The Pit Under Murachba: Horrifying Phandelver Part 2

This is the second part in a series of posts about running The Lost Mine of Phandelver as a Darkplane horror adventure. Here's Part 1. And here's a link to the compiled printer-friendly version.

In part 1 of this series, I talked about changing up the history that figures in The Lost Mine of Phandelver to make it more evocative and contextualize it within the Darkplane setting. We also went through a few changes I would make to Part 1: Goblin Arrows. I want to continue the discussion of backstory rewrites as we move on into Phandalin.

PHANDALIN

Okay, I actually like this name, as opposed to Phandelver (which strikes me as a little on-the-nose). I'll keep it! Can't say the same about its denizens though. Bear with me as I go through the story changes. Phandalin's a town with lots of NPCs, and they've almost all been reworked to create a better web of conflict. This is all set-up for the action later on.

NPC ROSTER, OR HOW I CHANGE ALL THE NAMES

Here's a quick rundown of the changes I made to the factions and NPCs found in Phandalin:

Faction                    Replaced By           Goals

Redbrands                Looseys                    Defend Mottan interests, slave trade

Lord's Alliance        Baxton Streeters       Defend working class

Zhentarim                Silfana                      Convert locals, slave trade

Order of Gauntlet    Patriarchy                Protect the innocent, hide jharethil

THE LOOSEYS

To add some cultural context to Phandalin, I decided that the Looseys (our Redbrand re-brand--see what I did there?) are immigrants from the southern empire Motta with a strong Mediterranean/Latin flavor. Their name comes from the fact that their Mottan-style shirts are uncollared and worn with no cravat. I gave all of them rapiers instead of short swords and they spoke in broken Italian accents.

Most Mottans are devout members of the Etholchan Church, a more orthodox version of the local religion (Urrothic Sect). Both (mostly) unknowingly worship an evil god, Daemoth.

The basic goals of the Looseys haven't changed from the Redbrands, but they're more fierce in defending fellow Mottans from perceived abuse, and they're not just lawless ruffians. In most cases, their violence is provoked by racism from the locals. The main opponents of the Looseys are the Baxton Streeters. The real reason they've gotten uppity of late is that their new leader has thrown in with a mysterious daemon known as the Widow (see Linene Grey to the right).

THE BAXTON STREETERS

A small-time mob family with deep roots in Phandalin, the Baxtons are out to make sure the immigrants don't take over the town with their orthodox religion. Once Silas Hallwinter returns from captivity with the goblins, they get riled up about taking the Cragmaws down and will pester the PCs about finding their castle lair and forming a raid. Other notable members of the gang include George Baxton and Hannen Ashby (both missing) and Elmar Baxton, who runs Barthen's supplies.

THE SILFANA

The Silfana is another religion from Motta, but they worship the chaos-god Silphenor. They operate out of a wagon caravan parked behind Halía Tumentra's Miner's Exchange, occasionally performing voluntary whippings for the purification of the soul.

THE PATRIARCHY

Formed around the worship of Sterianon, the god of justice, rule, and fatherhood, the Patriarchy is a lawful neutral sect with a long history. They tend to stay out of religious conflict, but protect the jharethil (celestials) that may be in hiding in the area.

Character               New Name               Affiliation/Quest

Toblen Stonehill      Toby Stonehill          Trusted innkeeper (secret villain)

Elmar Barthen         Elmar Baxton            Baxton Streeters, deliver supplies

Daran Edermath      Dorian Edermath      Patriarch of Sterianon, well quest

Linene Graywind    Linene Grey               Stolen goods quest (secret villain)

Halia Thornton       Halía Tumentra          Silfana, Redbrand quest

Qelline Alderleaf   Caileigh Alderleaf       Redbrand lair location, Reidoth quest

Sister Garaele        Aioma Garaele            Heathfolk, banshee quest

Harbin Wester       No change                   Orc trouble quest

Sildar Hallwinter   Silas Hallwinter          Baxton Streeters, Cragmaw quest

TOBY STONEHILL

For a nice reversal, I made Toby Stonehill a doppleganger. For my money, the most rewarding way to use dopplegangers is to have them using their abilities in clever ways. Taking control of the friendly inkeeper (a community leader) was just too tempting for me. The real Toby learned too much and had to be done away with. Ever since his death, one of the dopplegangers has been posing as him full-time. He'll talk your ear off about the problems with the Looseys, but he'll subtly sabotage any effort to do anything about it.

ELMAR BAXTON

Barthen's supplies serves as the headquarters for the Baxton Streeters, and Elmar is the man who holds down the fort for George Baxton, the mob leader. With George missing, Elmar has let things get messy with regard to the Looseys.

