On the Phandelvers Part IV: Wave Echo Cave

Parts I, II, and III are there.

Does the final section conclude with a bang or a whimper?

Wave Echo Cave

Having rescued Gundren Rockseeker (or possibly not) and finding the map to Wave Echo Cave, the characters can now confront the mysterious Spider. Well, probably mysterious for someone who's never played Dungeons and Dragons before anyway.

Wandering monsters! Players will feel time pressure! On the other hand, they all attack and there isn't a consistent schedule for them given. You should roll if the "spend a long time in a given area" or "Conversely, if the players seem restless, you can decide that an encounter occurs". The auto attacking is the bigger sin.

Wave Echo cave is primarily a monster clearing expedition. There are many multiple routes through the dungeon, many opponents, some varied battlefields with cover, difficult terrain, and height differences. There is only one encounter in this dungeon that is not a fight, and it becomes a fight unless the characters "offer it something a former wizard would consider valuable in exchange for their lives."

I will pay anyone a dollar who can provide proof of a group that does that.

Effectively every encounter is a fight. There are many hidden and easy to miss items. This is a good thing, the players have to take some effort to discover the treasure.

It is difficult to say what an area like this comes across as in play. Will the combats become tedious? How long will it take a group to find their way through the mine? Are the choices presented via the dungeon's structure interesting ones? An exploration like this really requires playtesting -- sometimes the most straightforward things create good play. Sometimes things that read well come across very flat in play.

Failing by degrees

It's sometimes hard to remember that this is a new version of Dungeons and Dragons and the rules are the same. Skill check rolls are apparently not pass/fail rolls. There are several instances where if you attempt something and fail by a certain degree, negative effects occur. This is a feature of some skill rolls in earlier systems (3.x/PF) but appears to be more widely applied here. The higher your success, the better you do.

Perception, Passive, and Investigation

Which should you use for what? The adventure so far has been quite inconsistent about the uses of these skills. Sometimes it asks for an active perception roll opposed by a stealth check. Sometimes the monster's stealth check is opposed by a passive perception roll. When investigation should be used instead of perception is less clear. It seems each Dungeon Master will have to come up with his own guidelines on using these skills. In one area, there is a DC 12 Investigation check to discover a map in a book, in another, a DC 20 Perception check to notice a body under rubble. What's the logic behind which to choose? Another area has a body hidden in water that has no check listed at all.

I don't mind the frequency with which they come up, after all, I roll a lot of surprise checks in my megadungeon. And bounded accuracy keeps it from being a tax, you either are going to have a bit of a bonus in it or not.


The combats in this area are of a higher difficulty than the ones in the earlier areas. One encounter with a flameskull and eight dwarf zombie tankers appears to be particularly difficult. The skull is one of the most powerful spellcasters in the starter set. I can speak from my own 5th edition experience that it doesn't feel like you're immune to damage. Things could go south at any moment, and some of these encounters well-played could very well result in a total party kill.

Final Thoughts

Should I fault Wave Echo cave for a non-weird environment? How about the underwhelming final battle with yet another hostage situation, only this time a dupe? How about for the small and non-impressive Forge of Spells?

Perhaps. I think the quality of this final section has much more to do with the way the Dungeon Master runs and presents it. I think Wizards of the Coast constrained the page count to 64, and web enhancements can address a lot of issues. I think that this last section is filled with a great deal of uninteresting content that could be randomly generated -- one of the notorious flaws of late TSR era and WotC era products. What is it we are paying for? It's the interesting part, not 3 ghouls in a room.

What's more is that this is a starter set. Where's the quick start / quick reference card? What about those people who open the box to play and discover that someone should have to prep for an hour or two before play begins?

Also, I feel it's important to note that this game is explicitly a western. Is that weird? It's even called out in the adventure. A prospecting town. A mine. Bandits harassing the locals.

I feel badly for some of this criticism, because I read the whole module and am looking forward to running it. It makes me excited to play. I feel much more confident handing a 5th edition rulebook to my wife. I never felt that way with a 3rd edition book -- the feats chapter alone would have convinced her never to play. It's a bit like complaining that the gilding on my lily is sliver instead of gold, when in the past I wasn't even given a lily at all.

To my current recollection it is certainly the best Dungeons and Dragons adventure I've read post-1990. By far. It also cost me 12$. And came with a set of dice (though there is no d100 percentile die).

Hack & Slash 
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  1. You should seriously check out Reavers of Harkenwold. It's written for 4e but could be adapted for any fantasy campaign. It has a nice story arc and has a lot of sandbox elements. I was able to turn it into a mini-campaign using the elements contained with some customization on my part.

