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DISCLAIMER: The whole question has spoilers about Lost Mine of Phandelver.

So, I went through the Redbrand Hideout with my party. They

entered by the tunnel (so, straight to area 8), fought and defeated the Nothic.

This fight was the one they used most resources - two 1st level spell slots from the 2nd level Cleric for healing, Lay on Hands from the Paladin for healing (7 HP out of the 10 total HP pool), Hunter's Mark from the Ranger for damage. Also, the Paladin used one divine smite.

After that, they

found the secret door to area 12 through area 7, surprising Glasstaff. Even though he was surprised, I had pre-cast Mage Armor on him, making him AC 15, and gave him the reaction (yeah yeah I know surprised doesn't have reaction) for using the Staff of Defense for Shield (+5 AC).

Our Druid used Faerie Fire on the enemy, as the first person moving. He failed the ST, making every other attack against him have advantage. Our Paladin had the +1 Longsword from

the Nothic hoard treasure (they jumped the hole).

He critted, with divine smite, dealing 6d8 + 4 (31 average) damage. So... yeah, Glasstaff was unconscious before being able to make any action or reaction.

Is the fight (and the dungeon as a whole) supposed to be that easy? I understand that they skipped essentially every content on the dungeon, making literally the fastest path to Glasstaff they could make, but still... Everyone's left with a feeling of "really? Was it supposed to be that easy? I'm confused."

I'm running this adventure for the first time, so I'm not sure about: did I do something wrong? - did I misplay Glasstaff or something? Were they just too lucky in finding the secret door, getting to surprise him and critting him?

Am I mistaken and the real challenge begins now, as they are mostly drained out of resources, and there's still much dungeon to explore?

As a note: Glasstaff roled for an amazing 3 initiative, so even if he wasn't surprised, he would be unconscious (PCs didn't kill him) before his first round anyway.

Summary

I am sincerely confused about how easy this "dungeon" and its "boss" was. As I said, the main "questions" (I think they are all related, so no "more than one question" here) are:

  • Is this supposed to be this easy?
  • If it is not, did I do something wrong?
  • If it is, is there something I can change (the next time) so it actually becomes more challenging?

I'm aware that Glasstaff encounter gives only 200 XP, being a CR1 monster against 4 2nd level characters, so pretty easy encounter. But should it have been different, overall?

And, as I mention in the body

  • Am I mistaken and the real challenge begins now, as they are mostly drained out of resources, and there's still much dungeon to explore?

Party setup

Probably implied for now, but the party this time had only 2nd level characters, one Druid, one Paladin, one Ranger and one Cleric. To be fair, they aren't even worried about optimization.


Tactical comment

I don't feel like I have played the NPCs/monsters wrong. As I said, the Nothic itself drained a lot of resources from the party - 2 out of 3 spell slots from the Cleric, 1 out of 2 spell slots from the Ranger, 1 out of 2 spell slots from the Paladin, dropping the Cleric and the Paladin to half HP and the Ranger to half HP as well.

Glasstaff, on the other hand, with his miserable 22 HP and (even with) 20 AC, got pretty easily hit by the +6 attack bonus from the paladin (+1 LS) (it actually critted, as I said, so that doesn't even matter) and +7 attack bonus from the Ranger (+2 from archery, +5 from usual).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's fine, I'll delete my comment as obsolete. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 18 '18 at 16:00
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No, you did nothing wrong.

There are a few things here that stand out to me regarding the Glassstaff fight on which I can elaborate a bit.

Surprise is very powerful

Average damage and healing numbers compared to average hit point pool sizes just mean that the most effective way to win a fight is simply to put out more damage faster than the opposite party. Surprise helps a lot with this.

Smite + Crit = Ouch

Paladins are notorious for their crit smites. It is indeed correct that a crit will also double the damage dice of a smite, so when it happens there's not much you can do but smile, be happy that your paladin got his moment in the spotlight, and say goodbye to your monster. This is a big part of why some people play paladins and it does use quite a bit of their daily resources.

