Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 6 - The Final Battle (and review)


Well, it's certainly been a while. And what a while!

I usually hate falling behind on schedules; this time being no exception, but I'd like to start out by excusing myself and pointing out two great news. How's that for starters?
First and foremost, we completed The Lost Mine of Phandelver, so consider this the final post in this short mini-series (well, I suppose that's kind of sad, but completing it felt really good) – Second; we've started out on the logical next part in the 5th edition wave: The Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which will be the inevitable follow up! So stay tuned; we're certainly up for more adventures!

Last time we left the heroes just as they'd conquered the sinister castle of Cragmaw. With dead owlbears, gricks and hobgoblins in their wake, the band of adventurers returned to Phandalin with their battered friend, and prepared for the final expedition. The party still consisted of Delvin the dwarven warrior, Fireforge the dwarven cleric of Oghma, Barian the elven wizard, Professor Grim the human rogue and Oxyzeron the dragonborn warlock. All of them were level 4.
(I feel I need to add some thoughts here; at this time it was quite evident that even with massive monster grinding they likely wouldn't hit fifth level till around the very end. In fact, they never passed that milestone. I'm not sure whether this is because they didn't roll up that many random encounters, or due to the fact they skipped the fight with the dragon? Either way, I have the feeling that even though the adventure proclaims it's for level 1-5, the players will spend very little time at high level, unless you continue directly from its end with your own material.)

Hi-Level Ho! To the mine!

The heroes said goodbye to their friend Gundren and assured him they would take the fight to the notorious villain known as The Spider, who'd been working against them all the time. By now, the Spider was likely deep inside the mine, doing battles with some of its unholy inhabitants. Besides ordinary preparation, the heroes were lucky enough to find a magnificent set of gauntlets in the former king's quarter, that turned out to be a shiny set of Gauntlets of Ogre Power. (Yes, originally these are found inside the mines, but I felt the adventure is a tad too caster-rewarding in its early stages, so hey! Making people happy!)

Wave Echo Cave was, as previously mentioned, once a glorious place in which humans, elves and dwarves lived in harmony with their riches and spell forges. Sadly, the attacks from the orcs and following battles left the place more like a tomb than a mine.

I see what you did there!
The journey to the mines wasn't long and they arrived in high daylight with the happy chirping of birds, staring inside the black world of the open rock. Not really knowing what to expect, the heroes set in and found an abandoned campsite right away. It seemed like it had been some time ago since anyone used it. (And this was the point in which I realized that Gundren did in fact have brothers who set out to the mine earlier – I actually noticed this when I read through the adventure, but whatever. It could just as well serve as an abandoned camp by the spider). Browsing through the stuff, the heroes found a pair of Boots of Striding and Springing.

They journeyed on, down into a small chasm from which a couple of narrow caverns went. Heading north, they soon after arrived at a minor maze of long abandoned corridors, in which old carvings and images had almost faded away. Small scraps of cloth and metal were strewn around, with the occasional bones and crumbled skeletons witnessing of the life and battle that once took place here.

Making their way further north, they soon found a large cave with an underground sea. Along the way, the heroes noticed from where the cave had likely received its name; a strange roaring sound, almost like an ocean, occasionally echoed through the corridors?

Slime none, waste none!

They were just about to make their way into the cave when a gooey sound burst out from the ceiling, and an ochre jelly splattered on top of the heroes. Its sizzling attacks tore away at them, and Delvin delivered a savage blow at it, only to see it cut out in two smaller pods. As the Professor did the same, suddenly there were a lot of ooze going around.
(These things are just as fun as you remember them; not much has changed about oozes as it is. Crappy AC, a good load of HP and they can strike moderately hard, especially if your players are stupid enough to make them split into more oozes! Still, this is by far one of the easier encounters in Wave Echo, unless your entire party has brought long swords and nothing else : ) )

