Sunday, 21 December 2014

Starter Set Sandbox 14 - Phandalin, Redux & The Keep on the Borderlands

Firstly, as noted in my earlier post today, my apologies to the regular readers of this blog for the delay in updates. Sickness + travel + fried laptop (x2) = blog post delays.

Secondly, this post is going to be a little different to the others I have posted so far simply because this represents a rough outline for a game I am going to be running the New Year using 5E! I think we're going to start in the second week of January, to allow for all the family stuff associated with this time of year, and then it's going to be up and running.

I confess, I don't like 5E. I like it even less after spending time the other week trying to learn it because I kept having AD&D flashbacks. Now, I've been a fan of D&D since 1981 but I grew to despise AD&D for basically being a train wreck design-wise which only worked if you had a solid body of house rules. 5E is clearly better designed that OD&D, AD&D1E, and AD&D2E, but it has the same break points as those earlier editions - also shared with 3.xE and Pathfinder - whereby casters are eventually going to dominate.

Also, in returning to "theatre-of-the-mind" combat - although, obviously, you could always use minis - it missed an opportunity to do what 13th Age has done super-successfully: hard-wire a tactical overlay that works even with theatre-of-the-mind. 

Finally, monster and NPC building/re-levelling is still painful: it might be a bit easier than 3.xE, but it's more complicated than AD&D, and far less satisfying than 4E.

OK, enough negativity.

The good news is: we'll be playing D&D. I volunteered to run the game because one of the players - he's 17 - wants to begin DMing 5E. It seemed that the best way to help was by offering to run a few 5E sessions and his dad was immediately onside because I offered to run a 5E version of B2 The Keep on the Borderlands which he has been wanting to return to for more than two decades....

And the great thing about theatre-of-the-mind is that we can play this via Skype without having to worry about anything more complicated than an old school dungeon map which I can use a portable webcam to flash up on the screen. That said, I will do a bit more than that: some time back I came across the maps to the Caves of Chaos as created by a rather generous fellow who styles himself as The Weem (if you use that link, just find the Caves of Chaos tags) online. I'll be using those with simply adjustments in Paint and then posting into the comments in Skype. We won't be using Roll20 or any of the other virtual tabletops: too much effort for too little reward.

I'm actually going to be going over old ground with this post because I covered Phandalin in a previous post - the twelfth post in this series (click here) - which is also where I introduced the idea of adapting B2 The Keep on the Borderlands to a campaign centred around Phandalin. Also, the mechanical work has already been done in the one or more of the earlier playtest packets where Caves of Chaos was converted. I'll use the new Monster Manual for the last version of the stat blocks but I'll use the treasure included with the conversion documents.

(That's also my way of saying: this post contains no crunch. It's all about adding some FR/Phandalin flavour.)

A Quick Outline

Keep basically consists of three parts:

1. the titular keep;
2. the wilderness; and
3. the Caves of Chaos.

Phandalin will fill the role that the keep played in the original. It's primarily a safe haven but it has some secrets as described in Lost Mine of Phandelver. The wilderness I plan to ad lib with the aid of simple random encounter table (see below). As for the Caves of Chaos, as I have already noted I am going to use a combination of the earlier playtest conversion document plus the stat blocks from the  5E Monster Manual.

Of course, anyone who is no longer a teenager knows the first thing you need to do if you're going to run Keep on the Borderlands is provide a reason as to why all these disparate humanoid tribes have gathered together in a single location without embarking on a war of mutually-assured destruction. (Of course, Eberron DMs don't have that problem. If ever there was a campaign setting where Keep on the Borderlands made sense exactly as written it is Eberron...!)

As the picture to the left suggests, my choice of mastermind is a blue dragon. More on Idrizraele Morueme later in this post. Oh, and he's the reasons I am calling this little adventure Tyrant of the Twilit Land....


The basic background for the players is this:
  • Phandalin was largely destroyed by rampaging orcs several centuries ago.
  • It is now being rebuilt largely to cater to those mining in the Sword Mountains. (Think of the movie Tombstone. It has a similar sort of feel to the town in the movie.)
  • Halia Thornton is a female human who owns the Phandalin Miner's Exchange. She (apparently) owns the title to the old Forgebar dwarven mines - and she has a map of them as per the player's map above - but the mercenaries she sent to secure it were cut down by a mixture of humanoids. One escaped to bring her this news.
  • The mixture of kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, and gnolls acting in concert is most unusual which suggests an outside agency has united them.
  • That mystery of an outside agency aside, Halia has offered  a 5,000 gp reward to whoever can secure the mines on her behalf. She will also provide 100 gp per head in supplies in advance, plus two potions of healing (2d4+2) each.
The PCs have (presumably) agreed to try their luck.... 