Low level encounters are very swingy

Low level encounters are in my experience quite hard to balance, simply because your players' resources are still very limited; Their hit point pools are very small, so a single (un)lucky roll from a monster can knock them out. They have few spell slots to mitigate incoming dangers. They have only one attack per turn and low attack bonuses, so a little bit of bad luck means the whole party might put out no damage at all for a whole round. This means that you have to be very careful with setting your monsters hit point maximum and average damage output, or a fight can turn very sour very quickly - at low levels at least. This also means that it's generally better (depending on your group's desired playstyle of course) to make encounters a bit easier than normal.

The action economy

5e takes great care to make sure that the action economy is kept stable, that means creatures (monsters, npcs and players alike) must have a very good reason to be able to make more than one action per turn (with the exception of legendary and lair actions for higher level boss monsters, which only exist to fix exactly the problem in this case). This, again in combination with the way the combat works (more damage faster wins), means that a group of four versus a single enemy has a huge advantage, because the single enemy has only a quarter of the actions available and is a lot more vulnerable to bad luck.

What you could do differently next time

Make it harder to surprise the enemy

Maybe the wizard had cast alarm on the other side of the secret door, so he knows someone is there, or make the secret door harder to find.

Dynamically scale up a monsters max hit points

This is something I do a lot. My players usually play pretty optimized, so if it looks like an encounter is about to face an abrupt and anticlimactic ending, I simply retconn a monsters hit point maximum to a higher value that is still within the hit dice range. So for example "Glassstaff", who uses the statblock of an evil mage has 5d8 hit points, or 22 on average. In this case I might have probably just increased his maximum to the actual maximum, 40 (5 * 8), which would have left him with 9 hit points after an average critical smite, so he can at least act once.

Balance the number of opponents

After all, that's what the guard quarters two doors further down is meant for. Either have a few guards in the room already to deliver a report or whatever to their boss, or have them join the combat midfight, because they might have heard a noise. Although, if your players made sure to prevent that scenario, either by clearing out nearby guard quarters or eg. casting silence to muffle the combat noise, make sure to give them the advantage of such careful preparation.

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The true difficulty is split throughout the entire hideout

In this instance it is quite easy for a well prepared (And potentially lucky, in respect to the secret door) to cut the head off the snake.

That said there is good reason to explorer further in, depending on how much the party know. The goblin for example knows the way to Cragmaw Castle, there are also prisoners to rescue.

The true difficulty comes from a large number of fairly easy encounters in a confined space where rest is somewhere between difficult and impossible.

Personally I think this is good design

It gives a party options to get in and out again, or allows them to explore. If they miss the opportunity to clear out the whole place then maybe they miss some key information (From the Goblin for example - although there are other avenues to learn this info), or maybe they return and someone else has taken charge, or the Redbrands scatter killing the prisoners on the way out (Or letting them starve to death).

What could be changed to make it more difficult

I am not a fan of scaling up or adding more enemies in situations like this, I prefer to give reason to explore further and that helps ensure player agency is still respected (IE: If they want an easy in and out, they get it).

The group that I DM for did a very similar thing to your group, and I made sure that Glasstaff had trapped the secret passage so he would be aware of anyone approaching. Using his misty step spell he escaped and alerted the Redbrands in the next room to set an ambush for the party, this led to a tense fight which was the closest the party have been to dying, and gave them massive pause for thought when exploring the remaining rooms.

If I was feeling particularly nasty I could have had Glasstaff also alert the bugbears, but I wanted them to keep out of the way for reasons.

Generally speaking, if there is an easy way through a hideout then the person in that hideout is going to be aware of it and will have taken some precautions to ensure it doesn't become a trap for them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, if they don't do anything about the rest of the Redbrands, Halia is taking charge (as it's her plan to begin with) :) - and the players did show some interest in exploring further, especially for the prisioners. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 '18 at 15:10
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Is this supposed to be this easy?