Oozes. Still fun.
 Smashing the ooze to pieces went well and they searched the cave. In the dark pool they discovered more skeletons, one of them clutching a wand of magic missiles which would come in handy. A set of stairs went east and north, behind the door was the sound of gambling and some grumpy noises. Doing what heroes did best, they kicked in the door in a surprise attack and went for the four bug bears enjoying a nice time in the ad hoc barracs. Doing the encounter, they had reinforcements from the room to the north, two additional buggies, who were more or less restrained throughout the entire encounter by a well-placed web spell.
(There is a shapechanger as well in the room to the north, and frankly; this is one of those dungeons in which it makes sense for just about anyone intelligent, to send at least one runner to warn the boss that heroes are coming, so this is what happened here. Six bug bears are no joke indeed, and I think my players got really lucky with my sucky dice rolls for that night, seeing how two of them were pretty much sitting the entire encounter out in a web.)

Descending further into the caves, the heroes found a collapsed cavern further up the path, yet decided to head for an interesting set of double doors down the hall to the west. They were grand-looking and both Delvin and Fireforge recognised the carvings on them; a description of a holy site dedicated to Dumathoin, the dwarven god of mining. Deciding to investigate, they slowly opened the door...

I've been waiting for you. Waiting for you to come to me. Now come. Come, and let us finish this game...

They discovered a dimly lit room with several pillars and old remains that witnessed of the holy past. A grand statue of the dwarven deity stood against the far wall, underneath it a sinister figure wrapped in black, wielding an arachnid staff in his hand. His skin was ebony and eyes full of hate. He whispered in a loud voice as he measured his enemies, with two bug bears on each side. “So it seems like the intruders were indeed more capable than I thought,” he said. “But I'm afraid these caves are mine. Such a pity it will have to end this way...”
Your evil will not be tolerated much longer, Spider!” Fireforge retorted, “Remove yourself from these sacred grounds and you may have mercy!”
The drow laughed and his only reply was an incantation. The final battle had started!
(Artwork from the adventure)

(Now, being so horrible at staying at the chosen path, I have to confess something here. As written, the Spider is a very underwhelming foe. His staff can do some tricks, but it's not really as great as Glass Staff's. Also, the only thing he has going for him spell-wise is his suggestion and invisibility. So, if your party is going really strong and optimized, or maybe has one more player than the adventure is written for, consider the following. There is one foe in the mines that is one hell of a dangerous spell caster; namely the flame skull in the smelter cavern (area 12). His spell list is far more dangerous, featuring nasty level 3 spells. That, along with the two bug bears and the large spiders summoned during the fight makes for a truly epic and challenging fight that has more than enough potential to wipe out the party if they act with a proper plan. Bear in mind, however, that this makes up for a lot of possible burst damage. I went for this option.)

The Spider rolled first for initiative (the first real good roll I had that night) and hurled a ball of burning fire at the puny heroes. It scorched them heavily and nearly brought Oxyzeron to his knees. Then the bug bears moved in to strike, and the heroes managed to spot the hiding giant spiders behind the pillars. Moving in with determination, Delvin struck down one of the bug bears where it stood, and Barian returned the favor by expending his own scroll of fireball to toast two of the spiders and deal a savage blow to the drow who failed his reflex save (fuck you, dice...)

The professor rogue used his smooth moves to disengage inside the room and unleashed the full brunt of the wand of magic missiles on the drow, who countered it by casting shield. Fireforge summoned a spiritual weapon that hovered and struck the Spider, who was suddenly dangerously low on hit points. The spiders started tearing at Delvin, actually managing to poison the dwarf, and Oxyzeron made short work of another arachnid horror.

Realizing the power of the invasion, the Spider blurred himself and retreated. It didn't however, manage to save him two rounds later, when the professor and Delvin moved up to bash at him. Yet again, shield saved him, but when the dragonborn warlock unleashed his Witch Bolt, the force lightning crippled the drow and sent him to his swift, electrifying death.

And then everything went silent...

All that remains...

So, the heroes concluded the mines...really quickly. It's kind of amazing they skipped out so much of it and just went straight for the boss, but hey; it happens. They seemed just as puzzled about it as I did, and yet we decided to spend the rest of the session by them exploring some random rooms along the way out. They had an encounter with a wraith and the new beholder-kin; the spectator. A notoriously new take on the beholders as we know them, and I'm sure he would've been really awesome, if only I knew how to roll my dice properly.

