The Saviors of Phandalin get back on track, or at least back on script.
When last we left or heroes, they had just saved to village of Phandalin from a horrific goblin invasion. Through grit and determination, and very little leniency on my part, the players prevailed. The goblin horde was routed, sending them scurrying back to whatever hole they crawled from.
That hole is Cragmaw Castle, and the party has been trying to find this ruin for weeks now. Way back in Chapter 1, the party was hired by a dwarf named Gundren McGuffin, er, Gundren Rockseeker. This dwarf was kidnapped by the Cragmaw goblins and the party believes that the dwarf was taken there.
The morning after the invasion the group wakes to find that the tavern they’ve been staying in has become a shrine to the heroes. The villagers have been dropping off gifts and offerings to thank and honor the Saviors of Phandalin. The gifts range from a new sword and saddle, some small bags of copper and silver, and lots of food, including several delicious pies.
For their part during the war, Toblen the Innkeeper and Elsa the barmaid are treated like celebrities. Toblen has become a hero and the town is demanding that he become mayor. Elsa the humble tavern girl was killed during the battle, and the party cleric brought her back from the dead. Most had never seen such a miracle. Elsa is now revered as an angel or a saint by the simple villagers.
The party is approached by several town elders. They express their eternal gratitude for saving their town and sheepishly ask for help once more. A goblin horde this size will have a “king”, presumably the four-fingered brute who gave the order to destroy the town. Until this “king” is killed, Phandalin will never feel safe.
Thanks to the efforts of the druid, Ed of Greenwood, we know the location of their lair, Cragmaw Castle. Sildar Hallwinter, as a member of the Lord’s Alliance, offers the party 200 gold to clear out this menace and hopefully rescue Gundren Rockseeker, if he’s still alive.
The players agree to help (they really like gold), and the journey to Cragmaw Castle is uneventful. Once there, I use Volo’s Guide to Monsters to describe the goblin war camp.
This is a great book and I highly recommend it. I love the ecology series on the common monster groups, like goblins, kobolds, gnolls and more. And since my players are new to D&D, I love introducing them to new creatures for them to admire and kill, or in James’ case, collect.
The goblin camp appears mostly deserted (since they’re all dead or scattered). A stark castle ruin overlooks the camp on a small bluff. The party easily avoids the few scraggly goblin guards and makes their way to the castle proper.
From this point, I ran the adventure straight out of the book. This chapter is very well written as is, and it is a good challenge for 3rd to 4th level characters.
My players are getting smarter. First, they decided to avoid the front door and instead circled around to find a better way in. Second, they kept to the tree line shadows while they reconnoitered the area.
Unfortunately, one of them failed a stealth roll. A goblin sentry fired an arrow at him but missed. And then the lazy goblin failed a perception check and just assumed it was some animal and did not raise the alarm.
Since I, as the DM, can force a failure on the group whenever I want, I think it is only fair that I allow for my bad guys to fail as well, especially when the players actually are careful and have a good plan. Always keep it fair, until it is important not to.
They found a concealed door on the north side of the castle and used that to gain entry. From there the party chose to head west and found themselves inside a chapel of some sort. My son James was ecstatic. His pre-generated characters backstory included a quest to find this chapel. He has been bugging me for months about when he would find it. Of course, moments later he was even more excited about the monster that lay in wait in this room.
I have the players place their minis in the room. I had chosen the northeast corner to be the monsters hiding spot, and Andrew placed his character, Regizar, closest to it. Andrew fails his perception roll, and a tentacle reaches out from the upper corner of the room and grabs Regizar. Regizar is pulled off his feet and the beast takes a bite for pretty decent damage. I show the player a picture of the monstrosity, a giant, grotesque worm with four gruesome tentacles surrounding a face which is mostly all beak. James cries out, “It’s a Grick!”
Okay, here’s the meta-gaming deal with James’ character. Since he (the person) really loves animals, even fantasy ones, and since he (the character) was a scholar who worships Oghma, the god of knowledge, I decided that his area of study is the fauna of Faerun. I allow him to read the Monster Manual but he can’t write anything down. This has provided a lot of fun moments when James recognizes a monster but then can’t remember anything else about it.
James really wants to catch this thing. I tell him that this isn’t a Twig Blight and he can’t just stuff it in a sack. He’ll have to find some other way to subdue this guy. James decides to cast Sleep as a second level spell. He just barely rolls enough to knock out the Grick. James is elated as he begins stuffing the unconscious Grick into a sack.
Andrew, still mad that he was attacked, states that he executes the monster. Had I been playing with adults, I would have let this play out. But I would slow down the moment to let James respond. “James, you notice that Andrew’s character has drawn his weapon and is advancing on your prize with evil intent in his eyes. What do you do?”
But because they are just kids, I tell them that until they understand the game better, I won’t let them perform actions that would normally fracture the group. I offer that Andrew, still playing in character, could punch the unconscious Grick in the head for biting him. Andrew is fine with this. Andrew got his revenge and James got to keep his pet.
