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|
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.
GOBLINS - WHY ALWAYS GOBLINS
There's actually no hook in the classic sense in Lost Mines, it almost begins in scene - one of the best ways to start a new campaign. I shouldn't say there's no hook, like most things in Phandelver, there's a gesture towards good game design, and then a snail-like retreat into the shell of cliche and vanilla fantasy. The adventure suggests letting the players figure out why they might be heading to a little town in the hills, and really the adventure begins on the road - so who's to say Phandelan is where they were heading - but then the module backs up and provides the most cliched, overused and weakest hook in RPG history - caravan guards. Yes the characters might be hired to guard a caravan, and anyone who has been alive and absorbed any fantasy RPG media since 1980 will guess what happens next. Goblin ambush ... always.
This is not a positive part of the adventure, and despite the suggestion on the page before that the sub-optimal, lazy way to start Lost Mines is with a caravan escort, the adventure assumes that this is what the players and GM have elected to do. There's even a huge box of dull read along text about a mysterious dwarf merchant and his darn wagon. The Dwarf and his escort, a warrior named Silldar, aren't described - they are just "a dwarf merchant" and "a warrior", while the behavior of the oxen pulling the wagon is subject to a mini rule (they will stop unless someone holds the reins) that is entirely useless given that there is unlikely to be any ox wagon chase scene.
Failure to provide interesting description for NPCs and monsters is a huge problem in Lost Mines and a bad lesson to new GMs. Description - a memorable appearance, a funny accent, odd use of language or anything else that the GM can come up with is incredibly important both to giving players a way to remember an NPC and a reason to care about their fate. Likewise, monsters are reduced to ever more boring cliches if their only description is a name from a monster guide. A "goblin" is a vaguely defined monster that low level adventurers are supposed to kill. A "4' tall thing with mottled white and lavender skin, vague drooping features, four ropy, ill matched limbs and a musty fungal odor" is a mystery to be unraveled (many people are fond of goblins as fungus - one could just as easily go moleman, evil red capped gnome, walking maggot). Even cliched goblins with pointed features and squeaky voices are better if described as such - rather then simply introduced as "goblins" and Lost Mine despite including monsters of some variety never bothers with description.
After the NPCs are not introduced (despite some box text) there is the entirely predictable goblin ambush, and this is where the design of Lost Mines starts to fall apart. There's only four darn goblins - four goblins vs. 4-5 PCs (which I understand may be a general 5E power curve issue). If I were a goblin I wouldn't spring that ambush at those odds, but of course they do. The adventure includes all sorts of reminders about how to run the combat - but has the reader go to the appendix to review the goblin's stats. This is bad design, inexplicable since WOTC is so fond of side bars and should give me a sidebar for these goblins to help me run my first combat encounter, not just a wall of text that casually notes the goblins' numbers and makes no reference to their names, appearance or equipment. The instructions on running the combat - two goblins rush forward to be surrounded and hacked to pieces by 3-6 PCs and two NPCs while two others stand nearby firing on the melee that includes their fellows - are uninspiring, but presumably these goblins lack the tactical imagination of a band of 9 year-olds and have never heard the phrase "Stand and Deliver". 5E doesn't seem to have morale rules so the fight continues until three goblins are dead, when the last one automatically flees down a nice little railroad.
Yet from this inauspicious start the quality of advice and adventure improves - nominally. There's ideas presented for what a captured goblin might know. There's also that hint of railroading though. Lost Mine depends on the party investigating the goblin lair, and finding out about the lost mine so despite the outward appearance of a sandbox it weaves in a path and tries to force the players back onto it. If the party beats up the goblins, laughs and move on to Phandalin they discover their patron is missing, presumed kidnapped by goblins - yawn. The players are expected to return to the ambush spot and track the goblin they were meant to follow.
