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D&D 5E How to run the Starter Set #1 - Session Zero and rewriting the Black Spider

Hi!

I’ve just started this massive project of making a big guide on how to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver, including how to iron out some of the problems I’ve encountered in the module. It was the first adventure I ran, and although that first time was a train wreck, I’ve run it again since then and its become one of my favourite official releases. This is the guide I wish I had when I first started, focussing on finishing the adventure in seven sessions — eventually I’d like to make similar guides on how to finish each official module in seven sessions.

Now I understand people here prefer written content to videos, but I’m primarily a YouTube person, so I’ve come with a compromise. My video is below — editing this stuff is a lot of work and I’d appreciate it if you could watch it and let me know your opinion on the video page to help me with the grim and bloody task of feeding engagement to the YouTube algorithm, but even further down there’s also the script I used when recording for you beautiful reading-types. Cheers!


I have played the 5th edition Starter Set three times. It is amazing. I LOVE the Lost Mines of Phandelver.

And with all that experience, I feel confident when I say that Lost Mines is a fantastic teaching tool — both for Dungeon Masters and Players. So I want to help you run this campaign, but not just how to run it by the book — I'm going to show you how to customise the campaign and make it better, more relevant to your players. So every week for the next few weeks I'll be expanding on THIS video series: How To Run Lost Mines of Phandelver.

This video series is a massive amount of work for me, so if you DO enjoy this kind of content, you gotta let me know by subscribing, liking the video, commenting, ringing the bell — when I see that uptick in the channel’s analytics, that’s what lets me know to make more of the same.

So today we're focussing on the pre-campaign, the session zero and how to seed the adventure — we're laying that groundwork!

But first, what’s even then big deal about the Starter Set, Matt? Why is it worth everybody’s time and why do you love is so much? Well I’m glad you asked Matt.

I love Lost Mines, because when you play it, you get a complete D&D experience. YES! Dragons and drow. YES! Hobs and gobs. YES! Spooks and skeletons. It's a crash course in all the classic Dungeons and Dragons tropes.

I love Lost Mines because it is designed to teach the game. The campaign starts with a limited play space so it's not too overwhelming, with limited game mechanics, but then it expands very gently as the story continues. Perfect for new Dungeon Masters. Perfect for new players. And good fun to boot.

I love Lost Mines because when you run it, you aren't making a big commitment - this little book is very respectful of your time. You can finish this campaign happily in seven sessions or so. And as a time-poor adult — that's gold, pony boy.

Here’s a heads up: we're about to enter spoiler territory, so if you're a player, maybe just send this video to your Dungeon Master and go watch one of my other stupid videos... Don't worry, friendly player, I'll see you next time.

Well now those stupid players are out of the way, let's have some fun dungeon masters, woo! "Uhhh I'm a player, I have don't have unilateral control of the game's narrative. They're always saying that."

Now we’re going to change a bunch of stuff about this adventure. Why’s that? Well, it’s because this book doesn’t know you from your uncle. It doesn’t know your style, your players, what you want. Whenever you rely on the story as prescribed by the this book, you are forfeiting an opportunity. If you ever have an idea or an instinct that doesn’t line up with what the book wants you to do, or what I want you to do, you should trust your gut. The changes I’m suggesting are what makes this adventure more interesting to me, and to my players, but also make the adventure less rigid, more flexible, so it’s easier to make it your own.

Let’s look at a little adventure synopsis from the party’s perspective, then the same from the villain’s perspective — that way, you should get a well-rounded idea of what the adventure’s about. And remember: we’re changing and improving heaps of stuff, so don’t stress if this doesn’t exactly follow the book.

So for the heroes:
After collecting a mysterious box for their friend Gundren Rockseeker, the party set off to Phandelin. But oh no! Major problem alert: Gundren got got, he’s been kidnapped, so now the players are gonna bloody rescue him. Cause Gundren knew a valuable secret you see — the location of The Lost Mines of Phandelver — and that secret has attracted the attention on The Black Spider.