The rest of the session was pretty straight-forward. They cleared out the goblins that were desecrating the shrine to Oghma. The only change here is that I made the goblin priest, Jhupo, act as a goblin boss who could also cast spells. Just level 1 stuff, but having a goblin cast who could cast Fire Bolt and yet could not be hit until all his minions were dead was great fun. I freaking love the redirect ability.
Then the group cleared out some hobgoblins and decided to take a short rest because they were pretty banged up. They barricaded themselves inside a room for a short rest and we ended the session here for the week.
And we’re back.
Following a short nap, two weeks long, the group found themselves in the entry hallway of the castle. Up to this point, the group’s thief, Callan, has been fastidious about checking for traps in every room. Of course, there were no traps… until; they blindly stumbled around in this hallway, not checking for any traps. Where there is a trap, naturally.
Now we’ve been using a poor-man’s virtual table top, with a monitor built into the dining room table and my phone. On my phone, I have spoiler-free player versions of all the maps in the module. I’ve included these maps (and all my handouts) here, on the Lost Mine of Phandelver Resources Page.
As soon as a player, in this case Callan the thief, moved his mini into the area, he sprung the trap. “You feel a slight snag on your foot and hear the snap of twine. Looking up, you see the boards supporting the ceiling give way as rock, timber and mortar begin to fall onto your head. Make a Dex save to dodge the worst of it.” Callan makes his save and takes half damage.
But that is not the end of it. The noise has alerted the goblins in the next room. Just as the group is clearing the dust from their eyes, a stream of goblins pour into the area. Callan and Regizar take the brunt of the assault, while the spellcasters, Clarissa and Riandon, take up the rear. Until…
One round later, when goblins attack from behind. (The goblin boss in the area, Yegg, sent some of his minions around to flank them.) This was the first time the party has had a combat on two fronts, and it very nearly killed them.
After the previous weeks when the players got to feel like bad-asses plowing through a horde of goblins, it was scary for the players that a small group of goblins, played with no pulled punches (and no hapless villagers to soak up the damage), could still be a real threat.
After the fight the players wanted to take another short rest. I would never deny them the ability to do something, but I told them that they were lucky during the first rest and it was very unlikely that they would pass a second rest without interruption. They chose to forgo a nap, used some healing, and spent the rest of the day at half strength, which added to the tension and the drama. All good things.
Heading toward the Goblin King’s Sanctum, the heroes come across two hobgoblins, which were coming to investigate the noises earlier. Although they posed no real challenge, they still managed to surprise the players when one broke off, to run and get reinforcements. The players had never considered this option, and it freaked them out. There was a lot of tension as the party tried to bring him down before he got away. Fortunately, one of Regizar’s javelins sent the hobgoblin crashing into some tables and chairs, dead.
This is another important tool for the DM. Pacing and the variety of encounters. There are essentially three types of encounters; combat, trap and puzzle, or roleplay. Those encounters can be played with three different styles; life and death struggle, dramatic and tense, or humorous. I know there are more, but this will do for now.
I try to mix and match different encounters with different styles to keep my players guessing and entertained. A session with nothing but life and death combat is a grind and one with constant tension is exhausting.
Even when a session is primarily one type, still try to include a moment with a different style to break up the monotony.
For example, during last week’s goblin invasion of Phandalin, most of the session was a long, life or death combat, but I managed to include some other moments too. I started off with a tense moment when Elsa was killed. Later, I included a humorous moment when one of the goblins got trapped in a catapult and was sent flying off to his doom. It was grim for the goblin, but it was funny.
Today, I had one deadly combat with the surging goblins and the trapped hall. Next, there was a tense combat with the hobgoblins before they could get reinforcements. Now, before we get to the dramatic boss battle, we’ll have a humorous (and sad) encounter with a creature James has been waiting anxiously for. James caught me painting this mini two weeks ago and he has been very patient.
In the room, one of the doors is barred on the player’s side. The door looks like it has been bashed in from the other side and is only secured by this heavy wooden beam. For the first time ever, the players asked to listen at the door. This was such an Old School tradition that it used to have its own statistic. The party hears loud grunting and growling, and still they want to go inside.
Throwing caution to the wind they enter the room. The windows are blocked and the room is black except for the light coming from the doorway. The small beam of light shines on a large mass huddled in a corner. It looks like a large mammal except with mottled brown feathers instead of fur. Suddenly, the beast rears up to its full height. Over eleven feet high and massive, the feathered monstrosity looks like a giant bear with long razor claws and a beak for a mouth. It lets out a thunderous roaring squawk. It’s an Owlbear!
