Tabletop: Removing the Ugly Bits from “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, Part 1: Goblin Ambush

At the beginning of winter last year, I was on Amazon picking up some necessaries. Halfway through shopping, the suggestion bar offered up the D&D 5th edition starter box on discount. Curse you, Amazon, for knowing exactly how to get me to impulse buy. ūüôā

I really had no intention of trying out 5th edition, since my partner and I have been slowly tweaking our¬†m√©lange of Pathfinder / 3.5e, True20, and house rules into exactly what we want. But then I thought about our kids. Our youngest is at an age where she can begin playing tabletop RPGs, so we can finally start running games for them without leaving anyone out. We’ve done rules-light adventures with them a few times but have never used a hard and fast ruleset. I thought that the 5th edition box might be a good way to familiarize myself with the new rules and to introduce the girls to crunch at the same time.

“The Lost Mine of Phandelver” is the adventure included in the starter box. It’s full of the racism and unnecessary violence that pervades mainstream RPG material. So I’ve chosen to go through the adventure and make changes to remove those elements. The adventure holds up fine without them, and there’s no reason to normalize that kind of crap for young kids. Going over the adventure with a fine-toothed comb will also grant me intimate familiarity with its most minute details, as Dyson Logos recently did by redrawing the map of Cragmaw Hideout, the first major site in “Lost Mine”; it’s worth a look.

If it’s not obvious from the outset, logging this process is going to involve plenty of spoilers. If you’re unfamiliar with the adventure and think you might be a player in it someday, plan on pretending to forget you read this series when you’re done. ūüėõ

Goblins from 5e Starter Set

Goblin Ambush

The adventure begins with the characters driving a wagon for their old friend Gundren Rockseeker. He wants them to deliver supplies to a settlement. Since this is D&D, we know that any trade caravan, goods wagon, or passenger coach bearing the PCs will be attacked. Sure enough, the opening encounter is an ambush by goblin bandits. The goblins have blocked the road with the arrow-pierced corpses of two horses. As the party investigates, the goblins attack. Combat ensues, blood flies, and either the goblins win (in which case they knock out the party and take their stuff), the characters win by killing all of the goblins (or optionally Рif they think to do it РKOing or capturing some or all of the goblins), or the characters defeat three goblins but the fourth runs away.

Every encounter has a purpose. This encounter is scripted, and it’s the opener of the entire adventure, so its first purpose is to establish the tone for what will follow. In this case, the tone is “there are violent goblins about” and “the roads are not safe in these uncivilized hinterlands”. While it’s uninspired, relatively speaking, it’s not a bad tone to set. I do have a bit of a problem with the “violent goblins” part, though.

If you’ve read other posts on this blog, particularly my series on clannad (the catchall term for sapient beings in our home campaign), and especially my post on goblins within that series, you know that I reject the idea that there should be entire races or species which serve as OPFOR to the PCs. It’s fundamentally rooted in human racism and¬†only serves to reinforce social hierarchical values and to encourage and aggrandize violence. These are the parts of D&D that seriously read like a Stormfront pamphlet.

Now, this encounter alone is not racist, but the encounter is not alone, not in a vacuum.¬†It takes place within a context of assumed racism, and as we’ll see in the Cragmaw Hideout area, it leads into more explicit and overt racism later. For the moment we can address this a little with some tactical tweaks. I’ll do some more direct grappling with this issue in the next post when we get to the hideout.

Aside from the racism, I have another problem with this encounter. My eldest daughter is a horse lover. Opening with two pincushioned horses is a no-go. I will not win Dad of the Year with an encounter like that.

The ambush setup is a good spot for a few quick fixes. The horses are easily swapped for a couple of large logs which have been laid to block the path. It’s still threatening. Nobody blocks a path without a reason, and that reason is often banditry. Still, a couple of logs can’t carry the same gut impact of several arrows piercing a pair of bodies. If we want to make sure that the air of intimidation is preserved and that the party knows to prepare for a fight, we can add a visual element.¬†I like the idea of a banner or standard rigged from a pair of branches lashed crosswise, decorated with a wooden shield with the Cragmaw tribe’s¬†crest. Maybe add some animal skulls dangling from leather cords and several arrows jabbed into the wood.

Like this, perhaps.

Like this, perhaps.

Now it¬†looks less like an impromptu ambush than¬†a declaration of territory by an organized group. Maybe seeing the standard will allow a check to recognize the crest and identify that these goblins belong to a region-spanning tribal hierarchy. The animal skulls might imply that the goblins have a shaman or adept (and if I was running this for higher-level characters, I might make one of the bandits a caster and put a¬†magical¬†effect on the standard to buff the goblins or debuff the characters), so the characters will be wary of more than just archers. It’s important to make sure that the characters know that these four goblins aren’t just a lone band so that¬†the party will be encouraged to investigate their hideout, and the addition of the tribe’s crest handles that well. Of course it’s okay if the party still walks away after the ambush¬†and doesn’t pursue the lead, and I have to credit the author of the adventure for putting in a paragraph on what to do if the party doesn’t follow the goblin trail back to Cragmaw Hideout (basically keep going and have NPCs drop hints that the party should look into those goblins). But since this is the tone-setter, we want to make sure that we take advantage of every opportunity to¬†clarify that our “violent goblins” are actually “organized, violent goblins who are part of a big, effective crime machine that spans the region”.

