Monster Mondays: Bile Spider Goblins for Level 2 PCs

Okay for our first Monster Monday, I’m going to create some more Bile Spider Goblins. This time I’m going to create some for Level 2 PCs to fight. Next week I’ll work on some slightly more interesting gobbos, and do some alchemically raised zombies and skeletons.

  • Goblin Sharpshooter
  • Goblin Warrior

As a reminder, here are the steps for building a 5E 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

Goblin Sharpshooter and Goblin Warrior

Okay so these two are just slightly tougher versions of the Goblin Slinger and Goblin Cutter we created in Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 7b: The Bile Spider Tribe (An Exercise in Monster Building). So here we go.

  1. The Goblin Warrior is a melee fighter, the Goblin Sharpshooter is a ranged fighter. They are designed to fight in groups of 3-5 goblins. They may have other types of goblins, or other creatures, fighting with them.
  2. These monsters will mostly fight PCs of Level 2.
  3. These encounters are designed to be Medium to Hard difficulty. This gives us a XP threshold of 600-900 XP. This may be problematic, as I want these goblins to be CR 1/2, and that would only give us around 400 XP. I could have an encounter with 6 CR 1/2 creatures, but for a party of 4 characters that would be harder than Medium because of the party being outnumbered. But here’s where the encounter multiplier rule on page 82 of the DMG can be our friend. It says that the multiplier for groups of 3-6 monsters is 2. So if we divide our XP threshold by 2, we get 300-450 XP. And 4 CR 1/2 monsters is 400 XP, so that fits into the range we are looking for. TLDR: We’re looking at CR 1/2.
  4. We’re going to give these two slightly different traits than we gave the Goblin Cutter and Goblin Slinger. The specialty of the Goblin Sharpshooter is mobile ranged attacks–it can move and shoot. So for the Goblin Sharpshooter, I’m going to make up a trait called Nimble Archer.

    Nimble Archer: The sharpshooter always uses Nimble Escape to Disengage. When possible, the sharpshooter will split up its move–it will move, attack, Disengage, and then move the rest of its speed.

    The specialty of the Goblin Warrior is to run interference for the Goblin Sharpshooter. It’s more of a defender type. So for the Goblin Warrior, I’m going to make up a trait called Nimble Defender. I’m also going to create a special defender trait called Protection.

    Nimble Defender: The warrior always uses Nimble Escape to Disengage. When an ally of the warrior is attacked, it will attempt to use Nimble Escape to disengage its current combatant, and move to defend its ally.
    Protection. When a creature the warrior can see attacks a target other than the warrior that is within 5 ft. of the warrior, the warrior can use its reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll.

