In what might be one of the most dense collections of content, encounters, and story from Wizards of the Coast for fifth edition, Out of the Abyss takes players into the rich depths of the Underdark. An adventure that spans a massive region and huge amounts of in-game time, it is a challenge of epic proportions for both players and Dungeon Masters, but still offers tools and inspiration for storytellers looking to the Forgotten Realms. While the story of Out of the Abyss contains many of the problematic aspects D&D is still struggling to rectify, the adventure is meaty and the content is dense, and serves as both a unique adventure and diverse sourcebook for fifth edition campaigns set in the Forgotten Realms.
Originally written not as a standalone adventure, Out of the Abyss was intended to be a part of a larger project known as the Rage of Demons. The adventure was published with Green Ronin, the development team collaborated with R.A. Salvatore and Troy Denning, and the story is bookended by Drizzt novels. In the Foreword, Chris Perkins writes about the creative process for the adventure, from wanting to create an “insanely wondrous domain” to drawing inspiration for the Underdark from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Delve into the Underdark
Out of the Abyss is a full-length adventure set in the Underdark, and takes characters from 1st to 15th level. While it takes place in the Forgotten Realms, Out of the Abyss stretches across the Underdark, the massive subterranean realm beneath the surface of Faerun. Through the adventure characters will travel to the kuo-toa city of Sloobludop, the duergar city of Gracklstugh, the Neverlight Grove community of myconids, the deep gnome city of Blingdenstone, to the hallowed dwarven halls of Gauntlgrym, and the drow city of Menzoberranzan, the city of spiders. The campaign has a natural halfway point which sees adventurers return to the surface, but only after being faced with the reality that multiple demon lords are active in the Underdark and may soon threaten the surface. The adventure allows for some time to pass before they are summoned by King Bruenor Battlehammer. Having to contend with allies from the various factions from across Faerun, the adventurers must rally in order to return to the Underdark, delve deep, and eventually face the demon lords in a final showdown.
The adventure has a unique start, something that early fifth edition adventures from Wizards of the Coast did really well. In Out of the Abyss, characters begin as captured prisoners of the drow and must find the means to escape. In my opinion, this is a good way to easily offer the choice for the adventuring party to all know each other, and then immediately give them a very clear task to undertake together. There is also the possibility of having characters with no connection to the events of the Underdark, as well as not necessarily having any connection to each other. Another good option is that the adventure is formatted in a way to allow characters to start at 2nd or 3rd level, even as the adventure is intended to begin at 1st level. This can be a good option to provide a buffer for the players, making the initial encounters a bit easier.
With options for how the players can escape, the beginning of the adventure is a great opportunity for creative players through multiple options that are prepared for the Dungeon Master to present to the players. Once they gain their freedom, the adventure breaks into multiple chapters to explore where the characters might flee to evade their drow captors. Choices and paths can be given context by characters with backgrounds tying them to the Underdark, or more promisingly by other prisoners that escape Velkynvelve with them. As they escape the drow, little pieces of the Rage of Demons story begins to appear, hints as to what awaits the adventurers in the Underdark.
The full-length adventure is split into two parts, the escape from the Underdark where characters learn about what’s happening and the presence of multiple demon lords, and the second part where they return to face them. It’s very similar to how Wizards of the Coast patterned Tyranny of Dragons, but contained the campaign in a single book rather than two. The epic style adventures that are in actuality differing frameworks for epic campaigns. Out of the Abyss builds well towards its finale, with a penultimate quest line that gives players opportunities to influence the final battle before attempting to rid the Underdark of the demon lords. They must seek out an exiled archmage, gather rare and dangerous materials for a ritual, venture into the hostile city of Menzoberranzan, and prepare themselves and their allies for the fight of their lives.
Rich, Diverse, But Not Without Problems
The Underdark is a beautiful setting, and Out of the Abyss shows its potential to be as expansive, diverse, and vibrant as the surface realms of Faerun. It is explored and created very well, whether it’s the use of fungi and Underdark flora (has its own section with mechanics and descriptions), to the architecture of the caverns, to the integration of spiders and creatures of the Underdark. The mechanics for travel and exploration are good resources, as well as the party being pursued by drow hunting parties. Options for a party that wants expanded travel and exploration mechanics, but is also fully able to be pared down and streamlined to get between points of interest. There are additional mechanics for Dungeon Masters for dealing with everything from narrating the journey to character deaths. Some are optional, such as giving options narratively to help the party avoid recapture at the hands of the drow, while others work to make the Underdark seem like a vibrant and dynamic setting with random encounters that are more than just wandering monsters to kill, to the persistence of a madness leaking from the Abyss that slowly builds to a force that the party must learn to reckon with.
Some of the most problematic aspects in Dungeons and Dragons lore are centered around the drow, and it was fully in place at the time of writing Out of the Abyss. This adventure contains some of that problematic lore that is common in the Forgotten Realms, specifically tied to drow and drow culture. Drow culture, how they act, the way they look at the world and other creatures, both drow and non-drow. It’s one thing to look at drow culture that has been both corrupted and remains loyal to Lolth, another for that to be the standard for the entire race in the setting. This is further exacerbated by the fact that almost every single drow in the campaign is bent towards evil in some degree, whether through devotion to Lolth or towards their own selfish ends. When the entire race is presented as irredeemable, it certainly presents problems. When the lore for the entire setting backs up that claim made by the adventure, it’s time to reevaluate. Which is likely where R.A. Salvatore (author of the Drizzt novels) is adjusting how he writes about the drow specifically in the Forgotten Realms, and how Wizards of the Coast is changing how they present races, specifically avoiding shoehorning them into alignments and stereotypes that are problematic.
There are some very unique and interesting additions for the setting that make often mundane aspects of longer adventures more exciting. The book has lots of options for travel and exploration, whether complications, setting details, or simple additions to develop the world. Most chapters have their own array of random encounters and location options that make each Underdark point of interest feel distinct. Some locations like Gravenhollow, the great Stone Library that holds not only knowledge, but echoes of the past and future visitors to the library and their collective knowledge. It is a fascinating aspect to include that can serve not only to help the adventure, but gives it the feeling of context within the greater scope and history of Faerun. Other pieces are like Araj, the tower of a powerful and solitary drow archmage that could be a key ally or an unrelenting antagonist.
The supplemental resources for Out of the Abyss were likely great for the adventure when it was first published, but pale in comparison to all the additional content from WotC. The stat blocks and monsters offer some content that is unique to the adventure, but most ended up being added and expanded upon in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and more recently in Monsters of the Multiverse. A number of lower-tier stat blocks for NPCs are interspersed throughout the adventure, added onto chapters as they are immediately relevant. There are thematic magic items such as drow and duergar weapons and equipment, as well as other Underdark themed items.
One of the most complex adventures that also gives tons of helpful options and mechanics for running a full campaign that makes the most of both the story and the setting. For all the optional additions and tables for content variability, it may frustrate some players who crave more agency, as the general structure of the adventure does not vary all that much. The main story beats are largely the same, with only some ability for the players to affect events until the very end. The finale serves as a great ultimate encounter visually for the players, though it feels dramatically lessened in terms of actual challenge in how it is presented. As a sourcebook and spark of inspiration for Dungeon Masters looking to other parts of the Forgotten Realms, Out of the Abyss opens many possibilities and locations within the Underdark in ways no other D&D adventure has done since.
Out of the Abyss is published by Wizards of the Coast and Green Ronin Publishing.
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