In this bit of D&D, the players slew some orcs, mused about the mystery of a missing dwarf, fought some hobgoblins, and eventually came to the headquarters of the Cragmaw tribe – and the possible location of Gundren Rockseeker – Cragmaw Castle.
Ally or Enemy?
I think the first big success of the session was the character of Halia Thornton. She is described in the adventure as an agent of the (profitable, if corrupt) Zhentarim organization, with designs on the town of Phandelver. She became an important bit for my party thanks to their search for the Rockseeker brothers – it brought them to the Miner’s Exchange, and to Halia, who asked them to put an end to the Redbrands.
Halia in my running is akin to Lucile Bluth – elegance and evil and a sort of lazy callousness. She works well because she’s connected to a PC (the dwarven rogue took to her as the Zhentarim goals align well with his own), and is a steady stream of patronage (she took over Harbin’s job and gave them his quest, too!).
This week, she tried to recruit the reluctant priest of Tempus to get the local priestess of Tymora (and agent of the Harpers) out of town. Her agenda (and her growing influence) is interestingly conflicted. She doesn’t seem to want anything overtly evil – indeed, she wanted the elimination of the redbrands, and the destruction of some orcs, she seems to want to see Phandalin prosper…as long as she is at the head of it. But the most knowledgeable players are hesitant to accept her, knowing the reputation of the Zhentarim. Her efforts at empowering herself through acts of not-necessarily-evil put the party in an interesting dilemma, and I’m fond of her role as a useful ally that you don’t necessarily trust. That ambiguity is fun – it’s fun to play the party off of each other and to have them know they can never entirely trust their patron. It’d be fun to codify that in some way. I think my progress of Halia’s plot as something that happens offscreen (though the characters play a big role in it) is a nice pacing there.
Lesson Learned: The grey area between antagonist and ally is fun to play with. An NPC patron that is potentially both puts a lot on the line for every mission accomplished for them.
Your Effect on the World
Another fun bit was when the party had a random encounter with some hobgoblins. The adventure states that in this random encounter, the hobgoblins are bounty-hunters seeking a particular PC with a “crudely drawn picture.” I extrapolated from this picture to “a completely inaccurate reputation.” The random PC it landed on? Our pacifist halfling shadow cleric. So of course the hobgoblins were looking for a murderous monster who left no being alive. The fact that this was a little true (the party had accidentally killed more than one creature that the halfling had simply knocked out) added to the hilarity.
I think this bit worked because I was reacting to what a character had done in the world, letting their actions affect the way the world looked and acted in response to them. Part of the fun that D&D offers is that others are an audience for your performance, so to have elements picked up and used by others is exciting.
Lesson Learned: Let the players build the world through their actions, and give it back to them – the world should respond to their presence, and their enemies should know them.
The hiccup that occurred tonight had to do with the party not knowing how to pursue the goal they sought. They were looking to find where the Rockseeker brothers had disappeared to – and the adventure as it played out didn’t give them a clear view of where they might be. Partially, this is based on their approach, but given the amount of knocked-out NPC’s that happen, questioning them isn’t exactly rare.
What seems to be rarer is hints as to what might’ve happened to Gundren. The party wasn’t exactly inquisitive in Cragmaw Cave, and though the goblin they questioned admitted they took the dwarf, it also just said he was “gone” (they presumed, dead). That, plus the death of Sildar Hallwinter meant that the party didn’t have a real idea of where Gundren had wound up, just that he wasn’t found there. Even the loudmouth goblin they rescued from the Redbrands, who wanted to help them…they just never thought to ask (and had no real reason to ask).
It seems like the main thread there – “save Gundren from the goblins” – hung on by a few threads that the players didn’t pick up on. Part of this confusion seems to be born from there being two NPC’s at the start of the adventure that the party was following – when one died, and the other was missing, they assumed that was their chance for relevant details, and they had missed it.
It took me suggesting courses of action to them – the link between the Redbrands and the goblin “boss,” and talking to Droop (who is now stealing apples from Adermarth Orchard!) for some more information, to get them the info that there might be a dwarf alive in Cragmaw Castle.
Lesson Learned: Don’t be shy with the motive, and maybe be pro-active in the offering of solutions. I could’ve had Droop talk a LOT about the dwarf that the boss just brought in, had I been thinking of it.