Monster Monday: Spawn of Dragons!

Continuing in the vein of last week’s monster, we’re going to look at dragonspawn. Wizards of the Coast has put out some good info on dragons, and even provided a couple of drakes. But so far, they haven’t released an official product that updates dragonspawn for 5E. So we’re going to look at one dragonspawn–Greenspawn Razorfiend–that has both 3E and 4E versions. We’ll use those two versions as guideposts as we build a 5E version.

You can find the 3E version of the Greenspawn Razorfiend in the 3E adventure, Red Hand of Doom. Here’s the stat block:

GreenspawnRazorfiend_3E

And you can find the 4E version of the Greenspawn Razorfiend in Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons. Here’s the stat block:

GreenspawnRazorfiend_4E

What’s interesting is to see the differences between the two editions. Of course, the mechanical aspects of 4E were so vastly different from previous editions, there are naturally going to be differences there. But if you look closer there are deeper differences. 3E has an acid breath weapon; 4E instead gives the dragonspawn a ranged “spittle” attack, and makes it both acid and poison. 3E mentions a “spring attack,” but 4E just mentions that it can jump 4 squares (which is 20 ft.). When you look at the ability scores, there are also some interesting differences. The Strength and Wisdom scores are similar, but the Constitution and Dexterity scores on the 4E version are much higher. The 4E version is very stupid, but has a high Charisma…? Both versions have wings, but don’t mention a fly speed. The 3E version mentions a swim speed and waterbreathing, but the 4E version doesn’t say anything about it being aquatic.

So before we start our custom build process, we know a few things. The greenspawn has wings with sharp edges, and a breath weapon which is acid or poison damage. It’s Strength, Dexterity and Constitution are very high, it’s Wisdom is above average, but it’s Intelligence and Charisma are either average or below average (that 4E high Charisma doesn’t make sense to me). The greenspawn can’t fly, but it can jump really far. We know it’s a relatively high-level monster, probably Tier 2 (5th-10th level) or Tier 3 (11th-16th level).

So as a reminder, here’s our steps for building a custom monster.

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

Building

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? We know that this monster is a skirmisher (because it says so in the 4E version). A skirmisher is a melee fighter that deals a lot of damage, but is also highly mobile. Oddly, though, it also has a ranged attack. Whether we use it as a breath weapon, or just a ranged attack, it’s unusual for a skirmisher. Usually breath weapons are a recharge attack. The 4E version of this monster has a regular ranged attack–but it also appears to be created for higher level PCs. So my take is that the greenspawn uses its breath weapon, then uses its melee attack (wingblades). Since it can jump far, it will either disengage and jump away, or use its jump to get to another opponent.
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? We are building a monster for a Tier 2 party. Tier 2 is 5th-10th level. I’m shooting for the mid-range of Tier 2, so 7th-8th level.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? This is really interesting. The 4E version of this monster is worth 1600 XP. It’s labeled as a level 13 monster, but if we look in the DMG on page 82, a deadly encounter for a level 7 PC is 1700. Meaning this would be a really hard fight for a level 7 PC…but it’s possible. That’s for one level 7 PC. If we target 8th level PCs, a hard encounter is 1400 XP per PC. Four level 8 PCs would give us 5,600 XP. I think this dragonspawn qualifies as a hard encounter. A CR 6 monster has 2,300 XP, and 2 of those would be 4,600 XP. We could fill out an encounter with other creatures to make 5,600 XP. So we’re going to build it as a CR 6 monster.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits) Dragonspawn are not natural creatures. They are created by dark rituals that infuse a dragon’s egg with the blood of animals or monsters. But 5E doesn’t seem to have subtypes at this point, so we’ll just go with “dragon” as the type. Our Greenspawn Razorfiend should have some of the traits and abilities that green dragons have. All green dragons have the Amphibious trait, which means they can breathe air and water. Let’s give our greenspawn Forest Camouflage, which gives it advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to hide in forested terrain. We’ll give it Standing Leap also, since both 3E and 4E versions mention its superior jumping ability. Green dragons are treacherous, manipulative, and scheming. Rather than brute force, they prefer to use trickery, seduction, and manipulation to bend the wills of their foes–corrupting them even as their victims are unaware of their corruption. But the greenspawn razorfiend is a fighter. How can we reconcile this?  For attacks, we’ll give it a wingblade attack, a pounce attack, and a breath weapon attack. Now the 3E version has acid breath, and the 4E version has acidic poison spittle. Green dragons in 5E are strictly poison (acid is for black dragons) so the breath weapon is poison damage. But since green dragons are beguiling and manipulative, let’s have the poison breath also bestow a status effect. We’ll call it Beguiling Toxin. It’s a poison cloud, which also bestows a weakening effect that I’m stealing from gold dragons (I don’t understand why metallic dragons get to have one damage breath and one status condition breath–that just seems unsportsmanlike). The attacks will be listed in Actions, and none of the traits we picked have any effect on the CR. So we end up with:
    Amphibious. The greenspawn can breathe air and water.
    Forest Camouflage. The greenspawn gets advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to hide in forested terrain.
    Standing Leap. The razorfiend’s long jump is up to 20 ft. and its high jump is up to 10 ft., with or without a running start.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? Now for the hard part. It’s likely to be with some of its friends. So we’ll make it a CR 6 monster. Remember, Defensive CR is HP and AC. CR 6 gives us a proficiency bonus of +3, an AC of 15, and HP of 146-160. This creature is Large, so it uses a d10 for hit dice. It’s going to have a high Constitution, say a +3 bonus. So we’ll use 153 (18d10 + 54) HP. That fits into our range. This monster also has a high Dexterity, also a +3 bonus. With a proficiency bonus of +3, that means its AC is 16 (not 15). But we only bump to a different line in the table if the listed AC varies by 2. So we stick with AC 16.
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? We’ve given this monster three special attacks, right? Wingblade, Pounce, and Beguiling Toxin. Remember, Offensive CR is Attack Bonus and Damage per Round. And if a monster has special attacks that are limited in use, you add up max damage from all attacks over 3 rounds, then take the average. The greenspawn is really strong, so its Strength score gives it a +4 bonus. That means its attack bonus is +7. That’s only 1 higher than the standard attack bonus of a CR 6 monster. For damage per round, we have to add up damage for the wingblade attack, the pounce attack, and the breath weapon attack. For the breath weapon attack,  we assume that at least two people are hit with the attack, so that’s 70 damage for the breath weapon (that’s 35 [10d6] times 2). The Pounce attack includes one claw attack for 13 (2d8+4) damage, and a bite attack for 15 (2d10+4) damage if the target is prone. The wingblade attack is 22 (4d8+4) damage. If we do the math, that means 120 damage over 3 rounds, so the average is 40 damage per round. That’s in the range for a CD 6 monster.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive or Offensive CR? Short answer–it doesn’t, because none of our non-attack traits have any effect on CR according to the DMG.
  8. Final Tweaks. We don’t really need any.

