Review: Out of the Abyss

If you’re looking for material to loot for your home game, this book is solid gold: evocative NPCs, a great variety of locations and plot threads, a superb mixture of railroady adventure path-style and wide-open exploration, and some incredibly iconic villains are the bread and butter of Out of the Abyss. But if you’re looking for a campaign to run from start to finish, the organization of topics and internal referencing is atrocious, and the adventure kicks in without preamble. DMs will be forced to put a lot of elbow grease into running this thing; expect a lot of note-taking, index-writing, and on-the-fly page-flipping. Luckily, it’s a great adventure, so it’s worth the work if you enjoy the prep phase of DMing. Even better, other folks have already put in the work for enterprising DMs, and that kicks this over the fence from Meh to Thumbs Up!

Rating: Content 3/5 and Form 4/5.

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Read on for the full review!

Out of the Abyss

Out of the Abyss

Form (4/5)

In typical Wizards of the Coast form, this book is extremely pretty, and of ultra-high-quality materials. The maps and artwork are handsome, and there’s even a few hand-out style thingies tucked in various sections, including NPC statblocks set up as printable cards that can be used by the players for henchmen or backup characters, which is a neat twist; photocopy ’em and you’re ready to play!

Given the inherent “alienness” of the adventuring locales, it’d be nice to have useful Underdark lore in a player-friendly format for quick referencing when picking up these characters, or introducing new characters later on after one of the many chances for a TPK, but that’s a somewhat minor quibble, I suppose, like asking for more pregenerated player characters or something.

A note on the maps: generally speaking, the stuff you need to know is clear as day and makes sense. But there’s often a lot of garbage in and around the important stuff, including weird symbols, or bizarre layouts for close-up images or unconnected sections, creating a really muddy feel to some of the maps. Look at all the noise in the background of The Oozing Temple map, for instance:

Oozing Temple

Oozing Temple

Meanwhile, the city of Gracklstugh — which is specifically a fairly monotonous, ugly place — actually has a much cleaner, clearer map without all sorts of noise and random garbage cluttering up the design:

Gracklstugh

Gracklstugh

Aside from that, the artwork is incredibly good. Below is a picture of a bizarre shrine in Sloobludop (see The Darklake chapter), but throughout this article you’ll see the killer NPC character art. This stuff is alien and just a little bit humorous in spots, but still depict dark affectations and insanities that afflict many of the characters, thanks to the presence of the demon lords in the Underdark.

Out of the Abyss

Gross, man!

The book ends with 5 pages of concept art in an Afterword section. You’ll see character designs for derro, deep gnomes, duergar and drow, as well as some of the named NPCs and a ton of cool shots of weird Underdark architecture.

Out of the Abyss Table of Contents

Out of the Abyss Table of Contents

Content (3/5)

Wizards of the Coast continues their “partnership adventure path” style of hardcovers with Out of the Abyss, joining forces with Green Ronin (known to have dealings with Fiends in the past!) to bring on an adventure set entirely in the Underdark of Faerun. It features the Drow as catalysts, and eventually pits the player characters directly against (a) Demon Lord(s) (or two) as they invade the material plane and tear up Menzoberranzan and other iconic subterranean areas. Out of the Abyss does a lot well: evocative NPCs, a great variety of locations and plot threads, a superb mixture of railroady adventure path-style and wide-open exploration, and some incredibly iconic villains. In fact, there’s suggestions on running battles where the players take control of the Demon Lords to determine who their characters will then face later on!

Just as there’s always a “butt” somewhere nearby, there’s a “but” right here, too.

Organization is absolutely atrocious. The book starts with a cold open in which we find the PCs imprisoned by drow, their gear missing and a number of oddball monstrous NPCs thrown in with their lot. An adventure summary is missing entirely, and you’re not going to find any sort of “connective tissue” for quite some time, despite heavy use of name-dropping later material right from the get-go:

Like, there’s this demon-tainted madness, and obviously there’s that one high-level drow who’s done something to cause some demons to be somewhere, and then there’s these places that some people kinda might know a little about. Oh, and one time, these demons showed up, and fought some people who imprisoned some guys. I think some of them were the Player Characters.

