The Pit Under Murachba: Horrifying Phandelver part 1

This is the first part in a series of posts about running The Lost Mine of Phandelver as a Darkplane horror adventure. Here's a link to the compiled printer-friendly version.

I grabbed the D&D Starter Set as soon as it came out. I was excited to see that Rich Baker had written The Lost Mine of Phandelver. He's one of my all-time favorite writer/designers from old school days, and overall I really like his work here (except the villains, who are completely boring). There was only one problem: I wanted to run the game in Darkplane, and the adventure's content was a little vanilla for my taste. So I set about rewriting Phandelver to fit the cosmic horror of Darkplane. You know what that means: hauntings, secret cabals, and sinister forces from other worlds.

It may seem obvious, but SPOILERS for The Lost Mine of Phandelver follow.

REWORKING THE BACKSTORY

My first problem with the adventure is that the history that will eventually come into play didn't "pop" for me. There was a magical forge in a mine that was lost. A drow mage is looking for it. Boring. Here's what I came up with to make it a little more intriguing:

Murachba was a subterranean refuge built more than 14,000 years ago by the ancient maahiset civilization. For a thousand years it lay hidden, protecting the maahiset from the onslaught of the daemon empire.

Eventually, however, the daemons discovered the hidden tunnels and slaughtered the maahiset. In the deepest pit of Murachba, they discovered something unspeakably powerful and sealed it up. In time, even the location of the sealed pit was lost.

This reworking of the background does three things. First, it ties the history in with two of Darkplane's eerie pre-human races (the maahiset and the daemons). Second, it gives Murachba (our substitute for Phandelver) both a better name and a mysterious origin that can serve as a source for all sorts of horrifying encounters. Lastly, it connects our new villain to the history and gives her a motive (more on that in part 2).

Several hundred years ago, a well known human explorer named Nennael Doughting led an expedition to a site he thought was Murachba in the mountains near Phandalin. Only one person returned, the young Quitzál girl who guided the expedition. The story goes that she went stark mad from what she saw in the pits. For the rest of her long life, she muttered about halls of solid gold and “the final sin.”

Enough with the history. What's happening now?

Herodeus Bale, a King’s Minister in the northern city of Nattleburgh, has hired a party to bring supplies to him in Phandalin, a few days’ journey into the mountain-country. Unbeknownst to them, Bale has discovered the location of legendary Murachba and is keen on beginning excavation.

Herodeus Bale is our substitute for Gundren Rockseeker. He's a human politician who has an interest in occult lore and the paranormal. As you know if you've read or played Phandelver, he's also met some trouble on his way to Phandalin.

GOBLIN ARROWS

Here's the thing about Part 1 of this adventure--it's a pretty transparent set of introductory encounters. They're simple, fast, and give the players a chance to get comfortable with the system, with each other, and with roleplaying in general if they're new. So either do it and embrace these elements, or just skip it and start the PCs at level 2 in Phandalin.

I found that the goblins can be a touch difficult to work into a horror adventure. Their size and inherent comedic value can take away from the tone, so be cautious. Best trick I've found is to make them terribly cruel in pursuing what they want, like Warrick Davis's Leprechaun or Chucky from Child's Play. Their ability to take down a 1st level character might make either of those linked scenes a reality in your first session.

Goblins probably have no qualms about torturing or killing other races. In that vein, add some disturbing description to their den: bodies, torture devices, disgusting living conditions, and even add a couple extra goblins who can turn on each other and viciously tear one another limb from limb.

SILDAR HALLWINTER AND RETOOLING THE LORD'S ALLIANCE

Saving Sildar from the goblins is actually an important plot point. He's the main deliverer of the exposition to the left. Here are a few changes I made to him to fit him into this setting.

Silas, not Sildar. I'm going for a more Victorian feel, so I'm looking for opportunities to shift character names away from generic fantasy and into a specific ethnic or cultural group. In the case of Silder, he's a Trentsmunder, so an Anglo-Saxon/Bible name it is. I called him Silas Hallwinter.

Low class muscle. It seemed odd to me that he represented a faction as prestigious as the Lord's Alliance and yet got taken down by a small group of goblins. To lend credence to his getting captured, I made him a somewhat-dull member of the Baxton Streeter gang, a neutral good faction of organized crime residing in Phandalin. Anything he does with regard to the Lord's Alliance is retooled to be related to the Baxton Streeters.

What he knows. Hallwinter gives a little set up for the twists in Parts 2 and 3. A lot of what he knows is going to be adjusted with the backstory/events as I'm reworking them. So look for more on this in the next installment.

SETTING UP THE DOPPLEGANGERS

Probably my number two complaint about Phandelver is how boring the villains are. Some of them (like the dopplegangers) by rights should be fantastic. Dopplegangers are a fat pitch for a DM who wants to mess with her players' minds. There are two of them, but the adventure hardly puts them to use.

The next part will have a lot to say about what the dopplegangers are up to behind the scenes. For now, I want to talk about putting the set-up in place to prepare the players for their appearance. No twist is more engaging in an identity mystery than a defeated foe reverting to monster form once it's dead. To really nail that shocker moment, you have to set it up well in advance.

I put two additional humans in the Goblin Den that mysteriously disappeared while the PCs had their backs turned. Guess what they ended up being? The more obvious and Batman you can be with this disappearance the better, because you want the players to know that something is up. The goblins didn't grab them while you were distracted. They straight up disappeared.

It's not important for the players to know exactly what happened. Just to plant a single seed in the back of their minds: Something unnatural is happening with those prisoners.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next few days.