I've been perusing the adventure included in the D&D 5e Starter Set, "Lost Mine of Phandelver," with intent to commit heinous acts of game-running. I would guess that about 33% of the folks reading this blog post have also read the adventure, since I've heard so much commentary on it in my blogroll and in G+. This isn't a review - instead, I'm doing some of the legwork of cross-referencing the Realmslore that the adventure mentions but doesn't discuss in any detail. As the adventure promises, you don't need to be a Forgotten Realms expert to run it - but maybe some of this will interest you.
Note to players: Here There Be Spoilers.
As I mentioned before in talking about the Forgotten Realms, the setting has almost unbearably thorough detail, spanning more than 30 years of active writing by Ed Greenwood and huge numbers of others. I don't own a majority of that text, even though I have most if not all issues of Dragon Magazine and an embarrassingly large number of 2e boxed sets and 3e hardback and softcover books. "Lost Mine of Phandelver" drops references to an impressive number of bits of Realmslore, from a single encounter with members of the Cult of the Dragon (a smart marketing ploy in light of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat) to the wizard Bowgentle, who I dimly recall from 2e's Pages from the Mages. The goal of this post, then, is to present a bit of extra depth through the power of cross-referencing, so as to enrich your presentation of an otherwise fine and good, if quite straightforward, adventure.
The good news for my effort is that I have the 2e boxed set, The North, and it includes every location mentioned in the adventure. The bad news is that I only have that level of detail up to 1368 DR; Silver Marches is the closest that 3.x texts come to that area, and that's not close enough. I didn't buy any 4e FR books, so I can't provide any further depth on the sweeping changes that have come to the region - such as orcs sacking Conyberry or Mt. Hotenow (name's little on the nose, guys) destroying Thundertree (for surprisingly small values of "destroying").
This particular region of the Realms has seen a lot of focus in the years since I last paid a lot of attention to the setting. Between the two recent NeverwinterNights video games, the 4e-based Facebook game (one of the more enjoyable Facebook games I ever saw), the 4e Neverwinter book, the NeverwinterMMO, and apparently some novels... well, this is kind of a test case for everything wrong with FR. Point is, I can't help you with the recent stuff, and when I run this adventure, I plan to set it in 1368 DR (2e) or 1372 DR (3.0) for my own convenience. The orcs and the volcano can be recent events in my timeline; the adventure doesn't otherwise reference the Spellplague or anything else about 4e FR in any way.
The three villages of direct importance in the adventure are Phandalin, Thundertree, and (to a much lesser extent) Conyberry. In 1370 DR, Phandalin is an uninhabited ruin, while Thundertree and Conyberry are minor villages; by the timeline of the adventure, Phandalin is inhabited and growing (but troubled), while Thundertree and Conyberry are ruined. (If, like me, you prefer to set the adventure before the Spellplague or ignore it entirely, these changes can be recent events.)
The North: Wilderness makes it a little clearer that Phandalin was destroyed within a few decades either way of 970 DR, by the orc chieftain Uruth, who founded the orc realm Uruth Ukrypt. A few details referencing the long orcish presence (now long past, but no one else was building over whatever the orcs left behind) would be a nice addition.
Phandelver's Pact receives a nearly identical treatment in this text as it does in the adventure, adding only that Wave Echo Cave held both mithral and platinum lodes. The human wizards involved in the Pact are a new addition in the adventure's text as well, presumably to justify the magical mace dedicated to Lathander and to show broader cooperation between the races. At the time of Wave Echo Cave's abandonment, the miners did not know the extent of the platinum lode. There's no discussion of the Forge of Spells, which is the crux of the villain's interest in the mine. For that matter, I find it the most interesting feature of the dungeon, too.
There are three dwarven NPCs (one of them already dead) that hook this adventure and provide some motivation. Looking to 2e's Dwarves Deep, we have a list of the twenty-five dwarven clans of the North and fifteen clans of the South. Rockseeker isn't the name of an extant clan in 1370 DR, so we can play that one of two ways: either Rockseeker is a family name within a clan, in which case we should assign them a clan, or (if setting the campaign well after 1370 DR) establish Rockseeker as a newly-founded clan, perhaps an offshoot of Clan Rockfist. (One may reasonably regret that the writers of The North didn't stick to the clans listed in Dwarves Deep, but it is hard to manage this density of lore across a whole product line.)
