D&D 5e Review: Out of the Abyss

Hot on the heels of GenCon (and just missing the convention season) is the new Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game book, Out of the Abyss, which tells the tale of a demonic invasion of the Underdark and the efforts of a ragtag band of adventurers to survive the horrors of the subterranean world before attempting to defeat this hideous evil.

What It Isoutoftheabyss

This is a 255-page hardcover book written by Green Ronin and produced by Wizards of the Coast. This is the third mega-adventure 5th Edition (fourth if you count the Sundering series) and part of the Rage of Demons storyline. It is a full colour adventure product set in the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms.

The adventure takes characters all the way from 1st level to somewhere in the range of 15th level. 220-pages of this product are dedicated to the adventure and adventure content, making the tale much longer than the past two adventures, having 30+ more pages of adventure than Tyranny of Dragons.

The Good

OotA1Somewhat surprisingly, there’s no Drizzt. When the storyline was announced there was the worry players would be playing second fiddle to Drizzt, being his sidekicks or helpers. WotC commented that the player characters would be the heroes of Out of the Abyss but there was still Drizzt-worry. Now we know that the PCs are self-made heroes unconnected to any atypically heroic drow. Drizzt gets name-dropped in the background of a few events, but never makes a real appearance (apart from reports of a random encounter leading to a “drow with two scimitars”, although I never saw that).

Out of the Abyss jumps right into the adventure. There’s no background, no pages of backstory the PCs will never discover, no elaborate set-up. The PCs are captured and now have to escape. GO! It’s a solid opening.  

The book details most of the important demon lords, including statblocks, backgrounds, lair effects, and unique madnesses that result from proximity to the demon. There’s a lot of demon lord all over this book. The past two storylines have been great excuses to include statblocks for noteworthy villains, and this takes that concept and turns it up to 11 with eight demon lords receiving write-ups (Demogorgon, Graz’zt, Juiblex, Orcus, Baphomet, Fraz-Urb’luu, Yeenoghu, and Zuggtmoy).

In addition to the demon lords, there are a few new monsters, which is always good. The book brings back the derro, has some new duergar and troglodytes, more myconid spore servants, some awakened plants, strider spiders, and it surprisingly reintroduces the evil sentient mantas, the ixitxachitl, both regular and vampiric. I never expected to see the manta dudes again, despite them being around since OD&D. There’s also five NPCs with unique statblocks.

This is the first of the storylines to feel like it truly belongs in the Forgotten Realms. Tyranny of Dragons was super generic and could have been set anywhere, while Elemental Evil was an update of a Greyhawk adventure. Neither really built on existing Realmslore and actually changed the world to fit the story. The setting of the sprawling multi-nation Underdark is very Realmsian (despite being created by Gygax  for Greyhawk), and the book expands on or uses events, characters, and locations featured in FR novels & setting material. This story really fits the world.

The adventure is a loose sandbox. Kinda. Really, if pressed I’d say it’s more a nonlinear adventure than a true sandbox, but that could be argued as a semantic difference. There’s definitely some expectations that the Dungeon Master will guide the players to the various encounter location, but there’s some potential freedom in order and structure. The players can pick their route through the chapters, and there are lots of random encounter tables, and a few filler encounters to disperse throughout the travels.

Rage-of-Demons-Key-Art-Drizzt-vs.-DemogorgonThe tone of the adventure is excellent. I was worried by the implied “whimsey” of the story, but it works. There’s a lot of focus on the corrupting effects of the various demon lords, as they twist creatures and drive people insane. This is excellent, as it means the opponents of the players can be a variety of creatures and not just waves of demons. (Actually, demon encounters are paradoxically somewhat rare.) The hyped Alice in Wonderland vibe seems to be regular encountering strange but largely incidental non-player characters. The PCs just come across these odd and kooky and somewhat deranged figures on a regular basis, and then move on and meet someone new. That is very Alice – especially since they’re all quite mad – but also has a Wizard of Oz or Phantom Tollbooth structure. The players also being with a small entourage that can grow and shrink as they adventure (I might have preferred them starting alone and slowly gathering companions for more of an Oz vibe). There’s even a Through the Looking Glass/ Ozma of Oz moment where the heroes have to choose to return to the magical world they left behind. It’s a nice change of pace, returning as badass conquerors leading an expedition rather than fleeing refugees.

Because the adventure is firmly set in the Realms, it is trickier to pull apart the adventure for locations and encounters. Especially since many are named and established places. Except for the NPCs. The supporting characters are easy to steal. The book is also loaded with inspiration and funky ideas, so it’s worth reading just for that. And there are still a number of small “dungeons” that could be swiped wholesale and just reflavoured or given a new background.

The adventure is filled with lots of good roleplaying tips. And not just for characters, but for entire races and settlements. It gives you advice on portraying various groups, which is useful for DMs, even those not running the adventure.

The book is a good guide for Underdark adventuring, with survival rules, locations, terrain, random encounters, and loads of new fungi. Between this content, the roleplaying notes, and the NPCs, Out of the Abyss is a must-buy book for any DM planning a lengthy bit of adventuring in the Underdark.