Final Result

Okay guys, here’s what we end up with. EDIT 10/17: After getting some feedback, I tweaked the stats in the stat block and revised the text above.

GreenspawnRazorfiend

That’s it for today, folks. Have fun with your dragonspawn!

 

 

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Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 8b: Setting Up Nodes in the Sandbox Section

In my previous article, I said there were 4 nodes in the sandbox section. But there is one more node: Cragmaw Castle. I didn’t include it in the previous article because it’s a destination node. How do I know this? Because Gundren Rockseeker is there. If the PCs go there, they can fulfill one of their objectives (if they accepted Sindar’s quest), and there is information there that will lead them into the next story section. The whole point of this section is for the PCs to find information on two things: where is Cragmaw Castle, and where is Wave Echo Cave.

So we have 4 nodes and we need to set them up using the Three Clue Rule. There need to be clues leading to each other node, as well as
the destination node.

Nodes Clues to Other nodes Optional clues
Agatha and Conyberry Orc corpse has clue to Wyvern Tor; Agatha mentions Necromancer at Old Owl Well; party sees a green Dragon fly over (Ruins of Thundertree). Treasure map leading to another adventure.
Old Owl Well Kost the necromancer wants the orcs at Wyvern Tor removed; he wants to ask a question from Agatha; Most had green Dragon scales, mentions Thundertree. Something that mentions the megadungeon.
Ruins of Thundertree Druid Reidoth knows the location of Cragmaw Castle and Wave Echo Cave; Green Dragon mentions Necromancer at Old Owl Well; Reidoth warns the party about Agatha at Conyberry; party finds letter mentioning Wyvern Tor. Reidoth mentions that the twig blights have moved on from somewhere east of this area; perhaps mentions Guldias the renegade druid.
Wyvern Tor If party defeats the orcs, they find a journal that describes the other nodes and Cragmaw Castle. Something that mentions the orc artifact, or their war plans.

You can see that some of my optional clues are vague. That’s because I don’t have a current group going through this adventure, and since optional clues lead to other adventures and the adventures that I choose depend on the players, I’m keeping it open.

Next time I will look at each location in depth, and show you how to adapt what is written to your particular game.

 

Monster Monday: And Now for Something Completely Different

I have a lot more ideas for Bile Spider Goblins, but I thought it might be good to have a little variety. So today, we’re converting a 4E monster that hasn’t made it into the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. We’re going to convert the Needlefang Drake Swarm. Because what’s more terrifying than a swarm of small bitey things? A swarm of dragoney small bitey things!

