Sunday, 24 August 2014

Icewind Dale: Legacy of the Crystal Shard 0 - Introduction

I have been preparing a second 4E heroic tier campaign based in Neverwinter but, aside from the opening adventure which I am really happy with, it just wasn't feeling like the sort of campaign I could use to introduce new players to tabletop RPGs, D&D4E, and the Realms.

One of the great things about a game set in Neverwinter is that the MMO that was released last year seems to be really well-supported and that means there are lots of screenshots and YouTube videos I can use to show the players what their characters are experiencing.

Old school DMs are probably wondering why I don't just describe things but, the simple fact is, I use English and that these prospective players' second language. If a picture is worth a thousand words normally, I think when you are cutting across language and cultural barriers then you can safely add one or more digits to that number.

However, something else occurred to me today: I bought The Crystal Shard as a graphic novel. 

But, before I talk about that, I thought I might address the question...

... Does the 4E Version of the Forgotten Realms Really Suck?

Mike Mearls recently announced in his patented damn-I-really-shouldn't-be-allow-to-make-public-statements-about-D&D-style that first came to our attention during the 5E playtest period (with Rodney Thompson riding to the rescue in almost every instance to actually explain what was really happening) that there were no plans for a 5E version of a campaign setting for the Forgotten Realms.

He then tried to clarify that statement by suggesting that the information might trickle out in other ways and also that maybe something might be coming but they all need a holiday first. Whatever the message was meant to be, it was garbled in a particularly Mearlsian way.

So, without a 5E version of the Realms beyond what is hinted at in the PHB and the adventures, what is a 5E DM who likes the Realms supposed to do? 

As someone who actively likes the 4E Realms I would suggest that the first question to ask is this: Does the 4E version of the Forgotten Realms really suck?

For Candlekeepers whose D&D-playing days are in the halcyon past, I can accept that it does. For RAS fans who think the Salvatorean vision of the Realms is pure and correct, I can accept that. But for DMs who are actually running games and want a familiar world to set those games in, I think the 4E version of FR is worth another look.

This probably deserves a post of its own but I just want to point to three games set in the 4E version of FR and posted on the forums involving a mini-campaign set in Icewind Dale:
I think reading those threads and looking at how the DM Acrozatarim mixed old and new Realmslore together should convince a lot of DMs that maybe the 4E version of FR is worth a second look.

Oh, and that's all a very long way of saying: this campaign is going to draw on a number of ideas that appear in Acrozatarim's games. And it's not plagiarism is you credit your source material. :)

The Crystal Shard

I have noted before on this blog and elsewhere that I am not a fan of R A Salvatore's books... except for The Crystal Shard.

There's a lot to love about The Crystal Shard, particularly the titular artefact itself. Crenshinibon itself is one of those artefacts that simply makes a DM's job easier. Forget how powerful it is: an artefact that drains power from the sun and creates a network of towers linked by portals is the sort of thing that inspires a campaign arc that almost writes itself. I must admit, running a campaign involving Crenshinibon - forget whether or not RAS's canon has destroyed it - remains on my gaming bucket list.

I must also admit, I like the basic set-up of Icewind Dale. It's remote. It's cold. It has an economy that largely makes sense. It's got a nice mix of normal creatures (crag cats, wolves), normal monsters (ogres, yeti), and plenty of room for dragons, remorhazes and similar magical beasts.

Sure, it has the horrible Salvatorean names but they are far less worse than those that appear in his later novels.

Legacy of the Crystal Shard

While I have no interest in 5E or the 5E Realms, per se, I am always interested in anything Realms-related that I can steal for my games. When WotC announced that The Sundering RSE was going to be played out in a series of five adventures (subsequently reduced to four), I was not confident that they were going to be anything but complete and utter duds.

WotC has rightly had a reputation for producing some of the worst adventures in the RPG world, in large part because 4E was launched with the edition-killing Keep on the Shadowfell and the even worse Pyramid of Shadow.

Further, the last time a major FR RSE was directly played out in the form of adventures was the Time of Troubles when the trilogy of Shadowdale, Tantras, and Waterdeep were published to show that PCs could play the part of bystanders and, um, enjoy it.

Fortunately, WotC did not screw the proverbial pooch with The Sundering adventures. In the first instance, you could almost say that they have nothing to do with The Sundering other than the logo appearing on their covers. Actually, that really is about it. 

Secondly, they're all quite good adventures but, IMO, Legacy of the Crystal Shard is the pick of the bunch.

