Friday, March 20, 2015

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 1: Goblin Arrows

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the third in a series written for new Dungeon Masters who have picked up the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set and are planning to run a game with it for the first time. The first two articles cover the process of bringing a gaming group together and building characters, and each article after that will cover one "part" of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. I will not assume any prior knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons aside from information in the Starter Set rulebook.

In this article, I'll cover the first part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, "Goblin Arrows," which will likely be your first game of D&D. "Goblin Arrows" is a fairly straightforward adventure where the player characters enter a dungeon to rescue a kidnapped friend. By the end, you and your group should feel comfortable with the basic elements of D&D.

Part 0: Gathering a Group
Part 0.5: Creating Characters
Part 1: Goblin Arrows
Part 2: Phandalin
Part 3: The Spider's Web
Part 4: Wave Echo Cave

Preparing to Play
So you're getting ready for your first session of D&D. Excited? You should be. Worried? That's normal too, but with a little bit of preparation I can assure you that you'll be fine.

As the Dungeon Master, you're responsible for a lot - knowing and adjudicating the rules, describing the world to your players, and playing as the enemies and allies they meet along the way. The good news is that all of this will come fairly simply once you've gotten a handle on it.

What's the best way to prepare? Reading through the Starter Set rulebook and the first part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure is essential. In particular, the "Introduction" section of Lost Mine covers some very important basics for being a Dungeon Master. The rest of this article suggests material to focus on, but there's really no substitute for knowing the rules and the adventure well.

If you learn best by watching and listening rather than reading, you could check out some YouTube D&D videos to get a feel for the game. The folks at Wizards of the Coast put together a few videos where they play through the Starter Set, which ought to give you an excellent idea of what gameplay is like - here's a link to part one.

Knowing the Rules
D&D has a lot of rules, and trying to learn them all at once is bound to be overwhelming. Here's a list of things you'll probably want to know for your first game.
You don't need to master the combat rules, but
you'll need a solid grasp of them to run a game.
  • Understand the basic structure of the game. The second page of the Starter Set rulebook gives a great summary of the way a typical D&D game goes - (1) the DM describes the environment, (2) the players describe what they want to do, and (3) the DM narrates the results of the adventurer's actions. When you're not sure what happens based on their action, you can use the game rules, dice, and the adventure to help you decide.
  • Understand ability checks and their associated rules. Most of the time, when a player wants their character to do something that's not either trivial (walk across the room) or impossible (fly without magic), you'll roll an ability check to see if they succeed. Read over the different abilities and their descriptions, and make sure you understand the rules for skill proficiencies, advantage and disadvantage, and saving throws. Additionally, have a look at the "Improvising Ability Checks" section in the introduction to Lost Mine of Phandelver.
  • Spend some time learning about combat. The rules for fighting other creatures give D&D a tactical element and make battles exciting. Read through Chapter 2 of the Starter Set rulebook, focusing on these things:
    • Order of combat (surprise, initiative, turns, etc.)
    • What each creature can do on their turn
    • Rules for making attacks and dealing damage
    • Rules for movement
    • Rules for hit points and healing (you may also want to read the rules for resting in chapter 3)
    Don't worry about more complicated actions like "Ready" yet - you can pick them up later on.
  • Understand the capabilities of your players' characters. While players are also responsible for knowing the rules of the game, you may have to help them along as you get started. Have a look at your players' character sheets and make sure you understand how their special abilities (like the Fighter's "Second Wind") work. Chances are, some characters in your group can cast spells, so you might want to skim through the rules for spellcasting in chapter 4.
  • Remember the philosophy of a Dungeon Master. While knowing a lot of rules helps you be a good DM, the most important part is your attitude. The "Rules to Game By" in the introduction to Lost Mine of Phandelver are more important the nuances of combat or the penalties to see a "heavily obscured" target. Remember that you're there to make sure everyone has a good time, not to run the rules perfectly or defeat the player characters.

Gathering Your Materials
Here's the good news - the Starter Set has almost everything you need to play! Make sure that:

  • Each of your players has a complete character sheet
  • You've got one or more sets of dice on hand
  • There are pencils for everyone to use
  • You have access to a few sheets of scratch paper

If you built your characters from the Basic Rules or Player's Handbook, you might want to have those resources available to reference complicated abilities like spellcasting (the Starter Set only includes Cleric and Wizard spells).

Lastly, if you want to get really fancy, you could print out a larger copy of the first dungeon map to show your players as they explore it. The cartographer, Mike Schley, has a nice, high-resolution version without any DM's notes on it available on his website for $1.75. From the same source, you could also print a high-resolution version of the Sword Coast map which leaves out locations the players won't know about at the start of the adventure.

