Our simple 5th Edition D&D game turns into Warhammer, while the Village of Phandalin burns, but just the lousy parts.
Finally, we go to war. After months of prepping and weeks of delay, I can finally spring my epic finale to Chapter 3 of The Lost Mine of Phandelver. This battle was so big that it took two sessions to complete.
When last we left our heroes, they had been traveling around the countryside mopping up minor bad guys and killing time until the Festival of Greengrass. Their druid ally, Edoith of Greenwood, had agreed to meet them in the village of Phandalin during the festival to give them the location of a lost castle that the party needs to find. Phandalin has been the default player base and the party is very popular there, especially with the innkeeper, Toblen, and the tavern wench, Elsa.
The players know that I’ve got something cooking, but they don’t know what. Also, I had been seeding their treasure with some pretty powerful one-shot magic items. Both spell-casters have some good area effect scrolls like Fireball and Flamestrike. Then there are potions of Heroism, Giant Strength, Invisibility, and Speed for the fighter and thief. The cleric also has a scroll of Revivify which can bring a just-killed player back to life. I want the battle to be crazy and epic, but I also want them to survive.
Until now, Jim, the adult player, had been keeping track of all the treasure. This is great for gold but bad for one-shot magic. So I gave each player some sheets of scratch paper to keep track of their own items. The tiny boxes on the character sheets are totally impractical. This should help the kids become more self-reliant players.
The party is at the Old Owl Well, about a day and a half ride to Phandalin. As they travel back to town, I have them come across an area with dozens, if not hundreds of tracks; goblin, hobgoblin, and something else even larger. They are pushing some sort of heavy carts with them. These tracks clearly come from the woods to the north and continue south/southeast. Nothing is nearby and the tracks are about a half day old, probably made during the night. One of the kids says, “Well, I’m glad we didn’t have to fight whatever that was.” Oh, these poor fools don’t know me at all.
When the group arrives in town, it appears deserted; no one is at the trading post, stables, or smithy. But they can hear a thunderous roar of activity coming from the center of town. They leave the horses at the stables and to go investigate.
As the party enters the town square, they find the entire village is in joyous celebration. Children are all dancing around a huge maypole that has been erected in the center of town. Toblen the innkeeper has moved his entire tavern to the field and everyone is eating and drinking raucously. Four dwarven miners have set up some sort of arm-wrestling / wheelbarrow / drinking competition. An impromptu band is playing all sorts of handmade instruments; drums, washboards, pipes. Everyone is signing, shouting, laughing. The noise is deafening.
The players join the party. Eventually they find the druid, Greenwood, carousing with some squirrels. Just as Greenwood is about to tell them the location of Cragmaw Castle, a heart-wrenching scream comes from the far side of the square. The entire town stops and stares.
Elsa, the player-favorite tavern wench, is standing about 100’ away from the group. She cries out, “Goblins,” and falls over, dead, four arrows stuck in her back. The players are stunned into silence.
Before they can recover, I bring out the town-wide battle map that I made for today. I place the dead Elsa in the town square and the player minis on the western edge. I tell the group that as they shift their focus up from the now lifeless body of Elsa, they see at least 30 goblins arranged on the far side of the square. Then I drop 30 goblin minis onto the battle map. Jack just groans. The DM (me) cackles internally.
But then the players did something so unexpected, and heroic, and sacrificing that I was genuinely moved. Mostly I was proud. Proud of my players in how they role-played and proud of them as kids growing into honorable adults. Maybe that’s a little over stated, but at least they were growing in to damn good pulp fiction storytellers.
They didn’t know it, but Elsa was always meant to be the sacrificial lamb. She was meant to die and show how deadly the world can be, and how evil the villains were. And the players were supposed to avenge Elsa, and then move on and forget about her.
But the players refused to accept her death. They didn’t care about the goblins, or the war, or the risks to their own player’s lives. They wanted to save Elsa. By any means necessary.
James wanted to use Misty Step to teleport to her and teleport her back. Jack wanted to go invisible and drag her back. Jim wanted to run up and heal her as if she were a player. None of these plans would work for various reasons.
In the end, they used up three one-shot items just to save her. The noble fighter, Regizar, (Andrew) drank the Potion of Giant Strength and the Potion of Speed. Then Regizar ran up to Elsa and flung her lifeless body like a Frisbee back to the group. The wizard, Riandon, (James) cast Feather Fall on the flying corpse and the thief, Callan, (Jack) with the high dexterity, caught her. Then the cleric, Clarissa, (Jim) used the scroll of Revivify to bring Elsa back from the dead.