    Nice poster maps, too, if you find a hard copy (no large digital maps in the PDFs).


  2. Investigation and perception: the body hidden in water reminded me of the skeleton and the scroll in the water in the sample dungeon in the 1e DMG. It certainly felt like the text was written in parts by authors with different opinions of how to do searches, including one who thought player skill not a dice roll should be the method.

    Spoilers -

    Combat and non-combat encounters: yeah, the set-ups make it difficult for the players to perceive the options of non-combat. There are two though - the module says that the spectator can be tricked and that the wraith can be reasoned with. Doubtful on either case.

    Easy tropes for possible non-combat encounters:
    Restless undead that are mere floating spirits. They might want to be avenged, have their bones interred or some other task in the dungeon. One interesting choice for the players is if the spirit wants to be buried with a piece of treasure that was theirs in life. They might also just be stuck, re-living their deaths at the hands of the orcs, or still wanting to mine for the biggest nugget in the mine.
    Rock/earth elementals - from intelligent to an animal
    Earth/mining fey - especially one that could stone shape or travel through the rock.
    Any of these might be more obviously up for a bargain and possibly have knowledge of whereabouts of the rest of the mine, and have their own motives and desires.

  3. I’ve noticed a pattern for the active/passive perception/stealth thing, but note that this could be just total apophenia that ends up wrong when we see more of the game:

    So far, when something is “just there”, hidden but static, and someone tries to see it, it’s an active perception roll. vs active stealth.
    But when someone is actively trying to be stealthy, even if that is a monster, it becomes an active stealth roll vs passive perception.

    stealth: always active.
    “I try to see something in the trees”: active perception.
    “Lala la look at me I’m just walking around”: yeah, you probably still have your passive perception around unless in some situations which the playtest expliticly called out (when you’re rushing).

    The last packet also had specific time intervals for wandering monsters. I miss that and want to see it back. Two of the best concrete things the DM can keep track of is time and space.

    As for the percentile dice, you can use the last digit on the d20 for a units roll. What I really would've wanted was an extra d20.

    1. Right! For advantage/disadvantage!

    2. Re: Active and Passive perception vs. Stealth

      2097 -- The way I read it, you have it exactly right. If the PCs are actively searching around, the Stealth check is an opposed roll. If the PCs are just walking through the area, however, then the stealth is only detected by the passive perception. The key is the players declaring that they are actively stopping in an area to search (as opposed to just passing through on their way elsewhere).

  4. Having not played since 2nd edition, around about 20 years ago, and having always been a bit of a hacker and a slasher, especially when DMing my own campaigns, I quite enjoyed reading through the Phandelvers adventure! I was reasonably impressed, and I'm looking forward to trying the game out on some players new to the game.

    I might make a few tweaks:
    - I wasn't keen on Thundertree - it just didn't ring true to me - so might exclude this adventure hook
    - also, the adventure as a whole seemed quite light on treasure - by the end you have 5th level characters who might have accrued a +1 weapon each...possibly! That sounds a bit stingy to me, or maybe that's just my hack and slash roots?!
    - I'm thinking of incorporating a couple of elements of the old 2nd edition Night Below campaign boxset that I bought way back in the day and never got around to playing. I'm thinking if I incorporate a couple of the book 1 Night Below encounters into the sandbox element of Phandelver, then maybe the last encounter in Night Below post Wave Echo Cave, and then pick up with 5th level characters for books 2 and 3 of Night Below. Not sure whether it will work yet, or how much work might be involved in bringing a 2nd edition adventure up to a 5th edition game - any thoughts?

  5. Late to the party, but I enjoyed reading your writeup. I just wanted to point out that there is potentially one more non-combat encounter in Wave Echo Cave: the Spectator. Since it has gone a bit mad from long isolation and believes the mine is still operating, players can convince it that they are mine employees and can also send it back to the plane it came from.

    My group did just that--and then later tried the same on the Flameskull. I couldn't see any reason not to let them try it, but privately decided they'd have to roll very high to convince it. They rolled a natural 20, so I ruled that it was convinced. They still had to fight some dwarf zombies, but the fight was much easier without the Flameskull participating.

  6. When I ran this I changed the last section considerably to (I thought) great effect: I boosted the danger level in the rooms of undead in the middle, and the mushroom area in the lower right. The players ended up finding and fighting the Spider early on, only to lose and be sent on a Last-Crusade-Esque quest to find the Forge *for* him, eventually locating a (now hidden, out of sight) passage at the top of the ravine. Also, there were darkmantles where the waves crash, but their echolocation was "blinded" when the waves came in.

    Then they lured Nezznar to his death. Worked great.


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