Saturday, 26 July 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 3 - Ruins of Thundertree

Oh No, What Has Rich Baker Done?

Despite the heading, you will not find any criticism of Rich Baker expressed or implied in this post or, indeed, anywhere on this blog. Rich is, without doubt, my favourite D&D designer and his premature removal by WotC was a real setback for D&D fans. After all, when Chris Perkins says that you're WotC's best adventure writer then clearly you have some talent. And WotC clearly recognised this because, instead of throwing the first 5E adventure to the OGL spambot whose bad design (Keep on the Shadowfell and Pyramid of Sh*t, oops, Shadow) and major strategic mistakes (why was there no PHB with Essentials?) did more to destroy 4E than arguably anything else, they asked Rich to write Lost Mine of Phandelver and, it's clear, he did a great job.

So, why the heading?

From reading the reviews of Lost Mine before I had it in my hot little e-hands, it seems the presence of a 16 hit dice green dragon in the Ruins of Thundertree clearly presented a problem that few level 3 parties would be able to overcome. In fact, it would appear that its breath weapon alone, by virtue of its size and average damage, would be sufficient to wipe out many a level 3 5E party.

Oops.

While the obvious solution is to make the dragon a younger age category and thus more level-appropriate (and the green dragon has to be left in the adventure because it's depicted in the cover art), the purpose of this post is to suggest some other ways to make the dragon encounter still work but have it involve negotiation because it seems the dragon has a problem. Further, I think this can also be tied in more strongly with the machinations of the Cult of the Dragon which augurs well for those DMs who want to go from Lost Mine of Phandelver to the Wolfgang Baur- and Steve Winter-penned Hoard of the Dragon Queen which is part of the Tyranny of Dragons RSE being used to launch the 5E version of the Realms.

Realmslore

Thundertree seems to have first appeared in 2003's Volo's Guide to the North where it was described as a village of 90 or so people that survived on careful logging - supervised by a ranger who was also a Harper - and animal skins. Not much more detail was added until 4E's Neverwinter Campaign Setting where, as is the case in Lost Mine of Phandelver, Thundertree is described as being a ruined village thanks to the eruption of Mount Hotenow.

Of course, Lost Mine also goes on to describe it as the demesne of the green dragon Venomfang. It also notes the presence of Cult of the Dragon agents who are trying to find a way to approach Venomfang and entice her into the Cult.

One of the recent Forging the Realms articles by Ed Greenwood on the WotC website - The Eyes of the Dragon, Part 1 - describes two Cult of the Dragon agents that operate out of Neverwinter. In view of Thundertree's status as a former loggers village, I rather like the idea of including one of these two agents, Broegran Waethlunter, as one of the agents of the Cult in the ruins of Thundertree.

This is what the article says about him:
Broegran Waethlunter is a hardy, weather-beaten, grey-haired, and grizzled man who works as a woodcutter, making frequent forays to within sight of Luskan (though he never enters that troubled port). 

He runs a crew of cutters he's trained, and they "garden" (as they put it) the woods diligently, gleaning firewood and wood for carpentry without taking overmuch (and so thinning out the woods). As a result, he has a valid pretext for ranging so far afield on runs (with wagons, or sledges in winter) that last for days at a time. His cutters are aware that he often meets persons in the forest, sometimes accepting items for transport back to Neverwinter that he covers over with wood. 
Waethlunter pays for their silence and he has told them just enough that they think he's mixed up in smuggling, not in anything to do with cults, draconic or otherwise. Waethlunter enjoys feeling important and useful as he makes and receives reports; in the twilight of his days, he wants to be part of big things if he can do so without a lot of danger. That said, he's always well armed and won't back down from a fight. He's pretty good with a crossbow, often downing edible forest creatures for the stewpots on the trail and back home. His cutters trust him and like him because he's fair, kindly, never loses his temper, and knows the woods well.
I think I can use him.

As for Venomfang herself, no backstory is given but shecould be the descendant of "Old Gnawbone", Claugiyliamatar of the Kryptgarden Forest, or perhaps the offspring of Mornauguth of the High Moor. Clicking on those names will take you to the Wyrms of the North articles on the WotC website where those two particular green dragons are fully described. Of course, giving her this sort of detailed parentage is not really required.