The Black Spider, our shrewd villain, has positioned herself to take take control of the Lost Mines and the Forge of Spells within. She brokered an alliance between the more unscrupulous factions surrounding around Phandelin, promising each a share of the power. She asked the Cragmaw Goblins to capture Gundren in exchange for the restoration of Cragmaw Castle. She asked the Redbrands to subdue the town of Phandelin and prevent any kind of resistance in exchange for sovereignty over the town. She asked the Bandits of Wyvern Tor to patrol and keep interlopers out of the region in exchange for a portion on the Mine’s wealth. And for herself? She wanted ownership over the Forge of Spells, which she plans to use to become a magical arms dealer. Now that she has Gundren’s map, there’s just one problem: she needs the players’ mysterious box to appease the forge’s guardian.

There’s CLEARLY some changes from the original in there, right? If you’re already familiar with the module as written, you might have been sitting there, mad dogging me, but don’t stress — all these changes have a purpose.

Let’s dive in:

In general, we are scrapping half the content and replacing it with something SPECIFIC to your party and your game. I think this is the way you should run any pre-written module. But specifically:

1. We're making the Black Spider a woman
Because every other villain in this story is a man, and it's nice to have some variety. Plus I’m better at playing women.

2. We're going use the Black Spider more often so she becomes a recurring villain
Because in the adventure as written, there's very little interaction between this main villain and the party. And that makes the final fight feel a little bit impersonal, so we're going to fix that by giving the party this Mysterious Box that the Black Spider needs. This means she shows up more often, becomes a more relevant character. Also we’re naming her Dopplganger ally Monteith.

3. We're re-theming the towncentre of Phandelin so it's more like a spaghetti western.
We're doing this to better evoke that sense of lawlessness, enforcing that image of being a frontier town. Also: it means we can do some cowboy voices, which is rad.

4. We're simplifying Phandelin by combining a bunch of NPCs and cutting others.
This is to better control the spacing and reduce the mental load. Your players won't know the difference, but it will save the Dungeon Master a bunch of headaches.

5. We're cutting a lot of encounters, rebalancing some others, and rearranging some dungeons
Some of these encounters as written just aren't fun so we're going to fix that. This is a case-by-case thing.

6. This will be controversial: we're ditching the Thundertree storyline
You might have noticed I didn’t mention a dragon in the synopsis, well.. even though it's a cool side-quest, we're getting rid of Thundertree because it’s not relevant to the overall campaign story, and the work it takes to make it relevant just doesn't make the story any better. BUT, at the end of this series, if there’s any interest I'll include a guide on how to run this side-quest in case you decide to run it anyway.

7. We’re going to try to make opportunities for something I call SPECIAL PLAYER MOMENTS
You are gonna love SPECIAL PLAYER MOMENTS. But we’ll get to that a little later in the video.

8. And the change we're covering in-detail for this video is: we're going to make a prologue for the campaign.
Because we need to establish who Gundren Rockseeker is, and how the players came to be in possession of this Mysterious Box.

So the first time you and all your players get together, it’s where you do your session zero and your prologue.
In brief, your session zero is where you all talk about the expectations for the campaign, set some personal boundaries, and make characters. If you want my general tips on those first two points, click up here. If nothing appeared, that means I haven’t made my Session Zero video yet. Sorry.

Hey lets talk about the characters in your party.

If you have any new players, filling out a character sheet is the most daunting, un-fun way to start, except maybe asking them to read the rulebooks. So if you are playing with any new players, use the pregenerated characters provided with the adventure. They're perfectly balanced and guide you through how to level up throughout the adventure.

If you are playing with new players, I've got this nice combat cheat sheet on my Patreon — you can get access to it and a bunch of other resources for a few bucks. Or you can screenshot this video, but I'm sure you won't do that.

So that’s a big YES to using the pregenerated character sheets, but I want you to ignore anything to do with their background, goals, or roleplaying information. You just want the numbers, because we're writing our own backstories.