  5. For defensive CR 1/2, the base stats are AC 13, HP 50-70. That’s a lot of HP. If you recall, when we made the Cutter and Slinger, we decided we needed to make the defensive CR lower, so we could give them lower HP. As a result, we had to raise the offensive CR in step 6. It looks like we may need to do that here, too. So for defensive CR 1/4, the base stats are AC 13, HP 36-49. The Warrior and Sharpshooter are different enough I’ll have to do the adjustments for each separately.
    1. The Goblin Warrior is going to have better armor, so we’ll say it has regular leather armor for AC 11. Plus, it’s a defender so it’s going to have a shield which gives it +2 to AC, for a total of AC 13. Then it’s got a Dexterity bonus of +2, which gives it a total of AC 15. As a defender, he’s going to have more HP than the usual goblin. We going to give the Goblin Warrior 32 (9d6 +1) HP.
    2. The Goblin Sharpshooter can’t use a shield. So to get it to AC 15, we’re going to give it studded leather armor (AC 12), and make its Dexterity bonus +3, for a total of AC 15. It’s HP is somewhat lower than the Warrior’s, so we’ll give it 22 (6d6 +1) HP.
  6. Since we lowered the defensive CR to 1/4, we have to raise the offensive CR to 1. Again we’ll have to fiddle with this a little. We already know that the Goblin Warrior has a Dexterity bonus of +2, and the Goblin Sharpshooter has a Dexterity bonus of +3. Goblins are Small creatures, so their attack bonuses usually use Dexterity rather than Strength. Again, I’ll do the adjustments for each one separately.
    1. Goblin Warrior uses a shortsword, which is a d6 weapon. The warrior’s attack bonus is +4 rather than +5, so normally we wouldn’t be able to go down to the CR 1/2 damage line. But I can’t figure out how to make a small creature with a small weapon to do 9 damage without Multiattack, which seems ridiculous for something that Level 2 PCs are going to fight. 1d6 + 2 is around 6 (rounding up), which fits CR 1/2. So we’re good there. Damage is 6 (1d6+2).
    2. Goblin Sharpshooter uses a shortbow, which is a d6 weapon. The sharpshooter’s attack bonus is +5, so we can definitely use the CR 1/2 damage line. 1d6 + 3 is around 6 (rounding down), which fits CR 1/2. Damage is 6 (1d6+3).
  7. Okay this has taken WAY longer to figure out than I anticipated. I had planned to add some really cool alchemical attacks but if I’m going to get this out on time, I’ll have to skip it for now and add it in later. So with the traits I’ve already mentioned, there is no use of Hide when the goblins use Nimble Escape, so I don’t think there is any particular effect.

I’ll have to post the stat block images in an edit later. But here’s the basics for the gobbos we made today:


Goblin Warrior (small humanoid goblin, neutral evil) 100 XP

AC 1532 (9d6 +1) HP; Dexterity +2; Strength +1; Constitution +1

Nimble Defender: The warrior always uses Nimble Escape to Disengage. When an ally of the warrior is attacked, it will attempt to use Nimble Escape to disengage its current combatant, and move to defend its ally.
Protection. When a creature the warrior can see attacks a target other than the warrior that is within 5 ft. of the warrior, the warrior can use its reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll.

Actions: Shortsword, melee, reach 5 ft., +4 to attack. Hit: 6 (1d6+2) piercing damage. Shield punch, melee, reach 5 ft., +3 to hit. Hit: 4 (1d6+1) bludgeoning damage.


Goblin Sharpshooter (small humanoid goblin, neutral evil) 100 XP

AC 15; 22 (6d6+1) HP; Dexterity +3; Constitution +1

Nimble Archer: The sharpshooter always uses Nimble Escape to Disengage. When possible, the sharpshooter will split up its move–it will move, attack, Disengage, and then move the rest of its speed.

Actions: Shortbow, ranged, 80/320 ft., +5 to attack. Hit: 6 (1d6+3) piercing damage.


 

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Welcome to Monster Mondays!

Hey everyone! So I’ve decided to start doing a new feature for my blog. I’ve been really hit and miss with posting here on this blog, mainly because my main content up until this point has been my series on remixing Lost Mine of Phandelver. Most of the posts in that series take quite a lot of time for me to put together. In the meantime, while I’m wrapping my brain around what I want to do next and writing out drafts, the blog is just sitting here wasting away.

The last post I did for that series was an exercise in monster building for D&D 5E. It was a lot of fun, even though I kind of broke my brain on the math at first. While those monsters haven’t been playtested, it was great to finally be able to convert my custom 4E monsters into 5E rules. So I’ve decided I’m going to do more!

I have some ideas but I don’t have any monsters in hand to post today. But starting next Monday (9/17), I’m going to post monsters here on Monday. I’ll be starting with more Bile Spider goblins. Then I’ll move on to the other 4E custom monsters I created, along with a few 4E monsters that Wizards of the Coast hasn’t published in any official 5E supplement or adventure yet. And occasionally I will toss in a few totally new things I’ve come up with.

I can’t promise how many I’ll post per week. I figure it will generally be 1-3. I’ll probably write out my thoughts, though I won’t go into as much detail on the steps as I did in my Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix series. All monsters posted here on the blog are published under the Creative Commons license. They are free. I ask only that you credit me, and link back to my blog.

