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Friday, January 8, 2016

Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss

Out of the Abyss is the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons adventure for the Rage of Demons storyline. In this article, I am going to review the book. I'm not going to go into too much detail, as I think I broke a brain vessel completing my guide to Out of the Abyss, which is meant to be an aid to DM's running the adventure.

I'm going to go over the good stuff first and then get to the bad stuff. I can say right off the bat that this is a pretty good adventure and is definitely worth getting. Even if you don't run it, there are tons of dungeons and encounters to pilfer for your own use.

You can buy this adventure on amazon here:

Out of the Abyss (D&D Accessory)

The Good

Starting off Captured

I think it is quite a classic D&D trope to have the heroes be captured by the bad guys and it's the group's job to escape using their own ingenuity. It's hard to do this in the middle of a campaign unless it happens organically, so it's a good choice by the authors to have things kick off already in prison.

I really like the dynamics between the drow captors, and I love how the group meets all these fellow prisoners and they have jobs that they are forced to do. I think it could have been laid out a bit better - I would have liked some more concrete information on the tasks. But overall, it's cool.

The NPCs and Madness 

One major element of this adventure is demonic madness. The heroes will have to roll many times on charts to see if they go insane for a while (and perhaps even permanently). That's pretty fun, and it's especially useful on NPCs. You can load up the madness on NPCs and have all sorts of hijinx.

I really like a lot of the NPCs the heroes start off with, particularly Stool and Jimjar (make sure to read the sidebar in chapter 17, as it gives Jimjar a really fascinating story to play with). If I had one criticism of the NPCs, it's that there aren't enough females. In fact, if I were to run this I am pretty sure I would make Sarith, the drow prisoner, female.

The Charts
I have a love/hate relationship with the random encounters. The adventure just wants you to roll for everything way too often. It is is very obvious that this will ruin your game at the table, because the DM will have to spend too much time rolling and looking things up.

But, I think that if the DM prepares these things ahead of time, then the journeys to the different areas of the Underdark will be a ton of fun. There's a lot of great encounters and I really appreciate how the authors went way out of their way to give us non-combat scenarios. It's not just fighting monsters - you're dodging cave-ins, meeting other lost people and examining weird, glowing mushrooms.

The Organization

One of my major beefs with the previous 5e adventures was with the way they were organized. This book still has major issues in that department, but some things have been fixed. If you remember in Rise of Tiamat, two chapters were combined into one chapter. How weird was that? And the coalition events that occurred throughout the campaign were all listed in a single chapter, rather than being placed chronologically in the book when they would take place.

Here, each chapter pretty much details the place the heroes are likely to go next. It's tricky because the adventure is supposed to be a sandbox. But I can tell they are tightening up the format a bit.

The Dungeons

This adventure has a bunch of dungeons and set-pieces that I find to be vastly superior to most of the other stuff published for 5e so far. This book is brimming over with creativity and it is astonishing how densely-packed this book is with hooks and ideas.

Here's a list of the things that I think you should definitely use even if you don't run this adventure:

The Oozing Temple: This is a really great mini-dungeon and I absolutely love the idea of the group befriending a semi-intelligent gelatinous cube. Oozes in general don't seem to get enough attention in D&D so I'm really glad to see this.

Sloobludop: I really hate spoiling this, but there's no way around it. The heroes are in a kuo toa village, and suddenly Demogorgon himself pops up out of the water and looms over everyone, intent on devouring his sacrifice. How awesome is that?

The Battle of Blingdenstone: Our heroes lead a small force of duergar in an attack on a cavern full of oozes. The adventurers must tear through 4 encounters' worth of oozes and slimes to get to their leader - The Pudding King. This is just awesome.

Gravenhollow: The whole idea of Gravenhollow is great. It's a magic library run by stone giants who have information on everything. The place is infected with spirit echoes of past travelers. This means that if the heroes come back to Gravenhollow, they might run into an echo of themselves. It's a great location that you could put in any campaign and it would stand out.

The Worm Nursery: Purple worms are one of those monsters that don't get a lot of focus. I never considered the idea of a purple worm dungeon being something worth doing. But it is. This dungeon is great. The whole thing comes together so well, with purple worms burrowing tunnels to connect to dungeon rooms as it is being explored, to climbing strands to steal an egg while drow hunters try to do the same - this is a dungeon that deserves to be used.

