THE WORST THING ABOUT D&D
Forgotten Realms was the worst thing to happen to D&D, a terrible setting that reeks of bathos and takes itself far too seriously. It plunders everything cliched and overused from Tolkien but abandons all the strange sadness and the mythological references. It fills the land with huge civilized bastions of good/order like Waterdeep and exhaustively defines their systems of governance, but allows these nations to be plagued by trifling enemies like goblin tribes. Forgotten Realms embraces a pedantic faux-medievalism, but then uses a contemporary positivist understanding to explain magic that allows for cutesy magical technology to gloss over the inconvenient aspects of the pre-modern. Most offensively, most objectionably, Forgotten Realms is a dense, full, world - so steeped in cliched lore and laid out so extensively in dull gazetteers that there is no room for a GM's creativity without excising some of the existing setting and map.
I'm not here to talk about Forgotten Realms, except as a symptom, it will always be terrible. I'm here because I've been reading the 5th edition's introductory module Lost Mines of Phandelver
. I start with my objections to Forgotten Realms, because I think they are the root of the module's considerable problems. That and a player coddling, computer role-playing game derived game design ethos that limits player choice and insults player intelligence in the name of providing a consistent play experience. Many people love this module, I do not. It's not the worst thing I've ever read, it's not even close to as bad as Dragons of Flame
, but its positive design and structure elements are mired in a pablum of fantasy cliche so bland that it makes for one wish for even Dragonlance's feeble gestures towards the weird and the wonderful. Fifth Edition has a certain promise to players of older editions with a step back from grid based complex combat as the center of the game, towards exploration and roleplay, and Lost Mines
could be intended to be an introduction to this style of play. However, as a 'teaching' module Lost Mines
is confused wreck, giving good advice about avoiding railroads one moment and then on the next page making every effort to railroad the characters. As a tool for Dungeons & Dragons pedagogy its never more then half decent and for every time it says the right words it demonstrates the concepts very badly.
LOST MINES OF PHANDELVER
|Hey look a Dragon|
A glossy and sometimes lovely book with maps and art that are both inoffensive and excellently drafted. The art is relatively sparse and frequently seems designed for reuse, not showing actual events or NPC from the adventure, but rather generic fantasy monsters and vanilla fantasy adventuring archetypes engaging in non-specific adventuring tasks. In fact not a single art piece within depicts an actual event from the adventure - it's as if everything was designed to be recycled in later publications. Even the cover is a generic adventurers and dragon sort of image, yet the art and layout are inviting,simple and certainly professional looking - more digital watercolor, bland but with a bit less of the shiny over sized shoulder armor or 'dungeon punk' aesthetic of some other editions. Something a bit more characterful would be nice, but everything in its soft pastels, greys and browns is readable, clean and offers no challenges for the reader.
The adventure itself is fairly long, broken into four episodes, some with multiple small keyed locations. These sections begin to feel rushed and more poorly designed as the adventure progresses, but none are unusable. First there is a section of general advice and plot overview, followed by a goblin ambush and lair, then a town with bandit trouble. Finally some other small locations, one with a dragon, a castle of goblins, and ultimately a cave complex with the regional evil mastermind hard at work exploring within.
PLAY ADVICE AND INTRODUCTION
In a way this short section of advice and suggestions for playing Lost Mine
and D&D more generally is one of the most interesting parts of the adventure. The advice in introductory modules is always a window into the game designer's mind and the system's preferred play style. In general I have enjoyed the 5th Edition of D&D's expressions of support for less structured, non-adversarial play, with more GM control and a focus on rulings and creative solutions to in game problems. The advice in Lost Mine
follows this pattern with explicit and early cautions against adversarial play and encouragement towards fairness and adjudication rather then rules mastery.
There is little specific advice in this section, and while it's friendlier then the introduction to something like Keep on the Borderlands
(a pure expression of that Gygaxian impartial actuary of death play style) it also has less advice on running the game, running monsters and thinking about the world - in many more pages. What advice Phandelver
offers however is refreshingly positive and encourages the sort of creative group story telling that only table top role playing games can deliver. It just fails to give many practical examples of this, or worse, when it does the actual adventure provided tramples all over its ideals in favor of a squishy railroad, moral judgment of player goals and forced novelistic pacing.
