Out of the Abyss: D&D's next campaign goes deep into the Underdark

What the granddaddy of role-playing games is learning from Marvel, and how its latest book will push the franchise forward.

Dungeons & Dragons' latest campaign book is due at retail in less than two weeks. We’ve got exclusive details, including more than few spoilers, about what could be the most challenging fifth edition campaign yet.

Out of the Abyss is set in one of D&D’s most well-known realms, the shadowy netherworld known as the Underdark. The native habitat of iconic races like the drow and duergar, it’s also home to some of the franchise’s most nefarious monsters — giant spiders, maniacal beholders and deadly mind flayers.

But how do you build a campaign that spans from a first level all the way to the level 15, while making it both welcoming to new players and challenging enough for experienced adventuring parties? Polygon sat down with Chris Perkins, principal designer for D&D at Wizards of the Coast, to find out.

Level up

For this, the fifth edition of D&D, Wizards of The Coast has taken a very different approach to producing content for its venerable tabletop game. Gone are the endless "splatbooks" devoted to a particular branch of character classes, or alternate settings with alternate rules. This time around the publishing focus is all about story.

Art from the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook. Adventurers opening a chest. Wizards of the Coast

What is fifth edition D&D?

Polygon has been covering fifth edition D&D since back in July 2014, when we previewed the system for our readers. That following month, we got our hands on the Starter Set — a boxed version of the game that harkens back to the original versions sold in the 1980s.

What’s so different about this iteration? Lots of things, but in a nutshell the ruleset itself has a lighter touch. It’s far less complex than its forbears, and pushes the storytelling aspect of the game forward in place of combat. That’s not to say that battles aren’t common and dangerous, but they do tend to happen faster.

"After one evening playing," I wrote in August of last year, "what I can tell you is that fifth edition sets the Dungeon Master free. Free to move the game along. Free to make the story more interesting. Free to have fun along with their players."

This upcoming campaign book, Out of the Abyss, contains all the secret information that a Dungeon Master needs to run a months-long game with three, four or even five player-characters at the table. Traditionally, it includes hooks in the beginning — multiple ways to get your party of players into the story — as well as multiple rewards by the end. Some take the form of magical items, others are companions and still others might be magical powers.

In the case of Out of the Abyss, this campaign will also contain a collection of character flaws, types of madness players will be permanently affected by. By the end of the 15-level campaign characters will have experienced an epic story together. But they’ll also have grown in power. Most importantly, the players at the table will have been forged into a tight-knit team with a history — and a reason to move forward to the next big challenge.

In just the first year since the new ruleset has gone live, WoTC has released two full story arcs, each one taking players from first level all the way to level 15. First there was the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, then the Elemental Evil storyline. Now comes Rage of Demons, for which Out of the Abyss will be the first tabletop campaign.

"We’ve gone from being product-focused to being story-focused," Perkins told Polygon, "which means we think of a story that we want to tell, that captures the essence of D&D, and also that we think is going to energize our players and DMs. Then we develop a story bible for that story and propagate it through a number of different expressions."

In the Rage of Demons storyline, D&D’s most infamous "demon lords have been summoned from the Abyss and players must descend into the Underdark … to stop the chaos before it threatens the surface." While that’s a lot of lore for the uninitiated to digest in one sentence, Perkins likened the strategy to that of another popular medium that constantly refreshes itself with rich new storylines — comics.

"D&D is now a multigenerational game."

"It’s a Marvel-type of approach," he said, "where Marvel acknowledges that the comics are the spiritual core of their brand, and the movies are the more mainstream way of getting a large number of people to recognize their key characters and also look back at the comics to see where all this came from.

"D&D is now a multigenerational game. We’re going to that approach story-first. However that story manifests, be it an RPG or something else, is OK with us."

For D&D, it's the tabletop experience that forms the core of the franchise, the meaty center of it all. Properties like video games, such as the upcoming Sword Coast Legends and free-to-play Neverwinter Online expansion, are just a more mainstream expression. And on the horizon looms the recently untangled movie rights to the D&D franchise, which now belong to Warner Bros.