Long story short, we wrapped up the adventure by the heroes returning to town to greet their old friend Gundren, who was thrilled to hear of their success. Not long after, they set out with Sildar to claim the lost riches. It turned out to be a huge profit for all of them, enough for the heroes to retire and live happily ever after; making Phandalin a prosperous town – stronger than it had ever been!

A general review...

So ends our playthrough of the Lost Mine of Phandelver and even though I've kind of tried to make this into a running review, I still think it's in order to sit down and make share some of my impressions of the adventure. As usual, I'll do the Good, the Bad and What you should prepare as a GM.

On the positive side, which is by far the heaviest side, I love this adventure. It's great for starters; seeing as the plot is relatively simple and it starts out with a rather high pace and keeps it there for quite some time. Also, it involves several opportunities for people to get to learn more about the Realms and the various factions in it. While neither the factions nor the background of the players don't seem to play that huge of a role, it's still great to feel part of the bigger world around you.

The encounters are many and plentiful; most of them have meaning and will certainly challenge your players a great deal. One can argue that some of them may be pushing it a bit, especially during the first two levels, but still; if you're up for the challenge, this is cleverly put together. Also, a lot of them offers different approaches. In fact, you're almost encouraged to think out of the box. My players took the direct way several times and were punished for it – had I more luck with my rolls, they would have been TPK'ed at least twice. I love how the variety comes into place; as long as you're transparent to your players about it.

The little amount of artwork is good and the maps nice. In general, none of the scenes and parts of the adventure seemed too long to me. The dungeons are mostly short, compared to what you may be used to if you come from the Paizo official campaigns, and the handful of side quests in chapter two and three are short enough to be handled quickly and still be memorable. This is another great way to introduce your players to the system, as most of them feature different usage of skills.

My favorite part has to be the arrival at Phandalin and dealing with the Red Brands. Finding out about the group, going around town and finally storming their hideout was not only fun, but also a break from the action that dominates most of the beginning.

On a bad note I didn't always understand decisions, such as why the final boss is so poorly designed. Also, it's a shame we're still dealing with the old wandering monster/random encounter table, now that there is so little reason to use it anymore. I touched upon this in a previous post, but it seemed kind of contrived.

The ruins of Thundertree was a bit of a low for me. Perhaps because my players were afraid of the dragon and avoided it, or that I really hate pointless encounters that pretty much say “But you need these XP's”. While most of the encounters in the adventure seem relevant and challenging, the walking flowers and zombies were more or less just speed bumps at this time, and the inclusion of the cult of the dragon seemed kind of off.

(Artwork from the adventure)
As a player, I'd likely whine about the challenge of some of the encounters. King Clarg, the Hobgoblins of Cragmaw, the Flame Skull and the Spectator and dragon are all quite lethal in their own rights, and often they're encountered in places where they can easily have backup if the players don't play it smart. You may need to try and get a good impression of the general level of your players and compare it to some of these, if you find party deaths and wipes annoying.

This is also worth noticing, if you're going to GM this adventure. There really aren't any ways to bring back dead characters in this adventure. I shoehorned in a couple of them, because I hate it when people start bringing in new characters all the time and it takes up time. But with things being so hard at times, you may want people to roll up, say two or three characters from the start and bring in.

I recommend you read through the story and then just go along with it. Experienced GM's should have very little difficulty running this module; perhaps even feeling a bit too coddled seeing as it's so politely written. As a newcomer (which is awesome!) simply lean back and follow the instructions. Decide how nice or cruel you want to be to your players in advance; there are plenty of opportunities for either. The adventure offers a lot of flexibility, so if you see anything you don't like you can usually change it or leave it out. The most important thing is they go from ambush-goblin caves-phandalin-manor dungeon-cragmaw castle-wave echo cave. Everything in between is up to you.

As for music, I mainly used the soundtrack from Divinity: Original Sin, but the one from Temple of Elemental Evil works great too. The Hommlet theme is great for Phandalin.

