Out of the Abyss: NPC Cards

PDF: Out of the Abyss NPCs
Excel (Exported from LibreOffice): Out of the Abyss NPCs

I am notoriously bad at keeping track of NPC’s, familiars, and just about anything that isn’t directly related to the people on the other side of the table from me. So Out of the Abyss poses a challenge since it introduces ten NPC’s that the party may spend the entire campaign with.

To help me keep track of everyone, and to communicate to the party what each NPC’s strengths, weaknesses, and personalities are like, I’ve made reference cards for the whole lot, and I’m posting them here! Keep in mind that these cards try to stick to the noticeable aspects about a character instead of deep personal information. These cards are meant to be given to the players, so some secrets have been omitted. If you want to change the descriptions, you can download the spreadsheet and have at it.

These cards are meant to be printed. I printed mine on 65lb cardstock (which works with my printer, but check with yours first!) and they come out sturdy enough that I can easily store them and pass them around to players without worrying about them getting destroyed.

Credit to John Bard who put together the NPC tokens I used for these cards.

PDF: Out of the Abyss NPCs
Excel (Exported from LibreOffice): Out of the Abyss NPCs

Campaign Briefs

PDF: Out of the Abyss Campaign Brief

At the end of my last campaign, I had an idea to run a follow-up campaign with the party’s retired characters and see where they ended up many years later. I was really excited for it, but I also wanted to give my friends the option to try something new. To help explain the differences between these two competing campaigns, I created two single-page documents that quickly laid out my ideas. My hope was that both documents would explain why my friends would enjoy or not enjoy each campaign, and then I could ask the group which campaign seemed more interesting to them.

Years later, I’ve gotten to the point where I always start a new campaign with this kind of document, using them as explanatory guides for my players about the game we’re about to play. But as it turns out, this is actually a common practice! There are a few different names for them, but I’ve settled on “campaign brief.” Campaign briefs are valuable tools to set expectations and answer important questions about the game, and since I just wrote a new campaign brief for the Out of the Abyss game I’m going to run this summer, I felt that I should share it and outline my process in writing one.

Each group is going to have different questions they need answered, based on your groups norms and experience level. But for me, I typically break down a brief into three sections that explain what a player needs to know before playing, the world that the players are going to experience, and how their characters might fit into that world.

Section 1: Knowledge Necessary to Play

I always start with the nitty-gritty stuff. Players differ in how much they care about the actual game world, but all my players need to know how I want them to put a character together. So I start with information like ability score generation and how long the campaign will last. I also try to start with some fluff to give them a feel the campaign as a whole.

A Note on Campaign Length

Some good advice for pitching any long-term commitment is to be upfront with how much time it’s going to take. My group is used to having weekly sessions, but for Out of the Abyss I only want to do the first part of the book over the summer, so I make that clear here.

Doing this will make sure your players know what kind of commitment they’re getting into, which is important for something that takes up many hours of their week!

Setting Campaign Tone

I like writing, so I always try to explain the tone of the campaign through prose, but that doesn’t always work. I plan on running Out of the Abyss like it was straight out of Alice in Wonderland (the designers mention it as an inspiration in the notes!), but in the brief I made it sound like I was running a super-gritty prison escape campaign. I don’t allude to the strangeness of the Underdark at all. This was a mistake on my part that I had to send out a second email to communicate.

Sometimes prose can express tone very well for a campaign, but I would recommend also explaining in plain english what you expect the campaign to feel like. Straightforward communication will beat elaborate descriptions any day of the week!

Section 2: The World

When I began to run D&D for groups other than my hometown friends, I was opened up to a variety of different views on how organized make-believe can happen. The hardest view for me to incorporate into my DMing style was the idea that my players might actually want more information about the world itself. You know, so they can fit in.

This blew my mind, since at that point in my life I had only ever played games where my friends would come to the table with ridiculous, larger-than-life characters that weren’t meant to fit in. But some players enjoy feeling like their characters could exist in the world, and the only way they can do that is by talking with the DM about what the world is like!

My campaign briefs now have a section that explains the world at a high-level, what its inhabitants fear, and what they might desire. I have a few players that really appreciate this information, but the act of writing it out also helps me understand what themes I should be tying into the campaign again and again. It sets expectations for what the players will see over the course of our game, so they tend to have a better idea of how their characters will feel about it when it emerges.

Section 3: Character Origins

On a similar note, I often get players who don’t understand what a class does. Sure, you can be a wizard, but what does a wizard actually do? Are they just a bunch of bookish dandies who live in far-flung towers? Or are they a revered and elevated social class that only one percent of the world has the capacity to join? These questions are important for players and DMs to build a mutual understanding of what draws a wizard, or a rogue, or a bard, to an adventuring party.

