Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Pt. 4: Allies and Quest Givers

So the first group of NPCs in Blackheath/Phandalin I want to talk about are potential allies for the PCs, and the townspeople who have jobs (quests) for the PCs. These groups overlap to a degree. We went over one of the potential allies in Pt. 3 (Sildar, or whatever you choose to rename him). The adventure-as-written has Sildar captured by the goblins, with the PCs rescuing him and returning with him to the village. If, like me, you decide to skip the goblin hideout scenario, you can have the PCs encounter Sildar in the roadhouse or around town.

The side quests available in the village generally fall into three categories:

  • Quests that provide information on other story locations (Redbrands, Goblins)
  • Quests relating to factions
  • Miscellaneous (this is really just the two provisioners, one of which gives a quest to retrieve missing supplies–which are in the goblin hideout from the first scenario. The other provisioner is related to the “caravan guard” hook.)

However, I have to admit that all the side quests seem “miscellaneous” to me. Some of them provide useful information for getting the PCs to another story-related location, and some of them can provide information for that purpose (but probably won’t unless you redesign the quest). But most of them have no connection to the over-arching story, or any of its pieces really, and in fact have no story of their own either. To give the designer a little credit, it’s possible that these were left intentionally vague in order to give the DM some room to customize them and tie them together in whatever way made the most sense for their group and campaign. But I think it would have worked better in this adventure if the side quests either connected to the main story, or had a story of their own (even if it was only in seed form) that might connect to the wider world or a larger campaign arc.

So let’s start with the side quests that are related to the other story locations. Here’s a list of those NPCs, with a description of their quest:

  • Qelline Alderleaf (halfling, farmer) – Carp’s Story: Son knows a secret entrance to the Redbrand hideout; Reidoth the Druid: Qelline knows a druid who could help the PCs find the goblin base. The druid is in the Ruins of Thundertree village.
  • Sildar Hallwinter (human, retired adventurer) – Finding Cragmaw Castle: Sildar wants to get to the goblin base to rescue Gundren, so the Rockseekers can reopen the mine, and he also just wants to drive off the goblins generally; Finding Iarno: Sildar wants to find out what happened to his supposed contact from the Lord’s Alliance, who seems to have disappeared. Note: technically Sildar is also a faction quest giver, because if the PCs complete either or both of his quests, Sildar tries to recruit one or more of them into the Lord’s Alliance.

So only two of the townspeople, out of seven possible quest givers, have quests directly relating to primary story locations. And one of those is a guy who is technically from out of town, and not a resident at all.

Here is a list of the faction-related quest givers, and a description of their quest:

  • Daran Edermath (half-elf, retired adventurer, owns orchard) – Old Owl Trouble: Someone is digging around ancient elven ruins known as Old Owl Well, and prospectors have reported being chased and attacked by undead. If the PCs complete the quest, Daran will try to recruit them to the Order of the Gauntlet. Note: the adventure booklet does not mention a reward for this quest (perhaps because it involves a possible fight which would result in treasure). If the PCs find non-combat methods to solve the problem, it would be a good idea to have Daran give them treasure as a reward instead.
  • Halia Thornton (human, Mining Guild master) – Halia’s Job Offer: Halia wants the Redbrands’ leader taken out, and any correspondence the PCs find in the leader’s quarters. Unknown to the PCs, Halia actually wants to take over the Redbrand group herself. If the PCs complete her quest, Halia will pay them 100 gp and try to recruit them into the Zhentarim.
  • Sister Garaele (elf, acolyte of Tymora) – The Banshee’s Bargain: Garaele’s superiors asked her to persuade a banshee named Agatha to answer a question about a spellbook (where is the spellbook belonging to a wizard named Bowgentle?), but she was unable to persuade Agatha to materialize. She asks the PCs to take a gift to the banshee’s lair, and persuade Agatha to answer this question. If the PCs complete this quest, she will give them 3 potions of healing, and will try to recruit them into The Harpers.

So we have several factions represented here: The Lord’s Alliance, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Zhentarim, and the Harpers. Of course, all of these are Forgotten Realms factions. I think having factions in a setting sets up some interesting possibilities for adventure hooks, political intrigues, character conflicts, etc. So I’m in favor of having them. For my own setting, I knew I wanted to have some factions and had sketched out some basic ideas but hadn’t solidified anything. So I just changed the factions of the NPCs from the Realms faction to a faction in my setting which had similar goals and themes. You could do the same, or you could just leave factions out if your setting isn’t developed enough yet or you don’t want to work with factions in your scenarios.

