The new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set was released to all stores this week. If you look around, you’ll find a lot of reports as to how the adventure in it plays. This is one of them. If you plan to play the adventure, it’s probably a good idea to stop reading now.
Because there are going to be lots of SPOILERS ahead for the adventure.
We ended up with two tables at Goodgames Ballarat of people playing through the adventure, after our regularly scheduled D&D Encounters session. I took five of the more experienced players, whilst Josh had a table of four players playing D&D for the first time. Encounters had run relatively late, so we were rather late in starting and I wanted the players to create their own characters. Unfortunately, I had the only copy of the Basic rules, although I also had two computers with me that had the rules as well.
Creating characters with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules didn’t take that long, especially as the players were used to how the classes fit together thanks to the playtest. Spell selection for the wizard and cleric took the longest!
By the end of it, we had the following characters at the table:
Ailar (Sam), an Elven Wizard (Sage)
Reid (Jesse), a Halfling Rogue (Criminal)
Fred (Dave), a Human Cleric (Soldier)
Vjrm (Josh), a Human Fighter (Soldier)
Milo (Tait), a Halfling Rogue (Criminal)
Or that’s how I remember it – I might be mistaken on some of the backgrounds. The introduction to the adventure states how they’re accompanying a caravan to the small mining village of Phandalin, having been hired by a dwarf, Gundren Rockseeker, to bring a wagonload of provisions to Barthren’s Provisions. At least, that’s the default, unless the players can come up with better reasons (or you use the pregenerated characters in the Starter Set, which have some really good backgrounds). Both Reid and Milo apparently were paying of a debt to Gudren, as he’d caught them trying to steal from him. Ailar had bought books from him, and at least one of Fred or Vjrm knew him from their soldiering days.
He’d gone on ahead with his companion, Sildar Hallwinter, as he wanted to deal with business in Phandalin. That was when the trouble started.
The group had been travelling for a few days when they came across Gundren’s and Sildar’s horses, dead by the side of the road. Fred, who was driving the oxen who pulled the wagon, called a stop, and everyone began to look around and tried to find cover. Vjrm made his way into the trees by the side of the road and began to stealthily make his way towards the horses – he was wearing chain mail, and it wasn’t heavy enough to cause his Stealth check to be under disadvantage. He rolled really well and reached the area without problems. The horses seemed to have been slain by arrows and he could detect no-one about.
Milo was the one to see the goblins lurking at the side of the roadway, and he shouted a warning and ran towards Vjrm. Vjrm heard it too late, as he stepped out of cover, only to be struck by arrows from two goblins; two more goblins fired at the rest of the party, inflicting some minor damage. Fred used his healing word spell to restore Vjrm’s health, but Vjrm was having trouble spotting the goblins. He chose to duck behind a log, minimising his exposure to the ambush.
Goblins are really scary for first level characters in the new Dungeons & Dragons! One of their abilities is Nimble Escape, which allows them to disengage or hide as a bonus action on their turns, which is very similar to what a rogue can do. As a result, the goblins would shoot from concealment, then make a Hide check. With a +6 to their checks, they were normally rolling pretty high and beating the Passive Perceptions of the group; the heroes were taking damage without being able to shoot back.
However, with Vjrm behind a log, the two goblins on the right-hand side of the trail needed to rush up and slice him with their scimitars, thus exposing them to the rest of the group. Fred readied an attack, and so when the goblins broke cover, either to shoot or to attack Vjrm, he was able to react. A couple of goblins died quickly as the party began to work out how to combat them. The remaining goblins, realising that Fred was a threat, took him down with a couple of well-aimed arrows, but – whilst bad for the party as a whole – the group were able to close with and kill the last two goblins. Alas, they had no treasure. And, what was worse, was that their cleric was lying unconscious next to an ox. What were they to do?
This provoked a furious discussion between the players. Some were in favour of just waiting for Fred to wake up. However, others in the group were really worried about what would happen if more goblins came along! They held the day, and the group decided that instead of pushing on, they’d take the wagon back down the trail for half-an-hour, and then wait for Fred to wake up. The intensity of this discussion had a lot to do with how dangerous the goblins were; they weren’t all that hard to take down (at least once the party had discovered where they were), but the damage they could put out was significant – and potentially deadly if they rolled a critical hit! With the plan having been agreed to, they enacted it, and were not ambushed by more goblins.