The verdict

Lost Mine of Phandelver is beyond doubt one of my favorite low-level-intro-adventures. It's smooth, interesting and offers clever opportunities a lot of the times. While the atmosphere may at times be lacking (which is why the first chapter of Carrion Crown is still my all time favorite) you get so much stuff for a rather limited price.

It's no secret that I absolutely LOVE D&D 5th edition so far, and if you're curious to get into it, rush out right now and buy this adventure with some friends. You won't regret it. Unless a bug bear one-shots you, but hey!

With this great result in mind, we're definitely looking forward to kick the dragon cultists' collective ass very soon!



Thanks for reading along.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 5 – "Storming the Castle"

Lost Mine of Phandelver Chapter 5 – "Storming the Castle"



We return once more to the wonderland that is the Forgotten Realms and the fantastic journey that is the Lost Mine of Phandelver. When we left the heroes, they were heading for the ruined town of Thundertree along with their newest ally, the dragonborn Oxyzeron. Hoping to seek counsel from the wise old druid, Reidoth, the heroes were eager to get on with their quest and rescue Gundren from Castle Cragmaw. Once they found it, that is.

As usual, the party consisted of Delvin the dwarven fighter, Father Fireforge the dwarven cleric, Oxyzeron the dragonborn warlock, Barian the elven wizard and Professor Grim, the human rogue. The heroes were all 4th level by the time. As usual, GM-comments are in blue.

Thunderstruck!

The heroes arrived in the old ruins of Thundertree after a long journey through the forest, luckily no interruptions from wandering monsters (as I mentioned in the previous post, I'm not a huge fan of those wandering monsters, so I may have forgot to roll from time to time...)
There was very little to see here, except for some crumbled old houses that witnessed of a town that once stood here. But by now, vines and the sign of times weighed heavily upon them. The heroes set off down the path to look closer, but were quickly ambushed by moans and the sounds of moving plants (don't ask me how...) as Ash-Zombies (yes, there were still people giggling the fourth time I spoke out this name) and animated plants crawled out to get them.

None of them were of much resistance to the heroes, and they soon after found Reidoth's house. The old druid bid them welcome and told them of recent trouble in the ruins; he'd not only witnessed the undead rising of late, but also cultists that were skulking around in the south-east and a green dragon that had settled down in the tower to the north. Asking the heroes to look into this, he promised he would reveal the location of the lost Wave Echo Cave to them. So they set out.

The heroes parleyed quickly with the green dragon, who was mildly amused by their presence. It promised them it would leave their pathetic hides alive, if they'd go and take care of the cultists in the south. So they headed down to the small building, kicked in the door, dragged out the cultists and slew them all. (This was surprisingly quick, they barely had time to realize they were cultists from the Cult of the Dragon. )

Reporting back to Reidoth, they learned of the location of the cave, even though the druid was somewhat saddened that they dared not take care of the dragon. But hey, they made him the glorious promise that they would return if he ever needed help with it. (Which would be, right about now...)

"Dear heroes! A dragon is in our town!!"
 And thus they headed out to rescue Gundren from Castle Cragmaw!

(They stay in Thundertree was really short and it's probably my least favorite part of the adventure. The encounters here a mainly very easy and well below the expected powers of the players. Mind you, I ran this with five people so that's likely the core of it. There are a few places to see in the ruins, but most of them are ruins and not that exciting unless you're into that sort of thing. The cult seems strangely shoehorned in; perhaps it's a prelude to the Hoard of the Dragon Queen? Either way, my heroes didn't get the jump on the dragon, which was kind of sad, because it seems like a huge challenge. As written, the heroes only have to shave half of its hit points before it flees, but before that they're looking down for some serious pain. We're looking at 6D6+12+2d10 points of damage if all of its +7 attacks hit in a round, and add a snap of breath attacks to that for 12D6? Ouch.)

Castle Crashing

The journey to Castle Cragmaw wasn't long, and the heroes knew very little of it. They knew that King Grol kept their friend as a prisoner, and that he had a fondness for strange beasts.
Coming up on the castle, it was around midday and even in its fallen state, it was a grand sight to behold in the midst of the forest, with all its spires and surrounding, empty moat. A small set of stairs led up to the main entrance, along with several arrow slits keeping watch along the edges.