What intrigues me about these quests is how underdeveloped they are. Given the level of challenge for the final dungeon, the assumption seems to be that the PCs will either A) confront and get rid of the Redbrands, or B) take on one or more side quests in which they will gain XP and treasure, or C) both of those things. But a couple of these side quests have only the barest outline, and the only area to have a map is the Ruins of Thundertree. Cragmaw Castle is in the same section as the side quest areas, and yet it seems like the goblin base should be part of the main story, given that Gundren has the map to the Lost Mine. I’ll talk more about these quests and locations in a later essay.

Another thing that is rather underdeveloped is the relationship between various townspeople in the village. There are a few comments in the booklet: Halia is feared and respected, even by the Redbrands; the Town Master is a coward and is totally intimidated by the Redbrands. But aside from those two tidbits, there really isn’t much given as far as how the various merchants or villagers interact. Who is related to whom? Who is friendly with whom? Are there rivalries between the two provisioners? A woodcarver is mentioned a couple of times, as someone who stood up to the Redbrands and got killed for it—oh, and then his family disappeared! But because the woodcarver is a red-shirt who dies offscreen, the PCs aren’t really given any reason to care about him or what might have happened to his family.

My plan is to fix that quite a bit. I plan to determine who is friends with whom, what rivalries or outright hatreds there might be, and so on. It helps that the hook I am using to get the PCs to this village is about bearing the news of a death to the deceased’s family. I’ve already decided that “Lionshield Coster” is now “Lionshield Costco”—a franchisee of “Fantasy Costco” from The Adventure Zone (“Fantasy Costco, where all your dreams come true. Got a deal for you!”). I did that for my youngest kid, who plays in my world and who requested it. As an aside—the term coster is a medieval term for a merchant who sells produce. You know, fruits and vegetables. Who the heck decided to use it for a weapon and armor merchant?! I mean, I got that from a Google search, so it isn’t exactly arcane knowledge.

So how can you adapt the NPCs and their side quests? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to use factions in my setting, or in this adventure particularly? It is entirely possible to just toss out the factions and have the quest givers keep their motives to themselves. Or, if you do want factions but aren’t playing in the Realms, you can make up your own factions and assign the quest givers to them however you wish.
  • What relationships are present in the village? Who is related to whom, who likes whom, who hates whom? It’s possible the PCs will move on and never think of this village again once everything is over. It’s also possible they will want to settle here, or make this a base of operations to explore the area. Knowing how everyone relates to everyone else helps set up future scenario ideas.
  • Which of these NPCs might be able to help the PCs, in this set of scenarios or in the future? Which might become ongoing patrons, sources of information, or employers (think “quest hub”)?
  • How can you interconnect the side quests with the main story elements? Or, how can you connect the side quests to the larger world of your setting? How can you plant seeds and hooks for future scenarios and adventures? Any of those three approaches, or a combination, will fill out the side quests and make them more meaningful to the PCs.

I hope you’ve found some helpful tips and interesting insights from this article. Next: we look at the Big Bad Evil Guys and other adversaries!



Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Pt. 3: NPC Descriptions

Looking at the people who live in Blackheath (my name for Phandalin), you can separate the NPCs into a few groups:

  • Quest givers and/or allies
  • Adversaries (I’ll include the Big Bads for this adventure even though technically some of them aren’t in the town)
  • Miscellaneous Townfolk

NPC Descriptions

Before we dive into the analysis of these categories, I’d like to talk a little about NPC descriptions. The adventure booklet gives a list of the “Important NPCs”, and this list gives “their relevance to the adventure”–but that’s it. The rest of the description of the NPCs–what they look like, what they know, what quests they give–is in the location keys. So the innkeep has some info in the section about the inn, the Townmaster has some info in the section on the Town Hall, and so on. The problem with this is that everything the DM needs to actually run these NPCs is buried in a wall of text. Scanning through a half dozen paragraphs to remember something about an NPC so you can roleplay that person is slow and inefficient.

It would be much better if they had separated the NPC information from the location information, wouldn’t you agree? But since they didn’t do that, we’ll have to do it for them. There are a few templates out there that you can use, depending on your style and the amount of time you want to spend.

The shortest by far is the Universal NPC Template created by Justin Alexander. Similar to it, but a little more expanded, is the template used in Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game (a book I highly recommend, along with its predecessor Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters). The last one I recommend is the Entity Template created by K.J. Davies (it’s actually for any entity in your campaign–people, places, things), which is a bit more comprehensive if you like having a lot of info to hand.