–Not an actual quote.

Seriously, though, that’s what it felt like reading the opening pages of this adventure for the first time.

There’s no index of characters, no glossary of nothing, nor an overview of who’s what and where’s why. You’re thrown into it as clueless as your 1st-level PC captives. But once you’ve given up hope on a summary or page references and just read the damn thing, you’ve got yourself a wild and wooly time. (And, FYI, I created an NPC Index, among other things.)

Chapter by Chapter

Prisoners of the Drow

The adventure begins with the player characters cooling their heels in a jail cell along with a motley crew of pretty whacked-out NPCs, all of them prisoners of a drow garrison called Velkynvelve. The NPC prisonmates and the drow wardens are described in useful, succinct detail, with just enough history to give them personality and enough personality to make roleplaying them unique and fun. The fellow prisoners get simple, clear goals that can help direct the adventure, but without any overall preamble to the adventure, there are bits and pieces that are vague. This creates a situation where more than a few developments you’ll discover later on come as a surprise, so you absolutely have to read the whole book and make sure to look out for that sort of thing. Sarith is the big one, as he is far advanced in demon-tainted madness, and there’s a potential encounter in Chapter 4 that could just suddenly have him walk right outta the picture without recourse.

Some of Out of the Abyss' bizarre NPCs

Some of Out of the Abyss’ bizarre NPCs

There’s plenty of options for prison breaks, which is what this chapter hinges on, and with the constant drow-on-drow backstabbing as well as the eventuality of a demon attack on the garrison, the players could conceivably leave without a direct fight, though it’s unlikely. No matter what, they make it out…which makes you wonder why so much time is spent detailing the day-to-day operations of the prison camp. Well, as it turns out in the next chapter — and continuing through most of the rest of the adventure — the drow will pursue the party once they escape, in hopes of imprisoning them again. So it’s entirely likely the party will revisit this place if they slip up, and thus it’s great that they spent this much time detailing the prison and the activities that prisoners will be involved in to such a great level of detail. You’d have known that if there were a proper adventure summary…

Into Darkness

Chapter two is almost strictly a “here’s what happens when you explore the Underdark” sourcebook in its own right. You’ve got a section on crazy fungi (edible, crafting materials, traps, environmental features), a series of encounter tables that cover a wide variety of challenge levels, tons of terrain hazards (some of which include additional wandering monsters), and the Pursuit rules that define how the drow will hunt the players (and any surviving NPCs) down like dogs (see below for more on this). It’s all really strong stuff, though quite randomly, you’ll note that there’s even more fungi described later in the book — mushrooms that enlarge or shrink a character show up in the Gracklstugh area, specifically in the Whorlstone Caverns — so you can’t be 100% certain that referencing this area is going to provide you with the info you need during gameplay. So, about that index…

Nope.

Pursuit & Chase Rules: Steal These Today!

A significant event throughout much of the adventure is that the drow will pursue them bring them back into captivity. For this purpose there’s a detailed and logical system for tracking pursuit, for altering the parameters of the chase using terrain, traps, or smart thinking of any kind, and some neat consequences if pursuit is abandoned or if the party is finally caught. This setup is easily ripped for long-term chases, and neatly sit on top of or separate from the Chase rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. While most of the parameters are covered succinctly in this chapter, you will find special situations that might alter things in later chapters, but they make sense in the areas where they occur, as they truly are more complicated and more specialized circumstances that will only come up if the party stops in those places.

One issue: until the players are caught the first time, there’s a good chance they won’t know they are being pursued. That’s not entirely an oversight, as it’s perfectly plausible the party doesn’t know that the chase is on, but it’s also easily fixed with either a short cut-scene, a nightmare (dreams are an important factor in this adventure so that’s an obvious use for them), or perhaps a quick verbal threat from the drow as the PCs make good on their escape:

The drow priestess sees you fleeing down the side-tunnel. Raising a fist, she cries out, “I’ll get you yet, you wascally wabbits!”

Easy-peasy, but quite possibly necessary, especially for newer players who may think they’ve outsmarted the drow and waste a bunch of time exploring the Underdark wilderness. Having a known timer hanging over them will greatly change how they react to things, so you have to consider how up-front you want to be about its existence.

