Following on the heels of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, The Rise of Tiamat, and Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss is the fourth campaign adventure supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 5E. Like Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss will take the characters up to level 15 as they confront the effects of a massive demonic incursion into the Underdark. Out of the Abyss released today, September 15, 2015.
Warning: This review isn’t going to do anything like give map locations, but it will contain information on the outlines of the plot of the Out of the Abyss campaign. If you might be playing through the campaign, and don’t want any information going in, turn away now!
Out of the Abyss is a 250-page, full-color hardcover that retails for about $50. The campaign was produced by Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin Publishing (Dragon Age, Mutants & Masterminds, A Song of Fire and Ice). It is also tagged as part of the “Rage of Demons” event, tying in with several other product releases (don’t worry, despite Drizzt Do’Urden’s presence in some other Rage of Demons material, he will not show up here to steal the characters’ thunder).
The graphic design, art style, cartography and other production aspects are consistent with the high level of quality for D&D. However, I must regret to report that my review copy of Out of the Abyss failed the impact test we performed, so be advised that if you leave your copy of Out of the Abyss on top of your vehicle, then go through a roundabout, the resulting collision will do significantly more damage to your book than it does to the pavement. On the bright side, despite the inattention-induced smushed corner, the book’s binding has not shown any negative effects from the test.
Out of the Abyss sort-of takes the characters from levels 1 through 15. I say sort-of because the first part of the campaign can be run with first level characters … or second … or third. So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that first level characters are going to have a pretty rough time of it. This is reminiscent of Princes of the Apocalypse, which was also levels 1-15, but the meat of the campaign started at level 3 – that book, however, explicitly had an introductory town to run level 1 characters through. I would probably not start the characters at level 1, either dropping them right in at level 2, or letting them play through an introductory adventure that ends up with the characters in the clutches of the Underdark …
In the Underdark city of Menzoberranzan, drow archmage Gromph Baenre lets his magic get a little bit away from him, resulting in all of the demon lords (but one) from the Abyss and into the Underdark (those being Baphomet, Demogorgon, Fraz-Urb’luu, Graz’zt, Juiblex, Orcus, Yeenoghu, Zuggtmoy – Lolth stays behind because this is her plan, and she wants to have the Abyss to herself). The PCs, starting out as low-level schmucks just lucky to be alive, start out trapped in the Underdark and go on a bit of a mini-tour before eventually getting back to the surface. Throughout these adventures, the PCs come to realize that something is going very wrong in the Underdark, as the presence of the demon lords is slowly driving everyone mad (including, potentially, some of the PCs). The PCs are then tasked with going back down into the Underdark and dealing with the problem. If the PCs have played their cards right, this time they will be at the head of a small expeditionary force. Eventually, with the help of the PCs, another archmage will be able to bring all of the demon lords together, where they will savage each other until the PCs can take out what’s left.
Out of the Abyss is the most free-form of the D&D adventures to date. Early on the characters will have a lot of choice of which Underdark location to visit next. Throughout the campaign there is a lot of emphasis on the travel between different points. Instead of just moving from big dungeon to big dungeon, the characters will tend to face more, smaller challenges and encounters – individual characters or locations they run into while traveling or in the vicinity of other, bigger locations. A lot of it is not integral to the plot, but rather colorful and interesting – I can see game groups getting a bit tired of Underdark random monster encounters well before the campaign is over, but you should definitely keep an eye out of the unique chapter encounters they’ve included.
Additionally, Out of the Abyss from the very start presents the characters with a lot of opportunities to pick up NPC companions. Some of these characters will come and go fairly quickly, but some may stay with the characters throughout almost the entire campaign. Later on the characters will have the opportunity to command underlings, as the surface factions support their efforts to deal with the problems of the Underdark before they get any higher. There is a lot of mileage to be had out of how the PCs deal with these repeating and sometimes interlocking characters.
This more free-form method makes things a bit more taxing for the DM to determine appropriate challenge levels for the first half of the campaign. Princes of the Apocalypse similarly let the PCs face the dungeons in an order of their choosing, but it also specifically told the DM what level each dungeon was designed for – so you could push the players towards the “right” dungeon, adjust the difficulty of the dungeon to fit the level of the party, or let the PCs hit locations they just couldn’t handle knowing in advance they just couldn’t handle them (hopefully accompanied by some sort of signals to the PCs that leaving was an option, because you’re a nice DM, right?). If that’s a concern, I think that the most natural order of progression is (not shockingly) the order the locations are presented in the book, as I think that has the best narrative feel to it, including getting the most mileage out of interconnected plot hook (for example, getting an item in Chapter 4 that needs to be given to someone in Chapter 6).
