On the Phandelvers part III: The Wilderness of Phandelver

Continuing my review, Parts I and II are there. Spoilers are frequent from here on out.

Maybe in this section they are going to ruin everything? Let's read on and find out!
"They can't learn much more in Phandalin, so they need to set out into the forests and hills surrounding the town to uncover the larger plots they are caught up in. The characters are not required to visit all the locations in this section."
A sandbox that's actually a sandbox!

Exploring the Sandbox


So while exploring the Cony Gap, there are some wilderness encounters. A 20% chance (17-20 on a 1d20) with one check during the day and one check during the night. 

How do these encounters hold up? 

Stirges, Ghouls, a Single Ogre, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Orcs, Wolves, and an Owlbear. What do they do? "drain the blood of their victims. . . hunger for living flesh. . . too stupid to flee. . .looking for travelers to ambush or homesteads to burn. . . picks up the characters scent and pursues them relentlessly". 

There's no differentiation between day and night encounters. All the encounters just fight the party excepting the goblins who will give information if "threatened" and the hobgoblins who are specifically seeking to assassinate party. And, well, that hobgoblin one just wants to fight the party, but at least for a good reason. 

This is not super great. It is good that there is a risk to travelling. But it's pretty trivial to use some extra space to turn these into really interesting encounters. A few options from my own treatise on non-player character interaction include could do the job very well. E.g. Perhaps the Orcs are fighting for leadership, escorting captives, or arguing over treasure distribution? Maybe the nighttime only ghouls are breaking free from nearby graves or milling about outside the characters camp? Perhaps the stirges are mating or hurt or acting crazy or unusual for some strange reason?

So why are these encounters so plain? I have a couple of theories. There's a breakpoint in publishing at 64 pages for cost, and this document is already very full. Also, simply coordinating the encounters for new Dungeon Masters might be enough complexity without turning it into a full encounter. It's still disappointing that there isn't at least one entertaining or strange opportunity for a random encounter.

Places of Interest


Conyberry and Agatha's Lair

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 70 miles via road. 

The spirit of a banshee resides here who, if approached correctly will answer any one question.

This is a good encounter. It requires A) the players to be considerate of their actions and B) has no combat oriented solution. I appreciate having multiple solutions to various problems, but it's nice for the occasional one to not have a combat solution.

In addition, the questgiver requests that you ask a specific question of the banshee, but she will answer truthfully any one question the player character's ask. This is a pretty great dynamic!

There are no maps included for this section and a note about it. This section doesn't need any maps, but perhaps Wyvern Tor might benefit from one? Is this a page count issue again? I certainly know in the old school community page counts balloon up when working on projects for exactly these reasons. What would we do when we work for a corporation who demands we keep our product to 64 pages?

Also, the boxed text is creeeping up in length. This is an encounter that depends very heavily on mood, however. So we will watch going forward if this is a trend or specific to this one encounter.

Old Owl Well

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 80 miles in some foothills.

Huh. An evil red wizard of Thay who is here for no evil plot and will parley with the characters? Good! Yep, checking the back for his stats -- Lawful Evil!

But he's not doing anything evil. He's just sort of hanging out. He also has quests. Nicccccccce. One of the quests requests that you ask a question of the banshee, meaning now the characters have to choose which quest they are going to follow. 

I really like the fact that there's an opportunity for the characters to side with evil non-player characters. I also like the fact that he gives quests which conflict with quests given by good characters in the game. He's not here to fight but you can fight him. Some of his goals (i.e. eliminate the orcs) coincide with yours!

It appears you get 200 XP for completing the quest of Daran Edermath who resides in the orchard of Phandalin. It also appears the combat encounter is worth 800 XP. 

What do you get for completing the quests the mage gives you? It doesn't say. This is not particularly helpful to new Dungeon Masters!

Ruins of Thundertree

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 70 miles north in the forest.

Oh, there's a bunch here.

It's an "old" ruined village, until 30 years ago when it was "devastated" by the eruption of Mount Hotenow. Now, I'm sure this is due to my lack of Forgotten Realms lore knowledge, but this ruin is 20 miles east of the giant cosmopolitan city of Neverwinter and both Neverwinter and Thundertree are 30 miles south of Mount Hotenow.

What gives? Thundertree is a ruin and Neverwinter is just fine.

Ok, ignoring that for now, it's a ruin with some ruined and some intact buildings. 

Why do intact buildings have a DC 10 Strength check to open? Can't the character's just retry until they succeed? There's no text or description of any surprise states in the standing buildings . . . which are exclusively filled with prone zombies.

The druid is nice! Another faction for players who can inform them of the threats in the area, including the twig blights, ash zombies, cultists, and dragon. He flees from any combat. He has no stats.

Why doesn't he help the players? The goblins are a threat and the dragon isn't? 

The only picture of Venomfang on the Web
(That isn't on the cover of the Starter Set)
Venomfang, the young green dragon is here. 12d6 in a 30 foot cone. Flight. Three nasty attacks. I'd like to see the party that can drive Venomfang away without a death. I think this is fantastic!

What's Venomfang like? The only description of his character is the following:
"[He is] searching Neverwinter Wood for a suitable lair. . . Venomfang has been laying low. . . Venomfang does not want to give up such a promising lair. . . Venomfang spends much of his time greedily admiring the loot."
It's a dragon, right? Shouldn't it be given a little character?

