Life has been a bit crazy recently, with work, more work, and even more work conspiring to take me away from blogging and reviewing. However, with a few projects now on pause for a few days, I’m getting the chance to return to the blog and have a few updates (and, with luck, more than a few reviews).
One of the odder circumstances that recently presented itself was what happened with my Saturday evening D&D group. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s play Storm King’s Thunder!“, they went “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s keep the same characters!” Now, running a group of 7th and 8th level characters through Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t allow that much play. It’s written for levels 1-10. You do the last two chapters and finish. So, instead, I gave them a choice: The Rise of Tiamat or midway through Out of the Abyss. They chose the latter. And so I’m now running Out of the Abyss, which is the adventure we skipped. We played Princes of the Apocalypse for a year, then went directly to Curse of Strahd. So this is all new to us.
So, let’s talk about my experiences with Out of the Abyss…
We began with the events in Chapter 8: Gauntlgrym. If you’re playing the adventure from the beginning, this is the point where, after finally escaping the Underdark and all the Demon Lords, you take leave of your senses and go back down. For higher-level groups, such as my own, this is the hook for the characters to enter the adventure.
The PCs are summoned by King Bruenor Battlehammer, are asked to find a way of stopping the madness infecting the Underdark, and they also get a chance to recruit some allies from the factions.
King Bruenor should be extremely familiar to anyone who has read R.A. Salvatore’s novels – he’s first introduced in The Crystal Shard and is a main character for many of the sequels. At this point in the series, he’s been killed, reincarnated, and just led the dwarves to a great victory against the drow that had claimed Gauntlgrym (as related in Archmage). Although the definition of “just” is a little up to debate. Out of the Abyss states it was “in recent years”. The taking of Gauntlgrym occurs at the same time that the Demon Lords first get released, so this implies that the Demon Lords have now been around for a few years.
Bruenor is basically everything you want of a dwarf: brave, gruff, occasionally kind-hearted, and an exceptional leader. He knows of a lot of the things the characters have done, at least in major population centres, so he respects their heroism. And, because Gauntlgrym is a place where the forces of the Underdark are likely to attack, the madness down below is a real problem.
At this point, the characters gain a very definite quest: get to a repository of knowledge known as Gravenhollow, and use it to discover the cause of the madness in the Underdark. This is an A-B quest, where the characters must first go to a Zhentarim trading post, and learn how to get to Gravenhollow. (Of course, the trading post has its own challenges, but more on those later).
The characters also need to interact with the factions, who can offer them aid in the Underdark. At least, the factions call them aid. I, as the DM, call them “more annoying NPCs to keep track of!” Here’s the thing: when you have five-foot wide corridors (as much of the Underdark is), a group of 21 characters entering combat is going to lead to a lot of frustration from the characters at the back who can’t participate. It just calls for some strategically placed rockfalls. Lots of NPCs really means two things. One, you can kill them to demonstrate how dangerous it is. Two, you can split the party, perhaps leaving some behind to fortify areas, or deal with two locations at once. If you choose the latter option, give the NPCs to those players who aren’t taking their PCs along.
It’s nice to see the factions taking an active interest in events. After they play a large part of Rise of Tiamat, the factions slip away in Princes of the Apocalypse and the early part of Out of the Abyss. They’re not going to play a big part in this adventure, but they will make some difference.
I chose, very deliberately, not to have the big dinner with all the faction representatives. It sounds great, and it could be, but for me to run it properly it’d rely on gaining about six more co-DMs to run all the faction representatives and Bruenor. Running multiple conversations at once is not my idea as fun as a DM. I prefer to keep my interactions more on the one-to-one level; it’s much easier to provide characterisation that way without being distracted by having to run other NPCs. (That said, if you can recruit some people to do a proper dinner and act in-character as the representatives, you’ll have a very memorable session).
Throughout all the negotiation, the less roleplaying-orientated players in your group may be getting bored. Thankfully, Gauntlgrym is a place where monsters can turn up at any time. Not only that, but there are suggestions in the adventure for a little intrigue using doppelgangers and assassins if you so desire.
My own choice was to have external forces attack the dwarves, rather than adding more intrigue. I like to think of Gauntlgrym being like Moria when Balin was there: the dwarves controlling a small part of it, but the deeper parts still under control of dark things. If you play this right, you can show the players what a precarious situation Bruenor and the dwarves are actually in; the threat of the madness in the Underdark overwhelming them is very, very real.
I rushed through this section a little faster than I could have. It’s quite easy to spend three or four sessions exploring the relationships here, and fighting Bad Things as they appear. If you’re running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League, you probably want to do this, because being unable to use milestones means you’re often lacking in ways to give experience points to the characters; Gauntlgrym gives you a few interesting monsters and situations with which to challenge the characters.
In the end, we spent a little over one session (about 2-1/2 hours) in Gauntlgrym. The Harper character, a Wizard, was able to gain the aid of a Shield Guardian. The two Zhentarim gained a bunch of rogues to aid them. The Order of the Gauntlet sent a few soldiers. And the Lords’ Alliance representative met the Lords’ Alliance character. Neither was that convinced there was a problem down below – so the Alliance didn’t send anyone with them. The Emerald Enclave didn’t feature.
Two attacks occurred during their stay: fire elementals and a wraith. The wraith was really interesting, as it had already killed a lot of dwarves and twisted their spirits into spectres. So, the spectres attacked first and then, when the characters engaged, the wraith attacked from behind. The characters were victorious in both instances, but the battle against the wraith had some scary moments.
And then, they left for the Zhentarim trading post. More on that later!