My plan with this campaign is to use much of Legacy as the basic framework but also to include a few more direct nods to The Crystal Shard - primarily in the form of the presence of the balor Errtu - as well as chunks stolen from Acrozatarim's excellent session reports that I have linked to above. And then I plan to segue into the Demon Weave storyline from the Rise of the Underdark event. It just seems a shame to be so close to Menzoberranzan and then simply ignore the drow....

Some Background Thoughts

The Good Guys

Here Comes the Sun

I am thinking that the primary protagonist among the PCs is a cleric (or invoker) of Amaunator. While this idea is shamelessly inspired by a PC in Ice Station Zhentarim, it makes a lot of sense in the context of the campaign.

I had a lot of success a dozen or so years ago running a Netherese-era ruined monastery of Amaunator as a dungeon adventure in the mountains of the Silver Marches. It was one of the best dungeons I have ever run with a near-perfect mix of interaction, combat, and exploration and I still have my notes. It would work perfectly in Icewind Dale and I also love the basic idea of a cleric of the deity of the sun coming to a place that is so cold and trying to spread warmth.

Hopefully one of the players will jump at a chance to play such a character.

On the Run

Various source material makes reference to the fact that Icewind Dale is the sort of place that people who are running away from their past are likely to go: it's far enough away that their pasts are unlikely to catch up with them there.

And, as I am beginning the campaign in that wretched hive of scum and villainy called Luskan, I have a likely and logical origin point for such characters.

I have a few race and class combinations in mind already: half-orc slayer, changeling rogue, halfling thief, and even a pixie enchanter that is held prisoner in a cold iron birdcage by some crime lord who likes the light the tiny fey produces. (The pixie is also on the run from his royal obligations in the Feywild. It's a bit of an odd character idea for my games but it's the sort of thing that might appeal to my new players.)

The Bad Guys

In view of the banner I have created for this campaign, I am basically required to have this Chosen of Auril from Legacy of the Crystal Shard as a fairly important BBEG. And, to begin with at least, the Chosen of Auril has control, more or less, of the balor Errtu.

Beyond her, I definitely want to have orcs as the most common humanoid foe, as well as frost giants. One of the major set-piece adventures I want to run in this campaign is a 4E version of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, probably as the capstone of the Heroic Tier. (I have noted elsewhere before on this blog that I reduce the levels of monsters in my 4E games to match their 1E hit dice. As a result, my frost giants are level 10 brutes so they are eminently suitable for an end of Heroic Tier adventure.)

And, finally, the drow are going to be involved.

A Very Rough Synopsis


The Accursed Tower is one of my favourite 2E adventures for the clever way it turns a castle into a dungeon and also for the wilderness adventure - the journey between Luskan and Icewind Dale - that precedes the dungeon crawl (and see the next section for the wilderness adventure).

Rather than simply handwaving away the start of the journey in Luskan, I thought I would use the time the PCs spend in Luskan as an opportunity to run three or so encounters so that the players can learn how combat, skills, and other facets of the game work... and maybe to emphasis to some of the players why their characters who have Luskan in their background are so desperate to leave.

I suppose it's more typical to introduce new players to D&D with a dungeon but, frankly, I prefer non-dungeon adventures in the main. That said, Luskan includes a lot of ruins, old sewers, and decrepit cemeteries so there are still opportunities to put together some small dungeon-like adventures.

I imagine I will probably begin with a press gang encounter so that the PCs can fight a group that is fairly normal and I am not yet sure where to proceed from there. I will cover that in a later post.

Into the North

Starting in Luskan is really just an excuse to justify this next part of the campaign. I have already noted that this is inspired by the journey in the The Accursed Tower adventure and I suspect I will steal several of the encounters directly from there.

One of the other things I like about running this journey as an adventure is that it allows the players to experience the mechanical changes that go along with the increasingly colder weather which is going to be good experience for the balance of the campaign in Icewind Dale when the mechnical impact of weather is going to be an important part of the game.

I have also done a little bit of research about the locations en route. FR1 Waterdeep & The North reveals this about the Iceflow River:

This, chilling, fast-rushing river thunders down out of the icy interior of the northern arm of the Sword Coast. It is not navigable by any normal means. Its waters are just above freezing, and travel at terrifying speed down through a great ice gorge.

In spring and high summer, great slabs of ice break off the gorge walls and fall into the waters, shattering with the force of a triple-strength ice storm as they spray the vicinity with boulders of broken ice. These chunks of ice are then swept down the gorge and out to sea, to drift south amid the great icebergs from the Sea of Moving Ice.