The hooks and background of Lost Mine
uninteresting - ancient mine, pact between gnomes and dwarves, and a magical forge that produced wondrous enchanted items. Of course orcs smashed it up at some point and it was forgotten. People keep trying to find the rumored treasure mine, but no one has in hundreds of years, until now - all despite its convenient location. This whole hook makes my skin itch, but worse is the disheartening level of vanilla fantasy, rulebook obsessing detail it's described with. The invading evil army is of course orcs, and of course Lost Mines has to add that 'evil mercenary wizards' were also involved. Dwarves and Gnomes are of course the original owners of the cave, and somehow lost all their maps when the mine was overrun. Why do only dwarves and gnomes ever have mines, why do ancient NPC orcs need human wizards, and why must it always be orcs destroying things. First rewrite.
"The ancient rock spirits of the Wave Echo Cave produced marvelous magical gems, occasionally trading them to the primitive tribal peoples of the Coast, but as civilization grew the spirits retreated into their wondrous mine and traded less and less. The folly of civilization is to believe it can overpower the world, and enraged by the end of trade, armies from the growing city states banded together to seize the spirits' mine and enslave it's diminutive fey workers. A great battle was fought and both mines and armies destroyed, the land around them called cursed. The surviving kings and leaders destroyed the knowledge of their defeat and the mines' sealed entrances soon became a legend. A local sage claims to have rediscovered an entrance to the caves.
This is really the first example of the core problem with Lost Mine
, every situation, encounter or description that could be drained of weirdness, mystery and wonder has been and most have instead been remade with the dullest versions of standard fantasy tropes the designers could find. This problem becomes worse as the quality of the encounters and dungeons decrease in the adventure's later half. Another example of this lethal blandness is the way Lost Mines
uses names. They are terrible fantasy names for the most part. The initial player hook comes from a Dwarf named "Gundrun Rockseeker" - seriously? Sure this is a fantasy cliche, but worse it's incredibly unmemorable and everyone else in here has similar terrible fantasy names - the villains "Irno 'Glassstaff' Alberk" and "Nezznar the Black Spider" as well as heroes like "Silldar Hallwinter". Gad, these are just hard to remember and overflowing with gratuitous fake Tolkien flavor.
NPC names are important, but they should be memorable, as players will need to remember a lot of them to keep the story straight - especially if the adventure doesn't provide them with any memorable features (The dwarf merchant with the eye-patch is a lot easier to distinguish from other dwarves of business then "Gundrun Rockseeker"). The names provided aren't without some virtue - they tend to have good, simple, memorable elements sandwiched between nonsense fantasy sounds. "The Black Spider" is a fine name for a villain as is "Glasstaff" - no need to add names that are impossible to remember and obey grammatical rules for fictional languages not involved in the adventure. Tolkien, as a linguist and obsessive world builder could get away with strange fantasy names because they were: A) In a novel, and not important to the reader's immediate understanding or the way the story evolved. B) Part of an entire structure of fantasy languages, so they made sense in a way with an internal fantasy logic. The worst offenders, Tolkien's elven names, were mitigated through the use of a large amount of elven poetry and loan words throughout the text. Lost Mines
does not create an entire fictional language, and as such it should keep its names fairly close to real world names or as rough translations. The cultural importance of names (what naming conventions say about different cultures) can be preserved without resort to piles of funny consonants, for example if you want your dwarves to be business obsessed and orderly each dwarven name is structured [inherited profession] [Employer] [Serial Number] followed by a nickname, like "Rockseeker, Blue Mine, 1251, but everyone calls me One Eye." A dwarf adventurer might be named "Axegrinder, Solo, 000" and nicknamed "Cutter" or whatever. Simple names used in a way that imply a strange world are better then strange names that imply a cliched world.
On a more positive note, the mechanical design of Lost Mine
is generally decent. For example the background of the adventure is relatively concise and doesn't go into a great deal of detail (about that of the paragraph above) about unnecessary ancient events that have no impact on the adventure itself. There's about a page and a half detailing the regional present, and the situation that the players will get themselves into, but not ancient history and pointless storytelling.I note this because it is rare in WotC's never products which tend to be like Dicken's novels, giving the feeling of having been packed with pointless superfluous data to reach a specific page count.