Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Rage of Demons: Out of the Abyss (Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition/D&D 5e)

Rage of Demons: Out of the Abyss(Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition/D&D 5e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $49.95
Page Count: 255
Release Date: 09/04/2015 (Select Retailers)/09/15/2015 (General Release)
Get it Here: Amazon.com

Out of the Abyss marks the first physical release for Dungeons & Dragons since Princes of the Apocalypse back in April. It’s also the four adventure campaign book set for the Forgotten Realms. Like Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss is a full campaign taking character from Level 1 through Level 15 (and perhaps beyond). Like the first two adventure campaigns Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat which were collaborations with Kobold Press, Out of the Abyss is a collaboration between Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin Publishing, the latter of whom is responsible for such fine games like Mutants & Masterminds, Dragon Age RPG and A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, amongst others. This two company tandem will also be responsible for the first campaign setting released for Fifth Edition, the Sword Coast’s Adventurer Guide, which appears to be on the docket for November.

So, like all of the D&D 5e adventures before it (and the D&D Next pieces to boot), Out of the Abyss is a Forgotten Realms release. Unlike those three previous campaign books WotC has released, this one takes place almost entirely in the Underdark. Now I’ll admit something up front – demons, devils and drow are the three least interesting part of Toril for me. This is generally because most people that use one (or more) or those three groups write them very much like how humans think and act instead of VERY alien creatures with a dramatically different culture. As well, depectitions of the Underdark tend to be described, written or run very similar to playing in above ground locations, meaning that the Underdark just becomes another location rather than something memorable or mysterious. However there are obvious exceptions, this being one of them. In fact, this is the best look at the Underdark since Night Below – another amazingly well done campaign in a completely alien environment. In Out of the Abyss, the Underdark is creepy, weird, and danger lurks in the darkness…which is nearly everywhere since you’re underground. The foreword of the book says that Lewis Carroll’s writing was an inspiration for this slight reimagining of the Underdark but the end result feels more like something Robert Chambers would right – familiar and yet not at all right to our sensibilities. In fact, Out of the Abyss deserves an even closer comparison to the game Chambers is best associated with –Call of Cthulhu.

Like Call of Cthulhu, Out of the Abyss tests the sanity of its PCs due to their encounters with strange and horrific beings beyond our usual comprehension. Why shouldn’t Demogorgon have the same effect as Hastur or Shub-Niggurath on a PC? I love that the Out of the Abyss team took this approach. Now the madness checks in Out of the Abyss are not the same as the ones you would have encountered in 2e/3e Ravenloft. It’s a much more simplified process, but it also allows for stacking mental disorders, which is always fun. It is very easy to turn Out of the Abyss into a horror campaign rather than your normal fantasy D&D campaign and I dare say you are doing yourself (and your players) a disservice if you DON’T run it as one. However, I also know that some gamers aren’t into Call of Cthulhu, Chill or the like so the flexibility of Out of the Abyss was an unexpected but well-received surprise to me.

Out of the Abyss will starts players off at Level 1, as prisoners of a small Drow enclave. Characters will progress up to (and perhaps beyond) Level 15, able to do battle with some of the big name devils and demons of D&D fame. Of course, being able to do battle with isn’t necessarily advisable because even a weakened say, Baphomet, is still going to be more than a match for a group of 15th level characters. Combat is not necessarily the wisest choice in this campaign – survival is. So expected a lot of running and hiding or making use of illusionary spells if you want to make it to the end game of Out of the Abyss. This is definitely NOT a hack and slash affair as Roleplaying and roll-playing are pretty well balanced throughout. For every mini-dungeon or battle you have to fight, there is a lot of intrigue, politicking and using your mouth/wits to survive.

I should also point out that if you are new to running D&D 5e or roleplaying games in general, you should probably start with something other than Out of the Abyss. That’s not saying the campaign is bad in any way. Far from it. I love Out of the Abyss. It’s just that in order to run this campaign correctly, you’re going to want to have a fair amount of experience under your belt. While the book is long and highly detailed, who DMs this is going to have to take a lot of notes, both before and during the campaign. There are a ton of NPCs to keep track up, not to mention their personalities, wants, needs, secrets, relationship with the party and who lives/dies throughout the campaign. There are a lot of cities you will be visiting and each one has unique traits you need to keep track of lest everything blurs together. After all the Kuo-Toa town of Sloobludop should not look or feel the same as the great empire of Gauntlgrym. The terrible air pollution of Gracklstugh is unique to it, so you want to remember to include it. I don’t want to care anyone off from Out of the Abyss by saying you are going to want a notebook to jot down copious amounts of notes to run this campaign, but the truth is, that is true about any campaign. This is not a one shot adventure or something you’ll finish in two or three play sessions. Out of the Abyss should keep your gaming troupe busy for MONTHS or more. Some of the chapters, especially ones like “Into Darkness,” “Gracklstugh,” and more are almost mini-campaigns in their own right due to all that can happen there –both with what is written and tangents the PCs can unexpectedly surprise their DM by going off on. Some of the seventeen chapters in Out of the Abyss definitely can be finished in a single session. Others are more akin to World of Darkness style adventures where you can spend three or four sessions just navigating the politics of a single city. I look at Out of the Abyss as I would other extremely long campaigns. A good comparison is probably Chaosium’s Horror on the Orient Express or more to the point, the other Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons releases. These all take a long time to get through and Out of the Abyss is by far the most detailed with background information, NPC bios, city layouts and subquests. For someone new to DM’ing or role-playing in general, trying to run Out of the Abyss will probably be an overwhelming or frustrating experience for them (not to mention the players). So if you’re new to tabletop gaming, I say start with Lost Mine of Phandelver and work your way up to something this intense. For those of you with a lot of experience in DM’ing, Out of the Abyss can still be a challenge, but the end result can be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have in the Forgotten Realms.

