“Demons huh? Those have some pretty good loot … right?”
So I picked up a copy of Out of the Abyss last month and I found it to be a pretty exciting read. Usually I’ll pick up a book, peruse it for a bit and get a sense of what’s in there and I’ll spot read bits after trying to read from cover to cover. Generally these mega adventures/campaigns, which seem to be the format for 5e, that cover 15 levels or more of play don’t exactly read like novels. The first one, Tyranny of Dragons a two-parter, is mostly driven by a string of imminent events. This wasn’t a deal breaker. Many of my campaigns in the past were, in retrospect, fairly linear, but my group was more inclined to be the reactionary type, happy to be pulled along by events. The second, Princes of the Apocalypse, is fairly praiseworthy. It gives the PCs far more latitude. The campaign constraints are still there, but I can see the narrative panning out differently in subsequent replays. This time, Out of the Abyss is a page turner.
Like Princes of the Apocalypse, you get that sand box feel with Out of the Abyss. Normally this means a disjointed narrative. There are certain touchstone moments built in that need to happen in order to drive the plot, but otherwise all possible outcomes happily coexist, parallel realities to be accounted for with ever expanding logic gates and “if this than that” contingencies. Usually most of these choices are rendered ultimately inconsequential by scripted events that are points of convergence for the story. There’s a bit of that in Out of the Abyss, but they include so many variables that these convergence points look less like an intersection, and more like a bottle neck. It’s set in the Underdark, which naturally constrains the player’s travel choices in the way a traditional dungeon does. Yet travel in this subterranean world can be pretty variable with arbitrary or random terrain encounters coupled with monster/NPC encounters, making each run-through a unique experience. Key locations each have a politically complex landscape that bewilder the mind with the potential story arcs. “Touchstone” events are rendered contextually dynamic based on the PCs circumstances. I know that’s all a bit abstract, but for the sake of being able to avoid a mild spoiler, I’ll foot note an example at the end.*
As much as I love D&D and running D&D games, reading adventures, let alone whole campaigns, can still be a bit of a chore. Usually I need a vested interest to keep me going. In other words, I’m about to run this story so I better know what I’m doing. Strangely, I found myself eagerly reading Out of the Abyss, even mentally tracking as many story iterations as my feeble mind could hold. It’s that good. I find myself attenuating to the weird and dreamlike vibe it’s trying to convey. The PCs are placed in world of strangeness with a constant parade of quirky NPCs to interact with, most of whom have an inclination to join or follow the party. I can see things getting pretty crowded unless the DM gets a little vicious and knocks some of these camp followers off from time to time, which adds a melancholic element to counterpoint to the whimsy since the loss of these characters would bereally felt as they are so colorful and memorable. Madness is definitely a theme throughout, and if you didn’t pick up on the dreamscape aspect early on, you get hit over the head with Alice in Wonderland simulacrums to reinforce the point.
The Plan: Brainstorming Projects for the First Chapter
Caveat! Some spoilage beyond. Be thee warned!
More than the other 5e stories I’ve picked up, I really want to run this one in the near future. Which means I’m going to need to get back to the crafting table. I’ve reserved a part of my brain for tabulating all the terrain crafts and character sculpts I can see coming up, and I have to say it’s a bit daunting. Regardless of where the characters want to go, things invariably start in Velkenvelve.
Velkenvelve involves a cliff face and stalactite rooms connected by walkways. This set should get some mileage, so it’s an obvious build. It has some built in 3 dimentionality to it, and any build should reflect what seems like about three layers or levels. Their are the caverns, walkways, and stalactites, on the top layer. The ends of the stalactites connected by webbing make up the second. And finally, the cavern floor and pool make up the third. All of these elements are tied together with a cliff face and a waterfall that empties into the pool. This poses a serious challenge right off the bat. I could separate these elements and display them all on one surface in a two dimensional or 2.5D way. Yet I need to visually communicate how all these things come together. The area is open and small enough to reveal the entire layout all at once, especially once the PCs get out of the first area. And it’s likely that movement between these layers will be fluid. It just won’t be convenient to swap tiles constantly.
There’s always the option of “theatre of the mind.” But I want to reject that offhand. It’s a complex topography, with potentially some complex combats that make descriptions difficult without at least some detailed drawings to get everyone on the same page. I shudder to imagine the party splitting up, which is a legitimate strategy and a contextually likely scenario, when a fight breaks out.
So in a 3D setup, I can’t see getting around a cliff face backdrop. This will have to include the waterfall. The problems include representing the stalactite rooms. I’ll need at least a cutaway of those rooms. They hang from the cavern ceiling. That’s not going to happen at the table, so however I do it it will have to stand off the table. The caverns in the cliff I can either add to the back of the entrances on the cliff face, or render them separately in tiles on the tabletop, but that’ll definitely add to the footprint and somewhat defeat the purpose of a 3D diorama. In fact I could or might have to render all interiors in 2.5D separately, though I’m reluctant to do so.
The second crafty considerations for the first chapter are the miniatures. I could track down and purchase the required minis, but what fun would that be? (Ok, new minis are always fun, but humor me.) The two glaring deficiencies in my collection would be the Quaggoths and the demons that might show up. Further, my drow figs are pretty sparse, and I’d want something special to represent Ilvara Mizzrym. She’s going to be a possible pain the PC’s butt for while and I’ll need something new for her.
The quaggoths in the new Rage of Demons line line of minis look pretty feral. I’m not a big fan of that to be honest. Call me old school but I prefer the 1st and 2nd edition look, the one where they’re recognizably bear-like, and showing off the cool stone hammer their mom just made for ’em. Ok, relax, it’s just a preference. But I’ll need about 6 of these guys.
The demons that might show up will be the most challenging sculpts It’s not clear to me how many I’ll need. Probably at least two.
What comes next would depend on where the PCs want to go. Wherever they go, I’ll need some demon lord figs in the near future, I mean, Demogorgon is right there on the cover, and I can’t skimp on that, can I?
*For my example of a “touchstone” event made different based on choice or circumstance, a stone giant rampages into an area of civilization. This could happen at any number of junctures after the PCs arrive on the scene. They may even be captives. They may be working for one of the factions in the area. They could be just bystanders at that moment. They may know more or less about the issues surrounding the rampage, or be more or less savvy about what this event portends based on past experiences or lack of them. What the PCs do here and what is done to the PCs during and after is a result of the context in which the PCs experience this event, an event which is common to every iteration of the game. Moreover, it’s not so much a linchpin that it can’t be omitted altogether. Now THAT’S a sandbox!