Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 3: The Spider's Web

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the fifth 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 third part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, "The Spider's Web." When your group reaches this part of the adventure, they'll have some goals in mind - most prominently, finding and rescuing their kidnapped patron - but they won't have a clear method to achieve them. Instead, they'll follow up on several leads that they've gathered, exploring various locations near Phandelver to work their way toward Cragmaw Castle. By the end of this chapter, they'll have explored several of the locations around Phandalin, found and stormed Cragmaw Castle, and uncovered the location of the Lost Mine of Phandelver itself - and you'll have brought them there!

Part 3: The Spider's Web

Where to go?
In the last part of Lost Mine, your group most likely explored the Cragmaw Hideout, got to know the town of Phandalin, and delved into the dungeons underneath Tresendar Manor. Unless things went differently than the adventure expects, they likely did these things in a predictable order. In this chapter, your players will get to choose what leads they pursue and what parts of the adventure they'll tackle first.

What does this mean for you? You'll have to be more prepared and willing to improvise than previously. There's a list of information the characters may have gathered on page 27, and it'll be worthwhile spending some time reading up on each of the different locations mentioned - Agatha's Lair, Old Owl Well, the Ruins of Thundertree, and Wyvern Tor. Except for the Ruins of Thundertree, each of these locations is fairly straightforward to run so long as you're prepared.

At this point in the adventure, your players may not know where Cragmaw Castle is yet. They've got several routes to finding it - Reidoth in the Ruins of Thundertree knows where it is, as do the bugbears in the Redbrand Hideout and any goblins the players may capture during a random encounter. If worst comes to worst, they can ask the banshee Agatha, but that's dangerous - she'll only answer one question, and that's if the party is careful and tactful in approaching her. The convenient aspect of all this is that if your players don't know where the Castle is yet, you can skip preparing to run the Castle itself. Once your players find a lead toward the Castle, you can prepare to run it next session.

Loose Ends
Chances are, your group defeated the Redbrands in chapter 2, driving them from their hideout under Tresendar Manor. You'll want to reflect this in their interactions with townsfolk - because the Redbrands were generally feared and disliked, the people of the town are likely to treat the player characters with respect and admiration. At this point, they're heroes!

It's also quite possible that Glasstaff, the Redbrand leader, escaped in the conclusion of part 2. If he did, consider re-introducing him at some point. Remember that the Black Spider is behind both Glasstaff and the goblins' plans, so it's quite plausible that he could be working with the Cragmaw tribe. You might insert him somewhere in Cragmaw Castle (perhaps backing up the villain King Grol) or you can hold him in reserve for later. This is your chance to play a dynamic villain character - what might Glasstaff do once he escapes, and how would that affect the players' adventure experience?

Choosing a Goal
Before your party leaves town, they'll want to find an objective to focus on. Ideally, they have picked up the quest to find Cragmaw Castle from Sidar Hallwinter (and they may already want to search for their patron Gundrin Rockseeker!), but it's likely that they have talked to some of the other folks in town as well. The adventure has a nice summary of the opportunities for adventure, to which I'd add the "Mirna's Heirloom" side quest on page 22.

You'll want to strike a balance between telling your players what to do and leaving them totally indecisive. If your group enjoys the decision-making process, then give them some time to deliberate, but if things are moving too slowly, feel free to offer a suggestion. ("How about the orc problem the Townmaster mentioned last session?")

It's likely that your party will return to Phandalin several times over the course of this adventure. This is great! The town serves as a home base and a point of refuge toward the party at this point, and ideally they're developing a real fondness for it. Return trips are also an excellent time to point toward quests the party hasn't completed yet, perhaps by having a friendly NPC ask them for help.

Random Encounters
Random encounters serve several purposes during the game. They can spice up wilderness exploration and create tension, while giving the players a reason not to linger in the wilds for too long. Some of the included encounters can also give your party clues about other parts of the adventure. When they're attacked by orcs, don't forget to mention the band at Wyvern Tor. The party can even find directions to Cragmaw Castle if they interrogate a group of goblins!

