Out of the Abyss Part 1 – A campaign post-mortem

To paraphrase my favourite Irish musician, “I wasn’t going to write this post, but I’m going to write it.” I’m writing this because, while I refuse to accept it, my memory is like Swiss cheese in a perverts cupboard i.e. fucked. So hopefully the next time I run something I can look back at this and learn from it.

So last week we wrapped up the first part of the Out of the Abyss campaign for D&D 5th edition. I think it took twelve sessions, thirteen if you count chargen, and four real world months (because weekly play is never weekly play). While I haven’t yet had a chance to discuss how it went with the players I think it went fine. It wasn’t amazing and it wasn’t terrible. I think it could have been better than it was though. So in order to try to make my next campaign better (whether it’s the second half of Out of the Abyss or something else) I’m going to try to identify the problems with the campaign as I saw it. I think they can be broken down into three broad areas, problems with the campaign, problems with the rules, problems with me. Though really most of them are ultimately my fault but who doesn’t love pointless categories?

Problems with Out of the Abyss

Out of the Abyss is a big book, just over two hundred and fifty pages. You could be excused for thinking that it contains more or less everything you need to run the campaign. You could be wrong. But more on that later. So the Out of the Abyss campaign starts with the PC’s in Drow slavery in the Underdark. After they escape they bounce around five or six possible locations before (hopefully) finally escaping the Underdark (but not before learning enough to set up the second half of the campaign which starts several months after their escape). However the PC#s are not alone in prison, they are imprisoned with 10 (yes 10) NPC’s. Several or all of which can be involved in the prison break. In our campaign all of the fellow prisoners got roped in. So the second session started with the three PC’s and ten fucking NPC’s loose in the Underdark. The campaign doesn’t give you proper stat’s for the NPC’s, it uses MM NPC blocks and some and straight out monster stats for others. It offers no information on whether the NPC companions should increase in level, how they could increase in level, how having so many NPC companions would affect combat, xp, etc. Beyond all that was the fact that I as the DM had a minimum of 10 NPC’s to run at all times, several of whom hated one another, so the players could sit and watch as I performed one man improv theatre. It was even worse when it came to combat. I had ten individual NPC’s to keep track off and then the monsters on top of it.

Which brings us to the second big problem the NPC’s create. The encounters in the adventure appear to be balanced for a party of four PC’s (as the first half of the campaign is very sandboxy the encounters aren’t always level appropriate which is fine). Now it may come as no surprise that 3 PC’s + 10 NPC’s are signficantly more competent than 4 PC’s when it comes to combat (D&D 5th editions bounded accuracy means big numbers are a big threat/advantage). Unfortunately it took a session or two for me to realise that the encounters were sort of fucked. But again, there’s no easy way to account for it as there’s no rules for how much XP budget a NPC companion with no class levels is worth (it dawns on me as I write this that I could have used the NPC’s XP reward as their XP budget contribution).

But leaving aside the problem of encounter budgets the fact that I need to handle 10 NPC’s + Monsters + Whatever the PC’s are doing made combat an absolute bear. It made a lot of combats too slow or too “wooly” as monsters, NPC’s and sometimes PC’s got short shrift. I suppose one could offload the NPC’s to the PC’s to play in combat, but about half the NPC’s have stats that the PC’s can’t see or it will ruin later “surprises”. So I’m not sure if that’s really an option. As it was a lot of the combats in the first half of the campaign were sort of a mess. The second half went better I think, I’d managed to get a few NPC’s killed off or out of combat and I fudged together a rough xp budget system. Still, at least 50% of the reason to use a pre-published campaign is to save on encounter prep. So the adventure totally falls down on that front (no matter what you do).

Another problem is that there’s too much travel. The PC’s will move between at least three, more likely five to six, locations in the Underdark in the first half of the campaign. The shortest distance between these two takes 20 days travel, with most being around 30. Using the Underdark random encounter tables you are supposed to roll twice a day for random encounters. So a chance of up to 60 random encounters, which can be creature or terrain, between every location. Needless to say I did not do this, for a start I combined the creature and terrain features because either by themselves is boring. Second, after one session of random encounters I simply stopped using them, because a lot of them are (as the name might clue you in) boring. I also think one session of foraging for food and light sources was enough to drive home that being in the Underdark with no equipment is a bad time. The chapter with random encounters does have some planned encounters you can drop in, I used three of the four and they were pretty fun for both the players and I think. I would have used the fourth one but the pacing didn’t really allow it.

I think I fell down a bit on making the Underdark feel properly “alien”, not that any of the encounters really help. “Here’s another weird mushroom!” shocking doesn’t elicit wonder and awe in the players. I think this is another place where the campaign falls down, or maybe its obvious in retrospect and I didn’t realise it. The Underdark isn’t a strange new world, it’s just a big fucking dungeon. Here’s the thing, I like playing in dungeon crawls, I LOVE dungeon crawl boardgames, but I am absolutely not the biggest fan of running dungeon crawl games. Which the campaign descended into at times. Which actually would have been fine, but the Underdark doesn’t function like a proper dungeon. The pacing means the PC’s only really have one encounter per day or several days which means they have all their resources and can “nova” each fight, skewing their competency all over the place. It also doesn’t work like a proper dungeon in that it doesn’t give out the rewards one could expect (though I think by the end the PC’s had roughly the “proper” amount of magic items). The fact that it’s not a “proper” dungeon, nor urban environment, means that some classes have abilities that are actively hampered by that. The party Rogue who took the Assassin specialisation basically never got to use the Surprise rider on the main Assassin ability.