Setting the Scene
Show your players the map of the Sword
Coast, where the adventure is set! It's an
awesome way to help them imagine the
world of D&D.
Cartographer: Mike Schley
So you've prepared for the adventure and assembled your players. It's time to get started!

If you're using the pregenerated party of characters or your characters don't have any special connection with each other, the "Meet Me in Phandalin" adventure hook is a great place to start. Reading the boxed introductory text sets the scene for the adventure and gives the characters a reason to be involved.

The adventure suggests letting each of your players introduce their characters to each other. This is really important, as it lets the players get into character and ensures they all have a clear mental picture of the situation. You might have each player describe their character's appearance (physical attributes, clothing, armor, items carried, cleanliness, etc.), personality traits and mannerisms, and skills - things the other characters might have learned during a several-day wagon journey. Keep in mind that characters might not know everything about each other, even if the players do. Indeed, it might be fun to roleplay their discovery that the quiet scholar is actually a skilled magician, or that the shifty Halfling used to be a member of the Redbrand gang.

Once the characters have gotten to know each other and you've established each character's connection to the story, you can get started with the adventure! Get ready for the "Goblin Ambush" encounter.

Combat Encounters
The first scene of Lost Mine of Phandelver is a fight! The adventure has some great advice on handling the goblin ambush "by the book" which is pretty comprehensive. I'd add one thing: if your party is small, you might want to ignore the "Surprise" rules for this fight. These goblins can be a tough challenge even without having a free round to attack the player characters.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the rules for combat, you can ignore the Goblin's Nimble Escape ability for now. The ability is great to give your players a challenge, but trying to resolve a Disengage or Hide attempt every round can be complicated.

As you get more comfortable with running combat, you can start to inject more description into fight scenes. Try describing the results of each attack - if a goblin missed one of the characters with an arrow, why? Your players can assist with the description as well - you can tell them the results of an attack or spell (it deals 7 points of damage and drops the goblin) and ask them to describe it ("I break through the goblin's shield with a powerful axe blow!").

If you're unsure what a monster should do on its turn, try to put yourself in its place. Some DMs like to play their monsters as tactical geniuses who always fight to the death, and that's fine - many players will appreciate the challenge! On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with having a goblin break and run because its buddy just got eviscerated. Making this kind of choice helps your game feel like a living world and brings your players into the narrative.

It's possible that the characters will want to try something in combat that isn't covered - a leaping attack from a high embankment, for example, or throwing sand in an enemy's face to blind it. This is fine; creative improvisation can be a lot of fun! Usually, a "special move" will take up the character's action, unless it's something trivial like opening a door or drawing a weapon. It's your choice to decide how to resolve an improvised action. Much of the time, you can just have the character make an ability check (Dexterity versus a difficulty of 10 to toss sand accurately) or roll a contest (Strength/Dexterity vs. the opponent's Strength/Dexterity to disarm). You can make the effect anything you want, but try to keep it in line with the action (granting Disadvantage on the opponent's next attack might be appropriate for throwing sand, for example). If you want more guidance on improvised actions, have a look at the Player's Basic Rules or the Player's Handbook, which contain rules for grappling, shoving, and other actions.

If your party is particularly small or they're having a tough time in combat, you may want to adjust the combat encounters slightly. See the "adjusting for your group" section below.

Exploring the Cragmaw Hideout
After the first combat, the characters will have a chance to recover and perhaps take a short rest. If they're unsure what to do, it's all right to remind them of the facts: the fleeing goblin headed for a trail in the woods, and it's likely the character's dwarven patron and his friend were captured. They might opt to deliver their cargo to Phandalin first, which is fine. The adventure has some suggestions for keeping things on track.

Once they start heading toward the goblin caves, the adventure is on! Remember your job as a DM - describe the characters' environment, ask what they want to do, and describe what happens based on their actions.

Lost Mine of Phandelver covers the adventure areas well, with a read-aloud description and rules suggestions for each one. Some areas will have combat encounters (the Goblin Blind) and some are more along the lines of exploration challenges (the Steep Passage). Some can be either - the wolves in the Kennel can be fought, but a character who thinks to try pacifying them ("Down, boy!") might be able to get the characters through without a fight.

If the player characters want to try something that's not covered in the adventure, it's time to break out the rules for improvising ability checks - have a look at page 2 of Lost Mine of Phandelver for more information. It's also fine to simply declare that the task succeeds (or fails, if it's an impossible action or an absurd method).

Roleplaying and Non-Player Characters
Goblins are the classic evil, greedy minions.
Don't miss your chance to play them to the hilt!
As your players explore the Cragmaw Hideout, chances are they'll interact with several non-player characters (NPCs) controlled by you, the Dungeon Master. Whether it's a goblin they decided to capture and interrogate after the battle, the Bugbear warlord Klarg, or the captured knight Sildar Hallwinter, you're responsible for describing that character's words and actions and responding to whatever the player characters say to them.

