Several days south east from the sea spray soaked walls of Neverwinter, a small provisions wagon is heading for the rough and tumble frontier town of Neverwinter. Taros leads the ox slowly along the trail while a cleric, a fellow dwarf of the Holy Syncretism, sits next to him making small talk. Along either side of the wagon are Varis and Dexter, who survey the old cobbled road and encroaching forest thicket at either side, keeping watch for the troubles so far away from the city walls. Their proprietor, Gundren Rockseeker, had taken off a few days ahead of them, offering the party ten gold pieces each to deliver the wagon, and the goods it contained, intact, stating that there will be “more work” and more importantly “more gold to be made” when they get to Phandalin; but still, the party knows very little of what the old dwarf had found out there on the Cusp of the Frontier.
“I’d hate to leave so soon, it’s been a while since I’ve seen ya’boys,” Gundred said, over an ale at the Sunder Speak Inn no more than three days ago. “But I need to meet up with my brothers and take care of a few things before you arrive. But don’t you boys worry, I’ll explain everything when we meet in Phandalin.”
On the third day of travel from Neverwinter, still wondering at what the old dwarf had in store for them, the party no longer hears the gentle sounds of the sea crashing against the sword coast. The cobbled High Road, and the watchful eyes of the High Road guard, are now almost a memory as they veered east, down the Triboar Trail, where they know that bandits hiding in the shadows were the least of their concerns. So close to the Wild Frontier, goblins grew in hordes, Orc shaman commanded tribes of loyal Gruumsh worshiping warriors, and fey creatures crept around the shadows, spilling forth into the mortal coil from the cracks and creases left when the world was molded. The air is thick with the sound of wilderness, the smell of spring, and with a tingling sense of danger.
As they come around a bend in the dirt road, Dexter’s keen eyes spot something laying in the middle of the dirt road: two dead horses. He signals to Taros, who slows the wagon to a halt, and the party steps forward cautiously to investigate, leaving the cleric as a look out. As they approach the horses they can see the bodies of the poor creatures are feathered with black arrows.
“This isn’t the work of no bandits,” Taros whispered through his beard, and almost as if waiting for their queue, the goblins hidden in the thicket at either side of the road loose their arrows.
Roll Initiative, but first, some words from our DM.
It’s been a little while since the Dungeons and Dragons 5e starter set was released, which gave me ample time to scour YouTube for any Lost Mine of Phandelver play through. Not that I was looking to see how to run the module, but more so to see how different players played the module; which looking up on YouTube is far easier, and less time consuming, than going out, starting a second group, and then watching them play through it. Seeing how the different players approached the scenario kind of wowed me, and I was double wowed to see my players go through almost the same exact song and dance without any rehearsal. I really started to get nervous that the “hidden tracks” were starting to come into play, which is a bad thing for my players, the campaign, and me.
You see, my regular players are like bloodhounds with a very specific sense of smell: they can smell railroads a mile away and then immediately start heading in the opposite direction. I don’t know if it’s them trying to test my resolve or them just feeling the restrictive binds of linear game play (especially when the “sandbox” market for video games is nearly boiling over at this point) and subconsciously “act out,” but cutting off on a new trail has its definite appeal to both player and DM, and there are entire campaigns to be played with a few sheet of random encounters and events, especially when utilized by a DM who is quick on their feet when it comes to connecting the individual dots and improvising up their with the best; but that was a challenge I really wasn’t really prepared for right off the rip.
If you read my last post (Fear is the Mind Killer: Handling DM Anxiety), I didn’t really have much planned for this session. The base, or linear, adventure in the Lost Mines of Phandelver starter pack begins with a few pieces of flavor text, which are rather sparse (lacking, to be unkind), explaining that Gundren, the guy who is paying the party, has gone off a few days ahead, and then it boils right over to two dead horses, which are bait for the first encounter (an ambush attack from a small horde of goblins). From their the players can run some simple skill checks to see that YES these are Gundren Rockseeker and Sildar Hallwinter’s horses, and YES there are golbin tracks that lead away from the ambush site right to a hideout. This whole first section of the Starter Set Module is, in its truest form, no different than those boring, over repetitive TUTORIAL sections that seem to permeate the newest generations of video games (yes, I know that is the second video game reference I have made in this post, table top purists please bear with me). But, what else should be expected? This IS the Starter Set after all. Before bumping up against a dragon or going toe-to-toe with a brood of vampire spawns, you have to be able to kill a goblin or two – crawl before you walk.