To recap our process steps:

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

This little doozy is going to be fun. I love swarms, just generally. Because they are simply terrifying. Ever played the video game Dishonored? Swarms of rats in that game can take down a fully grown man, fully armed, in a heartbeat. Then they kill him and devour him in a few minutes. In movies, TV, heck even legend and lore–swarms of little bitey things are universally feared. And rightly so. If swarms of insects or rats isn’t enough to terrify your players…this swarm of tiny drakes might do the trick.

  1. What the H*ll Is It For?  Well that’s tricky. It’s definitely a melee fighter, because it’s a swarm. And it pulls people down, to make it easier for them to attack.
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? In 4E, this was a level 2 monster. So I’m targeting PCs at level 2.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? The difficulty of this fight depends on how many of these you throw at them, and whether they are accompanied by other monsters. If the PCs can focus solely on the swarms, it’s probably a medium fight even if there’s more than one. If the swarm is fighting with, say, other drakes or with goblins–that’s going to be hard fight. Maybe even deadly depending on how you build it. But for our purposes today, let’s make it a medium fight with just the swarms. A medium encounter for level 2 PCs is 100 XP per character. So for a party of four PCs, we are looking at 400 XP.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? Here’s where it gets fun. We have to add the Swarm trait, because it’s a swarm (duh).
    Swarm. The swarm can occupy another creature’s space and vice versa, and the swarm can move through any opening large enough for a Tiny drake. The swarm can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points.
    Now we’re going to add a fun one.
    Pull Down. Whenever the swarm succeeds on a hit, the target of the swarm must succeed on a DC 13 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone. If the target is prone, the swarm can make a second attack with Swarm of Teeth.
    And we’re going to flavor its attack action too. Instead of the usual Bites action most swarms have, we’re going to call it Swarm of Teeth. The mechanics of the attack will be the same as Bites, though.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? We’re shooting for a CR of 1/2 total. If we compare our swarm to the swarms listed in the back of the Monster Manual, the swarm of insects is CR 1/2…but instead of 50-70 hp, it has only 22 hp. So we probably want to bring our drake swarm’s hp down a little too. For a CR 1/2 monster the AC is 13. But to go down a level for hp, we need to have the AC at 15. With a proficiency bonus of 2, that leaves 13. We’ll say the drakes’ natural armor gives them an AC of 10. That means we need a Dex bonus of +3 to make AC 15 (AC 10 natural armor, Dex modifier of +3, proficiency bonus of +2). Going to hp, the hp range for the CR 1/4 level is 36-49. We don’t need a Constitution bonus. So we’ll shoot for the low end of 36 hp (8d8).
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? Looking at the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 274), the Attack Bonus for a CR 1/2 monster is +3, and the Damage per Round is 6-8. But our swarm is going to try and knock down its target every time it hits. If it knocks down its target, it does twice the damage because it gets a second attack. The swarm of rats does 7 (2d6) damage; the swarm of insects does 10 (4d4) damage. But they don’t knock their target prone. If the swarm does 5 (2d4) damage per attack, then the average over 3 rounds (assuming one knockdown) is about 7. That puts our damage right in the range for a CR 1/2 monster. Our final Attack Bonus is +5, and our Damage per Round is 7…but our attack does 5 (2d4) damage. It does 3 (1d4) damage when the swarm half its hit points or fewer.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect the Defensive CR and Offensive CR? We actually made allowance for the traits’ effects in step 6, so we don’t need to do anything else here.
  8. Final Tweaking. We don’t need to do any at this point.

So we’re done! I’m sorry this post got out later than normal; I had stuff going on over the last weekend so I wasn’t able to get my post done in time to publish this morning. I hope you guys find a use for this Needlefang Drake Swarm. If you do, let me know in the comments how it worked (or if it didn’t).

NeedlefangDrakeSwarm

A Brief Interlude about Node-Based Scenarios

So I’ve mentioned Justin Alexander’s website before, The Alexandrian. He has developed an idea called Node-Based Scenario Design. His site has a whole series of articles on it. I’m going to try and summarize the concept, but if you want you can read the whole thing on his site, starting with Node-Based Scenario Design – Part 1: The Plotted Approach. Since we have been talking about the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver, and since a sandbox can’t be handled in a linear way, I thought introducing the concept of Nodes, along with some of Alexander’s other design ideas, would be helpful to DMs who aren’t sure how to run a sandbox adventure.

The basic principles of Node-Based Scenario design are these:

Identify Nodes

The easiest way to identify nodes is to look at the locations you want your PCs to explore, or the locations you think are most likely for them to explore. I think there are other types of nodes, but this seems the easiest to wrap your head around. And it applies to our problem of the sandbox, too, because we’ve already identified four locations in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Seed Clues with the Inverted Three Clue Rule

The Three Clue Rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. The reasoning behind this is that with three clues, you have enough redundancy to ensure that the PCs will find and correctly interpret at least one of the clues, preventing a bottleneck and keeping the scenario moving forward.