Chapter 1: Prisoners of the Drow (~10 pages) – Yes, yes, the campaign starts off with all of the characters stripped of their gear and in prison. I’ll admit that this is a bit of a clichéd start to a campaign. On the other hand, I played through or DMed Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon (from the 1991 Classic/New-Easy-To-Master Dungeons & Dragon boxed set) more than a couple of times, so I have some serious fondness for this particular cliché. Plus, what else would a group of level 1-3 characters be doing this deep in the Underdark? This chapter will end with the characters escaping into the wilds of the Underdark. The most significant development here will be which of the 10 NPC prisoners the PCs escape with, because (in addition to plain old character interaction) almost all of those NPCs have a hook into one of the towns the characters will visit from chapters 3-6 and 8 (sometimes in a way that will help the characters, and sometimes not so much). I personally recommend making sure that Stool (the myconid sprout) gets to tag along, because there’s a lot of fungus plot hooks (I’m not making that up; there’s a lot of fungus in the Underdark).
Chapter 2: Into Darkness (not the Star Trek kind) (~20 pages) – This is the primary travel and setting chapter for the book. Here is presented information on navigating the Underdark, the random encounter table for the Underdark, figuring out how to eat, all the different kinds of fungus (I told you fungus was important), how the PCs might go about getting to the locations of their next adventures, and the various plot hooks the DM can use to get them there (heavily tied into the fairly safe presumption that the PCs would like to leave the Underdark right now please). This chapter also presents the rules for madness used throughout the campaign, which has a Cthulhu-esque vibe of trying not to lose it when exposed to bizarre and disturbing stuff. Also included are rules for handling the drow pursuit that will dog the characters during the first half of the campaign. Finally, this chapter includes four small set piece encounters, with the intention that the PCs will run into one of the four before reaching each of the four destinations in chapters 3-6. My favorite is the oozing temple, a sealed room puzzle where the PCs can acquire as a companion a sentient, telepathic gelatinous cube.
Chapter 3: The Darklake (~10 pages) – The first of four “tour of the Underdark” chapters, the Darklake features a kua-toa settlement disturbed by the influence of Demogorgon. This chapter will likely see the PCs help one side in this straightforward conflict, before Demogorgon shows up and wise characters get out of dodge. Warning: it may be difficult to run this chapter with a straight face, seeing how it takes place in the town of Sloobludop and features a conflict between characters named Ploopploopeen, Glooglugogg, and Bloppblippodd about whether to worship a being known as Blibdoolpoolp.
Chapter 4: Gracklstugh (~30 pages) – As you might guess from the page count, the characters visit to the Duergar city of Gracklstugh is a lot more substantial than their stop in Sloobludop. There are multiple quest threads to be followed in the City of Blades, with the characters potentially working for the city government, a red dragon, the guys who think they control the red dragon, and some stone giants. While some of the parts of this take place entirely in the city, others resolve in a ‘dungeon’ area called the Whorlstone Tunnels, which are pretty cool. Alice in Wonderland fans will get a kick out of the magic mushrooms that can shrink and enlarge the characters, allowing them to sneak through tunnels that are otherwise inaccessible. This dungeon also features the character’s first chance to learn about the Zuggtmoy (demon price of fungi) plot, and potentially pick up another myconid companion.
Chapter 5: Neverlight Grove (~10 pages) – Speaking of Zuggtmoy plot, Chapter 5 will let the characters return their adorable mushroom companions to their home … which is not as idyllic as they left it. While this chapter is about the same length as Chapter 3, Neverlight Grove has a lot more to it, with the characters able to interact with the myconids and discover that their community has started to become corrupted by Zuggtmoy, who has a really disturbing wedding fantasy going on. The characters will learn more if they risk madness, and ultimately will have to flee, possibly with the uncorrupted portions of the myconid colony in tow.
Chapter 6: Blingdenstone (~20 pages) – At this point the PCs have met drow and duergar (and derro), so it must be time to catch the third Underdark variant of a standard PC race, the svirfneblin. Blingdenstone is a city in the early stages of recovery, having been virtually wiped out by a drow attack decades ago. Like the duergar chapter, this one features multiple plot threads, as the PCs (probably) cleanse a temple, make peace with wererat-svirfneblin, and placate ghosts. This culminates in a semi-successful assault against an infestation of oozes called through the power of the demon lord Juiblex.