The basic background for the DM is all of the above plus:

  • Halia Thornton is an agent for the Zhentarim who wish to secure the wealth of a rebuilt Phandalin, and a reactivated Phandelver mine, for their own organisation.
  • The Zhentarim is worried about what the arrival of a blue dragon in the hills outside of Phandalin could mean especially as the dragon is reportedly a wizard and thus likely a member of the Morueme family of blue dragons.
  • The Zhentarim is also concerned about the Cult of the Dragon coming to the area lured by rumours of a blue dragon. The enmity between the two groups goes back a very long time....
  • The blue dragon's name is Idrizraele Morueme and she is named for a famous forebear. She is, indeed, of the blood of Morueme but Morueme tradition means that a female is banished from their lair in the Nether Mountains in the Silver Marches once she reaches breeding age.
  • Idrizraele is a challenge rating 9 blue dragon taken from the Monster Manual with a few small changes. Her Intelligence and Charisma scores are swapped around. She is a level 4 divination-specialist wizard. Her spells are essentially non-combat (although true strike may prove to be interesting) but she does have the portent class ability. Idrizraele also speaks several extra languages, including those of all the creatures in the cave.
  • Normally, a Morueme dragon has a personal bodyguard of 40-60 Red Flayer hobgoblins. As an exile, Idrizraele does not have such a guard and so, once she decided to make the Lost Forgebar Mines (more about the mines in a moment) her first order of business was to begin gathering loyal soldiers. The hobgoblins came first but then she branched out and starting gathering other races as well. 
  • And thus we have the basic background for why there are so many different races in the Caves of Chaos.
  • The Forgebar clan of dwarves were noted as being greedy and evil, unusually so for dwarves. These mines were dedicated to Abbathor, the neutral evil dwarven deity of greed, and a temple was built to honour him. (The Shrine of Evil Chaos, or whatever it was called, from the original Caves of Chaos is now the the Great Halls of Greed.)
And that's the situation the PCs will find themselves in. It's not too complicated but at least there is an underlying logic to the place plus a fairly formidable BBEG.

1. Phandalin (The Keep)

This can basically be played as written although I expect I will make a few adjustments once I know a bit more about my players' characters. So far I have a wood elf monk (some sort of merchant-related background), a human fey-pack warlock (noble background), a drow ranger (unknown background), and a human fighter (a former soldier haunted by the horrors of war). Each of them will have at least one adventure hook tied to Phandalin.

Also, the other big change IMC is that the Zhentarim are going to be a lot more evil, even if that evil is fairly subtle. The PCs have been offered an enormous sum of money for the mission but that's because, once the mission is completed, Zhentarim assassins will be waiting for them.

2. The Phandalin Hills (The Wilderness)

Here's a rough wondering monster table that exists more for inspiration than anything else:

Roll a d20 each hour. On a 16-20, roll a d20 and consult this table:
01 A blue dragon flies overhead.
02 Bugbears
03 Cult of the Dragon
04 Dwarves (Forgebar descendants looking for their lost clan mine; neutral evil)
05 Gnolls
06-08 Goblins
09-10 Hobgoblins
11 Kobolds 
12 Ogres (1-2 only)
13-18 Orcs
19 Perytons
20 Roll twice and assume the two groups are fighting.

3. The Lost Mines of the Forgebar Clan (The Caves of Chaos)

I am not proposing to change much of the Lost Mines/Caves of Chaos except with respect to the shrine/temple area where I want to make it plain that it was clearly a functioning temple of Abbathor. These bullet points are based on notes I made while reading the section on Abbathor in 2E's Demihuman Deities:
  • Temples are typically underground or are in secret, windowless rooms.
  • Sacrificial altars are massive, plain blocks of stone, blackened by the many fires laid and burnt upon them.
  • Temples are often mistaken for treasure vaults as they are typically painted with gold leaf (this one definitely is: that's old school!) and filled with a cache of purloined treasures.
  • Enemies of the dwarves are sacrificed once a year, with orcs, trolls, and giants being preferred. (I was thinking this could mean undead skeletons that are medium, large, and huge in size.)
  • Clerics wear red vestments. When stealth is required, red undergarments are worn.
Abbathor's symbol is a jewelled dagger typically placed within a diamond. These should appear fairly frequently on the walls and floor of the temple areas and one or more of these engraved symbols could be the focal point of a magical and/or mechanical trap. I was also thinking that they might be accompanied by dwarven runes that spell out something like, "Great Abbathor, Great Master of Greed, let us find all that shines or sparkles here, and revel in its possession." This is based on his dogma.

