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.


  1. I am pretty sure they are called cragmaw simply because they sharpen their teeth into points. Sharp as crags in their maw.

  2. I am pretty sure they are called cragmaw simply because they sharpen their teeth into points. Sharp as crags in their maw.

  3. Thanks for that, +Marcone Cangussu. I never gave that idea any thought before as I never really think of goblins as having big teeth... even though they do! They're just overshadowed by orcs in that respect.

  4. It actually says so in the bottom right corner of page 7 in The Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure book. "The Cragmaw tribe is so named because each member of the tribe sharpens its teeth so they appear fierce and jagged."

    1. Thanks for that. I clearly failed a fairly simple Perception check.

    2. Of course, nothing to say that both could not be the case. Perhaps they sharpen their teeth beacuse they come from (a) Cragmaw and were inspired by the name of their homeland.

  5. I decided the reason Cragmaw Castle is strangely designed is because it was raised by a mad Warlock many centuries ago. In a hidden basement, there is the real meat of the Castle. A 5-Dimensional mega-dungeon I designed. It's filled with a huge variety of eerie, dangerous, and horrifying things. Here's a link to more info about that dungeon: