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Question

I am currently running Lost Mine of Phandelver for a group of new players. There are a total of six characters, but they are getting Exp "as if" they were four (I'm balancing the encounters for that, as well, although the math doesn't match exactly). I'm used to adding "rival" parties in my homebrew campaign (the rival party is of NPCs, to be clear), making "side quests" a limited resource. In homebrew, it's easy to balance that, as you make enough side quests for the players to be able to proceed the main quest after the resources are removed. For published adventures, that's a little harder.

Chapter 4 from LMoP states

This part of the adventure is designed for characters of at least 4th level and assumes that each character has earned at least 2700 XP. If the characters skipped too many of the optional investigations and encounters in part 3, they might not be 4th level, and many encounters in this section might be difficult for them.

This implies that it's fine to skip some side quests, while certainly not fine to skip all of them.

The question:

  • How many side quests can I take away from the party (and give to the "rival party") without hurting them too much?
  • What particular side quest I should be worried about?

My main concerns are obviously XP and Magic items. Gold, generally, should not be a problem. Taking away every way of finding the Castle is obviously bad as well.

In general, I think this question can easily be answered by expertise since many groups probably did not run all the side quests and were able to finish it quite fine.

While this is a Q&A, I'm interested in expertise from players and DMs who have run the adventure and only partially finished the side quests. A particular concern is for relevant magic items that shouldn't be lost to the party.

Party Context

The party has a Life Cleric and a Paladin, so Potions of Healing are not being a problem until now. Other than that, there is a Barbarian, a Warlock, a Ranger and a Druid.

The party has rolled for stats, and honestly, most of them got considerably better than average. In particular, the Barbarian has absurdly strong stats (19 Str, yes, at level 1, 16 Con and 14 Dex).


Please, don't answer with "don't put a rival party, that's a bad idea" or anything along these lines. That's something I enjoy doing, players usually enjoy having this challenge, and I have already talked to them and got their acceptance on that.

If you suggest including extra side quests, especially if you want to suggest a particular side quest, please only do that if you have played that side quest.

As a note, I'm worried about taking away side quests. If the players decide to not do them, that's their problem. (Before someone tells me I'm railroading them or something).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All is good, I really like the way you scoped this question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 13 '18 at 16:06
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Disclaimer: Possible spoilers about LMoP.

So, I have read through the rewards of the third chapter, plus the "starting point" of the two first chapters. The needed encounters to reach the recommended 4th level can be answered by math. From a point of view of experience, for 4 players, you need a total of \$ 4 \cdot 2700 = 10800 \$ XP for the party.

The first chapter gives you a total of \$1400\$ XP (350/character).

The second chapter gives you a total of \$+2800\$ XP (+700/character).

The Cragmaw castle, from the third chapter, gives you a total of \$+4400\$ XP, assuming

the party clears the castle completely, rescues Gundren and you include the optional Returning War Band encounter.

From the main story, we have a total of \$ 8600\$ XP. That means the Side Quests should give the party at least \$10800 - 8600 = 2200\$ XP. I have split the side quests in four: Agatha (sent by Sister Graele), Wyvern Tor (sent by the Mayor), Old Owl Well (sent by Daran) and Thundertree (sent by Quelline Alderleaf).

\begin{array} {|r|r|} \hline \textbf{Side Quest} & \textbf{Total Awarded XP} \\ \hline \textrm{Agatha} &200 \\ \hline \textrm{Wyvern Tor} & 1250 \\ \hline \textrm{Old Owl Well} & 1000 \\ \hline \textrm{Thundertree} & 3750 \\ \hline ~~\textrm{Westernmost Cottage} & 50\\ ~~\textrm{Blighted Cottage} & 50\\ ~~\textrm{Brown Horse} & 200 \\ ~~\textrm{Blighted Farmhouse} & 200 \\ ~~\textrm{Ruined Store} & 400 \\ ~~\textrm{Dragon's Tower} & 2000\\ ~~\textrm{Old Smith} & 100 \\ ~~\textrm{Herbalist's Shop} & 200 \\ ~~\textrm{Old Garrison} & 250 \\ ~~\textrm{Weaver's Cottage} & 150 \\ ~~\textrm{Dragon's Cultists} & 150 \\ \hline \end{array}

Essentially, the side quest giving the most XP is, by far, the Thundertree, due to the Dragon encounter. It is also the encounter that gives the most valuable magic items - +1 Weapon, 2 scrolls and 2 potions. Old Owl Well also gives a Ring of Protection, which is important.

