Our heroes scour the Lost Mine of Phandelver looking for stupid blocks of wood, and the Black Knight of Zombies is always good for a laugh.
Following the insanity of last week’s 3-hour combat, this week was a little anti-climactic, even though they fought some cool monsters and got some really cool stuff. When last we left our heroes, they had just defeated the main villain in a glorious battle, but the story isn’t over yet. The nefarious Nezzar lies dead…scratch that, the lower half of Nezzar lies dead. The upper half was hauled off, alive and screaming, by a demonic Drider to undergo some horrible ritual at the behest of Lolth, a very nasty Drow god. His fate is unknown, but his plans are ruined, and the party has won, so… now what?
The group searches the surrounding rooms and they find a number of things. First, they unceremoniously rescue the missing dwarven brother, Tharden Rockseeker. Sadly, by this point, I didn’t even care about this dwarf. There is nothing interesting about him and he only exists so the players can say, “Hooray, we did something.” Ugh, whatever. Not my best NPC.
Technically, the adventure is now over. The players have finished what they were hired to do and they can leave the dungeon to claim the 10% stake in the mine that they were offered. The End. The players seriously considered this option.
Fortunately, they were completely invested in the mysterious metal blocks that I added for the party to find in different rooms of the dungeon. They really wanted to solve this puzzle and that meant exploring the rest of the mine until they found all the blocks. Fine by me.
Luckily, the players find two more pieces among Nezzar’s stuff. Apparently, he was also trying to solve this riddle. This brings the players total so far to four pieces and still none of them line up. Of course, this was on purpose for maximum frustration.
They also find a chest full of strange coins. Many are small, square and made of brass while a few are huge crescent-shaped platinum coins. These are called Toals and Harbor Moons. They are minted in and valuable only in the city of Waterdeep and would be worth several thousand in the city but only a few hundred anywhere else. I had intended this to be another plot reason to go to Waterdeep following this adventure but the players had already decided to go there and this is now just extra loot.
The last thing they found was an incomplete map of the area drawn by Nezzar showing the areas he has explored. If the players use this map with the other “ancient” map that they got several weeks ago (Sildar’s Butt Map), then they should be able to discover a hidden route, allowing them to bypass the deadly encounters leading to the Forge of Spells, the true finale of this adventure. Sadly, no one put all of the clues together and they just ended up smashing through everything.
After they kill the last of Nezzar’s minions, I give the players a long rest, bringing everyone back up to full strength. I’m just not in the mood to deal with hit dice and spell slots. Now they begin exploring all the little side passageways and rooms that they skipped earlier, looking for more puzzle pieces.
So, here’s the deal with these chunks of wood. Amongst other things, this module lacked a really good puzzle or riddle; something to challenge the player’s mind and not just their character sheet. One of the easiest ways to do this is to put a magical lock on a door. Think the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. You could have runes or a magic mouth give a riddle and the answer unlocks the door. You could have a math puzzle, or put some keys in the proper order conundrum, or anything.
I, myself, like props and physical puzzles, so I made a block puzzle. First, I stole the design from a puzzle I found in a bookstore. Then I painted them silver to give them that “some sort of metal no one has ever seen” feel to them. On one side I drew the symbol for the Netheril Empire. This is the side that will “solve” the puzzle and open the magical door when they find it.
On the other side, I rearranged the pieces into a hexagonal shape and drew a symbol for Talos, the god of destruction. Of course, the players don’t recognize this symbol even though I gave them a hint way back in my very first handout, FAERUN 1479 which gave them a brief history of this fantasy world. In my campaign, if I write it down and hand it to you, I guarantee you will need it later.
And of course, the Netheril Empire used to worship Talos, although they called him a different name back then. This is called foreshadowing and I use it ALL THE TIME. Even my use of the word foreshadowing foreshadows something that will happen in this campaign. You know what else I use for foreshadowing? Things in All Caps.
As the party explored the dungeon, I had a vague plan of what rooms would have a piece in it. There would be a piece in the first room the players explore. There would be another in the big central ghoul lair. Nezzar will have one or two in his possession. The rest will be found whenever it best serves the pacing of the story.
The rooms didn’t really matter but the order I handed them out did. The first four pieces have no shared edges, so that the players will not know the size or shape of the puzzle for as long as possible.
