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Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: Running Phandelver
by Mike on 17 September 2018
The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set includes an adventure that exemplifies the pace and feeling of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
As the introductory adventure to the fifth edition of D&D, Lost Mine of Phandelver is likely the most-played adventure of D&D 5e. It’s also one of the best. In this article we’ll discuss tips and tricks for getting the most out of running this wonderful D&D adventure.
If this is your first time running Dungeons & Dragons, you may want Starting Strong at your First D&D Game.
You can also watch my four-episode video series on Running Phandelver.
Use the Pregen Backgrounds
The backgrounds included with the pre-generated characters in Phandelver are written to hook characters into this adventure. Even if your players bring custom-built characters from the Player’s Handbook, you may want to recommend that they choose backgrounds from the Starter Set pre-generated characters to better tie them to the story. You can email these pre-generated characters to your players before your game so they can use them as the seeds when building their own custom characters.
When your players have chosen backgrounds, read them over and write them down, perhaps on a campaign worksheet. These backgrounds can help you choose which hooks to highlight in the rest of the adventure. The town of Phandalin is packed with quests, many of which are tied to these character backgrounds. Instead of piling quests on them that may or may not be relevant, only expose the hooks that tie to the backgrounds of the characters.
Lost Mine of Phandelver begins with a goblin ambush against a caravan protected by the characters. Before the battle begins, this is a good chance to help you tie the characters together, if they aren’t already with some loaded questions:
- Athrund, how did Celvak save your life previously?
- Teraman, who among the Red Brand bandits do you and Yeshta hunt and why?
- Gormun, what debt do you and Uthar owe to the Rockbottom brothers?
Questions like this help tie charaters together early and move some of the storytelling over to the players. You can use Fiasco-style relationships to get all the characters tied together if you have the time. You might also have all of the characters tied to a single faction such as the Harpers, Lord’s Alliance, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, or Emerald Enclave. This is a built-in group connection and ties them to a specific NPC in the town of Phandalin when they arrive.
Now on to the battle!
The first thing to remember in this battle is that level 1 characters are extremely fragile. It would suck for new D&D players to start their D&D experience with a total-party kill (TPK) so be careful.
This first battle is a great chance to try your hand at Theater of the Mind combat instead of using maps and minis. It will get both you and your players used to battles that don’t use a grid or miniatures. It’s good practice and will help you with many of the other battles in this adventure.
You’ll also want to stick to the static damage output of goblins at level 1 to ensure you avoid any major damage spikes that drop characters in a single hit. Dropping on the first shot is a lousy way to experience a new edition of D&D.
If you want to complicate the battle, add an NPC driver of the cart the party can protect. Use your handy random name generator and whip up a character archetype from your most recent favorite movie or TV show. Have the goblins harass this poor soul to give the characters something else to protect than their own hides.
Get Them to Level 2 Fast
Level 1 is brutal in the fifth edition of D&D. You may want to get your characters to second level as soon as you can, even as early as the middle of the Cragmaw Hideout. There’s also nothing stopping you from starting them at second level. Those extra hit points and hit dice of healing will help them significantly when facing off against the foes in the first chapter of this adventure. You can level them to third level when the story dictates it normally and everything works out well after that.
Hone Your Lazy Dungeon Master Skills
Lost Mine of Phandelver is a series of small sandboxes stacked together. This is a fantastic opportunity to practice the art of the lazy dungeon master. Part 1, the Cragmaw Hideout, is a great dungeon sandbox with multiple paths and multiple ways to defeat its enemies. Instead of pushing the players down one particular path, relish in their discussions about which way to go and improvise as they take their chosen path.
You’ll likely want to avoid any elaborate battle maps for this dungeon and instead use a blank flip mat to draw out rough locations as the players choose a direction. If you pre-build parts of the dungeon, you’re more likely to consciously or subconsciously lead them that way. Instead, relax and let them choose whatever path they want.
You will also want to consider how the goblins react to the approach taken by the characters. It’s a great time to see through the eyes of the goblins. As the characters invade their secret headquarters, the goblins act as they would in reaction to this.
Part 2 and part 3 of the adventure expand the sandbox considerably. There are tons of things to do both inside and outside Phandalin. Feel free to let the group decide whether to stay inside the town and deal with the Redbrands or to leave the city and deal with some of the interesting locations found in part 3. The characters should be free to leave and return to Phandalin as they choose, though the plots of the Redbrands may escalate if not taken care of.
Part 4 returns us to a sandbox dungeon delve. Again, give your players the freedom to choose whatever path they want to explore the dungeon. Wave Echo Cave is big so don’t feel like the characters have to explore every nook and cranny. If it starts to get stale, cut off certain passages or remove redundant monsters to keep the pace moving well. If they happen to go straight to the boss, let them do so.
Weave In the Dopplegangers
There are two dopplegangers in this adventure, Vhalak and Vyerith. Both of them work for the Black Spider and are written in at specific locations in the adventure. Both of these, however, make for fantastic reoccurring villains you might bring on early in the adventure. Give characters the feeling of being watched. Let them see shifting shadowy figures lurking in the background. Maybe one of them actually attacks the characters if the timing is right. These two foes should be smart villains who won’t engage if they don’t have an escape plan, so don’t let them simply walk in and get killed. If the characters do manage to kill one of them early, they might see them again as the second doppleganger changes its shape to match the first one.
These two dopplegangers are your chance to add in a whole new variable to the villains in the adventure. Make use of them.
Watch Out for Venomfang
There is one single villain in Phandelver that stands a significant chance of wiping out the characters—the green dragon Venomfang. When you introduce Venomfang, make it clear that the characters face a significant foe. Give them plenty of chances to realize that a simple stand-up fight might not be the right way to go. There are also many opportunities available to aim Venomfang at other enemies than the characters through subtle manipulation of Venomfang and the cult who courts him.
A Useful D&D Kit
Beyond the adventure itself, the books in the D&D Starter Set are extremely useful. They’re a perfect companion to your DM kit, containing maps, rules, adventures, and monster stat blocks to run many adventures outside of the pages. The pre-gen character sheets are also extremely useful, mainly for their ability to level up from 1 to 5 right on the sheet. The various maps of the locations in Phandelver also fit very common locations in many adventures such as ruined castles, rogue dens, ruined villages, monster-infested caves, and dwarven mines. We can easily repurpose these locations to fit our own adventures. While this Starter Set gives us roughly a 12 hour adventure, we could make adventures for hundreds of hours with the materials we have inside.
At $20 MSRP, the Starter Set is a real bargain.
A Fantastic Adventure to Start your D&D Campaign
Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters. Take your time, understand the material, go with the flow, and get ready to spend a bunch of hours having fun with your friends.
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