Other Lore

During the course of the Next/5E playtesting period, quite a few articles appeared on the WotC site describing how the designers were thinking about various matters. While most were eminently forgettable, one of the few that I found had real value related to a rethink about green dragons in terms of, inter alia, their personality, goals, and effects on their environment. I think the author was James Wyatt and this was what was written:
Personality: Green dragons are wily, seductive, manipulative, controlling, scheming, and subtle. Just because a green dragon can swallow you whole in a single bite doesn’t mean it’s going to—it would rather wrap you around its finger until you’ll do whatever it suggests.

A green dragon seeks dominion over the forest and treasure, like other dragons. It has a broad definition of treasure that includes the minions and pawns it can use to gain more treasure. Control is its driving desire—control over its environment and every living thing therein.

A master of misdirection, a green dragon bends others to its will by letting them think they’re getting what they want, right up until it’s too late. It’s very skilled at assessing the desires of its opponents and playing off of them. Anyone foolish enough to subdue a green dragon learns sooner or later that it is only pretending to serve, while actually manipulating its “master.”

Environment: Green dragons live in forests and jungles in any climate. They sometimes compete with black dragons in marshy forests (or mangrove swamps) and with white dragons in subarctic taigas. But it’s not hard to tell, upon entering a forest, whether it’s controlled by a green dragon or some other sort.

A perpetual fog hangs in the air of a green dragon’s forest, with a hint of green to it and just a whiff of the acrid chlorine the dragon exhales. The trees grow close together, except where winding pathways trace their way like a maze toward the center. Moss grows thick on tree trunks, making the whole forest a bright, emerald green with otherworldly beauty. Light barely reaches the forest floor and every sound seems muffled by the fog. Branches seem to reach out to snag clothing, and roots twist up to catch feet and twist ankles. Half-glimpsed shapes appear and vanish in the fog, inspiring sometimes fear, sometimes desire—leading you in or scaring you out, depending on the dragon’s wishes. The fog makes it nearly impossible to keep track of one’s path through the forest, too, which sometimes keeps intruders out and sometimes hems them in.

No creature living in the dragon’s forest is unaffected by its presence. A silent squirrel frozen on a branch as the party passes by is the dragon’s eyes and ears. Crows calling to each other in the uppermost branches are issuing warnings and tracking the party’s movement. Snakes dangle from branches overhead, lizards crawl upon the forest floor and scurry up gnarled trunks, and snapping turtles lurk in burbling streams. Deer and other large game are even more skittish than usual, knowing they could become the dragon’s prey at any moment.

Servants: Above all else, a green dragon delights in corrupting elves and bending them to its will. Sometimes (as was the case of King Lorac of Silvanesti), a green dragon so wracks its minion’s mind that the fog throughout its forest reflects the tortured dreams of the imprisoned minion.

Green dragons view other fey only as a food source, but other forest dwellers make fine minions for the dragons such as bugbears and goblins, ettercaps, fomorians, kobolds, peryton, and yuan-ti.

Hoard: A green dragon’s favoured treasures include people bent to its will, famous or significant people it has subverted (such as a renowned bard), emeralds, sculpted wood, musical instruments, and artistic busts and other sculptures of humanoid subjects.

Lair as a Dungeon: At the heart of a green dragon’s dominion is an enormous tree with a thick tangle of roots at its base. Among the roots is the opening to a cave. Or it might be a tree grown over an ancient elven ruin, like you see in Angkor Wat and other old temples in Southeast Asia.

Inside the cave, the tunnels branch like a root network as they proceed down into the earth, with occasional small caves that serve as dens for the dragon’s minions. Roots hang down from the ceiling everywhere in the tunnels, even at their deepest extent, and the dragon can cause them to extend and grasp at intruders.

The fog that shrouds the forest above is here in force, reeking of pungent chlorine and disorienting intruders to the point where they can’t keep track of the branches or even their direction of travel. The dragon can thicken the fog to obscure vision (like obscuring mist), slow movement (solid fog), weaken the mind (mind fog), and even sicken (stinking cloud) or kill (cloudkill) intruders.