Balance is something else we should talk about. If you are primarily used to fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons then Out of the Abyss is going to feel very unbalanced to you. 4e was definitely easier for characters to survive, or even cakewalk, monsters than were extreme challenges in previous versions. Out of the Abyss definitely has that First/Second edition feel to it where some of the monsters you will encounter are just way too powerful to be confronted head-on. For example, there is a place where third or fourth level characters will have to face specters and wraiths with only piecemeal equipment. Even if they had magic items, this would be a challenge. Most of the characters won’t though. So this will be run and hide or survive until you find/obtain the crazy awesome magic weapon hidden where this mini-boss battle occur. So even though there is plenty of dungeon crawling to be had in Out of the Abyss the adventure is not shy of putting players in situations where you survive only by retreated or using your head rather than your sword. In many ways parts of Out of the Abyss felt more like an adventure geared for Dungeon Crawl Classics so if you’re familiar with that RPG line and the type of adventures it has, you should be well aware of what Out of the Abyss has in store for you. Again, because of the campaign’s design, Out of the Abyss is probably not the best choice to run as a first-ever campaign for people who have never (or rarely) gamed before. For gamers who have braved things like The Tomb of Horrors, Beyond the Mountains of Madness or adventures with that 1970s/80s flair of “your character is probably going to die horribly at some point,” Out of the Abyss will no doubt trigger some fine feelings of nostalgia for you. That isn’t to say that Out of the Abyss is geared only towards gamers who caress their copies of OSRIC lovingly, but that those gamers will probably get the most out of this campaign because they know what to expect. This not only makes Out of the Abyss a great way to get older gamers who have, until now, steadfastily refused to try anything D&D without the TSR stamp on it to finally give 5e a try, but it’s combination of 1e aesthetics, Second Edition’s use of horror and alien imagery and 5es easily understandable ruleset makes this a fantastic choice to bridge the generation gap between the different D&D fans in your family and/or friend group.

Storywise, Out of the Abyss is going to be as good as your DMs ability to craft the narrative. Without spoilers, the essence of the tale being told here is “Demons run amuk in the Underdark.” This means the usual Underdark terrors like the Drow have something that freaks out even them to contend with. Your PCs go from slaves to (hopefully) saviors as they play through all seventeen chapters. Along the way some very familiar faces (good and bad) will be encountered and you’ll be killing a whole host of monsters as your characters go from cannon fodder to able to duke it out with sough of the toughest foes in all of Toril. Really though, it is the sheer number of NPCs that will decide how memorable Out of the Abyss is. Maybe I should rephrase that. It is your DMs ability to make the sheer number of NPCs in this campaign come to life that will determine how memorable Out of the Abyss is for you. In a lot of adventures, NPCs are just window dressing, used as either MacGuffins or to point players in the right direction. Not so with Out of the Abyss. You have multiple cities, each with important NPCs the DM needs to flesh out and keep track up. In the first chapter alone, your PCs will escape with ten NPCs who will travel with them for a good part of the adventure. I mean, unless they die, go mad or become at odds with the PCs. Some of the NPCs will be a drag on the team while several others can be extremely helpful. Let me tell you nothing says “I love this NPC” then when you are fighting something that can only be hurt by magic weapons and said up until now background character displays a genetic disposition for hurting those monsters. At least three days out of the month anyway. By fleshing out these NPCs, the players will have characters they grow to care about and befriend. Having to save one of these NPCs or even watch sacrifice themselves so the players can live can be extremely emotional and something the players will talk fondly off when they reminisce about this adventure. By making sure each location in Out of the Abyss stands out rather than bleeds together, your experiences in this campaign will be all the more fantastic for it. By ensuring that the many dozens of name NPCS you team encounter stand out as well, will make Out of the Abyss come alive in ways so few adventures have the potential, much less the chance to. Again, more than the previous 5e campaigns, Out of the Abyss‘ success really depends on the organization, storytelling and improvisational skills of the DM. This is a fantastic piece and one of the best campaigns D&D has had in at least ten (possibly twenty) years. You just have to be willing to do a lot of work to make it happen.