"D&D is very much going in the same direction as Marvel, where we recognize that the tabletop RPG is the heart of D&D and always will be, and we’re looking for ways to get D&D stories out in the world to attract more people to the brand, so that eventually they discover where D&D comes from — it comes from this game that’s about sitting around a table with your friends and having these experiences that transcend and last a lifetime."

To that end, the tabletop game will be the most rich and most complex way to experience the universe. Rolling d20s is how fans can get in on the ground floor.

Abandon all hope

"The idea with Rage of Demons was to paint the Underdark as D&D on hard mode," Perkins said. "As I mulled that concept over, I went back and I read the R.A. Salvatore novel Exile."

The main character of Exile, Drizzt Do’Urden, is perhaps the most popular character in all of D&D. The legendary dark elf, or drow, has already been the subject of several series of books and has even more on the way. To be sure, this isn’t the first time he’s popped up in a campaign book. To Perkins, what Do’Urden and his Underdark world represent is the darkest, most morally and physically punishing manifestation of the D&D universe. To reacquaint himself with it, Perkins studied Exile — the second novel in Do'Urden's prequel series — and used it to set the tone for the entire Rage of Demons storyline.

"Exile is the story of Drizzt escaping the Underdark and going to the surface for the first time," Perkins said. "It’s the chronicle of his journey. Along the way, he meets all these absolutely crazy characters."

In fourth edition D&D, bits and pieces of lore about the Underdark were scattered among several books. With Out of the Abyss, Perkins sees his team’s chance to reset that realm and bring it forward for the next generation of players.

"I asked R.A.Salvatore, ‘Did you intend for this to be an homage to Alice in Wonderland?’"

"As I was re-reading Exile, it struck me that this is an almost Lewis Carroll-esque take," Perkins said. "So I called Salvatore and I asked, ‘Did you intend for this to be an homage to Alice in Wonderland?’ He said no, but as we were talking and he reflected on it, and he admitted that it really kinda sorta is.

"We’ve depicted the Underdark many times before but I don’t think we’ve ever depicted it in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, where the Underdark becomes the Wonderland of D&D; this crazy weird place that you have to fall down a hole to enter, and it’s full of crazy deranged characters. The more you hang around them, the more you begin to understand them, and the more you realize you’re going crazy yourself.

"That became our hook for this Underdark story."

demogorgon_rage_of_demons

Without a touch of madness

As the Out of the Abyss campaign opens, first-level characters will find themselves captives of the drow, trapped inside a dark elf outpost deep in the Underdark. How exactly they came to be there is up to them, but to survive and escape they’ll need to work together. Along the way they will be changed, but not in the traditional sense of gaining powers and leveling up.

The Abyss, an alternate plane of existence in the D&D lore, has opened up and demons are spilling out into the Underdark. What was originally merely a dark and deadly place is now tainted by powerful, inescapable madness.

"We want to throw as many demon lords in the pot as possible," Perkins said, "and really have the characters shit themselves. Demogorgon. Orcus. Graz’zt. Fraz-Urb’luu. Juiblex. Zuggtmoy. They’ve all got parts to play in the Rage of Demons story. In Out of the Abyss, we focus primarily on Demogorgon, Fraz-Urb’Luu, Juiblex, Zuggtmoy and Yeenoghu, with cameos or mentions or teases of many others.

As they encounter other denizens of the Underdark that have been touched by these powerful demons, or agents of those demons themselves, player characters will develop flaws — permanent changes that they will have to role-play for the rest of their characters' lives.

"If you contract madness, you gain a flaw," Perkins said. "It’s a personality flaw. The way flaws work in fifth edition is, they’re little role-playing notes that you write down on your character sheet. ‘I don’t trust my friends,’ for instance. These have no specific mechanical enforcement attached to them. It’s just that if you inherit this flaw, you’re obliged to role-play that flaw as best you can."

This flaw system dovetails nicely into fifth edition’s inspiration mechanic. If a player character role-plays particularly well at the table, the Dungeon Master can award them a point of inspiration. Inspiration allows them to gain advantage on a roll of the dice, by rolling twice and taking the higher result. It’s a powerful boon, and one that players can even share with each other at the table.

What that means is that by playing up your character flaw — your particular touch of madness — you make the game better for everyone at the table.