Remorhaz are known to lair in the vicinity, and great horrors known as “ice spiders” or snow spiders have also been encountered here. Human prospectors who made it back found no rich ores in what they could reach of the walls, but there are persistent rumours of ancient ruins and buried riches in secret places in the gorge.
I really want to do this description justice and make sure that whatever happens during the course of crossing of the Iceflow River is a major set-piece battle ideally including combat on fast-moving floating slabs of ice.

Also, in the course of passing through the Spine of the World and entering Icewind Dale itself, I am thinking that an encounter with a level-appropriate white dragon would be ideal. Story-wise, this dragon will have been menacing trade and so, if the PCs turn up in Brym Shander with evidence of slaying the dragon, they may begin their time in Icewind Dale as heroes and celebrated dragon-slayers!
Into the Sandbox

I really want Icewind Dale itself to feel very much like a sandbox.

The basic plot will revolve around black ice (this is the magical residue of the collapsed towers created by Crenshinibon mixed with normal ice and forms a key part of the published Legacy of the Crystal Shard adventure) and how it can be used to power certain rituals.

My initial thoughts are that the Chosen of Auril is behind this but the ritual itself is being performed by the frost giants. Because of its connection to the Crystal Shard, black ice has a powerful effect on the balor Errtu and the Chosen of Auril (she has no name yet as I am still mulling over some backstory for her) has used black ice to fuel the summoning and binding of the balor.

She has forced the balor to unite bands of orc renegades from the Kingdom of Many-Arrows to gather black ice and generally make a nuisance of themselves across the Dale. They also deliver the black ice to the frost giants (probably on Reghed Glacier) where they perform a grand ritual to unleash a Fimbulwinter firstly across Icewind Dale and then across all of Faerûn.

Unfortunately for the Chosen of Auril, her bindings don't negate the control that Lolth has over the balor and Errtu has been corrupting the Fimbulwinter ritual so that it actually serves to help create the Demon Weave. And that becomes the logical segue into the presence of the drow and a possible Paragon Tier mini-campaign that concludes in Menzoberranzan.

TL;DR: Black ice is being used to fuel a ritual to create eternal winter. Uncover the plot. Stop the ritual. Slay the giants in the glacial rift. Defeat the Chosen of Auril. Oh no, what are the drow doing here?

Starter Set Sandbox 6 - Conyberry & Agatha's Lair

Looking at these two locations again in Lost Mine of Phandelver, I cannot help but think that WotC should have given Rich Baker a bigger page count to work with.

There has been some interesting development of both Conyberry and Agatha's Lair since 1990 when they first appeared in The Halfling's Gem by R A Salvatore, the second or third Drizzt novel (second, IIRC) just before Drizzt turned into an epic black hole of suck.

Due to the constraints of page count, a ruined village with a guardian banshee, a history of werewolf barbarian invasion, and the touch of the world of Abeir have been reduced a single throwaway roleplaying encounter that takes up less than a page of text. That's the bad news, in a sense. The good news? There is a lot of room here to turn these two locations into something far more interesting and significant as interaction/exploration/combat locations along the lines of the ruins of Thundertree.

Frankly, you could probably fill the entire page count of Lost Mine with an adventure set in and around Conyberry and incorporating Agatha and her lair!



The primary source for material on these two locations was R A Salvatore's books. Specifically, The Halfling's Gem. These were not creations of Ed Greenwood's - he would never have given Agatha such a sucky, real world name that makes her sound like a character from an episode of Bewitched - so they only appeared in RPG products after the second book in RAS's first trilogy was released.

Conyberry was a small village of, essentially, subsistence farmers who also undertook modest logging of the Neverwinter Wood but otherwise survived on rabbits and small crops. It was also noted that they were quite effective at defending themselves... and not just because they had a banshee "on call" who considered herself the village's protector.

(And in the spirit of RAS's penchant for names that completely suck, the village blacksmith of the 2E era was named Martin von Mensch. Seriously, his contract with WotC should require him to contract out the creation of any names he uses in his books. After all, his books are not supposed to be a parody of the Realms....)

Agatha's lair was a dome of twisted branches at the centre of some sort of grove with a single entrance. Agatha herself was a banshee but also a relatively high level wizard (13th). Her lair was noted as being protected by charmed owlbears and also pit traps dug at her request by the villagers of Conyberry (and not because of magical compulsion: they really did see her as an ally).

Neverwinter Campaign Setting

Firstly, the picture at the top of this post is from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and it gives a good impression of the situation in which the post-Spellplague version of Conyberry finds itself.

While Lost Mine makes Conyberry seem fairly normal, albeit abandoned, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting makes it seem like a fascinating place to adventure. It notes that Conyberry was heavily affected by the Spellplague with "pieces" of Abeir being thrust into it. A lake appeared where once there was none, and various buildings took to the sky on the back of earthmotes which suddenly rose up out of the ground. Folk from Abeir also appeared and, in due course, they banded together with the Torilian survivors for a few years... until the Grey Wolves came.

