Digging Into Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk

Since Lost Mine of Phandelver has consistently ranked as the most popular 5E adventure, the announcement that Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk would expand on and follow that story made sense. How well it works for your group will depend upon what you liked about LMoP. Please Note: Although we identify major spoilers in the text, an in-depth review of this adventure by necessity involves light spoilers, including the graphics!

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The D&D team has worked hard to provide a variety of campaign styles and genres for 5E, from heist adventures to exploring the Feywild and epic war campaigns, as well as the solar punk/hopepunk of Journeys through the Radiant Citadel to literally going to hell in Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus, plus a variety of horror subgenres in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. The original LMoP is very much a classic D&D adventure—a town needs help and resolving the problem requires a mix of investigation, combat, and exploration of the area in and around Phandalin, followed by a classic dungeon crawl in the mine. The Wizards team did a great job of creating an adventure that has a little bit of everything that makes D&D fun.

PaBTSO starts with a revised version of LMoP and then expands out from there with a creeping tonal shift into cosmic horror. It makes perfect sense that if you're going to continue the original, an eldritch horror rising from below brings a world of terrifying possibilities. However, LMoP became very popular with families, especially after Wizards gave the adventure away for free during COVID lockdown, The nature of the LMoP campaign also made it very easy for DM to scale back the violence if some or all of the players were kids.

That means the new content in PaBTSO may not be a great fit for your players, especially if they are on the younger side. If your group features entirely adults, it'll depend upon how they feel about cosmic and body horror.

The original adventure took players from first to fifth level. PaBTSO goes from first to 12th level and depending upon how the adventure ends, a DM could continue beyond that point with homebrew by extrapolating some plot threads.

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The Original Refined​

The first four chapters of PaBTSO are largely the same as those in LMoP, albeit with some changes and updates. A few of those changes are to smooth out portions of the adventure and make it run better. Others are to make it more challenging than a Starter Set adventure typically is. A few others are for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

This section does get a lot more art than the original had (and much of the art in the original LMoP was recycled from the Dungeon Masters Guild and Monster Manual), and it looks terrific. Lots of NPCs get art now, such Nezznar the Drow (by Axel Defois) and Linene Graywind (by Robson Michel). Good art really helps to bring an adventure to life, and if Kent Davis' art for the chapter 2 opener isn't a classic for adventurers in a tavern, I don't know what is.

Some of the encounters are tweaked to make them more of a challenge than those in the Starter Set. For example, the number of skeletons in one encounter increases from three to six. LMoP also had a modified stat block for a wraith encounter to decrease the CR. PaBTSO uses the official wraith stat block, and I love Nino Vecia's art for Mormesk the Wraith.

The DM is also given a tiny bit more guidance (a full paragraph) for starting the adventure than the “The adventure begins as the player characters are escorting a wagon full of provisions and supplies from Neverwinter to Phandalin” that LMoP began with. A few paragraphs are also spent early on explaining the Far Realm’s influence and transformation of Phandalin every time the players return to it so the DM can lay the groundwork for the new material later on.

A half-elf NPC in LMoP, Daran Edermath from the Edermath Orchard scenario, now becomes a retired Drow adventurer. Another NPC was switched from male to female. Two more adventure hooks are added—Friend of the Harpers and Gauntlet Trainee. A map is provided for the Goblin Ambush encounter.

Note that there aren't any custom character creation options or rules. Backgrounds receive tweaks to fit the adventure, but that's it. I don't mind that because it doesn't feel like it needs it, but you may disagree.

The psionic goblins, which have a larger role in the new content section of the book, have been inserted into the older content. They don't replace the Cragmaw goblins. It's a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.

Overall, none of the changes to the original LMoP adventure are drastic. In my opinion, they were done thoughtfully to shift slightly away from being purely a starter adventure and enhance it. A few more plot hooks have been added to pull players into the larger mystery as well as to marry the old and new material together better. Other plot hooks were streamlined to run more smoothly.