"The inspiration mechanic is marvelous," Perkins said, "because it gives you a mechanical reward for playing the flaw, but not a mechanical punishment for ignoring it. If you choose to role-play the madness, you become a more effective character."

With friends like these

Drizzt Do’Urden may be the biggest name in D&D, but Perkins and the team at Green Ronin Publishing (which actually designed Out of the Abyss from the story bible Perkins helped create) plan to introduce many new characters to D&D’s canon.

Many of these new characters will have fixed points in the story where they’re introduced to players, others are simply wild cards that Dungeon Masters are free to use to meet their needs at the table.

[At this point in our feature we’re about to spoil some of Out of the Abyss. If you’re not a Dungeon Master, this might be a good time to skip to the next section.]

rumpadump_stool
Glabbagool

Perhaps the most unique character to rear its ugly pseudopodia in Out of the Abyss is Glabbaagool, a gelatinous cube that has gained sentience.

"Gelatinous cubes thrive there naturally," Perkins said. "But what would happen to the oozes and slimes of the Underdark when Juiblex, the Faceless Lord — the demon lord of slimes — actually shows up? His intellect and madness begin to suffuse the Underdark. What would that do to oozes and slimes?

"He was one of my ideas. I plundered it from my third edition campaign, which was partially Underdark-focused. I thought that Juiblex’s presence would turn a lot of oozes into sentient creatures. One of those is Glabagool. They can have any personality you give them. I wanted Glabagool in particular to be a helpful gelatinous cube.

"It remains to be seen whether or not characters will have Glabagool tagging along with them as a party member."

But how does a gelatinous cube communicate its friendly intentions? Not easily, Perkins said, which creates a fun challenge for both players and dungeons masters alike.

"They’d use body language, of course. Some oozes manifest a form of telepathy. Glabbagool can communicate that way, although what his thoughts are is really up to the DM. They might be fairly basic thoughts, nothing too complicated. Or if the DM prefers he can play him like an English butler. Whatever. It’s up to the DM how that personality manifests."

Yuk Yuk and Spiderbait

"Two of my favorites are a pair of goblin adrenaline junkies named Yuk Yuk and Spiderbait," Perkins said. "They’re a tag team. They are these two goblins who, through sheer miraculous luck, have managed to survive in the Underdark, and not only survive by thrive. They look at the Underdark as one big life challenge.

yuk_yuk_spiderbait_cropped

"These guys are your bungee-jumpers, hang-gliders, stuff like that. We encounter them in Out of the Abyss where they help you navigate this gigantic cavern complex full of spiderwebs. This is a bad pun, but they’ve learned how to surf the webs.

"They cover their feet and hands with grease and slide down the webbing. They can teach the characters how to do this to cross the cavern quickly and avoid the giant spiders that live there. They do this fearlessly, even though they’re just goblins. They’re two weak-ass goblins and we sort of imagine them having the personalities of George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men, or various other characters. But really, they’re just out there for the thrills."

rumpadump_stool
Rumpadump and Stool

"Rumpadump and Stool are two myconids," Perkins said, referring to the Underdark’s resident fungus-folk. "They’re pretty young myconids — myconid sprouts. They’re just learning the ways of the Underdark. They speak through their ‘rapport spores.’ They’re telepathic communicators who eject spores that other creatures inhale in order to establish a telepathic bond.

"They try to be helpful. They want to get back home, which is a place called Neverlight Grove, a myconid enclave. You meet Stool early on in the adventure when he’s a prisoner of the drow. He’s reunited with his buddy, Rumpadump, when they meet at the Neverlight Grove. Rumpadump can join the party thereafter.

"When we sat down to brainstorm characters for the story, one thing Richard Whitters, the senior art director on D&D, did is he drew a bunch of myconids, a whole long row of them.

"They were so fun and so almost Disney-esque that we couldn’t help but give names to all of them. Rumpadump and Stool were the two that survived to the very end. We have a few others that don’t appear in the story, but who knows? Maybe they’ll appear in a future one.