This is the type of epic fantasy storytelling that can only happen in D&D. One single author could not come up with a tale like that. But five random people improvising a scene on the fly? This was one of the best moments of the entire campaign, and I just wanted them to fight some goblins.
Just as Regizar runs up to poor, dead Elsa, the goblin leader yells out, “Fire!” and thirty arrows fly toward the crowd of villagers. With a wave of his hands, a wall of wind fans out from the Druid Greenwood, and all of the arrows are knocked away, harmlessly falling to the ground. Except for the two that struck Regizar while he shot-putted Elsa toward the rest.
Most of the villagers are frozen in panic, but several join the players to help defend the town. Daran Edermath, the NPC who is clearly a retired high-level fighter, holds his hand out in the direction of his house. A sword magically appears in his hand. With a word, “Dur-goth” the sword ignites into flame. Toblen and the bouncer, Hark, take up clubs. Sildar Hallwinter, one arm in a sling and wielding a borrowed sword, stands by their side. The owner of the stables, an ex-ranger, notches an arrow in her bow, while the dwarves grab whatever they can find; one is wielding a broken chair.
The players thought that this battle would be long and hard but I knew with this many leveled NPCs on their side that the fight would be quick. Several goblins are tangled in the druid’s vines. Sister Garaele magically binds a couple more. Daran Edermath is able to take out three goblins with each furious attack of his flaming sword.
Within a few rounds, the goblin invaders lay dead. The villagers and the players breathed a sigh of relief. That was when the town began to hear the incessant drums, pounding from the east. That was when I, as the DM, played the YouTube track “Medieval War Drums 2” on a constant loop. And Daran Edermath gave the only prepared speech of the entire campaign.
Daran calls together the village leaders and the party. “We will have only five minutes, at best, before the next attack. Elmar, Linene and Hob, you and your boys grab every sword, bow and arrow you can from the smithy and your stores.” Those three and several sons run off to the stores.
“Quelline, Trilena, Mirna. Gather up the women and children and take them to my home. It’s fortified, but if you have to flee, Carp will lead you through the orchard to escape over the river.” The others return from the stores, loaded with weapons.
“We can’t let them flank us. Elmar, Tomas, Winneth, Ralan; take your boys north and funnel them here,” pointing to the road heading east out of the square. “Linene, Reddor, Milcor, Lanar; you and your boys go south and do the same. Use the ruins as cover and use your bows, never fight them directly.”
Daran addressed the players, “You once said you wanted to prove your worth. Prove it now. Stop those drums. These goblins will kill so long as those drums sound. Stop the drums, save the town. You are the spear, straight into their heart. I need fifteen volunteers.”
The four dwarves and five miners step forward. “Aye, Right down der gullet we’ll gut them,” says one of the dwarfs. Toblen, the innkeeper, come up to you, “You’ve saved me an’ my kin a’fore. I’m with you. Hark, you’re with me.”
Daran looks to three other men, “Gunter, Surthen, and Bob; you claim you’ve given up your Redbrand days. Help them now to save your town.” Daran looks to a giant of a man who has stood by Halia Thornton the whole time. “Kurgan will you go too?” Kurgan looks to Halia, who nods her head yes. Kurgan joins you.
Daran continues, “Everyone else barricade that street to 5 feet, then line up on the roof of those building. Hit them with everything you’ve got. Sister Garaele, Sildar, Ed of Greenwood, I’ll need your skills with me. For Phandalin!”
And so began the Siege of Phandalin.
Now, I love the Lost Mine of Phandelver. It is a great basic adventure. But I don’t want to run a basic adventure, I want Epic Fantasy! Therefore, Instant Goblin Invasion.
In preparation for war, I first drew the large town-wide battle map. Each inch was 30’ to represent one round of movement. It was over two feet tall by three feet wide but I wish that I had made it larger, because I didn’t take into account having 50+ minis on the board. I ended up taking photos of parts of the map and then blowing them up in size using our gametable insert monitor.
I also bought about 75 miniatures. Most of them came from a cheap tub of Halloween props so the cost was acceptable. Half of the goblins were really kobolds for use in “The Sunken Citadel”. And I bought twenty more 20-sided dice just to give it that extra level of crazy. Total cost was about 50 bucks. Don’t tell my wife.
As for the logistics, I named almost every villager in Phandalin, especially the “leaders” and everyone that was in the party’s suicide mission. This made the town feel alive and subsequently gave every villager death more gravitas. Also, I love having high-level NPCs like Daran or Linene the Ranger to show off their cool abilities that give the players some hint of what’s in store for their characters. But then I need to have them leave so that the players can’t depend on them to just take care of everything.