My issues with this set up, beyond the obvious tacky aesthetic choice of goblins and dull tactics involved in the ambush, is the assumption that the players care remotely about the fate of their employer. He promised them 10GP each to deliver the wagon. He's gone, the characters now have a wagon, two oxen and 100 GP of mining supplies. It seems to me that the party has come out ahead on the deal with Gundrun - why risk their lives fighting goblins in the woods to lose money?
Needless to say, the adventure really wants the players to find that goblin cave - it's an introductory dungeon adventure. Note that Keep on the Borderlands has no 'starter' dungeon or 'tutorial level' - the characters just get to a keep and are released onto a sandbox that contains the Caves of Chaos, where they might decide to walk right into a Minotaur lair. To me this is a far better introduction to tabletop games then spoon-feeding new players a cave exploration against the weakest opposition one can imagine. Let them know they can do anything, and that they aren't stuck on one path, but that this means they can easily do themselves in - then see where they take it.
So with some chagrin here's how I'd reskin this mess:
Seeker Stone-college 732 is a dwarf scholar and explorer who is heading South along the same route the party is, he's a tough looking, one-eyed dwarf leading a pony piled in exploration equipment and wearing a dual purpose mattock/war hammer chased with silver across his back. A secretive but inoffensive traveling companion Seeker keeps to himself. At the end of the first day of travel he wants to press on past an obvious stopping point as he's in a hurry to get to Phandalin. Six travelers are already at the campsite, a band of pilgrims heading to a holy spot high in the mountains (heck maybe they are elves or some nonsense - whatever). The campers beckon the party over and they can chose between warm camp and obsessive dwarf.
If they chose the dwarf the group is ambushed by hill men bandits - say 22 of them, lean men with long hair and necklaces of carved antler that fight well with cord-backed antler bows, war clubs and spears. They aren't hardened professionals, and they aren't especially murderous. A flight of arrows from the woods and maybe one rush of warriors to try to grab anyone who's down along with any animals. They will accept surrender (Seeker won't surrender all his gear, but will give up the pony and a chunk of the supplies he carries) but want metal weapons, and equipment - they care little about money. If the party fights they can likely chase off the hillmen - who really want to avoid casualties and are a bit frightened of magic. Seeker will be thankful and may offer the party a job later. Most likely he'll lose his pony and the job will be to help him get that pony back (It has an ancient map on it to the mine).
If the party chooses to camp they will hear stories about hillman bandits (and maybe rush off to save Seeker), spend the night in peace and in the morning find the sight of a fight, with a few broken arrows (hillman arrows anyone local can tell them from the antler bone points) a few miles down the track. There's a pool of blood in the road, and a mess of papers seemingly dumped from Seekers packs stuck in the brambles. Within these papers is a crude map of great age. Players can't read it unless they include a highly skilled dwarf sage (You could give them a handout though to try to puzzle out).
The town will happily encourage the party to commit hillman genocide - they have an idea where their sacred cave is. Also they pay for hillman hands - the right ones. The Hillmen though aren't really evil though... Welcome to the Frontier.
THE GOBLIN CAVE
The Goblin cave is a small six area map, but the map itself has a nice bit of verticality and looping that is rather impressive for something so small. The introduction, listing the general descriptions and the knowledge of the inhabitants is good as well. It's a bit simplistic though - goblins are intelligent and these ones are militarized, led by a bugbear and working for a king. They should have a battle plan of some kind. Likewise an order of battle for the cave inhabitants would be excellent rather then the offhanded inclusion of goblin number in each keyed area. Again the lack of any kind of statistics is frustrating. This is sloppy design that makes using Lost Mine harder, especially for a novice GM - it's also a missed opportunity to teach new GMs that intelligent foes tend not to wait around in their individual lairs to fight plundering parties of adventurers (i.e. how to avoid the "monster zoo").
|Why is it always goblins?|
On the plus side the flood trap is itself a fun and good environmental trap and the possibility of negotiating with a goblin who wants to lead the band is a good one. It's also notable that while the entire point of this episode is to reveal the existence of fabulous treasure in the mines, the prisoner who can provide these hooks the best is near death and may easily die if the players don't make a shady deal with the goblin second in command. The willingness to include this possibility and not give the prisoner some sort of plot immunity is laudable, and makes me question why the adventure previously puts so much effort into getting the party into the goblin lair (unless its because the adventure assumes the party must make that deal). The lair can wait, Lost Mines has all the elements of a sandbox, but seems uncomfortable with this. Any good GM should embrace the sandbox possibilities and break up the railroad. The party may go directly from ambush to goblin cave to town and on, but it doesn't need to.