DORIAN EDERMATH

Not much to change with Edermath, except that he knows that Reidoth (who we'll meet in Part 3) is actually a jhareth hiding out in the ruined town of Thunderton (Thundertree). Edermath will make an effort to keep others away from Thunderton if he discovers they're heading out there. As a former Patriarch of Sterianon, he's respected by everyone in town except the Etholchan Looseys, who have an ancient grudge against his sect.

Their hatred is returned tenfold by Dorian. As a child he remembers the tragic story of his Sterianon's death at the hands of Etholchans. The fact that Sterianon later achieved godhood doesn't temper his wrath much. No one in Phandalin is more concerned about the Loosey situation than Dorian Edermath.

LINENE GREY

As with the dopplegangers, having a mysterious mastermind that operates in the shadows is really unsatisfying to me if you find out that all along it was someone you knew nothing about. How much more interesting to reveal that it was the unassuming but shrewd trader at the Lionshield Coster, and that the PCs could have stopped her if they'd made different choices.

I chose to combine Linene Graywind with Neznarr for more intrigue. It's so much more interesting to have someone who needs to keep appearances up in Phandalin (with some help from the dopplegangers) and makes dangerous treks into the legendary mine-pit in the black of night. But what's this simple merchant's motive for all the evil-doing? Simple. She's a daemon--a demonic spirit reincarnated in the body of a human.

Daemons are among the most popular elements of the Darkplane setting in my experience, and always perpetuate religious conflict with a dash of black magic. Linene Grey is a daemon blood mage looking for fabled Murachba. It was one of the oldest and most common legends told by her people when she first lived, thousands of years ago. Now she's back and she's obsessed with finding it.

Combining these characters does three things for me. First, it makes a female NPC more prominent in an adventure that's pretty male-heavy. Second, it does away with the predictable twist that the "Black Spider" is a drow (which Neznarr probably found racially insensitive). Lastly, it ties into the history we redefined in Part 1 and gives a little more nuance to the villain's motive, which as written is "because magic." Being a daemon explains how she wrests control of the Looseys, since the Etholchans believe the daemons are literal descendants of their god Daemoth.

Under the moniker "the Widow" (not the Black Spider), Linene Grey has acquired the help of the Cragmaw goblins, the Looseys, and the four (yes, four) dopplegangers--all in pursuit of finding Murachba and accessing the unspeakable power in its lowest pit, to which she feels entitled. Of these agents, only the dopplegangers know her true identity. The Looseys have only been told that she's a daemon, and they're dying for the honor to meet her.

HALÍA TUMENTRA

Halia's undergone a major ethnic shift, becoming Halía Tumentra. She's one of the first Mottan immigrants to arrive in Phandalin, and very influential among them. She's a Silphenite convert, however, and houses the Silfana's whipping caravan on her property.

Since her conversion, the Looseys have begun to disregard Halía and she wants the power back. Just like the written adventure, she'll try to convince the players to help her defeat the Looseys, with the intent of taking over the Loosey operation herself.

CAILEIGH ALDERLEAF

Not too much to change about this simple quest-giver. When she tells the party about Reidoth the druid, however, there are some adjustments to be made. In my game, I made Reidoth a jhareth (a celestial in human form) who's hiding out in Thunderton (my sub for Thundertree). Caileigh of course has no clue of his true nature, only that he appeared and helped her when beset by goblins on the Triboar trail. Reidoth mentioned that he knew the wilderness very well and (carelessly) that he was on his way to Thunderton. Caileigh happened to remember that fact.

AIOMA GARAELE

As a priestess of Ruethas, the primordial god of time and strategy, Aioma keeps a shrine to her people's god rather than Tymora. She's a heathfolk who knows a fair bit of white magic. The mission to the banshee's lair is more her own arcane curiosity than a mission from her religious higher-ups.

HARBIN WESTER

Well, there's one character who remains unchanged. Harbin Wester works great as is.

I did make some adjustments when introducing the quest Orc Trouble through Wester. Orcs in this setting are less savagely evil. Their people, called the Telmatra, are more styled as a male-dominated culture of tribal seafarers. Some more developed settlements exist to the east, but the Telmatra that Wester wants you to find are basically Native American pirates.

SILAS HALLWINTER

We discussed Mr. Hallwinter in the last part, but I that there are some shifts in what he knows and what he's after. As in the written adventure, Silas is looking for a man he doesn't realize is a leader of the Redbrands. That man, however, is not Iarno Albrek, but Colten Ashby, whose brother (a Baxton Streeter) was found dead. Colten is now missing too. What we'll discover in the next part is that Ashby is a nice amalgam of several characters, including Iarno Albrek, the Redbrand leader.

In Part 2.5 I'll go through the actual encounters in Phandalin, including the infamous Redbrand Hideout.

Check out the homepage for a bit more on the setting this is made for.

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.