Nestled in the midst of all the branching passages is a large cave that serves as the dragon’s nest. It often has a small stream flowing through it. Many passages lead into the cave, giving the dragon an easy way to escape from intruders—and then circle around behind them when they get lost in the passages again.
Now this is infinitely better than simply having a green dragon living in a ruined tower in Thundertree (and, again, there is no criticism of Rich Baker expressed or implied here: he had only limited space to make this adventure work). But it also seems a waste to have the first encounter with a dragon in a new edition be nothing more than just another monster, albeit one grossly overpowered compared to the PCs....

Ruins of Thundertree, Redux


So, the basic goal here is to throw out some ideas that will turn the green dragon into less of a threat and more of an NPC to be negotiated with.

The simplest way to do this - and I admit to drawing some inspiration from Green Lady's Sorrow in Dungeon 35 - is to begin the adventure shortly after the Cult of the Dragon has stolen her eggs. Venomfang is surprisingly desperate to get her eggs back as she is far more maternal than others of her kind.

The  Cult agent, Broegran Waethlunter, is a ranger and a logger who reclaimed the ruins of Thundertree as a base from which his crew of cutters could log the Neverwinter Wood as the rebuilding of the city of Neverwinter  has created an enormous demand for lumber. And while the Cult, of course, benefits from the income this generates, it also offers Broegran an opportunity to explore the Neverwinter Wood on behalf of the Cult looking for signs of green dragons that the Cult can convert to dracolichdom.

Venomfang was one of the first found but rejected Cult overtures. Sadly for her, Broegran recognised that she was ready to lay eggs and simply waited until the eggs were laid and Venomfang left her lair for a brief hunt. The Cult then stole the eggs leaving a magic mouth in their place. The magic mouth simply said when Venomfang returned: We have your eggs and you will submit to us or your children will die.

Of course, green dragons are nothing if not cunning and Venomfang has bided her time as she searches for cat's-paws whom she can use to recover her eggs or, at the very least, distract the Cult so that she can recover her eggs. She watches the ruins of Thundertree carefully, as do her animal spies, and the arrival of the PCs and their likely clash with cultists prompts her to make contact with them and offer them a deal.

The simplest deal would be for the PCs to recover the eggs in exchange for certain items from Venomfang's treasure and that would work reasonably well. And, of course, when the PCs have the eggs in hand, Venomfang will also make an appearance to slaughter any remaining members of the Cult, including some who might be in combat with the PCs while they are trying to flee Thundertree with the eggs.

However, I think a more manipulative approach might be more in keeping with a green dragon's nature, particularly as described above under Other Lore.  Venomfang is more likely to lie about what she wants - although she will be clear that she despites the Cult of the Dragon and wants them slain or otherwise removed from Thundertree - and she will feel obliged to negotiate over the terms of the reward.

To make this work, I think Thundertree needs a Cult spellcaster to be present. It's this spellcaster who poses the real threat to the PCs but also to Venomfang. In the case of the latter, it's because he's not holding the eggs as a threat: he's actively seeking to use them in a ritual that will enslave Venomfang while she is still alive (rather than in dracolich form) and/or to create other draconic beings such as the greenspawn creatures in 3.5E's Monster Manual IV. (This spellcaster may even be a cleric of Tiamat.)

Aside from the Cultists, Thundertree should be, more or less, a functioning logging village with a sawmill, log piles, barracks for the cutters etc.... That also means that a lot of those present are not members of the Cult and, frankly, have no idea what is happening. They're just working at a legitimate job that pays reasonably well.

The Dragon's Lair




Let's assume that the PCs do recover Venomfang's eggs and that they do not end up fighting the green dragon. Personally, I rather like the idea that later in the campaign the PCs might realise that Venomfang is a genuine threat to the region and they decide, because they already know something of her and her location, that it is their duty to deal with her.

Their sense of responsibility might also increase if Venomfang is raiding various settlements in conjunction with her hatchlings whom the party actually saved from the Cult of the Dragon!


So, let's further assume that the search for Venomfang's lair takes place a few levels later when the PCs are at a level where tackling Venomfang is not simply suicidal. I think this is where the green dragon lore described under Other Lore really comes into its own: make Venomfang's lair a great hollow tree and give her various servitor creatures, as well as a bunch of hatchling/very young green dragons, and make the environment one of strange clouds and mists some of which are genuinely dangerous.


