I recently read some useful discussion on /r/dndnext about the difficulty of encounters in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen published adventure. So I thought I’d analyze the Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set and perhaps try to understand the problems from that angle. While I’ve been running both campaigns to various levels of progress, and playing in HotDQ at my local gaming store Comic Asylum, I know LMoP a little better at this point.
To do this, we have to look at the Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules, a free PDF from Wizards of the Coast. On pages 56-58, it contains the guidelines for building encounters. In reality, though, they intend for us to use guidelines to evaluate encounters, not build them, as the text itself notes:
Once you’ve designed your adventure and placed monsters and other opponents as you like, you can determine how challenging the adventure is likely to be by examining the difficulty of the encounters. There are four categories of potential difficulty: easy, medium, hard, and deadly. – p. 56
For this analysis, I assumed that adventurers should be more or less at a given character level for each part. Part 1 presumes that the party has just begun its career. It thus gently introduces them to various game elements a bit at a time for level 1 characters. Part 2 introduces more choices and tougher monsters, catering to level 2 characters. And so on for parts 3 and 4. I also added another difficulty level, “OMG!!!!” for encounters that exceed Deadly.
WARNING: Lost Mine of Phandelver spoilers ahead.
Part 1: Goblin Arrows
|Encounter||Total XP||Number of creatures||Difficulty XP||Per Level 1||Rating||Notes|
|Kennel||150||3||300||75||Hard||Can be bypassed|
|Twin Pools Cave||150||3||300||75||Hard|
|Goblin Den||300||6||600||150||OMG!!!!||Can be stopped partway|
|Klarg’s Cave||350||4||700||175||OMG!!!!||Can be stopped partway|
The very first combat for the characters already starts off as Deadly. Anecdotally, lots of groups have reported a few character deaths in this encounter and perhaps even a TPK. The last two far exceed the guidelines for Deadly, and this sort of thing prompted the initial discussion on Reddit. But in neither of these fights must both sides to take the approach of “kill or be killed”. At the Goblin Den, Yeemik will halt the fight and parley to achieve his real goal of leadership over the gang. And in Klarg’s Cave, the dangerous bugbear will attempt to flee if the adventurers kill his pet wolf.
Part 2: Phandalin
|Encounter||Total XP||Number of creatures||Difficulty XP||Per Level 2||Rating||Notes|
|Crevasse||450||1||450||112.5||Hard||Can be bypassed|
|Guard Barracks||600||3||1200||300||OMG!!!!||Can be bypassed|
This part, written for level 2 adventurers, has a little more variation. A Deadly confrontation with the Redbrands in town the party should head to Tresendar Manor for another (literal) dungeon. The difficulties range over the entire spectrum here, but I found it interesting that the “boss fight” rates as Easy. The Guard Barracks section, specifically the “Developments” subheading, explains the greater difficulty:
The bugbears are the only ones in the Redbrand hideout who know the location of the Wave Echo Cave. They won’t willingly divulge this information, since they fear the Black Spider more than they fear the characters.
The bugbears also know the location of Cragmaw Castle, but again, they don’t share this information readily. A character who interrogates a captured bugbear can pry the information loose with a successful DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation) check.
The characters might have other goals here. The head of the Miner’s Exchange and Sildar Hallwinter both have missions in the hideout. But this encounter contains the main information to advance the adventure: the location of the next part. The characters could potentially even find the final location of the eponymous Lost Mine. (For various reasons they probably don’t want to head out there just yet even if the DM lets the bugbears disclose it.) This encounter isn’t even required, though. The dungeon has several goals and paths, demonstrating a good example of nonlinear design.
Part 3: The Spider’s Web
|Encounter||Total XP||Number of creatures||Difficulty XP||Per Level 3||Rating||Notes|
|Old Owl Well||800||13||2400||600||OMG!!!!||Can be bypassed|
|Blighted Cottages / Farmhouse||200||8||500||125||Medium|
|The Brown Horse||200||4||400||100||Medium|
|Dragon’s Tower||3900||1||3900||975||OMG!!!!||Not supposed to fight to death|
|King’s Quarters||950||3||1900||475||OMG!!!!||Can be reduced|
This section contains a lot more sandbox elements. The party can approach them in almost any order. Completing the adventure does not require completion of all encounters, though the treasure and experience will help a great deal later.
In the case of the Old Owl Well, the adventurers should find little (if any) combat. The difficulty encourages them to find alternatives to fighting. Thundertree contains a memorable encounter with a dragon far above the party’s abilities. Although success only requires them to drive it off, not kill it, even cutting the Difficulty XP in half makes it more than Deadly. The only other particularly noteworthy fight comes at the end of Cragmaw Castle. Completing all the objectives will make the fight very difficult. The party may end up choosing between noble sacrifice and self preservation. That sounds like good adventure to me.
Part 4: Wave Echo Cave
|Encounter||Total XP||Number of creatures||Difficulty XP||Per Level 4||Rating||Notes|
|Smelter Cavern||1500||9||3750||937.5||OMG!!!!||are you even serious|
|Forge of Spells||700||1||700||175||Medium|
|Temple of Dumathoin||1250||5||2500||625||OMG!!!!|
The final part of the adventure provides a classic “dungeon crawl” type of experience. I’d have liked a few more traps and environmental dangers. But the monsters provide plenty on their own. Two of the encounters far exceed the guidelines for level 4 characters. (They shouldn’t hit level 5 until finishing this dungeon.) A kind DM might remove some ghouls from the Great Cavern. The Smelter Cavern serves as the real, true boss fight, because it has prevented the Big Bad from reaching his goal. The Fungi Cavern, though, provides an alternative to both the Great and Smelter Caverns. It has its own danger but at a far more manageable level.
Generally speaking, the encounters in this adventure provide good difficulty according to the game’s own guidelines. Where they exceed the Deadly threshold, the design usually encourages the players to find some resolution besides simply killing the monsters. This might mean tactical combat, negotiation, or even exploration to avoid the encounter completely.
Lost Mine of Phandelver should serve as a really good example of adventure design and will hopefully entertain gamers for years to come.