Eventually, I plan to start designing a megadungeon. Once I start that, I may also post Megadungeon stuff on Mondays. Or maybe I’ll do that on a different day. We’ll see.

So stay tuned, Gentle Readers! I’m gradually ramping up the content on this blog. As I add more content, I’ll probably be reorganizing the blog to make it easier for people to find things.

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 7b: The Bile Spider Tribe (an Exercise in Monster Building)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I really loved 4th edition D&D. While it did have its problems, one thing it did really well was monster design. I created some custom monsters in 4E D&D, based on a Dragon magazine article “Alchemical Imbalance” (Dragon #364). And I’ve been trying to figure out how to convert these guys to 5E rules for a long time. I finally found a method that will accomplish what I want to accomplish. The Angry GM seems to agree with me on the great monster design in 4E D&D. His Custom Monster Building for Beginners series does a great job of explaining how the 5E D&D monster building rules work (because the DMG doesn’t do a great job of explaining it). He also explains how you can build monsters in 5E that have combat roles and special traits or abilities (like in 4E). In particular, I’m using Angry GM’s Monster Building 201 and Monster Building 202 articles.

CAUTION! FIRST LEVEL CHARACTERS ARE FRAGILE.  The goblins I create in this post, and any future ones I create in this same tribe and link here, may not work for every DM or every group. They are designed to offer more variety, and more tactical choices. If you are a new DM and/or there are new players in your group–this may not be for you.

I want to make clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the monsters in the Starter Set the way it is written. However, the low level goblins I present here may be even be better than the basic goblin in the Starter Set and official Monster Manual. That’s because the vanilla goblin has two possible attacks: one melee, and one ranged. But there is no indication of how goblins use those two attacks, or how they fight in groups. For new DMs, it might be confusing. My monsters have roles built in, and the ones I post will have notes on what tactics they use.

So let’s get started!

Step 1: What the H*ll Is It For?

In this step you think about your concept for the monster you’re building. Not the story or “fluff”–where are you putting this monster? How does it fight: alone, or in groups? Is it defensive, or offensive? Is it agile or slow? And so on. Figure out how this thing fights. In 4E terms, if you played 4E, you want to know its role. You also want to think about the terrain it’s likely to be in, and how it might use that terrain to its advantage (or how non-preferred terrain might hinder it).

In our example, I’m creating a tribe of goblins who is led by an unusually smart goblin, who has become enthralled with alchemical magic. He has a hunger for more knowledge about this magic, and he uses this alchemy to strengthen and enhance his people. As a result, they are more numerous and powerful than most goblin tribes. What does this mean for this step? I’m going to create two low-level goblins from this tribe: one ranged attacker, and one melee attacker. But unlike the vanilla goblin, they will have distinct tactics and will use their Nimble Escape trait differently. Also, their attacks will have an alchemical aspect that normal goblins don’t have.

Step 2: Who’s Going to Fight This?

You want to determine a starting CR, the target CR you are shooting for. In order to do this, you need to figure out at what level the PCs will be fighting the monster you’re creating. Remember that in 5E D&D, the CR represents a medium difficulty fight for 4 PCs of the same level as that CR, if they are fighting one monster. So a CR 1 monster is a medium difficulty fight for 4 PCs who are level 1. When you group up monsters, it messes with that basic math, but we’ll get to that eventually.

In our example, I want to create two different types of goblin that are likely to be fought by level 1 PCs. I want them to fight in small groups of 3-4 goblins. Note: With 5E, particularly at levels 1-3, you want to be careful when creating groups of monsters. Because of the action economy, even if the monsters are easy to hit and only have a few HP, just having the PCs outnumbered can lead to a total party kill. So I want them to fight in groups of 3-4, because usually a party is going to be 3-5 PCs. If you have a much larger group, you can add one or two more. So our Starting CR is probably around CR 1/4.

Step 3: How Hard Is the Fight?