And on the subject of traps, these are a couple of ideas inspired by reading Demihuman Deities:
  • If Abbathor is offended - defiling his temple could be the trigger - he will cause non-magical treasure-carrying items such as backpacks and sacks to burst open.
  • In certain parts of the temple where there is treasure, the treasure is protected by a magical "zone of greed". Taking treasure from a "zone of greed" triggers a need to make a Wisdom saving throw. If failed, the person is consumed with greed and tries to fight anyone within, say, 15 feet of the treasure for the 1 minute with a new saving throw permitted each round. It may also be possible to use Persuasion to remove the effects.
I definitely want to include a mummified dwarven cleric that animates at some point, but taking care to ensure that the encounter with Idrizraele is not overshadowed in importance. And while a grand melee with the blue dragon is probably the most satisfying conclusion to the adventure, it may be that the PCs strike some other sort of deal with her. She really wants a safe lair and some interesting magic. If the former, in particular, was available she could be persuaded to move, especially with some interesting books on matters arcane....


One of the other reasons I decided to use a dragon as the BBEG - beyond simply the old school charm of such an idea - was that I thought the new DM I mentioned at the beginning of the post might be interested in transitioning the characters from Tyrant of the Twilit Land to Tyranny of Dragons. While they will be higher in level than recommended for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, that may actually work out better because the opening encounter of Hoard includes a blue dragon which is horribly overpowered for most level 1 groups. (And, yes, I know smart groups sometimes run away but not everyone plays that way.)

Anyway, if that is his plan I will try and include some more overt links between this adventure and Hoard so that the transition is made that much smoother. I may even include a 5E version of Azurl's Hoardseekers and, if he agrees, set them up as a recurring set of villains for his campaign.

Those developments aside, it's going to be interesting running such an old school adventure using what I find to be a fairly old school ruleset. I know it's not going to convert me to 5E but I am still looking forward to the experience.


  1. We have just finished the starter-set sandbox (using 5e) and the gang really likes it (compared to the 3e & Pathfinder experiences they all have).
    I'm curious if you wanted to share those "break points" you mentioned about 5e and D&D? (Perhaps food for another

    I'm running (conversions on the fly) their newly 5th-level characters through the old-school adventure: I3 Pharaoh. It seems to be working well, but it is taking the players a bit of getting used to the old school way of doing things: i.e. not every encounter is a perfectly balanced situation.

  2. It sounds like you're enjoying yourselves, Banesfinger. I must admit, if the players enjoy this 5E romp I would be tempted to continue... and I would do so by finding another old school adventure. Pharoah would be fun, but I think my personal choice is going to be my idea for running Caverns of Thracia in Old Owl Well.... :)

    Ahhh, my comments about 5E. I probably shouldn't have posted them as one of the reasons I started the "Starter Set Sandbox" series was so that I was being positive about at least one aspect of the new edition even if I didn't like the new rules. That said, I suspect I will comment more on the break points and whatnot when I can actually post the session reports for this game. But I also recommend the first post of this thread on ENWorld - - for some related thoughts.

    I do prefer the less fragile 4E PCs because I'm much more interested in the story that develops out of the game and, if PCs are less fragile, chances are you are going to see more of the story. Let's see how it turns out in actual play.... :)

    And I am happy to read that you and your players are enjoying yourselves. Will you also be doing I4 and I5? Did you set them in FR?

  3. Yes, I set I3 in Forgotten Realms (slightly different than the original supermodule's location). We are half-way through I3, and will gauge the player's reactions to that adventure first, before deciding to continue with the remainder of the desert of desolation series.

  4. Cool. I wonder it would be like to use Calim (djinni) and Memnon (efreeti) from the backstory of Calimshan and run the Deserts of Desolation series in that nation? I seem to recall the "official" placement is in the Raurin Desert which also makes sense.

    But maybe I will look at Calimshan-update for my own Realms at some point.... :)

  5. Where would you recommend inserting this into the Phandalin story? Have decided to extend The Lost Mine with the Red Hand of Doom story line. Could this be done as an extension after the Phandelver?

    1. I've got a post on Red Hand of Doom somewhere on this blog and I do think it makes a good fit post-Phandelver. As for this idea, I think this is more a complement to Phandelver; run them both alongside each other.

      Thanks for your comment. :)