As for the backstory of this puzzle, the module writes that this mine, Wave Echo Cave, was formed as some sort of alliance between men, dwarves, and gnomes over 500 years ago and called the Phandelver Pact, hence the name of the module. In the year 951 DR, a massive horde of Orcs invaded the area, destroying everything including the first village of Phandalin and this mine.
I added that these human wizards were from the Netheril Empire. The Netherese were and ancient civilization that were responsible for much of the magic items floating around in all the current day dungeons. As a civilization, they were destroyed many thousands of years ago but some pockets of refugees survived. The city of Luskan, north of Neverwinter, was founded by Netheril survivors. Nertheril wizards are sometimes used as villains, since they were an arrogant and power-hungry race.
In my world, the Netherese also founded the town of Phandalin and harnessed the power of this mine and the Forge of Spells. The current village of Phandalin is written as being built on the ruins of an older town. When I made my huge battle map for the Goblin siege of the town back in Session 9, you can see all these circular ruins. Those are the foundations of numerous wizards’ towers that entire area was covered with.
These wizards were making a special item for someone but the Orcs invaded before it could be completed or before it could be retrieved. The head of these wizards, Mormesk, whom we’ll meet later, ordered that the Forge of Spells be sealed and the keys (silver blocks) be split up amongst his best students with strict orders to escape the invasion and keep the Forge of Spells (and its contents) safe. Fortunately for the players, none of the wizards made it out of the mine alive. They all died in different rooms when they were overwhelmed by the Orc horde. With two notable exceptions, they have found every piece within the skeletal remains of a human wizard.
So now the players are here to pick up the pieces, literally. They have discovered 4 already and are eager for more. The first room they search doesn’t have one. But it does have a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Strength straight from the module. These go to the cleric who could really use the combat bonus since she can’t hit the broad side of an ogre. This room also has the hidden path to the Forge of Spells but the players ignored all the clues and missed it.
In the next room, they immediately hear the telltale hum whenever two pieces are in close proximity. I only added this feature so that looking for the metal blocks is not such a chore. I want them found and there is nothing served by making it a hassle to find them. The humming is coming from a large pool of water. Without hesitation, James says his character jumps in. In hindsight, I wish that I had invented an encounter to teach a lesson about looking and leaping, but I did not. Instead I rewarded him because here is where I also added a very special magic item in addition to the silver block.
Now the Lost Mine of Phandelver is supposed to be a legendary magical mine filled with loot, so much so that the evil Drow, Nezzar, took over the mine to search for it. But except for the gauntlets, a breastplate, and a +1 mace there is nothing here. And throughout the entire adventure there isn’t a single item that is made for a thief character. So, I added several items specific for my players but not enough to unbalance the game.
When James’ Riandon finds the silver block, he sees a golden twinkle in the dirt. He pulls out a gold figurine of a lion with wings on its back. I hand James the trinket from the Forbidden Island game. Eventually, I’ll have to return it to its proper game, but for now I love it when I have a tangible item to give to the players “in game”.
James has no idea what this is, but I bet you do. It is a Figurine of Wondrous Power. I asked James what his favorite big cat was. He said a leopard. After the session, I bought a panther mini, painted it up like a leopard and glued on some wings from an old Aasimar mini. The Swahili word for leopard is “chuy”, so I made that the magic word to activate the figurine. And yes, James can now use this as a flying mount for up to an hour once a week. After I gave him the info about these figurines, he immediately said, “I wanna collect them all!” Oh no. Best of all, James did not tell the other players about this, which is awesome.
Moving on, the group enters an area of the mines that is just a maze of hallways. But this area is completely clear of any debris. There are no bodies, no skeletons, no rusted weapons, there isn’t even any dust. Again, savvy players would know what this portends but my players had no clue. But they are learning.
While the group is stopped at an intersection and deciding where to go, I tell them that they hear the humming again.
“Which way is it coming from?”
“You can’t tell. There is too much echo in the hallway.”
“I look down the north hallway. What do I see?”
“You don’t see anything, but you could swear that the humming is getting louder.”
“What do you mean? Is it coming towards us?”
“We look east.”
“You still don’t see anything, but the humming is definitely getting louder.”
“Argh! Where is it coming from?”
“Everybody, give me a perception roll.”
Everyone fails except the thief. “Callan, at the last second, you see an orange amorphous blob coming at you from behind you down the corridor you were just in. The rest of you are surprised. Roll initiative.”