Example NPC using Universal NPC Template

To use Alexander’s template as an example, we can pull together the info for one major NPC, Sildar Hallwinter (god, these names!). Most of the information for Sildar is actually in the Goblin Hideout section, because as written that is where you are supposed to find him. There’s a little more in the town section.

  • Name: Sildar Hallwinter (or whatever replacement name you choose–The Adventure Zone used “Barry Bluejeans,” which is more honest about its silliness)
  • Appearance: Here’s our first snag–the only description given for Sildar in the adventure booklet is “kindhearted human man of nearly fifty years”. He’s a retired adventurer, so make up a couple of sentences describing a guy in late middle age who’s seen some fights.
  • Quote: Again, you’re out of luck here, as the booklet doesn’t really give you any good quotes.
  • Roleplaying: Alexander suggests 1-3 things that help you get into the character, including one physical action/mannerism the NPC uses with frequency. The booklet doesn’t give you any of these either.
  • Background: Alexander describes this as “essential context” and “interesting anecdotes”. I would include “how they got here” and “what they want here”, but you could also put that in the “Key Info” section. For Sildar, his essential context is that he is a captive of the goblins (unless you skip the goblin hideout like I did), he’s acquainted with Gundren Rockseeker and knows about the Lost Mine, and he’s also in town looking for someone named Iarno Albrek. He’s also a retired adventurer with considerable skill that could join the party.
  • Key Info: This is where you put the essential interaction the PCs could have, or the essential information they need to get, from this NPC. Here the booklet actually gives you something! Sildar knows: 1) the three Rockseeker brothers located an entrance to the Lost Mine; 2) the goblins are holding Gundren and his map at Cragmaw Castle and they were hired by someone called “The Black Spider”; 3) his contact was supposed to be Iarno Albrek but this guy is missing. Sildar is also a quest giver, so you can also include his quest “Finding Iarno” in this section.
  • Stat Block: If there is any chance the NPC will be involved in combat, as an ally or adversary, include the stat block with the description. That way you have everything in one place.

Fixing the NPC descriptions

As you can see from the example, the adventure booklet doesn’t give you a whole lot to go on for roleplaying. Trust me, the rest of the NPCs don’t get much more information than Sildar does, and most of them get even less. Fortunately, there is a whole section on creating NPCs in the Dungeon Master’s Guide! It has tables for interesting physical appearance traits, mannerisms, how they communicate/interact, secrets they may have, bonds or obligations, etc. The only complaint I have about that section in the DMG is that the tables are pretty small, having only about 6-10 options. But it will still give you more tools for roleplaying than the original adventure booklet did.

So to continue our example of Sildar, let’s use the tables in the DMG to give him a few more characteristics, and a bit more that we can use when roleplaying this guy. The parts of the template we were sparse on were Appearance, Quote, Roleplaying, and Background (the adventure booklet gives some background but you may want to change that, add to it, or whatever).

Appearance: Since Sildar is a retired adventurer, it makes sense that he would have a scar or two. So I took “pronounced scar” from the Appearance table. Let’s say he has two, one scar on his face, and one scar on his lower arm.

Quote: “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee. Just kidding, it was really an arrow in the chest. Thank the gods for clerics, eh?” (If you can’t think of a quote yourself, you can find 1000 of them in Masks. You can also steal quotes liberally from movies, TV, books, comics or video games. If your players notice, it will be a funny reference. If they don’t, well it’s their loss and your gain, right?)

Roleplaying: You have two options here, the “Mannerisms” table and the “Interactions” table. I’ll take one from each. From “Mannerisms” I’ll pick “squints“. Maybe his eyes are getting bad but he refuses to get spectacles? Or maybe he squints and looks into the distance as he’s trying to remember something. From “Interactions” I guess I’ll pick “Friendly” but that’s rather bland. If the tables in the DMG are too simple or limited, try going to DM Muse’s Master Table List and checking their excellent NPC tables (there are a lot, scroll down to the “N” part and you’ll see “NPC” in the name of the table). From their “NPC Mannerisms” table I got “Whittles“.

Background: You could pick a background from the ones in the Player’s Handbook, if you wanted to–there isn’t anything specific in the DMG for NPC backgrounds. But it’s better if you pick a specific background that fits with your setting and the events happening just prior to your adventure. For example, in my setting there was a revolutionary war about 100 before the “current era” I’m playing in. The king is building a wall at the northern border, but while it’s being built his military is constantly fighting border skirmishes to keep out slavers and other elements from the northern empire. Sildar (or Branno in my setting) did a tour in the king’s army, fighting along the border. He also spent time as an adventurer, fighting monsters and seeking artifacts and treasure. Now he works for the Lord’s Alliance (I stole this faction from The Realms; I may change the name or goals of it later), trying to help them reestablish settlements and solidify safe travel and commerce throughout the new kingdom.

So there’s an example of how you can use a template to quickly flesh out an NPC, putting everything you need to roleplay the NPC in a game all in one spot. Once you establish a template, on paper or in a word processing document or in a virtual tabletop app, it should be easy for you to organize what information there is in the adventure. And it will also help you see where the adventure doesn’t tell you what you need to know. I’ve given you some suggestions on how to fill those gaps in, too. Chances are, you can do a Google search and find other random generators or lists to help you flesh out your NPCs.

Next: We’ll look at the townspeople of Blackheath/Phandalin, their factions, and their quests!




Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Pt. 2: Phandalin History

So we talked about the first section of the adventure: “Goblin Arrows”. Now we’ll be talking about the second section: “Phandalin”. So let’s try to break this down. The town has the following elements we need to examine:

  • The name (Which I’ve already criticized)
  • The history of the town
  • The legend of the Lost Mine (what it is, who originally used it, how it got lost)
  • Important NPCs (including side quests and faction membership)
  • The town’s problem–Redbrand gang

This article will address the town’s history, and use as an example how I will alter the history to fit into my own homebrew setting. I’ll also talk about the legend/history of the Lost Mine itself, as it relates to the history of the town. We’ll cover the other town elements in the next few articles.

Original Phandalin History

So as I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of The Forgotten Realms and I’m not using it. However, in case you are playing in The Realms, I highly recommend the article on Phandalin from the excellent Starter Set Sandbox series of articles. This blogger loves the Realms (obviously, since the blog itself is “My Realms”), and has several of the Forgotten Realms supplements and boxed sets that have been published over the years. Even if you don’t want to use The Realms, this series of articles is chock full of great ideas for working in material from older modules, as well as some general creative brainstorming. It’s well worth bookmarking.

Here is the history of Phandalin and the Wave Echo Cave from The North boxed set:

Phandalin was an important farming center located northeast of Leilon, where the Triboar Cutoff East fades into a trail. The road was abandoned after years of orc attacks obliterated every caravan that passed down the road, conquering Phandalin in the process. When the orcs were driven out, the village was left largely in ruins, and it remains so today.

Under the leadership of a chieftain called Uruth, the orcs expanded steadily, building a realm called Uruth Ukrypt (Home of Uruth). Its name echoes today in Kryptgarden Forest. Too lazy to support themselves by farming, the orcs devastated the game in their realm and subsequently took to raiding human holdings for food. Some 400 years have passed since then, during which time concerted human attacks decimated the orc kingdom and nearly drove the creatures from the area entirely.

No one lives here now but monsters, though passing hunters and rangers often camp in one of the more secure buildings. It still has three usable deep wells, one of which is considered to be heavily tainted with an undetectable poison that kills the imbiber three days after ingestion. Orcs and half-orcs are supposedly immune to the toxin.

The orc attacks forced gnomes and dwarves to abandon a mountain delve near Phandalin where they mined mithral in a union they called the Phandelver’s Pact. This lost lode was called Wavecho Cave because the roll of waves beating on the shore could be heard in the natural cavern. Shortly before the mine was abandoned, a lode of platinum was discovered. The size is unknown, but a very old dwarf who worked the mine remembers that the vein “held great promise”.

Phandalin is the best preserved of the many ruined keeps and villages scattered along the Sword Coast, most of which are little more than heaped stones, graves, and cellars hidden by reed grasses and creeping vines. Many of these areas shelter predatory beasts or passing adventurers.

The original history mentions mithral and platinum, though the adventure adds the Spell Forge as a unique element within the mine. I don’t know about you, but mithral and platinum don’t seem that special to me, valuable as they are. The Spell Forge is a bit more interesting–we’ll get back to that.

Revising the History

So there’s a ruined village. The history says it was an important farming center–but there was an active mine very close by. Villages in the real-world Middle Ages always had farms. You didn’t get your crops from the market, unless it was something exotic. So saying Phandalin was “an important farming center” doesn’t make much sense. If there was an active mine nearby, it seems like Phandalin would be more of a mining town, or at least would cater to miners traveling back and forth from the mining camps to the nearby market town.

In the adventure booklet, the orc problem was mentioned (like in the history above). It’s a little more vague, but the story is that the orcs destroyed the village and also destroyed all entrances to the mine. Now, I’m not in favor of “all orcs and goblins are evil” generally. It seems overly simplistic to me. If you’re talking about an orc kingdom that is expanding its territory and looking for more resources, why would it destroy villages and farms? Particularly if orcs themselves aren’t interested in farming–it makes more sense to enslave the native population, doesn’t it? Slaves work the farms, orcs take all the food. Same with the mine–if it is valuable, why destroy it? Why not make the slaves mine the resources so the orcs can use them?

It’s easy enough to come up with more plausible reasons, however. Cave-ins happen in mines all the time, as do floods and inundations. In most D&D settings, dwarves tend to be more technologically advanced, particularly when it comes to mining and stonework, so perhaps this is less likely. But these are problems even in modern mines, and it was a serious issue in mines before the industrial revolution. Earthquakes, natural or magical, could also cause the mine to be cut off or destroy enough of the infrastructure to make it non-profitable. As to things that ruin villages, earthquakes, sinkholes, and other geological occurrences could also damage the village. War (whether with orcs or someone else) can also result in a village falling to ruin. Replace modern bombs with magic like fireball or dragon fire and you can easily see a smaller village being destroyed.

In my setting, there was an expansive human empire (think Roman empire) which once dominated the valley where I’m placing this adventure. A hundred years or so ago (I haven’t nailed this down yet), several humanoid groups banded together and rebelled against the Imperial government. They established their independence, and through a series of large battles and small skirmishes, pushed out the Imperials and their supporters. War is a great source for destruction and ruin, so in my setting there are a lot of ruined villages in the general area. Some have been rebuilt or resettled, and one of those is Blackheath (my name for Phandalin). The original mine might have been lost, but the rocky foothills south of the village have plenty of resources left to mine. So my village has become a trading conduit–supplies going to the mining camps, smelted ore coming through the village and up the road to the market town.

Legend/History of the Lost Mine

As to the Spell Forge and the original purpose of the mine, that’s a little fuzzy to me. If I’m not using the “orcs destroy everything” bit, then is the Spell Forge even broken? And what exactly were they mining in this mine? One idea that I really like from the Starter Set Sandbox series of articles is the concept of chardalyn stones. As explained in the Old Owl Well article in the series, “A chardalyn is a blue gem that could hold a single spell. They were introduced in 2E and I think they also appeared in 3.xE but there was no conversion in 4E. 5E could probably just use the 2E rule (they hold a single spell and can be crushed to use once).”

So my seed of an idea right now is that the mine may have had precious metals, but they also discovered a vein of chardalyn crystal. And while the Spell Forge is not broken, it is disabled. I’m thinking that perhaps much larger crystals act as some kind of power source for the Spell Forge? I’m still working that out but that’s the direction I’m going. I also have an idea for what the Spell Forge is going to be used for in this adventure–in other words, why the Big Bad is looking for it. But we’ll get to that in another article.

Okay so those are my solutions. Some general suggestions for other folks:

  • What was the original purpose of the village? Almost all villages had farms, but depending on what you are basing your setting on, some villages may have had some other economic purpose as well: mining, lumber, some artisanal craft, etc.
  • How did the village become ruined? War or natural disaster seem like the best candidates for me, but it will probably depend on your own settings history or politics or geology.
  • What caused people to resettle or rebuild the village? Have the original settlers come back, have their descendants come back, or is it a whole new group of people? Commerce and resource gathering, plus good farmland, would make any location a prime spot for settlement. Chances are, if the war or disaster that destroyed it is long gone, people will want to move back in because it’s got stuff they want or need.
  • How was the mine lost? Was it destroyed by the same thing that wrecked the village, or something different?
  • What was special about the mine? If whatever was in that mine could be gotten somewhere else, they probably wouldn’t worry about locating it or re-opening it. If you are going to use the Spell Forge idea, you might want to consider the points I brought up: is it broken, or just disabled? What powers it? What was the original dynamic in the group that built it and/or used it, and how did those folks interact with the miners?
  • If you want to take the idea of the Lost Mine in a totally different direction, check out the suggestions in the Dungeon of Signs review. It’s a pretty scathing review, but he does offer a few alternatives to the boring and generic elements in the adventure. For example, he suggests making Wave Echo Cave the lair of rock spirits who create magical gems. Kind of an interesting take.

I hope this gave you some ideas about the history of the town. We’ll talk more about the Lost Mine and the Spell Forge in a future article–this was just to touch on it, as a small part of the overall history of the town.

Next time: We talk about the NPCs!

