We love TTRPGs here at WCC, since it allows creatives of all kinds to build small audiences of their creations and ideas. The Forgotten Builds is a segment where I, Jon here, evaluate the world of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, The Forgotten Realms. See, it’s no secret that some of the published books for this edition lack tools and hooks to build these creative sources into homebrew worlds, or just giving context to a larger picture. I’m working to delve into points of these books and settings, uncovering what I can about their intended design, and offering ways to incorporate these settings and places in your campaigns and creations.
With each post, we’ll cover the basics of background worldbuilding, moving then to intent in design, and third discussing the Fairy Cake, or what is the driving idea behind it all. I’ll lay out some of my own suggestions to incorporate the ideas and setting into your campaigns and world so that you can create a great game for your players.
You’ve crawled your way out of the woods, having defeated a small unit of goblins and their feisty traps. Everyone’s excited, yet a bit worn. The players themselves are wondering what’s next on offer. Over the hilltop and around the bend, the start of a new adventure awaits them. Featured now in THREE adventures, Phandalin has become a recognized name for players for 5e Dungeons and Dragons. A modest village with a surprising amount of secrets, what about the worldbuilding for this humble village makes it ideal for dropping it into your world?
Phandalin, where a gasp of “Adventure!” meets slow breath of “Humble Beginnings’.
Wizards of the Coast released the Starter Set in July of 2014, and with it, the small adventure of The Lost Mines of Phandelver. Even for those that do not play D&D 5e, this adventure contains some of the best writing, dungeon navigation, and helpful design for new players than most of the other campaigns written officially for 5e to date. I’ve run the adventure a few times, and it does a good job giving the players agency and seeing consequences of their decisions, while also teaching the players how to play the game without having in-game hints or lessons.
Phandalin is the town your characters travel to and spend most of their time in the adventure. Here, they follow-up on some clues from the previous dungeon in regards to finding out more about a figure called The Black Spider. They also can (and most likely will) get tossed into a tussle or two with the local gang, the Redbrand.
Backstory: Land of…War?
In terms of D&D History, Phandalin doesn’t have a long-standing history with previous editions of the game. It was briefly mentioned as one of the places sacked and destroyed by a roving band of orcs sometime in 951 DR. The location was never mentioned again until The Lost Mines of Phandelver, where it becomes the main location for the campaign, and is given some deeper history in terms of the world.
In the 5e adventure, the warring band of orcs are given a specific reason for attacking Phandalin. See, Phandalin joined up on The Phandelver’s Pact, which agreed that the local gnomes, dwarves, and humans would share the bounty found under the mountains. This bounty is a legendary cavern called Wave Echo Cave; inside, a place called The Forge of Spells, which was an especially potent place of power. It was able to produce and pump out magic weapons, armor, and other gadgets the operators wanted. The orcs thought it would be beneficial to take the forge for themselves, so they sacked Phandalin, the nearest settlement, and marched into the cave to take the forge. Fighting ensued, and the cave was collapsed and lost.
In present day, roughly 500 years later, the area started getting a reputation for the wonderous lost cave, and over the last five years or so the town has been rebuilding. Phandalin acts as a testament to rebuilding and capitalizing on the adventurers and explorers that frequent the area now. Rumor has it that a trio of dwarves found the cave, but they mysteriously disappeared. This becomes the main plot hook of the adventure. However, there are also other adventures and sights in the area, depending on if you’re using the Essentials Kit released in 2019. This expands on some of the locations in the area, and has a greedy white dragon prowling the area for riches and easy snacks.
Fairy Cake: New Places for New Folks
Hidden in the narrative behind the town is a simple design idea that I think is ingenious. Phandalin is likely played by new players of D&D 5e, either from the Starter Set or The Essentials Kit. The village itself is also expressly a green settlement, just beginning to thrive, while having a bit of standing to not be completely under construction. The express newness of the location and the players gives a frontier, unexplored vibe that is enticing and very exciting. A new player may feel excited to be playing this new game and getting to their first village and first “open area”. They’ll also be feeling a bit nervous still, hoping not to mess up and wanting to “do the right thing”. Isn’t that a sentiment that would be shared by frontiersmen, or the citizens of a fresh settlement?