The Grey Wolves were (and are) probably the most deliberately evil of the Uthgardt barbarian tribes. They were (and are) werewolves. Terrified by the Spellplague and its effects, the Grey Wolves saw Conyberry as an unnatural place and they ultimated culled the entire population (although some still remainded as werewolves).
It also notes that the Grey Wolves use the village as a place to practice being "civilised" in preparation for infiltration of other settlements. I don't think this makes sense. That's not the Uthgardt way. While it is noted that they are doing so at the direction of their Netherese master, I don't think this makes sense because the Netherese are not stupid and would not send werewolf barbarians to do the job of a thief. (Yes, I am ignoring this part of the write-up. Completely.)

Lost Mine of Phandelver

After half a page of fairly interesting detail in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, Lost Mine comes along and basically says, "This is an abandoned village. Barbarians did it."

Other Lore: Banshees

The 2E Monstrous Compendium borrows the basic description of the banshee from the 1E Monster Manual and then expands on it as follows:
The banshee or groaning spirit, is the spirit of an evil female elf - a very rare thing indeed. Banshees hate the living, finding their presence painful, and seek to harm whomever they meet. Banshees appear as floating, luminous phantasms of their former selves. Their image glows brightly at night, but is transparent in sunlight (60% invisible). Most banshees are old and withered, but a few (10%) who died young retain their former beauty. The hair of a groaning spirit is wild and unkempt. Her dress is usually tattered rags. Her face is a mask of pain and anguish, but hatred and ire burns brightly in her eyes. Banshees frequently cry out in pain - hence their name.
And while the single sentence description in Lost Mine is more than adequate, I think this passage could be used to make an expanded encounter involving the banshee really come alive, as it were. Similarly, the description of the banshee's effect on the ecology is ripe with narrative potential:
Banshees are a blight wherever they settle. They kill without discretion, and their only pleasure is the misfortune and misery of others. In addition to slaying both man and beast, a groaning spirit's keen has a powerful effect upon vegetation. Flowers and delicate plants wither and die and trees grow twisted and sickly, while hardier plants,thistles and the like, flourish. After a few years all that remains within five miles of a groaning spirit's lair is a desolate wilderness of warped trees and thorns mixed with the bones of those creatures that dared to cross into the groaning spirit's domain.
Now a creature with that sort of effect on its environment deserves far more than a throwaway RP encounter that takes less than a page. In 5E terms, a banshee should be a legendary monster. In 4E terms, she would probably be a solo monster with a lot of terrain effects from the cursed, twisted vegetation surrounding her lair.

Revising Conyberry & Agatha's Lair

5E Era

Looking at the map, Conyberry is at one end of the Triboar Trail (the trail actually continues, but you cannot tell from the regional map provided) and the Cragmaw outpost is at the other end. I suppose one of the easiest ways to revise Conyberry is to also have a band of Cragmaw goblins here. That way they can take complete control of the Triboar Trail. (This particularly makes sense if, for example, the Zhentarim wants to monopolise trade with Phandalin as it is being rebuilt. Why not simply use goblin bandits to stop all other trade from getting through?)

In my Wyvern Tor I posited a couple of ideas for making the orc encounter there more interesting. In the same spirit as the previous paragraph, what if there were orc bandits here who are somehow pre-warned by the orcs of Wyvern Tor that travellers are en route? At night they might use signal fires - and the orc shaman may have alchemical powders he can throw into the fire to change the colour to communicate something more than just "targets are coming!" - taking advantage of the commanding views noted as being offered by Wyvern Tor. And during the day they might simply use giant signal horns. Either way, I like the concept of the PCs possibly noticing the warning being given allowing them to prepare, for example, a counter-ambush.

4E Era

So, both of those ideas are also consistent with how Conybery is presented in Lost Mine and incorporate none of the Spellplague-caused weirdness mentioned in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. As such, they're eminently suitable for a 5E - and 5E-era - campaign. However, I run 4E and I want to incorporate the weirdness, in part because I like the art and I think the players would enjoy seeing that too. 

And, let's face it, a ruined village on earthmotes makes for a much more interesting place to explore than simply ruined village on the ground.

When I first read the description of Conyberry in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, my initial reaction was that it would be the perfect setting for Remains of the Empire from Dungeon 165. (Please note that these are the updated links following the archiving of all the pre-5E material on the WotC website.)

