Saturday, November 28, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 24: D&D Starter Set

Turns out this is a busy time of year, and keeping up on a regular blog post is a little challenging. My apologies—I really had planned to finish up this little retrospective series before the end of the year. Juggling the Primeval Thule print job, our PDF accessories, and shifting Sasquatch to a new distribution partner wound up absorbing a ton of my time and attention over the last few weeks. Plus, there was an exciting new development this month: My agent sold the first three books of my Sikander North military sci-fi series to Tor Books!

So what exactly is Sikander North? About a year ago, I found myself with a good writing window and asked myself a simple question: If I could write anything I wanted, what would I write? I decided that since I enjoy sci-fi with plenty of military action, “geopolitics,” and thriller trappings, that’s what I ought to focus on. So I came up with a take on the future that’s inspired by the Great Power rivalries of the late 19th century and the dreadnought era, and a character that I could write some fun stories about (the aforementioned Sikander North). Valiant Dust, the first book in the series, should debut in 2017—it’s almost done now, but I need to do one last set of revisions for Tor.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to write Forgotten Realms novels, it’s always been my goal to break out of the shared-world reservation and write my own stuff. So, as you might imagine, this is a very exciting bit of news for me. I’ll keep you posted on the progress!

Okay, on to the meat and potatoes of the blog post today: My ongoing look back at adventures I’ve worked on over the years.

#29: Lost Mine of Phandelver
About two years ago, I decided to part ways with Goblinworks and focus on Primeval Thule, my own writing, and freelancing work as the opportunity presented itself. (I liked Goblinworks just fine, but the 75-minute commute each way was stealing too much of my day.) Anyway, I sent a note to Chris Perkins at Wizards of the Coast to let him know I had some bandwidth to take on any work he might have, and it turns out Chris had just the right project: the adventure that would be included in the new D&D Starter Set for 5e. I’d worked on 5e for a few months right at the end of my time on-staff at WotC, so I was happy to dive in and pick it up again.

The opportunity to work on an adventure that appears early in an edition’s life cycle is both fun and challenging. It’s fun because you know that a lot of people are going to see it, and some of your work is going to wind up becoming a touchstone of shared experience across many thousands of D&D players. I wound up writing the second adventure in both 3e and 4e (those being Forge of Fury and Thunderspire Labyrinth), plus Reavers of Harkenwold in 4e Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit. It’s cool to create starting towns and introduce monsters and villains that players might be seeing for the first time ever. The challenging part is that writing early in an edition—potentially before the core rulebooks are published—means that some things just haven’t been figured out yet. The encounter-building rules and treasure rules that would appear in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide weren’t even close to finished when I worked on the 5e Starter Set.

The other challenging part was that Wizards of the Coast provided me a list of “make sure you include X” about as long as my arm. There were dozens of locales in that corner of the Sword Coast that WotC wanted to touch on, a bucket of old Realms lore, different types of dungeons, a mix of combat, exploration, and roleplaying . . . I kind of started to think of the mission statement as “write the kitchen sink adventure.” That daunted me a bit at first, but then I realized that it actually dovetailed nicely with the idea of a wide-open sandbox, which is probably the strongest and best example to give a new DM on how adventures should be put together. Plus, these days, new D&D players are almost certainly coming to the tabletop game after years of experience in World of Warcraft or console games featuring ideas like “quest hubs.” Creating a D&D adventure for beginners that used those expectations effectively made a lot of sense.

So, with that in mind, I looked through all the material WotC had dropped on my desk, and winnowed down the list of locales and elements to something I could fit in the space I had to work with. Borrowing a bit of Realmslore, I decided to “hide” the final dungeon (the mines of Phandelver proper) and make the finding of that dungeon the major story thread tying together the earlier pieces. As it turns out, the story of the Phandelver Pact, Phandalin, and that little era of the history of the North is actually quite confusing and contradictory in places, so I had to work pretty hard to present something that was not too deep in Realmslore for a casual FR fan to understand. In a perfect world I actually would have omitted a lot of that material, but fitting the new adventure into existing Realmslore was important to WotC (and me, too, to be honest).  I was also handcuffed a bit by things like the requirement to feature the banshee Agatha but not let her fight the PCs and making sure all the player factions got into the mix—nothing that was really onerous, just a bit more complicated and nitpicky than I would have liked.

