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My party of 5 just finished LMoP and we've bought OotA.

The beginning of the book is important to the whole story, as is the feeling of desperation as they run low on resources, chased by a powerful enemy they can't hope to match at this stage.

I've spoken to the players, and they'd like to continue playing their characters they've grown attached to, so I've told them I'll need to temporarily depower them, if they want to get the most out of the book. This'll mean taking some of the magic items they have (they found most of the stuff from LMoP, plus a few extras I threw in) and restricting access to spells/extra attacks.

I'm going to have them jumped by the drow in the middle of the night in a very one sided ambush, just to really push home the threat of the drow, but make it clear they're trying to capture, so no one gets killed.

My question is, how much should I take off the players, and how should I do it?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth I read this as "how to 'depower' a level 5 party with magic items to make them appropriate for an adventure that assumes you start at level 1". If OP can confirm my interpretation, would you agree that is a stack-friendly question? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jul 23 at 15:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth Yes, it wouldn't surprise me if an answer said "don't depower them, that's not necessary", and suggesting other ways to make sure a level 5 party don't just breeze through the intro of OotA, but so long as it's backed up with experience (as per our usual "Good Subjective" guidelines), it should still be stack-friendly. Unfortunately, at the moment, I only have experience running OotA starting with a level 1 party. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jul 23 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS is right. "how to 'depower' a level 5 party with magic items to make them appropriate for an adventure that assumes you start at level 1" is probably a better phrasing of my question. But I also wanted to leave it open so that the answer to "how much should I take off the party" could be nothing, here's a good way to ensure there's still sufficient challenge. \$\endgroup\$ – ryanp11 Jul 23 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be that this question is better suited to a forum. We have a curated list here. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 24 at 1:03
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My party experienced this introduction to OotA following the Sunless Citadel, so this is a reflection of that experience. We were overwhelmed and captured by the drow using paralysis darts, and kept sedated. We were thrown into a cell without our equipment, and then had to devise an escape from jail.

Consider limiting their equipment instead of their abilities.

Being captured by the Drow is intended to be draining, and presents an opportunity to adjust the power level of the group. However, be prepared to grant the players slack as they calibrate to their reduced power level (both unarmed, and after recovering limited gear). Features such as extra attacks are fairly pivotal to the characters gameplay, and it is hard to rationalize their removal (we all hate the trope of a character waking up and "forgetting their abilities").

You should determine which items are essential for each character remain to functional and fun, as opposed to items that merely boost their characters stats/damage.

Notable items required for character functionality:

  1. Wizard Spell Books: These were particularly expensive and difficult to recreate. The wizard cannot change prepared spells without it, and those that are prepared cannot be copied into a new book if unprepared. This is potentially permanent damage to the wizard's spell list progression.
  2. Heavy Armor: The drow do not wear heavy armor and resources are typically not available to purchase a set, inhibiting heavy armor wearers' ability to survive and fulfill their role. Consider having some available eventually, though not necessarily plate. Be wary of strangely shaped or sized characters as well, if you impose this restriction on armor fitting.
  3. Items Important to a Characters Background: Players will often over-exaggerate their devotion to a trinket ("My fathers watch!") or focus tied to their character motivation in the spirit of role-play, which can lead to situations of imminent death that require DM intervention.
  4. Items that the Character has Selected a Feat or Class Feature to Utilize.

Items that should be removed:

  1. Any equipment that confers strictly +stat, +to hit, or +damage benefits: These causes balance difficulties and can be earned later or rediscovered. This is also fitting as the equipment would be taken care of given the value.
  2. Gold: Can easily be earned as the campaign dictates.

Of course, you can evaluate these based on your players and their reactions. They should be somewhat dreary as the general setting for the beginning of the campaign. However, keep in mind that unlike most jail situations, they likely did not make poor decisions that typically earn this punishment, and it may seem unfair to them if they feel like they have lost progress.

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Don't take their items

People Hate Loss

Losing something that's yours sucks, plain and simple. The sadness you feel about losing something is considerably greater than the joy you felt from gaining it.

Most DMs do not want their players to think they are a jerk. But you do you, ok.

Resource Management

D&D 5th edition is a resource management game. The main difference between a first-level character and a fifth-level character is not what they can face but how much of it they can face before needing to rest and replenish their resources. If you push more encounters on your fifth-levels before allowing them to rest while they will find each encounter easier, the overall experience of ratcheting challenge will probably be enhanced. Remember, you have a bottomless bucket of monsters outside the written encounters that you can throw at them to force them to consume resources.

The difference between level 1 and level 5 is not as big as you think

The basic structure of OOTA as written is that the players:

  1. Do chapter 1,
  2. Enter chapter 2 repeatedly,
  3. Do any or all of chapters 3 to 6 in any order and probably multiple times with chapter 2 happening in the gaps
  4. Get to chapter 7

The only level guidance the book gives you (that I can find) in chapters 1 to 7 is on p. 116 - "By the time they reach [chapter 7], the characters should be at least 7th level, ...". So, they have to earn at least 23,000 XP. A first-level character starts with 0 and a 5th level could have as many as 13,999 - if you gave each of them 23,000 your first-level would be 7th level and your 5th level would be 8th level but more likely still 7th level. These things even out.