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Handling Horror So It's Creepy AND Fun​

Before addressing anything else, let me note that PaBTSO absolutely needs a session zero. You can search online for what a session zero is or consult the section in Tasha's Cauldren of Everything for more details on what it does and how to handle it. The new material in PaBTSO is cosmic/eldritch horror with the possibility of body horror. Even general horror fans might not enjoy cosmic or eldritch horror so check with your players before buying PaBTSO.

And for those into eldritch/cosmic horror, body horror might be a step too far. So even if they said yes to playing PaBTSO, include a session zero to work out details to be sure it's fun scary for everyone. Early in the book, under “Far Realm Influence” there's a sidebar about character transformation and player consent. The players can fail the adventure without being transformed—or it could add just the right note of horror to bring home the consequences of their failure. It will depend entirely upon your group so have a discussion before the campaign begins to be sure everyone is on the same page. Any number of reasons could explain why they are unaffected by the Far Realm energies.

On the other hand, if your players love body horror, as the Far Realm energies start to affect Phandalin, a DM could have the characters affected by the energies as well. PaBTSO Includes a Transformation Effects table to guide the process, though it may take a little finesse to time the escalations properly.

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The New Content​

Without spoilers, I can say that I really liked that lead designer Amanda Hamon, along with writers Richard Baker, Eytan Bernstein, Makenzie De Armas, Ron Lundeen, and Chris Perkins took LMoP into a direction I didn't expect. It would have been easy to do another threat from the Underdark, but while PaBTSO crosses into that territory, it does so much more.

Now, onto spoilers.
The new material begins with psionic goblins vandalizing and disrupting the Phandalin region, searching for pieces of broken magical obelisk, which is one of the ancient Netherese obelisks mentioned in other adventures. In this case, mind flayer fanatics who worship the Far Realm godlet Ilvaash are trying to reassemble the obelisk and use it to power a ritual that will turn humanoids into mind flayers and bring the godlet's power to Faerun.

Along the way, the players will have to venture beneath Talhundereth, into the Underdark, and to a dwarven temple desecrated by mindflayers to reclaim pieces of the obelisk before the fanatics do. Then they have to travel to Illithinoch, a former mind flayer nation stronghold that is now a shrine to Ilvaash. A gateway from there will take them to the Far Realm where they must stop the ritual to save Phandalin and probably all of Faerun. Even if they do, Ilvaash will want revenge so DMs can continue the story past the book with their own material.

PaBTSO has all sorts of material and challenges. In addition to new monsters made just for this book, players will encounter aboleths, flumphs, a spirit naga, phase spiders, a githyanki camp, a giant purple worm, and so much more, making it a cut above the typical adventure with routine monsters. It even has an amethyst dragon, which definitely made this gem dragon fan happy.

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The Art​

While I'm not a horror fan, the art is terrific overall and does a fantastic job of setting the tone. Art director Bree Heiss did an outstanding job as part of “Team Weird” with project lead Amanda Hamon. At the press preview, they talked about looking at old horror novels for design inspiration, and it shows, especially in the game store cover.

Most of the 5E alternative covers for game stores have had a “soft touch finish” and at first, I thought this one was the exception. The otherworldly acid green has a slick feeling to it, almost as if the cover has been lacquered, with a slight texture where elements like the title lettering, the ampersand on the back, etc. are raised embossed. Then I realized the bottom of the cover does have that soft touch finish in its matte black, creating the impression that the green is oozing down. A job well done by cover artist DZO.

The standard cover, done by Antonio Jose Manzanedo, is the flip side in terms of design. It looks great, but at first glance it would appear to be a standard D&D adventure scene. Only on closer examination might you notice that these are not normal goblins and then question what they're seeking. So the standard cover represents the horror hiding beneath Phandalin while the alt cover depicts the otherworldly energies seeking to infect the small town and Faerun at large.

The NPC art is just outstanding. The characters' attitude comes through in their pose and facial expression, such as in Brian Valeza's art for Chishinix the mind flayer. The creature art is appropriately horrific. John Stanko's art of The Weavers actually gave me an idea for my homebrew version of Waterdeep and its epic story arc.

Really, I could spend several more paragraphs praising the art for this book. Whether it's cozy town scenes early on, creepy monster art, or excellent NPC art, Heiss and her team did an excellent job.