"One of my favorites was a mushroom with a tall red cap," Perkins said, a throwback to his Alice in Wonderland inspiration. "His name was Madhat."

xazax
Xazax

"Xazax is a very angry customer," Perkins said. "This is another idea that was born out of one of my personal D&D campaigns. In that campaign, I had a beholder who hunted other beholders for their disintegration eyestalks. He was cutting off his own eyestalks and replacing them with disintegration eyestalks, so that when you finally face him at the end of the adventure, he’s got ten disintegration eyestalks. That’s a very mean DM thing to do.

"Xazax was born out of that concept. Here’s a beholder who, with the aid of his Igor-like servant, Mr. Peebles, is finding other beholders, trapping them, tracking them down, murdering them to steal their eyestalks, and then grafting those eyestalks onto his body

zellick
Zellix

"A mind flayer is this super-intelligent, squid-headed humanoid that lives in the Underdark," Perkins said. "They gather in enclaves. They’re mind readers, and feed on the brains of humanoid creatures.

"They have the ability to plant tadpoles in the brains and, through a process called ceremorphosis, transform those brains into new mind flayers. That’s how they propagate. They’re very disturbing, very Lovecraftian. They worship giant brains called elder brains.

"Zelix is a mind flayer who runs an insane asylum in the Underdark. He’s discovered that the place is simply full of succulent brains, and that insane brains are actually more delicious than normal brains. He collects insane creatures, traps them and farms their brains in his asylum until they’re so succulent that he can extract and sell their brain juices.

"Mind flayers are already bad enough, but one that cultivates insanity is pretty wicked."

In medias res

Even though Out of the Abyss kicks off the third story arc in fifth edition’s short history, Perkins said it’s been built to be a great starting point for new players. Beginning from page one, it provides a smooth ramp into the world of D&D. But players with parties who’ve been playing for some time can easily drop into the campaign in the middle.

"About half-way through the campaign, players are on the surface enjoying a respite when King Bruenor Battlehammer, the dwarven king of Gauntlgrym — formerly the king of Mithril Hall and one of R.A. Bob Salvatore’s signature characters. King Battlehammer hears about their exploits in the Underdark, contacts them, and says he wants them to go back down to deal with this demonic threat before it spills up to the surface." That hook, Perkins said, is a great starting point for characters of around the seventh level.

"Fifth edition was and is, in some ways, the people’s D&D."

The kinds of adaptive, story-driven modules being produced so far for fifth edition D&D will continue, Perkins said. So far they’ve done a remarkable job of breathing new life into the franchise, earning it new players who continually provide feedback to the team at WoTC.

"Fifth edition was and is, in some ways, the people’s D&D," Perkins said. "Great time and effort and care was taken in soliciting feedback from as many D&D fans as possible. We had more than 175,000 of them who directly subscribed to the early fifth edition D&D content, plus all the gamers in their groups. It’s conceivable, although we don’t know the exact number, that half-a-million people helped us playtest and gave feedback on the game over a two-year period.

"The game went out of its way, and we went out of our way, to bring the best of all the previous editions forward, to create a game that while harmonious, also hearkened back to things people loved from past editions. As a consequence of that diligence, we’re enjoying what I would call unprecedented success."

Perkins said that their approach to building the brand back up, after the troubles the fourth edition faced, is translating into commercial success. The proof, he says, is visible in the stellar sales of fifth edition’s physical books.

"We went out of our way to bring the best of all the previous editions forward."

"It’s staggering," Perkins said. "I don’t know how many reprints we’ve done of the core rules, but at this point it’s a lot. The books have been on the New York Times bestseller lists for eight, nine, maybe ten months. We’ve garnered lots of awards. By every metric, this edition is surpassing previous editions.

"D&D the role-playing game is not going away. It is the heart and soul of your business. But how you see it, the things we create for it, will be much more calculated, because we’re not going to put effort toward a product that’s only going to sell 10,000 or even 50,000 or even 100,000 copies if we can help it.

"[Fifth edition] is not what a lot of old-school D&D players necessarily recognize, because they might still be thinking about D&D as it was in 1978, 1988, 1998 or even 2008 — a bunch of books on a shelf, a book a month of new class options, a new setting every year. These are things that have been attempted in the past with great success, with no success, and with mixed success. But we recognize that we are evolving, the game is evolving, our customers are evolving." Babykayak