I'm DMing Lost Mine of Phandelver and my players just bolted from the great hall through the Smelter Cavern towards the easternmost area. They

took massive damage from the flameskull and are being pursued by zombies, but they've gotten through and are just outside the Forge of Spells.

Given that, according to the module text,

the zombies only pursue intruders near the Smelter Cavern and quit when the latter have departed that place, and that the flameskull is sworn to prevent intruders from "passing through" this place.

I'm puzzling over how to proceed, and thank the gods our session ended mid-battle.

I'm hoping someone can provide the right interpretation; mine is as follows:

the zombies are assigned to the Smelter Cavern and will return there rather than chase intruders anywhere (including to the East), and the flameskull is assigned to prevent intruders from getting through the Smelter Cavern (presumably to the East), since that is where the Forge of Spells and the boss of the undead (Mormesk) are.
Thus the zombies will turn back, having strayed too far from their "home base", but the flameskull will pursue the intruders, being unable to accept their having "passed through" the place that no one was to pass through.

Is this correct? Not correct? Or maybe there's no correct answer?


5 Answers 5


The Monster Manual says that a Flameskull's master "must craft their instructions with care to ensure that the creature carries out its tasks properly" and that the Flameskull "interprets those commands to the letter". From this, we can infer that Flameskulls are literal-minded in the extreme and if they are not told to do something, they will not do it unless it is necessary for the completion of their task. Converely, if they are not told to stop doing something, then it will continue doing it until they can do it no longer. If a Flameskull is commanded "bring me a diamond", it will bring exactly one diamond. If it is commanded "bring me diamonds", then I hope you like being buried under precious stones, because you are going to get all of the diamonds. All of them.

I have not run LMoP, but I would reason as follows:

  • Flameskulls do exactly what they are told. They do no more, and they do no less. If the instructions you give are not the instructions you mean, then you should give better instructions next time.
  • The skull in the cavern is acting on "ancient instructions to prevent intruders from passing through". Note the lack of instructions to chase intruders, kill intruders, punish intruders who do pass through, steal intruders' underwear, or dance the macarena.
  • Valid targets for the skull are therefore "intruders who are trying to pass through". If someone is trying to pass through the room but is not an intruder, they are not a valid target. If someone is an intruder but not trying to pass through the room, they are not a valid target.
  • Once someone has passed through the room they are no longer passing through the room, nor are they trying to do so. Therefore, a character that has passed through the room and is not currently crossing back is not a valid target for the Flameskull and will be ignored by the Flameskull. It is not even considered for targeting area effects or multi-target attacks.
  • If a character that is not trying to pass through the room is attacking the Flameskull or aiding another character that is trying to pass through, it becomes a valid target again. The character is actively hindering the Flameskull and must be eliminated lest the Flameskull become unable to complete its task. Once the character stops attacking/helping, they are no longer hindering the Flameskull and will once again be ignored.

With this reasoning in hand, I would have the Flameskull break off pursuit and attack of each character individually as soon as the Flameskull can see that the character has passed through the room and shows no intention to cross back. That character is no longer trying to pass through the room and is not what the Flameskull is interested in. If that means that the Flameskull turns away before the zombies, so be it. The behaviour of the zombies and the orders given to the Flameskull are not the same thing. If that means your party runs through the room taking fire until they cross the exit threshold and are then safe, so be it.

Of course, if the party doesn't destroy the Flameskull (complete with holy water/Dispel Magic/Remove Curse), then they have to run the gauntlet on the way out back. Good luck to them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ As you said, we can expect that the flameskull's instructions were crafted with care. But while the adventure says that it was given "ancient instructions to prevent intruders from passing through", note that this is a summary, not a transcription, of its instructions. Its actual instructions were likely far more complicated than the passing line recounted in the adventure. Thus we cannot conclude that there was a "lack of instructions to chase intruders, kill intruders, [or] punish intruders who do pass through..." Its instructions might have included any of those. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Jan 2 at 7:12

I'm going through the same module with my group. If they end up in the same situation I would have the zombies AND the flameskull not go more than 15 feet (arbitrary distance) beyond the Smelter Cavern in any direction. I would probably have the flameskull engage them earlier, and the zombies chase them farther - but only by a little bit.

I'm thinking the flameskull is motivated by preventing passage through, but has no.... object permanence I guess? It something isn't actively trying to pass through the area that the flameskull is trying to prevent passage through, it doesn't care. If they try to go back through the area though, it would likely re-engage them.

I'm 100% for running away from the flameskull being something that works in the party's favor.

I don't have the module in front of me right now, (I'm going off memory) so if I've put something in here that is contradictory to the text, please feel free to point it out.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The flameskull is a very high intelligence undead. If you were tasked with preventing anyone from getting through an area, what would you do? I could see where zombies would take a command like "Stay here and make sure no one gets through" and mistakenly focus more on the former task, just to be a merciful DM. But a flameskull, wouldn't it comprehend its master's command to include "if they do, don't let them get away with it"? \$\endgroup\$
    – lunatamis
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 15:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see your point. However, it's not a clear to me if the flameskull would be better fulfilling it's duties by chasing down the people who already got through (and thereby leaving the area it's charged with guarding vulnerable) or by waiting for them to come back and re-engaging them in a situation where it can prepare, and also guard the area it's assigned. Would the highly intelligent flameskull chase them such that it's out of position, or be fully prepared for when they come back? I think it could go either way. \$\endgroup\$
    – M C
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ In fact, I'm making a note that if my players end up in the same situation, the flameskull will be more deadly the second time. \$\endgroup\$
    – M C
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 16:55

What do you think they should do?