Now I liked this encounter for two reasons. One, what started as a way to make the player’s job easier (the humming), turned into a suspenseful moment that really got the player’s adrenalin pumping. Always be on the lookout to turn the player’s expectations around.
Two, I finally got to say the line that every DM loves to use. On the fighter’s first attack, he says that he’s going to hit the Ochre Jelly with his sword. I say, “Are you sure you want to do that?” The rest of the players start screaming, “No. Don’t do it!”
Andrew ignores them completely and says, “Yup. I hit it with my sword.” So, I take the Ochre Jelly mini and cut it in half with a pair of scissors. Now there are two monsters to fight. Hack & slash players are so predictably fun to mess with.
The combat is relatively short and afterwards they have to scoop through the monster’s goo to find the next puzzle piece. Now they need just one more. They have begun to put it together and they finally realized that the two sides do not match and they are very confused by this. This puzzle has been so much fun to watch, I can’t wait to do another one.
The party decides to move on and try to get to the Forge of Spells. They head to the room Nezzar has marked as “flying death”. As the group enters the room a Flaming Skull materializes from the ashes of the corpses littering the area. It and several zombies attack.
The fight is pretty nasty and the players are unprepared for the Skull’s fire attacks; especially when it gets low on hit points and targets a fireball on itself, hitting players and zombies alike.
The fight ends with the zombie who wouldn’t die. At one point during the battle, the wizard cast Thunderwave and knocked a bunch of zombies into a 5’ deep channel that runs through the north side of the room. After the Flame Skull is “killed” (but not destroyed, more on this later) Andrew’s fighter jumps into the pit and starts hacking up the zombies.
Most of them go down easily, except one. Zombies have this ability that if they are knocked to 0 hit points, they have a chance to not die, regaining 1 point. This one, super zombie kept surviving blow after blow. First Andrew lops off one arm, then the next, then a leg, even his head, and still this zombie would not die. He became the Black Knight of Zombies and yes, a plethora of bad Monty Python jokes were made at this zombie’s expense.
It is moments like these that are the juice of D&D. Despite all your careful preparations, your encounter design, your challenge ratings, and your brilliant plans, a lowly undead monster can become the focal point and the climax of an entire session. These are the moments that create lasting bonds and memories. Everyone laughed. Everyone had fun. Everyone had a good time with friends you care for and family you love. No one remembers where they found all the puzzle pieces, but everyone remembers the zombie that wouldn’t die.
And still they pressed on. Next, they found the source of the wave echo sound and did not care at all about it. But then they finally found what they’ve been dying to find. No, not the Forge of Spells, which was incidental. They finally found the area where they could use all these blocks of metal.
I describe the room that holds the Forge like it is a giant vault sitting within a huge cavern. The cavern floor is littered with the bones and corpses of hundreds of bodies, more than any other area in the dungeon. A huge battle took place here once. The ground and walls are still scorched with magical fire and other unknown effects. Destruction is everywhere.
But the outer walls of the room holding the Forge are pristine, perfectly carved out of the bedrock and untouched by the ravages of time. The module states that the doors to this room are wrenched from its hinges but here my doors are still intact and sealed shut. To the right of the door is a small square panel, made of the same silver metal.
Jack, who has taken a special interest in this puzzle, put the pieces in the panel and they fit perfectly. Except they are missing just one more piece. The doors do not budge.
The players are elated and frustrated at the same time which was an interesting combination to witness. Looking for the final piece of the puzzle, they continue south into the cavern where they find another room carved out of the bedrock. But this room has a simple door with no lock and they enter.
Inside is a decayed bedroom, but before they can explore further, the room turns cold and the dust in the room swirls and combines into a form as black as night. Two pinpricks of hateful yellow light appear when the Wraith opens its eyes. It raises its bony hand toward the party and…
The entire group runs out of the room, slamming the door shut behind them. Unfortunately, the spectral Wraith is not deterred by such trivial things as doors. The Wraith simply passes through the wall, raises its body hand toward the party and rasps, “Prepare to die, Infidels! Know that I, Mormesk, shall be your demise!”
Next week, the party (and you) finds out if they survive or will they too join the legion of Zombie Black Knights? And what does all this stuff mean? Only TIME will tell.
As always, be wary when the DM asks, “Are you sure you want to do that?” and Game On!
Tis, but a scratch! – The Black Knight