In itself, this still doesn't offer a lot of throughput to interesting gameplay. If there are dwarf PCs in the game, it might heat up a bit, especially if you want to establish the PCs' clan(s) and the state of relations between that clan and the Rockseekers' clan. Alliance? Rivalry? Vendetta is possible, but would represent a considerable tonal shift from the desperate, any-port-in-a-storm theme that Dwarves Deep suggests for the Stout Folk, especially the shield dwarves.
If you want to introduce more investigative, procedural elements, there are all kinds of things that might be at stake in the politics of a dwarf clan. Are the Rockseeker dwarves acting on the orders of the clan laird, or against them - perhaps thinking that forgiveness is preferable to permission?
If you want to make a dwarf PC feel cool, let them be the mouthpiece for information about the Cragmaw goblin tribe and King Grol, by establishing previous clashes between the dwarf's clan and the Cragmaw tribe.
The details of Wave Echo Cave do a solid job of signaling that they are dwarf-made. I like the details in the General Features section and the presence of a Temple of Dumathoin. I am a little surprised there's no exposed veins of mithral, platinum, or any other precious metal - it would be really cool if PCs could harvest a little extra loot with... I dunno, maybe a Strength check and a Constitution check (since mining is not one of the artisan types in the tool list).
I'll do one better. During a short or long rest, if you are Areas 1, 2, 3, 8, 17, or 18, instead of gaining other benefits of that rest, you may spend one Hit Die (representing fatigue). Make a Strength check against DC 12. On a success, gain half a pound of mithral ore (worth, let's say, 50 gp). On a natural 20, gain half a pound of mithral ore and half a pound of platinum ore (worth, let's say, 200 gp). This always triggers a Wandering Monster roll.
So there's a nothic running around in Tresendar Manor, doing its best Gollum impression... telepathically, I guess. Going to the Monster Manual for this one, I see that nothics are, essentially, failed Vecna cultists. Well, Vecna's not really part of the Realms, but arcane casters who went mad for whatever reason are a dime a dozen.
For campaigns prior to the Spellplague, nothics might be those cursed by Savras; the nothic's single eye seems like a nice reference to the all-seeing eye of Savras and his crystal ball.
Actually, I like Savras as the explanation for all of the insane wizards running around that don't have another explicit explanation. He's basically devoid of compassion, and he's in charge of divination; it's a short step from there to Savras creating a list of off-limits divination subjects and meting out punishment on those who violate his ban.
Need a topic for that ban? How about the parallel world of Abeir? Hell, you could take Savras out of that equation and just make pre-Spellplague Abeir drive people mad whenever they work too hard to divine on it.
Velsharoon, god of necromancers and evil magic, is about as good of a 1:1 matchup to Vecna as the Realms has to offer.
For post-Spellplague campaigns, the Spellplague justifies everything else under the sun; why not nothics?
Or maybe they're victims of Cyric's madness, hungering for Mystra's wisdom and the secret truth that will free them from the Prince of Lies.
None of this is necessarily going to come up in play, but if a creature is going to whisper and mutter madly to itself, it could do worse than "Sssavrasss.... ssssavrassss..." (Do not go with "Abeir, Abeir," or your players will take the nothic with them on a pub crawl and you will never hear the end of it.)
This adventure is replete with evil mages, but there's only the barest of passing references to Bowgentle... not that the rest of published Realmslore does him a whole lot of favors. The North discusses his birth in Silverymoon and mentions that Bowgentle was one of the good ones, a heroic adventuring wizard as accomplished as Elminster himself. (Which is funny... you don't see Bowgentle's name popping up every third paragraph in Realms sourcebooks.) Anyway, there's a really low-priority side-quest that refers to him, and a simple Deliver quest at that.
Personally, I'd go out of my way to have Sister Garaele be a Bowgentle fangirl, convinced that he's more interesting than the headliner character for the whole of FR. For the quest reward, I'd have her drop references to Bowgentle's hidden caches and magical laboratories scattered across the North, as hooks for future exploration. I'd also seriously want to punch up the encounter at Agatha's Lair.
The adventure contradicts some of what the Monster Manual has to say about banshees (in tone, at least) and some of what The North has to say about Agatha. It presents her as a hostile source of information that definitely won't harm the PCs - preferable to murdering the whole party with a banshee, but a hostile character that won't do anything to the PCs is a little on the toothless side. I mean, failing the quest sucks and all... but eh.