Yuk Yuk and Spiderbait

Yuk Yuk and Spiderbait

The Darklake

This chapter is where the players get to see first-hand that a Demon Lord is active in the Underdark, and that insanity reigns — if the DM plays things right. The party ends up sloshing around a gigantic lake in the Underdark until they arrive at the waterfront kuo-toa village of Sloobludop, where they can quickly get involved in the politics of rival faiths. A number of kuo-toa have begun to worship Demogorgon, and they appear to summon him right in front of the party, at which point he Godzillas right through the village. The players can’t really do a whole lot during this event, but leading up to it is a ton of cool random encounters and a village filled with unpronounceably-named NPCs that are clearly at each other’s throats over the fact that their “old ways” have been subsumed by this new cult to — as they call him, since they can’t pronounce human words — “Leemooggoogoon.” Those elements more than make up for the PCs just playing witness to Demogorgon’s destruction of the village, and there are encounter ideas outlined for dealing with this large-scale force-of-nature-style catastrophe.

Spell check in this chapter must’ve been a real pain!

Gracklstugh

Duergar and derro don’t really get along, but they live together (ish) in Gracklstugh, which I’m pretty certain is pronounced GRAK-al-STEW. This is a full on Underdark city that is lovingly detailed, and has an absolutely awesome society that will put the players on edge, since its regularly patrolled and policed by invisible dwarves! Nobody can know for sure (short of having true sight or some anti-invisibility magic) if they are being spied upon, so there’s a lot of fear in this city. It’s very cool, and speaks to the racial abilities of these evil creatures very, very well.

Of course, there’s a problem that becomes readily apparent, moreso here than in Sloobludop, and that’s the fact that the demon-tainted madness isn’t really going to be obvious unless characters know how the NPCs acted normally, before the spread of the madness. While the adventure points out plenty of points where an NPC traveling with the party might be able to mention, “Hey, these duergar are openly accepting bribes, which is highly unlike them,” that’s really different from showing the players that things are changing, and it hinges on all of the friendly NPCs surviving up to this point…and being trustworthy enough that the players don’t immediately suspect them of selling them a line of bullshit.

Neverlight Grove

Although Darklake was pretty weird, Neverlight Grove is perhaps the most alien location in the entire adventure. It’s a miles-long mushroom forest with some pretty gnarly encounters centered around the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style horror that surrounds spore servants, which are fungal-infected mindless zombies enslaved by the myconids. This gets amped up to 11 when you factor in that a distant section of Neverlight has become home to Zuggtmoy — unsurprisingly — and she is planning a wedding of sorts. The party only gets a hint at what the wedding is about here, instead witnessing insanity overcome many of the myconids living here and experiencing horrifying nightmare visions of the toll that the Demon Lords’ presence is causing.

Society of Brilliance

Society of Brilliance

Blingdenstone

A deep gnome settlement, Blingdenstone is rife with rivalries and warfare on a much more immediate scale than some of the earlier areas. There’s a warren of lycanthropes that are fighting with the deep gnomes, plus an incursion of oozes led by a singular being calling itself The Pudding King and seeking to conquer the whole area in the name of Juiblex. Some novel-based history that I know nothing about informs the area, and because of that, there’s a ton of areas that are haunted by ghosts of former deep gnome residents, which adds an extra layer of cool: many of the undead here are not framed as enemies, but instead as restless spirits to be interacted with and who can help the deep gnomes or the players come to a better understanding of the region and events here.