There's another strange assumption of character goodness at the end of this adventure section. The goblin leader's cave is filled with stolen supplies and while correctly noting the bulk of the supplies and the need for a wagon to move them, the adventure assumes that the supplies will be returned to some unknown merchant house in Phandalin for a pitiful reward of 50GP. This is nonsense. Easy enough to fix, but hardly a likely resolution. Most players will sell the supplies rather then return them for reward. Of course some discussion of how annoyed the local merchants may become if the party floods the local market with stolen supplies might be in order, along with stats for the thugs the merchants will hire to dish out some frontier justice to the clearly larcenous party. The rest of the goblin treasure is decently described, though I have no love for the sort of setting that hands out healing potions like candy.
Reskinning the cave as a hillman sacred cenote and the prisoner as having seen the stolen pony with Rockseeker's map presumably still on it or a raving Rockseeker (and overhearing some of his plans to find the mine) carried off after a brief stop would be rather easy, but I would certainly make the fanatical hillman cult here a bit better organized. Since they are human and have somewhat understandable goals (killing all the intruders on their land - the entire town of Phandalin) the possibility of negotiation might be more obvious as well.
THE TOWN AND BANDITS
Making up towns is tricky, they are instantly identifiable to players, as most of us have an innate grasp of a community of humans living together, but making them interesting without becoming the focus of the campaign is a tightrope of sorts.
Phandalin has a nice general description - a rough frontier outpost built on the ruins of an ancient town, lawless and run by a bandit gang. The map is pretty (as are all the maps in Lost Mine) but it looks like a prototypical 'village' map and doesn't really match the description of a frontier town atop ancient ruins. As a setting Phandelin is the typical Western frontier mining town in a fantasy guise, which is fun. It's also a couple of days from a bustling powerful city state - which is weird - where are the foresters/soldiers of the local lord, or the guards of the merchant concern that set up such an outpost? Who taxes Phandalin and why aren't they around?
The description itself of overgrown ancient foundations and vibrant brawling new life is fine, though a bit more contrast between tumbled marble columns and rough dusty streets of drunken prospectors having their boots stolen by local children might be a nice touch. Also a unique text box for the one line "Let's find an Inn" that the rescued NPC might say is a waste, and one emblematic of Lost Mine's odd devotion to an antiquated house style. Yes, all this sounds like a nitpick - but it's emblematic of the decent design, bland setting problem of this module - the NPC's reactions to the town are worth noting if they are special, but finding an inn is not a clue or even a bit of color worth noting. Maybe if he knew the inn's stew would give the party food poisoning or something, but as is this is a pointless waste of space.
Following Lost Mine's tradition of almost good design philosophy in the shabbiest most cliched of dressing, the town has a few point-crawl style locations and a sidebar of NPCs. The locations of course have no evocative detail despite having a paragraph each. The Inn for example is a "large newly built roadhouse of field stone and rough hewn timbers" - exactly like every other boring nondescript fantasy inn ever to appear in a pay to win phone game. It begs the question - how can a hardscrabble mountain town in a pre-industrial society afford the nails (each individually hammered out by hand) and imported timber, let alone the skilled labor, to raise a large 17th century style inn? Sure maybe that's being mean/pedantic to whine about - but wouldn't it be interesting if there'd been three seconds of thought here and the inn was something like:
"The ruins of a granary once tiled blue and red serve as an inn. Two of inn's dry stone walls look new, supported by spindly local tree trunks, and its sagging domed roof is pocked with hide patched holes."
