Does it Climb out of the Underdark or Fall Down a Pit?
Out of the Abyss is D&D 5E’s foray into the unrelenting jaws of the underdark. But there are more terrors here than normal, even by underdark standards. Demon lords have been unleashed in the darkness, and their madness is creeping steadily outward from the silence in the deep. It was released early in 5E’s run as they were still exploring what it meant to make an adventure path in the system. Does it hold up? Grab your torchstalk and try to hold onto your sanity as we go through everything you need to know.
What’s in the Book?
Out of the Abyss is 256 pages thick, with almost all of that length devoted to the adventure path itself which is a monumental 1st level to 15th level campaign. It also contains a couple alternate class features, and a few magic items to discover in the underdark along with a slew of monster stat blocks. All told the book contains:
- 2 Optional background features.
- 6 New magic Items.
- 33 New Monsters/NPCs with lore and stat blocks.
- Rage of Demons adventure path, running from 1st level to 15th level.
2 Optional Background Features
Rather than make new backgrounds specifically for the underdark setting, they created these optional background features that you can slot into any of the existing backgrounds in exchange for the background’s original feature. These are especially useful for surviving in the underdark in the early levels, and I think making them features rather than full backgrounds was a smart move. Your ranger can keep their outlander flavor, just now with a little underdark sprinkled on top.
6 New Magic Items
These are all items that can be encountered along the player’s journey through the underdark. A couple of these are pretty fun, we’ve got a wand of sticky ooze, a sentient sword, and spell gems which I had been sorely missing.
33 New Monsters/NPCs
Out of the Abyss has a lot of sandbox adventuring, which means they had to create a lot of stat blocks for whatever you encounter. The demon lords themselves are represented here, along with many variations and NPC stats for the various underdark races. I love a lot of these creatures, but I really wish more of them had associated artworks. The demon lords got their art treatments, but a lot of the other underdark denizens go artless.
Rage of Demons Adventure Path
Rage of Demons (it still annoys me they use a different title for the adventure from the book title) begins with the time-tested D&D tradition of starting off with all the PCs captured. Everybody has been enslaved by the drow, and your band of misfits is formed from the shared goal of escape. The PCs are joined by a diverse crew of NPCs that were similarly enslaved, and the whole thing basically starts off as a prison break movie.
The breakout and its surrounding misadventures take the PCs from 1st to 2nd level, and what follows is a grand sandbox adventure as the PCs and any surviving NPCs band together and try to survive long enough to escape the underdark. No matter where they go, the drow slavers are never far behind, and the PCs must collect food, water, weapons, and a way out, all the while being relentlessly tracked. Levels 3 to 8 are extremely freeform, as the PCs are tugged in multiple directions by the different NPCs, and there’s really no right or wrong answers.
During these fights for survival, the PCs slowly learn that the underdark is even more dangerous than usual. Even the relatively stable denizens of the underdark seem to be afflicted with a creeping madness that pervades the settlements they visit. Eventually learning that the 8 demon lords of the abyss have been somehow freed and are now carving out chunks of the underdark to form their new abyssal domains.
Eventually the PCs escape the underdark, only to be pulled back in. Rumors of this demonic incursion have reached the surface, and as brave survivors of the underdark, the PCs are charged with leading an armed force down into the depths to figure out how these demons have arrived, and hopefully how to send them back.
This second half of the adventure runs from level 9 to 15, which at first feels like more of a victory lap returning with a battalion in tow, but as the finale involves squaring off against a demon lord, they’ll need all the help they can get.
All told, this is an excellent adventure, it strikes a great balance between combat, exploration, and roleplaying. It provides in-depth place setting as well, so it also works for a great setting book for the underdark. However, it does have a couple glaring issues that need to be addressed.
Experienced DM Required
This book is going to absolutely stretch a DM’s concentration and push them to their limits as a dungeon master. In the very first session, the DM is expected to keep track of 10 fellow slaves, who all have their own motivations and personalities, as well as 3 feuding drow captors and all their underlings. I applaud them for making interesting characters, it presents great roleplaying opportunities, but man that’s a lot to handle as a DM. These characters don’t disperse when you escape either, they’re your buddies (and often secretly your enemies) that you’ll have to deal with both for roleplaying and for combat until they’re killed off or they reach the end of their stories.
This doesn’t let up either, there are numerous opportunities to pick up more side characters throughout the adventure. Some of them are amazing and interesting characters (looking at you sentient gelatinous cube) but it’ll continually represent a strain on you as a DM.
Sadly, the adventure just keeps piling on responsibilities from there. As a DM, you’re also going to be tasked with the drow slaver’s distance from the party as they travel, each of your PC’s level of madness as the demon influence worms its way into them, as well as their dwindling supplies of water, food, and torches.
I personally feel that this adventure can be a blast, but man, I would never hand this book to a new DM. If you’re fresh to the game and looking for an adventure path, do yourself a favor and start with something easier to manage.
This is less a criticism and more of a word of caution. Blatantly, the underdark is not an easy setting to survive, especially as a low-level character. Most forays into the underdark occur in tier 2 or tier 3, but this adventure throws the PCs with practically just the clothes on their backs into the underdark right from the start at tier 1. It’s not poorly balanced exactly, but it is framed as a game of survival. You’re not bravely delving into the underdark for treasure and glory, you’re scared witless in the dark and desperately trying to live long enough to see the sun again.
The first half of this game is going to see some beloved NPCs or even PCs dragged away in the darkness, and a lot of the early gameplay is just going to be about acquiring basic equipment and getting enough food and water. This style of gameplay isn’t bad and surviving against long odds can be a great experience, but it isn’t quite like a normal dungeon-delving adventure.
What’s Good About the Book?
Great and memorable characters, fearsome monsters, surfing on greased spiderwebs in underground caverns, Out of the Abyss is the earliest of the 5E adventure paths I can honestly call FUN. The book details out enough locations and encounters that you can easily make your own underdark campaigns with it, and I genuinely find it a great space to play in. It accomplishes a sandbox without losing focus, and the players will find a new adventure no matter which dark tunnel they venture into.
What’s Bad About the Book?
While it presents a lot of useful concepts and setup, it relies heavily on an experienced DM to get anywhere. DM’s will be under constant strain to remember dozens of NPCs who often work at cross purposes, and you can expect the DM to spend a lot of time checking and rechecking notes and hidden agendas as the inner machinery of the adventure throws a spring. It’s no easier on the players either, who will be given nothing easily as they attempt to survive an environment that is literally out of their depth. Beware of DM meltdowns and TPKs.
I like to think of Out of the Abyss as a top-of-the-line graphics-intensive PC game. It’s a great game that plays amazingly if you can run it successfully, but you’ll need an expensive high-end gaming rig to run the damn thing.
If you are a relatively new DM, or your players are relatively new, I’d run through a few more adventures before attempting this. Newer DMs are likely to get stalled out trying to keep track of everything, while new players are likely to die in the first half of the book as they struggle against the survival elements. Get a few other adventures under your belt, and maybe come back to this later.
If you are an experienced DM with veteran players, I think you’ll get along and intensely rewarding adventure here. It mixes great roleplaying encounters and grimdark survival/exploration with an almost Lovecraftian element of encroaching madness. If that kind of gameplay is what you’re looking for, you’ve got upwards of a year’s worth of adventures ahead of you.
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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