Escape from the Underdark

Escape from the Underdark closes out the drow pursuit initiated in Chapter 2, and sees the players finding some means of escaping the Underdark (only to be pulled back in the next chapter, but with some much needed downtime in-between). Oddly, this chapter fills in a lot of information about order-of-events for the previous chapters up to this point, and in that way proves that the advice “read this whole book through first before running it” is good advice indeed, though I think that’s a flaw in its layout and writing rather than a necessary evil we must always contend with as Dungeon Masters. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Audience in Gauntlgrym

This chapter is (unintentional) garbage meant to serve as a means of gaining hirelings & henchmen for the party, and to cater to the roleplaying-happy among the players. The problem — really, several problems — is that there is only the weakest level of conflict between the parties that the players must negotiate with, and it’s all set against the backdrop of a mammoth underground city that is poorly described, completely unmapped, and where any encounters outside of the diplomatic talks rely in part on timing mechanisms that seem like they would require certain information that simply isn’t there (namely maps and more local organization). After this point in the adventure, the players could, with almost no effort, end up with nearly two dozen NPCs accompanying them (in addition to any that might have been convinced to stick with them from the initial prisoner group). Both the previous chapter and this one offer months and then weeks and just to top it all off a few extra days of downtime activities; good grief that’s a lot! Unfortunately, it presents this downtime as if the party might need that time for rest and recovery, which is ridiculous, because there’s very little action here that might threaten their supplies or hit points.

Mantol-Derith

So Fraz-Urb’luu was summoned by Gromph into the vicinity of Mantol-Derith and immediately set about sowing discord among–

Wait, who’s Gromph? Well, I’m not certain at this point in the book, because I’m pretty sure this is the first time his name comes up. As it turns out, he’s THE ENTIRE REASON THIS ADVENTURE IS EVEN A THING, because he’s the jackanapes that summoned the demon lords into the Underdark. Of course, no one reading this adventure would know that until, oh, maybe Chapter 11: Gravenhollow. Good grief.

This chapter is a strange one, meant to play up the insanity and the weirdness that affects the inhabitants of the Underdark, but unlike Darklake and Neverlight Grove, there is no direct interaction with one of the Demon Lords, nor their servants. It acts as a sort of side-trek, wherein the party simply needs to chat it up with some Zhentarim in order to proceed, but adds nothing to the larger story, and fills in absolutely none of the background plot. That’s all reserved for Gravenhollow, which makes sense…and makes this chapter feel all the more pointless.

Drow character designs

Drow character designs

Descent into the Depths

This chapter, much like Chapter 2, is the “wilderness exploration” chapter. It replaces the random encounter tables from Chapter 2 with more level-appropriate ones, talks a bit about managing the potentially huge expeditionary force that the PCs are now in control of, and updates us with a SitRep on the major areas of earlier chapters (plus a quick blurb on Menzoberranzan that pretty much amounts to “here are some fights to keep the party out of the city”). There’s some good material in there, but as none of it cuts down the bookkeeping of having a dozen or so NPCs in the party, it seems slightly under-utilized.

Gravenhollow

Gravenhollow is a pretty awesome library that would fit almost just as well in a Planescape Campaign Setting product as it does here, and that’s a huge plus in my book. It’s an ever-shifting library, movement within it measured as much by intent as it is by actual squares. Presided over by some enigmatic stone giants and their galeb duhr, golem, and basilisk minions, it’s likely to remain a place of peaceful encounters and plot dumps, which are badly needed in this adventure anyway.

The coolest sequence here is that the players can interact with what are effectively holograms of major NPCs of the Forgotten Realms world, including Elminster, Bruenor, Alustriel Silverhand, the Demon Lord Graz’zt, and some of the NPCs from other portions of this adventure. The advice is great, but if you’re a Realmslore fanatic, this portion will really sing for you and your group.

Ultimately, the party meets up with Vizeran DeVir, a drow who knows what’s going on and has a plan to stop the Demon Lords. Of course, he’s not fully on-the-level with the party, which is bound to create problems if they players sense this and start fighting with him before they get enough plot info, but the adventure does note this and gives a bit of advice on how to handle such a situation…a situation that I think like 90% of D&D groups would have to deal with.

The Tower of Vengeance

From here on out, the players are following up on info and plans from Vizeran, or that they pick up in Gravenhollow through some other means. The Tower of Vengeance is totally focused on Vizeran info-dumping and revealing his plan, and as the crux of the rest of this adventure, is super-important. Of course, it’s also a big-time railroad to hing the whole adventure around this, so you might be getting a few pages of useless info if the party doesn’t want to chill in a drow’s magical tower.