The Maze Engine: I love this thing. In general, I love random charts. I love modrons. I love combats where a random effect goes off every round. I love battles over a pit of magma. This has all of that. I love it and I am using it ASAP.  I would recommend that if you use it, you change some of the chart results as they are really wacky (being sent back in time to the beginning of the campaign?! Awesome, but no thanks).

Menzoberranzan: I've never been a Forgotten Realms guy so this city is all new to me. I think it is really well done, and I like a lot of the street encounters. Especially the roaming drow kids who give the heroes lewd gestures. And I also got a kick out of the statue of Lolth which, if a non-drow touches it, a spider swarm crawls out of its mouth and attacks. Also, the pillar that lights and heats the city is a really cool and clever idea.

The Final Encounter

I like the whole idea of getting the demon lords to fight each other. I think it's tricky to run, because the heroes are going to be high level and while they are meant to be close by to witness the battle, I get the idea the heroes will be using high-level spells to protect themselves and might not even witness it.

I also appreciate the notion that 'killing' the demon lords physical forms just sends their essence back to the Abyss. Maybe players won't like it, but I don't like the idea of these guys being killed too easily. Truly killing a major entity should involve something bigger, like how you have to destroy a lich's phylactery.

This way, you can 'kill' the bad guy but he's not gone forever.

The Bad

Please remember that I like this adventure. Don't take these criticisms as anything other than one guy's rambling. I haven't even run this, and I don't think I ever will. These are just my thoughts after going through the book with a fine-toothed comb and preparing it as if I was going to run it.

Tons of Homework

I have been developing a theory based on what I have seen in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse and this book. That theory is that the game designers who make these books don't run published adventures.

That makes sense, right? Game designers design games. It follows that their home campaign, if they have one, is full of material that they have created.

The problem then is that these designers don't have a feel for what a DM needs when they run a published adventure. The big selling point of these books is that all the work is done for you. I should be able to sit down, read a chapter, and then run it with few problems.

That simply cannot be done with this book. You will need to take extensive notes. You will have to map things out very carefully, and you'll need to look up a ton of spells, monsters, and traps.

Worse, there is no adventure summary. Do you want to know what happens in this adventure? Read 250 pages of tiny, tiny text and you'll find out. I can distinctly remember when Dungeon magazine started using adventure summaries at the start of each scenario and what a relief it was. That was in the mid-90's. Why have we taken 20 steps backward? A summary would take up a single page in the front of the book, and would save DMs a lot of agony.

Here's an example of the mentality that I am talking about. Very little thought seems to have gone in to how a DM is supposed to run an encounter full of things that need to be looked up ahead of time. Here are all of the spells/traps/monsters you need to look up in order to run Gromph's Outer Sanctum - a single room that the heroes need to get through (page 206):
  1. Arcane Lock
  2. Knock
  3. Continual Flame
  4. Fire Elemental
  5. Research spells that the heroes might use to figure out command words (to deactivate some of the traps)
  6. Dispel Magic
  7. Stone Golem (whose stat block will need to be modified to reflect his 4 arms, something you should do on paper in advance so you don't mess it up in play)
  8. Maze
  9. Glyph of Warding
  10. Bestow Curse
  11. Leomund's Secret Chest
That is one room! It's an important room, and it's an extreme example of what I am talking about. But can you imagine how long it would take you to prepare that properly? They are asking a lot of DMs who just don't have a lot of time to prepare, especially Adventurers League DMs who are going chapter-by-chapter.

No Page Numbers

You will notice something else in this book. Nothing is referred to by a page number. It's by chapter. Here's an example:

"Much of the party's travel through the Underdark is handled abstractly, using the rules and advice given in chapter 8, "Adventuring," of the Player's Handbook."

How inconvenient is that? Chapter 8?! You can't give me a page number? Worse, even when referring to something in this very same book, we're given a chapter rather than a page number.

I thought and thought about why they would have done it like this. In previous adventures, there was usually an instance or two of "page xx" getting published - an editor missed filling in a page number. I think there have also been instances where the wrong page number was put in the book. Did they just give up and decide to refer people to the chapter and let them figure it out from there?