As the cover art shows, Remains involves, inter alia, exploring a tower that is defying gravity along with chunks of other buildings which are also treating the laws of gravity with contempt. It involves dragonborn - and that's a solid connection with Abeir - and it also involves warwing drakes. One of the things I really like about this adventure is that the PCs could end up with flying mounts, even though the adventure is only for level 3 characters, if they successfully master the new ritual that makes its only appearance here.

If Conyberry is expanded into a larger location, these warwing drakes would allow the PCs to much more easily explore the other earthmotes. And besides the floating tower, I would probably include at least one other Abeiran ruin on the remaining earthmotes. Rather than a dragonborn theme - and a dragon wouldn't make sense in the context of a nest of warwing drakes - I think maybe an elemental temple or shrine to a primordial would make a lot of sense. If the DM chooses to take the campaign in a direction inspired by Temple of Elemental Evil, this could be a good place to plant a hook and reveal the nature of the elemental threat.

An earthmote also makes a perfect location for the archetypal wizard's tower - and the wizard doesn't have to be evil - or even for a druid's grove. And, of course, the villagers of Conyberry may simply have taken to the skies free from the threat of the werewolves and anything else that cannot fly. Then again, maybe there is a community of werewolved dwelling here in the belief that it keeps them safe from the Netherese, their erstwhile masters.

Speaking personally, I would simply run Remains of the Empire here but also have werewolf bandits camped in the ruined below. Or owlbears. See the final paragraphs for more....


I find it passing strange that Agatha is really reduced to a throwaway RP encounter in Lost Mine. Again, I realise page count is a horrible constraint but there's something fundamentally interesting about a banshee. In 1E, the Monster Manual noted that a banshee is the undead spirit of an evil female elf and this was a very rare thing indeed. 2E effectively emphasised that rareness by showing what dramatic effects the presence of a banshee had on the surrounding landscape. But we don't see any of that reflected here, or in R A Salvatore's attempts at fiction.

I digress...

Before I go any further I want to address the name Agatha. For anyone who has wasted any part of their life reading RAS's books, one of the hallmarks of his writing is that he completely sucks (sorry, I don't know how else to put it) at creating names. It is rare for a name that he creates to feel appropriate particularly in the context of the Realms where Ed Greenwood has a very clear sense of how names should sound

I have stopped reading RAS's books but, any time you're researching a particular Realms topic, it's (sadly) not unusual to come across quote from his books that really make you scratch your head and wonder how come he's still so popular. (I am glad that he is, though. He's clearly a decent guy and he sells so well that it keeps FR alive as a published brand.) Here are some of his recent dwarf names: Reginald Roundshield, Parson Glaive, Murgatroid "Muttonchops" Stonehammer, Ragged Dain, Rocky Warcrown, Tallabritches Fellhammer and Mallabritches Fellhammer, Priam Thickbelt, Ognun Leatherbelt, and Mandarina Dobberbright.

Seriously, an author who has turned dwarves into a race of seriously brain-damaged malcontents with speech impediments (never read dwarf dialogue from an RAS book: he makes George Lucas look like a master!) should not be contractually allowed to also name them. Rocky. Parson, Reginald. Yep, we're in the middle of a 1970s British sitcom.

Back to Agatha. Yes, this name sucks for an elf. I'm not the only one who thinks so because it seems that in one of the CRPGs (IIRC) it was revealed that Agatha is actually a corruption of the banshee's surname which is Auglatha meaning Winterbreeze. That I can live with.

The Banshee Auglatha

Firstly, if I was going to run this, I would definitely use the 2E Monstrous Compendium description to make the area around Agatha's lair consistent with what would be found around a banshee's demesne. And I would also include various plant monsters - twig blights spring to mind immediately - as part of a series of wandering monsters to be encountered as the PCs explore the corrupted landscape.  

Secondly, even though there would be the potential for Auglatha to simply be a roleplaying encounter, I think she should be a significant combat threat: a solo monster (level 7 solo controller) in 4E terms or a legendary monster in 5E terms. (I know very little about 5E so that's all I can say for the moment.)

Thirdly, regardless of edition, I think her backstory needs a little bit more fleshing out so that her goals and motivations are much more clear to the DM. In this respect, I can't help but think of Cragmaw Castle nearby. In my Cragmaw Hideout, Cragmaw Castle, and Cragmaw Goblins post I noted the possibility, based on the strange architecture, that Cragmaw Castle may have actually been built by eladrin/elves.

What if Cragmaw Castle was, in fact, originally an Auglatha family holding? And what if that is the place where Agatha embraced such evil that she became a banshee instead of simply dying?