Taking their time to inspect it, the heroes noticed that from time to time, a goblin would peer out from the slit and then return to his duty. The front entrance seemed like a bad idea, so they took the long route around to scout. Remaining in the safety of the undergrowth, they noticed a small staircase at the side of the castle, leading up to a small door. So they decided to take the opportunity, sent Delvin jumping over the moat with a rope, followed by the rest. The mighty Oxyzeron, however, tried to brachiate his way across, but the weight of the proud beast sent him falling.

Which pretty much describes the main battle shout whenever my heroes try anything involving climbing...


At that time they heard the sound of arguing goblins coming from one of the slits; it sounded as if quite a gathering of them were inside and they were busy cleaning up, cooking and arguing among themselves. Holding their breath, the heroes saw them drop some old dish washing water from the edge, splashing the dragonborn, who managed to hold a wrathful roar inside. Eventually, they made their way up to the door and prepared themselves.

They're coming outta goddamned walls!

They snug inside and entered an almost collapsed corridor with a couple of doors and fallen walls. They heard the sound of arguing goblins to the south and some grumpy voices behind the door to the north. Deciding they might as well get into trouble sooner or later, the heroes bashed in the door to the south and took the goblins by surprise. (They'd worked so hard for this so they kind of deserved it). The small green men screamed but didn't have a chance to take up arms, before the savage adventurers stormed in and started slaughtering left and right. They barely noticed that this seemed like the official dining hall, and a large goblin cook was about to give orders.

Adventurers always have a great time with goblins
 Two of the goblins ran away, screaming for help, and soon, yells of “Forward march!” ecchoed from the south and north. Hobgoblins were advancing from both sides, and the party had split their attention, with Delvin and the Professor keeping watch in one end of the room, while Oxyzeron, Fireforge and Barian were advancing to the south. As five hobgoblins advanced on them, the goblins rallied behind them and took up bows to fire volleys on the unfortunate adventurers. Delvin and the Professor managed to slay the two hobgoblins to the north without much hazzle. The remaining three to the south went on a rampage, however, and sliced through Oxyzeron, continued to main Father Fireforge and were barely halted as Delvin and the Professor moved inside the room. Delvin did his best to taunt them off, but seeing how the squishy rogue was a better target, the hob's went for him and inflicted a death save on him.
And sadly, on the following turn, he rolled a 1 to stabilize.

  
(The hobgoblins are likely some of the most lethal non-boss minions in the adventure. With an AC of 18 and their +2D8 damage bonus on a successful strike, these guys can make short work of most adventurers. I imagine that a party needs to be very stealthy during this approach, if they don't want to do the mass pull my players did. The adventure itself suggests infiltration as mercenaries, which was an option I was surprised my players didn't consider. Either way, they made their way pass and took the combaty solution. I was surprised there weren't anymore casualties.)

The heroes made a tactical retreat out of the castle to take a short rest in the forest. They dragged along the Professor and discussed what to do, seeing as the road back was long. So they decided to press the advantage and return to the castle.

(The adventure comes up with some good suggestions if the heroes retreat. I made sure that the patrol and the captain of the guard would return; a hobgoblin with his wolves and soldiers, and they found the carnage, released the owlbear and hit in the old storeroom so they could ambush the heroes. They removed the bodies of the fallen goblins and made a false trail of blood to a trapped door, waiting for the heroes to release it.)

And so they did...

The heroes immediately found the trail of blood and were puzzled by who could've moved the bodies (they also realized they'd forgot to loot them in the first place trololol). They noticed a trail of blood leading up to one of the main doors of the keep and decided to follow it. Which resulted in a collapsing ceiling the moment they pulled open the door...

 (I love this trap. It's so annoying.)

By then they heard the all too familiar sound of an approaching owlbear, and it was pissed. It charged the crushed heroes and whacked Father Fireforge unconscious. Perhaps the heroes' dice were furious, but they smashed the owlbear quickly.

