Customizing Thundertree – Part 1

How I put my own spin on a piece of The Lost Mine of Phandelver (LMoP).

Fair warning: This post contains spoilers of some elements of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, D&D’s 5th Edition Starter Set adventure. If you wish to play this adventure and keep its contents a mystery, I suggest you avert your eyes now. If however, you’d like to understand how and why I changed some of the story for my home game, please keep reading.

Though we don’t get to play as often as we’d like, my Dads and Kids D&D campaign is nicely moving along. At times it feels near impossible to coordinate three busy families to schedule a game, but we’ve managed to string together nine exciting sessions of LMoP. I’m extremely pleased with how the kids (and dads) have fallen into their characters and the story. Our collective paternal concerns, wondering if the kids would have fun, were dispelled early in our first session as a group.

Recently, the group followed clues that aligned with their character backgrounds to travel to the ruins of Thundertree Village. Thundertree is not a crucial  piece of the mostly linear story line of LMoP, it does present a challenging side-trek that could result in a memorable encounter, particularly for first time players.

When I first read through this section of the adventure, I wasn’t overly excited by it. Sure, I loved the idea of my new players coming face to face with a dragon in a ruined tower, but there were parts of the area that didn’t make a lot of sense to me or at least begged for more explanation.

One of the things that I do love about the Starter Box is its fantastic cover art, which I can only assume is inspired by the dragon encounter in Thundertree. I’ve read some critiques suggesting this image was bland and didn’t live up to the level of excitement one would hope to pull in new players, but for me its wonderful. I’m usually drawn to its “realistic style” and was surprised by the none too subtle homage to the old Erol Otus cover from the Moldvay Basic Set.

With such an great image to present to my players, I wanted to ensure the Thundertree encounters were as memorable as possible. There were two main issues that I had with the encounter area as presented in the adventure – (1) a lack of strong rationale for the twig blights and zombies, and (2) the tactical map for the dragon encounter.

Twig Blights and Zombies

I don’t have an issue with the ruined town being populated with twig blights and zombies, I just felt there should be more explanation of why they were there. The module presents the following:

“Then thirty years ago, the eruption of Mount Hotenow to the north devastated Thundertree. In the wake of the natural disaster, a plague of strange zombies swept over the area, killing or driving off those who survived the eruption.

     Though most of the zombies have long since crumbled to dust, strange magic permeating the area has mutated the local vegetation into new and dangerous forms.”

Most players, particularly those new to the game, will likely never care why the ruined village is filled with plant monsters and undead. Heck, I’d guess most long time players won’t blink an eye either. The village is an overgrown ruin, of course it makes sense to have those monsters. But for me, I like there to be a bit more meat on the bones of the story.

  • Why did the strange zombies accost the village so long ago?
  • Why are the zombies still there?
  • What is the strange magic that has mutated the vegetation?

Besides, I was running this adventure in my own home-brew world, not the module’s default Forgotten Realms setting. I wanted to tie the location of the story to events and places within my world. That meant I needed to be able to answer those questions, even if they never came up in game.

Tactical Map

The dragon in this encounter area is placed in a small ruined tower on a hill within the village. That in itself isn’t a problem. For me however, the size of the structure on the town map doesn’t align with my beloved cover image.

If my players were going to encounter the dragon, I wanted to  show them that picture in hopes of evoking the same feeling of awe that I had on seeing the image. That meant I needed to make the encounter area bigger than the one shown on the map.

Player Challenges

Outside of the two issues listed above, I also had to contend with a  couple of minor player challenges.

My youngest daughter was finally going to join in the adventure. I wanted to create an encounter that would immediately pull her into the story and make joining up with the rest of the group memorable.

Second, one of the kids in my group is a voracious reader of all his dad’s D&D books. I suspect he could recite most of the monsters found in the Monster Manual as well as describe their individual strengths and weaknesses. I had ended a previous game session with the players arriving in Thundertree, where as per the boxed-text in the adventure, they  discovered the following at the edge of town:

“A wooden sign is nailed to a post nearby. It reads: “Danger! Plant monsters AND zombies! Turn back now!”

On hearing this description, my well-read player immediately spouted that they were likely going to face lots of twig blights. To my long-time DMing brain this was just wrong. I couldn’t have my player know what was coming next. Surprise is half the fun of any adventure!

With all of the above it was fairly clear to me that I wanted to make some adjustments to the Thundertree encounter area. Besides, crafting encounters and making them your own is, for me at least, one of the best parts of being a DM.

Introducing the New Character

My first course of business was to find a nice way to introduce a new character to the game. My daughter had rolled up a human bard she called Liya. As she love’s Black Widow from the Avengers, we ended up choosing a “spy” background (criminal variant) for her character. The question for me was – why would a bard spy be in Thundertree Conveniently, the Thundertree section already includes two things I could use to make sense of this.

First, a druid, Reidoth, can be found in one of the ruined buildings in the village. He happens to know a lot about the threats in the area and is the one who placed the warning sign that the players found.

Secondly, the text mentions that Reidoth is aware of “folk in black masks and cloaks” hiding in the east part of town. These mysterious people are cultists from the Cult of the Dragon. Though not described in this adventure, the Cult of the Dragon is a key piece of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure, which I was already considering to run once the players finished LMoP.

From this, I came up with the following rationale for the bard’s introduction to the game:

  • Liya and Reidoth were both members of The Order of the Golden Phoenix, my home-brew world’s equivalent to the Harpers faction.
  • The two had been asked to follow a group of cultists who’d been seen in the area in hopes of determining what they were up to.
  • On coming to Thundertree, Reidoth battled a diseased bear that was unnaturally resistant to his nature magic.
  • Though he fought off the beast, the battle left Reidoth gravely injured, and his healing spells seemed to have little effect. This has left Reidoth weak  and bed-ridden in oe of the ruined buildings (exhaustion level 5).
  • Reidoth directed Liya to search the area for plants and herbs that might aid in curing him of his injuries.
  • Liya having successfully retrieved the needed medicinal plants, is returning to her mentor Reidoth when she is attacked by a plant creature. The attack would occur just after the party read the warning sign.

I was fairly content with the rationale for introducing Liya to the group. There were items that I’d need to flesh-out in greater detail, such as: what was wrong with the diseased bear, what was afflicting the druid and how he might be cured?. However I felt these items could be detailed later. I needed to work on building the plant creature attack.

New Encounter – Roper Tree

In setting up this encounter, I wanted it to be dramatic and for it to include a plant monster that was something other than a twig blight. The 5th Edition Monster Manual has a limited set of “plant” monsters, and only one that would by itself pose a significant threat to a group of 3rd level characters – the shambling mound.  My voracious D&D reader would most certainly recognize the shambling mound immediately, so I wanted to do something different. I decided to use one of the best tools in the DM’s tool-kit: re-skinning a monster.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, SlyFlourish has a great article on ReSkinning. Simply, re-skinning means to take an existing monster and describe its appearance and actions as being something different. 

For me, a creature that has always seemed very plant-like  was the Roper. Here was a creature that sent out long tendrils that it used to reel in prey that it would eat.

An evil old tree armed with vines that shot out to pull victims into a massive maw in its trunk seemed like a great way to re-skin the standard Roper monster. To this I added a couple of twig blights to keep the group busy and voila – a difficult encounter to start up my groups first session in Thundertree.

What About The Dragon In the Tower?

As for what I did with the dragon’s tower encounter, you’ll need to wait for my next post. Until then, may your dice roll true!

 

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About the scheming dm

dad. husband. gamer. human Zamboni. trying to squeeze money from electrons.
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