This logic leads to the Inverted Three Clue Rule: If the PCs have access to ANY three clues, they will reach at least ONE conclusion. 

So if we look at Phandalin as our starting node, we can label the four locations in the sandbox as A, B, C and D. In Phandalin, we have seeds leading to each of those four nodes. Now, we do the following.

  • Node A: Place clues leading to nodes B, C and D.
  • Node B: Place clues leading to A, C and D.
  • Node C: Place clues leading to A, B, and D.
  • Node D: Place clues leading to A, B and C.

Using this approach, you can be sure that the PCs will find some of the clues, and will therefore go to some of the locations in the sandbox. As written, there are also two locations (Thundertree and Conyberry) that can potentially lead to Cragmaw Castle (the end of “The Spider’s Web” section) and Wave Echo Cave (the location for Part 4 of the adventure). You can decide to add that same information to any of the other nodes in the sandbox section, to ensure that the PCs actually know how to get to those two vital story locations.

Prepping the Nodes

So you’ve got four nodes, and you don’t know for sure which nodes your PCs will decide to go to. How do you prepare? In his article “Don’t Prep Plots, Prep Situations,” Alexander lays out the following design principles:

  • Three Clue Rule: For any given problem in an adventure, you need to prep at least one possible solution, and remain open to any other solutions the PCs come up with. But for a chokepoint problem, prep at least three possible routes to success. A chokepoint problem is one that would halt the player’s progress in the scenario.
  • Goal-Oriented Opponents: Instead of trying to predict what your players will do, focus on what the bad guys want to do. This can also apply to NPCs who are not necessarily opponents–determine what the NPC normally does or wants to do. This can be a simple bullet list, or a detailed timeline. It’s up to you and how much time you have or want to spend.
  • Don’t Prep Contingencies: Don’t get caught up in trying to determine what the NPC will do if the PCs get in the way. This is exactly what you are trying to avoid! If you know what the NPC wants or what it normally does, you can respond to the PCs actions in the moment, at the table.
  • Know Your Toolkit: In order to react appropriately to the PCs actions, while you’re at the table, you need to know what you have to work with. What resources does the NPC have, that they can use to respond? Typical tools are: equipment, personnel, locations, and information. This is particularly important for prepping a possible confrontation with a “bad guy”, but can be useful for any NPC that is not already an ally to the PCs. Because any neutral NPC can become an adversary depending on what the NPC is like, and what the PCs choose to say or do. Like any toolbox, you need to know what each tool does. A hammer is used with nails; a screwdriver is used with screws. Figure out what each resource (location, personnel, equipment, information) can do, so if the PCs toss you a “nail” you know you can reach for the “hammer”.

Conclusion

If you use the principles in this article, you can prep each “node” in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver in a minimal way. You can be reasonably certain that the players will find the information they need to get to the next part of the story, and reasonably certain they will find whatever other information you seed in those locations (such as clues leading to other locations for future adventures).

Next time, I’ll show you how to use these principles, by setting up those nodes myself.

 

Monster Monday: Bile Spider Goblin Ratkeeper

Hello again friends! I only have one monster for you today, because I am slowly learning that this process of custom-building monsters is way more time-consuming than I ever anticipate. Even last week’s monsters, which were supposed to just be reskins, took a lot longer than I expected.

So to recap our process steps:

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

Goblin Ratkeeper

This one is totally original. In fact, this goblin is so original I couldn’t really find a current 5E equivalent for the traits I wanted to give it. At first I wanted to just give it an aura, but the aura was a rat swarm, and there isn’t really a type of aura close enough to that for me to be able to figure out whether it would work or whether it would break the game. So I switched to a trait where the goblin can summon a rat swarm. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any monsters in 5E that can summon things (if you know of one that I missed, please let me know in the comments!). So I’m totally in the dark about how powerful this trait will be.

That said, let’s proceed to the build.

