So, let me introduce some story elements of the Lost Mines of Phandelver and give a commentary on how the game played and areas we really liked and areas we felt something wasn’t quite right. There might be a spoiler or two in this post.
First, I want everyone playing out there to know that the Starter Set contents are phenomenal. Art and booklets and even the pre-mades (despite our playing created characters instead of using the ones in the box)… all high quality and well done. We changed some elements of the module to fit our game: (1) rather than this happening in Neverwinter in Faerun, this is all happening in Dodera in Kalamar; and (2) in order to really use this as the kickoff to a larger story past level 5, several elements have been altered to lead up to a great international conflict with the hobgoblin nations of the world. So, think of this as less “a party of heroes rides into town and fix things”—as the adventure is written—and more “a party of heroes rides into town and, while fixing things, see the coming storm”.
First thing to note is that the major locations and NPC’s of Phandalin are very accessible—as a GM one wants to have flavorful NPCs that don’t feel like they’re simply quest-bots and I found it easy to spin up personalities and objectives for them based on the notes in the module. I could have my governess of the Blue Lions (middle-aged and elegant, perhaps too much so for this small mining town) be taken and flattered by the ex-Kalamaran Officer and more interested in his company (and offering easy trade to keep him around all afternoon). I could have the pragmatic provisioner appeal to the Lawful characters that he couldn’t possibly be responsible for paying them, as he paid the party’s employer in full for delivery of the goods they had brought with them from the capitol—and watch those two (one resigned to being stiffed, one absolutely pissed) perfectly play Lawful by simply going with it to the consternation and argument (heated) of the chaotic other three party members.
The elf wizard, to her great RPing, tried pocketing a few coins from the Shrine of Luck and got herself minorly cursed for it—a scene that served well to provide her with Inspiration (we’ll come back to that) for playing her background and flaws well… as a street urchin, back when she was a girl, she just had that habit of eyeballing a room for valuables and taking things when she could. Old habits die hard. Ultimately, the town felt alive enough to give everyone things to do and reasons to split up. Our rogue tried making contact (totally independant of the module) with any thieves or gangs in the village, being that he was from a large city with an established (if secretive) guild and “the brotherhood” certainly might help them find that missing dwarf that owed them money. He finds the Redbrands and the street altercation was needless and violent and short—they just didn’t realize how fast the big green bastard was until one of them died.
So with everyone split up, hearing about how oppressive this gang of red cloaked thieves were from different sources, and Odom having experienced it first hand, they went to the hideout on the hill for their first proper dungeon crawl of this game (the goblin hideout was small and technically a crawl, but as the starter dungeon it really felt like a moment for flavor and easing into the system habits than a real hazardous delving).
We did run into several places where rules clarifications were hard. Searching for traps and hidden doors, while the main materials in the Basic Rules give the impression that one is using Investigation (hidden objects), the Starter Set says Perception. That led to the rogue being a little frustrated as he investigates like a champ (passive score of 17—that’s auto-finding things when he’s in a scene going over, carefully, everything immediately around him), but percieves no better than the rest of the party (12). We house-ruled that investigation made more sense (for searching), and things picked back up and our search-specialized rogue was back to disabling the few traps that were there to find and noticing hidden doors and loot everywhere.
Very quickly, really since the Cragmaw Hideout cave on the road, these players have figured out that terrain matters, cover rules, and surprise works. They approached every door carefully, set some ambush rules, listened for voices, and kicked doors in only to get the one round drop on anything in that room. It was enormously effective. Keep that in mind for your games, if you—as a GM—aren’t paying attention to “how much noise is the party making, would I give my monsters in the other room a chance to be even lightly warned—thus not surprised?” then you might well have situations where the party is attacking up to twice before you get to do anything and that’s going to make encounters maybe too easy too often.
As it stands, They took out most things in the dungeon with minimal pain. A few people had to content with those Death Rolls when you get to 0 hp, but nobody came anywhere near as close to dying as the last game where Malleus took too many arrows and went down nearly all the way (0 hp and failed death rolls), and Odom did much the same (although we found that he would have had one more round on his feet at 1 hp as per the Half-Orc racial ability to stay at 1 hp that first time you’re taken below it—everyone should be careful not to forget any racial attributes, its easy to think “old D&D” and forget that many of the races have very useful and strong abilities at their disposal).
Their two big story-driving finishes were (1) ignoring that rat in the wizard’s study (despite me mentioning it , casually, twice) and finding the wizard gone—though his notes left while he rushed out in a hurry. They uncovered his alliance with the Black Spider, hints of a hobgoblin conspiracy afoot, and his direction of these Redbrand bastards. They found his escape tunnel and deduced he’d run just moments before—their proof was seeing that rat take off up the stairs afterward and the rogue killing it with thrown dart (quickly) only for it to vanish, which our warlock figured out (Arcane) meant it must have been a familiar and must have been listening to them the whole time and warning its master. SO CLOSE.
And, (2) freeing the woman, her daughter, and son from the cages. That was the last thing they did (having found the secret door in the cistern room at the beginning and walked to the hardest parts of the hideout first). Bast, the warlock, freed them and questioned them—they’re the subject of the “Chapter 2” post on the game. I took them, as NPCs and pressed up the maturity and horror of the situation a little. Their capture wasn’t benign and the scars would last (physical and emotional ones). Bast plans to have the party take them to this Thundertree place as soon as they are done with Phandalin—and I may have some story-rich NPCs to keep in the game: this damaged, but strong young woman and how her experiences might twist her into something more in the future.
All in all, there were a few Inspiration points handed out, lots of XP, and the party finds itself with more money (off of looting that hideout) than ever. There were some squabbles about goods and cash—but, all in all, everyone sits pretty and feels their new level very much. This next session should see a lot of aggressive powers (we’re at level 3, where it gets interesting). The wizard is just looking for a reason to scorching blast something, now; the warlock has his otherworldly tome of secrets whispering in his mind; the fighter has figured out some of the arcane powers a former mentor of his demonstrated years ago; the rogue has mastered the art of killing men with pointy things by surprise; and the dragonborn monk is able to express the natural power of the great elements of the world through focus and control of their essence.
Shit, as they say, is about to get real as they hunt for this Cragmaw Castle to find the missing dwarf, maybe that evil wizard, and uncover the secret of the Forge of Spells.