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Little Details Make a Difference​

I LOVE that Wizards provided a faux newspaper for Phandalin that you can print and hand out to your players. More of this, please! You can download it for free at this link.

The extra art, especially the NPC art, is a big help, as are the abundance of maps, which LMoP did not have. PaBTSO has 20 new creatures, plus a few additional stat blocks for key NPCs. It also has new consumable magic items and duergar magic.

PaBTSO has a double-sided poster map. The Phandalin region is on one side with the town of Phandalin plus multiple dungeons on the other. I can't wait to see what Beadle & Grimm's does with all of the other maps and NPC art because this poster map just scratches the surface. Still, a tear-out poster map in the book is always useful.

I also like that PaBTSO comes with a story tracker to help the DM.

Someone at Wizards is finally listening to our feedback about accessibility. Perhaps they hired an accessibility consultant, but in any case the digital version of PaBTSO in D&D Beyond is a substantial improvement over Bigby Presents: Glory of Giants.

First, the artist credits on individual pieces of art are easy to find and read. That's why I've been able to name them more readily in this review than I could in BPGoG. (And if someone at Wizards is reading these, please consider a slightly larger font size in true black or close to it for the 2024 books, move the artist credit away from the seam on individual pieces and bump up its font size so book owners don't have to try to find just the right magnifying glass angle to read them). The dark mode on a tablet seems better, too, though it's still gray lettering instead of white on the black background.

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What I Liked​

PaBTSO is ambitious, and I always appreciate designers who do something different, even if it doesn't hit the mark. PaBTSO largely does and focuses on a segment of the D&D multiverse that is mentioned but rarely a featured location.

While PaBTSO offers new monsters, I liked that it also took existing monsters and offered new variants. The original adventure has Cragmaw goblins as classic low-level opponents. The new content features psionic goblins of various ability and skill levels to both up the ante and demonstrate how the energies of the Far Realms are corrupting and changing Phandelin.

Similarly cloakers and otyughs get cloaker mutates and otyugh mutates to add more dangerous variations. PaBTSO could have simply added all new creatures but having creature variants is a good example of design reinforcing theme.

Ashenwights are a new type of undead. They were workers who toiled in the mines a thousand years ago and suffered cruelly until killed by a catastrophe. Their proximity to some Far Realm energies brought them back to work eternally. The Feral Ashenwights have a spark of life but want to destroy any living being they encounter. The Psionic Ashenwights are more sapient and could be helpful in the right situations.

I also like that the humanoid mutates can be of any alignment so if a DM needs to mix things up a bit or nudge players, a humanoid mutate NPC can easily fill the role as an ally, enemy, traitor, subject of pity, or a combination. A skilled DM whose group might need more motivation could use a humanoid mutate in a small plot thread that would break the players' hearts and galvanize them to action.

Another good point is that those who have already played LMoP can continue with their original characters. Because there's a clear starting point between the old and new content it's fairly easy for DMs to make it work instead of starting over with new characters, though that's also an option.

I also love that a DM could easily spin off the ending into a new adventure whether the players succeed or fail. It provides just enough plot threads to start a new story and spin it in any direction the DM wants.

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What I Didn't Like​

During the press preview for PaBTSO (click here for details) we were told that it gave DMs “an optional subsystem” for the level of corruption the ritual in chapter 8 causes, providing a sliding scale for the horror. I've read chapter eight three times, but I'm not finding anything labeled as such nor is one indicated in the table of contents.

This is a prime example of why I think EVERY D&D book should have an index. Yes, they're annoying to produce and mistakes can happen easily, but it would be a huge help for DMs. An item like the subsystem that provides a “sliding scale” for the horror should not be hard to find. An index would also be a huge help for finding the stat blocks scattered throughout the adventure in addition to the ones in the bestiary at the end, as well as other key details.

It doesn't have a pronunciation guide, which would have been a huge help, especially with the Far Realm/mind flayer names. I wish the D&D team would standardize a few things, among them, include a character cheat sheet, pronunciation guide, and story tracker in every adventure, with a plot tree as well if a story branches or has variable threads. It makes a DM's work easier.