  1. What the Hell Is It For? I had to go back to 4E to get the role for this one. The Goblin Ratkeeper is what 4E called a controller. A controller has abilities that control the battlefield–disable enemies, help allies, move things around, create obstacles or obstructions that damage enemies or hinder their movement. While not a magic-user, the ratkeeper can summon rat swarms and help that swarm or other allies when they are nearby. The ratkeeper can also move the swarm around. This seems to fall within the scope of a controller role.
  2. Who’d Going to Fight It? This goblin is designed to be fought by a part of PCs who are level 2-3. It is never alone–it always has other goblins, or rats (giant or dire) fighting with it. Keep that in mind if you use this in your encounters.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? This is a Medium encounter for level 2-3 PCs. XP threshold for that is 600 (taking into account that there will always be other monsters fighting with the Goblin Ratkeeper). We’re shooting for a CR 1 for the ratkeeper, which is 200 XP. So you would have to add other goblins and rats whose total XP adds up to 400. Keep in mind the action economy, though, and don’t make the group too large. Once PCs get to level 3 they become more powerful and durable, but if outnumbered they can still get into a death spiral pretty easily.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special (Traits)? Here’s where it gets interesting. I couldn’t really find an equivalent existing trait for what I wanted to do here, so caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) with these guys. Hopefully I will be able to playtest some of the stuff I’ve created in Monster Monday posts some time soon. Until then, it’s a mystery. If you use any of my monsters, please do comment and let me know what worked and what didn’t.The first trait we are giving our ratkeeper is: Summon the Swarm. Once per encounter, the ratkeeper can take a bonus action to summon a swarm of rats to any unoccupied location within 10 ft. of the ratkeeper.
    Second trait: Ratkeeper’s Medicine. When an ally is adjacent to the ratkeeper, the ally can heal 1d4 hp as a bonus action.
    Special action: Pied Piper. As a bonus action, the ratkeeper can move a summoned rat swarm 5 ft. in any direction without provoking an opportunity attack on the rat swarm.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? As with the other goblins we’ve made, the HP for a CR 1 creature is too high. So we’re going to go for a Defensive CR 1/2. However the HP for a CR 1/2 is also a little too high for a goblin. So we’re going to bump the AC from 13 to 15, which means we can use the CR 1/4 numbers for HP. We end up with an AC 15 (leather armor, +2 from Dexterity, +2 from a shield) and 38 (11d6) HP.
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? Since we lowered the average Defensive CR to CR 1/2, we have to raise the Offensive CR to CR 2. This means an Attack Bonus of +3 and Damage per Round of 15-20. Like with Defensive CR, we’re going to tweak the numbers a bit. We raise the Attack Bonus to +4, and the Damage per Round becomes 12. This is a combination of the damage from the ratkeeper’s weapon, and damage from the rat swarm the ratkeeper summoned. This assumes that the ratkeeper will summon the rat swarm immediately, attack every round, and make sure that the rat swarm can attack every round. I admit, this is fudged a little bit. When I playtest it, I will come back to this post and edit the stat calculation.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? The truth is…I don’t know. Since I couldn’t find an equivalent trait or action for the ones I’m giving the ratkeeper, I won’t really know what effect the traits and special attacks have until it is playtested. Again, I will edit this post depending on what I find out.

Here’s what we end up with. Hope you enjoy it!

GoblinRatkeeper

 

 

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 8a: Sandboxing in the Starter Set

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.

My Solution

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!

A Brief Interlude About Railroading and Sandboxing

If you consume much content about D&D or other RPGs, you’ve probably run across discussions (or rants) about railroading and sandboxing. Most sources tend to see the two as opposites, as if you should either do one or the other. The truth is that both approaches have their strengths, and can be useful in different situations.

NOTE: I’d like to point out that there is a difference between railroading and stories that are on rails. Railroading is often used for both, but to me railroading means you force your players to do things the way you want them to. On rails, on the other hand, just means a linear story.

When I started DMing, I wasn’t confident enough to create my own adventures. So I started with published adventures (in the old days we called them modules). Seems simple, right? Just read it, and follow along.

You can maybe guess what I found out. It’s actually not simple at all. Players will always do things you didn’t expect, go in directions that aren’t in the map, avoid fights you meticulously prepped, or find some way to skip to the end while being completely under-leveled for the climactic finale. Well I found this frustrating, to be sure.  I was a theater kid and creative writer in my youth, but it had been a long time, and I didn’t know how to improvise anymore.

Fast forward to last year, when I put together a D&D game for my youngest son and his friends. My kid knew what to do, and had all these cool ideas. But the newbies weren’t sure where to go, or what to do. And then there’s my daughter, who doesn’t even like to play D&D because she gets overwhelmed by too many choices.

So…stories “on rails” are probably better for young players, players who have never played D&D before, or players who are overwhelmed by too many choices. Give them limited choices, and nudge them occasionally by saying “here’s a few things you can do.” Or, you can always have an NPC dramatically burst into the room saying: “You’ve got to help me!”

Now for more experienced and/or older players, you can use a more open-ended approach. But this can lead to other problems. The two biggest are:

  • How can I create a story if I don’t know where they will go, or what they will do?
  • How do I prepare for a session if I don’t know what they will do?

Luckily I’ve managed to find some tips and tricks from other Game Masters with more experience. Here they are.

  • In a sandbox game, the key is to know just a few things about each place the PCs are likely to go, and slightly more things for the places you really want them to go to.
  • Don’t bother writing out lengthy plots. Focus on the Big Bads. Who are they? What do they want? Who do they work for, and who works for them? Which places are they likely to be, and why are they there? Who could take over if the PCs take out the Big Bad?
  • Next, rough out NPCs for most places in your base town or starting location. Don’t write a novel. Keep it simple: Name, job or role in community, what do they know, what do they want, who they are connected to.