One thing you'll notice about random encounters is that they don't come with set descriptions of the encounter setting or even read-aloud text to describe the scene. That means it's time to flex your Dungeon Master muscles! Using the hex map as a guideline, determine an appropriate backdrop for the fight and describe it to your players. For example, if they are on the Triboar Trail and attacked by orcs, you could describe the orcs summiting a hill hundreds of feet away and charging, giving the party time to prepare for an assault. If they encounter stirges at night, you can describe the buzzing sound the stirges make as they circle the party's campfire. Consider the monsters' tactics as well. Wolves will team up to attack single characters, making use of their Pack Tactics ability, while Goblins will act as mobile skirmishers who run and hide after attacking.

Small Adventure Locations
There are three locations in "The Spider's Web" that essentially comprise a single encounter each. You'll probably be able to fit two or more of these into a single game session, with a bit of wilderness travel and perhaps a random encounter or two thrown in. In general, it is fine if your party doesn't make it to all of these during this section of the adventure. It'll give them something to do later on!

Don't miss your chance to play up the creepiness of a
Banshee in her lair!
Conyberry is an encounter that tests the character's skills of diplomacy and negotiation. There aren't even game statistics for a Banshee in the book! If your players are observant and careful, they'll be able to extract an answer from Agatha without too much trouble. If not - well, better luck next time.

At Old Owl Well, your players will have an opportunity to negotiate with a figure who is clearly evil yet doesn't serve as an antagonist. The Red Wizards are a classic villainous group in the Forgotten Realms, and Hamun Kost is an opportunity for you to play up the evil wizard archetype. In my game, I had him write down something for the players - on a parchment that looked like human flesh! Of course, this encounter could also devolve into a fight. Especially if your party is getting beaten down by the zombies, strongly consider having the Red Wizard offer them terms of truce. The adventure doesn't list information that he knows, but feel free to decide that he possesses information about the local area (like the location of Cragmaw Castle).

The orc camp at Wyvern Tor is a straightforward set-piece combat that will test your group's mastery of tactics. Orcs are punishing foes in such a large group, so your players will have a much easier time if they can take out the sentry and surprise the group. If they can figure out that Brughor is the leader (you can clue them in through your descriptions of the fight), they can target him and potentially convince the other orcs to flee.

Ruins of Thundertree
Although it's not exactly a dungeon, the Ruins of Thundertree location plays out much like one. There are several locations infested with monsters, a group of enemies who are open to parley, and a potential ally (Reidoth of the Emerald Enclave). Oh, and of course there's the dragon.

Venomfang is referred to as male in Lost Mine of Phandelver,
but this blogger prefers to think of the dragon as female. The
adventure is greatly lacking in female villains, and
Venomfang makes for an easy conversion.
The dragon Venomfang is, quite possibly, the most dangerous foe your players can face in this adventure. Just looking at the Challenge ratings, she (see note under image) is listed as Challenge 8, stronger than every other monster in the adventure. What this means is that your players will have an extremely difficult challenge if they try to fight her head-on, especially at level 3. Her breath weapon can kill a third-level character outright, even if that character starts at full hit points!

While it might seem like an unbalanced challenge, this is actually a great opportunity to hone your skills as a Dungeon Master. Part of your job is representing the world to your players, and that means showing them that some enemies are just too tough to beat.

Make sure to telegraph the dragon's danger. The adventure mentions the giant spider corpses outside Venomfang's lair, but consider also that Reidoth the druid knows how deadly she is. He might warn the characters away, only offering them the mission to drive off the dragon once he's certain they are tough enough (perhaps after they face the dangers of Cragmaw Castle and hit level 4).

Also, remember that dragons are quite intelligent monsters. Venomfang might try to parley with the characters or simply offer them the chance to beg for their lives. In particular, green dragons in D&D have a reputation as insidious liars.

Cragmaw Castle
This dungeon will probably be the most difficult your party has faced yet! Because the monsters here are working together to defend the castle, your player characters will have a lot of work to do. One false step, and defenders from several different areas of the castle will descend upon them. This means you'll have to get familiar with the denizens of the whole dungeon area, not just the room the characters are currently in.