Neither Gundren nor Sildar’s bodies were evident, so the group expected they’d been taken by the goblins. However, with Fred out of spells and the group still hurt, they did not feel like pursuing the goblins at this time. Instead, they pushed on until they reached Phandelver in the late afternoon. Their arrival caused some small amount of interest before the townspeople went back to their business. Phandelver is a small town of about forty or fifty buildings, built on the ruins of an old settlement. The group first made their way to Barthren’s Provisions, so they could get rid of the wagon and discover if Gundren had actually escaped and made his way to the town.
They were greeted by the owner, Elmer Barthren, who was glad to see the supplies but rather less glad to learn that his friend, Gundren, was missing. No, Gundren hadn’t arrived before the party. Barthren, after paying the group for the supplies, told them that he’d really appreciate it if the group found his friend. He also mentioned that Gundren had two brothers who were camped somewhere out of town, although he hadn’t seen them for a while.
The group then made their way to the inn, or at least most of them did. With the day ending, Milo decided to do some light-fingered larceny, and burgle the local smithy. (Of the two halflings, Milo is a burglar, whilst Reid is a blackmailer, according to the backgrounds they rolled). However, the luck of the dice was not with Milo this session; he failed to open both the back and front doors, and then fell off the roof when attempting to climb up and try and find another way in. He limped back to the party.
The rest of the group were meeting the innkeeper, a young man called Toblen Stonehill, who’d come to the town to be a miner, but found he made a better innkeeper. As he was serving the group, he let them know about his frustrations with the mayor, and about the Redbrand Ruffians, a group that were strong-arming businesses and the mayor was ignoring.
Then Milo limped in. Instead of telling the group what had really happened, he told them that he’d been roughed up by a gang of ruffians. Vjrm, who is very loyal to his companions (a personality trait), immediately wanted to go and teach the Redbrands a lesson, but he was prevailed upon to rest the night – if the group couldn’t handle goblins, how would they handle bandits? So the group rested.
It was just as well. The next morning, they made their way to the Sleeping Giant taphouse, where the Redbrands were meant to hang out. They’d heard that there were about a dozen Redbrands, but they were pleased to find only four lounging on the porch. Insults soon turned into weapons being drawn, and the battle was on. And it was exceedingly tough; this encounter is probably designed for a party of second level characters, but it gave great trouble to the first level characters. A few rules changes from the playtest caught the players out; in particular, Dave wasn’t aware that he suffer disadvantage on ranged attack rolls for his spells if he was adjacent to the enemy; luckily for the group, his Guiding Bolt hit and slew the ruffian even with him taking the lower of both rolls!
However, with the ruffians making two shortsword attacks per round, each dealing 5 damage, it was potentially a very deadly encounter. The group survived – many of them on one hit point remaining! – and the ruffians were slain.
Talking to the surly owner of the taphouse, the group learnt that the Redbrands lived in the ruined manor on the hill at the end of town. Vjrm took one of the bodies with him, and took it to the centre of town where he strung it up as a warning to all the Ruffians.
This garnered quite a bit of attention, and although most of the townsfolk were quietly approving or offering encouragement, the group soon found themselves being confronted by an angry, fat, out-of-breath man: the town mayor, Harbin Wester. He scolded them for provoking the Redbrands – who weren’t that much trouble, really – and worried about what would become of the townsfolk. The group placated him (somewhat), and began to plan their next moves. Would they go after the rest of the Ruffians or would they try to rescue Gundren and Sildar from the goblins?
Unfortunately, we were out of time. I awarded each of the players 155 XP, which wasn’t enough for them to reach 2nd level. However, the group had performed fantastically well at role-playing; all the players had been involved and it had been the most role-playing I’ve seen in a session of D&D for a long time. The character traits really helped them form personalities quickly and they played them well. It was a fantastic experience and I’d awarded three of them Inspiration during the session for their great role-playing.
The fights were hard. Really, really hard. The goblins could have quite easily killed everyone, especially with their ability to hide after they attack. For new DMs, I suggest you advise your players to use the Ready action (page 11 of the Starter Set Rulebook) to attack in reaction to the goblins’ attacks. (The goblin attacks will still resolve first, but the player attacks will resolve before they can attack again). Also, a Wizard casting the sleep spell will be likely able to neutralise a couple of goblins even if the Wizard can’t see exactly where they are; as an area effect spell, the goblins just being close enough will allow it to function.
Any way, it will be a fortnight before we continue the adventure; next week my AD&D campaign will resume. Next Friday, my other D&D group will experience this adventure for the first time – I wonder how they’ll do in comparison to this group?