Saturday, June 18, 2016

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 4: Wave Echo Cave

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the sixth and last 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 covers 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 fourth and last part of Lost Mine of Phandelver, "Wave Echo Cave." This large, abandoned cave complex in the Sword Mountains is the site of the legendary Lost Mine itself, and has been the object of the Black Spider's search for some time. In the final dungeon of this adventure, your players will face fearsome undead guardians, uncover the wonders of the Forge of Spells, and confront the Black Spider in an epic battle. This is the end of the adventure, but it could be just the beginning of your journey as a Dungeon Master.

Preparing the Dungeon
Mike Schely's cartographic skill is on full
display in Lost Mine of Phandelver. As a
reminder, you can purchase high-resolution
copies of the maps (with DM annotations
removed) at his website.
Despite its expansive nature, Wave Echo Cave is actually fairly easy to prepare as a Dungeon Master. The dungeon's inhabitants aren't working together for the most part, so you won't need to keep their responses as a group in mind like in Cragmaw Castle. Furthermore, the dungeon is large enough that your group probably won't be able to explore it in one session, so if you're short on time you can focus on preparing areas closer to the entrance.

With the time you've saved, think about how you can make the adventure location come to life in your players' minds. As the ruin of a mine created by the collaboration of dwarves, gnomes, and humans, Wave Echo Cave is a location filled with history. The booming sound of waves from the northeast is a good starting point to develop atmosphere, but spend some time thinking about other ways you can emphasize the adventure and mystery of this place in your descriptions.

One Massive Dungeon
Unlike the other sections of the adventure, Wave Echo Cave is focused almost entirely on a single dungeon area. For your players who enjoy the challenge and discovery of exploration, this ought to be a blast! Some of your players might prefer other parts of the game, so think about how you can keep everyone at the table engaged. For example, if some of your players enjoy interacting with non-player characters, you might give the party a NPC non-combatant companion to interact with during exploration. They might have a hireling or ally from Phandalin, or Gundren Rockseeker could fill this role.

Even though they've reached the "final dungeon," make sure your players know they are free to continue exploring the area around Phandalin and following up on other rumors and quests. If they haven't reached fourth level by the time they hit the mine, they might have a hard time taking on some of the encounters inside, so this is especially important.

Wave Echo Cave is large enough that players who aren't paying attention to direction could easily get lost. Here you have a few options. If you have access to a whiteboard or dry-erase playmat (or you're playing on a virtual tabletop like Roll20), you can draw or print a map of the dungeon so the players can easily tell where they are. You might also encourage your players to make a map of the dungeon based on your descriptions. Whatever you do, make sure the players have enough information to make good decisions. As the DM, you are the sole source of information about the game world, so it's your responsibility to make sure your players understand it in the way their characters do.

Unlike other dungeons in Lost Mine of Phandelver, Wave Echo Cave isn't designed for your party to complete it in one long rest. With little external pressure to explore the cave quickly, your players may be tempted into a "five minute workday" mentality. A party can easily defeat most single encounters with full hit points and spells - then take a long rest and do it all over again. You can curb this way of thinking by pressuring the party to push themselves and explore more of the dungeon in one go. Maybe Gundren Rockseeker is worried about his brother and wishes to find him, or the players discover hints that the Black Spider is approaching the Forge of Spells.

Spending so much time in one location might lead to a grind as well. Make sure to give the players a chance to return to Phandalin for supplies, and emphasize their discovery of new areas of the dungeon with good descriptions and exciting events. If you find yourself getting tired of describing the dungeon or you sense your group's energy level sagging, don't hesitate to end the session and pick it up next time you play. Just make sure to give the players an appropriate recap next time so they can step back into the action.

Confronting the Black Spider
If your group has been paying attention, they'll have been hearing about the Black Spider since the beginning of the adventure. This drow wizard has been built up as a dastardly villain - but oddly, he's a bit of a pushover in combat. Alone, he'll go down easily, but even with his spider and doppleganger allies, Nezznar can be targeted by the characters and taken out without much trouble. In order to avoid an anticlimactic "final battle," you'll have to put all of your devious Dungeon Master skills to work.

First, remember that Nezznar is a ruthless villain that will do anything to survive and to defeat his enemies. The adventure suggests that he will team up with a doppleganger that disguises itself as Nundro Rockseeker, but don't that be the end of his deceptive tactics. Maybe Nezznar will claim a false surrender, then lead the adventurers into a dangerous area of the dungeon. Maybe he uses the spider climb spell from his staff to hang from the ceiling, then ambush the party wizard while they are dealing with the spiders. Play him smart and ruthless, and take some time beforehand to get familiar with his spells and combat options. Played well, the Black Spider can be an absolute terror.

Where To From Here?
Finishing your first adventure is a big deal! You've helped your players understand a complicated game and guided them through an exiting tale of perils and heroism. From here on out, you've got a few options:
  • ... and the adventure continues! As an experienced Dungeon Master, you certainly have the expertise to continue adventuring in the Forgotten Realms. If the characters haven't visited certain locations, like the Ruins of Thundertree, you could start off by exploring them. You could build on some of the plot threads from Lost Mine, perhaps creating a story based on an escaped villain or threats to the characters' new holdings in the no-longer-lost mine. Or you could begin something else entirely. If you're interested in exploring more of the Forgotten Realms setting past the area around Phandalin, you might want to take a look at the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide, which contains a player-friendly description of much of the setting.
  • Transition into another published adventure. If you prefer the guidance of a prewritten adventure, several of the published adventures from Wizards might be a good fit. In particular, Princes of the Apocalypse takes place just south of Phandalin and continues the theme of exploring dungeons and wilderness areas. Any of the Wizards adventures could work, though - maybe the characters are drawn into the horrible Ravenloft setting of Curse of Strahd or captured by Drow and taken into the Underdark, beginning Out of the Abyss.
    If you decide to transition into a Wizards adventure, you'll have to decide what to do about the level disparity. Princes of the Apocolypse and Curse of Strahd both assume third level starting characters, but both adventures are flexible enough that higher level characters (probably 4-5 from the end of Lost Mine) will still be challenged. Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Out of the Abyss, on the other hand, are designed for first level characters. You could come up with a reason for your group to enter the adventure later on, or you could increase the difficulty of early sections so that they're still a challenge for higher level characters.
  • Restart and plan a new game. You can do it! Now that you've gotten the hang of things, your group might want to try something else. Maybe you feel that D&D really isn't complete without zeppelins. Maybe your players started with the pre-generated characters and would like to try building their own. Maybe you've got some other friends who would like to try the game. Whatever you choose, your experience running Lost Mine of Phandelver should serve you well in designing your own adventures.
With Wave Echo Cave behind you, you've completed Lost Mine of Phandelver and passed a major milestone in your growth as a Dungeon Master. You ought to be proud of your work - if you've made it this far, chances are you've made the game such a great experience for your players that they'll always want to come back for more. Good luck on your continued adventures!

1 comment:

  1. We'll probably finish Wave Echo Cave tonight. Thank you for your insightful blog post for the Starter Set. It really has been a great story to DM and I'm now looking forward to handing the reins to another player at least for a while.