Easy? Well, they carefully investigated and found the tunnel, and then searched around trying to find the best approach. It sounds to me like your party used good tactics and accomplished their objectives. You may be focusing too much on the "combat" end of things, and not as much on all the things they had to do in order to make the combat part that easy. Glassstaff himself really isn't all that powerful when alone, particularly if surprised, and the party did exactly what they were supposed to in order to catch him by surprise.

I certainly understand asking the question, though. When I ran this dungeon, we had a similar experience, except instead of defeating the Nothic they befriended it, and got it to give them some information about the prisoners in the dungeon and where Glassstaff was hiding. They also had a feeling of "wait, it was that easy?", when really it was that they proceeded carefully and made it that easy for themselves by getting the information they needed instead of just barging through the front door killing everything in sight.

I don't think the party, or you, did anything wrong, and the story proceeded as it should have based on the decisions they made. If they think that it was easy, then sure, say it was easy.

If it is, is there something I can change (the next time) so it actually becomes more challenging?

First of all, the next time you run it you probably will have players do things differently, and might get less lucky or be less careful, so it may end up being more challenging.

Secondly, there's not really a need for every single encounter to be "challenging". Let me digress for a little bit. Mark Rosewater, the lead designer for Magic: the Gathering, talks a lot about game design in general. (And when you're a DM, you're basically acting as a game designer in a lot of ways.) In his article "Ten Things Every Game Needs", there's a concept which has really struck me about gaming in his Thing #5, Inertia:

What do I believe is the number-one problem game designers have with the first game they design? Game length. A well-crafted game should end before the player wants to stop playing.

Your game has to end as early as you can make it end. It's much better to have a game that you wanted to last longer than one that you wanted to stop earlier. You'll play the first one again, possibly right away, and you might never return to play the second one. The trick to doing this is to set up your game so that it pushes the players towards completion.

I'm sure you've experienced the pain of playing a board game that drags on too long, until nobody cares who wins anymore and everybody just wants it to end. Whereas if a game is too short, you can always say "let's play again" as long as people are having fun.

You can think of each encounter or scene in an RPG as being its own game (or round of a game, or whatever). It going on too long and losing peoples' interest is much more of a problem than being too short and people needing to move on to the next scene. You only really need to worry about things being so short and easy that it stops being fun.

So I think the only thing to really change is to ensure that your players are still having fun, and perhaps to help emphasize that the preparation and careful investigation that they're doing is really helping them with the direct combat aspects of the game. Maybe have an NPC relay a proverb like "Knowing the dragon's lair is half the hunt" or the like (and I'm sure you can come up with something better than that).

When I was DM for LMoP, it was with only two players, and while I adjusted encounters to have less monsters to help compensate, they really took an approach of trying to find the back door, and get in and get out as quickly as possible, which was really a fun way to play. Assuming your players like a similar approach and don't just want a full hack-and-slash fest, avoiding combat where possible should be rewarded much like you've done.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would not say they "carefully" investigated anything. They literally decided for the tunnel randomly, and went for the secret door by chance hahahaha But I can see your point, that being intended or not doesn't change the actions which made it "easier". \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 '18 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint Heh. Well, not all the luck of the game comes from dice. As in life, sometimes everything just happens your way. And sometimes it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cooper Jr. Jun 18 '18 at 15:01
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You could play this a different way

Glasstaff alone is a solitary CR1 Evil Mage. It is no match for a level 2 party. The meeting with Glasstaff is described as a social encounter, rather than a combat one. The book has the whole "Roleplaying Iarno" section, explaining his motivations and possible behavior. Coming through the secret door, the party sees a lone unarmed man, reading at his desk:

Sitting at the desk is a short, dark-bearded human male in robes, studying a tome.