But like any body who has picked up a game they’ve already mastered and decides to start from the beginning, stuck going through the tutorial stage, that’s what this essentially was; but this isn’t a video game, and my players and I known that. There is no “lock out” for skipping the sequence, no restrictions for jumping forward. Hell, if they wanted the could have just abandoned the cart and walked back to Neverwinter, where (after some brief studies on my part) they could forge their own adventure. Either way, the heat was on. With little push to keep the players’ forward moment on this linear story track other than the promise of “10gp” a piece, there was nothing that I could do to make sure that they followed up on what was “needed” of them in respects to the module’s narrative. Sure I could come up with a reason WHY the players had to go back and find the Cragmaw hideout if they decided to press on to Phandalin, or why come up with some reason why they can’t just explore the world all willy-nilly (some nasty, over leveled beasts, perhaps), but you can only do that so many times before that invisible paint on the railroad tracks starts wearing away and the players feel more so like super powered NPCs stuck in the tangled strings of the DMs twisted marionette show rather than a full fledged band of heroes striking out on their own. Which is why it was so surprising to me that the beginning part of The Lost Mines of Phandelver went so “by the book.”
While my players weren’t surprised by the goblins hiding in the thicket, the encounter went off without a hitch, and, much like the official Dungeons and Dragons playtest video of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, they even captured one of the goblins, tied him up, and had him lead the party through the trapped thicket path towards the Cragmaw hideout. Which to me was… well, kind of boring. So I decided to spice things up a bit.
In the Lost Mines of Phandelver module, Sildar Hallwinter is a prominent NPC (who barely has any narrative flesh strapped to his raw-stats bones) who seems like a fairly standard “quest giver” in any given RPG. If this was Skyrim, you wouldn’t be able to kill him, if it was Grand Theft Auto killing him would cause the mission to be failed, if this were some early 90s DOS based dungeon crawler you’d most likely lose, but they’d fail to tell you that and you’d end up wandering around aimlessly until you just give up and start all over again (Ultima Underworld was notorious for that). And after the Cragmaw hideout portion of the module, he is pretty much the driving force behind getting the players to move on with their mission in routing out clues that will eventually save Gundren Rockseeker. I didn’t like that. There is something about having an NPC being the token “mission giver” which reminds me too much about video games (which then reminds me of fourth edition, and then I shudder).
There’s a section in the module where a goblin named Yeemick holds a knife to the neck of Sildar, essentially saying “move and the human gets it.” I know this is a tool to teach players that there are more ways of overcoming the situation than just fighting, but the party is essentially vague with its morality and pretty much wouldn’t be opposed to seeing the human die as long as their kill tally climbed higher and higher. The party essentially doesn’t know Sildar, at all. They know Gundren. Sure it’s possible that Sildar might have some idea where Gundren is, but that isn’t enough of a familiar tie for the characters to not only trust Sildar, but to also take up his side quests when they eventually reach Phandalin.
So I killed Sildar; or rather, I had Yeemick kill Sildar, off camera, and really it was for the better.
After the party killed Klarg, a bugbear leader of the Cragmaw Hideout, and begun digging through his loot, I made a very important roll: a stealth check. It was a slim chance that I was willing to fudge for sake of improvisational role playing (any DM worth his salt can role play a goblin), but the dice were in my favor. Yeemick, the goblin who was supposed to hold the knife to Sildar’s neck, crept up on Dexter, the party’s gnome rogue, who was separated from the group most of the time during their incursion through the Cragmaw Hideout. Then I rolled an opposed grapple and succeeded, seizing the gnome in Yeemick’s grip. I gave Darin (the man behind the gnome) a chance to free himself during the negotiations, but he failed and I was allowed to continue Yeemick’s devious plans. The goblin ordered the party to give over all loot marked with a blue lion, and then be allowed to leave. Upon making it to the exit of the hideout, the goblin betrayed the party (well, no shit) and slit Dexter’s throat, giving him a neck six-inch smile underneath his little gnome chin. The look of betrayal on my players’ faces was so sweet I could have bottled it and started a soft drink empire.
Sometimes riding the rails at just the right angle causes the sparks to fly a bit, and sometimes for the better. While party may have lost out on some treasure (which was meant to be given to Linene Graywind, who runs the Lionshield Coaster in Phandalin, that I have renamed simply “The Blue Lion”), the overall outcome goes beyond the bounds of a pre-planned module to roll through. Yeemick is now at large (Tony’s character, Varis, tried to chase Yeemick down, but after a few minutes and several Con fails, for extended running, he never caught him), and that means that he could be lurking around in the shadows anywhere, and now Dexter has a reason, a real personal reason, to hate goblins. Sildar has been uprooted and he will honestly not be missed. All in all, just because you’ve seen the “professionals” play through the scenario over and over again, when you’re running it there is no reason to shoot out on your own whims when you start to feel to restricted by the “core” material (that goes the same for playing through a campaign world which you have created yourself). There will always be those epiphanies half way through when the “wouldn’t it be cool it” machine starts cranking out ideas, and isn’t that the same machine that sparks the first steps into the unknown, towards adventure? Roll with them. Next time there’s an integral character that the players expect to be there as often as an eon old mountain, that “token NPC” who also knows which way is north, put a knife through him, have him die of a natural cause, have a house fall him; whatever it is, take away your safe bets and work from the ground up when the sparks are flying and the dice are rolling.
Until Next Time!