Thursday, May 7, 2015

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 2: Phandalin

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the fourth 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 talk about the second part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, "Phandalin." At this point, you've already played through one or more sessions, so your group should be getting a handle on how play D&D. With this chapter, it's time to kick things up a notch. Your players will have the opportunity to explore the town of Phandalin, interact with the people who live there, and confront the dastardly Redbrand gang. By the end, you'll have a solid grasp on all three pillars of D&D - combat, exploration, and interaction - and your group will be well on their way to becoming established heroes.

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

Planning Your Session
The town of Phandalin is custom-built to be a memorable
home base for your party of adventurers. Make sure you
make the most of it!
Cartography: Mike Schley
Goblin Arrows has a simple structure - the players are ambushed on the road, then track the goblin antagonists into their cave hideout and explore it. Phandalin is more complicated; the players have a whole town to explore, with cartloads of non-player characters ("NPCs") to talk to, several quest hooks to investigate, and a criminal gang to confront. In addition, there's a large dungeon under Tresendar Manor filled with foes, puzzles, and traps. You'll need to spend some time preparing beforehand to ensure you give your players the best experience.

Keep these things in mind as you read the adventure and take notes:

  • Get familiar with the NPCs. The heart and soul of a town are the people who live in it. The table on page 15 of the adventure lists each of the major characters; take some time to read up on each one and remember their defining traits. You might want to think of a persona to go with each one: an image to keep in your head, an accent, a bit of body language.
  • Be ready to move from one location to another. As the players explore the town, they'll probably investigate several locations in a short period of time, so be ready to introduce each part of town as they explore it. Not all the locations have read-aloud text, so you might think about what aspects of a business or character might stand out at first glance. The Phandalin Miner's Exchange might have a prospector carting goods in as the characters stand outside, while the Shrine of Luck could be scattered with little trinkets and offerings to Tymora.
  • Examine the Redbrand Hideout carefully. The Redbrand gang serves as the antagonists for this part of the adventure, and with a bit of work, your players can find their dungeon lair under a ruined manor house. Running this dungeon will be similar to the Cragmaw Hideout from Goblin Arrows, but there are several more complicated elements here, including enemies who react to the players' actions.

Recapping the First Session
Many Dungeon Masters find it helpful to begin their session with a "recap," similar to those seen on sequential TV shows. The recap draws your players into the game, reminds everyone of what happened last time, and sets the tone for the upcoming adventure. Here's an example of a recap you might use:
Last time on Lost Mine of Phandelver... Five brave adventurers from the city of Neverwinter joined forces to protect a shipment of mining supplies, but trouble struck when they were ambushed on the road by goblin bandits. Infiltrating the goblin lair, they rescuded the noble Sidar Hallwinter and defeated the goblin leader, a bugbear named Klarg. Now, they enter the frontier town of Phandalin, ready to confront whatever dangers await them - and with a bit of luck, they might find a clue to their patron Gundrin's whereabouts.
You don't need to write down the whole recap, but it's worthwhile to jot down a few notes about what happened last time and plot elements that may come into focus this session. For more information on composing recaps, I recommend this excellent article by master DM Chris Perkins: "Previously in Iomandra...".

Bringing in Characters' Backstories
At this point in the adventure, the plot hooks you helped your players think of (you did, right?) will start coming into play. Take a look at what they've written for character backgrounds and make sure you're aware of each element that might come up. Keep an eye out for these things:
  • Hooks related to NPCs in Phandalin, such as Qelline Alderleaf or Halia Thornton. These characters will make their first appearance this session, and you'll want to pay special attention to them.
  • Any connection to the Redbrand gang. The Redbrands are based in Phandalin and serve as antagonists for this part of the story. For example, if one of the characters was a former gang member, make sure you know about it. You might have an opportunity for gang members to call that character out during a fight, or to give them information other characters might not have.
  • Any ties to Phandalin itself might come up in this part of the adventure. For example, the pregenerated Noble Fighter has the personal goal to civilize the town. For this player, you could emphasize the way Phandalin is currently oppressed by the Redbrands, giving them a clear first step toward their goal.
Paying attention to each players' background makes them feel connected to the world and more invested in your story. Don't miss your chance to take advantage of the hooks they've given you!

Introducing Phandalin
The frontier town of Phandalin isn't just some one-off dungeon - it'll be the character's home base for several sessions of play. You'll want to put some work into making it an interesting, memorable location that your players will care about.

It's likely that your players will have some unfinished business from last time to take care of. They've got goods to deliver to Barthen's Trading Post, and if they thought to recover the crates from the Cragmaw Hideout, they can return them to Lionshield Coster for a hefty profit - split among the party, of course! After these errands, they'll be free to explore the town, talking to NPCs and gathering information.

Unless you feel particularly comfortable juggling multiple scenes, keep the party together. Players' natural instinct is to split up to investigate different areas, but because you play each NPC they interact with, this will lead to one player having a lot of "face time" while the others sit waiting for their turn. Instead, encourage your players to keep their characters together as they explore Phandalin.