You don’t have to spend hours trying to anticipate every possible thing. You won’t be able to predict everything anyway. Have a few notes for each person or place you think is likely for the next session. Then make sure you have some resources for creating things on the fly: Name generator (Donjon is a great online source), some descriptive bits of flavor text, some clues or mysteries, maybe even a published supplement with lairs or other locations you can quickly drop in the players’ path. That’s it. If they go somewhere unexpectedly, call for a ten minute break. Slap a few notes together and run with it. You’ll be fine!

I’ll post a few resources I’ve found handy on Friday, in a new feature I’m calling “Resource Roundup”. Next time it’s back to the Lost Mine of Phandelver, where we will examine the sandbox section of the Starter Set!

 

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 7a: Cragmaw Goblin Tribe

Wow has it been that long since I posted? I am truly sorry, time gets away from me sometimes. So one reason it’s been awhile is that I’ve been looking hard at the goblins in LMoP and figuring out how to convert the custom goblins I made in 4E to 5E. Basically, the content on the goblins is just too much to post in one blog article. So…I’m splitting it up. This post, Part 7a, will be my standard analysis of the Cragmaw goblins as they are written in LMoP–Analysis, Problems, My Solution, Your Solution. Then the next post, Part 7b, will be me telling you more about my replacement goblins–the Bile Spider tribe–specifically, and how I build them for 5E.

Analysis

It might surprise you, but I have fewer problems with the goblins than I do with the other “villains” in this adventure. Let’s take a look at where we find the goblins:

  • Goblin Ambush: Not a bad encounter. The “ambush” trope in adventures is pretty common, because it thrusts the PCs into the adventure “in media res”. It’s an exciting way to start off the adventure. It might not work for you if you use different story hooks, or if you are coming into LMoP from some short little 5-room dungeon you started your party on (like I did).
  • Goblin Hideout: While “hideout” isn’t entirely accurate, depending on your definition of what “hideout” means…the cave is an adequate mini-dungeon, the encounters are pretty good, the environment gives some interesting choices for PCs and GM alike in terms of tactics and strategy. It could be better, but it’s okay.
  • Redbrand Hideout: Here we only find a few bugbears and a pathetic goblin they are harassing called Droop. Droop can be “rescued” by PCs, which might lead to some interesting roleplay and could even lead to Droop becoming a major part of the PCs’ story.
  • Cragmaw Castle: Hobgoblins, bugbears, and goblins combined, along with a “king”. Again, an adequate mini-dungeon. A few of the monsters don’t entirely make sense or fit with what monsters are normally associated with goblinoids…but that’s easily fixed. The castle location itself is kind of simplistic…even the Redbrand Hideout had two levels, so just having one for the King Goblin seems odd. But again, not a deal-breaker.

Problems

As I said, I only have a few problems with the goblinoids in this adventure. One of the biggest is why they are working with the Black Spider at all. I covered that somewhat in Part 6, though. There are two other major problems: why are the goblinoid races working together, and why are they working with the Redbrands?

In the 5E supplement Volo’s Guide to Monsters (VGtM), there is a large section on goblinoids. It specifically says “When one kind of goblinoid encounters another kind, the two groups don’t see one another as strangers or foes. Instead they know that by the fact of their meeting alone, Maglubiyet has commanded them to come together. They know the time has come to form a host.” So the implication here is that while they don’t see each other as enemies, the three types don’t typically mingle…unless they are forming a war host. So if we ask “why are the goblinoids in this adventure working together” the obvious answer, the only one that makes sense within the established lore around goblinoids, is that a war is coming and the goblinoids are building a conquering host.

As to why the goblinoids are working with the Redbrands–it could be fairly simple. If you have reworked the Redbrands and the Black Spider already, you’ve probably thought of a reason for those two to work together. All you need is a reason why “King” Grol wants or needs to do the same. There is mention of the Redbrands collecting people to become slaves, but it doesn’t really get a payoff. But goblinoids are famous for capturing people and enslaving them. And a war host would have a need for slave labor, to free up lower class goblinoids to join the war host.

My Solution

My solution involves replacing the Cragmaw tribe with a customized tribe with totally different goals and motivations than the Cragmaws as written. As for the war host angle, I’m considering keeping that and using it as an entry point to running the Red Hand of Doom. I’ve been considering adapting that to my setting for awhile now, and it’s something that Matt Colville and the Starter Set Sandbox series mention. Also, Red Hand of Doom involves dragons, so it would fit into my larger story arc about the Worldbreaker. I’ll talk more about the Bile Spider tribe in the next post (Part 7b).

Find Your Solution

Even if you stay with the Cragmaw tribe as written, you could also use them to lead into The Red Hand of Doom, if you want. It’s a good adventure, recommended by many tabletop RPG bloggers and YouTubers. Alternatively, you could create some other goblinoid war from scratch. There is a location in LMoP called Wyvern Tor, which mentions some orcs scouting the area. Perhaps the orcs are planning to expand their territory, and so the goblinoids and orcs go to war, with the other humanoids in the area getting caught in the middle.