One classic old school FR trope involves the deity Moander corrupting elves. (Moander died around the Time of Troubles and it was subsequently noted that Lolth sometimes granted spells in his name thinking that was a perfect way of corrupting surface elves.) What if Agatha had been a normal eladrin until she came across a tome or kiira that was touched by the corruption of Moander? 

That's simple enough but what if there is another kiira, one that was originally Agatha's, that is hidden in the ruins of what is now Cragmaw Castle. If this is returned to Agatha, she is, in a sense, reunited with her non-corrupt self and is freed from the curse of being a banshee. And expanded version of this basic story would suit any era game and would be much more interesting that simply turning up and asking a question as happens in Lost Mine.


Conyberry has potential for expansion and is a perfect location for running Remains of the Empire but, more importantly IMO, Agatha can be made far more interesting: a link to Cragmaw Castle and the potential for her redemption is the sort of storyline that players remember for many years. I think it's definitely in the DM's interest to do a bit more work expanding these locations amd Agatha's backstory.

Oh, and I have decided on an appropriate name for Agatha based on Ed's naming conventions: Melarue Auglatha. ;)

Monday, 18 August 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 5 - Cragmaw Hideout, Cragmaw Castle, and the Cragmaw Goblins

If this is the first time you're looking at this blog, I would recommend looking at this first post primarily so you can see the regional map that these posts are referring to.

My original plan was to tackle Cragmaw Castle separately from the Cragmaw Hideout and the Cragmaw goblins but the locations are too closely linked by name, at the very least, for that to make sense. So I will combine the two locations and the goblin tribe that inhabits them into a single post.
And I must begin by admitting: I am really struggling to make sense of the name Cragmaw to describe a group of goblins. It just does not seem appropriate, and certainly has no FR lore behind it, but I like Rich Baker's work too much to otherwise criticise his creative choices.


Finding any extant Realmslore covering Cragmaw Hideout, Cragmaw Castle, and the Cragmaw goblins is pretty easy: it all exists in Lost Mine of Phandelver, to wit:
  • The Cragmaw goblins have no background information that would suggest why their tribe or band is called Cragmaw nor, as already noted, is there any other FR lore that might suggest why goblins chose this name.
  • The Cragmaw hideout is just a small cave system - with a Paul Jacquays-inspired map! - with no history.
  • The Cragmaw castle is noted as having been,  "... raised by a talented wizard-noble of old Phalorm, an ancient realm that once controlled much of the North." However, Phalorm's borders never even came close to the Neverwinter Wood so Phalorm doesn't make a lost of sense except as a convenient name of a vaguely close ancient kingdom. (Uthtower, the realm submerged by the creation of the Mere of Dead Men by an arcane inundation of water, would have made more sense. I've posted a couple of suggestions as to how the location might be linked to Phalorm and/or Uthtower in my Wyvern Tor post.)
Suffice to say, we're not looking at Realmslore-overload at this point! :)
Revising It All
The Cragmaw Tribe: Goblins, Orcs, or Something Else?
At the northernmost edge of the regional map, there is an area of hills and mountains known as The Crags. I must admit, I really want to tie the Cragmaw name into The Crags, in part because this is supposed to be a sandbox and I rather like having links between locations.
In the past couple of months, there have been a large number of news reports of great holes appearing in the Siberian tundra following the end of winter. These holes are truly enormous in width and depth... and I cannot help but think of the name Cragmaw. After all, a maw is another name for a mouth, albeit with sinister overtones, and these holes are nothing but sinister! They also would not feel out of place in any D&D world as the pictures so clearly show.
So let's assume this tribe is named after such a feature in The Crags. What is it? It could be a giant sinkhole caused by the collapse of a cavern beneath either due to natural forces - the eruption of Mount Hotenow some three or so decades ago - or perhaps as a result of a spell-battle between drow and a hive of beholders. Or maybe it's the result of a powerful ritual performed in a temple of the primordial Ogrémoch as the first step toward seeing that creature of elemental evil freed from its durance vile?