Now unfortunately, the DMG puts the monster creation rules in the very back of the book, and puts the encounter building rules much earlier. They are hard to cross reference because of their placement. So I’ll summarize here (if you want to refer to the DMG, “Creating Encounters” starts on page 81).

First of all, there are four levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard and Deadly. As a rule of thumb, I suggest you shoot for Medium to Hard encounters. But each group is different–player experience level and players’ preferred play styles can affect what difficulty you choose. Second, on page 82 of the DMG there is a table which shows an XP amount for each difficulty, by PC level. You multiply this by the number of PCs in the party. So for a party of 4 PCs at 1st level, for a Medium to Hard difficulty, you want an encounter that’s about 200-300 XP total. Now, the DMG also says you should add a multiplier for groups of monsters (because of that action economy thing I mentioned). But…we are making custom monsters here, and we’re going to tweak the numbers on those monsters to match the level of PCs that will likely fight the monsters. So we probably don’t need that multiplier.

So for our example, we want a group of 3-4 monsters in a group, that together represent about 200-300 XP. That means each monster is going to be worth around 50-75 XP each. This is roughly equivalent to the vanilla goblin, which is a CR 1/4 monster worth 50 XP.

Step 4: What Sh*t Makes It Special (Traits)?

So in this step, you figure out what kinds of traits you are going to add to your custom monster. The Angry GM method suggests some traits that are racial, and some that are role-based. All members of a race have the racial trait or traits. Then within that race, members in a certain role have specific traits related to that role. The Angry GM also recommends you limit the number of traits to 3-4, depending on how complex they are. The more complex the trait, the less you should have.

So we have a ranged goblin–I’m calling it a Goblin Slinger. And we have a melee goblin–I’m calling it a Goblin Cutter. Goblins all have a trait called Nimble Escape, which allows them to either Disengage or Hide as a bonus action on their turn. But I want each of these new goblins to use Nimble Escape differently, to make them distinct.

So for the Goblin Slinger, I’m going to make up a trait called Nimble Sniper.

Nimble Sniper: The slinger always uses Nimble Escape to Hide. When the slinger misses an attack, the slinger stays hidden.

For the Goblin Cutter, I’m going to make up a trait called Nimble Skirmisher.

Nimble Skirmisher: The cutter always uses Nimble Escape to Disengage. When possible, the cutter uses part of their speed to move to an enemy, attacks, then disengages and uses the rest of their speed to move away.

Step 5: What’s the Defensive CR?

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Defensive CR consists of HP, modified by AC. On page 274 of the DMG, in the “Creating Quick Monster Stats” section, there is a table called “Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating”. For a CR 1/4 monster, the suggested HP range is 36-49, with an AC of 13.

Adjusting the Defensive CR

Now you might notice that 36-49 HP is a LOT more than what the vanilla goblins have. Vanilla goblins only have 7 HP! If you look at that table, that’s in the CR 1/8 line. However, the vanilla goblin (MM, p. 166) has an AC of 15. And the thing that The Angry GM points out in his series is–HP and AC are opposing dials. You dial the AC up, then you have to dial the HP down, and the opposite is also true. You also have to consider that AC is affected by a monster’s Dexterity ability modifier. In our example, goblins are small and agile creatures. So their Dexterity is likely to be higher than average. It’s also the case that the vanilla goblin wears leather armor and uses a shield. So that’s AC 11 for the leather armor, +2 AC for the shield, and then another +2 as a Dexterity modifier, to total AC 15.

In our example, the Goblin Cutter doesn’t use a shield. It moves around the battlefield, and relies on its agility and Nimble Escape to keep it safe. Additionally, the Goblin Slinger is going to be throwing around things that might provide cover, or create hazards on the field, or in other ways keep the PCs from getting to the Cutter. Whereas the Slinger itself can’t use a shield, because it’s using a ranged weapon. Technically a sling is used one-handed, but it needs to be loaded with two hands so we’re saying it doesn’t use a shield.

That means both the Cutter and Slinger have AC 13 if they wear leather armor. AC 11 for the armor, +2 AC for their Dexterity modifier. So we should be able to use the CR 1/4 HP numbers, right? But we already said 36 HP seems like an awful lot for something a 1st level PC is going to fight. So maybe we need to bump the entire Defensive CR down to the 1/8 line. The AC stays at 13, but the HP is 7-35. Now that’s a big range. I would say that because of their teamwork, and their special alchemical weapons, these Bile Spider goblins are a little tougher than their vanilla counterpart. Vanilla goblin has 7 HP–which is the average of 2d6. We’ll say the Cutter has 14 (4d6) HP, and the Slinger has 11 (3d6) HP.

For the AC, we’re going to do something a little different (and you’ll understand why when we get to the next step). We’re going to say that the Slinger and Cutter both wear somewhat tattered leather armor, which is actually only AC 10. And we’ll raise their Dexterity modifier to +3 in order to get to AC 13. So my new goblins are just slightly more agile than the vanilla goblin.

Step 6: What’s the Offensive CR?

So our Defensive CR ended up being CR 1/8. That means to get an overall CR of 1/4, we’ll have to shoot for an Offensive CR of 1/2. Offensive CR is Damage Per Round, modified by Attack Bonus and/or Spell Save DC. If we look in that table on page 274 of the DMG, the suggested Damage Per Round for CR 1/2 is 6-8, with an Attack Bonus of +3.

Adjusting the Offensive CR

Like with Defensive CR, we have two opposing dials with Offensive CR: Damage Per Round, and Attack Bonus. If we dial the Damage Per Round down, we have to dial the Attack Bonus up, and the opposite is also true. Also, if you look at the Attack Bonus we can already see a problem. We figured out in Step 5 that the goblins’ Dexterity ability modifier is now going to be +3. And we already know that the melee attack the Cutter uses is with a Finesse weapon (using Dexterity for attack), and that the Slinger uses a ranged attack (also Dexterity). With a Proficiency Bonus of +2, that gives us an Attack Bonus of +5, not +3.  However, when we raise the Attack Bonus by 2, we can use the next lower line for our Damage Per Round to balance that out.

If our Dexterity modifier is +3, what does that mean for the damage? Well we said that the Cutter is using a Finesse weapon–either a Scimitar or a Shortsword. Those both use 1d6 for damage. If we do 1d6+3, that gives us 6-7 damage (depending on whether we round up or down). That’s right in the CR 1/2 damage range. But we have bumped up the Attack Bonus, so we need to lower the damage per round. Maybe the Goblin Cutter uses a dagger instead of a Scimitar or Shortsword. He’s more like a rogue type–agile, mobile, does a smaller amount of damage, but hits a lot. Using a dagger would give the Cutter a 1d4+3 for damage–which is 5, right on target for CR 1/4. The sling also uses a d4 for damage, so it is also at 1d4+3. The Slinger’s attacks have additional properties, which we’ll address in the next step.

Step 7: How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Offense and Defense?

If you read The Angry GM’s series, he goes into great detail on how traits affect Defensive and Offensive CR. He even uses Nimble Escape as an example. In the DMG, if you use Nimble Escape on a custom monster, you are supposed to calculate CR as if your monster’s AC and Attack Bonus are both 4 points higher. FOUR POINTS HIGHER. That’s a LOT. But Angry also lays out the math behind that–it’s mostly about hiding. Because if you attack from hiding, you get advantage on your attack roll, which is equivalent to +4 to your attack. But see, only our Goblin Slinger is going to be using the Hide option on Nimble Escape. Cutters are only going to use the Disengage option on Nimble Escape. So we’ll have two different effects here.