Focus on the situations, not the plot

We know how the OOTA authors intended chapter 1 to work. Well, your ideas are much better than theirs. My ideas are even better than that. What I suggest is:

Instead of trying to escape from Velkynvelve, turn it into a rescue mission.
Start the adventure with a big drow raid on Phandalin that the heroes valiantly drive off. However, they discover that a number of NPCs they care for have been taken. There follows a hot pursuit into the Underdark with an exciting mix of chases, combat, tracking and hitting the chapter 2 to 6 sites for information before reaching the chapter 1 site.
Having liberated the prisoners, they now need to keep them alive in the Underdark going through chapters 2 to 6 again while being chased.

Isn't that better?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Made the spoilers work properly as they weren't hiding the text as they should \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Jul 25 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ You should clarify what you mean by "Don't" in your header - don't take their stuff away, or don't do so permanently? Don't transition from LMOP to OOTA? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 25 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I edited in "take their items" since that looks to be what he was getting at. If not, Dale will doubtless change it. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 26 at 16:22
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This answer is based on transitioning from another module (Dragonheist) to OoTA

You don't have to depower them, nor cherry pick the equipment

They'll be naturally weakened without their gear

A fifth level party without any gear, in shackles (and if your party is particularly powerful, in separate cells) is already depowered enough. You still have in your hands a very similar situation as if the party were level 1. Sure, the fighter has 2 attacks - with his fist in shackles. The wizard/cleric has 3rd level spells - without their material component/holy symbol.

Sure, they might get some cool extra stuff they can do, but this will add to the possibilities and plans they can came up with without diminishing the danger of the situation.

They can get their stuff back

Instead of cherry picking the equipment they get (why would the drow let the wizard keep his spellbook?), remember that they can get their stuff back. The increased possibilities they get at fifth level is balanced by the fact that besides escaping, they have to get their stuff back. This is not so simple as escaping anymore, unless they're willing to part with their gear.

Now you have a classic trope! How many good stories have a part where the protagonist barely escapes the clutches of the bad guy and now has to stealth trough the lair to get their stuff back?

While you totally can use this situation to remove some of the most powerful gear, you don't need to. For example, the enchanted sword catches the eye of one of the elite warriors that has left the outpost already, the spellbook did the same for a drow wizard but he's still assigned here: boom, logical reason to keep some powerful gear and remove others.

Small climax before the dangerous underdark

Getting their stuff back can even work as some kind of "last moment of badassery". Once they get their stuff back, they might be tempted to show those pesky Quaggoth who's boss. Let them

That moment when they feel powerful and badasses will be great. This will then add to the desperation the Underdark is supposed to give them when all those mighty fireballs barely slow down the relentless drow's hunting parties. The high level priestess and the Underdark's deadly environment, and several far more dangerous creatures that roam the underdark challenging the party adds to this feeling of dread.

Another idea from experience as a player

Depending on what danger you want to focus on (environment vs enemies), you can have them beat by Exhaustion. Throw some enemies at them, barely a few short rests as they entered through a particularly active part of the underdark, then get them have some environmental problems, so that when the drow ambushes them they will be exhausted, without their big guns having been beaten up by the environment.
What my DM did was get us into the Underdark, be attacked by some kua-toa, and when we found a river it led us straight to a waterfall after which the drows captured us.

It added to the feeling that we don't know this place, we're in constant danger and that we need to be careful for every step lest we end up in another waterfall or worse.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good suggestion of exhaustion as a way to non-permanently temper the power of PCs. I forgot that out DM imposed this on us as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Blits Jul 26 at 15:31
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I do believe the premise of the module, which basically starts with "the party is captured by drow", is pretty heavy-handed and implies they would lose their magical items ... while in captivity at least.

PCs being captured by enemies is always a tricky situation.

Some players love it, some players hate it.

The reason for that are many. Some players are kind of attached to their gear. They feel that their gear, since it is making them more efficient at what their characters are all about and the roles they usually end up fulfilling, that the gear is actually part of their character like any other class feature.

And when one gets captured, they usually get separated from their gear.

For some players, being captured and fleeing without their gear is unfathomable, it would be like losing a limb when they have access to a Regeneration spell (aka, they can't accept it happening because they can think of a way for them to "get it back", aka escaping and getting their gear back).

I have often thrown my players in jail. Sometimes as a punishment, other times because I wanted to give them this kind of challenge as OOTA is doing right off the bat.

You have to consider your players' feelings about losing their gear, while acknowledging that getting captured (and logically losing all your gear) is okay

So what I would do in your place would be to take into account the "perceived importance" of said magical items/gear for each characters.

Some of those items should be recoverable by the group at some point, when they evade from their captors. But since you also want to take away some of their stuff, to better balance the group vs. the adventure you are running for them, I would put most of their stuff in the same place from which they can get it back; however, they would lose some of their items - those that you want to take away from them - as they are now the property of a particular drow (which the group probably has no way of finding out about).

To make sure my players do not pull "a stupid" and try to take on the whole Drow enclave trying to find their favorite magical item, I would have it so they are helped in their escape by a renegade drow who wants to help the players in exchange for their help once on the surface. This helpful NPC drow would make it easier for them to get back most of their gear, but it would also be the NPC that I use to convince the players that time is ticking and if the other drow find out that they are escaping, it spells death for everyone present.

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