You asked to roll for initiative, so you treat this as a combat situation; that means it's the PC who silently attacked first without saying a word. I don't know the motivations behind your players' characters, maybe killing execution-style a human being on sight is perfectly normal for them.

However, according to the adventure text, The Glasstaff would cling to his life:

He values his life more that anything, and he remains a model prisoner in the hopes that the Black Spider will somehow learn of his predicament and "arrange for his freedom."

The book explicitly says he surrenders rather than fights to death. Seeing a group of armed men, breaking into his quarters, he probably would scream something like "Stop, don't kill me, let's talk", try to parley and possibly deceive them.

The book also implies PCs would capture and interrogate Iarno:

If he is questioned while in captivity, Iarno relates the following information, all of which is true: ...

How to nudge players to social interactions

Don't ask to roll for initiative before the fight actually begins.

Compare this:

— You open a door and see a human male in robes, studying a tome. Roll for initiative!

to this:

— You open a door and see a human male in robes, studying a tome. What do you do?

Surprised condition doesn't mean a character are sitting still for 6 seconds, like paralyzed. Considering the fact that characters act simultaneously, feel free to include some talking into combat. Be creative! An evil mage could say he is actually a prisoner. A hired thug could ask for mercy. A poor goblin could beg for his life right before a paladin's mace smashes his head. It is the possibility tabletop RPGs give us comparing to pre-written scenarios in computer games.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ They didn't kill him, only knocked him unconscious. But yeah, they entered the place, saw someone who matches consistently with the description of the Redbrands' leader (which they got through almost-torture interrogation of one from the Ruffian encounter) and attacked straight-forward. The crit essentially made Glasstaff go from 22 to 0, so I didn't have much time for the Stop please don't kill me thing. I could have Deus Ex that, made him live with 1 HP and then start the talking though. Hmm, that's an idea. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 '18 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint he actually could start talking before the attack. Surprised doesn't mean paralyzed. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 18 '18 at 15:19
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Actually I just had a TPK kill on this one the other weekend, and the party killed the Nothic with ease in a round and a half with no spells expended. D&D has no guarantees of having battles be won or lost in the cinematic beats our culture is used to. A few very good or bad rolls change everything. Surprise is very powerful against outnumbered enemies, which I think is fair given that players often have to work for it and pass a whole party worth of stealth rolls.

So far as particular circumstances there was also a vital difference that a party member ranged out, discovered the secret door and then botched a sneak roll and made a hasty exit. I had the Glasstaff familiar go scope the situation out, and then while the party was evacuating prisoners logic dictated that he would make preparations to defend his hideout.

Once he has his staff in hand and a chance to cast mage armor he has 13 plus his dexterity, plus one AC from the staff, plus Shield as a reaction until he runs out of charges, putting him at an AC over 20, which makes him a very hard target until he runs out of charges on the staff, which takes four rounds. The him-running-away contingency doesn't come into effect until the party gets a few rather high rolls against him and if he can make it through the first few rounds it's not hard for him to get some party members sidelined with his hold person spell. The staff isn't super premium loot for a player character but for an NPC who doesn't have multiple encounters a day it's kind of overpowered.

Given extended time to prep he both rounded up a couple bugbear goons and, more importantly, logically had to grab the damned FIREBALL SCROLL from his stash, because if he's not going to use it when he's outnumbered in his hideout. As you can imagine once his flunkies were out of the way it made a lot more sense for him to use than trying to off them all with low level magic missles.

So my party are going to regain consciousness locked up in the prisoner room awaiting interrogation, and I probably would have let them die if we weren't seven months into the campaign and hadn't had to struggle so much for times to meet up.

The adventure as written holds the party and DM's hand through surprising the guy but not through him catching wind that the party was there and having more than a moment to prepare his defenses. It puts a Fireball scroll handy for him it seems without much consideration that he might think of using it rather than leave it as party loot.

So given your opposite experience, mileage can obviously vary greatly.

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