My first contact with Out of the Abyss wasn’t great. I was a player in a campaign based on that book, but the DM was a) inexperienced and b) had removed the starting chapter and removed it by a series of other adventures before leading us down into the Underdark. Now I can see the motivation for that: OotA starts the players as slaves of the Drow, in shackles, without gear; a start that is both somewhat cliche for the genre, and not the most pleasant one for the players. However after preparing the adventure now for another group I see how this start is absolutely essential to the adventure. Removing it leads to exactly the problem we had, that is wandering through the Underdark with no motivation, being unclear of the goal and purpose of the adventure.
The whole first half of Out of the Abyss is motivated by that start: The players escape and are pursued by the Drow. They are looking for a way back to the surface, while having to survive a harsh and strange environment, and having to find means to equip themselves. It is dark fantasy, it is a game of survival. And it doesn’t work without that start in slavery. If you ever want to play this, ask your players first if they are okay with a dark survival campaign instead of the more generic heroic fantasy.
To understand Out of the Abyss one needs to see how it inverses the sandbox approach of certain other D&D adventures, for example Princes of the Apocalypse. In Princes of the Apocalypse the dungeons and encounters are described in much detail, but it is left to the DM and players to figure out how to get from one dungeon to the next. That doesn’t work very well, because the dungeons have different levels, and playing them through in an order other than by level results in problems. Out of the Abyss takes a very different approach: The main story from the start to at least the mid-point, escaping from the Underdark, is linear. You best play chapter 1 first, then chapter 2, then chapter 3, etc., because it makes sense geographically and story-wise. But what exactly happens in each of the chapters is left open and is to be created by the interactive storytelling between DM and player. Chapter 1 is very clear about this being about a prisoner escape, but how exactly the players escape from prison is left to them. If they don’t do anything the DM has some events that will push them in the right direction, but ideally the DM first lets the players try their own ideas, and allows any half reasonable plan to succeed. The goal is for the DM and the players to both drive the story forward. D&D should never be adversarial, and for OotA it wouldn’t work at all if the DM didn’t “help” the players to escape.
One of the early highlights of that approach is chapter 4, Gracklstugh. There you get a complete description of a Duergar city in the Underdark, complete with who the different power factions are and what their interaction is. But you are left to play that city as a sandbox, the adventure doesn’t tell you where to start or which faction to support. Played right this might be a great short city adventure on its own. The obvious disadvantage of the approach, and thus of all of Out of the Abyss, is that it requires a great amount of preparation and/or improvisation from the Dungeon Master. This is very much a campaign for expert DMs. And I’ll find out in how far it works with newbie players, because that is who I am going to play it with.