The interesting thing about the design of Lost Mine of Phandelver is Part 3, “The Spider’s Web.” Several people in the town have side quests, things they want the PCs to help them with. Some of these side quests lead to other locations in the area around Phandalin, making this a small sandbox section.
Now, across the history of D&D, some beginner adventures have been linear, and some have been more of a sandbox. B1 Keep on the Borderlands is an early classic from Basic D&D (1E D&D era). It had a base town, a sandbox area with a cave system you could explore, and so on. In 3rd edition, there was H1 The Sunless Citadel. This one was more linear. You did have two ways in to the dungeon, and there were two major factions on the first level, meaning that depending on which entrance you used you would either have to fight or negotiate with that first faction. Basically the dungeon was pretty linear, though. In 4th edition there was Keep on the Shadowfell, which had a few locations which had clues, but it wasn’t really a sandbox because the focus wasn’t on exploring and going where you wanted.
As I mentioned in A Brief Interlude About Railroading and Sandboxing, linear adventures can be useful–particularly if your players are new to D&D, or if they are kids/teens. Open sandbox adventures can be a better pick for experienced and/or older players. So the key thing is–how do you adapt this so it will work for either type of group?
Analysis and Problems
Here’s the thing that bothers me the most about this section of Lost Mine of Phandelver, even though this section also has a LOT of potential. This adventure is included in the Starter Set, something specifically designed for new and/or younger players–but there is no guidance given for how to run a sandbox adventure. Those players who are more comfortable in a linear adventure will be lost. Even those who like exploring aren’t given a satisfactory reason to explore these locations. The side quests that are supposed to lead them to these areas outside of Phandalin are weak and essentially pointless. Even a young or new player will probably notice that, and that is not a satisfying story experience. If you play D&D, usually you want to take part in a story that is exciting and meaningful–you’re saving someone, or saving a town/kingdom, or working with factions to establish a power base, or pulling off the greatest heist in history. Your character may not always be the stereotypical hero–but you have a goal, and you want your actions to work toward that goal. Right?
Here’s the run down on the side quests related to the sandbox areas:
- “Old Owl Trouble” – given to the PCs if they talk to Daran Edermath at Edermath Orchard. If they complete the quest, he will approach certain members of the group to recruit them to the Order of the Gauntlet (a Forgotten Realms faction). It leads the PCs to Old Owl Well. This is about fighting undead, for…reasons. POINTLESS.
- “Reidoth the Druid” – given to the PCs if they talk to Qelline Alderleaf at Alderleaf Farm. This leads the PCs to the Ruins of Thundertree. There’s a whole lot going on here, but the druid seems most concerned about the big green dragon. He can give the party directions to Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle, but otherwise he is POINTLESS. Not to mention being oblivious to the rest of the crap going on in the ruins.
- “The Banshee’s Bargain” – given to the PCs if they talk to Garaele at the Shrine of Luck. This leads the PCs to Agatha at Conyberry. This is a totally pointless quest as written. You give a gift to a banshee, she for some reason grants you the answer to one question. If the PCs ask about the spellbook, she says she doesn’t have it and doesn’t know where it is. If they ask where Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle is, she’ll tell them but then the party doesn’t get the quest reward from Graele. POINTLESS.
- “Orc Trouble” – posted on a board outside the Townmaster’s Hall. This leads the PCs to Wyvern Tor. This is essentially a bounty hunt. POINTLESS.
That’s it. Other side quests in town don’t lead to the sandbox locations. Guess what? As written, none of the side quests listed above have anything at all to do with finding Gundren, or getting entrance to Wave Echo Cave, or finding out more about Black Spider. With one exception–the druid in Thundertree might know something about Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle, because the druid knows the area really well.
None of the side quests relate directly to the main plot of this adventure. Reidoth can give them directions. Agatha can give them directions, but the party will fail the side quest that took them to Agatha. Everything else? POINTLESS.
So here’s how I am fixing this. I plan to redesign the side quests, and tie them more firmly into the main plotline. I also want to plant seeds for other possible adventures I might run in the area. For example, Reidoth could be a way to lure the PCs to investigate the ruined abbey where I plan to place The Sunless Citadel (because twig blights are a plot point in that adventure). Old Owl Well could be on top of a megadungeon (something I plan to do in the near future). If I decide to run Red Hand of Doom (another thing I’d like to do), then Wyvern Tor could represent a scouting party of orcs looking to expand their territory–this could be an adversary I work into Red Hand of Doom, placing the local villages/towns between hammer (the dragon and hobgoblin army) and anvil (an approaching orc army).
Find Your Solution
This one is a little tricky. If you are playing in the Forgotten Realms, you could reinforce the faction element in some of the side quests by asking yourself “why is this faction interested in this particular problem?” If you’re playing in another setting, you could abandon the faction element, or replace the Realms factions with factions native to your setting. Another approach is to look at other adventures you want to run (either published or homebrewed), and find a way to connect one or more side quests to those adventures. In any case, if you want the PCs to explore and take advantage of all the content the sandbox section has to offer, you need to make these side quests important. Plant something specific in each side quest that links to the main goal of the adventure–a useful item as reward, clues to help them find Gundren, information about the Black Spider, and so on.
Each of these sandbox areas has a rich history and multiple plot hook possibilities, so I’m going to look at each of the four separately. But before we get to the individual areas, I’m going to talk about Node-Based Scenarios and the Three-Clue Rule. See you next week!