And, as per the picture I have posted here, what if Venomfang is capable of taking on some sort of humanoid form? Earlier in the post I mentioned that Venomfang might be the offspring of Mornauguth of the High Moor. Mornauguth, as the linked article shows, was a human priestess of Shar transformed into green dragon form as the result of a curse. What if she passed on to her offspring the ability to change into humanoid form as shown here? And what if Venomfang has a drow lover? Perhaps he is also tied to the drow that appears in Lost Mine of Phandelver?

But back to her lair. I have only once run a "dungeon" set in a hollow tree. I stole the maps from Forest of Doom in Dragon 73 in my first 3E campaign and, I must admit, it was one of the best dungeon adventures I have ever run. The idea of doing this again, but as the lair of a dragon, really appeals to me and, I think, goes a long way to making the encounter with a green dragon feel different to, say, an encounter with a black dragon or a red dragon. After all, why have a cave lair when you can have a hollow tree?

Conclusion

As I have been typing - and this is an unedited first draft - I am also conscious of there being a lot of holes in terms of what I have suggested here. Like most things on my blog, it is horribly half-assed but, at the same time, this isn't something that is being published. I know there are the guts of some good ideas here but they do need some work if they are going to work.

What I also know is that taking this approach or a similar approach to the dragon encounter in Lost Mine of Phandelver will produce something a lot more memorable than the simple encounter that currently exists in that adventure (and that is no slight on the adventure author but simply a recognition of the constraints of limited space).

29 comments:

  1. This is brilliant - much food for thought

    Thanks for sharing

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  2. Thanks for the kind words and feedback, The Mark.

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  3. Argh, this just lost my comment. Trying again...

    Thanks for the time and effort to type this post up. My players will be finishing off the Redcloak hideout tonight, and will likely try to do a clean sweep of the sidequests afterwards. I'd noticed that the Dragon was far too dangerous for them, but wasn't sure what to do about it; I really like your ideas above and may modify them slightly. The adventure has a lot of combat and not so much negotiation, and so I think that it would be really interesting to have a situation where simply killing everyone isn't the best option.

    I might keep the Twig Blights, under the Dragon's control, attacking the Woodsmen (who obviously are winning easily). The Green Dragon, in humanoid form, approaches the players, tells them that the woodsmen are a cover for the cult and have stolen her eggs. Do they help?

    Adding an evil mage might well be best, as you say, to add a core to the combat that might ensue if the players penetrate the woodsmen ruse.

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  4. Thanks for the feedback, Charles.

    I hope you can post a link to your session once you have run it. I'm also looking for other ideas particularly as they relate to the dragon. Only once in 33 years have I felt like I really run a perfect dragon encounter (and it involved two competiing dragons, one of which was a green) so I can keen to read about how other people have really made dragons work as more than just a tougher monster.

    Again, thanks for your feedback. :)

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    1. Hey, so tonight I ran my players through Thundertree, which I very extensively modified. I began by removing the Twig Blights, which didn't really fit what I wanted. As the players saw the town, the Green Dragon landed, scaring the crap out of them (I had informed them of its presence, and how much damage its breath weapon did prior to this point). They sent forward the rogue, who asked (humbly) what they could do for her. She asked them to retrieve her eggs, and destroy the cult which was infiltrated into the lumberjacking operation that they could see. The conversation was fun, with the players contorting themselves to avoid givin offence. When recompense for the task was discussed, the folk hero fighter insisted that she leave the town; she offered to "find a new home". I didn't ask for Insight checks, since they tend to make the players metagame even if they don't mean to, nor did the players.

      So the players head into town, and observe that the lumberjacks had a disused inn as their headquarters. They walked straight in, saw that only the head lumberjack was there, and sent forward the mage (who spoke Draconic) to bluff their way in. Naturally he had no idea what to say, and very unconvincingly said that he was here to do an inspection. Headman doesn't buy it, so they knocked him out then stood around and discussed what to do. The cultists upstairs (six or them, plus an Evil Mage) come rushing down the stairs, leading to a messy and funny combat (they cast Sleep on men running down the stairs, leading to some falling damage). They find the diamonds and the Flight potion, but no eggs; they learn from the captive headman that there were no eggs, and that they hadn't yet approached the dragon. The players all got sadface.

