Vyerith and Vhalak, the doppelgangers who serve as the The Black Spider’s henchmen in the Lost Mines of Phandelver module, seem to be shoehorned in without much thought. When I ran the module, I almost removed them as they didn’t really fit in the context of the overall story. However, after giving it some thought, I realized that the doppelgangers had a lot of potential and could actually work with just a few tweaks. All we need to do is develop their backstories and their motives a bit.
Vyerith, the naïve apprentice
We meet Vyerith in the shape of a female drow arguing with King Grol. Essentially Vyerith wants Grol to surrender the map to Wave Echo Cave to her to ensure that no one can learn its location. She also wants to ensure that Gundren hasn’t revealed the location of the cave to anyone. After she has done so, she will kill Gundren and destroy the map. 1
This motivation is good enough for your run of the mill drow underling, but it seems a bit flat for a creature who has lived its whole life taking the forms of others, collecting secrets and orchestrating chaos. Furthermore, we have to ask why a doppelganger would be working for a drow wizard in the first place? We need to come up with a backstory and from that backstory a set of motives for her so that as a DM we can play Vyerith with confidence.
A Troublesome Coming of Age
It turns out that we don’t have to go much further than the Monster Manual to find the seeds for a good backstory, especially the part about how they reproduce:
“[Doppelgangers] are too lazy or self interested to raise their young. They assume attractive male forms and seduce women, leaving them to raise their progeny. A doppelganger child appears to be a normal member of its mother’s species until it reaches adolescence, at which point it discovers its true nature and is driven to seek out its kind to join them.”2
Coming of age must be a traumatic and confusing time for a doppelganger, as not only does she spontaneously develop the ability to change her form at will and read the thoughts of anyone around her, but she also learns that her parents are not her own.
Imagine living a relatively normal life and then suddenly having your mind bombarded by the incessant thoughts of strangers around you. You realize that you aren’t even human (or elven or dwarven, or what have you) but a creature despised and feared by most common folk–even by whom you thought were your parents.
So here we have a young and troubled Vyerith who thought she was human but now realizes she is something very different. Lost and adrift, desperate to come to terms with this new identity thrust upon her, she seeks out her own kind. She assumes that if she can read people’s thoughts, her brethren should be able to read hers. And so she speaks her thoughts out loud in her mind, calling out for a potential response:
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there like me? A changeling like me? Hello…?”
Vyerith eventually wanders into a tavern where she meets Vhalak. She recognizes what he is immediately. Vyerith, desperate for belonging, eats up every sweet and seductive word that Vhalak feeds her. And thus begins their troubled relationship.
Vhalak, the manipulative master
Vhalak is just about as one dimensional in the module as Vyerith. He takes the form of a male drow overseeing two bugbears digging for a magic artifact in Wave Echo Cave. If he manages to escape to warn the Black Spider that the party is approaching, he assumes the form of Nundro Rockseeker, Gundren’s brother, and pretends to be a hostage to gain leverage over the party.3 However, if we make Vhalak the manipulative “master” of Vyerith, there’s a lot more we can do with the character.
After they first meet, Vhalak tells Vyerith that all humans are base and evil creatures, that changelings like she and him must stick together and forge their own destiny against the world. Vhalak uses techniques that a cult leader might use to brainwash his new protegé. At some point, Vyerith becomes an unflinching devotee to her master Vhalak. I imagine their relationship might be similar to the Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman relationship in The Master (Not the best movie, but not bad either. Worth watching just for the performances).
Vhalak’s motivations stem from the want of control and power. In order to acquire these, he’s content to manipulate things from the sidelines, taking the place of a trusted lieutenant or second-in-command of someone powerful. So it makes sense that he would be curious about what the Black Spider is doing and eventually want to replace some of Nezznar’s more trusted lieutenants.
Vhalak and Vyerith Replace Nezznar’s Trusted Lieutenants
Because Vhalak is a gatherer of secrets and can read the thoughts of anyone within 60 feet of him, it wouldn’t be unusual that he would catch on to Nezznar’s schemes. There’s great potential for power and wealth with the discovery of the Lost Mines, so it makes sense that Vhalak and Vyerith would replace some of Nezznar’s existing flunkies and assist Nezznar in his overtaking of the mines. I imagine that sometime in the future the two doppelgangers may betray Nezznar, but that’s a decision for the DM to make down the road should it come to that.
Potential Uses for The Dopplegangers
While I think it’s interesting for the PCs to confront Vyerith as written in the module so that the party has a chance to interrogate and perhaps even learn Vyerith’s true identity, there are countless other NPCs the doppelgangers could impersonate:
- Iarno Albrek – This would explain Iarno’s sudden departure from the Lord’s Alliance (The other explanation is he’s just selfish and evil). Perhaps Iarno was actually an upstanding member and was recently replaced. Thus his recent actions betraying the Alliance and forming the redbrands could be explained.
- Harbin Wester – This makes a lot of sense as well. Why the hell has Harbin Wester ignored the redbrands altogether and focused solely on the orcs harrowing the Triboar Trail? The answer hinted to in the module is that he’s incompetent, but there’s more we can do with this. Since orcs and goblins are natural enemies, perhaps doppelganger Harbin wants the orcs out of the picture so that the Cragmaw tribe can overrun everything.
- Elsa – Elsa is the gossipy barmaid in the Stonehill Inn. This suggestion was provided to me by Eric Kamander, who has been writing recaps of his party’s Phandelver and post Phandelver exploits on his blog. When Eric ran the module Elsa “was totally enthralled with the party’s exploits and was always praising them. They totally ate it up and told Elsa all about their exploits and plans, since she said she wanted to become a bard so she could sing of their tales. You can imagine their surprise when Carp found her week-long-dead body in the woods.” (See: Link to post recapping Elsa’s interaction with Eric’s party.)
- Droop – I’ve run Phandelver twice, and both times the party has adopted the pathetic little goblin. Droop makes for a perfect spy.
- Sildar Hallwinter – Also a possible doppelganger candidate. However, replacing him at the beginning of the adventure introduces too many plot holes: Wouldn’t Sildar’s replacement want to keep Klarg as the ruler of the Cragmaw hideout? Why would the doppelganger want to spy on the adventurers at this point in the adventure before they have really made a name for themselves? If introduced later in the story, however, fake Sildar betraying the party could make for an interesting twist.
- Gundren Rockseeker – There are plenty of opportunities for a doppelganger to replace him and this could make for a compelling option as well.
The above options work better if the doppelgangers are actual loyal followers of the Black Spider and not pretending to work for him, as it doesn’t make sense that he’d direct them to replace any NPC if he didn’t know Vyerith and Vhalak were doppelgangers in the first place. For me it’s more interesting if they are their own free agents, so I had my players encounter the doppelgangers as written in the module.
Thoughts? How have you used the doppelgangers in your game?