Grumbling and mumbling, the heroes took the long way around from the smashed ceiling, still broken and battered, and returned to the main hallway. They noticed a small corridor, that someone had attempted to block with an old linen-sheet and naturally decided to enter. An old store room was on the other side, containing several crates and casks with vine, along with a wide crack to the exterior of the castle. This too was camouflaged by an old grey blanket, so the heroes decided to take their time and investigate. Unfortunately, none of their passive perceptions were good enough to notice the hiding hobgoblins and their wolves. Surprise round!

The heroes were down one man for this fight, but the use of Crowd Control was impressive. Opening with an Arms of Hadar (which I always name Arms of Hodor, just because) the beasts were fiercely battered by dark tentacles from below, and even though they'd gotten the drop on the heroes, they rolled really poorly on their attacks. With a fairy fire on top to tip the scales, the heroes began slaughtering and followed through with the warlock's fairy presence, two of the hobgoblins were sent running in terror. In the third round, the goblin cleric and his Grick entered the fight. At this time, however, things were very well under control, and the goblin soon fell to a Sleep spell and after some battering, the Grick was slain by a Witch Bolt. Final Fantasy victory fanfare.

 (This was another huge pull, one I didn't expect the heroes to survive, yet, they managed to surprise me. Most of these people are veteran players who know their way around D&D ever since the AD&D 2nd ed times, and making the most of crowd control is imperative. As mentioned; both Fairy Fire and Sleep are very powerful controller and debuffers early on and can really make or break the difference against those AC 18 mobs.)

Usurpers!

Searching the corpses this time, the heroes found some spoils of war, and among them a scroll to bring back life to the poor Professor. The heroes had it with this motherfucking dungeon, so they went to the nearest biggest door and kept at it till they finally crashed into the throne room of King Grol. He was, needless to say, happy to see them and kept his growling dire wolf close as he spoke. He taunted the heroes for their lack of disrespect and butchering his forces. However, he was a kind king and he would grant them mercy, if only they would trade for the life of their comrade, Gundren. The king pointed to the unconscious dwarf in the corner, who seemed to have lost a lot of blood. There was a bit of haggling between the two parties, but in the end the stubborn adventurers insisted they would take Gundren and leave this place, perhaps being merciful and sparing the foul-smelling king. Grol met this with a roar and hurled himself at them, unleashing his direwolf to join in on the fight.
Steel clashed against steel, and in the midst, suddenly the injured Gundren jumped up and with amazing speed ran towards the nearest adventurer, stabbing him in the chest for immense damage. The dwarf giggled like a maniac and the heroes realized this wasn't Gundren. His face warped and changed, and the tide of battled shifted for quite some rounds, before Delvin split the wolf's head in two, and the fairy fired Grol met his doom to a spiritual weapon.

(Grol doesn't seem like such a hard fight, all in all. He's pretty much an ordinary bugbear. If you want to make him a tad bit more dangerous, however, I had an idea later. If the heroes make the hit-and-run too much in the castle, only to retreat back into the forest, allow the roaming patrol the adventure mentions to return back to the castle and let Grol and his captain go on a hunting trip. They aren't specialists at stealth, yet it's entirely possible that Grol, the wolves and perhaps some goblins can sneak up on the characters and get in a very nasty surprise round. Buggies strike very hard on their surprise, and Grol would really seem like the kind of guy who'd take pleasure in doing that!
Besides from that, Cragmaw is not an easy place to. It's on the borderlands where the heroes are not as squishy as right off the bat, yet there are some menacing creatures that can and will likely challenge them a whole lot. If you run this with only four people, I imagine it will be a somewhat hard time, seeing as my five players struggled a bit along the way.)

The heroes recuperated and searched the throne room. They found some treasure and a hidden door, that lead to an old prison in which the battered and tortured Gundren was kept. He was missing several fingers and toes, struck with disease and couldn't tell reality from fantasy. So they decided to get the hell out of there and head back towards Phandalin.

And they knew that now waited only one thing. The journey towards the Wave Echo Cave, and the final confrontation with The Spider...

To be continued in the final chapter: “The spider!”