When you're roleplaying a NPC, start with a character concept in mind. It might be "sniveling coward" for a goblin, "slimy manipulator" for the conniving goblin second-in-command Yeemik, or "noble warrior" for Sildar. Base your words and actions off of what you imagine a character like that might say. If you're not feeling inspired, it's alright to just communicate what the NPC says in the third person: "Yeemik offers a truce - he'll give you Sildar if you bring him the bugbear Klarg's head."

You won't need to roll dice in many roleplaying situations. For example, captured goblins will probably answer any question they are asked without an "Intimidation" roll - they're plenty intimidated enough already! However, when the character's attempts to deceive, intimidate, or persuade NPCs seem like they might fail (for instance, trying to convince Yeemik to let Sildar go upon threat of death), it's time to roll some Charisma checks, using the appropriate skill when applicable. You can grant Advantage or Disadvantage on the check depending on the characters' approach - for example, Yeemik might be susceptible to a large enough bribe.

If the characters are beaten up after a fight, they might want to rest and recover hit points (HP) afterwards. You can check the rulebook for more detailed information on resting, but the gist is that taking a short rest (1 in-game hour) restores some of the characters' abilities (like the Fighter's "Second Wind") and lets them spend their hit dice to recover hit points. To spend hit dice (they only have one at first level), they'll roll and add their Constitution modifier, then mark it off their sheet. A long rest (8 hours in-game - a night's sleep) recovers all abilities (like the Cleric's and Wizard's spells) and half of their hit dice.

Because the creatures in the Cragmaw hideout are split up from each other, the party can probably take a Short Rest in the cave or just outside if they can find a spot where monsters won't find them for an hour. To take a Long Rest, however, they'll most likely have to retreat to Phandalin. If the party decides to take this option, it's alright, but it might be worthwhile changing up the cave to reflect that the goblins have noticed the party's incursion (and maybe all the dead bodies!). For example, you could redesign area 6 or 7 to feature an ambush instead of a straightforward fight.

Playing D&D isn't just about fighting monsters and exploring dungeons. Developing the personalities and stories of each player character is an important aspect of the game!

The "Inspiration" rules on page 4 of Lost Mine of Phandelver help reward each player for emphasizing their character traits. You might want to have a brief look at each character sheet before the game to see what the characters' personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws are. If your players haven't picked them out, make sure that they do! It's as easy as rolling on your character's background table (or picking/writing your own), and they help make each character unique.

As you play, pay attention to your characters' traits and how they play them out at the table. When a player does something that aligns with their character's traits, give them inspiration! It's alright to give it out liberally at first, as it'll encourage each player to give their character a unique personality.

Adjusting for Your Group
Every gaming group is different. If yours is having a tough time getting used to D&D, it's possible that they might not initially be successful when faced with the adventure's challenges. As a DM, it's your job to make sure everyone is having fun, and sometimes the best way to do that is to "go easy on them." This is a matter of personal judgment - some D&D players love the challenge that can come from a ruthless Dungeon Master, but others like having the opportunity to be heroes without being beaten down constantly by powerful monsters.

It's best not to "cheat" blatantly, like declaring an obvious hit to be a miss when rolling the die in front of your players. Instead, you can change the situation or bend the rules to be in favor of the player characters. For example, when my group was overwhelmed in a fight while playing Lost Mine of Phandelver, I had some of the tougher monsters drag away (and loot!) an unconscious character's body instead of fighting, giving the other characters time to regroup and rescue their friend. You might decide to let that cleverly described leaping attack grant bonus damage where it normally wouldn't, or to have a well-timed insult throw the bugbear off-guard and give it Disadvantage on its next attack. It's also fine to change things that your players haven't seen yet; for example, if they were challenged by just three goblins, you can reduce the number in an upcoming room from six to four.

Small Group (Leveled Up)
Goblin Ambush 3 Goblins
Goblin Blind 1 Goblin
Kennel 3 Wolves
Overpass 1 Goblin
Goblin Den 4 Goblins (1 is a "leader")
Twin Pools Cave 2 Goblins
Klarg's Cave 1 Bugbear + 1 Wolf
It's also possible that your group is simply too small. In general, groups with 3 players or more should be able to handle the challenges in the first part of Lost Mine of Phandelver (although 3-player groups might have a tougher time than most). However, if you're playing with only one or two player characters, the fights in the adventure can be overwhelming.