Every inn need not be a 17th century English coaching inn, every inn need not serve ale and cider and every farmer need not have a hayloft for adventurers to rest in. The town rumor and quest givers are also provided in a decent manner, but consist of local gossip rather then anything truly interesting. Each rumor isn't a hook, so much as an explanation of who else in town might provide a quest, and none of the rumors add local color or an evocative detail. There is no need to have distinct 'questgivers' along with rumors - NPCs should have goals and/or represent factions, not simply exist to hand out plot chits that allow the party to proceed to the next stage of an adventure.
The NPC sidebar represents another odd juxtaposition of almost right falling into irksome. A side bar lists the important NPCs about town, but provides nothing beyond an immediately forgotten fantasy name and the note that they have a quest for the party. Some description might have really saved this waste of space, and the descriptions are later provided in the individual town locations, but a simple list of names with "has a quest for party" behind them is useless.
The town is menaced by toughs, and they will show up and take the party's measure.
The Redbrand bandits could be a lovely addition to the adventure - bandit lords of the small town, but then Phandelver has to make them an enemy to fight instead of a distasteful faction. Lost Mines makes the Dragonlance mistake about moral play, by making evil something that must be confronted in 'heroic' combat rather then the everyday banality of vice and human failing. It should be easier to get along and let the Redbrand engage in their revolting parody of governance then to confront them. It should be more profitable to work with them if one can prove one's strength then to root them out. The decision to be moral should come with complications and take fortitude rather then being the most simple solution with the most benefit. Think of the movie "Yojimbo" (or "Fistful of Dollars") where the adventuring tough guy shows up in a bandit plagued town and his heroism is defined by making the hard decision to help the poor and helpless rather then support one of the bandit gangs and make a solid payday. It might even be that the Redbrands, as the only armed, organized force in town, are protecting Phandalin - for their own benefit sure - but with a nearby goblin army and Green Dragon even thuggish protectors are better then leaving the town ripe for plunder and destruction.
In Phandelver though the Redbrands will always attack, and only four of them bother to do it. Again this is video game logic designed to create an adventure path rather then trusting the GM with the information to create a functional faction. It is terrible. The Redbrands are presumably not suicidal, and even though they may think they are tough, they must realize that recruiting random armed strangers, shaking them down or otherwise neutralizing them is far better then risking injury and death by simply attacking them. If they are going to attack, shouldn't they be smart about it? Kick down the doors of the inn where the party are staying in in the middle of the night. Burn down the farmer's barn where they are camping. Jump them in an alley on a six to one basis. Anything but confront them in full view of the town in small numbers and then cower in their hideout until the adventurers come to clear it room by room. Like I said - a terrible waste of opportunity for roleplay, character development and schemes.
The Redbrand Hideout is another small dungeon, the cellars beneath an old manor. It has a well designed map with one level and some verticality, broken up by secret doors and a chasm. The rooms are generally sensible and naturalistic but the whole thing suffers form approaching a raid on an intelligent enemy's lair in the same manner as running a classic exploration dungeon crawl - it's another 'monster zoo'. General description and a sidebar of what the inhabitants know about the region make up it's introduction, but again an order of battle or idea of how the bandits will react to invasion is not provided. The Redbrands post no guards and take no action even if the party murders a bunch of them in town.
Positive elements of this dungeon include a pit trap, the nothic - a hideous monster that wants to make a deal, and the inclusion of secret doors. Even these good elements are crippled by poor design choices and paltry. For example, the lack of actual description of the secret doors or their triggering mechanisms, beyond a general caution that they are made of stone and require some sort of skill check to find is disappointing - an artifact of 5E's over reliance on a skill system rather then role playing. The nothic is a neat enemy, but it doesn't make much sense why it's in the dungeon - a demon summoned by Glasstaff or an undead entity would both make more sense.