The cultists want to side with the dragon. They will treat with the party and betray them to the dragon. What does the dragon do? This is a pretty complicated situation and little to no guidance is given to neophyte Dungeon Masters. This is a starter set. Just a simple instruction reminding them that however they play out the encounter is ok or providing some alternatives would be nice.

Wyvern Tor

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 60 miles in foothills.

A hidden orc camp with 6 Orcs and an Ogre?

This encounter isn't very interesting and provides little treasure, but a bunch of experience (1,250) for completing the quest and more for slaying the orcs. It takes a full column length to describe "A hidden orc camp with 6 orcs and an ogre", one-half a full page.

It is likely a fairly difficult combat and the "Hidden Camp" part of the encounter will likely be fun, but the DM facing text:
"The tor was formerly  the home of a large and dangerous nest of wyverns, but a band of bold adventurers dealt with the monsters years ago. Though the wyverns never returned, other creatures lair here from time to time.
calls back the frequent 'background text' sin that does very little to help Dungeon Masters in play or new Dungeon Masters run the encounter.

On the other hand, it is only a single page column to get a dozen line encounter across. It could have been a full page.

Cragmaw Castle

The finale of Chapter 3.

This is very nice. One of the most enjoyable activities for players is planning an assault. The players know they need to find this area but do not know where it is. Once found, they have the opportunity to plan their assault or infiltration. There is specific support within the adventure for the players attempting to disguise or infiltrate their way in without combat.

Various opponents and obstacles inhabit the tower which consists of a tight and often debris covered battlefield. It also includes a trapped, starving, but not necessarily hostile owlbear. The boxed text returns to its refreshing brevity here.

If the players are not cautious, then in the final encounter, the bugbear king will take Gundren Rockseeker hostage and threaten to kill him if the character's don't back off.

This is a difficult and challenging encounter for the players and there is no guidance in the adventure for how to handle the fallout from this encounter. What if they do back off? Then Gundren will likely be dead before they can mount an attack. What if they attack? Then Grol, the bugbear king will take the opportunity to kill the very person they are here to rescue. This requires some actual creative play to resolve successfully and will likely leave a neophyte party quite unhappy or frustrated with the outcome.

Not that this is a bad thing. Just that there is little text or space devoted to the complexity of the situation. A paragraph or two might be helpful for new Dungeon Masters in navigating situations like this.

What's Gundren Rockseeker like? He's like a questgiver that just gives quests. A sentence or two of characterization would have been nice.

You don't have to characterize every non-player character. In fact, leaving a few uncharacterized allows the Dungeon Master to insert their own favorite behaviors for non-player characters. But many major non-player characters not described or given strong characterizations puts more work on the Dungeon Masters head.

Thoughts

Some slipping back into old habits resurfaced here, but not anywhere near to the degree to which they used to render adventures unusable. 

It is notable that I could run this from the booklet and would not need to completely rewrite the adventure. I quite commonly find myself doing that for adventures both old and new. 

I also find that I'm reading more confidently, not quite so worried as I move forward that I will encounter a bit of madness or derangement that reads as a slap to the face. 

We'll be looking at the last section later this week!

Hack & Slash 
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4 comments:

  1. Looking at Phandelver, its size and the number of merchants and such, it doesn't make sense to be as down on its luck as depicted. Like your note of Thundertree, there's a little bit of cognitive dissonance or lack of (if I recall you don't like the word but it works for me) verisimilitude. Yeah, its a game.

    One of the changes I'm making is that Phandelver is making its way back, with rumors of new finds and claims. That's why there's so many merchants getting supplies sent and so forth, and another reason for characters to go there besides the module's conceit.
    So I figured that an addition to the wilderness encounter table would be prospectors. There's a host of different attitudes for them to take. Whether they're suspicious of the characters or perhaps wanting to rip them off and sell them a claim that's either not working or not theirs to sell. I rewatched Treasures of Sierra Madre for some inspiration (never a bad thing) and Deadwood is also good source material.
    Maybe this guy: http://katemaxpaint.deviantart.com/art/Ore-explorer-278697617 will offer to sell the characters his "ore sniffing lizard" since he's done prospecting and going to drink his earnings in retirement.

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  2. Actually, Neverwinter was extensively damaged by the eruption of Mt Hotenow. Check out the city map: there's a massive chasm, ruined walls, and ruined buildings.

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  3. I was looking on the interblogs about the Neverwinter thing. Apparently in one of the most recent Drizz't novels, the Red Wizards wake up a sleeping volcano god under the mountain, which erupts. Neverwinter is caught in a lava flow and about half the city burns down.

    Neverwinter in the module is apparently still being rebuilt. My guess is that since none of the adventure actually takes place in the city, the Powers That Be left those details out for the sake of their page count.

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  4. I think that's right, Big McStrongmuscle. It is all explained in Neverwinter Campaign Setting (which is better reading than an RAS novel!) but Lost Mine of Phandelver only have 50 or so pages to provide an adventure to take PCs from level 1 to level 5. Background information - even stuff that would help make certain encounters make sense - is missing as a result.

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