As a newbie GM planning your first Lost Mines session, the amount of preparation you may feel you need to do can be overwhelming. This is why I’ve provided a step-by-step guide to your first session of Lost Mines of Phandelver. This is the first in a series of articles covering all aspects of Act 1 of Lost Mines. The first article will focus on setting up the story for your players, as well as giving them an opportunity to establish and introduce their characters before the Goblin Ambush. The second article will focus on the Goblin Ambush itself. The third article, finally, will focus on the running the Cragmaw Hideout dungeon.
Before You Begin: Some Background
Some background about the world your players inhabit should be provided before the game begins so that players can integrate their backstories into the world. While you shouldn’t overwhelm your players with lore about the Forgotten Realms, you should provide some basic details about:
- The Sword Coast: The adventurers live on the Sword Coast on the continent of Faerûn, which is mostly populated by city-states. Each city-state has its own government and laws which are separate and distinct from the other city-states. There are no expansive empires in this region.
- The Lords Alliance: Sometimes the threat to the peace of the region (raging orc hordes, for example) is too big for any one city-state to handle. This is where the Lords Alliance comes in. Each city-state contributes soldiers to this greater alliance. This Alliance will come to the aid of any member city in need of it. The Alliance is Lead by Dagult Neverember, who also reigns over the city of Neverwinter.
- Neverwinter: Neverwinter, where the party first meets Gundren Rockseeker, used to be a great and beautiful city until the eruption of the giant volcano Mt. Hotenow some 50 years ago. It is said that some outlying towns are still covered in the ash. Only now has the city regained some semblance of what it once was, and yet many of the city’s districts still lay in ruins. Dagult Neverember just sorta took over the town over after the eruption. Those who supported the old Royal Family aren’t too happy about that, but most people are content since Neverember has made great strides in restoring the city to its former glory.
- Phandalin: The party’s destination is the frontier town of Phandalin. Phandalin used to be a bustling center of commerce and manufacturing some 500 years ago before it was overrun by orcs. Recently deposits of valuable ore had been rediscovered at the foot of the sword mountains, and the town started to rebuild upon the flagstones of the old ruins.
Ideally, you should send some background information about the campaign and the world before the game begins. It may also be a good idea to review these details at the beginning of your first live session with your players.
Generate Party Bonds
Many adventuring parties are often a random group of sellswords with divergent goals. This can be fine, but one thing that can help facilitate interactions between party members is if they know each other somehow. This gives party members a shared history they can draw upon to make role playing go more smoothly.
Before the first session begins, I’ll ask my players “Who among you is most likely to know each other?” Then, once we’ve determined who knows each other, we brainstorm how they might know each other.
Here are some examples:
Cellmates: The rogue and the bard two both found themselves in jail after some public drunkenness. They became friends and the rogue managed to get a message out to his contact in the thieves guild to bribe the guard so they could escape. Now they’re short of money and they’re in debt to the leader of the thieves guild. They found out about Gundren’s job and they were the first to sign up.
Debt of gratitude: The druid’s sacred tree had been endangered by a party of wandering goblins who were set to cut it down. The fighter, who had been part of the Lords Alliance (And who knew Sildar Hallwinter), rescued the druid from the goblin tribe and now the Druid swears to repay the favor.
Mutual Enemy: The wizard’s village had been overrun by orcs. The Barbarian’s village had also been destroyed by the same orc tribe. In their mutual quest for revenge, they found each other in the thick of battle and had become fast friends.
When suggesting a party bond, I highly recommend this Party Bond Generator from reddit. When brainstorming party bonds with my players, I would go down the list of most likely bonds for two characters and I suggest them to players.
A party bond conversation might go like this:
DM: So John is playing Bartleby the Rogue and Jane is playing Nema the Bard. Since you both are scoundrels who like to drink, I could see you two knowing each other as drinking buddies or even cellmates.
John: I like the cellmates idea!
Jane: Yeah! Perhaps they both found themselves in jail for drinking too much and they became friends in the Neverwinter prison.
DM: And perhaps you both bribed the guard to escape. What do you think?
John: Not sure how I feel about the bribing the guard idea. Perhaps Gundren knew about Bartleby’s talents and Gundren decided to pay his bail to deliver the goods to Phandalin?
Jane: That’s great! And although Nema didn’t know Gundren, she used her charisma to persuade Gundren that she’d be a valuable hire as well?
DM: I love it. Let’s go with that.
Remember, your party bond suggestions are just a starting point. Players are welcome and encouraged to have different ideas of how players may have met or know each other. These party bonds don’t have be set in stone, either. Oftentimes someone will have a better idea that will come to them after the session. I prefer allowing players to change their backstories and party bonds in the event that they do come up with better ideas later on.
Start the Session on the High Road
While it’s tempting to start your session in the Tavern where Gundren and Sildar tell the party about the escort job (and I’ve seen great examples of Gundren’s Contract that you can print up and hand to your players to sign), this can lead to problems. For example, the rogue in my party decided to pickpocket Gundren (something that as a new DM I certainly wasn’t prepared for!) Luckily Gundren didn’t notice, and I breathed a sigh of relief as they embarked on their journey to Phandalin without any other unplanned incidents. Although unexpected actions from players is part of the joy of D&D, there’s no point in giving your players a chance to derail your entire campaign before it has begun!
Instead of starting in a Neverwinter tavern, start your session with the players already traveling on the High Road. Describe the scene, the weather, the clattering of the cartwheels, the merchants and members of the Lords Alliance you meet along the way, and then invite each player to describe themselves. Some possible questions you can ask them are:
- What do they look like?
- Where are they? Are they riding up front driving the wagon? Are they following the wagon from behind (this is good for knowing where to place character tokens/minis when you run combat for the goblin ambush.)
- Are they with anyone?
- What are they up to?
Optional: Conversation Starters
Once when I was playing Tomb Of Annihilation, our party managed to get through a day crawling through the Jungles of Chult where we didn’t have any encounters. It’s only natural that party members would let their guard down and have a conversation. Our DM suggested three things our characters might talk about:
- A dream or a goal: “Someday I’m going to save all my money from adventuring and buy a tavern!”
- A fear: “My older brother went out adventuring in the East. We never heard back from him. I fear he may be dead.”
- A hatred: “Goblins stole all the sheep in my village! One day I will get my revenge on the Cragmaw tribe!”
I like this because it gives characters a chance to share a bit of their backstory, and warm up their roleplaying muscles. Not only that, but it can make it easier to for it to feel as though distance has been traveled and time has passed.
Any other suggestions you might have for setting up your session before the Goblin Ambush? Leave your ideas in the comments below!
Up next: Your First Phandelver Session, Part 2: Running the Goblin Ambush Encounter (Currently a Work In Progress)
Interested in more articles like this? Check out the Lost Mines of Phandelver Guide!