Chapter 7: Escape from the Underdark (~5 pages) – The characters, having now wrapped up the initial part of the campaign, are finally directed to a functional way out of the Underdark. But wait! First there has to be an awkward encounter with the drow who have been pursuing the PCs all this time. I say awkward because the encounter seems to be intended as a bit too much for the PCs to handle, to the point of including tips on how to help the PCs out if/when it goes badly. I understand the desire to provide closure on the drow pursuit, but I don’t really get why it’s presented this way. The characters should be 8th level by the time this chapter is done.
Chapter 8: Audience in Gauntlgrym (~10 pages) – The characters’ visit to the dwarven city of Gauntlgrym is the focus of the one chapter of this book that takes place outside of the Underdark. It feels a bit forced, but the characters will (because reasons) end up with an audience in front of the king, and will then have meetings with representatives of each of the five Forgotten Realms factions. The four good guy factions all generally support the PCs’ mission, but the characters will have to convince them to provide actual support. The ‘bad guy faction’ (the Zhentarim) have what the characters really want, and will ultimately provide it to them because it suits their purposes, but they’ll try to get something out of it as well. Some of the factions lay down small plot hooks for the trip back into the Underdark as well (for example, keeping an eye out for a missing spy). For each faction the PCs succeed at their interactions with, they will get a small detachment of minions to take along on their journey.
Chapter 9: Mantol-Derith (~10 pages) – There are a number of interactions to be found in this merchant outpost of various Underdark factions, but the main purpose is to get directions to Chapter 11. The characters also have the chance to destroy the gem imprisoning demon lord Fraz-Urb’luu, which banishes him back to the Abyss (the PCs will also see the continued mental effects of the presence of the demon lords).
Chapter 10: Descent into the Depths (~10 pages) – Somewhat revisiting the concepts of Chapter 2, Descent into the Depths, presenting new random encounters, information on how the party’s travel is different with all of the NPCs they may have along, and giving an update on what the PCs might find if they detour to past adventure sites.
Chapter 11: Gravenhollow (~10 pages) – This exotic stone giant library (it includes visions of past, present, and future, so a bit more than normal books are available) serves two functions in the campaign. First, it can give the characters an info dump, giving them insight into what’s happening to the Underdark and why. Second, it hooks them up with exiled drow archmage Vizeran DeVir, who is the key to the characters actually dealing with the menace of the demon lords.
Chapter 12: The Tower of Vengeance (~5 pages) – This is Vizeran’s home base, and will most likely just serve as the place where he explains his plan to deal with the demon lords. The PCs will have to go get the components necessary for a great ritual that will reverse the ritual performed by Gromph Baenre – the demons will be summoned to one place, they will mostly kill each other, and then the PCs will finish off what’s left. You will probably not be surprised to learn that Vizeran has ulterior motives – he does want the demon lords dealt with, and his ritual works, but there are certain aspects of it he just might be fibbing about.
Chapter 13: The Wormwrithings (~10 pages) – This chapter features several smaller locations in a general area of the Underdark as the characters begin collecting ingredients like a purple worm egg and a beholder’s eye. As is the usual for this campaign, it also features plain old interesting run-ins, and also the chance to interact with NPCs that will affect how difficult (or not) the rest of the characters’ mission is. The chapter includes a nifty set-piece battle with a beholder, with the PCs fighting the flying eye tyrant from a series of rope bridges.
Chapter 14: The Labyrinth (~10 pages) – Like the Wormwrithings, the Labyrinth is a general area of the Underdark, and this chapter features a series of encounters and locations. This includes witnessing a run-in between Baphomet and Yeenoghu. One of the more noteworthy, but kind of pointless, side events here involves modrons and a malfunctioning Orderer (or the Maze Engine, to everyone else). The characters can attempt to activate the device to “fix” problems in the Underdark. If all goes to plan, then the Maze Engine will banish all extraplanar creatures within a wide distance, including Baphomet and Yeenoghu. But that doesn’t matter to the final battle. Activating it creates this set-piece battle probably on top of the malfunctioning Maze Engine as it slowly falls into magma. This is represented by a random roll every turn – there’s a 20% chance the intended outcome happens, and some of the other stuff is pretty wild, maybe a bit too wild. For example, one of the possible effects is to send the characters back to the beginning of the campaign – they go back in time and get dropped into the drow prison, but will all of their levels, equipment, and memories intact. That’s a pretty clever thing to read, but that would make for some pretty miserable gameplay if it actually happened. One of the few disappointing set piece encounters in a book full of good ones.