Because the castle is so formidable, your characters might attempt something other than a direct assault. The adventure contains good advice for how to arbitrate an attempt at deception, and you can simply check the descriptions of the various encounter areas to find out what happens if your group enters through a back door. In general, the best thing you can do is get in the heads of the castle's various defenders and ask what they'd do in a certain situation. Will the goblins in the banquet hall run for hiding places if attacked, or will they go fetch the hobgoblins and return in force? The adventure has some advice on what various castle denizens will do, but it's ultimately up to you.

If your players get in over their heads, you've got a choice to make. If your party enjoys a tough challenge - and you don't think they'd be too upset if everyone dies - then pour on the steam. Your players will appreciate the challenge, and the large number of foes will make it a battle to remember. Otherwise, you can pull some DM sleight of hand to give the party room to maneuver. If you have unconscious characters, you might have the monsters capture them and take them for ransom, leaving the rest of the party to plan a rescue mission. Remember, not all villains are out to kill!

Confronting King Grol
The final encounter of the Cragmaw Castle ought to be tense and difficult. With a deceitful foe (the doppleganger Vyerith), considerable bulk in the form of King Grol and his pet wolf, and a hostage situation with Gundren Rockseeker, your players will have their work cut out for them.

Although you probably have the expertise to run this encounter at this point, I'd like to point out one thing. Even if the players "win," there are many different facets to this encounter's outcome - whether Vyerith escapes, whether Gundren Rockseeker survives, and whether the players find the hidden map to Wave Echo Cave. This kind of granularity, with multiple goals for the party to strive for, is essential to good encounter design. If your party completes some objectives but fails others, they'll see that you're offering them a real challenge and resolve to do better next time. This promotes engagement and makes the players feel like they have earned their successes.

Making It Your Own
At this point in Lost Mine of Phandelver, you've gained quite a bit of experience running adventures. You've probably also got some ideas about elements you'd like to add to your game. Maybe you'd like to do more with one of the recurring villains, or one of your characters has an interesting sub-plot that you'd like to focus on more.

Go for it! A big part of being a Dungeon Master is coming up with your own material. While guidelines for doing so are beyond the scope of this article, I can point you to some resources for doing so. For starters, the Dungeon Master's Basic Rules (also available as a webpage here) contain a big selection of monsters and a few magic items you can use to create your own encounters. There are also some helpful guidelines for determining whether your combat encounters are an appropriate challenge for your party - they're a bit complicated to use, but provide an important check on encounter difficulty.

If this is your first D&D game, or your first as the Dungeon Master, I'd add a word of caution. It's really fun to experiment, but if your group has enjoyed the adventure so far, don't stray too far off the beaten path. Start small by adding a single encounter or plot element. You'll get a better idea of what works and what doesn't as you go.

Concluding the Adventure
Once the adventurers have recovered Gundrin Rockseeker (or perhaps his dead body) and escaped Cragmaw Castle, this part of Lost Mine of Phandelver is essentially over. The party's new goal is probably to locate Wave Echo Cave, the site of the Lost Mine itself, and confront the Black Spider.

Give yourself a pat on the back. You've successfully managed multiple adventure sites, presented a ton of exciting challenges, and created a great and memorable story for your players. None of this would have happened without you.

There's one more thing to do, and that's to explore Wave Echo Cave itself... next time on Pact of the Tome!


  1. This Site has been a Blessing, I am a first time DM but long time player and I have a group with new and old players alike, we are currently playing through Lost Mine and they seem to be having a blast. Can't wait for the Last part to be published. keep up the good work.

  2. Exactly what Matt said; this has been an amazing insight as I just started DMing with LmoP. I was enjoyed your write-ups a lot, and I'm looking froward to the next part!

  3. Hey! You lost a sentence under the ruins of thundertree section. You say "In particular, green dragons in D&D have a reputation as insidious liars. If you can". Would love to hear the finished thought, thanks :)