Well, for starters, my take on it is by making the Stone Cold Reavers into more of an antagonistic threat. Like it's not JUST the four main members mentioned in the book. They are instead a small mercenary company. And the chick, whose name starts with an S and ends with Moon in her last name, is the leader.
She wants to slay Cryovain first so she and her mercenary company get the glory and recognition. The problem, for the PCs, is that negotiating with her to assist in the matter is completely ignored as she's a sociopath that is obsessed with getting the kill. (So all Persuasion rolls against her fail automatically due to this.) The only time she'll "agree" to anything the PCs say if they visit the main camp in the woods. But she'll have the party backstabbed at a moment's notice. The Stone Cold Reavers will actually appear in the main hub town(not the main four but the lackies) and then progress from there into a reoccurring threat. So they will go from be in the background to attacking the town and stuff.
Seeing this thread, I remembered that I had started a review of the Essentials Kit, but never finished it. I don’t have the time to finish it now, but maybe someone will get some use out of my notes. So without further ado, here are my scattered thoughts on the Essentials Kit and The Dragon of Icespire Peak:
1) Many of the quests and locations have an unfinished feel to them. This is perhaps most egregious in the Circle of Thunder location, which has three fully mapped-out cave systems, but almost no information on what’s inside. The southeastern cave, for example, constitutes five rooms (lettered A through E), but provides only a single sentence telling us what is carved above the cave-mouth. In other words, rooms A-E are labeled on the map, but aren’t described in the adventure. This is mostly true of the other two cave systems as well. It’s as if the writer had something more planned, but ran out of time or space.
2) There’s almost no boxed text in the adventure, which seems like a conspicuous oversight in a product aimed at beginning DMs. In the Axeholm quest, for example, there are 30 numbered locations and only 4 instances of boxed text. It's not fair or reasonable to expect beginning DMs to improvise room descriptions.
3) The quest rewards are pretty silly when you think about them. In one quest, for example, the characters are offered 25 gp to walk a little ways out of town and urge an old woman to move into town, where it’s safer. Not only is this a boring quest (any commoner could do it), but the reward is nutso-crazy from an economical perspective. According to the Players Handbook, an untrained hireling makes 2 sp per day, in which case 25 gp represents over four months’ worth of wages! Why would anyone offer so much money for such a simple job (which involves no more than a couple hours of work)? And why is no one else taking it? In such an economy, there’s no way this job-posting would last longer than a few hours. The path out of town would be strewn with the bodies of dead laborers who died fighting to be the first to claim the 4-months’ worth of wages.
4) Some of the quests are poorly thought out. In one quest, for example, the characters are sent to help “Big Al,” a rancher whose home has been attacked by orcs. Unfortunately, the job posting ends with this unfortunate sentence: “If he’s dead, return to Townmaster Harbin Wester with proof of [Big Al’s] demise to receive a reward of 100 gp.” Just what were the writers thinking here? The quest doesn’t mention a reward for saving Big Al, but if he’s found dead… Hmm... pay day. This is obviously going to put thoughts into a player's head. (And no, I don’t think this moral dilemma was intended by the adventure writers. It just reads like an oversight.)
5) The quest cards are a double-edged sword. They’re great for reminding the players about what they’re supposed to be doing, but they also force you to retain some of the adventure’s sillier elements (like the aforementioned “Big Al”). Want to change “Big Al’s” name because it doesn’t fit the heroic tone of your campaign? Too bad, it’s printed on the card. Want to reduce the rewards for some of the quests to something more reasonable? Again, too bad: the rewards are printed on the cards.
6) Ultimately, the Lost Mine of Phandelver is a much better adventure than the Dragon of Icespire Peak, although the Essentials Kit does include a few extras (such as a DM screen and magic item cards) that make it worth getting.
Dragon of Icespire Peak: 2.5/5 stars
Lost Mine of Phandelver: 4.5/5 stars