Next I made a Goblin Battle chart that had all 5 planned encounters on it. Every encounter had goblins in it and my basic plan was that the villagers with the party would battle the goblins and the players would battle the tougher monsters. I use a modified version of the 4th Edition minion rules. Every goblin has 5hp and every villager hits for 5hp, therefore every goblin takes 1 hit to die. Every villager and hobgoblin has 10hp or 2 hits to kill. Bugbears and worse took more hits to kill. Players rolled damage normally with a minimum of 5 hit points.
One of the goblins is a goblin boss and these are my new favorite bad guy. They are found in the Monster Manual and they have this awesome ability of redirect. If another goblin is nearby, any attack on the boss will hit the other goblin instead. This guy drove Andrew nuts. Andrew, of course, kept targeted the leader, but for every hit he made, another goblin took the damage. One goblin tripped and fell in the way of the blow, another deliberately jumped in the way to protect the leader, like a goblin secret service. My favorite was when the goblin boss grabbed a goblin and used him as a shield. Andrew hated this guy. I loved him, and I had six of them throughout the battles.
Now during the battles, I made one huge error. I rolled for both the monsters and the NPCs. Each battle was still exciting and the players liked having their own group of minions to deploy, but it meant that each round I was rolling 40-50 dice while the players rolled 1. One. I wish that I had given each player 4 or 5 villagers to command and roll for; that would have been much more satisfying for the players. Oh well, there’s always the next war.
Back to the Suicide Squad. The party now includes Toblen, Hark, and the mysterious Kurgan; four dwarfs, Guth, Fromathorn, Balthravin, and Vox; five miners, Eldereth who is elven, Vaz, “Lucky” Lem, Wheezle, and Primrose, who is the only female; and three ex-Redbrand thugs, Gunter, Surthen, and Bob.
As this motley crew leaves the relative safety of the town square, I describe that they have walked into Hell. Several buildings are on fire, the heat is oppressive, and they can smell burning flesh and hair in the air.
A vile gang of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears are laughing and cackling as they force a small group of terrified villagers to walk into a burning building or be put to the sword. A couple of dead villagers on the ground make this point abundantly clear.
There are 10 goblins, 5 hobgoblins, 3 bugbears, and a Hobgoblin Elite. They have not noticed the party yet, so the party will gain surprise. Enraged at the abuse of their neighbors, the villagers attack.
During the course of the battle, two of the villagers fall, Wheezle the miner and Vox the dwarf. Halfway through the fight, a teenaged boy runs in and immediately decapitates one goblin and guts another. After the battle, he introduces himself as Kovar, son of Winneth, and he broke away from his group to go where the real action was.
The main road toward the drums is blocked by fire. As they decide where to go, I have everyone roll a Perception and a Dexterity check. The DC was only 8 each so everyone passed. Except for Bob. A flaming boulder crashed and exploded into the building nearby, sending rock, timber and flaming thatch everywhere. And Bob exploded with it.
Through the haze, the group could see two catapults on the hills to the north. I explain that this is the reason the eastern part of town is on fire and that within a few more volleys, they would begin targeting the center of town, including the buildings where they have set up defenses.
The party decides to take out the catapults. Using the ruins and the town wall as cover, the group quickly sneaks up near the catapult hills. One quick note about these ruins. My ruins are all circular and I describe them as being similar to the fallen tower at the Old Owl Well. My history of Phandalin has been heavily influenced by the Netheril Empire; more foreshadowing.
There are two catapults and at each one, there are 10 goblins and 5 hobgoblins. Five goblins stand guard with bows, 5 goblins load, and the 5 hobgoblins winch. There are also two Hobgoblin Elite and a Captain. As the group approaches, one goblin doesn’t clear the winch in time, and when the catapult releases, the goblin goes flying off to his explosive doom, screaming the whole way. Humor is important in these dark times.
The Wizard, Riandon, uses his scroll of Fireball and obliterates one of the catapults and all the goblinoids working on it. The villagers charged the goblin archers while the players attacked the remaining catapult. Two more villagers die in the assault, the miner Vaz and the redeemed criminal Gunter, but soon all the goblins and the catapult crew are dead. And thanks to the fireball, they were able to do this within 8 rounds, which was one of my secret battle objectives, but I’ll talk more about that later.