When I was close to wrapping up the adventure, Chris Perkins asked me for a title suggestion. I just drew a blank. This was a kitchen-sink adventure, after all, and it was hard to figure out what it was *about.* The best I could come up with was something like “The Lost Mine,” but that felt super-generic. Since I couldn’t come up with a title hinting at the sort of activities or plots the heroes were facing or a clever twist on a well-known turn of phrase that would apply, I settled for adding a proper noun that would at least make the title distinctive. I thought the suggestion was weak and I figured WotC would brainstorm up a better one, but it stuck. So, there you have it: Lost Mine of Phandelver. Sorry if you don’t like the name.

Next Time: Primeval Thule!


  1. Man, I've been hearing nothing but praise for LMoP over at RPGnet, it's making me really hope Father Christmas is bringing me the 5th Ed Starter set so I can take a look for myself, still if it half as good a job as you did with Reavers, it will be worth it, even if it is set in the Realms, Urgh!

  2. I have it and ran it with the basic rules before the PHB was released. I am a fan! I have been Dming for 27 years, and running organized play for wizard for quite some time. I really like the wide open sandbox style for store play, and home games for that mater, however all my home game stuff I create.

    But this is to say thanks I and the players enjoyed it. Its great for new DM's and I have directed several new Dm"s in this direction to learn the art of DMing. Great job!

  3. Richard, LMoP is a great adventure. I ran it as the first adventure for a mostly new group of players. They had a blast, I had a blast and now the abandoned manor house is their base of operations with the manor being rebuilt as they battle Elemental Evil.

    As you said, this is the first shared times adventure in 5E and you did a fabulous job.

    Looking for some more great stuff from you in the future.


  4. Great to see the PDF for Primeval Thule DnD 5e has gone live here:

    Any word on how someone who missed the Kickstarter can order a printed copy, or a printed copy + PDF?

    1. Thanks, Faience! For a print copy, ask your FLGS -- we have some books going into distribution (release date in January). PDFs are available at DriveThruRPG. We may make some direct order (e-commerce) available through our website, too. Hmm, might be smart to offer a hard copy + pdf bundle of some kind when we do that.

    2. Thanks, I got the PDF from DriveThruRPG and I'm already adding bits to my campaign. Nice work!

  5. @Darren, @Unknown, @AirGumby -- thanks for the kind words! Sandboxes are my favorite, I like putting them together!

  6. A belated congratulations, Rich, on the novel deal. That is tremendous news and well-deserved. I'm not a big fan of FR fiction but your books stand out as both good fantasy fiction and FR-flavoured.

    Lost Mine was and is brilliant. I think it's the best intro adventure D&D has had and it's definitely the best intro adventure FR has seen.

    (I knew WotC was serious about avoiding a bad launch as happened with 4E [and I say that as a diehard 4E fan] when I saw that you had been tapped to write the first adventure! :) )

  7. Hi Richard,

    Are you planning on writing anymore books about Jack Ravenwild? The first 2 books were great! Thanks.


  8. First off, Phandelver is shockingly good for a starter set adventure. I sort of collect D&D starter sets, and this is by far the best starter adventure I've seen. I opened it up to run a dinky one-shot, and everyone enjoyed it so much that our houseguest stayed another night to play a second session, and now we're starting an online campaign. I've seen someone say that they owe you a pint for this if they ever see you, and I second that remark.

    However, there is one issue I'd like clarification on. One thing that makes this adventure so great is the way the character backstories interact with the plot. But there seems to be a hole in the Rogue's Goal and how it interacts with the adventure. In particular, nothing in the adventure indicates who betrayed the rogue, or why. I realize that the adventure was written to be run with any characters and so couldn't reference the backstories directly, but this seems like an oversight (especially in an adventure for new DMs). Was there more detail on this that didn't make it into the module? Or was it left deliberately vague for the DM to figure out?