For the Cutter, using Disengage as a bonus action essentially has no effect on their challenge (Angry compares it to the Flyby trait used by the Peryton). For the Slinger, though–we have to find a way to balance that +4 to attack. I’m going to fudge this one, because I have very specific things this Slinger is going to do. It’s not just throwing rocks or bullets with its sling–it’s tossing POTIONS. Or bombs, grenades, however you want to think about it. AND, while it’s Dexterity means it should be fairly accurate, the fact that it’s tossing this unusual artillery introduces an element of uncertainty.

So for our Goblin Cutter, we’re basically done. For the Slinger, though–we’re going to do some final tweaking in the last step.

Step 8: Final Tweaking

Here’s the fun part. The Slinger is going to have a couple of special traits. First of all, these are the low-level grunts in the tribe. They have some strengths over vanilla goblins, but they are still not the cream of the crop. So maybe they are occasionally incompetent with their alchemical weapons. So I’m going to add the following traits to the Slinger:

Alchemical Artillery: When the slinger successfully hits, roll 1d6 to randomly determine which grenade is being shot. There is a 25% chance the grenade will activate before leaving the sling, which then targets the slinger, and reveals the slinger from hiding.

Panic: When a slinger is at half health, they will start to panic. Instead of the 25% chance of misfiring, roll 1d4 to see if the grenade targets (1) the slinger, (2) the target PC, (3) a random ally of the PC, or (4) a random ally of the slinger. They are no longer able to take the Hide action while panicking.

Now these two traits probably need some playtesting. It’s a lot of dice rolls. But I think it not only makes the slingers less deadly, it also adds a fun element when the slingers screw things up.

Stat Blocks

These stat blocks were created using the 5E Monster Cards template (available on DriveThruRPG.com) for the Magic Set Editor app.

Goblin SlingerGoblin Slinger Cont

Goblin Cutter

Links to additional Bile Spider Goblins

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!

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix, Part 5: Glasstaff and The Redbrands

I’ve decided to use a slightly different structure for these articles moving forward. I won’t be going back and rewriting previous articles to fit this format, but for this and future articles I’ll be dividing the content into four parts: Analysis, Problems, My Solution, and Find Your Solution. In this article, we’ll start looking at the Big Bad Evil Guys in Lost Mine of Phandelver. The Redbrands are a gang that is terrorizing and shaking down the residents of Phandalin. They are led by a mysterious figure called Glasstaff.

Analysis

First of all, spoilers–Glasstaff is actually Iarno Albrek, Sildar’s missing contact from the Lord’s Alliance. Let’s start here, shall we? Why would a member of the Lord’s Alliance be sent here? I think it’s implied that the Lord’s Alliance is interested in promoting economic and political stability in settlements throughout the area, and if that’s the case it seems Albrek was sent to gain intelligence on this situation. But he’s gone dark–disappeared and dropped out of contact with the organization. In fact, he changed his name entirely and is now leading a gang of criminals!

The Redbrands as a group are extremely generic. They are written as thugs, cruel caricatures who just want to extort money from the villagers, but are willing to kill anyone who resists their extortion. Their motives are vague and not well explained. They seem to have been plopped in this adventure solely as experience fodder for the PCs to gain levels.

Problems

If the Lord’s Alliance trusts Albrek to scout the area and acquire intelligence on economy and politics, why on earth would he suddenly decide to start up a gang and create a protection racket to shake down the villagers for as much money as possible? Why would he suddenly drop out of contact, and conceal his identity by assuming a pseudonym?

As for the Redbrands themselves, they are not given any plausible motive for their criminal actions. I mean, bullies exist everywhere–that’s not hard to imagine. But to organize into an actual criminal organization, with a leadership hierarchy, there has to be some larger goal at the heart of it. Why organize a gang here? Is it part of some larger organization? Is there a puppetmaster pulling the strings somehow? None of their actions make any sense on a large-scale level, and the adventure booklet gives you nothing to fill in those gaps.