The campaign also has a faux-sandbox feel, where its sort of a sandbox but at the same time you also more or less NEED the players to visit all of the major areas. I’d also say that a lot of the campaign is ruined by straight up fucking stupid naming conventions. Fishmen and their city aren’t particularly stupid in and off themselves, but introducing the players to Ploopploopeen the Archpriest of Blibdoolpoolp, the ousted ruler of Sloobludop? Come the fuck on. The campaigns basic setup also sort of works against itself, the PC’s prime goal is to escape the Underdark which means they often aren’t interested in having lively chats with the Underdarks residents nor giving a shit about said residents problems. Some (a lot?) of the questlines in each area felt fairly forced.

The campaign also has a lot of stuff going on that’s meant to underscore the underlying theme of madness being lose in the Underdark but which often just makes each individual encounter group seem crazy without informing the overall theme. Having everybody being belligerent, fighting to the death and generally acting the cunt just makes them seem like cunts, not like they’ve been infected by pervasive madness. And as my last failed attempt at Vampire showed, having every NPC act like a dick is not a fun gaming experience (for the DM or the players). block.

And finally, the campaign has some terrible editing in places. Now I’m not talking about the odd misspelling or grammatical error I am talking about, well more or less the Gracklstugh chapter in particular. It genuinely feels like its missing half of it. There’s a questline that has half a column introducing the quest and the quest giver and that’s it. The quest is never mentioned again. You have another half column introducing an important NPC the PC’s have no reason to meet (and a throwaway line about a conspiracy with no further details). The layout of the chapter is equally bizarre. A pity as it turned out to be the best location in the first half of the campaign I think.

Problems with the rules

Nothing really springs to mind. The rules worked well enough, there was some initial confusion over how actions worked but that was more due to approach than the rules themselves (I’ll expand on that in the next section). I suppose monster abilities were sort of a problem? Basically monsters which have a “Save Vs X or be fucked” effect can end up being a significantly bigger threat than their CR may lead you to believe. I suppose sometimes the “natural language” the rules are written in can lead to some uncertainty, but that also could have been due to an inexact reading of them in the first place. Advantage/Disadvantage is a good system for rolling miscellaneous bonuses and penalties into one handy mechanic. It’s one I don’t think I made enough use of. I feel I was a bit too conservative in giving the PC’s advantage. Other than those fairly minor issues nothing really stands out. I would recommend that GM’s use the static damage and HP values for monsters. Static damage values save a lot of time (I’d roll damage normally for important NPC’s or climatic moments) and the standard HP values help fights end in a reasonable amount of time. More than one fight dragged out somewhat pointlessly because I happened to roll very well for monster HP (also never ever maximise monster HP if you can help it, takes fucking forever).

Problems with Me

None, for I am perfect, right? Well I’m complicit in a lot of the problems outlined above so I’m not sure if beyond that there’s anything specific, oh wait. My biggest initial mistake was assuming that because everyone had a copy of the Players Handbook and we’d played a game six months ago that they were familiar with the rules. So I skipped the general rules round-up and I think that threw everyone off for a session or two.

I think leaving the character sheet’s where the game was ran as opposed to taking them home with me was a mistake. Or not making a copy of the pertinent detail was a mistake. One of the cool things about D&D 5th edition are the bonds, ideals and flaws right there on the character sheet. Which I basically never used and honestly I feel that’s my biggest failing this time around and the thing I most regret. I really should have noted them down and used them to drive and/or inform session prep.

A related area was the houserule I implemented where the optional hero points replaced inspiration. Now I think this worked mechanically, the players made ample use of their hero points and it nearly always made a positive difference when they were used. So I’m happy with that. It’s just that when I implemented them I reminded myself not to forget the things Inspiration is meant to highlight i.e. the bonds, ideals and flaws. Yes this is continuation of my aforementioned mistake.

I think the campaign was a bit short on role-playing in general, I tried (semi-sucessfully I think) to work some more in the last few sessions but the ratio between combat:role-playing:other stuff is something I’d really want to pay close attention to going forward.

I suppose sloppy preparation would probably go here, three or four times I ended up skimming monster abilities or spells which ended up making some encounters very tough. But all the monsters were already present in the campaign so even if I hadn’t discovered how potent they were mid-combat they still would have been included. So I’m going to (graciously) count that as a wash. Along similar lines I left how the PC’s abilities work up to themselves, they had a copy of the PHB each and I’d a million NPC’s to deal with. As it turns out the PC’s were possibly as slipshod as I in fully reading their abilities, the most egregious example being the wizard using their familiar as a spotter for their fireball artillery. But if this skewed things a bit in the players favour I don’t think it matters, as it was an honest mistake and the players are the “stars”.

Oh and fucking farzress, farzress (if you are sadly ignorant) is basically magic rock that pervades the Underdark and does a number of things. One of the most noteworthy being that there’s a small chance it will send magic wild. I never once remembered to make that roll and it was applicable in nearly every combat. It was like I had a mental.

So there we go, I’m probably forgetting some stuff and I’m sure my players could point out more. But I think I’ve covered all the areas where I fell down but where I can improve in the next campaign I run.

Vent your spleen