The Wormwrithings and The Labyrinth

These two chapters are major dungeon crawls to find monster parts or items that Vizeran the drow wants in order to enact a ritual to boot the Demon Lords out of Faerun and back to the Abyss. They are both really good sections filled with some evocative stuff, like:

  • Stealing purple worm eggs from a series of tunnels bored out by the worms themselves.
  • Two armies of battling troglodytes.
  • A tomb for fallen angels that can provide benefits or inflict insanity on the characters.
  • A device called the Maze Engine that is the object of lost modrons (with a great callback to the 2nd edition Planescape adventure The Great Modron March).

The City of Spiders

The party finally gets to Menzoberranzan! The goal here is to infiltrate the city and get their hands on the grimoire of Gromphe Baenre, who started this whole shebang by summoning the Demon Lords with accidentally-over-powered summoning magic (thanks the faerzress that suffuses portions of the Underdark). This chapter is a pretty strong lowdown on the layout of the City of Spiders, and acts as a pseudo-urban crawl to find Gromphe’s tower, get in and get out, with a city full of antagonistic drow. The party may still be working with a dozen NPCs or so, making this a potentially huge operation that will tax all but the most organized DMs and players, so be very, very prepared when running this section. It’ll be rewarding though, as the whole section is written very clearly and laid out well.

The Fetid Wedding

Just before the big showdown between the Demon Lords, this chapter presents one of the many possible battles between Demon Lords that can lead up to the finale. In this chapter, the party heads to Araumycos — a giant, underground fungal forest that is effectively one immense being — and bear witness to the wedding hinted at during their stay in Neverlight Grove, in which Zuggtmoy attempts some crazy ritual to bond with Araumycos’ power.

Nothing goes without a hitch when chaos is involved, so of course Juiblex shows up with his ooze minions, and thus battle is joined. With the massive party of NPCs at the party’s beck and call, this could turn into a massive battle, but ultimately all of those forces can be hand-waved and you can simply pit the PCs against a Demon Lord or two, and since the Demon Lords will be at each other’s throats, it’s easy enough for the party to get involved without getting the full brunt of attacks that would surely destroy them.

Orcus preview

Orcus preview, page 1

Against the Demon Lords

And now we’re at the end, with a massive showdown that is framed as a battle against Demogorgon. Of course, this chapter isn’t so straightforward as this, instead offering some stellar advice to turn an otherwise straightforward conflict into something much, much better.

  • Have each player run a Demon Lord, and have them duke it out to determine the final one that the PCs will then face.
  • Handling the huge NPC expeditionary force as battlefield complications and random event triggers throughout the conflict.
  • Rolling up random demon groups to fight as the party plays hide-and-seek with their Demon Lord of choice.

While these are all great options, one problem is that the actual physical location of the battlefield is so open that there’s no set battlemap, and no examples thereof. This is going to be problematic for any but an experienced DM when handling a conflict that likely will involve massive monsters (Huge or Gargantuan, in fact) and a ton of potential NPCs. If you run with the kind of party that likes your battlemaps and minis, this is going to be a lot of elbow grease to prep. If you’re more theater of the mind, then this will only be slightly less work, because either way you’ve got a lot of potential terrain hazards and things like that you need to come up with, but for which there aren’t many examples, unless you dig through earlier chapters for terrain encounters and repurpose them here.

Appendices

Appendix A: Modifying Backgrounds

This appendix provides a few Features that you can swap out with your Background’s in order to get a more “Underdark” feel. Deep Delver is all about navigating and foraging in the Underdark, while Underdark Experience gives you better chances of getting local lore. A table for Substitute Bonds gives you 10 Bonds you can roll for instead of using the ones from your Background of choice.

Appendix B: Magic Items

The items presented here are:

  • Dawnbringer, an intelligent, healing lightsaber.
  • Drow versions of the Cloak of Elvenkind (Piwafwi) and a similar cloak that also tacks on Fire Resistance.
  • Spell Gems, which store spells and allow you to cast them like a scroll.
  • Stonespeaker Crystals, which provide divinatory magic.
  • Wand of Viscid Globs, which is like a web spell-spraying wand.

There’s also a sidebar on Drowcraft items, which basically says that such items become inert if exposed to sunlight.