My Solution

The only reasons I can think of for why Albrek dropped off the radar are: A) Albrek was a malcontent from way back, just looking for a chance to break away, or B) Albrek is undercover. I’m leaning toward the latter possibility. I’m thinking that Albrek saw this nascent gang of toughs coalescing, and figured that something larger and more sinister was going on. So he decided to infiltrate, and quickly took over leadership (after an unfortunate accident removed the former leader, of course). Another possibility here is for the Redbrands to have originated as an unofficial militia who protect the town, given that there have been frequent raids and attacks by kobolds, goblins and orcs. Perhaps they started with good intentions, but have recently become less protective and more exploitative. You could still have Albrek infiltrate and take over in order to investigate, but this background humanizes the Redbrands a bit more, instead of making them nameless and cruel caricatures like the adventure as written.

With Albrek undercover, and investigating what is behind the Redbrands’ recent shift toward the criminal, it changes the dynamic of the final encounter in the Redbrands’ Hideout. Instead of fighting Albrek, once the party realizes who he is they can decide to talk, negotiate, give Sildar and the Lord’s Alliance a message, or even work with Albrek to take down the Black Spider. Possibilities abound with this shift in motivation. I also like the idea that the Redbrands started out as a militia of local boys who just want to keep people safe. The Black Spider probably installed a new leader who was easier to control, and who led them into more criminal activity. Albrek gradually rose in the ranks and arranged an “accident” for that minion of Black Spider. Eventually Albrek meets the Black Spider, and successfully convinces him that the demise of the previous leader was caused by that individual’s weakness of mind, or that the previous leader was plotting against Black Spider. Yes, that will do nicely.

Find Your Solution

Here are some suggestions for finding your own solution to these problems.

  • Who is Iarno Albrek? Why did he join the Lord’s Alliance, and why would he want to leave or betray it? Does he know Sildar well, or are they barely acquainted? Would Iarno be the kind to break away from the Lord’s Alliance at the first chance, in order to seek power on his own? Or would he be loyal to the Lord’s Alliance, be suspicious of the Redbrands’ motives, and try to infiltrate? Try to develop the NPC more fully, and that should give you reasons for why he’s concealing his identity, why he took over the Redbrands, and what his relationship to the Black Spider really is.
  • Who are the Redbrands? What was the reason for creating this gang or organization to begin with? What is their mission or purpose? How and when did they begin more sinister and criminal behavior? Who was their leader before Iarno? How did they get involved with Black Spider, and what is it that Black Spider wants them to accomplish? If the Redbrands began as a more benevolent group, are there still some members who are discontent with the criminal direction they’ve taken–and would be willing to assist the PCs in taking down the gang? Figuring out the background for this group, their history and goals, will add a lot of depth to this aspect of the story, and can also provide ample seeds for future scenarios and adventures.

That’s it guys, I hope this was helpful. Next, we’ll take a look at the Big Bad Evil Guy for the whole shebang–Black Spider!

 

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)–something 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 article.

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 have different movies, or 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’ll be using Justin Alexander’s “Three Clue Rule” to interconnect the quests in my adventure–you can use that as inspiration, or just go check out Alexander’s article on the Three Clue Rule yourself.

I hope you’ve found some helpful tips and interesting insights from this article. Next: we look at the Redbrands and Glasstaff!

 

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 podcast 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. In my view, he’s probably fairly charming and easy to talk to, since he’s part of the Lord’s Alliance and deals with people on a regular basis. So something like: “It’s easier to get what you want by buying someone a drink and chatting them up, than it is to use brute force. Less painful for everyone, too.”
  • 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 that the goblins were hired by someone called “The Black Spider”; 3) his contact in town 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 5e 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: In addition to the suggestion I used above, I might use: “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: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, since that book includes a quote in their NPC template. 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 years 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 find other random generators or lists to help you flesh out your NPCs. Donjon, Mithril and Mages, and Seventh Sanctum have some excellent random generators related to NPCs (as well as other things), and I’ve got all of them bookmarked. They are all good in different ways, so I recommend checking all of them to see which fits you best.

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 setting’s 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 the articles on the remix of Keep on the Shadowfell, 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!