From that, simply don't take Thundertree from the party, which is also the safest way to learn about the Castle's Location through Reidoth. That doesn't even account for the random encounters.

As a second option, the Cragmaw Castle can be skipped, actually, as long as the party can get \$400\$ XP from the random encounters, which shouldn't be hard.


As a side note, you shouldn't be worried about the PCs being able to find the Castle. The Goblins and Hobgoblins from random encounters are able to provide that info, so the party only needs to wander around for some time.

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The side quests and magic items aren't necessary

(Lost Mine of Phandelver spoilers within, obviously)

I can give some detail based on my experience last year as a brand-new DM running for two brand-new players. As the adventure is really designed for four players, I needed to tweak some things anyway, but I think I may have some insights for you.

Partly because the party was small (though I often had Sildar or another NPC alongside the two PCs), and also because they perceived the main quest as very urgent and the offered side quests as distractions to their main goal, they tended to take a very stealthy and surgical-strike approach to accomplishing objectives, even though their characters weren't really specifically "built" with that in mind. For example, after spending a couple (in-game) days hiking to Thundertree, they found Reidoth right away (which was mostly a coincidence they found him so quickly, as they entered from the South rather than taking the main road that entered from the West), talked with him for five minutes, and then headed back on their multi-day journey back South, without any interest in exploring the rest of Thundertree. After all, Reidoth even warns them that the rest of the town is dangerous. They left many rooms unexplored in the other "dungeons" as well, often trying to enter through a back door and once they found their objective they just wanted to get out of there.

Magic items

Don't worry if they find the magic items or not. I don't think my players did before reaching Wave Echo Cave, or at least they didn't find most of them since they were laser-focused on accomplishing the main plot. D&D 5E is designed to work fine with magic items being extremely rare anyway, and a +1 weapon or the like really doesn't change encounter math that much. There are no magic items needed in order to finish the adventure; they're just fun little bonuses if found.

XP

I certainly felt like there were some challenges with getting the party leveled up quickly enough to handle the main quest tasks they were getting to. They in fact were not level 4 by the time they reached Wave Echo Cave, though they leveled up to 4 while they were in it. I did a few things to try to help keep things balanced:

  1. I used more "Random Encounters" than the book suggests when traveling from one town to another. Rather than rolling for whether an encounter happened, they pretty much had at least one encounter whenever going from one place to the next.
  2. I lowered the number of opponents and their difficulty to match the party's current strength. I needed to do so anyway because they weren't a "full" 4-member party, but I think that I learned a lot (as a new DM) about the "knobs" I could turn to adjust difficulty on the fly to make encounters challenging without being impossible, without outright fudging dice (most of the time). I would do things like tweak how many monsters would arrive in a "second wave" (so a whole encounter wouldn't need to be defined up front), and I wouldn't really decide how many hit points a monster had in its range of possible values up front, just deciding it would die when it had taken enough hits. (Maybe some would call that fudging dice, I suppose.) I used a web "Lost Mine of Phandelver Adjustment Calculator" to get a good idea of a starting point for each encounter based on the party current composition (their levels and how many NPCs were with them at the time).
  3. I included more Potions of Healing in the treasure that they did find, as well as eventually a homebrew "Wand of Healing Word". You said your party composition had healing anyway so this might not be as big of a deal, but I found that combat is so swingy at the lower levels (particularly in a smaller party like the one we had) that a significant thing one gets by leveling is more Hit Points, so if you provide ways for their hit points to last longer it can be less important what their real level is.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ "the main thing one gets by leveling at the lower levels especially is more Hit Points" - They also get their important class features at level 2 and 3, and eventually an ASI at 4. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 13 '18 at 15:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, the statement about the main thing being more HP was a little too strong for me :P - but everything else is great. The link for adjusting encounters seems to make some quick math on the estimated CR using the "new HP", which would take lots of time to do by hand. That's great. The +1 was pressed there :P \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 13 '18 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, that wording is probably a little too strong. I think my point is mostly that if the goal of DMing is "avoid a TPK", especially at low levels combat can be so swingy that I found having extra healing really useful so that a battle isn't over with dead characters quickly. I certainly have a lot less experience DMing than others, though, and my experience is with a much smaller party than yours. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Jun 13 '18 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ There, hopefully that wording is a bit weaker. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Jun 13 '18 at 17:20

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