Every member of the assault team is hurt and the Cleric, Clarissa, uses another scroll, Circle of Healing, on the group. This is a homebrew scroll that heals 10 points to everyone within a 20’ radius, basically healing all the villagers in one shot.
Continuing east, the party can see its main objective. At the top of the hill leading to the Tresandar ruins, the goblinoids have set up a crude war camp. Over a dozen hobgoblins, some in fine armor, mill about while another dozen goblin archers stand guard overlooking the burning village of Phandalin. But the most obvious feature is the two giant ogres wearing enormous drums which they are pounding on using two huge clubs, one in each hand. At the foot of the hill, protecting the winding road to the top is another mixed regiment of twenty goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears.
The players correctly surmise that a frontal assault would be suicide. They ask if it is possible to climb the hill out of sight. Of course, it’s possible; in fact, it’s another secret battle objective. Everyone, even the villagers, pass the easy dexterity skill check.
The group now stands behind the war camp and they have not been spotted yet. They easily spot the Hobgoblin General, who is the second biggest hobgoblin they have ever seen and is protected by four Hobgoblin Elite. He is barking orders to his underlings, “Why have the Slingers stopped?! Send a grunt (goblin) to find out what happened.”
In addition to the goblin archers and the ogre drummers and the General and his guards, there are another five hobgoblins, and a matron hobgoblin shaman and her bugbear bodyguard. This fight is nasty.
The players remember that their main goal was to stop the drums. Clarissa the cleric had saved her Flame Strike scroll and used it here to devastate one of the ogres. The ogre barely survived the damage but the drum is completely destroyed. Callan the thief has the great idea to shoot an arrow into the other drum. He moved into position and succeeded. When the ogre continued drumming, he smashed a huge hole in the drum. Mission accomplished; the war drums have stopped. But was it in time to save the town?
Andrew quaffed his potion of heroism and took on the ogres. James rolled high and was able to put three hobgoblins to sleep, which were shortly hacked to death by the villagers. Then he thunderwaved another three goblins right off the hill, before tackling the shaman.
The battle was long and hard. Thanks to Clarissa’s Flame Strike, Andrew was able to take out one of the ogres quickly. He ran to face the other ogre, but not before the beast got an opportunity attack on Lucky Lem and his luck finally ran out. Lem was sent flying right over the edge and fell 40 feet to his death.
The shaman proved to be a nasty foe. She was particularly adept at acid spells. Her Acid Arrow was the spell that dropped the first player, the thief Callan. Fortunately, Clarissa was nearby to save his life. Clarissa spent the rest of battle healing the party and keeping them in the fight.
The wizard, Riandon, was the second to fall. Moments after killing the shaman, her bugbear bodyguard took his revenge on Riandon, only to be stabbed in the back by a certain sneaky, and newly revived thief. Fortunately, Callan had a spare healing potion to force down the dying mage’s throat.
The villagers were able to handle most of the goblins but it came at a heavy price. Eldereth, Balthravin, and Hark the bouncer all fell to the goblins’ blades. To make matters worse, the goblin guards at the foot of the hill have noticed the fighting above. They are running to join the fight, and are only slowed by the winding path of the road. The heroes may win this battle only to be overrun by the goblin reinforcements. Time is running out.
Regizar, badly wounded, strikes a fatal blow to the ogre’s gut, and the monstrous savage falls backward crushing another hobgoblin in the process. The Hobgoblin General and his guards had not yet joined the battle. He wanted to see how his minions performed. His Progress Report would state that they performed pathetically.
Now the party and the seven remaining villagers have to fight the Hobgoblin General and his elite guards. All by itself, this was a tough fight. The General has 75 hit points, 2 attacks per round, and can parry an attack.
It took every resource to take him down; every spell slot, every special ability. In the end, Clarissa cast Guiding Bolt and lit the General up in holy fire. Clarissa was then struck down and no one was able to heal her, so she was on her own with the death saves. Yet again. At some point during the battle, every player went down except for Andrew. I just can’t kill this guy.
With the General bathed in holy light, the rest of the party could easily target him. The General died, gurgling in a pool of his own blood, followed shortly by his remaining troops.
But now the party, running purely on fumes, had to face an attack from the reserves at the bottom of the hill. An attack which will surely kill them all. An attack which never came.
Because the players took out the drums first, the goblins began to flee. The town rallied and sent reinforcements to help the party. The villagers were fighting the goblins stationed at the foot of hill. Soon they were routed and running away.
Yes, I know, of course I intervened and saved the party from a certain doom. But because I was able to use the players own actions as the reason why they survived, the player felt that they had earned a reprieve. And so they had.