When you're writing backstories together, your job as Dungeon Master is to steer the party away from problematic decisions — anything that would make the party less cohesive or would be unproductive for the story.
Some classic examples you might want to nix are:

"My character is a pacifist and hates violence"
"My character is evil and capricious"
"My character hates one of the other party members"
"My character is mute or can't speak Common"
"My character tries to sleep with everyone / tries to steal from everyone / tries to BLANK everyone"

If you see any red flags, this is your opportunity to say something. You might regret it if you don't.

But you also want to steer the party towards creating a cohesive party with ties to the campaign. And your tool for doing that is Gundren Rockseeker.

"OK guys, this campaign starts when your old friend Gundren Rockseeker gathers you all together for a job. We need to work out how you all know Gundren — how was this dwarf integral to some element of your past?"

You want to establish Gundren as an unquestionably kind person, someone who has come through for the player characters countless times, a true friend who likes and empowers them. At the start of this process, Gundren is a BLANK SLATE. He's an old dwarf who's lived a full life, and you can let him become whoever he needs to be to tie the party together.

The goal is: by establishing Gundren as a sympathetic character, the party should actually care when he goes missing. They need to like this guy — Oh Gundren Rockseeker, you’re perfect, you’re beautiful, you look like Linda Evangalista, you’re a model, everything about you is perfect — we want this character to be spotless.

For example, in my latest campaign, Gundren was a bard. He got his start at a comedy club where he met the party's bard doing standup. He was a gentleman and the family friend to the druid, a noble runaway. He was a kind soul, who helped the Warlock recover after they lost their memory. He was an adventurer, who confronted the party wizard and led them away from evil necromancer. He was a father-figure, who helped the Warforged Barbarian relearn their self worth.

Now that we have these characters and their backstories, I want you to have a think about how you can incorporate their backstories INTO the campaign for some SPECIAL PLAYER MOMENTS. I want every character to have one moment or opportunity in the story specific to their character. If there's an important NPC in their past, maybe you can add them in? An important item or goal, import that sucker! And if nothing jumps out at you, you can add in or reflavour an element of the campaign in a way you know will appeal to that character. In fact, this is something I'm happy to help you wiht in the comments. If you're stuck on thinking of SPECIAL PLAYER MOMENTS, let me know who your characters are and I'll think of some way to incorporate something special for them into the campaign. But I’ll also flag opportunities in later videos too.

Next, we're going to do a prologue. We’re not going to roll any dice, but we’ll kick off a little roleplay. This is an original little scene to set the tone and make sure player come into the first session primed and ready to play.

You're going to roleplay a scene around set around a table in a tavern where Gundren imparts the following information:
1. He values them all as trusted friends and wants to share a secret
2. He needs the party to retrieve a very important puzzle box
3. He needs the party to bring the box and mining supplies to Phandelin
4. He's going to go on ahead to meet up with his two brothers
5. He introduces them to his friend Sildar who will accompany him on his journey
6. If questioned, Sildar is going to Phandelin to check on a colleague named Iarno who ahs gone missing

Whatever the quest is to get the Mysterious Box is, that's up to you. Do the party have to steal it from a mansion, or recover it from a crypt? Whatever you choose, it's something that happens in the past and is presumed to succeed. I want you to give a physical box to one of the players and instruct them not to open it. This is the item which the Black Spider needs to get past the creature that guards the Forge of Spells, and it's the reason she’s going to harass the party.

If the players want to open this box at any point, let a single player make a DC15 intelligence check whenever they take a long rest. Or they can decide to break it open. And inside, I want you to put an interesting item. I used this image of an old key — and you can find this on my Patreon — but you’re a creative person and I’m sure you can think of a better idea.

And this is my favourite bit: At the end of this Session Zero and proloque, describe a scene where soon after the party recovered the puzzle box, the Black Spider and the Doppleganger arrive to find it has already been taken, something like:

"In the dead of night, light footsteps echo across the vault you had visited earlier. There's the sound of a scuffle and a guard collapses to the ground in a heap, strangled. His silent attacker appears to be one of his compatriots, but the disguise fades away to reveal a translucent, alien-like body, mouthless. The creature approaches the pedestal and notices the puzzle box is missing. Behind it, a cloaked figure with red eyes shakes its head. "Well Montheith, it appears someone beat us to the punch! We might have to get a little creative afterall."