Anyway, the DM should use every available trick to build a sense of dread around this encounter. According to The North, Agatha murders travelers regularly, so play this up - the corpses of victims (of every kind) in various states of decay who have died from her Wail would be a good start. She also had a kind of fondness for the locals of Conyberry, back when there were some, so having her refer to them in passing would be good. Also, The North mentions that she charmed owlbears and locals, and had the latter group dig pitfall traps - another great tension-builder, if most of the pitfall traps have been claimed a victim already.
Also, she was called Auglathla, or "Winterbreeze," in life. A hard History check, or a Sage who speaks Elven, might come up with that piece of information and keep her talking a bit longer. How often is the ability to speak Elven the key to an encounter?
This is a really easy encounter to fail, and the adventure specifies that you only get one chance. I assume that the point of this is to teach new players that you can fail a quest on conversation alone, and sometimes you have to treat NPCs with respect or they won't give you what you want (and you won't be able to take it from them). If that wasn't the writer's point in this... it should've been.
The Forge of Spells
There's no prior lore on this thing, to my knowledge, but I want to comment on it anyway. A location that ever managed to consistently, more-or-less-for-free turn normal weapons into permanent +1 weapons is so crazypants that you know it must be the Realms. The human wizards that aided the dwarves and gnomes with this Pact were wasting their lives, if this kind of thing was just a normal aspect of their abilities. Far more reasonable is that it's working the way it always worked - it was always a limited duration. An eight-hour work-shift makes sense, right? It's still incredibly powerful, and maybe it aids in the construction of permanent magic weapons like Lightbringer and Dragonguard.
Secondly, let's talk about Nezznar. How long has this guy been in Wave Echo Cave and he's still looking for the Forge of Spells? That's kinda pathetic. Sure, the spectator might present him with a problem, but that's different from taking days or weeks to explore a dungeon stocked with your servants. Personally, I like the idea that he knows where it is, and has plans for dealing with the spectator, but hasn't tried yet because he's still finalizing what he's going to do once he gets it. Because, well, the adventure doesn't talk about what he will do with the Forge of Spells.
How about this: Nezznar isn't all that powerful. 4th level spellcaster? Yeah, he's on equal footing with the PCs. He's probably a senior apprentice or journeyman working for a more powerful drow wizard, or perhaps directly for Sorcere, the drow magical academy. He's here to prove himself, and to steal the power of the Forge of Spells. To that end, he has a ritual to drain all of the Forge's power into an object. The object will bleed power the entire time he has it, but keeping the surface-dwelling races from having a locus of power like the Forge of Spells is useful in its own right. He's still working on the ritual, though, and to make progress in that he has to bargain with Mormesk and the flameskull, who aren't kindly disposed toward him (though he's convinced them not to attack).
It would also make a really nice bargaining chip, if he can finagle getting himself handed over to the Black Network...
I like that there's even a little bit of story attached to Hew, Lightbringer, and Dragonguard. The gauntlets of ogre power could use some story beyond "previous owner killed because the DM got frustrated with his magic item and collapsed a tunnel on him," as is implied. (I embroidered a bit.) This is enough of a dead-end situation that it isn't easy to get more story of the gauntlets across, but having that dwarf use the gauntlets to hold up the falling tunnel while others escaped would make players feel awesome to inherit the item. It's a stretch, but if you have humans, dwarves, or gnomes in the party, maybe one of their ancestors famously survived to escape Wave Echo Cave because of that dwarf's sacrifice?
For that matter, the one item in the whole adventure that piques my interest (for the interesting visual) is Iarno's glass staff of defense. Where did he get that? I mean, Netherese ruins are an easy answer anywhere in the North, but you could probably deepen the pathos of the story by (somehow - good luck, friend) revealing that he received the staff from the Lords' Alliance as a reward for services rendered, making the point that he was once on a heroic path but turned aside from it because of the temptations of wealth and power. After all, setting up a constabulary in Phandalin clearly wasn't his idea of a bold career move... though he's not stupid, and probably figured Phandalin was backwater enough that he'd get away with it for a year or so, until he was ready to move on to something bigger and better. He's on the management track, is our Iarno, but he is just a poor corrupt official. If he were better at this, he would have signed the Redbrands up with the Black Network, allowing him to keep playing the Lords' Alliance and the Zhentarim against each other for awhile.