I'd say how I'd reskin this but I'm just so tired of Phandelver that I give up - I am tired of Lost Mines stupid fantasy cliches and its bloodless box text. I won't rewrite the whole module here. All I can suggest is that I'd reskin the town by making it not terrible and putting in NPCs and factions. That's how I'd reskin it - but I'd really just toss the entire module out the window (rather burn it so some deluded child doesn't find it and ruin D&D for themselves by running it) and run Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Deep Carbon Observatory or Slumbering Ursine Dunes instead - anything but the burdensome, sickeningly sweet, uncreative gruel of the Forgotten Realms. Seriously - Dragonlance has better world building and is less tiresome. Giving me paragraph after paragraph of rote fantasy hill country is about the dullest thing I've read in months, and I have to read statutes and the tax code for pay sometimes. No more reskin! Phandelver doesn't deserve it - literally anything you, as a creative person excited about running D&D, can think up will be more evocative.
THE ALMOST SANDBOX PART
The town of Phandalin offers several missions for various NPCs, all designed to get the characters entangled with several regional organizations. It's nice to see the 'evil' Zhentarian included, but in general these organizations fall into the typical 'mysterious good order dedicated to protecting the innocent'. The little adventures themselves represent the best part of Lost Mines, a variety of small locations, lairs or encounters to explore, sometimes connected to the main Wave Echo Cave/Lost Mine plot. None of these lairs include a map, but these do have some interesting content, and also have the first random encounter table of the adventure. It's a dull enough random encounter table - just a list of monsters without any context or evocative features, though the hobgoblin bounty hunters approach interesting at least, still it's an unplanned random element that might shake up the carefully laid but largely unnecessary 'adventure path' structure of Lost Mine's beginning sections. Also there's an owlbear, and I love owlbears. The only unfortunate element of these small quests is that they aren't actually presented as part of sandbox exploration - all locations in Phandelver are linked to clues or quests in a mechanism that would feel more at home in a video game (where a new adventure locale fades onto the map after getting a specific quest), though I suppose this is easy for any GM who is aware of sandbox style play to fix. A larger and related issue is that the locations make only mediocre one-time sandbox encounters, each representing a quest problem to be solved rather then a landmark, faction or encounter to be found that helps explain or describe the setting as a whole.
The first small location is the town of Conyberry, a ruined town with the haunted bower of a banshee nearby. Little is explained, but the scene seems evocative enough and the banshee encounter itself is fine, an opportunity for the party to have a single question answered by a spooky oracle, though it disappointingly comes down to a skill check rather then negotiation or role play making the banshee another rather two dimensional NPC.
Old Owl Well is a ruined tower, currently the camp of a necromancer and his zombie guards. The dark wizard is as good an NPC as Phandelver offers, being somewhat menacing, thoroughly mercenary and ultimately rather friendly, willing to trade information for favors. The adventure doesn't assume the party will leave the necromancer alone or even encourage it, succinctly providing enough information for any outcome with this interesting NPC.
Thundertree is another ruined town and is actually mapped with twelve keyed locations. My least favorite map so far, the village feels rather constrained and oddly laid out, but it's functional enough. Within Thundertree are a pack of evil twig monsters, an interesting zombie variation, giant spiders, a few dragon cultists and Lost Mine's best inclusion - a green dragon. The town is a gauntlet of monster ambushes with an NPC druid to warn the characters off and a green dragon hiding inside an ancient tower. The cultists are not immediately hostile, but plan a rather appropriate and obvious double cross. This whole section feels a bit dull and slapdash, a parade of monster encounters in featureless abandoned buildings, but it does include a dragon encounter which is a positive addition and allows me to forgive much, even if the dragon has no impact on the region as a whole or much of a personality.
Wyvern Tor is an orc camp, with seven orcs, an ogre and their leader. More a random encounter then a location it serves some purpose as a pack of enemies to kill on behalf of various NPCs but has nothing evocative to offer.