      They then found the Druid, who told them that the dragon hadn't laid eggs yet, and that Green dragons were duplicitous. They saw, in the distance, the dragon smashing her way into the tower that the adventure provides her with. They decide to leave, rather than picking a fight with her, but plan to return and take their revenge.

      It worked for me. The cult was mostly amusing (with the dragon complaining about their stupid masks), the druid served as exposition monkey, the dragon was an object of fear and anger, and they left with the intention to level up and try taking her out. The conversation established her as a regal and intelligent opponent, and her statline commands great respect among the players. I think that they will likely make a run at her after Wave Echo Cave, which should make for an exhilaratingly dangerous fight to end the game.

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  5. That sounds great, Charles. Thanks for the post. :)

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Darn...hit wrong button.
      What I wanted to mention how I came across your post (link from a link) and discovered what a treasure-trove of information you have here.
      This is now my new "go-to" blog for inspiration on my new 5e game in the realms.

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    2. Thanks Banesfinger. There's a bit of noise here - in the signal-to-noise sense - but hopefully there's enough signal to keep you coming back.

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  7. A question:
    Could the green dragon (Venomfang) not be maternal? I.e. not care about her eggs. Instead, she could pretend (scheme/misdirect) she does care. Like the lore says: she could let them think they're getting what they want (assess their desires and play off of that).
    For the cultists, this means pretends to let them "think" they are blackmailing her by taking her eggs.
    For the PCs, this means they "think" they are saving eggs she cares about and that she'll give them a piece of treasure (and defeat cultists).
    In reality, Venomfang has just manipulated two groups of people she doesn't like (PCs/Cultists) to fight against each other.

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    1. I really like that, Banesfinger. Living - as I do - in a country where a lot of people feign family values in an effort to manipulate others I would have many real life individuals to provide a model for a green dragon doing the same thing.

      I like it. (I don't like it in real life but I think it's perfect here!)

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  8. I find nothing wrong with encountering and interacting with creatures far outside the players average level.

    Your oops is a feature.

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    1. For you and your group, no doubt.

      For others judging from feedback online? Maybe not.

      Nevertheless, my post was more about filling out the story so it made sense rather than simply removing an egregiously overpowered monster.

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    2. The feedback online? I'm assuming you mean other than the OSR where the expectation is not that everything you meet you should be able to kill.

      I mean, yeah, if you ignore them, sure, there are a few. :-)

      I'm just yanking your chain a little. This is a great series and I'm enjoying it a lot. I hope to see it continue.

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  9. Hehe... yeah, I have been running this game for 33+ years so I am aware of that style of thinking and play but I'm not an OSR-ite. :)

    Anyway, glad you're enjoying the posts. I have three more to come but have been horribly ill for 10+ days and stilltrying to bounce back.

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  10. This is some brilliant advice for new DMs out there. Since Lost Mine is likely to be many people's very first campaign, and many DMs first attempts, this is a great write-up for many people new to the lore and trying to pull it together in a sensible fashion. My own campaign is currently only 3 adventurers, so Venomfang is a certain TPK at this stage, and I knew I was going to have to address this.

    I've seen other posts that recommended nerfing Venomfang to a manageable level of strength, but this seems to be by far the more interesting approach. Glad I found it. Thanks for the this post, I'll be using plenty of these ideas.

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  11. Thanks for the kind words, Andrew. I'm glad you found the posts useful. And I must say that, judging from the number of hits that the Thundertree post has received, it's quite clear a lot of DMs found that encounter/location problematic.

    That said, Lost Mine is a tremendous intro adventure. WotC chose well getting Rich Baker to write it (personal bias: he's been one of my favourite designers for years).

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  12. Good morning > I'm expecting my copy of Lost Mine in the mail tomorrow, and will definitely be using some of your ideas for enriching this adventure. Most of my players are old timers like me who have been gaming together for about 33 years and this will make a fine intro to 5e. This maternal manipulative green dragon reminds me of another such dragon, Vesicant, from Dungeon #16. I believe this will be a fun game > thanks so much for all your suggestions and advice! Good gaming to you!!