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Pt. 1: Beginnings

So to start off this remix and redesign, I’d like to share some of my inspirations with you. The first and foremost inspiration was Justin Alexander’s article “Jaquaying the Dungeon“. It is one of many, many articles on The Alexandrian that I will be referencing during this remix. Small side note: Alexander frequently refers to “Paul Jaquays” in this article series, but this person is now Jennell Jaquays.

In this article series, Alexander makes reference to the design approach used by Jaquays in several classic modules. Alexander then decides to use those principles to “remix” the 4th edition module H1 Keep on the Shadowfell. I highly recommend reading these articles, and looking through Alexander’s remix PDF. It’s really what sparked my idea for redesigning Lost Mine of Phandelver.

So let’s begin at the beginning. The adventure is separated into four distinct sections: “Goblin Arrows,” an ambush encounter leading to a goblin hideout cave; “Phandalin”, where the town is introduced and the town’s problem with a gang takeover is presented; “The Spider’s Web,” which presents possible side quest locations and the goblin base; and lastly “Wave Echo Cave,” which is the major dungeon and the place where the confrontation with the final “boss” will occur.

Problems with this begin immediately. First of all, all 5th edition material is set in The Forgotten Realms, a long-standing campaign setting which has been published in every major edition of the game since 1st edition AD&D. It’s also been the setting for a huge number of D&D novels, and several D&D computer/video games. If you want to use The Realms, then no problem. If you don’t want to use The Realms, then your very first problem is: “Where do I put this?” A corollary to this problem is: “What godawful names, how can I change these to something more suitable?” (I mean, come on–Phandalin? What the heck kind of name is that?)

Your second problem is, “Why are the PCs coming to this town?” The hooks offered in the adventure booklet are generic at best, and in my opinion pretty boring. Depending on what setting you are going to put this in, and the particulars of the group you are running, you can come up with hooks that are more specific to either the location or the PCs themselves.

Your third problem is: “What if the PCs don’t decide to follow the goblins?” This first section seems pretty dependent on the PCs fighting through the ambush, and then tracking the goblins back to their hideout (or following their tracks if none of the goblins escaped). But there are so many other options here. The encounter as written makes a lot of assumptions: that the PCs are hired to guard a merchant caravan, that this caravan is ambushed by goblins, that their employer is kidnapped, and that the PCs will follow the goblins because their employer was kidnapped and they want to get paid.

However, if you don’t use the generic and boring hook offered in the booklet, those assumptions don’t necessarily apply. You can still use the ambush encounter, because that can be plopped on the road to town no matter what the setting or what the reason for traveling to Phandalin. Figuring out how to entice the PCs to get to the hideout, though, might take a little work. The kidnapped guy is a pretty big part of the overall happenings in the adventure, so you’d also have to come up with a reason why he was nabbed, why he couldn’t escape, and why the PCs care enough to try and rescue him. Or maybe they don’t care about him at all but want to track down the goblins for some other reason.

Now, I didn’t start my group with the goblin ambush and hideout. My group had already been through an unrelated 5-room dungeon I set up for them (if you’re interested, it’s the Kobold Hall dungeon from the 4th edition DMG). I am using my own homebrew setting, too. So I planted some clues leading in various directions in the 5-room dungeon. One of those was a dead adventurer, who was trying to rescue his beloved (also dead, sadly). Both of them lived in Blackheath (my replacement for Phandalin). The guy who hired the PCs to do the job in the little dungeon was related to the girl who died, and he told them “hey my niece’s family lives in Blackheath”. So the PCs decided to take the sad news of her death, along with some personal effects they found, to her family. Coincidentally (or not), the young dead adventurer was related to Gundren Rockseeker, the central figure in the Lost Mine adventure–he’s the guy who gets kidnapped by goblins. The dead adventurer was Gundren’s son. So the PCs have a plausible reason to travel to Blackheath, and a plausible reason to seek out the girl’s family, and a plausible reason to seek out Gundren Rockseeker.

Now of course, someone else’s solution to these problems with the initial section could turn out very different. In general, I don’t have a problem with the goblin hideout itself. It’s an interesting location, it has some unique environmental elements which the PCs can use against the goblins or the goblins can use against the PCs, there is a goblin who is looking to overturn the current administration of the group (opening options for negotiation, gaining the dissenter’s help, or turning the dissenter in to gain favor with the bugbear boss), the combat seems challenging without being beyond the reach of a 1st level party (and can be easily modified in obvious ways if you have a smaller or larger party). It’s a fairly good setup for a level 1 scenario. My main problem is with the sequence of Boring Hook > Obvious Ambush > Railroad to Hideout that seems to be presented in the booklet.