Suffice to say it's a big hole and the tribe is named after it. And when I get to a post about The Crags, I suspect it will become an important feature as the entrance to some temple of elemental evil and/or a link to the Underdark. (Actually, I also like the visual of some great sinkhole like those in Siberia but with numerous cave systems in the walls creating a series of humanoid lairs much like the Caves of Chaos in B2 Keep on the Borderlands.)
So, keeping the Cragmaw tribe as goblins makes sense even with this reasoning for the Cragmaw name as goblins, including bugbears and hobgoblins, are noted as being present in The Crags, but the possibility of a link to Ogrémoch means that norkers - elemental earth-infused goblins - might also be appropriate and, if there are norkers, then there should also be evil dwarves to allow this rather evocative piece of art to be used:

The Cragmaw tribe could also be made up of orcs or even gnolls. In the case of the orcs, they could be a tribe unusually devoted to Luthic the Cave Mother, while Cragmaw gnolls would suggest that the Cragmaw feature would have a connection with the Abyss. Alternatively, the orcs could be from Many Arrows and be searching for the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth Ukrypt, a plot idea I first mentioned in my Wyvern Tor post.
On that note, for some time now, I have wanted to run an adventure involving a tribe of gnolls trying to summon an aspect of Yeenoghu and using a great pit of carrion as the sacrifice and focus of the ritual to call him. The Cragmaw might be perfect for that, although it would probably make sense to make it a bit smaller than the Siberian sinkholes.

For something a little bit different, I was thinking that grimlocks - the blind, subterranean-dwelling evil humanoids spawned in the pages of White Dwarf magazine's Fiend Factory articles before being officially published in 1E's Fiend Folio - would make for something that most groups probably rarely encounter.
If the Cragmaw tribe is made up of grimlocks, that then begs at least three questions:
  1. Why are they based on the surface?
  2. Why are they raiding?
  3. Who or what is controlling them?
I rather like the idea that they are gathering slaves for a band of illithids that dwell beneath The Crags (Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue mentions a group of illithids called the Sept of Ill'Ghact which I have already included in my current Neverwinter campaign). Perhaps one or more mind flayers are controlling the raids from a lair they have established in Cragmaw Castle?

(BTW, if you're a 4E DM reading this and wondering why I would suggest grimlocks and mind flayers be used in what is, in 4E terms, an Heroic Tier campaign and these creatures are definitely Paragon Tier monsters in 4E, I will mention that I lower the levels of almost every monster to match their 1E hit dice. IMC, a normal grimlock is a level 2 brute while an illithid is a level 8 controller. A level 8 standard monster has the same XP value as a level 4 elite monster so I have had level 1 PCs face a mind flayer without worrying that the encounter will be too overpowering simply by virtue of the illithid's presence.)

So, which race would I choose? For a group with lots of experience, I would probably go with the grimlocks plus one or more mind flayers. For a new group, I think goblins do make the most sense. But a lot would depend on what other story arcs I had planned for my campaign. My Neverwinter games make heavy use of Red Wizards as villains so I would probably have this group of humanoids somehow tied into the Thayans raiding for slaves for use in the revitalisation of the Thayans' Dread Ring. Then again, the orcs and the Bloodbone Throne are important in my current Neverwinter game so that's an option I might be tempted to explore plus it fits well with the ideas in the Wyvern Tor post.

Cragmaw Hideout
The only revisions I think are necessary here are whatever is required to accomodate the new race and/or story choices discussed above. Otherwise I think it's quite an interesting small dungeon with a nicely Jacquayed map.

Cragmaw Castle
When I look at this map, I notice that the mashing-up of multiple towers is not the sort of design that makes a lot of sense as something that was built by humans - even if the builder was noted as being a wizard - but it does make sense if it was raised by eladrin or elves, particularly if those eladrin or elves used some of the ancient High Mage magic mentioned in 2E's Cormanthyr: Empire of the Elves.
So, yes, only a few paragraphs after suggesting that this castle may have been built by someone from Uthtower rather than Phalorm, I am now offering a completely unrelated alternative.
Frankly, I like the published version of Cragmaw Castle. It's a solid session or two of play with multiple entry points, decent monster tactics, and a nice variety of foes. But it doesn't make a lot of sense to have several hundred words written up to this point and then to simply conclude, "Nahhh, just leave this as it is."

I've already noted that I have suggested an alternative backstory and secret of the castle in the Wyvern Tor post. I would also note that this doesn't require that the goblins be expelled and the orcs take their place. What if there are actually two factions present? The orcs are outside skulking about in the woods while, of course, the goblins are inside. Both factions would probably want to bid for the PCs' aid, and the two factions might also be played off against each other with clever play.

And factions always make a location more interesting.

Here's another option: The Cult of the Dragon have taken an interest in this eladrin ruin because Venomfang, the green dragon of the ruins of Thundertree (see my post here), collects eladrin gewgaws and they expect to find some beneath this ruined eladrin castle. (Obviously this means dropping the Phalorm or Uthtower backstory.) This has the advantage, too, of potentially warning the PCs of the danger that Thundertree poses (especially if you're playing 5E and the dragon is simply too powerful). The Cragmaw tribe don't want to give the Cult of the Dragon access to their lair and so skirmishes take place. Again, as per the example of the orcs in the previous paragraph, both sides are prepared to bargain for the PCs' assistance.