Although it's tempting to have players play multiple characters (or play one yourself), in my experience this doesn't lead to the best results. It's hard to keep track of the abilities of multiple characters when you're just starting out, and playing one yourself takes your attention away from DMing.

Instead, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, start with the characters leveled up. If you have just one character, start that character at level 3; if you have two, start them both at level 2. The pregenerated characters have instructions for leveling up on the back, but even homemade characters should be fairly easy to level with the instructions in the Basic Rules or Player's Handbook.

Second, rebalance the encounters to account for having fewer characters. The table above uses the official encounter building math to rebalance the Starter Set fights for one third level character or two second level ones.

Concluding the Adventure
"Goblin Arrows" can take a significant amount of time to play through. If you run out of time to play, don't sweat it - just try to find a good stopping point (ideally, not in the middle of a combat) and pick things up next time.

If your players have cleared the Cragmaw Hideout, chances are they've picked up some treasure - stolen trade goods, a few potions of healing, a potential reward from Sildar Hallwinter, and some coins and valuable objects. Encourage your players to sell those items (except for the potions) and divide the proceeds evenly once they're in Phandalin.

Assuming all went well, your players are probably excited to play again next time! Make sure to talk afterwards and schedule a time that's good for everyone. If everyone's excited about continuing to play, this is where you might want to suggest meeting regularly.

Leveling Up
At the end of the adventure, each character should have 350 experience points, which is more than enough to reach level two! Ask your players if they want to level up their characters now or at the beginning of the next session. Leveling up is a pretty simple process, but I've included this checklist to make sure you don't miss anything:
  • Gain extra hit points and hit dice. Every time a character levels up, they gain extra hit points and an additional hit die (used to regain hit points - see the "Resting" section of this article). Your group can choose to use average hit points from each additional hit die (a d8 averages 4.5, rounding to 5) or roll the die to manage hit point gain. Average hit points keep characters balanced against one another, while random rolls can add excitement to the process. Either way, you gain hit points equal to the rolled value plus the character's Constitution modifier.
  • Gain new abilities. With every level, a character gains a new ability or an upgraded ability (Exception: some spellcasting characters gain a new level of spells instead). Consult your class table in the Player's Basic Rules or Player's Handbook to see what ability or abilities you gain and write them down on your character sheet.
    • At some levels, you can choose a path that will define further abilities your character gains in the class. For example, the Fighter chooses a Martial Archetype, while the Wizard chooses an Arcane Tradition. If you're using the Basic Rules, you'll only have one choice for your class path; the Player's Handbook offers more.
    • Other levels grant an Ability Score Improvement. This feature lets you improve one ability score by 2 (improving its bonus by +1) or add 1 to each of two scores. If you're using the Player's Handbook, you can choose a feat from chapter 6 in lieu of this feature. Improving Constitution changes hit points retroactively (going from a +1 CON bonus to +2 adds one hit point per level).
  • Add additional spells and spell slots. Characters that can cast spells usually increase their number of spells prepared and their spell slots when they level up. Some also gain additional spells known or in their spellbook. Make sure to check your class's "Spellcasting" feature in the Player's Basic Rules or Player's Handbook to see what you gain.
  • Adjust numbers and abilities. Some of your character's statistics and abilities may vary depending on your level. Most notably, your "proficiency bonus" periodically improves when you level up, which affects a variety of numbers from attack bonus to skill bonuses to an increase in saving throw difficulty for your spells. Abilities from your class or other sources (such as the Fighter's "Second Wind" and the Dragonborn race's "Breath Weapon") might also change. 
If you're using the premade characters, there are level up instructions on the back that spell out what that character gains upon leveling up.

Final Thoughts
If you're overwhelmed from reading all this advice, don't sweat it! Nobody is ever a perfect Dungeon Master, but it's not hard to be a good one. As long as everyone enjoyed the game, you did a good job. It doesn't matter if you fumble the rules or forget to introduce that cool plot element - you can fix those things next time. What matters is that you and your players had a good time, and as long as you're committed to making this happen, it's pretty hard not to.

That's it for this week! Next week, I hope to post Part 2 of this series, covering the next section of the adventure: Phandalin. I'll see you then on Pact of the Tome!


  1. Just running a group through LMoP, my first attempt at DM'ing. Keep up the posts, these are great info and I'm finding it super useful running my group!

    1. Thanks very much! These do take a long time to write but I'll do my best to have the next one up within a week or so.

  2. Very, very good stuff, even for an old DM like me. Thank you!

  3. God Bless you! I'm a mom whose 10 year son is interested in learning and he has charged ME with being the DM (hard swallow). After reading for days, your post is helping me put it all together!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful. And I think it's awesome that you as a parent are introducing this stuff to your son. You'll do great!

  4. This was very helpful I'm going to attempt my first session this weekend