D&D Starter Set: The Adventure

It is somewhat emblematic that the index for the Starter Set rulebook went on the back of the adventure. There are a handful of things (like how to set DCs) which find their way into the adventure that should have been in the rules. I assume that’s a function of space management. The rulebook was pretty pressed for space as is, but it still threw me a bit.

I’m going to spoil the hell out of the adventure when I get into it, so let me start with the non-spoiler stuff, and I’ll mark when I make the transition.

  • GM priorities are clearly articulated – When in doubt, make it up. it’s not a competition. It’s a shared story. Be consistent. Make sure everyone is involved. Be fair. Pay attention. Some of those are stronger than others, but it’s not a bad list.
  • No real nuance to character failure. I’m hopeful that the actual rules are more expansive.
  • Yeah, I totally skipped ahead to the magic items. Charged items seem to have switched over to a small number of charges, recover about half of them per day, risk losing the item is you use the last charge. Not a bad model.
  • It struck me that it’d be pretty trivial to have magic items that just expand the number of spells the wielder has prepared.[1]
  • Other magic items were about what I’d expect, though “attunement” is a nice addition. it takes time to attune to more potent items, and there’s a limit to how many items you can be attuned to. Good trick for limiting total magic item haul without including more mundane items. For example, the staves listed require attunement, but a +1 sword (apparently) does not.
  • Monster entries are interesting, and look more like 3e without class levels than anything. No minions or bosses. The few humans statted up this way have what seem to largely be one-off abilities (or spell casting). There’s a little bit of the distinctive color of 4e (goblins can disengage and hide easily, frex) but on the whole, these entries feel a bit more…utilitarian. It might just be a function of it being an adventure, though.
  • Monsters have challenge ratings (though there seems to be a fair amount of variation in what makes a “1”) which translate into XP. But the adventure just seems to be handing out Milestone XP, so I’m not sure what’s going on there.
  • Inspiration! Your roleplaying hooks grant you a point of inspiration when they cause you trouble, you spend that point for a bonus (advantage on a roll). Familiar mechanic, and I can’t fault it. The decision to limit it to a single inspiration is a nice incentive to use-or-lose, though getting that flowing properly will depend on the table getting a sense of its cadence. You don’t want to spend inspiration before you need it if you don’t think you’ll get a chance to get it back!
  • I admit I totally blah-blah-blahed over the forgotten realms stuff. It’s near Neverwinter, which is great (probably the single best 4e product). The maps are gorgeous, but, well, Mike Schley, so that very nearly goes without saying.
  • Yes, the adventure hook is thin, but it’s a starter adventure. Of course the hook is thin. It’s enough to start playing, and that’s enough for me (though I do wish there had been maybe a little more information on Gundran at the outset, if only for ease of reference)

Ok, done the general stuff. On to the meat of things.


The overview of the four main parts of the adventure was useful, but it left me pretty unclear on the whole transition from 3 to 4. As a whole it felt like:
1. Fight Goblins!
2. Save the Town!
3. Um….do a bunch of stuff. Y’know. Stuff
4. Go to Climax!

Not to say that act 3 is bad or unstructured, but the explanation? Left a bit to be desired.

Also, while I appreciate the absence of a ticking clock on this adventure, based on the description of what’s up, it feels like there should be one.

Goblin Arrows

  • As is to be expected, lots of GM guidance in the first fight, which is good,
  • The idea that you might keep initiative in the margins of the adventure sounds like something that was written before layout. Glossy paper + tiny margins == Not so much.
  • If the players kill the goblins but blow the Wisdom (Survival) roll, they pretty much are screwed. The DC is low enough that this probably won’t happen, but it would probably have been worth spending a sentence on.
  • I like the traps on the trail. They’re total sleight of hand, since they don’t really challenge resources (because their consequences are so mild) but that’s good for teaching the idea to new players. Doubly nice to put the more harmless trap first, so that if the partly learns their lesson and starts looking for traps after that one, they’ll spot the slightly more dangerous one.
  • The actual dungeon is nicely set up. There’s a lot of sleight of hand here (the loud river, the wolves always making noise, the sentries being lazy) to keep the encounters discrete, but that’s appropriate for an introductory adventure, and it’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel too ham-fisted
  • I feel like there’s a really good chance of the party skipping acts 2 and 3 if they manage to charm or interrogate any of the goblins. Especially if Sildar doesn’t make it. The GM can plan for this by adding in some personal hooks into town, but it feels like this should be cut off at the pass, because as is, it’s pretty logical, especially since the cart (their other responsibility) is Gunden’s. I am pretty sure I would be all “Why don’t we take this cart of adventuring supplies and go…adventure with it!”
    • Especially because at that point, the town and the castle are roughly equidistant.
  • I loved the possibilities of the negotiation with Yeemik over Sildar. it is a shame that they don’t pad that out a little bit, especially the guaranteed betrayal. Even a small nod to the use of social skills in resolving things might have been nice.
  • Given that there’s a non-trivial chance of the party coming into Klarg’s chamber via the chimney, a little more guidance on how to play that would be nice. is the entrance out of sight? How quickly will they spot the first player up the chimney?
  • I dig the flood as a potential event. Memorable, but scarier than it is really dangerous. I would have liked a little guidance on what the Goblins to next.
  • Because I felt like doing the math, it’s about 75 miles from Neverwinter to Phandelver[2], or about 3 days, assuming that the cart is about as fast as walking (which presumes 24 miles a day) and the attack would be either very late on the second day or very early on the third day. Anyway, that’s 10gp for 3 days work. Modest cost of living (meals, lodging, a little booze) is about 1GP (3sp for meals, 5sp for a room, 2 sp for a gallon of ale for the day) so that’s a solid paycheck, but not an amazing one. Also, it suggests that housing is damn expensive.