The wealth of NPCs in Phandalin might seem overwhelming. There's so many people for your players to talk to, and you're responsible for playing as each one of them! Lost Mine of Phandelver has some great pointers for playing various NPCs on page 15.

There shouldn't be a need to roll the dice in most situations, but Charisma checks (see the "Improvising Ability Checks" section on pages 2-3 of the adventure) can be a great tool if the characters want to convince a NPC to help them. Remember that most characters in Phandalin are ordinary people with little combat ability. If threatened, they'll probably back down or attempt to flee. If your players are spoiling to fight someone, you can go ahead and spring the Redbrand Ruffians encounter on them early - see below.

Quests in Phandalin
As your players interact with the NPCs in Phandalin, they'll likely pick up on several "hooks" guiding them toward different parts of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. These two quests can be accomplished in this section of the adventure. They both deal with the threat of the Redbrands in town, so make sure to give them plenty of emphasis!
  • Halia's Job Offer (Halia Thornton)
  • Finding Iarno (Sidar Hallwinter)
These quests are meant for part 3 of the adventure, but you can begin foreshadowing them now.
  • Old Owl Trouble (Daran Edermath)
  • Reidoth the Druid (Qelline Alderleaf)
  • The Banshee's Bargain (Sister Garaele)
  • Orc Trouble (Harbin Wester)
  • Finding Cragmaw Castle (Sidar Hallwinter)
As you introduce these latter quest options, your players might express interest in following up on them. This is fine; it's great to have your players engaged. However, you might not be ready to run the third part of the adventure yet (and the PCs might not be strong enough to handle it), so you'll want to guide your players toward dealing with the Redbrands first.

Confronting the Redbrands
Exploring Phandalin, the characters will likely pick up on a clear, immediate plot hook: the Redbrand gang is oppressing the town! At some point, you'll want to bring this point of the adventure into better focus by running the Redbrand Ruffians encounter. If the players follow the clues leading them to the Sleeping Giant, that's great - they'll feel clever for having figured things out themselves. However, if they're struggling, distracted, or spoiling for a fight, it's probably time to spring the Redbrands on them.

Combat with the Redbrands will be similar to earlier fights with goblins and other monsters, but remember that these foes are human. That means they'll probably be tossing out insults during the fight; remember, talking doesn't take an action! This encounter isn't meant to defeat the party, although it may challenge them. Instead, it establishes the Redbrands as villains and helps motivate your players to defeat them. After dealing with this encounter, your players will likely want to take the next step - tracking the gang to its lair under Tresendar Manor.

Exploring the Redbrand Hideout
Cartography: Mike Schley
The characters can enter this dungeon one of two different ways: the "standard" route (found by exploring the ruins of Tresendar Manor; entering at area 1) or through a secret tunnel (Carp Alderleaf knows its location; entering at area 8). Finding the second entrance functions as a reward for careful investigation while exploring Phandalin, and might help your party get the drop on the Redbrands.

While the Redbrand Hideout has plenty of diverse enemies to fight, it also includes several NPCs for the party to interact with. Some will be immediately friendly (like the imprisoned commoners in area 5), but if they act carefully the adventurers may find allies in unexpected places; the goblin Droop in area 9 might go from enemy to friend if the players are cautious. The Nothic in area 8 is a special case - while it's creepy and antagonistic enough that it might fight the player characters, it's also open to negotiation and might serve as an ally if they can find a suitable bribe or incentive.

The party may want to take a rest while exploring this dungeon. There's probably time for a short rest as long as they find a safe location, such as the locked armory in area 6; most of the dungeon's inhabitants will be preoccupied with their tasks. However, if they leave to take a long rest after clearing a significant portion of the dungeon, the inhabitants will surely notice. At minimum, if enough Redbrands are killed, Glasstaff might leave or set up an ambush for when the party returns.

The Redbrand boss represents the highlight of this adventure, but, oddly, he's not a big threat in a straight-up fight. While his staff of defense (make sure to read about this item in Appendix 2 of the adventure!) lets him protect himself well, he's unlikely to beat the whole party in a fight. Instead, he might attempt to run, and with his rat familiar on watch in area 11 there's a decent chance he'll get away.

When you're preparing, take a look at Glasstaff's spell selection (see the "Evil Mage" in Appendix B) and figure out what spells he's most likely to use. He might first cast hold person to paralyze the party fighter or magic missile to take out the vulnerable wizard - or just run for the secret door, use the Dash action, and then cast misty step to expedite his escape. Don't forget that his staff of defense lets him cast shield and mage armor. Monsters with several spells to cast are complicated to run, but if you're well-prepared they can make for an engaging battle.