Chapter 15: The City of Spiders (~15 pages) – This chapter sees the characters finally go into that most famous of Underdark locations, Menzoberranzan. As with Gracklstugh and Blingdenstone, there’s some background information presented on the city. However, there is not a terrible lot of use for it – only drow and the slaves of the drow are allowed in Menzoberranzan, so the characters’ options are limited. Unless they’re really sneaky (in which case they’ll might be able to just flat out steal Gromph’s grimoire, which is why they’re here), the PCs will eventually be brought before one of the power brokers of the city – and, conveniently, all of these folks want the demon lords stopped as well, so the characters are escorted to Gromph’s sanctum so they can break into it.
Chapter 16: The Fetid Wedding (~5 pages) – This chapter is both awesome and out of place. It is the culmination of all things fungus-related, as Zuggtmoy seeks to “marry” Araumycos, the super-size fungus that covers hundreds of miles of the Underdark. The PCs will have the opportunity to interfere, distracting Zuggtmoy so that she loses when Juiblex attacks, and then the PCs can finish off the weakened ooze demon lord. But by this point the characters have everything they need for Vizeran to do the ritual and just finish off all of the demon lords. And the plot with Zuggtmoy and Juiblex (let them fight, then finish off the winner) is exactly what the PCs are going to do in the next chapter. The GM might want to consider switching chapter 15 and 16, upping the pressure as, when in Menzoberranzan, the PCs learn about Vizeran’s little fibs.
Chapter 17: Against the Demon Lords (~5 pages) – The fib told by Vizeran is where the characters need to be for the ritual to work. Vizeran hates Lolth and Menzoberranzan, and he wants the PCs to take a ritual object back into the city so that it is the location of the battle of the demon lords. However, the characters will already have learned by this point that Vizeran lied about this, and the PCs can basically pick some deserted location to get trashed by the fight. They still need Vizeran to cooperate, so it will be up to the PCs whether they simply lie to the archmage about how they’re going back to Menzoberranzan, or if he finds out and he grumpily accepts their refusal. I think the presumption is that the PCs aren’t going to want to go back to Menzoberranzan, which they just recently left, although I could see characters arguing that destroying a hive of scum and villainy might not be the worst thing for the health of everyone else in the Underdark. Wherever they choose, the demons will come, they will battle, and Demogorgon will come out on top, at which point the PCs will have to face him. It is left to the DM whether the PCs are able to do this at full strength, or if they’ve had to fight some demons beforehand.
Appendix A: Modifying Backgrounds (1 page) – Some substitute features and bonds to tie the characters into the Underdark. I usually think these are a great idea, but they may not be here because things like extra survival abilities in the Underdark somewhat cut against the sense of mystery, horror, and danger of that setting.
Appendix B (Magic Items) and Appendix C (Creatures) (~10 pages) – Pretty self-explanatory.
Appendix D: Demon Lords (~20 pages) – Here one can find full write-ups of all of the demon lords. These write-ups are designed for general use, not really in this campaign. The characters only directly fight a couple of demon lords, and they are always weakened from prior combat and without the use of their Lair abilities.
There are just a lot of really, really good little encounters in here. Even if one isn’t interested in running the overarching campaign, there are quite a few encounters or small dungeons that would be great to drop into many games.
One thing I really like to see in Out of the Abyss was consequences for actions. As I read Out of the Abyss it reminded me of the great flaw of the Rise of Tiamat, which was that it had this involved system where the PCs’ actions would influence various factions to support them (or not) in their quest against the Dragon Queen – but then they got to climax of the campaign, and none of that mattered at all. In Out of the Abyss there are also a lot of bits of aid that the characters might pick up along the way, and it all actually matters in specific ways – and in ways that do not get in the way or take the spotlight off of the PCs. For example, during the confrontation with the Pudding King in Blingdenstone, if the PCs had acquired necessary ingredients for a certain quest, then their equipment has been treated and is immune to the corrosive effects of some oozes.
The plot hook filled NPC companions in general are also a great inclusion I’d like to see more of in long-term campaigns like this.