The only conclusion I can come to is that maybe future printings of the Player's Handbook will include errata, and the extra content might change what page things are located on. So printing the chapter rather than the page number would prevent future discrepencies. But come on, you can't give me page numbers for the stuff in the very same book?

Random Encounters

This is another big reason why I think the people who made this book don't use published adventures. This adventure is overloaded with random encounters. There are vast stretches - we're talking weeks and weeks - of travel. Every single day of travel, the DM needs to:
  • Roll for encounters (and then scramble to get the stats ready).
  • Let the group roll for foraging (and know how those rules work, know how long the group can go without food, have the exhaustion rules ready and have the foraging fungus page bookmarked).
  • Roll to see if the group gets lost (and if they do, figure out how long they are lost for and have them roll again to see if they get on track).
  • Track the dark elves who are pursuing them (requiring you to be familiar with an entire subset of rules).
Every day. For weeks. A lot of new DMs are going to hit a wall when they try to handle this section.

What makes this so mind-boggling is the fact that Hoard of the Dragon Queen had a long travel section like this that most people hated! I can't believe that they did this again, and they didn't even give us a concise cheat sheet or guide to help us keep track of everything.

Months of Walking

That brings me to another thing. This adventure is FULL of walking. Walking through the Underdark. Worse, there's this faerzress energy that can hinder or even block teleportation. There is a part of this adventure where the group has to travel 200 miles from Gauntlgrym to Mantol-Derrith. Thats 33 days of walking with a horde of NPCs at their side. Then, soon after that, there is a trip to Gravenhollow that takes 60 days. And then you have to come all the way back!

I'm going to estimate that this campaign takes the heroes around 10 months in game to complete. Most of that time is spent walking. Let's think about this. The demon lords are trapped in the Underdark. Lolth has 10 months to take over their Abyssal domains. That's an awful lot of time to take over their realms, right?

And if the demon lords are in the Underdark for that long.. I mean, that's 10 months that Graz'zt has to infiltrate Menzoberranzan and wreak havoc (he doesn't - in fact, he doesn't do anything in this adventure). That's 10 months for Orcus to raise an undead army (he doesn't).

What exactly are the demon lords doing down there for all that time? Walking? Do they really move that slow?

It's not the end of the world or anything, but it will probably be noticed by the players. Bad guys pull off entire evil schemes in much less than 10 months in D&D.

The Grimoire and the Timmasks

If you remember, there have been very confusing errors in previous adventures. For example, the plot hook for Princes of the Apocalypse - the Mirabar delegates. It was quite the process of poring over that book to find out who they were, what they were doing, where they were going, who had captured them and where they were held.

What made it really hard was that the delegates had this dead body quest hook that had no resolution in the final printed product, and the final delegate was accidentally omitted from the final node printed in the book.

That was not a minor error. The delegates were the entire reason the heroes got involved in the storyline. The heroes were looking for Teresiel from level 1 to level 15, only for it to turn out that she's not imprisoned anywhere due to an editing oversight.

You would think after that happened, that people would take more care to get the important things correct in this book. Right?

Well. Deep into this adventure, we get to this major thing. Our heroes need to make a talisman. The wizard NPC tells us we also need a grimoire. The book then proceeds to contradict itself on whether the grimoire is needed to make the talisman. Here's what it says:

"...they have two goals in the City of Spiders: obtain Gromph Baenre's demon summoning grimoire, and place Vizeran's talisman in Menzoberranzan..."

Obviously this implies that the talisman is made without the grimoire. But on page 215 under "Readying the Plan", the components needed to create the talisman include:

"Gromph Baenre's grimoire (from Sorcere in chapter 15)".

Page 215 is very, very clear. It is among a list of "...components need to create the talisman...". And yet other parts of the book just as clearly show us that the talisman is made before the group even has the grimoire.

You, the DM are left digging through this giant book with no page references (only chapters!) trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The grimoire is the entire reason for going to Menzoberranzan. It's the point of an entire chapter. And we can't figure out what we need the grimoire for!