If your players corner Glasstaff, there's a lot of fun to be had with regards to his capture or death. Remember that melee attackers can choose to knock a creature out instead of killing it when they drop it to zero hit points (see page 13 of the rulebook) and remind your players of this when the time comes. Sidar Hallwinter wants Iarno Albrek captured so he can be brought to justice, but Halia Thornton might have offered the characters a reward for his head and the information in his quarters. Regardless, the characters can learn quite a lot from interrogating the Redbrand leader.

If Glasstaff escapes, then he can make for an excellent recurring villain. When you're reading up on part 3 of the adventure, keep an eye out for places you could place hints to his whereabouts or insert an encounter with the wizard himself. You could even have him team up with the villains from Cragmaw Castle or in Wave Echo Cave, making those battles even more dramatic and challenging for your players!

Answering Player Questions
As the Dungeon Master, you function as your player's sole interpreter of the world around them. In this part of the adventure, distributing information to them becomes significantly more important. They'll need plenty of context on the world around them in order to make decisions, solve mysteries, and act as their characters.

It's alright to simply tell your players about anything they come across. You'll want to keep your exposition short so your players don't get bored, but it's perfectly okay to give your players the information a normal person might know. You can use this principle while answering questions as well - ask yourself "would the average person in the Forgotten Realms know this?"

If you're not sure whether one of your players would know about something, such as the history of Tresendar Manor, you might ask them to make an Intelligence check. They can apply a skill like History or Nature if it's applicable. You could assign a DC - 10 or 15 would be appropriate - to know the information, or tell them progressively more the higher they roll.

Some player characters might have more reason to know something than others. For example, the pregenerated Rogue character is described as being a former member of the Redbrand gang. In that case, you can reward that player by giving them significantly more information on the Redbrands. If you don't want to tell them something, that's okay too - maybe the information changed since they left the gang.

The most important thing is to ensure your players know enough to make informed decisions. It's your responsibility to make sure they understand the world around them, whether they get that from your descriptions, conversations with NPCs, or applied knowledge in the form of Intelligence checks and background information.

Joining the Factions
Having larger forces at play can have a great positive impact
on your game! To learn more about the factions in the
Forgotten Realms, check out this page on the Wizards website.
By the end of this adventure, your party may have fulfilled the conditions to join two of the five factions present in Lost Mine of Phandelver. Finding Iarno Albrek may have impressed Sidar Hallwinter enough for him to extend an offer to join the Lord's Alliance. Likewise, taking out the Redbrand leader could inspire Halia Thornton to induct a character into the notorious Zhentarim. This is a big chance to get your players more invested in your game - who doesn't want to join a secret society?

You don't need to offer every player the chance to join a faction right away. Some of them may not have impressed Sidar or Halia. Others might be a better fit for the Harpers, Order of the Gauntlet, or Emerald Enclave, which are introduced later on. Factions won't usually accept a character who is a member of another faction.

The factions don't play a big role in this adventure, although you could use them to help the players in a tight spot or introduce a new adventure hook. However, they could make a larger appearance later on if you want to keep running your game in the Forgotten Realms. In particular, you might want to continue to the official Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Princes of the Apocalypse adventures, which connect with the factions in a big way.

If you're running a game in the D&D Adventurer's League organized play program, some of your players probably already align with a faction. However, if they haven't chosen one yet, this would be a great time to introduce them.

Concluding the Adventure
By the end of Phandalin, your players will have explored a frontier town and freed it from the oppressive influence of a violent gang. They might also have identified the mysterious Iarno Albrek, gained a goblin follower, and been inducted into one or more secret societies. Finally, they'll probably have reached level three, so they'll be ready to take on the challenges of the adventure's third part: The Spider's Web. That's what I'll cover next time on Pact of the Tome!


  1. I'm very interested in your thoughts on running Wave Echo Cave ... this blog was very helpful indeed.

    1. Thank you! About 70% of the Wave Echo Cave article is sitting in my "Drafts" folder. Can't make any promises on when I will finish it, but I'd like to some time.

  2. did you make any notes when you thought of persona's, images, body language for the main NPC'S?

  3. While you make this blog from the point of view of a DM, in your opinion, what is the easier way to pass through the Redbrand Hideout? I am inclined in giving my 1st time party a nudge in going through the unconventional way, but I fear they would go and fight the nothic, and I fear it might be too much for them (I think passing through the traditional pathway might ensure that the whole party is at least level 2 and at least 1, parhaps 2, is level 3 by the time they reach nothic or the boss)

    1. Interesting question.

      I think as a DM, you might be better off not telling your players to explore the dungeon one way or the other. They will really appreciate the feeling of choice, and if they find the shortcut they will feel clever for "skipping" part of the dungeon.

      Unless the party skipped the Cragmaw Hideout, it's unlikely that they won't be level 2 by the time they hit the Redbrands. So they should be able to handle the encounters in the Redbrand Hideout, provided that they know when to retreat and take short or long rests. Reaching level 3 shouldn't be necessary, particularly because Glasstaff isn't a particularly difficult threat in battle. He's as likely to run as he is to fight. So whichever way the party goes should be fairly balanced.