By connecting the feelings of a real-life player to the characters of a fictional world, you’ve opened a gateway to immersion and play that is genuinely fun.
Phandalin also has everything a starting party needs. Several places to buy adventuring gear, lots of townspeople with quests neatly organized into individual areas, a tavern of welcoming nature, and one you’re almost certain to start a bar fight inside, a creepy old house riddled with secrets, and many other areas with details and hidden surprises that will guide the players towards their goal. This comes out to be 10 listed locations, which is fairly easy to remember and keep track of. The town is also small and easy to walk around, as one can get to their destination within 5 minutes of walking at a normal pace. This simple yet fleshed out village makes it inviting for the players and encourages them to explore it. That’s the fairy cake of this design, to encourage players to connect, explore, and find their own path. When I’ve run this adventure, I’ve found this becomes very instinctual for the players.
Forgotten Builds: The Spirit of Phandalin
Now that we have an understanding of this village, what can we do to incorporate some of these design elements and ideas into our worldbuilding, or add Phandalin to our world?
Design Something Approachable and Playable
First off, you have to remember that Phandalin was designed to be played. It’s a neat location, but it’s nothing mind-blowing. The worldbuilding around Phandalin consists of a simple, neat legend, with some neat things to see in the village. This isn’t Baldur’s Gate or the Jungle of Chult. It’s a rebuilt village on the ruins of another village. If you’re reworking the backstory of Phandalin, or tying the location into your current campaign, the reason for this town’s existence does not have to be extraordinary. The location thrives off of simplicity.
Off the Beaten Path, but Not Too Far Off
Phandalin needs to have quick access to the areas around it. It’s not a remote village by any means, and supplies are easy to acquire. Think about how the village may play a role in being a pit stop for travelers, or a haven for someone looking to blend in with a crowd. The village is a recently built haven with a worn backstory. It’s not a place that may attract a lot of attention, so it may attract people who are looking to settle down, finding a way to start over, or even just passing by.
The People of Phandalin
Locals have come from all over to settle down in the village, and for different reasons. Some have hidden motives and tasks from their guilds. Some have grown up here. Some needed an escape and decided to try something new here. The people are likely approachable and open for questioning and conversation. Most people aren’t going to be lying unless they have something sinister up their sleeves. Think about these country folk as you’re populating the village with more characters, and others who may be traveling there.
Slap It In
Since the town is inconsequential to much of the big events in the Forgotten Realms, your players can encounter it at any point you choose. It can be a copy-pasted village where any explanation for it’s placement can be improved quickly. It’s a handy tool to keep as a DM, but it won’t wreck your worldbuilding.
Try Something New
Have you always wanted that weird peddler somewhere in your world? What about a place that could get hit with an earthquake without disturbing the high authorities? Maybe that band of orcs is coming back as an undead army for a second run through? Phandalin is a great place to try something new with your world. If your players literally burn the town down, it’s not going to impact the world in a magnificent way. Feel that freedom and give the village some life.
Phandalin’s One of the Best
In terms of being concise, clear, flexible, and available material, Phandalin is going to be one of the best pieces produced by Wizards of the Coast to take and wrangle into your world. Even if you’re still keeping Phandalin in the Forgotten Realms, it’s available to do with what you think would be neat and interesting from a world-building perspective. If you haven’t given it a serious look, I highly recommend it, as your group can have a lot of fun here.
If you want to learn more about the design aspects and my advice on running some of the encounters and adventures in Phandalin, you can check out my blog.
Jonathan Bell is a hobbiest and aspiring creative. He has taken part in writing several worlds, and running D&D games for friends and organizations for the last 5 years. Currently, aside from editing, writing, and appearing on Worldcraft Club, Jon is co-writing a supplement called Riverwalk based on wilderness adventures.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.