The Bad

OotA2There’s no Drizzt. Yeah, this is both a pro and a con. The advertising and hype for the Rage of Demons storyline is very Drizzt-centric with the key art being Drizzt fighting Demogorgon. One of the taglines was “fight alongside Drizzt.” I can see Drizzt fans being disappointed with this product, and there’s not even a statblock included for DMs who do want to use him in their game.

There is a LOT of information to work through in this book. Sandboxes be tricky like that, since the party might go a couple different directions. The chapters and related scenes are large with a lot of reading, and details spread out over multiple pages. Sometimes there’s cross referencing, and directions to more details, and other times you just have to flip. The absence of an index really hurts a book this size, as does the lack of referential page numbers. I’m also spoiled from other companies having cheap PDFs of their APs; my past attempts at running large prepublished campaigns have been made significantly easier with a searchable document. The continued lack of PDFs and digital support for D&D products is a huge turn off.

There’s no suggested level range for each chapters. This aids the sandbox but doesn’t really give the DM an idea of the challenge. Since 5e encounters don’t advertise their theoretical difficulty like 3e and 4e encounters, there’s no yardstick for challenge. This also makes it harder to decide how much to customize encounters for a larger and smaller party, or what level range to use a chunk of the adventure if pulling it out for inspiration or a home game sidequest.

There’s little new crunch with the book, and almost none of it for players. The new monsters are good but there isn’t many, only there is only a half dozen new magic items (many reflavoured or adjusted existing items). There’s no new spells and, unlike Princes of the Apocalypse, there’s no new race or player content. This is only a minor complaint as adventures should be for the DM and not the player. However, there’s not even a free PDF of options for the new storyline (like for Elemental Evil) and the expansion book – Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide – is not out for a couple months. A brief PDF “preview” would have been nice, especially any content aimed at the Underdark. Something for this season of Encounters.

While the book features *most* of the classic A-list demon lords, there are some absent demon lords. It’s missing Lolth (who is a god, but still a small part of the adventure) and it’s also missing the 1st Edition allumns Dagon, Pazuzu, and Kostchtchie. But Wikipedia has 122 demon lords listed and it’s only one book, so not everyone can be featured. Given WotC is unlikely to have a second demon-centric storyline anytime soon, the missing lords are unlikely to make an appearance anytime soon. (It’s the kind of content that would have been great to coordinate with a magazine, but Dragon+ doesn’t seem to do that sort of thing.)

Not all the demon lords are even featured in the adventure. Graz’zt and Orcus are only mentioned, with the former’s “scheme” and activities being absent. Yeenoghu has a small cameo, Baphomet is mentioned but not seen, and Fraz-Urb’luu has an impact but is effectively bodiless. Lolth, who is not given statblocks, plays a larger role in the adventure than Orcus who was given some key love in the trailer. Zuggtmoy is really presented as the villain of the story, and Juiblex is also given some attention. Stopping Zuggtmoy’s evil scheme is arguably the climax, with everything else being wrap-up and denouement. It’s her story and everyone else is superfluous.

Now, arguably, this focus is okay. Zuggtmoy needs some love. It means this storyline feels like the first one that *could* spill out into multiple locations and have multiple stories occurring: Neverwinter, Sword Coast Legends, the novels, and the season of Expeditions could all tell their “demons in the Underdark” story while still allowing the PCs of the RPG to be the big heroes that save the Realms. Unlike Tyranny of Dragons where the MMO told the same story as the RPG (killing Tiamat) or Elemental Evil where the threat was localized and storyline connections were coincidental. It really encourages people to seek out the other media to experience the story. I’m curious what’s up with Orcus and the mind flayers and would like to read into that. But I have no idea where that story is told. Cross marketing works best when you tell people what is happening where.

The Ugly

OotA4I’m a little disappointed by the end of the beginning. Escaping from the drow in the opening doesn’t empower PCs. It’s really set-up so they need to be let out and assisted in their escape. A good DM can reward some creative thinking, but some more set-up and suggestions for how to escape and initially gather gear would be nice.

The book doesn’t provide any reasons or suggestion for the capture of the PCs. Or a hand-wavy justification for why any potential elves in the party were not killed on sight.

There’s no real boss fight/climax to the end of Encounters’ season. It ends with the (dun dun dummmm) moment where demogorgon is revealed to be in the underdark, and that a demon lord is free in the Realms. Which falls flat if the players don’t know who demogorgon is, or that demon lords don’t normally roam around the underworld, or the players have read anything at all ever about this season of Encounters.

There are a handful of allied NPCs on pages 130-31, which are formatted for copying and cutting out. (Thankfully, the book also grants permission to copy.) But copying from the middle of a hardcover book often leads to a dark, blurry mess and not everyone has access to a photocopier. But almost everyone has access to a B+W printer, either at home, at work, or at a printshop. This needs to be a separate downloadable handout.