Additionally, not everybody has the talent to come up with fleshed out characters from nothing! I’ve found that most of my players appreciate having some framework so they know why their character goes off on extremely dangerous quests. To help with this, I add a character origins section that explains where a character might come from, and how they could have fallen into their character class.

I never view these origins as the Correct Answer. I view these origins as prompts that players can use to find a character that is fun for them. If a player doesn’t like the origins I have listed, I try to be very open to their ideas. Maybe they want to come from a locale they came up with, or maybe they want to be a very different kind of wizard than what I have written down! These can be great ideas, and I try to work with my players to make sure that they get to play the character they want to play.

Write a Brief!

I think campaign briefs are super-valuable, and I’d never begin a campaign without one. They provide good information to help players understand how the game will be played, and to help them create a character they’ll (hopefully) enjoy for many sessions.

Even if you don’t send a campaign brief out to your players, I recommend writing one for yourself! Having a high-level understanding of your game world is extremely helpful, and can help you suggest ideas to your players if they get stuck in character creation or during game time.

You’re not limited to these sections either. I’ve written competing campaign briefs with different “Why Is This Campaign Fun?” sections, allowing my players to choose which campaign they’d rather play. I’ve also seen campaign briefs contain house rules and special backgrounds. The role of a campaign brief is to give the players information they need to play, and DMs a way to communicate their ideas. So long as you achieve those two objectives, you can do whatever you want with the brief!

PDF: Out of the Abyss Campaign Brief

Customizing Magic Items

PDF: The Forge of Moradin

Uthul Swordbreaker entered the Forge of Moradin, taking care to bend down so that he would not bash his skull on the top of the open doorway. Inside, a dwarf with a mane of carefully braided brown hair was being tended to by a gnome in patchwork robes of violet and blue. As the gnome carefully fed broth to the dwarf, Uthul saw the strain in the dwarf’s attempts to drink, the look of pain in the man’s face, and the splint that was used to set his recently broken arm.

Instead of interrupt the feeding, Uthul took a few moments to inspect the Forge. It was a well-kept shop: part smithy, part shrine to the dwarven god of creation. This confused Uthul: what god would desire to be so close to the sweat and grime of their charges? But then again, the flatlanded folk often believed things that made no sense to Uthul.

“Hero of Morning Gate,” the dwarf finally said, forcing himself to rise from his rest. “You should have knocked. I do not enjoy making others wait.”

Uthul nodded. “Next time I will do just that, stonekeeper.” The dwarf arched an eye at the formal term, but quickly disregarded it. The gnome took a place under the dwarf’s arm, and the two of them hobbled to Uthul.

“I don’t think we ever properly introduced ourselves,” The gnome spoke, his breathy voice a stark contrast to the deep booms of Uthul and the dwarf. “My name is Zook Timbers, enchantment expert, master of the arcane, soothsayer, and traveler. And this–”

“Rurik.” The dwarf replied briskly. “Servant of Moradin.”

“My name is Uthul of the Swordbreaker clan,” The goliath stamped on the floor firmly with his staff, as was tradition for a formal introduction. “And I desire your services.”

“A customer!” Zook exclaimed.

Uthul reached toward his back and unstrapped the shield that rested there, presenting it before them. “Yes. This shield would be better with runes.” The shield was not old, but it was covered in dents and scratches, with strange stains that were never washed out, and more than a couple spots of emerging rust.

Rurik scrunched his face up, as if bearing an awful smell. “I know nothing of the old giant magicks. But we can enchant this shield, if you’re able to pay.”

The three of them bartered for a time, discussing timetables and cost. After everyone was satisfied, Uthul kneeled before Rurik so that he could inspect the shield. A comfortable silence settled, as Rurik ran his calloused fingers up and down the simple shield, as if trying to make out a pattern in its forging.

“Ah,” He finally said. “It wants a gift.”

Uthul said nothing. He knew better than to interrupt a stonekeeper at work.

“It knows that you are a man of few possessions.” Rurik finally said. “But it wants one anyways. I think it’s afraid you will discard it one day, and so it wants a sign that you will care for it.”

Uthul raised an eyebrow. He had heard of dwarves who could speak to the earth itself, but never anything like this. “Very well,” He mumbled, fishing through his pockets until he found the only childhood possession he still carried: a small bluish stone with a singular rune carved into it.

Zook smiled knowingly. “That will do quite nicely, I think.”