  • I love frontier towns in D&D, I truly do, so I’m presupposed to like this town. Despite the name.
  • Ok, I cannot help but imagine some of these NPCs with gold question marks above their heads.
  • Given that the locations are not listed in alphabetical order, would it have killed them to number them or otherwise make the (lovely) map more referenceable?
  • The rumors are kind of a blunt instrument, but fair enough. Introductory adventure.
  • This is probably the section where the lack of examples hurts the most. The guidelines for playing NPCs are decent, but could REALLY use supplementation.
  • Membership in a secret society as a reward? Awesome!!! What does it mean? …I have no idea.
  • Scale on the map seems odd – suggests the buildings are pretty tiny
  • A bunch of push goes away if Sildar dies. Important to stay aware of.
  • Ok, I am liking the habit of including “what the X know” sidebars.
  • XP seems to be by fight now. I guess the streamlining in the goblins cave was just that?
  • Glassstaff’s bug out bag is a wonderful way to do random treasure in a strange place.

The Spider’s Web

  • Ok, yes, this is totally MMO’ish in its framing, but I admit, I totally dig this array of bite sized adventures. I mostly just wish the greater context of things did not make them feel a bit like faffing about.
  • Ok, I thought it was a stretch that the Black Spider’s letter beat you to town, but it’s gotten to the point where they have one of your faces AND have gotten it into hobgoblin hands? Really?
  • I would rather have 3 more little adventures than have Thundertree. But Thundertree has a dragon, so i guess its inclusion is mandatory.
  • That said, I’m startled there’s not a little more guidance on how to run the Venomfang encounter.
  • Cragmaw is nicely put together, but I admit I kind of want a diagram of who hears what, where and does what in response.
  • I don’t understand – are you saying that the owlbear leaves without ripping someone’s arm off? Your ways are strange to me!
  • Personal taste thing, but if I was GMing, and my party went straight to Cragmaw Castle, I would introduce some binary element to the information they receive, so they would have reason to not power on to Wave Echo Cave..
    • For example, Gundren’s map might be missing a key landmark, required to give it reference. He’d been keeping the map safely in Neverwinter until his brother notified him that they’d found the landmark. Now the players need to find it – Agatha, Reidoth or Hamun Kost could probably all identify it as a hilltop you can see clearly from Wyvern Tor.

Wave Echo Cave

  • When I saw this map, I died a little inside. I know it’s totally a D&D tradition to have a big sprawling map like this, but it’s a little bit bigger than my comfort level to run. I am not the target audience for this.
  • It’s made a bit worse because I can’t see the story of this map by looking at it. I could see the stories of all the other maps – imagine how people got in and out, moved around, used the space. This one? Just feels like a bunch of stuff.
  • That said, I really like the preliminary writeups of the dungeons, including default behaviors, actions, difficulties and so on. It feels like a similar level of care as went into the specific encounters for 4e. Make of that what you would.
  • Ok, yeah, they have totally been doing the training wheels things with XP. This time you have to look it up in the stat block. Which is kind of annoying, but I suppose it’s educational.
  • Ugh, wandering monsters, ugh. Specifically, Ugh wandering monsters who do not otherwise exist in the context of the adventure. I understand their utility as a pressure mechanism, but i hate that particular implementation. If these are supposed to be the creatures from other encounters, then give me a cross reference, so players don’t have to kill them twice.
  • And if I roll 4 Gricks, I am totally rerolling. Because I don’t actively hate my players.
  • The booming waves are neat sensory addition to things. I wish they had some payout. Or even a note like “clever players who time their movements to take advantage of the noise might get an advantage on stealth rolls”.[3]
  • The Mine tunnels, with the Ochre Jelly, are a kidn fo encounter I don’t particularly enjoy running. Either you convey “it’s mazelike!” which is dull, or you have a really unfun mapping experience. And if you draw attention to it, you pretty much ruin the point of a surprise attack.
  • I like the 10% stake in the mine as a reward. Honestly, for all that the magic items and such are pretty sweet, the less conventional treasures really make this adventure much more interesting.