You say "I'm DMing Lost Mine of Phandelver", however, I say, "Deciding how monsters react to the PCs is DMing, so, whatever you are doing isn't DMing".

You are sitting in the big seat so you get the power and the responsibility of making the big decisions. This is your adventure, these are your monsters - no one but you can tell you how to run them - not the module writer and not me.

That said, I will offer some advice:

  • What's written in the adventure (whether yours or someone else's) is not gospel
  • The payers don't know what is written in the module
  • The creatures aren't actually real - they don't actually have "motivations"
  • The role of the DM is to enable the players (including the DM) to have fun
  • Fun comes in a variety of forms: some players like a desperate struggle that may or may not end with some (or all) of the PCs dead, some don't
  • DMs can get my guy syndrome too
  • It follows that there are only 2 questions that you need to answer:
    1. What are the capabilities of the creatures i.e. what can they do?
    2. Of all the things they can do, what is going to be the most fun overall?
  • \$\begingroup\$ So TPKs don't happen in your game because it wouldn't be fun for the players? I'm interested in verisimilitude, which gives us question (3) in your list: how would the actors behave? If it says somewhere that the flameskull protects the Forge at all costs, then that's what it will do, because that's what the designers felt would provide the right challenge level. If they're silent on this issue, then it's up to the DM to decide, which is totally fine, too. My only question is which of the two it is. \$\endgroup\$
    – lunatamis
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ TPKs have happened in my game as both a player and DM and they are generally no fun for anyone. In rare circumstances they can be an awesome way to end a campaign. With all due respect to them, the designers have no idea what an appropriate challenge is for your table. Pre-written modules are tools for your vision - not straight jackets. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see what you're saying, and I agree in principle. But in this case, I'm curious to know what the designers were thinking. (I still withhold the right to modify the flameskull's behavior to fit my campaign. ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – lunatamis
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 22:27
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ this line is not clear enough in RPGs, in general. "The role of the DM is to enable the players (including the DM) to have fun". It should be the entire first page of the DMG. \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 14:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @goodguy5 exactly, no one enjoys a sporting event where the referee/umpire thinks they are the star. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 20:41

The adventure is explicit about one and vague about the other

The description of

Area 12 (Smelter Cavern)

says that: "Eight of the fallen dwarf warriors" there...

...are Zombies. "They rise and pursue any living creatures that enter the room, but they do not pursue creatures outside this area for more than 1 round."

Thus we know exactly how far they will go in their pursuit of characters, and when they will return - at least under their current instructions. But we are also told that

"Mormesk [the wraith in Area 14]

leads the undead that haunt Wave Echo Cave."

and further that:

"so far, the creature has easily handled the assaults of

Mormesk’s zombies and ghouls

while seeing nothing strange about undead roaming the mine."

It is clear that this individual is the one directing the lesser undead. It is thus possible that this leader will change the orders under which they operate in order to react to the party's attempts to reach

the Forge of Spells.

On the other hand,

The flameskull

is described as having been

a servant of the human wizards allied with the Phandelver dwarves and gnomes, and it continues to act on ancient instructions to prevent intruders from passing through.

From the lore of this creature, we know that it:

carries out the directives given to it when it was created, and it interprets those commands to the letter. [It's] master must craft its instructions with care to ensure that the creature carries out its tasks properly.

We thus know that this creature was given careful, precise instructions, and that these instructions predated the fall of the Mine. It will be the DM's job to determine what these instructions were, and how to apply them to the actions of the PCs.

Personally, it seems reasonable to me that:

If the pre-fall purpose of the flameskull was to guard access to the Forge of Spells, it would not back off simply because the PC's left its room. Rather, it would follow them, attacking and shouting 'Intruders!' all the while, expecting to raise an alarm and for the dwarf, wizard, and gnome defenders of the mine to show up. It might stop attacking when they left the area of the Forge and Smelter, but it would continue to shout for guards and follow them at least until the point when it needed to return to guard the Forge (so that it couldn't be led away as a diversion). Now, there might at some point have been guests in the Mine who were over-curious or wandered into the area of the Forge. I would think that the flameskull could be told to cease attacking, and cease raising the alarm, by anyone it recognized as one of its wizard creators. And that might even include Mormensk, since he was once one of those wizards. So he might be able to tell the flameskull to stand down or that a particular PC was permitted in the area, even if he could not override its instructions to always return to the Smelter or tell it who to attack.


Maybe use the NPCs gently guide the party?

When I ran this, my adventurers stayed to the west side of the mines and encountered the Black Spider way before ever discovering the Flame Skull and friends. I didn't want them to battle the Black Spider first, so I had the Black Spider "hire" the adventurers to eradicate the mines of the undead blocking access to the Forge of Spells. I thought this was safe because my players REALLY wanted access to the Forge.

Maybe you can use the wraith (Mormesk?)in the east in a similar fashion?

Good luck!

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not the issue. The issue is there are eight zombies and a flameskull chasing my badly bloodied party into the eastern caverns, and I'm trying to understand the baddies' "motivation", whether they're to continue pursuing or turn back to the Smelter Cavern. \$\endgroup\$
    – lunatamis
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 14:23

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