On a dew-dotted morn at the edges of Wanderden, five battered adventurers returned from what was considered a suicide mission: they sacked the fortified position of a powerful and insane necromancer, hoping to slay him before he could complete his vile rituals. It was only by their own wits that they managed to survive to a man; and even as the party reveled in their new found status as heroes, they were still troubled by one thing: What the hell were they going to do with all of their new loot?!

I gave my players a couple of suggestions, but all suggestions were moot the moment the words “Magic Item Shop” left my mouth. They were immediately hooked on the idea of spending their hard-earned cash on new equipment, and three of them rushed to the Forge of Moradin to commission enchanted shields.

This put me in the difficult position of having most of my party equipped with the same +1 Shield, which seemed to be a good way to make their new items seem mundane and boring. So I took a deep breath, and threw out my notes. The above story is what happened. I asked something from each of my players, such as a gift, or a promise.

These prompts created a fun roleplaying experience for my players, and beyond that they created an air of mystery around their new items. “Every enchantment comes out a little differently,” I told them. “And however you respond to these prompts will influence that.” In the end, my players ended up with more interesting items that they remember for their story in addition to their mechanical benefits.

Why Unique Magic Items Are Awesome

Variety and uniqueness is part of what makes any RPG entertaining. It’s the reason that the first question I hear asked at character creation is “what class is everyone interested in?” We want our characters to feel special, and our equipment is an extension of our character. When it comes to specialized items like a Broom of Flying, its uniqueness is implicit and immediately understood. However when you look at generic items like a +1 Weapon, it becomes a lot harder to make those distinctions. When an item’s only purpose is to provide a numerical bonus, it can be easily forgotten that you wield an incredible magical feat in your hands.

In my games, I give unique properties to any magical item that the party might get another of. If that item is being bought specifically, I try to tailor it to be as thematic to the character as possible. If it’s simply found in a dungeon somewhere, I try to make it more general so anybody in the party can pick it up. My goal is ultimately to make a weapon memorable and iconic to that character. A +1 Weapon feels disposable, but a +1 Weapon that glows around undead can still be useful even after the party starts having to make hard choices about attunement slots.

The new properties don’t have to be dramatic either! The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a lot of ideas for how to tweak magic items. If I’m in doubt, I pull a lower-level spell out of the Player’s Handbook and give the wielder of the item to cast it once per rest. Uthul’s shield, for example, gives him the ability to cast Enlarge/Reduce once per long rest, and glows in the presence of powerful rune magic. This fits in with Uthul’s backstory, which is heavily tied into the half-giant Goliath people. These kind of details help to develop a theme about a character, which is much more interesting than getting A Better Shield.

Using The Forge of Moradin

To help you bring this style of item creation to your game, this post comes with a write-up of the Forge of Moradin. It contains some notes on Zook and Rurik to help you roleplay them, and has a large list of prompts to help get your creative juices flowing.

The Forge provides a way for your players to spend their money, and additionally as a way to provide quest hooks. If the players want to buy a powerful item, that’s going to require powerful components from a far-off land. It’s an easy way to get an adventure rolling that I’m a big fan of – since it can take you almost anywhere you want.

The Cost and Timetables table is filled with values almost completely ripped off from the DMG, the economics of the campaign might necessitate some tweaking. You might also consider alternative forms of payment, if your players are strapped for cash.

I usually say that Zook and Rurik can only take as many orders at once as there are party members – to ensure that everyone has the option to get a magic item if they want, but also to ensure that the players don’t feel like they can dump all of their equipment and then wait for a month to collect (I keep a calendar for my games, so my players are always very aware that while they wait, the bad guys are making progress). This forces the players to prioritize what items they want to have enchanted, which makes the item they finally get more meaningful.

Final Thoughts

Customizing magic items is not a hobby for the perfectionist. I’ve always found that it takes a lot of tweaking, with new powers emerging as the story continues or occasionally a sheepish apology as I nerf a weapon that in retrospect was a bad idea. When in doubt, start small, and don’t feel like every item needs to blow the party’s socks off. Over time, whether you like it or not, the item they enchanted will get replaced in their hearts by something new and shiny. That’s fine, but this method adds a personal touch to their equipment that helps bring a little more magic to your magic items.

Because I find cramped notes on character sheets hard to read, I use Matt Mercer’s Magic Item Template on cardstock to create nice little notes for my players about their items. I highly recommend people do this with anything more complicated than a wand (and even with a wand, since players tend to pass them around!).

Finally, if you’re ever on a first date and are in need of a list of “getting to know you questions”, the prompts on the write-up do a fantastic job!

PDF: The Forge of Moradin