I guess it might seem less like a railroad if you use the hook provided…but any plot or plan inevitably fails upon contact with a group of players. They will *always* do something you didn’t anticipate. If you use the material as written, and the players don’t follow the goblins…well, it’s a bit messy. This is kind of the theme for the whole thing.

So I presented my solution. A more general solution would be:

  • Come up with a placement for the village and other locations that is meaningful to you and/or the players. If you want to use The Realms, you can use everything as-is. If not, look at the geographical characteristics to place things: village should be near a hilly area, preferably foothills to a mountain range. There should be caves and/or abandoned mines near the village. The side quest locations are mostly also suited to a hilly area.
  • Come up with hooks/motivations that are meaningful to the players. What are the backgrounds of the PCs? Where do they come from in the area? Do they already know someone in the village, or a relative of someone in the village? Have they heard rumors or gossip about what’s happening in the village? Give the PCs a reason to go to Blackheath that makes sense, for them and the world you are playing in.
  • If the PCs don’t follow the goblins, so what? Keep the hideout info handy, in case you want to work it in somewhere else in the adventure. You might need to tweak the next few encounters to make up for the party not getting the XP from the goblin hideout. Aside from that, it really is completely skippable. So don’t sweat it.

Next time: Phandalin and its history!

Remix of Lost Mine of Phandelver: Intro and TOC

I haven’t written anything here in a long time. But now I’m back!

I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a very long time, although actual play with groups has been sporadic. I looked through several iterations of the D&D Next playtest materials (what eventually became 5th edition), but realized it was kind of useless because I wasn’t in a group and in fact had kind of gotten burned out after a very bad RPG group experience.

So I’m rather late to the 5th edition scene. But this year my youngest kid FINALLY got interested in playing D&D after listening to The Adventure Zone podcast. Figures, I tried multiple times to get the kid to play and it was like pulling teeth. But anyway…I bought the 5th edition Starter Set, I bought the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and a few other things. But in looking at the adventure in the Starter Set, I was…underwhelmed.

To back up a little, I played a LOT of 4th edition D&D. While I also played in 3rd edition (3.x as it’s generally referred to), I only got through it because I had an awesome, highly narrative DM. In general, I found 3rd edition clunky, complicated, and overwhelming. The books were sort of pretty, but like previous editions I found the “wall o’ text” approach extremely hard to read and understand. I used to joke that if you had insomnia, all you had to do was read a D&D rule book and you’d be asleep in five minutes.

But 4th edition? OMG, it was HEAVEN. I am a technical writer by trade–using simple language, giving clear instructions, and providing lots of white space are the top three things I do in my job. So when I saw the rule books for 4th edition, I was thrilled. Clear, straight-forward language explained the game mechanics. Everything was color-coded to a large degree, with plenty of white space in the design. For the FIRST TIME in my entire D&D history (going back to the Holmes Basic set, which is pretty old school) I was able to read a rule book and understand it the very first time!

So getting back to 5th edition…well, it was a little disappointing that they returned to the “natural language” approach. But overall, I really liked what I saw. They kept most of the stuff I liked about 4th edition, while also bringing back elements from previous editions that focused on storytelling and improvisation. The system itself is very well designed, and I think it’s really the “greatest hits” of all previous editions.

The adventures though? Well, they continue to be crap. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of old adventures that aren’t examples of great game design. However, from my own experience and also from research on the web, it seems like around 2nd or 3rd edition, the vast majority of published adventures had become linear, story-centered railroads. The very first published D&D adventures (called “modules” back then) were originally designed for competition play at conventions. They were linear because there was a time limit, and everyone at the table was there specifically to play, so they were all on board with whatever was presented. Later, as D&D got more popular and modules were published for general use, other design principles appeared and a huge variety resulted.

Then for some reason, that all changed. A lot of the most popular and best-selling modules were extremely linear, giving players limited choices (if any at all). While linear adventures don’t always lead to railroading, it’s a lot more likely with a linear adventure. If the module is trying to tell a particular story with particular plot points, then there is pressure on the DM to keep the players “on track”. Often if there is any information about options at all, it is limited to “here’s how you get them back on track if they wander off the trail”.

That leads us to why I’m remixing the Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is the adventure that comes with the 5th edition Starter Set. There are a lot of things I like about it. It starts with a fairly simple scenario for 1st level characters, it moves to a town which the characters can use as a base, the town has a problem the characters can solve, NPCs in the town have side quests, there is a large final dungeon area with a “boss” bad guy to fight as well as a host of other nasty things to negotiate with or fight. There is a bit of a sandbox feel to the side quest material, with a lot of different places to go and things to do.