And holy crap, I’m done. Or nearly done. Just a few more thoughts on the monsters:

  • The recharge mechanic feels clunky. I wish it were triggered by something in play rather than its own roll.
  • I do like the option for flat damage.
  • Bugbears looks scary. That double damage thing is going to hurt.
  • Several doppelgangers in this, but they’re not really used to the full extent of their abilities. I admit, I wonder why they went with Dops rather than actual drow (cynical answer to self: because drow are actually too scary)
  • Nice touch not giving the Evil Mage sleep. That would probably suck.
  • The bit about sprinkling the flameskull with holy water to kill it permanently made me wonder what it would take to know that. Regretting the absence of default lore difficulties.
  • Ghouls. Ghouls will mess you up.
  • The Grick’s damage resistance is kind of a bear.
  • The Wraith’s energy drain is clever! Hit points of damage are taken from max HP, and only come back after a long rest. That is nasty, but not distasteful.
  • The Redbrands have multiattack? CHEATERS!
  • As with the Flameskull, I’m wondering how much lore it takes to get what the Spectator is

And with that? Actually done. I may take a short break before going onto the PDF. This was actually a bit more of a journey than I’d originally planned.

  1. This is actually a pretty old school idea. There was a very old 1e era dragon article about giving players spell substitution magic items, so a wand of fireball channelling meant that the user could expend any of their level 3 spells to cast fireball (so you could memorize less useful spells, knowing that you had this fallback).  ↩
  2. Total taste thing, but I kind of hate that name.  ↩
  3. Yes, an experienced GM will just do that, but just as this gets a pass on a lot of things because it’s an introductory product, it also is expected to do stuff like this.  ↩

8 thoughts on “D&D Starter Set: The Adventure

  1. Alphastream

    I am really enjoying your reviews, Rob. Thanks! It is great that you didn’t playtest, because it really helps those of us who did to see just how much was accomplished across all the playtest iterations and how different the end result is from other editions (while still speaking to them).

    I’ve so far run the ambush and goblin caves for two groups, each including kids of ages under 13. The kids have really enjoyed the adventure and reacted to their first (or second) D&D experience as we would want to – with a sense of danger and wonder, with creativity, with great desire to play again. The plot reads thin, but in play it has been exactly what the kids wanted – and the adults too. It gives the DM a fair base upon which to add depth and interact with the PCs. The Ideals and Bonds help here, as does the employer being a part of the adventure. Something more wondrous may be more exciting and up my alley, but I’m not sure it would be an improvement for this Starter Set.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Thank you! And yes, it really feels like there’s just enough plot for a starter set . Most of the changes I would make are more nudges than full on tweaks, just depending on what players really seize upon.

  2. Tommi Brander

    What kind of adventure is it?

    1) A sequence (or tree or graph) of scenes/encounters.
    2) Initial situation, characters with motivations (and resources like monsters and dungeons).
    3) Initial location with inhabitants (with maybe motivations).

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s more of a mini campaign, so there are really three answers. Assuming no weirdness, it’s:

      1) encounter that leads directly to a dungeon. Self-contained, explicitly introductory.

      2) hub and spoke. Central location(town) with personalities that is a launching point for multiple encounters of differing types and complexity. Relatively open ended, though there is some arc to it. More closely modeled after MMO quest hubs than classic adventures (largely in a good way). This is the largest part of the adventure, composing sections 2 and 3 (of 4).

      3. Finale in a big old dungeon.

    2. Rob Donoghue Post author

      (So arguably a sequence with a tree in the middle, but even that is not quite right)

  3. Merlin

    I can envision a setting where Wizards don’t have spellbooks. They just have a collection of magic items that contain prepared spells.

  4. Sandra

    I agree, these reviews are great, I’ve really loved them for Numenera and 13th Age, and I wasn’t disappointed in your 5e review. Great job!

    “No real nuance to character failure.”
    That’s not all bad — for me it’s one of the reasons I want to give 5e a spin.
    The four outcomes in Fate Core (and “Spin” in some of the earlier Fate games) was promising on paper but something that I had a hard time getting to work in practice, made even harder that it was subtly different for the four different actions. I even made flash cards to learn them but with mediocre success. I’m not the world’s smartest GM…
    It’s been a little simpler in Apocalypse World and it’s ilk because it says right there in the move what happens, but I’m really relieved and happy to go back to a binary success or failure.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s a tool I’ve gotten used to,but you’re right, its absence it not a problem by any stretch. Clarity is pretty handy in its own right.


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