I asked them what genre of fantasy they would prefer, from the generic heroic fantasy, to less heroic dark fantasy, the gothic horror fantasy of Ravenloft, or even the steam punk fantasy of Zeitgeist. They opted for dark fantasy, which left me with not much choice based on what little material I had for that in 5E: The Rage of Demons campaign, which consists of only the Out of the Abyss campaign book. As there was already another Out of the Abyss campaign in the club (and another one based on that book in which I had participated as player before it went dormant), I preferred to use the Rage of Demons title to avoid confusion.
As I posted a few weeks ago, I had to turn a not-so-great experience as a player of Out of the Abyss into a a much better appreciation of that book by better understanding how it was supposed to be played. Once I got the basic recipe down (follow the chapters in strict linear order, but improvise as much as you can within each chapter), the campaign appeared doable. So I started preparing, and this week we played our first session.
Out of the Abyss has the least subtle start imaginable for an adventure, the much overused “you start the game near naked and in prison”. As the players had played the start of Lost Mines of Phandelver with me and wanted to keep their characters, I needed to get them into that prison. (The DM I had played with had avoided that start, and that turned out to be very detrimental to the story.) As we had ended in the middle of a dungeon, the Red Brand hideout, I simply told them that in the next room they had encountered not just the boss of that hideout, the mage Glasstaff, but also a drow priestess with six elite drow bodyguards. The drow had then quickly incapacitated everybody with their poisoned hand crossbows, and carried them off as slaves. Well, they had said they wanted dark, so they got dark. 🙂
The reason you need to start in the prison is so that you can encounter all the wonderful NPCs there, ten fellow prisoners. There is everything from a deep gnome with a betting habit, to a Yoda-like kuo-toa pacifist hermit and a hairy monster claiming to be an elf prince. I explained to the players the basic principle of interactive story-telling in D&D: As the DM I was setting the scene, which includes some obvious story goals like in this case escaping the prison. But it was up to them to come up with a plan on how to escape, who to take with them, and what means to use. I must say that ended surprisingly well, with them showing a lot more initiative than my regular group of old timers.
I used the NPCs to give the group an overview of the locations of the Underdark. The closest town from the drow outpost is the kuo-toa village of Sloobludop. Buppido the derro told them that from there they could cross the Darklake and get to his home town of Gracklstugh, where he claimed that in a tunnel system called the Whorlstone Tunnels there was a way to the surface. That gave them a general idea on how to proceed after the escape.
Due to there being several female players, I played up the matriarchy of the drow, so the male slaves were doing laundry and kitchen duty, while the women were doing heavy manual labor. That led to one NPC, an orc named Ront, getting killed by the drow for tearing the priestess’ underwear, and the warrior of the group being forced to feed Ront’s remains to the giant spiders. I think I got the message across that the drow are cruel bastards.
The group’s cleric had written for himself a background story where his temple had done a forbidden ritual that got most of them killed, and him with a scarred face, wearing a mask. I turned that ritual into a summoning of Juiblex, and his injury into an acid burn. And io and behold, while doing kitchen duty the cleric saw one of the elite drow with similar acid burns. Based on that connection he could persuade that drow to help, and ultimately got the key to their cell from that (although the drow clearly cared more about hurting his boss than helping them). Meanwhile the ranger managed to pickpocket the smaller key to their chains from another drow. That precipitated their attempt escape, when they heard from other drow that there would be an inspection the next day, where the missing key would be noticed.
The keys got them out of their chains and cell, but the outpost was built high up the wall of the cave with only a well-guarded elevator to connect to the floor. And they had absolutely no equipment. So they decided that part one of the plan was to attack the guard tower in front of their cells, where only one elite drow and two regular drows stood guard. They had the good idea (I might have nudged them a bit in the right direction) to use the fact that the other way to the guard tower was a hanging bridge, to try to cut the ropes of that bridge. The first rope cut made quite some noise, so the combat began with the drow looking out the far door of the guard tower to see what was happening, and one regular drow getting pushed of the ledge by the warrior rushing in through the other door.
The fight was rather tough, a group of level 2 characters against a drow elite warrior of challenge rating 5 having two attacks each round and poisoned weapons. The warrior went down early, but got healed back up; fortunately the group has three people with healing spells, a cleric, a druid, and a ranger. The drow then outright killed one of the NPCs, the dwarven scout Eldelth, who had wisely asked the group before that in the event of her death they would carry word to her family in Gauntlgrym. During the fight the sorceress and drow NPC managed to cut the rope bridge, preventing drow reinforcements. The druid meanwhile had gone up to the store room and dropped weapons for them from there. So ultimately the group prevailed, got decently equipped (although not finding their initial equipment back), found ropes, and used those to escape from the drow outpost. We decided to stop there and play the rest of the escape and pursuit the next session.