Appendix C: Creatures

There’s a healthy number of monsters added here, almost all of them Underdark monsters, which might be a bit disappointing if you’re looking for tons of demons. That said, it’s a strong offering of low-level monsters, featuring a ton of duergar, some more spore servants, and a few beasties.

Index of new monsters in Out of the Abyss

Index of new monsters in Out of the Abyss

Appendix D: Demon Lords

These guys (and gals) have to have their own section; anything else would be criminal!

Each Demon Lord featured in this section gets a 2-page spread, featuring a full statblock, Lair info and actions to give you an idea of what they’d be like on their home terrain in their Realm on whatever layer of the Abyss they inhabit, and a table of Madness-induced Flaws that characters pick up if they are subjected to the demon-tainted faerzress of the Underdark. This is all great info you can immediately use in any adventure where the Demon Lords make an appearance, or you simply want to use the Madness effects to enforce a specific theme.

The Demon Lords and their Challenge Ratings are:

  • Baphomet, CR 23
  • Demogorgon, CR 26
  • Fraz-Urb’luu, CR 23
  • Graz’zt, CR 24
  • Juiblex, CR 23
  • Orcus, CR 26
  • Yeenoghu, CR 24
  • Zuggtmoy, CR 23
Demon Lords of Out of the Abyss

Left to right: Yeenoghu, Graz’zt, Orcus, Zuggtmoy, Baphomet, Juiblex, Fraz-Urb’luu, Demogorgon, and finally, H.A.M. (Helpless Adventurer Man)

Stealability Should Be A Word

I’ve noted several times now that things are great for your homebrew game. Out of the Abyss is an adventure that’s a bit too linear to be truly replayable more than maybe once or twice, but the unique nature of some of the mechanical bits (the Pursuit rules) and the disparate adventure sites and settlements allows almost every chapter of this book to serve as its own little sourcebook for running them as adventure settings outside of the Rage of Demons story arc. Combined with just a couple choice products featuring the Underdark from Dungeon Master’s Guild, you could easily run a level 1-20 Underdark campaign with more ideas than you can shake a Mace of Disruption at.

Or, if you’re need of converting any adventures that feature Demon Lords, this is your go-to book. I’m looking at you, Rappan Athuk!

Orcus preview, page 2

Orcus preview, page 2

…And Now, Some Garbage

Over on Gale Force 9’s awful “I can’t get to a product page for individual products” website, there’s the standard Dungeon Master’s Screen for each official adventure, and that means there’s an Out of the Abyss Dungeon Master’s Screen as well, except it’s called a Rage of Demons DM Screen for reasons no mortal man can ever know (I get the storyline naming in theory, but not for this specific product). It’s got some useful info on it like GF9’s other screens, but it’s flimsy, features a random smattering of recycled artwork, and lacks information from the PHB and DMG, making it hyper-specialized. I can’t recommend a product that specific when it’s easy to come up with a couple sheets for printing out and throwing them in your Savage Worlds Customizable GM Screen or a similar setup, especially one that’s reusable and durable. In fact, look in the Resources section at the end of this review to find exactly that.

Out of the Abyss DM's Screen by Gale Force 9

Out of the Abyss DM’s Screen by Gale Force 9

Oh, and did I mention the lack of…

  1. …A proper introduction to the adventure, explaining where we are, who’s important, what they’ve done, and why it matters?
  2. …A centralized glossary or index of important Non-Player Characters, providing DMs with a quick blurb and/or page reference to the many important, named NPCs that crop up throughout the adventure?
  3. …An index, allowing for the quick and easy reference of certain specific sections or entries that are mentioned or are useful throughout the entire adventure, like the various special fungi, the Pursuit rules, NPCs, and smaller adventuring sites within or near the main locations that make up most of the chapter titles?

Having a wide-open, hexcrawl-like exploration adventure like this absolutely requires that DMs have working knowledge of the different adventuring sites, settlements, NPCs, factions, and events, and this adventure absolutely requires a DM to develop useful tools to keep this information straight. From the ground up, too, which is supremely annoying. (Unless you look at the next section, where the work’s already done for you!)

Resources


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