sadly, due to two players moving away, the campaign collapsed.  For awhile, when one of the players moved, we used RPTool’s Maptool and Skype to facilitate gaming.  It worked reasonably well to have one remote player and all the rest gathered round a table; But the constraints of the tools and the lack of face to face interaction greatly reduced the feel of the game.  With a second player moving away, the game was scuttled.

Q is for Queen of Spiders

Had I been born two years earlier, I’m certain I would’ve played in TSR‘s Queen of Spiders adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition.  But I’ve never played it; Nor will I likely ever play it.  I did, however, manage to snag a used copy at the Griffon, my Friendly Local Game Store, for $3.  It was missing the maps, but, I figure I won’t likely run it, so instead I can mine it for ideas.  During that visit I also purchased Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, which was heavily influenced by the underlying adventures of Queen of Spiders.

So there I sat with two adventures in hand, both about the machinations of the wicked Drow, evil subterranean elves, and their demonic goddess Lolth.  The differences are noteworthy.  The production quality of the newer adventures (including the Expedition to the Demonweb Pits) is better; Color printing, glossy paper and hardback improve the visceral experience.  The layout has evolved as well.  Whereas Queen of Spiders uses a three column newspaper-esque layout, Expedition uses a two column, textbook-esque layout with a slightly larger font face.

The biggest difference, however, is the presentation and framing of an encounter.  In Queen of Spiders, each of the encounters is “inline” with the rest of the content.  A “Guards at the Gate” encounter includes 3 paragraphs of text to describe the room, it’s inhabitants and features.  There are an additional three short NPC stat-blocks, each 4 lines long.  On a given two adjoining pages, there are often 4 to 6 combat encounters, and another 4 to 6 “empty” room encounters. Some of stat-blocks instead reference a page in the monster manual.

Contrast this with Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, where a single encounter takes up two adjoining pages.  One encounter that I am referencing Giant at the Black Gate (p78-79) has sections for Tactical Map, Setup, Tactics, Conclusion, Supplemental information (i.e. hazards or things in the room) and a massive single stat-block at 50 lines long!  Most things needed to run the encounter is contained within these two pages.

The page size of each adventure’s encounter highlights an evolved understanding of what an encounter is.  Breaking the presentation into Tactical Map, Setup, Tactics, Conclusion, Supplemental, and Stat Blocks helps the game master digest what is going on.  By including this information, however, instead of the greatly simplified encounter of Queen of Spiders, the expectations of the encounter are more clearly defined.  That is to say, the more words used to describe something, the less interpretation required, and the more constraining the encounter; You can certainly “wing it” but why? there is so much information already there for you to use.

An interesting by-product of the Tactical Map is that encounters in Expedition to the Demonweb Pits start within the constraints of the 2 pages.  Characters start an encounter, in my opinion, far too close to the action.  The Expedition encounter format, as well as a lack of separate overview map, lends itself to stark transitions from narration to set-pieces (i.e. battlemat).  I have found that there is very little “lets keep quiet” as we travel through the dungeon, because, “we are going to start the encounter on the tactical map.”  I understand that this is meta-gamey, but the reality has been observed.

Contrast with Queen of Spiders where the entire map is separate.  This means the dungeon master can more easily get a sense of where things are in relation to each other, the transition from narration to set-piece happens more organically.  In particular if I’m using the battle-map to draw out all of the character’s progress.

The other interesting effect of having the very large encounter format in Expedition, is that the adventure itself has a whole lot less encounters.  A single encounter in Expedition is likely to last notably longer than a single encounter Queen of Spiders.  So each encounter in Expedition must carry it’s own weight better; It requires more thought to the design.  After all if I’m going to invest an hour for a single combat (or more), there should be interesting options during the encounter.  Whereas, if most Queen of Spiders encounters are 15 minutes, those options need not be there.

All told, I’m extremely thankful for my $3 purchase, as I got to see how the older adventures were written as well as witness an evolution (e.g. change over time) of adventures.