And, finally, if the Cragmaw tribe is made up of grimlocks with an illithid master, how about filling Cragmaw Castle with a githyanki war party that has slain the illithid and put its head on a proverbial pike? Githyanki are not something most players expect to see, especially in an introductory adventure, but they might make a nice change of pace. 
One last thing about Cragmaw Castle: it needs a dungeon. Whether it is the Phalorm- and/or Uthtower-built resting place of the Bloodbone Throne of Uruth Ukrypt or an eladrin mage's retreat, this castle needs a dungeon level with several points of entrance and maybe two or more levels. 
One of the things missing in the Lost Mine of Phandelver is a genuine multi-level dungeon and this looks like as good a place as any (notwithstanding my suggestion to turn Old Owl Well into a serpent-themed megadungeon).
  • Make sure you work out why the Cragmaw tribe is called Cragmaw. My suggestion is that it relates to a giant maw-shaped sinkhole in The Crags.
  • Should the Cragmaw tribe be goblins or orc, gnolls, ogres, or even grimlocks? Even if you go with the goblins as written, throw in another faction to make Cragmaw Castle, in particular, a little bit more interesting. (I think this is even more important with 5E because it lacks the tactical depth of 4E no matter what anyone says to the contrary. But it is faster to run 5E combats! :) )
  • Work out a little bit of backstory for Cragmaw Castle and then stick a two-level dungeon beneath it that draws on that backstory so that the dungeon makes some sense.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

GenCon News - No 5E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting

I recently posted the first 5E map for the Forgotten Realms from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure (or, more accurately, the abbreviated version released as part of the new organised play scheme called D&D Adventurers League) and was surprised to note that it contained a few spelling mistakes, including the misspelling of the name of the city of Silverymoon which is a fairly significant location in Realmslore.

I mean, I do not have a high opinion of WotC's editors - see page XX is an error that transcends editions - but my opinion dropped lower when my tweet to the map's cartographer mentioning the errors came back with a response that he simply duplicated what was on the draft copy WotC sent him.

If the 5E version of Realms was meant to win back the diehard fans who were turned off by 4E, having no QA process to prevent some fairly basic errors on the first official map was a major step backwards. (And, sure, to normal people it's such a minor thing but setting fans are generally detail-oriented.)

And then came the news I read today.

It seems that Mike Mearls has said that any official 5E campaign setting is either a long way off or not even likely. Instead, the plan is to drip-feed the information via other products such as adventures.

No, Mike, that is not how you win back FR fans.

Anyway, one thing I learnt from the whole 5E playtest circus was that anything said by Mike could be safely ignored unless and until it was confirmed by Rodney Thompson. And the fact that Mike is technically Rodney's boss is completely irrelevant.

Ironically, in the light of this post, it's probably strange that I am even posting this. I have no interest in 5E and even less interest in a version of the Forgotten Realms that is "sponsored" by R A Salvatore. I mean, the guy seems to be a great bloke, but he writes as if he was channelling George Lucas at the precise moment that George was inventing the gungans. (Look at RAS's dwarves. They're retarded. They have speech impediments. They have stupid names. Yes, they are simply bearded gungans.)

So, why I am posting?

I think this is actually a good time for people to take a fresh look at the 4E version of the Forgotten Realms. You have the sparseness of the OGB. You have basically no RSEs reshaping the world. You have tonnes of source material from Living Forgotten Realms adventures that, while highly variable in quality, are legally free of charge. And you still have all the stuff published for previous editions available as source material.

Sure, you have the shittiest world map in the history of RPG publishing but Mike Schley has created many regional maps - Chessenta, Cormyr, Neverwinter, Silver Marches, Vaasa - which are eminently usable in a way that Rob Lazzaretti's smudgefest from the 4E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide could never hope to be.

And everything that people claim to be a reason to hate the 4E Realms - lost countries, dead deities etc... - is not only an adventure hook, but an entire campaign arc in the making. 

Anyway, that's still better than having nothing, right?

Edit 17Aug14: Personally, I am not surprised by this, but Mike Mearls has been on ENWorld to clarify that something for the Forgotten Realms is coming later, after they have actually finished the 5E products - yep, the DMG is still being worked on! - and everyone has had a break before they go about their next big release.

Per my earlier comment, don't take anything at face value posted by Mike unless and until it is confirmed by someone else. If I was running WotC, he would not be my choice as the public face of the brand unless I wanted someone who seemed to possess a remarkable talent for generating lots of nerdrage because of bad communication.

Hmmm, maybe he is the right guy, after all?