But…there are problems. A LOT of problems. Now, a lot of folks have played through this whole adventure as written, and had no problems with it. So I’m not saying it’s unplayable as it is. The thing is, I’ve also seen a LOT of complaints, and I have a lot of questions and complaints myself. Rather than just abandon the whole thing, I decided that I could redesign (or “remix”) the things that didn’t make sense to me, to make it a better adventure.

So that’s what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. This post will be updated with links to each part as I finish it–a Table of Contents for the series. I don’t know if other people will be able to use my remix as-is, but my hope is that this remix will inspire other people to make their own changes to adventures, instead of throwing something out if it doesn’t make sense at first. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy the journey I’m about to take you on.

Adventures in Flash Games

I’ve been learning how to create simple web games with HTML5 and JavaScript. I’ve also been refreshing my memory on how to use Adobe Flash to create games. I successfully programmed a simple Craps game with HTML5/JavaScript (Craps being the casino game where you roll two dice). I now want to see if I can recreate that game in Flash.

My first step is breaking down the game into pieces. I need to have pictures of each die face (I have actually already created this in Flash). I need to have a way to reference each die face separately. I need to have a way to generate a random number, and then assign that random number to its corresponding die face. Once the die face is chosen, I need to display it to the player. I need to create a button for the player to click in order to roll the die, and I need to program the button to connect it to the code generating the random number. I need to have two dice in order to create the final craps game, so whatever code I create to roll one die, I will just repeat. The button will have to somehow initiate the code for both die rolls.

So here are my first tasks:

  1. Create graphical elements (die faces, buttons).
  2. Assign variables for two random numbers.
  3. Create function to generate random numbers and assign to their respective die faces.
  4. Create an event listener for the button that rolls the dice.

The tasks above will set up the basic die-rolling part of the game. But I need to do a bit more to create the actual Craps game. I need to check if it’s the player’s first turn. I need to check whether the first number rolled equals 7 or 11, and if it does I need to let the player know they won. If the first number rolled is not 7 or 11, I need to check whether the first number rolled equals 2, 3, or 12, and if it equals any of those I need to let the player know they lost. If the first number rolled is not 2, 3, 7, 11, or 12, I need to store the first number in a variable. On each subsequent turn, I need to check the number rolled on that turn against 7 and 11 (lose) and against the first number rolled (win), and I need to let the player know the result of their roll.

So here are the additional tasks for the full Craps game:

  1. Create output fields to display messages to the player.
  2. Create a Boolean variable for First Turn.
  3. Create an if statement to check the first number; it should give the player either a win message, a lose message, or tell them their “point” (the first number they rolled). This should also set the First Turn variable to False.
  4. Create an if statement to check subsequent rolls against 7, 11, and their point, and give them a win message, a lose message, or keep rolling message.
  5. Create a function to end the game when a win or lose condition has been reached.
  6. Create a button to restart the game, along with event handler for the button.

Now, all I have to do is actually build the game in Flash! I’ll be building it in stages, and I’ll post each stage here as it is finished.

Designing a Board Game, Pt. 1

One of the first classes I took in my Simulation and Game Development program was Design I. Our final project in that class was to design a board game. The idea was, use the design principles we’ve learned all semester and put together a prototype that works as a board game. This is much harder than it sounds.

My choice was to develop a board game based on the Pokemon video games for the Nintendo Gameboy/DS. My oldest watched the very first season of Pokemon, and despite their disparate ages, all three of my kids have fallen in love with the anime and the games. My two girls are still the biggest experts I know.

I didn’t have any illusions about the market potential for my game–I just wanted to make something my kids would find fun, and that I could use in a portfolio. But I kind of ran out of time toward the end and didn’t finish all the pieces, let alone take time to playtest it. I still got a decent grade based on the design and mechanics. But I knew it needed more work.

Enter my 9 year old. While I was cleaning out stuff and reorganizing things, she saw the game and remembered when I was working on it. She’s been whining a bit that I don’t do anything fun with her, so when she saw it she grabbed the box and said, “Let’s play this.”

Here is what I discovered right away:

  • If you have a rule that says “You can’t pass this space until you beat X” and you have no game pieces or information for X objective, you pretty much can’t play the game.
  • My 9 year old is a wellspring of great ideas for how to make my game better.
  • There are a LOT of pieces missing from my game, and I will need to make them before it is even playable. And I can’t test the mechanics/rules and make them better if it isn’t even playable.

I will be working on this project this week, in between my graphic design stuff. I’ll post some pictures later this week also. Stay tuned!