While aspects of the original adventure were tweaked to tie into and foreshadow the later material, the transition from the end of the original adventure into the new one could have been done a little better. A DM can ease this process by playing up the town NPCs more and building ties with the characters to ensure they come back or stick around to discover the next phase of the plot. It also might be handy to name-drop the NPC Gwyn Oresong early in the adventure because she will have a lot of useful info for the players later.

I'm also not a horror fan and when I do engage, it's with a very specific type, so technically, PaBTSO is not an adventure for me. That said, it is a well-crafted campaign. I just don't like most horror, and cosmic, eldritch, and body horror are specific areas of disinterest. However, I love that the D&D team is producing content for a variety of genres and tastes so I like that my yuck can be someone else's yum.

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Should You Buy It?​

If your group is not into horror in general or specifically cosmic horror mixed with body horror, then PaBTSO is not for you. Theoretically, you could rewrite the latter part of the adventure to ease up on the horror or substitute another threat entirely, using the maps, many NPCs, and general adventure outline, but that might be more work than a DM would be willing to do.

If your group does like cosmic, eldritch, and body horror, PaBTSO should be right up your alley. A session zero is still recommended so the degrees of horror are clear, as well as other details, like how the characters know each other, if any have ties to Phandalin, etc.

If you already ran Lost Mine of Phandelver, and your group loved it, at least consider PaBTSO. Ultimately, it'll depend upon how your group feels about horror.

If your group loves hack and slay adventures and dislikes solving mysteries, it's a toss-up because PaBTSO has plenty of both. There's a lot of combat opportunities, much of it against vile creatures like grick mutates, aboleths, cloaker mutates, etc. that they can attack without hesitation. But PCs will also have to figure out what's going on and in various instances, discussion and negotiation will serve them better than attacking anything that moves.

If you like weird and different creatures, PaBTSO has you covered. The new monsters are wildly imaginative and often quite disturbing. Plus characters can encounter creatures they typically don't in other adventures with the opportunity to ally with some of them, such as the flumphs and amethyst dragon.

Overall, Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk is a very well done adventure. Wizards set out to do something different and succeeded. The flaws are minor execution issues rather than inherent problems, and easily overcome or rectified. My rating hovers between B+ and A-, with the latter rating for those who enjoy the sort of horror it's serving. The B+ is more appropriate for those who don't because the structure is there retool the adventure to dial back the horror or even shift the genre with more work. Either way, it's a well put together campaign with a lot of possibilities.

Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk is available in stores on September 19.
 

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels


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Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
WotC has confirmed that the original version of Lost Mine of Phandelver will become Legacy content on DNDBeyond starting Oct 6, so claim it now if you don't have it.

They say there will be a new free introductory adventure to take its place.

It's a shame to deprecate the original version of LMoP, in my opinion. The updates in the new book mostly make the adventure slightly worse than the original version, and neither of the other two Starter Set adventures are of the same quality. I wonder if Dragon of Icespire Peak will now become free, or there will be an entirely new free adventure replacing it.
 

mamba

Legend
I wonder if Dragon of Icespire Peak will now become free, or there will be an entirely new free adventure replacing it.
sounds like it will be an intro to Stormwreck Isle (ship voyage getting there) plus the first encounter from it. The whole things sounds much shorter than any of the sets however
 



Spoiler from chapter 8 below.

In the ultimate encounter with the refraction of Ilvaash, the PCs finally get to duke it out with the eldritch horror itself. Fittingly, after exploring a giant brain maze and swimming through six miles of cerebral fluid, the refraction is a big brain. This all works for me so far. And then we get this: "It pulses with alien power as it telepathically intones, 'You have stampeded through my realm like surgeons operating with a hatchet. Your intrusion ends now.'"

I get that it's hard to make an enemy truly alien since you want them to have a personality, but this monologue sounds like a two-bit goon. Isn't the surgeons-with-hatchets simile hopelessly grounded in mortal reality? Nothing about it says "I'm a highly intelligent alien god from beyond time and space."

Grumble. I know, I will fix it. It just catapulted me out of my immersion.

Anyone else stumble over this?
 

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