I firmly believe that the DM’s job is to present interesting scenarios and challenge the party and yet not be a vindictive jerk. The DM’s plans are ultimately supposed to fail, but it shouldn’t be easy. Today, the group fought 74 goblins, 6 goblin bosses, 25 hobgoblins, 8 bugbears, 7 hobgoblin elite, 1 shaman, 2 ogres, 2 Captains, and 1 General. Hardly easy.
The players were triumphant against an unbeatable foe and impossible odds, and they deserved to be rewarded. There was no gold or treasure to be found, only glory and experience. All the monsters added up to 14000 xp. Too much for 3rd level players. I decreed that the four players earned half and the villagers the other half. This gave each player 1750 xp. Plus, I had included some secret battle conditions.
I had four secret conditions; keep villager deaths to less than 6, destroy the catapults in 10 rounds or less, do not attempt a frontal assault of the final hill, and target the drums first in the final battle. Each one was worth 100 xp per person. The only one they missed was keeping the villagers alive; they lost 9 villagers total. This brought the total for the battle to 2050 xp. That is a lot, but it did not unbalance play. The players still stayed at 4th level until the last chapter, as the module intended.
I love the use of conditional experience. It reminds me of the old school tournament modules. The experience and the treasure didn’t matter; winning was based on your score. When I run the players through the Lost Shrine of Tamoachan, which was also a tournament module, I will use many of the OSR tournament rules. We’ll see how well that works.
I had not given the party any clues or advance notice of these conditions, but I did give them every advantage I could; extra magic, slightly (though not by much) decreased enemy stats, and the extra Inspiration bonus, which they totally earned for saving Elsa. And they used every bit of it. But it was worth it, because the players felt that they had really accomplished something, even if it is only make-believe. On to the epilogue.
In the aftermath of the invasion, the players found a crude note on the body of the General. But this time it was not from the Black Spider. Instead it was a note that read “Kil Evrywon” and sealed with the bloody mark of a clawed hand with only four fingers.
Weary and exhausted, the heroes slowly make their way back to town. Toblen is walking with a severe limp and one of the dwarfs needed to be carried back to town, complaining the whole time that he was fine.
The fires that blocked their way earlier are being put out by dozens of villagers, mostly women. Thankfully, the destruction was limited to just the eastern part of town. The Sleeping Giant Inn is ruined and good riddance, but the rest can be rebuilt. The villagers cheer as the Saviors of Phandalin (as the stories told would later call them) walk by.
As they approach the center of town, corpses are strewn all over. Most are goblin but a few are human. The Battle of Phandalin was hard-fought, and the survivors are grateful, but the price of victory was high. The town smith and the wheelwright are dead. Sadly, they were not the only ones. Of the thirty families that call Phandalin home, almost every one of them lost a husband, or father, or worse, a son to the goblin horde.
Sildar Hallwinter is sitting on a lone chair in the middle of the carnage. He has apparently broken his other arm as well. He has to hold his sleeve up in his teeth and winces when he gives the heroes a thumbs-up. Toblen finds his wife and son and holds them close, then you see him shake his head “no” and they start to cry, presumably talking about the fate of Hark. Kovar, the stableboy who ran away to join the fight, finds his mother who first slaps him hard, but then embraces him tightly and won’t let go. Everywhere families and friends are reunited. Thanks are given for those who lived, and tears are shed for those who did not.
Daran Edermath approaches the heroes. Despite being over 150 years old and almost singlehandedly holding off over 100 goblins, he isn’t injured or even breathing hard. “You’ve done a remarkable thing here today and the town will never forget you. You truly are heroes. You are the Saviors of Phandalin.” And thus a legend was born.
Next week, the Saviors (no relation to the Walking Dead) seek out the Four-Fingered Monster who tried to destroy an entire town but more importantly why. Oh, and they might even find that dwarf who still owes them 50 gold from way back in Chapter 1.
As Always, For Phandalin!, and Game On!
War means tears to thousands of mother’s eyes. When their sons go to fight and lose their lives. I said, war, hunh, good god y’all. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again. – Edwin Starr
P.S. I find that these Campaign Diaries are getting longer and longer. I apologize. Let me know in the comments if you find these useful, or entertaining, or god forbid, both. Do you enjoy the story elements of the campaign or do you just want the “Running the Game” advice or do you like the mix of the two.
And don’t forget to use my Lost Mine of Phandelver Resources Guide for all the maps and handout you could ever need to run this adventure.