But that's not even all. There's the timmasks. They're mushroom ingredients to make the talisman. Where do our heroes find these? Actually, the heroes might have grabbed some randomly in the opening chapters, but they probably ate them. Here's how the timmasks we need are described deep into the book:

"Thirteen timmasks, also known as 'devil's mushrooms', sprouted from the footprint of a marilith, a balor, or a goristro - a lure to draw demons in."

OK.. so eventually in chapter 14, our heroes run into a goristro being beat up by Yeenoghu! Crazy, right? Well, there's a goristro. I guess this is where you get the timmasks. Right?

No. There is no mention of timmasks at all in that entire section.

So you keep reading, and you get to chapter 15, which talks as if the group already has all the ingredients. But they don't! Then you pore over the book again. Did you miss it? This is a dense text, maybe you glazed over for a second.

No, you didn't. The timmasks are mentioned again - in chapter 16. A chapter that, I assume, should be run before chapter 15. The timmasks are not found in the footprints of "...a marilith, a balor, or a goristro...". They are found in the remains of a battle between Zuggtmoy and Juiblex, mentioned in a paragraph that I almost entirely missed. It says:

"Additionally, the thirteen timmask mushrooms on the list of required components that Vizeran needs to create his dark heart talisman (see chapter 12)" - No page number! - "can be found in the aftermath of the failed wedding ceremony, sprouting in locations touched by Zuggtmoy or Juiblex."

Then, in chapter 17, we are given a CHECKLIST of the components. Why is that in the final chapter? Why is that not in chapter 12? Here's what it says about the timmasks:

"Thirteen timmasks sprouted from the footprint of a greater demon (from Araumycos's cavern in chapter 16, or elsewhere)."

OR ELSEWHERE?! Can you give us a hand here, people!?

This is why I believe that game designers don't run published adventures. If they did, they would not organize books like this. It is incredibly frustrating. The book should not be your enemy.

Most people running games do not have tons of spare time to dig through a book to find this stuff. Most don't even have the time to read ahead. In fact, many will assume they just missed something and they'll make up a way for the group to get the timmasks on the spot.

The whole point of a published adventure is so that the DM doesn't have to make anything up. It's all done for them.

The NPC Horde

Another problem with this adventure is that the group has a ton of NPCs with them. In the beginning, the heroes will likely be accompanied by freed slaves. There's about 8 of them.

It's a cool idea. But when you have 8 NPCs with you, that game is going to slow to a crawl unless you have a very prepared or experienced DM. And then, when you add in the fact that the DM is rolling random encounters, foraging, navigation checks, the game will become very, very boring.

On top of that, there's no scaling. 5 PCs and 8 NPCs versus 1d6 giant spiders? So... maybe 1 giant spider? 2? Versus 12 people? Those spiders will be dead so fast some PCs won't even get to roll to hit.

It gets worse in the second half of the book. The group will have 20+ NPCs with them. I am not kidding. Up to 25 NPCs. And these NPCs go with the group on that 60 day journey to Gravenhollow that you're supposed to roll out each day for.

Random encounters include 1d4 chasmes, or 1d2 hezrous. Versus 30 people. I don't even know what we are doing at this point in the adventure. Why? I mean, why not give us a horde of monsters with 1 hit point (minions) each attacking us. Right? Minions would make the bookkeeping easy, but at least you will have the feeling of your small platoon being threatened by a substantial force.

I just don't get why they gave the group all these NPCs. It's too unwieldy. If you're going to do it, cook up special abstract rules to help the DMs run it without grinding the game to a halt.

I don't think there's too many DMs out there who can possibly keep all those NPCs straight. They all have names, they're all in factions, and there's about 6 different stat blocks to keep track of.

Gracklstugh is the Worst

Let's Not Find Droki
Now we get to the main event. Chapter 4. Gracklstugh. I don't know what happened here. It's like they ran out of time to work on this chapter. It's too big. It's organized in the most insane manner I've ever seen.

Quest lines are broken up by section of the city. It's so bizarre. You'll read about half of a quest, and then you'll read about a tavern, and then 5 pages later, you'll read more about the quest from earlier.

Then there's quests that are not even finished. There's this whole quest involving the derro and how they're getting surface world currency. There is no resolution to this! In the final room of Whorlstone Tunnels (the dungeon nearby), there's this monolith and a single coin from the surface world. There is no explanation as to where it came from. There are no other surface coins. The whole thing is just dropped, as if somebody deleted a paragraph and didn't realize it.

I could go on forever about how much I hate Gracklstugh, and especially how much I hate Droki. Droki is a derro who has a sack of stuff. The heroes need to find Droki. All of the jumbled-up quests that will take you 2 hours to piece together all end up with the same goal: find Droki.

The heroes might see Droki in the market. They might chase him. But the adventure says: "Pursuing characters quickly lose sight of the derro as he vanishes into the crowd".

So there's NO CHANCE of the group nabbing him. He gets away, no matter what.

You know what usually happens in D&D when you put an NPC that the heroes need to find in front of them? The heroes trample their own mother to get to that NPC right away. They bust out spells. They fling nets. They use magic items everyone forgot they owned. They get on horses. They climb on rooftops. They throw sticky stuff at the NPC's feet. They shout to everyone around the NPC that they'll pay 100 gold to whoever tackles him and restrains him. And they will gladly pay it.

So how do we find Droki? The heroes are supposed to go to the derro section of city, and somehow stumble on a pipe. In the pipe is tunnel. In that tunnel is a dungeon called Whorlstone Tunnels that Droki's in. There's no footprints. No one says, "Hey! Droki went over there in that pipe!". The heroes just notice a pipe, and peer in looking for treasure or a dungeon rather than the contents of 50 deep gnomes' bowels.

So then our heroes enter Whorlstone Tunnels. The idea here is that Droki eats magic mushrooms that make him small and allow him to run through tiny tunnels to elude the heroes. The group is supposed to pursue him through the dungeon. Eventually the group just finds him or something. The book leaves that entirely up to the DM!

The worst part of all of this is that there's cool ideas in this chapter. The red dragon is awesome. The idea that he's being replaced by a dragon yet to hatch - also awesome! The concept of the heroes being his spy - that's epic!

So how the hell did we end up chasing Droki and his sack through Whorlstone Tunnels (which in my opinion is a lousy dungeon)?

Prior to this, I considered the trip to Thay in Rise of Tiamat to be the low point in the 5e published adventures. Mostly because it was just too short and there was barely anything to it.

I also hated the tacked-on barren dungeon in the final chapter of Rise of Tiamat. And I thought the first 25% of Princes of the Apocalypse was sort of weak and probably would bore players into quitting.

But now there is no question. Chapter 4 - Gracklstugh - is the low point of 5th edition. It's simply not finished. It makes no sense. It's like a first draft of a chapter that nobody ever got back to. And worst of all, it's one of the longest chapters in the book! 33 pages! Why?


Despite my criticisms, I think this is probably the best adventure put out so far. While I enjoyed the dragon-centric action in Tyranny of Dragons, those books were more uneven than this one. Out of the Abyss maintains a pretty high level of quality throughout, with a couple glaring exceptions.


Mason Peatross said...

Great review! Thank you for it.

Bronk said...

Thanks for the awesome twosome of reviews!

This was pretty neat to read, because the setup for all of this was in a novel I just read, "Archmage", the most recent of the Drizz't series by Salvatore. Basically, while the Dwarves and Drizz't completely retake Gauntlegrym (which was a plot point for what, 5 or 6 books now?) Gromph get's tricked by Jarlaxle's cohort Kimmuriel into thinking he's just created a super powerful mixture of psionics and magic that can summon demon lords, specifically Errtu, while in reality it just weakened planar barriers and yeah, he accidentally called Demogorgon. (Kimmuriel had been tricked by Lolth herself into thinking the spell would summon his mother out of the Abyss for revenge). The story in the adventure is a bit confusing though, because it sounds like all the major players from the book don't know anything, Gromph, who just joined Bruenor and Drizz't after fleeing Demogorgon, is gone, and the story gets wrapped up with nothing left to follow up on in the next novel. Weird!

The Narbondel light is interesting, because it used to just be a clock that the drow could see with their 'infravision', not a city wide light.

The hundred year banishment of demons has also been coming up in the drizz't books since the beginning. It sounds as if they ditched that rule for 4E but brought it back for 5E?

Thanks again for the two great reviews!

Bronk said...