Little cutaways like this let you seed the Black Spider as a villain, hint at her goals, and leave a little bit of intrigue to get the players excited about the next session.

You have three pieces of homework before doing acting on today's advice.
Your first job is to find 3 to 4 friends and con them into playing Dungeons & Dragons with you. If you're having trouble convincing people, maybe try lies, bribes, threats of violence? I don't know — you're the big dog. You decide. Winks at the camera knowingly.

Your second piece of homework is to read this big dumb book cover to cover. You don't need to remember everything, and it's OK to skim it. But you can read this thing in an afternoon and it will give you a broad understanding of the story beats and the reasoning behind the changes we're going to make.

Your last bit of homework is to work out the voices you want to do for the Black Spider, Gundren Rockseeker and Sildar Hallwinter. I go Soft French, Soft Scottish, Pompous English.
 

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Nebulous

Legend
I've run this twice now. One very effective change is that I gave the Black Spider remote arachnid automatons to watch the party. Later on, in the mine itself, they are void spiders that can actually speak and interact with the BS with his voice. The first time I ran it the Spider was just a drow; the second time, he was a drider mage, outcast from his society, and I added a drow subplot in a level beneath the mine.

Even without my modifications it is a fantastic adventure I dearly love.
 

cowpie

Explorer
In my run, I fleshed out Phandelver more, especially the bandits running the town. I made a quick relationship map for quick reference to show who the townspeople were, and how they were connected to one another.
I wanted to develop the bandits in the town as a faction, to allow the PCs to engage in faction play (I feel this is a mode of play the module could have modeled better for new DMs, and that this is a missed opportunity on the part of the designers. In my experience, players love this stuff, and it lends verisimilitude to the setting.
For the bandits, I made a roster, and gave each one a name, and a quick one line description highlighting a physical or personality quirk, so I could get into character when RPing them. I gave them each a morale number, to gauge how brave they were -- if the PCs put up a fight, some of the baddies were more likely to break and run than others. I also gave some of them relationship notes, like "Jarvis and Belit are secretly a couple -- the other bandits wouldn't approve". During the game, the PCs observed that they protected each other in combat, and exploited this to allow them to surrender and run off together -- the grateful bandits then snitched on their compatriots, and told the PCs a back way to getting into the Red Brand hideout.
As for running the Red Brands, I modeled them after the bandits in the movies Yojimbo, and a Fistful of Dollars.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
In my run, I fleshed out Phandelver more, especially the bandits running the town. I made a quick relationship map for quick reference to show who the townspeople were, and how they were connected to one another.
I wanted to develop the bandits in the town as a faction, to allow the PCs to engage in faction play (I feel this is a mode of play the module could have modeled better for new DMs, and that this is a missed opportunity on the part of the designers. In my experience, players love this stuff, and it lends verisimilitude to the setting.
For the bandits, I made a roster, and gave each one a name, and a quick one line description highlighting a physical or personality quirk, so I could get into character when RPing them. I gave them each a morale number, to gauge how brave they were -- if the PCs put up a fight, some of the baddies were more likely to break and run than others. I also gave some of them relationship notes, like "Jarvis and Belit are secretly a couple -- the other bandits wouldn't approve". During the game, the PCs observed that they protected each other in combat, and exploited this to allow them to surrender and run off together -- the grateful bandits then snitched on their compatriots, and told the PCs a back way to getting into the Red Brand hideout.
As for running the Red Brands, I modeled them after the bandits in the movies Yojimbo, and a Fistful of Dollars.
Love this a ton, having run Phandelver three times now, I have always been focused on the Glasstaff -> Grol -> Black Spider throughline. However I do like the idea of the Red Brands as a faction, and could also see the Cragmaw goblins as a faction.

Btw @cowpie what did you do with your game post Phandelver? Did it merge into another existing published campaign? Or something home brew? Or other?
 

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