Here are the questions you need to ask yourself regarding the goblinoids in LMoP:

  • Why are the three goblinoid races working together?
  • Why are the goblinoids working with Iarno and the Redbrands, and why are they working with the Black Spider?
  • Is a war host forming, and if so how can you link that to the larger campaign storyline you want to develop? How will it lead into the next adventure you plan to run?

That’s all for now, folks. I hope you found some interesting tips and information that can help you when you run Lost Mine of Phandelver. Next time, we’ll dive deep into monster-building mechanics as I tell you more about the Bile Spider tribe!

 

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Part 6: The Black Spider

So here we are, ready to talk about the biggest bad in the whole adventure. Or is he? We still haven’t talked about the goblins yet…we’ll get to that in the next episode. Let’s dig in to the villain known as The Black Spider.

Analysis

The Black Spider, like the wizard Glasstaff that we talked about in Part 5, is portrayed as a very 2-dimensional Big Bad. First of all, he’s a drow on the surface. If you know anything at all about drow, you know that they are permanent residents of The Underdark–that deepest of all deep realms underground. But we are given no backstory or history on the drow–not even a paragraph, not even a sentence. So we have no idea why he is even up there on the surface–was he outcast? Did he exile himself? Did he run away from something? We aren’t told anything.

Supposedly, he wants to find Wave Echo Cave. In fact, he’s looking for the Forge of Spells. But we aren’t told why he wants the cave or the Forge. We aren’t told how he even knows of the Forge, though we are told that his spies were following the Rockseeker brothers when the dwarves found the entrance. But this brings us to an even bigger question: if Black Spider’s spies saw the dwarves find the entrance…what does The Black Spider need any of the dwarves for? This is a really big plot hole, which continues to be dug deeper as you read more in the adventure. First the goblins kidnap Gundren. Then they send Gundren to Cragmaw Castle, where presumably The Black Spider is supposed to collect him. But The Black Spider is at Wave Echo cave already! According to the text, he already knows where the entrance is, and he already knows where the Forge is, although he can’t get to it because of some pesky undead.

Now, I realize that there is a grand tradition in D&D of having adventures or dungeons that make no logical sense whatsoever. But…this is a very modern adventure. It supposedly has a plot, a series of events that take place and a primary villain behind the whole thing. But…this makes NO SENSE AT ALL. At least, it doesn’t the way it is written.

Let’s look at some other things about The Black Spider. According to the text, both the Redbrand gang and the Cragmaw goblin tribe are working for The Black Spider, but we aren’t given any clear reason why. What’s in it for them? They aren’t getting anything out of that arrangement as far as I can see, aside from the Redbrands getting a handful of goblinoid enforcers apparently loaned out by the Cragmaw tribe. There seems to be even less of a reason for the Cragmaw goblins to be working with a drow wizard. He seems to be using them as menial labor–but we aren’t told that they are magically compelled, and they don’t seem to be slaves–so what exactly are they getting out of this deal? We don’t have any real idea of what The Black Spider thinks of the Redbrands and the Cragmaw goblins, or what his relationship is to them or his other henchmen (such as the doppelganger in Wave Echo cave).

Lastly, there is the cave/mine, and the Forge of Spells. When you read the description in the dungeon key, it says that the Forge is broken. There is no explanation given for how or why it got that way. There is no explanation of how this mystical “forge” was powered, either. Supposedly it was built to create powerful enchanted weapons. But why do you need a super special magical forge to do that? All that’s left is literally a simple brazier that can put a simple enchantment on any weapon that is placed inside it. Pretty wimpy if you ask me–certainly not worth all the trouble The Black Spider and his henchmen have gone through to get to it.

Problems

Well, where do we even start? Here’s a list of problematic questions that were raised by this very thin description of the main villain.

  • What is a drow doing on the surface?
  • Why does he want with Wave Echo cave, or what does he want with the SpellForge?
  • Why are his minions digging for treasure in area 18–what does he think he’ll find there?
  • If his spies know where the entrance is because they were following the dwarves when the entrance is found, then why does The Black Spider need Gundren in the first place?
  • So why did The Black Spider have Gundren kidnapped by the goblins?
  • Why did the goblins take Gundren to Cragmaw Castle if The Black Spider needed him?
  • When the PCs get to Wave Echo cave, The Black Spider and his henchmen are already there. So again, why did he even need Gundren at all?
  • How does the Forge of Spells (or SpellForge–I think that sounds cooler) work? What powers it? How was it broken, and how can it be fixed? What does The Black Spider want to do with it?

My Solution

First of all, I gave The Black Spider a different name. Have I mentioned before how ridiculous the names in this adventure are? I think I have. I looked up some web pages on the drow language, and came up with Valochar. Which literally means “black spider” in drow. Hey, it’s not rocket science. I still think Valochar is better than Nezznar.

