Over the past few weeks of the New Zealand summer, a friend and I decided to speed run through the D&D 5e module Out of the Abyss. There was only two of us, so I played the DM and Sophia played a dragonborn cleric. We decided to play a chapter a day, so we estimated it would only take about two weeks to get through the adventure.
Out of the Abyss is an amazing module. It's a bold way to start a module (the characters have been captured and imprisoned) right from the beginning, and must rely upon raw ingenuity to escape. Of course, once they do escape, they find they're destined to go from bad to worse, with all the horrors of the Underdark threatening them at every turn.
The pacing is clear: the adventurers are being pursued almost at every moment. It's a very reactionary story, at least in the beginning. It slows a little once the characters make their way out of Drow territory, but there are still plenty of impending threats to drive the story forward. I like this, because even in advenures-on-rails it can be easy to lose sight of the immediate goal, if not the story. In Out of the Abyss, the story is generally very clear, and it's mostly just about survival.
For a speed run, this was especially useful. We only played an hour or two a day, and the time constraint combined with clear and present and larger-than-life threats made for a useful urgency. If the end of the game session ended and the full story of a chapter hadn't yet been told, it was easy to cut it short with a demon lord bursting through a wall and killing everyone in sight as the PC ran away.
The module comes with 8 or 9 NPCs imprisoned along with the players. Since we only had 1 PC, I was sure to have 3 NPCs accompany the player. I just used the first 3 presented in the book, and that worked well. A few were familiar with the Underdark, and none of them were particularly great in combat, but then again without weapons the entire party wasn't great.
Two NPCs made it all the way to the dwarven city Gracklstugh. Both died there, specifically in the Whorlstone Tunnels, which appeared to mean the player was utterly alone for the rest of the adventure. It worked out well, though, because by the time the player moved on from the tunnels, she was level 6 and had managed to acquire a familiar and a new NPC (a duergar stone guard she rescued from a fate worse than death).
I heard an interview years ago with Mike Mearles, senior manager of D&D 5e R&D, in which he said that Dungeon Masters should try, just for fun, leveling-up characters at the end of each session. I thought it sounded interesting, and had in mind for some future game, but it didn't occur to me to try it for this speed run. Gaining a level in 2 hours of game play just didn't feel right.
After two sessions, though, I realised that that was exactly what we needed. At the proscribed XP rate of the book, the player would barely reach level 6 by the end of the entire adventure, partly because there was no time to explore and do side quests. So we started leveling-up at the end of each session (which was also the end of each chapter) and it worked perfectly. It successfully redirected focus from a set number of encounters to staying alive: if you weren't dead at the end of the session, you gained a level. It also kept the game exciting for both player and DM, because the player was gaining exciting new spells and powers, so I as the DM had to adapt my tactics and monsters.
And besides that, the point that Mike Mearls's was making when he suggested this method was that all of the game is meant to be enjoyed. How many people have played module after module, never to ascend beyond level 7 or 8? It makes sense for a module to take players all the way through the full spectrum of a character's heroic life cycle, at least every once in a while.
I've played Out of the Abyss before, so I was already somewhat familiar with the story and setting. Then again, every DM adjusts an adventure for circumstance, and there's a lot of flexibility in Out of the Abyss, so the version of the game I played was a lot different than the version I would play as DM.
Prep work for this game ended up being basically the same as prep work for any game. Because we were playing a chapter a day, that meant I had to read a chapter a day. Luckily, I was generally able to do that, but I don't always have the greatest memory, so usually I ended up skimming over the upcoming chapter late at night, and then giving it a thorough read in the morning. With precious little time to bookmark important monsters or take notes about especially intricate locations, I had to rely heavily upon the module and source books to guide me to what I needed when I needed them. Unfortunately, the indices of both the source books and the module itself are severely inadequate. I know it's a well-documented shortcoming of the Monster Manual (so much so that Wizards has released a downloadable index of Monsters organized by CR ratings), but there's no index by terrain type. The module has no index whatsoever. The PHB and DMG have indices, but they're not great. I have colour-coded the chapters of both the PHB and the DMG using markers on the page edges, and while that helps some, quickly finding information with no prep is by no means easy.
Aside from that, the prep was not any worse than prep for any other game. In some ways, the prep work was easier, because I had no time to over-prep. All I had time for was reading the chapter, and before it had the opportunity to get cycled out of my relatively busy mind, the chapter had been played.
I roll all dice in the open, so if a monster rolls a natural 20 to attack and double sixes on 2d6 damage, there's no question about its validity, or the results. With only one player, I knew that combat stakes would be particularly high, so I chose to use battle maps to make the positions of foes very clear.
Unfortunately, the maps in Out of the Abyss are absurd to reproduce, especially during game play. I'm not sure why the maps are so complex. It doesn't serve any purpose except that they are, admittedly, a lot more organic, if not exactly realistic, in appearance. The map layouts successfully convey the twists and turns of the Underdark, and they make you really believe that the Drow built their civilization into the natural formations of the caverns. And while that makes for dynamic and inventive play, it's nearly impossible to accurately convey on a battle map without a lot of careful transcription.
If I speed run the module again, I imagine I won't use maps, or else I'll just use a map for just the combat rounds rather than attempting to reproduce a chapter's map as you might a dungeon map.
Some side quests became centerpieces, and some main story elements got dropped, and the module was generally butchered beyond recognition after a series of surprising player choices and jaw-dropping die rolls all around. But the game was, in short, great. It was just as much fun as a normal play-through, and in some ways more rewarding, because the player character advanced in level at a faster rate than usual, and we got to experience the entire dark and frantic world of the Underdark in just three weeks (well, not the entire Underdark, but all of it that the module contains).
I recommend speed running D&D. I don't think it would work with every module. For instance, a module requiring a lot of investigation and social intrigue would probably suffer from a speed run. But if a module is high on action or its story is mostly a railroad, then a speed run may work well. Do a chapter (or equivalent) a session, level up at the end, and get through a module in two weeks. Once you try it, you might find you like it.
Out of the Abyss copyright by Wizards of the coast.