Speaking of downloadable add-ons, this product does not mention a free rules download, like the one that accompanied Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse that allows the adventure to be run with just the Basic D&D rules. The latter came out a day after the street date of the book. However, at the time of this writing, it is a few days after the street date of Out of the Abyss and the free Basic PDF is still absent. While this could be fixed at any time, right now it is still a complaint and problem with the book: the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide are required.

The maps in the book are good. Most are done by the same cartographer as the Tyranny of Dragons book, but they are much cleaner and fewer duds. However, a different cartographer does the map of the Underdark, which is so-so. Doing a subterranean map is tricky, given the 3-dimensions, so most just have surface map with the regions But this map feels like an awkward coloured mess, that makes the different regions unclear and the routes between locations vague. It really didn’t wow me.

One of the various NPC factions that was previewed was the Society of brilliance, a group of disparate outsiders working together for the good of the Underdark. They’re odd but interesting, but they aren’t given much attention. They all have headshots but only appear a couple times and aren’t ever given what feels like a complete writeup. Their first potential appearance is a random encounter that is unlikely to occur.

There’s an awesome piece of art on page 132, ostensibly of Mantol-Derith. It’s really cool. But it totally doesn’t match the map on page 134. Yeah… that’s a big shame.

The Awesome

OotA3The end of the adventure ends with a demon lord smackdown. Either demogorgon is the last demon lord standing by default, or the players can each take control a demon lord for a mass battle royale, with the PCs facing off against the injured victor. It’s a fun idea.  

Much of the first half of the adventure involves the PCs being pursued by the drow, which is neat and can add a nice feeling of tension and pressure. There could maybe have been a more ways of having the drow catch up, such as the PCs taking a long rest after less than 8 or 16 hours. There are a number of times the pursuit is worked into other scenes and locales, which is nice. The pursuit mechanic (and hook) is a neat concept to steal even if not running this adventure. It might not be worth the full purchase of the book, but for a DM planning on having their party chased by a recurring enemy, this can offer some inspiration.

The monster appendix at the back has both simple and complex new duergar. Most use regular Monster Manual statblocks, albeit modified with different hit points or attack options, but a few that employ larger changes – like the duergar soul blade – have full statblocks. Oh, these are also the classic duergar with a dash of psionics, and not dwarven tieflings with beard quills.

The book ends with alternate bonds that give PCs small adventure hooks or a connection to the Underdark and the adventure. These are very cool, and I’d recommend having every PC gain one as a secondary bond.

The party has two opportunities to gain monster eggs, which grow over a period of months. This would normally be a non-event, but there is a couple months of dead time allowing ample opportunity for the eggs to hatch and the critter to grow. This is cool and a unique treasure.

The featured duergar city has smog problem and an associated disease. This looks well-designed and is fun for any overly polluted city, or toxic environments like a volcanic cave or noxious swamp.

There’s lots of myconid action in the adventure, which is nice to see as they’re a seldom used race. I have a fondness for them (and the quaggoth) that dates back to the Monstrous Manual, which has influenced a lot of what I consider cool and iconic. Between this, Rumpadump and Stool, and Zuggtmoy’s scheme to remake the Underdark in her image, this is really the mushroomfolk adventure

There are tones of random encounter tables, which are very detailed. And not just combat encounters but likely social encounters, strange environments, and more. Every other chapter has a few random encounter tables.

There’s a fat dragon that’s part of a guild that keeps forges lit. That’s pretty darn cool. And one of the random encounter tables has a rocktopus! That’s just fun, and a neat way of taking a non-standard monster that many PCs might not fight and sticking it in an unexpected place.

A few of the larger dungeons have a full-page map, with sections reprinted later as an “art insert” when appropriate for that subsection. It’s a great way to get the maps to the forefront and being usable without lots of page flipping. It’s a really inspired idea I hope sees use in future products. It recalls the delve formatting without dedicating set pages to a section of the dungeon.

And as a final though, Vizeran DeVir. The curious drow who initiated the conflict of Princes of the Apocalypse, appears again in this adventure. This time he helps the PCs send the demons back to the Abyss. I expect we’ll see more of him in the future.

Final Thoughts

I’ve played a lot of APs of late. Most from Paizo. I’m tired of running APs and want to do some homebrew stuff… but I want to run Out of the Abyss.

I’ve read WotC’s past offerings. They’re okay and a good source of inspiration, full of content to steal. I’ve never liked one of them enough to run straight… but I want to run Out of the Abyss.

It’s good. There are oddities and problems but it’s really good. I’m uncertain how easy it would be to run for a new Dungeon Master, but it starts off simple enough that it should ease DMs into the craziness. It should be easy enough to manage in the beginning, especially with the absence of a background lore dump. The hardest part might be the NPCs. Because there are a lot of them to manage. Regardless, it’s the best of the storyline adventures. Hands down.

 

 

Shameless Plug

front-Cover

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase. The electronic copy is available on Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspaceand Amazon. Purchases from DriveThru especially allow me to purchase new PDFs for review purposes.

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