The party, realizing that they could be in trouble here, runs out of the room, and slams the door. Andrew is holding it closed with his body while the other two try to get the beam back in place. Except that they managed to leave the wizard, Riandon, behind, who is now standing alone in the dark trying to talk the beast down. “There, there, little fella. No one’s gonna hurt you. Are you hungry? I got some…”
The Owlbear ignores Riandon and smashes through the door, knocking Regizar to the side for a few points of damage. Seeing two idiots (players) standing in its way, the Owlbear gives each one a swat with its giant paws, knocking them out of the way as well.
Sensing freedom, the Owlbear runs out the nearest exit and into the woods beyond, with Riandon chasing after it. “Come back, come back. I’m your friend.” The Owlbear does not come back. James is crestfallen when he returns to the group. “It got away.”
I felt really bad; James was so looking forward to capturing this thing and adding him to his zoo. A couple days later, I was in Barnes & Noble when I saw the perfect thing to lift his spirits. It was an owlbear dice pouch. Fortunately, this thing was far cuddlier than the hulking brutish beast of its namesake. Needless to say, James loved it.
Now the door leading to the big boss must be really solid, since nobody inside heard the sounds of combat or of the huge rampaging beast running through the area. And yet somehow when the players listen at the door they can hear just fine. Okay, I screwed up.
The group can hear one person arguing with another person, who gives his replies in grunts.
“We should have heard word from Phandalin by now. Where is this “glorious” army of yours? The Spider will not tolerate any more of your incompetence.”
“Yur lucky I don’t know what dat word means.” Otherwise I’d send you back to your boss without your tongue.”
“Never the less, you don’t want the Spider to use his magic again on you, or perhaps your children?”
“Don’t worry, my army will destroy dose puny humans and burn dat town to the ground.”
“One more thing, the Spider wants me to take the gully dwarf back to the mine. Clearly your methods of extracting information have proved less effective.”
“No. The prisoner is mine. Gundren will talk, right before I eat him.”
Jim, playing Clarrisa, dwarven cousin to Gundren, in a fine bit of role-play, as soon as she hears her cousin’s name, kicks in the door, yelling “Your days of torture end here, swine!” That earned an inspiration token.
This was the only combat that I modified from the book. Inside the room are a couple of bugbear guards and the single, biggest hobgoblin they’ve ever seen. This is King Grol and yes, he has only four fingers on his right hand. King Grol is a Hobgoblin Warlord from the Monster Manual, and he’s a nasty piece of work.
There is also a wolf and the strangest elf they’ve never seen; skin of such dark purple that it appears black, and long, almost translucent white hair. But the worst is the eyes, yellow fiery eyes, filled with anger and hate. Jack, who is apparently a fan of Drizzt Do’Urden, cries out, “Ooh, a Drow.” Behind all this, lies a lone, emaciated dwarf chained to the floor by a collar around his neck.
The battle was hard and fierce. No quarter was given on either side. Regizar Imperium faced off against King Grol, trading blows until the hobgoblin fell, cursing Regizar as he died. Riandon and Clarissa kept the bugbears at bay with wind and steel until those fell creatures died as well.
Callan, the thief, managed to sneak around undetected and struck a devastating blow to the Drow emissary. But the Drow did not fall. Instead, the Drow threw away the staff he was holding and began assaulting the Halfling with his powerful fists. Callan was clearly outmatched. Callan would have died had not his fellow heroes come to his aid.
After several rounds, the Drow finally fell. As he died his voice changed to a hiss, “The Ssspider ssshall avenge my deathhh!” and the Drow mutated and morphed back to its true form, a dreaded doppleganger.
It’s too bad that the party made no attempts to subdue this guy. I was hoping to do some roleplay as a Drow/doppleganger who knew about the main villain’s plans. C’est la vie.
When all the bad guys are dead, the group goes to the dwarven prisoner in the corner. Finally, after 5 ½ months, 16 sessions, and over 56 hours of gaming, the players have finally rescued Gundren Rockseeker. Huzzah! Now maybe the group can get paid the 50 gold owed them for delivering that stupid cart so long ago. Finally the adventure is over.
But wait, there’s more. There are two other Rockseeker brothers who were at the Lost Echo Mine when the Black Spider swooped in. Their fate is unknown. Gundren has one final job for them. Go to the mine, find his brothers, and clear the area of any threats in the area, especially this Black Spider. Do this and they can keep any and all treasure they find, plus receive a 10% share in the profits of the mine. Free forever fortunes? Yeah, baby! Looks like we’re going spelunking!
And that wraps up Chapter 4, of The Lost Mine of Phandelver. How did you guys run the adventure? Did you do anything different? Did any DMs kill off Gundren before he could be rescued? I’d love to hear about it.
Next week, the heroes take on the mastermind of all their suffering, the instigator of all their inconveniences, the notorious Black Spider when they infiltrate the Lost Echo Mine.
As always, an Owlbear young is called a chub, and Game On!
The only good thing about Owlbears is that the wizard who created them is probably dead. – Xarshel Ravenshadow, gnome professor of Transmutation