I must admit that I ignored the Lost Mine of Phandelver for the longest time, and it was only out of pure snobbery. “I have played D&D for decades,” I told myself, “Why would I demean myself with the purchase of a Starter Set?” The truth is that the Lost Mine adventure is actually really good, surprisingly so, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do – introduce new players to the game of D&D through a compelling, diverse experience.
This is the point, and it is a point that was drummed home for me last week when I introduced the adventure to my family. Sure, for an old timer like me, ‘you meet in a tavern and agree to escort a caravan’ is hackneyed. A goblin ambush of first level characters is predictable. I’ve done a dungeon crawl of a goblin hideout more times than I care to remember. It’s D&D cliche, and it’s played out, and frankly I want more from my tabletop role-playing experience.
But this is not the experience of first time players. My family found the goblin ambush terrifying and thrilling. They nervously followed the trail up to the hideout. They were jubilant and high-fiving after every goblin defeat. They went off-script, laying traps and set up their own goblin ambushes. They searched desperately for Gundren Rockseeker, a character who they met briefly but who has now become part of their larger imaginary world of play.
It’s easy to forget how new the experience of playing D&D for the first time is. It’s easy to forget that once upon a time, these experiences were new for me as well, and they just as tense and thrilling, as hilarious and exultant.
It’s for this reason that not only have I come around on LMOP – an adventure I’d originally dismissed out of hand – I’m now very excited to use it as the foundation of an entire campaign built that combines it with Dragon of Icespire Peak and Princes of the Apocalypse. More on this to come.
But I’ve also come to appreciate the design of the adventure as an introductory experience that incorporates the diverse aspects of the tabletop roleplaying experience in a thematically coherent narrative. As written, Lost Mine of Phandelver is an adventure for four or five first-time players. The adventure is set in a pioneering village surrounded by dangerous, fantastic wilderness, a short distance from the famous D&D city of Neverwinter on the Sword Coast.
LMOP consists of four parts. The first part is the goblin ambush and subsequent exploration of their lair. Part two is a small, frontier village, where the characters get to meet and interact with an interesting cast of characters with rich enough backstories and problems to be solved. Part three is a exploration of the wilderness around the town, with quests to be had, monsters to be encountered and, over time, clues to be found that unlock the mystery of the lost mine. Part four is the classic dungeon crawl, that culminates in the battle with the Big Bad Evil Guy. The canonical three pillars of role-playing – combat, social interaction, exploration – combined with a rich, collaborative storytelling experience, told over four acts. Bravo!
It breaks down even more so than this – the first part of the story progressively introduces the PCs to increasingly complex rules and styles of play. You begin with a ranged/melee combat, encounter traps and obstacles, solve problems of terrain and resources, use skills and abilities of your character, negotiate outcomes with NPCs, make complex trade-off decisions. It is thoughtfully designed from a mechanics viewpoint, but it doesn’t feel a ‘training mission’ from a player or DMs point of veiew. This is a real lesson for DMs interested in bringing new players into the tabletop hobby.
It is also designed openly enough to give an old grognardy DM like me an opportunity to flex my creative and narrative muscle. The bulk of the flavour text for key locations and events is functionally descriptive, leaving a lot of the details to be fleshed out by the DM. There might be a bit of extra work for a beginner DM, or an opportunity for creative improvisation on the fly, depending on how you like to engage the players. For me, it is clear that this is a key aspect of writer Richard Baker’s design principles, and it creates space for me that isn’t about reading pages of turgid boxed text.
We’ve only scratched the surface of this adventure, but to date I am very impressed with what I’ve seen, and the enthusiasm from my family for this adventure has lit a creative fire under me. There’s much left to explore here – the publication promises to take players up to level 5, and I’d imagine 30 hours plus of gameplay lies ahead without much addition on my part. With the recent publication of the tie in module Dragon of Icespire Peak, our family adventures in and around Phandalin could take us the better part of next year.
They say first impressions count, and in my household the Lost Mine of Phandelver will be the first and lasting impression my sons have of D&D. Right now, I couldn’t be feeling happier with this decision.