Alright, so we’ve managed to get through this without any actual spoilers. I’ve tried to keep specific mentions of characters and locations down to the first half of the book. However, it’s time to look at the appendices of Out of the Abyss and what all you get in this collection BESIDES the campaign itself. The appendices make up about thirty pages of the book, so we really should cover them. That said, there may be vague spoilers ahoy, so keep that in mind.

Appendix A is a single page and it gives you some new Underdark oriented features to choose from rather than the standard ones in the PHB. There is Deep Delver and Underdark Experience. The first gives you a head’s up in navigating the labyrinthine caverns of the Underdark, but more importantly, lets you forage for food and water too. The latter gives you bonuses to Intelligence based lore checks about the Underdark – a great plot device for when the players get stuck.

Appendix B is “Magic Items.” You’ll find six different items here from an intelligence Sun Blade to drowcast items and other neat things you’ll hopefully find in this campaign. Appendix C is “Creatures” and gives you more than a dozen new creatures. Well new for 5e stat blocks. Longtime D&D fans are more than familiar with things like the Derro, Ixitxachitl (what is the plural for that?) and the like. There are also Duergar, variants and examples of plant monsters. I hope you like Myconids! There are also five stats blocks for some specific NPCs.

Appendix D is “Demons” and here is a little taste of what a 5E Fiend Folio There are EIGHT different demons (as opposed to devils; those are something different in D&D. They aren’t interchangeable.) Not only does each demon get a two page spread of background and stats, but each one also has a specific madness chart for you to roll on if you fail a sanity check in their presence. Yay crazy PCs! It’s also important for DMs to pay close attention to two sections each demon has in their specific section. The first is the Lair. Here you’ll find tips on how to play the character as well as the action they can (and will) take when in their base of operations. The second is “Regional Effects” and how the warp reality in their local vicinity. Now by local I mean between one and ten MILES depending on the demon. Hey, you’re dealing with otherworldly creatures that have between three and five HUNDRED hit points and an AC of at least 18 (but usually 20 or over). These things are powerful, even if you are a level 15 Mage. This section is really well done and even if you don’t ever play on playing , it might be worth picking up just to see how the demons are designed. So spoilers of sorts – here are the eight demons in the book: Baphomet, Demogorgon, Fraz-Urb’luu, Graz’zt, Jubilex, Orcus, Yeenoghu, and Zuggtmoy. They’re all fun and the art is fantastic. I won’t be surprised is some people find a few of these to be more than a little similar to some Mythos orWarhammer deities though.

So, in a nutshell, that is Out of the Abyss. Thanks for spending 3,000 words with me as I covered various aspects of the campaign. To be honest though, this was really a drop in the bucket as to what all Out of the Abyss entails. I could easily have written three times as much regarding each chapter’s story and dungeons/encounters. I’d much rather have you experience Out of the Abyss firsthand though. It’s a fantastic product and the best campaign I’ve seen released for any system this year. It is well worth the cover price, especially if you can find it at places like Amazon that have it for only $31. I can’t recommend Out of the Abyss enough and I am even more excited for the WotC/Green Ronin Sword Coast release. I’ll just have to make do with the video game Sword Coast Legends until then.

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  • I didn’t realize this was out today. I really need to pick it up. My group on Sundays is only about a third of the way through Princes of the Apocalypse though. That and they want me to run the Mass Effect D20 I found. This does sound like a blast though. I do like weird and rough campaigns. Might have to pick this up and plan it for next year :)

  • Alex Franklin

    Yesss I was hoping this would turn out to be awesome

  • Saul_Alexander

    The dragon campaign was a collaboration with Kobold Press, not Green Ronin.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Yes, that’s what the review says. THIS, Out of the Abyss, is the collaboration with Green Ronin.

  • Saul_Alexander

    Either you just changed that, or I totally misread it =) Sorry, just trying to help. You might want to check “Song of Fire and Ice” next.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Both possibilities are correct.. It was in there, but our editor for the day (who is a video gamer, not a tabletop one) missed a italics tag so part of the sentence could only be seen in the code. My guess is it was fixed after you wrote your comment, but before I wrote mine. In my book, we’re both winners.

    I ALWAYS do the Fire and Ice instead of Ice and Fire. I don’t know why. Something else the editor should have caught but I can confirm that’s 100% my screw-up. I do appreciate any catches people find. When you do a 3,000 word review, you’re bound to make some mistakes grammar and spell check will still miss.

  • Laurence J Sinclair

    Brilliant review; thanks!

  • Saul_Alexander

    True dat. I’ve worked as an editor, so I can’t help but notice that stuff. Good review, anyway. Seems like you were the first to get one out. Looking forward to grabbing a copy after the full release.

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  • aelfman

    Great review.

  • Lewison

    You wrote “keep track up” twice. I don’t know if that’s a Britishism or autocorrect or what.