Cragmaw Castle is another goblin lair, home to the king of the goblins the party fought in Lost Mine's first section. The map is decent, though a small 13 rooms, the castle is interestingly designed as a series of round towers. For the first time in Lost Mines monster guards will alert their fellows of intruders, though again no defensive plan or list of the castle's defenders is provided. The castle is fairly boring, a series of thematically unconnected chambers that are filled with goblinoids and a couple of other monsters, additionally treasure in the castle is rather simplistic and boring - uncharacteristically so for the module which seems to make some efforts to include treasures beyond coinage. It's almost as with the Cragmaw Hideout and Wave Echo Cave the writers of Lost Mines were drained of any creative spark.
With these side adventures wrapped up or ignored the adventurers can move on to last section of the module - Wave Echo Cave.
|Not a bad map|
The primary villain of the Wave Echo Cave, and the mastermind behind the entire mess in the region of Phandalin is a drow adventurer with a silly fantasy name, also called the Black Spider. I absolutely approve of this villain except for the unnecessary and seemingly meaningless fact that he's a dark elf. A lone dark elf on the surface exploring for treasure and allied with goblins just seems unnecessarily complex. If one were to convert the goblins to angry human barbarians then an unscrupulous explorer or similar renegade makes a lot more sense. Even using goblins, there's something aggravating about the unnecessary inclusion of a random dark elf, much like the earlier random inclusion of his doppelganger assistant. Drow and shape-shifters should be mysterious and wonderful opponents with unfathomable goals from the utterly alien underdark, not just rival adventurers scrabbling for magical items. The elf is decently portrayed, a schemer and planner slowly pushing into the cave, and open to negotiation. Likewise the wraith that rules the cave's undead is described as an opportunity for roleplay rather than simply a potential opponent. This is Phandelver's best feature, an occasional enemy that the characters can talk to, and maybe proof that at its core it doesn't want to emulate the latest computer RPG. Still while Lost Mine takes weak steps in the direction, it seems so tentative, and so afraid to be a table top roleplaying adventure rather then a pen and paper version of a branching choice computer game that it's more depressing then inspiring.
The rest of the cave is a typical high fantasy dungeon crawl filled with the elf's evil bugbear minions and some undead. It tries to include interesting areas, and might even succeed on some level, but the utter predictable mediocrity of the Forgotten Realms setting, the painful calls to make DC checks to spot things, and the lack of any interesting backstory make it forgettable.
I have no idea why I read this. It is 63 pages of bland Forgotten Realms cliches, that barely deserves the name fantasy. It has the inspiration and creativity of a tablet tower defense game and not a single evocative description or interesting NPC characterization, it is thus everything I hate about fantasy as a genre, heroic cliches wrapped up in a bathetic shell of tissue thin 'lore' that feels intentionally obtuse and predictable. Yet it's not without positive elements, it's got some good bits of advice (that it doesn't itself take) and makes feeble efforts to push new players and GMs in the direction of creativity and problem solving rather then dice based combat mechanics. I'm not angry at Lost Mines of Phandelver, but I am exhausted and a bit sad.
I understand there's a lot of people who like this adventure, and a good GM might make it work beautifully. For me however there's no saving this mountain of badly polished tropes and predictable plotting without a complete reskin: including a more sensible faction structure, tearing out the subtle railroads, uprooting the lurking moral judgments and generally making it a sandbox of related locations that reveal a brewing conflict between men, forest goblins/fey/hill tribes and a dragon about to explode because of a scheming evil adventurer making trouble along the mountainous frontier. This of course would have only a vague similarity to Lost Mines of Phandelver.
NOTE: May 2020 -- I've played a bit more 5E since I wrote this review, and while I still stand by it old age has made me indulgent towards the system's excesses. 5E's intent and preferred playstyle is far more linear and combat focused then I prefer, which lends itself to Adventure Path design. Lost Mines is no exception. In June 2019 WotC released an updated starter kit for 5th edition D&D, the D&D Essentials Kit that features another starter adventure set in the Phandelan area. It's very similar. The names are better, but a lot of problems are shared between the adventures and remain unresolved - despite a clear effort to make Dragon of Icespire Peak a little more of an open world or sandbox style adventure. I recently reviewed Dragon of Icespire Peak if you're interested.