Part of the reason the horses were the roadblocks in the original encounter was to give the party information. The horses belonged to Gundren Rockseeker and Sildar Hallwinter, two central NPCs, and the corpses are about a day old (which gives a timestamp on when the NPCs were nabbed). So how can we give that information to the PCs?

Let’s rewind to when the goblins captured Gundren and Sildar. Imagine that the two were caught completely by surprise and were immediately taken captive. As several¬†goblins tie up the unfortunate pair, another few¬†brigands knife open their saddlebags and quickly root through for valuables. The goblins discover information identifying Gundren. Since they have been instructed to deliver Gundren to the Black Spider, they quickly grab the identifying documents and any valuables from the saddlebags, toss the rest into the ditch by the road, and lead the pair and their horses off to Cragmaw Hideout. In our revised scenario,¬†the leather of the discarded saddlebags is embroidered with Gundren’s runic monogram, something the goblins overlooked. Since they didn’t bother to hide the saddlebags, it won’t be difficult at all for the PCs to discover them when they arrive on the scene. As for the timestamp of the capture, that’s less important. The PCs know that Gundren and Sildar weren’t that far ahead of them.

On to the ambush itself. It strikes me as foolish for the goblins to rush out swinging with two of their number entering melee and the other two firing arrows. The game assumes four to five player characters, at the very least an even match for the goblins and more likely a serious threat. The goblins start the ambush in hiding. They have plenty of opportunity to observe the characters and catalogue their equipment, possibly even determine the characters’ roles within the party, and formulate a more rational plan.

I think the goblins, presented with odds like this, would take measures to make sure the party can’t meet them in a fair fight. Here are a few ideas toward that end:

  • If the party splits up – one or two¬†stay with the wagon while the rest go to check out the roadblock – the goblins will attempt to swarm the wagon, stealthed, and take hostages. This has the extra psychological advantage of putting the goblins in control of the party’s¬†“base” – the wagon – while denying the characters access to it.
  • If characters start drawing weapons and establishing a perimeter, the goblins play to their greatest strength, their Nimble Escape ability. This allows them to disengage or hide as a bonus action each turn. That means they can do things like spend half their movement to swarm one character, attack, then disengage for free and scatter, or they can let the party get stuck in with them, then disengage to selectively flank one or two targets. In short, they try to control the battlefield through their superior mobility.
  • If the characters all investigate the roadblock together, but don’t get ready for combat immediately, the goblins can simply surround the party with bows at the ready. If the party pushes their luck, the goblins fire and melt back into the trees with a free +6 hide check. The goblins can do this all day.
  • It’s possible the goblins have set up blinds here that give them stealth bonuses. There might also be snares set up in the thickets (like the one on the goblin trail leading from the ambush site to Cragmaw Hideout) to slow and possibly damage characters who choose to pursue the goblins into the woods (though I’d only have the snares deal one or two damage, tops, if any at all).

If the fight turns fair and the players start getting hits in, it’s also much more reasonable to assume that all the goblins want to make it out alive. At half health or less, each goblin will disengage and flee. The first couple to pull out will try to provide support fire from hiding, but if a third pulls out or goes down, it’s every gob for zirself.

With these tactical revisions the encounter¬†actually has the potential to turn into a Tucker’s kobolds scenario for a level one party. If the goblins establish control of the situation, they can steamroll the party. Even if the party trounces the would-be ambushers, it’s almost certain that at least one goblin will escape and flee to Cragmaw Hideout. Properly warned, the denizens of that place can make life hell for any intruders. Or perhaps the bandits might break out their wolves and hunt the characters down in the night.

Luckily, the adventure is kind to the players: “In the unlikely event that the goblins defeat the adventurers, they leave them unconscious, loot them and the wagon, then head back to the Cragmaw hideout.” I see no reason to alter this. If one or two goblins fell during an ambush, I don’t think the whole crew would be out for vengeance. Shit happens. And if the party took out three goblins with the fourth barely escaping alive, then the tribe would likely shore up their defenses but probably wouldn’t go after the party if the party pressed on.

Note: After writing the first draft of this post, I watched the first in a series of WotC’s YouTube videos of livestreams of a staff playthrough of “Lost Mines”.¬†The encounter ran very differently for their group: the goblins got in some hits on the tanks and used their free hide a couple of times, but in the end the party ran them to ground and pummeled them, easily capturing one to use as a coerced guide. To be fair, the goblins only have seven hit points, so good damage rolls by the party can drop them in a single hit. Still, I feel that the goblins were played down. Maybe it was because goblins are traditionally portrayed as too stupid for tactics, or maybe the GM didn’t want to risk a wipe. Regardless, I think that deliberately playing down the goblins is ultimately supportive of racism. I think that when GMs simply accept that¬†“this species of sapient being is stupid” without examining the cultural roots of the desire to have a universally violent, dumb, lazy, untrustworthy group as a convenient OPFOR, they are turning a blind eye to the real-world racist underpinnings of the fantasy setting, whether in ignorance or with conscious intent.

2 thoughts on “Tabletop: Removing the Ugly Bits from “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, Part 1: Goblin Ambush

  1. Have never thought about this before, and am struck cold by how right you are, and how rich the environment could be, IF my players and I weren’t so focused on the fun of “fights” vs. storytelling (which is WAY harder and time consuming to do). Thank you.

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