In my developing campaign plotline, there is an imprisoned ancient black dragon who wants to break free so he can resurrect his generals and then conquer the continent and restore the ancient dragon empire from eons past. Valochar was a drow studying magic, and he was fascinated with the lore of the dragon empire. He was certain there were long-forgotten magic secrets from that era–secrets that would make him the most powerful mage in the Underdark. At some point he begins to hear telepathic whispers from the imprisoned dragon. He starts to chafe under the restrictions placed upon him by the matriarchal drow society. Finally, he turns away from the worship of Lolth and pledges himself to the dragon, who becomes his patron. He exiles himself from the Underdark to avoid being put to death (or worse) by the priestesses of Lolth.

On the surface, he finds a way to reliably communicate with his patron. He begins to develop a network of spies and an army of henchmen. He is looking for two things: how he can help his patron break free of his imprisonment, and how his patron can resurrect his generals and begin his war. Valochar has discovered a secret–that a key artiface, The Philosopher’s Stone, can perform this mass resurrection. But centuries ago, the artifact was broken into three pieces, with each piece being hidden away by a separate hero. Valochar’s current goal: find all three pieces, and then find a way to join them back together. His research has led him to Wave Echo cave, because the SpellForge is one of the only ways such a powerful artifact can be repaired.

His relationship to Glasstaff and the Cragmaw goblins is a little trickier. We’ve already spoken of how I’m adapting Glasstaff: he is actually a spy from The Lord’s Alliance, who has infiltrated the Redbrands gang. His arrangement with The Black Spider is predicated on an agreement that The Black Spider will teach Glasstaff more alchemical recipes. This ties in with the goblins, too. I’m actually replacing the Cragmaw tribe with another customized group of goblins: the Bile Spider tribe. This is based on an article in Dragon magazine #364 called “Alchemical Imbalance”. Ziguarz, leader of the Bile Spider tribe, has discovered a way to mutate his people, and their monstrous pets, through alchemy and dark magics. As a result of this, the Bile Spider tribe has grown large and powerful. But Ziguarz is always thirsty for more alchemical and magical secrets. So The Black Spider gives alchemical knowledge to Glasstaff, and gets eyes and ears (and fists) inside the village. Glasstaff, in turn, makes an agreement with Ziguarz and says he will share his new alchemical knowledge with the Bile Spider tribe if they will forge an alliance with the Redbrands and leave the village alone.

As you can see, my solution provides a reason for why Valochar is on the surface, gives him a motivation for finding Wave Echo cave and the SpellForge, and elaborates on the deals he made with Glasstaff and the Bile Spider tribe. Replacing the Cragmaw tribe with the Bile Spider tribe makes a neat circle of allies who are all interested in alchemical and magical lore from the ancient dragon empire. Each one has their own agenda and their own ultimate goals–which may actually pit them against each other in the future–but they can gain power and knowledge from helping each other in the short term.

Find Your Solution

Here’s some questions to ask yourself as you try to solve these problems for your own campaign.

  • Develop Black Spider more. Give him a backstory, with things and/or people that are important to him. Figure out why he is on the surface. Or, change his race entirely. There is nothing in the adventure as written that requires him to be a drow, after all.
  • What does Black Spider want? Why is he really here? What is his ultimate goal or agenda, and how does this cave and the SpellForge help him achieve that goal?
  • What is Black Spider’s relationship to the Redbrand gang and the goblin tribe? What do each of the factions get out of the relationship/alliance?
  • Why does he need Gundren Rockseeker? Maybe Black Spider didn’t actually have spies following the dwarves–maybe he just heard a rumor or legend and is in the area to see if it is true. Maybe the map is magically sealed somehow, and only a Rockseeker can read it. Maybe Black Spider does know where the entrance is, but the map shows exactly where the SpellForge is.
  • Who is the Black Spider connected to? Who will step in to accomplish his goal if Black Spider is killed? Who might even want him dead in order to advance? What’s the bigger picture? Look especially at the doppelganger henchman. Maybe he will take the shape of Black Spider and sacrifice himself so the real Black Spider can escape from the PCs. Or, maybe the doppelganger flees the battle and takes Black Spider’s place after the PCs have killed the real one, so the doppelganger carries on Black Spider’s work. Or maybe some other underling or henchman takes over? Placing Black Spider within a larger organizational framework will allow you to either turn Black Spider into a recurring villain (if he escapes), or allow someone else to carry on his work after Black Spider’s death. If you do this, you can establish a complex and interwoven series of villains and evil cults and conspiracies that can take you through your entire campaign. And isn’t that more interesting than just another boss fight?

I hope you’ve found some interesting tidbits and ideas in this article that will help your own campaign. Stay tuned for the next installment, where we talk more about the goblins!