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Gary, and good to see some other "old timers". Half my players have been with me for 31 years; the other half weren't even born then!

      I must admit, I looked at the Vesicant adventure while writing this but couldn't come up with an angle then. I may be returning to Neverwinter and the Twilit Lands for another campaign in the future. If I do, there just may be a pirate dragon....

      And this really is a great adventure, so much better than the adventures for 5E that followed. It's also a very good introduction to FR which, despite all the products published for that world, has never before had a genuinely good introductory adventure, IMO.

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    2. Hey SoD > read through the Lost Mine adventure thoroughly and it really is a fine way to start a game or even lead into a campaign. And I think it works well for beginners and old time gamers alike.

      I plan on starting in a week or so and have already given out the pre-gens to my players (all of us are new to 5E); but...I wish the magic items were more geared toward the particular pre-gen characters. For example, there is a really cool longsword +1 in there...but none of the pre-gens use a longsword. Same goes for some of the other items/weapons in the adventure. So...I'm gonna tweak it a bit to make the items for character-friendly.
      I'm also going to use your ideas for the Cult and the Dragon, having her eggs taken to be used in some unholy ritual...all to the glory of Tiamat!
      Thanks again for the ideas in this post and throughout your blog! Axe High!!

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    3. Hey Gary, I must admit, I have never even *looked* at the pre-gens. I am so used to WotC's pre-gens being horribly ineffective that now I don't even bother. But now that you have mentioned it, I wish I had because maybe I could have also created another post addressing precisely what you have mentioned: the lack of pre-gen-appropriate treasure.

      Good luck in your upcoming campaign! :)

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    4. Hey SD > wanted to bring you up to date on the game. I can't believe it's been over a year already. The group has dealt with the Cultists...at the ones the dragon didn't eat, and discovered that one of her eggs was stolen and secreted away to Neverwinter. I'm using Broegan Waethlunter as the agent who the Cult used to hide the egg. So...the group is now planning to go to Neverwinter and retrieve the dragon's egg. A departure from the module, but I'm excited about getting to create some NPC's and dig in a little bit to one of my favorite settings, Neverwinter.

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    5. Thanks for the update, Gary! And good to see a departure from the module. I think one of the beauties of this adventure is that it lends itself to departures and arrivals, so to speak.

      I hope you post more.

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  13. I was linked to these posts from Candlekeep, really interesting to read and I'm stealing liberally.
    As for Venomfang, I'm trying to simplify/streamline it, as in:
    Those who log the woods (to supply Neverwinter) keep Venomfang's eggs so as to be able to continue logging uninterrupted by this young, green dragon. At the same time, potential Elves in the forest are not chasing the humans away because they have those eggs.. ?! You think something like this works?

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  14. I was linked to these posts from Candlekeep, really interesting to read and I'm stealing liberally.
    As for Venomfang, I'm trying to simplify/streamline it, as in:
    Those who log the woods (to supply Neverwinter) keep Venomfang's eggs so as to be able to continue logging uninterrupted by this young, green dragon. At the same time, potential Elves in the forest are not chasing the humans away because they have those eggs.. ?! You think something like this works?

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    1. Yeah that was me at Candlekeep. (I forgot I have a different user ID there.) Anyway, glad you found some things to steal.

      Yes, that idea sounds like it would work. Of course, at some point those eggs are going to hatch.... (cue evil laughter)

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  15. This is great work. And it was fun to travel the links and see your other ideas on Phandelver. I enjoy the Realmslore a lot, as well as the plot ideas.

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    1. Thanks, +Vienneau. Hopefully I will have time to return to this blog in the New Year to fill some other gaps with Realmslore. :)

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  16. What if the reason Venomfang appears out of nowhere, is because they did? What if they grew up in the Feywild? Then they simply arrived in Neverwinter Wood through one of the places where it connects to that other plane. That could support their connection to the Eldreth Valuspa.

    I'm tempted to make Venomfang a young adult and make them the mastermind behind my whole plot. Remove Gnawbone entirely. Not sure which I like more.

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