You know, considering Menzoberranzan has always been written as an irredeemably evil city from top to bottom, I wonder if the only reason the adventure shies away from using that talisman to destroy it is because of the novels? Although, it sounds like the adventurers were able to find refuge in various points, so maybe not everyone was bad after all...

Benji said...

Bronk, there's still the option for the talisman to be left in the Drow city. It ne of many places suggested. It's entirely possible that the plays go "Screw This. Vizeran is kinda right, drow suck. They imprisoned us for god's sake! Let's just make it and take it back to menzoberranzan".

Bronk said...

It seems weird to me because on one hand, if you're going to hand the players the chance to take down such an evil city, you'd think it would be the preferred option. But, on the other hand, it's weird that they'd make it an option at all, due to the tie in with the popular Drizz't novels.

MadCar said...

I wish that wizards would provide DM accessories with the book:

* Deck of NPC cards with image on front, and stats/behavior/background on the back. I made my own, and insert them into baseball card holders. Very handy for players.
* Deck of Monster cards specifically for this adventure
* Summary sheet that includes a mind map or story plot map showing how the various quests are linked, (with page numbers)
* Example table to use for tracking daily food, pursuit, madness level, ...

Sean said...

Mason Peatross: You're welcome, I appreciate the feedback!

Bronk: Bruenor is in Gauntlegrym just hanging out in the adventure and there is no mention of Kimmuriel at all. I could be wrong on the narbondell thing, I'll have to go back an look. I just really liked the art of the city and the description. Thanks for the novel info, i don't read those and it's cool to hear a bit more of the connecting story.

MadCar: I agree with you completely. At the very least they should have provided a traveling tracking sheet with all the info you need to help a DM run all that walking smoothly. Thank you!

Matt said...

Once again, thanks for the review...I think you've hit the nail on the head with it all.

The travel sections are becoming cumbersome at best. The part is midway from Slublodop to Gracklstugh and rolling dice 60 odd times for random encounters is tiresome. My plan is to keep it up until we hit the Duegar City and then run themore streamlined rules after that. The party has encountered so many fire beetles that I don't even bother running the encounter now.

I decided early on to leave the NPCs out of combat. They travel separately or are conveniently elsewhere. They're just a pain to manage. The party have about 3/4 left with them.

I really like the extra sections, they make the travel sections less borring and more interesting. The Silken Paths were a little disappointing as they were over in the blink of an eye. However, I'm in the middle of the Lost Tomb and that has gone well (albeit it's a short interlude). The Wild Magic effect in the area is a cause for much hilarity.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for this review it has been helpful in conjunction with your other entry on this adventure. I agree these modules have taken several steps back in terms of being helpful to a prospective DM. I recently agreed to DM for the first time after many years, way back when it was still 1st edition, and will be running this adventure so I will be relying heavily on your notes to help piece things together. Way back when the books were cheaper and had ALL the information you needed, including each enemies stats, abilities, treasure, etc. I suppose this is more challenging and can be fun to some extent, but at some point it may get tedious and beyond confusing. At least the licensed DM screen has the madness tables in it.

Sean said...

Matt: That's bummer about The Silken Paths, on paper they look really fun. The prospect of falling off seems like it would make it pretty intense. Thanks!

Anonymous: It's a good adventure but yeah it can be a real pain in the butt to prepare. Good luck!

Daern said...

This review helped my thinking about this module. I've been running it untll it fizzled out in Grack city. So true. The dragon spy plot is cool, but the information is sooo confused and the Whorlstone caves are deceptively long. The motivation is weird as well. Are they poking around just to get permission to leave the City? Maybe a map to the surface? The idea of Teleport Nodes is really good. I'm thinking the Obelisk should be one. This is my idea to salvage the campaign. The heroes can escape to the surface, have a side quest and possibly be drawn back in later, maybe a request to help Blindenstone against the Pudding King.
It really is a question of why these modules are so confusing and poorly edited. I think the answer that they were all subcontracted to outside studios. These books were passed back and forth between the studios and WOTC editors, who are all very creative people with very good ideas, but it kind of shows that the modules missed having a point person right the "bulk of the series" and keep it coherent. It is interesting to note that Curse of Strahd was written in-house and seems to be a bit better organized.