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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

DMing Dragon of Icespire Peak - Part 2

Updated: May 16

Campaign Narrative and the First Adventure

This blog series teaches new and returning Dungeon Masters how to run the Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign from the D&D Essentials Kit and provides advice and guidance for being an effective DM. Check out Part 1 of this series here.

Campaign Structure and Main Story

By now, you hopefully have a group of players, you’ve read over the adventure, and you’ve run or are about to run your Session 0. Which means you hopefully have a decent idea of what kind of characters your players want to run and what their backgrounds are going to be. Now it’s time to start planning out your first adventure and thinking about the broader campaign!

In Dragon of Icespire Peak, the party arrives in the town of Phandalin which has recently come under threat from a white dragon that has taken up residence in the nearby mountains. The arrival of this dragon has disrupted monsters and factions in the region, causing a bunch of problems to crop up, which the characters will deal with as individual quests.

There is a local “job board” which displays up to three quests at a time. The party gets to select which quest they will pursue, which then takes you to a different location in the region. This presents the central structure of the campaign – choose a job from the board, complete it, return to collect a reward, and select a new quest. There are three tiers of quests – as the party completes the earlier quests and gain levels, the second tier of quests become available. These quests are more challenging but offer bigger rewards. Finally, a third tier of quests becomes available. Then as the culmination of the adventure, the party will face down the dragon, Cryovain.

The job board format presents a nice structure around which to run a new campaign. It presents bite-sized quests that are easy to tackle and digest. As the DM, you only have to prep a single quest at a time. And the players only have to figure out how to clear the monsters out of the local mines or deal with a marauding manticore rather than figuring out all the steps needed to stop an evil demigod from taking over the world. The job board format also offers the players a lot of agency – the party gets to choose what direction the story goes within the framework of a few options. They are less likely to feel “railroaded” into one choice, but their choices aren’t infinite, either.

However, the biggest weakness of this structure is that there really isn’t much of an overarching story. Cryovain is a distant threat – it’s not like the dragon is actively plotting to take over the town. The various quests individually are interesting but are largely disconnected from one another. This leaves the campaign without a strong narrative thread, which, depending on what kind of game you envision running, might leave you a little bit dissatisfied.

...the biggest weakness of this structure is that there really isn’t much of an overarching story. Cryovain is a distant threat...

Fortunately, you’ve found this blog. Here, you’re going to learn how to incorporate a strong central narrative into the Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign while still leveraging all the good structural stuff that’s already there, like player choice, the job board, and fun adventures. Strap in, cause you're about to learn how to invent a story out of thin air.


Narrative of Icespire Peak

There are three ways you can layer in a narrative to Dragon of Icespire Peak. I encourage you to consider all three approaches if you want to have a memorable and dramatic campaign story. But you don’t have to – you can stick with just one approach (or none, if you’re satisfied running the module as-written).

Leverage Character Backgrounds

This is my favorite approach to creating story because you don’t have to do the work! The players have done most of the heavy lifting for you. They’ve told you what kind of story they want to experience – they even wrote it down on their character sheets!

You remember that Session 0, right? The one where you asked each of the players to come up with a background and a reason for why their character is in Phandalin? It’s time to put that background to work.

Review the characters’ backgrounds and reasons for traveling to Phandalin and the Sword Coast. Then look over the quests in the campaign as well as the characters, deities, factions, and areas referenced in campaign. Look for connections, even if they are close. Once you spot one, think about how the character’s background or reason could tie directly to that element of the campaign in a way that presents a problem for the character to solve.

Some possible connection points include: the Harpers, the Zhentarim, the religions of Talos, Tymora, Savras, or Chauntea, the various townsfolk, Lord Neverember, and more!

For example, suppose one of the characters is searching for a lost sibling who was last seen in the Phandalin region. The character is likely to ask around town to see if anyone has seen this person. You don’t want to let them resolve the situation immediately, because that wouldn’t be very interesting – instead, you want to present problems the character must overcome in order to find the missing sibling. Maybe a diplomacy or investigation check might reveal that the sibling was in town a few weeks ago but left with a trade caravan some time back. The caravan is due back in Phandalin in a week’s time.

Now the PC has a reason to stay in or around Phandalin. You have just taken the first step of connecting the character to the adventure and the town.

To continue the example, suppose after the characters complete a couple of quests (and level up), the trade caravan returns to Phandalin. It turns out that the sibling traveled with the caravan to Falcon’s Hunting Lodge (an important location in the campaign). And conveniently, there is also a quest on the job board to go to Falcon’s Hunting Lodge. And so on, until you reach a point where the character finally rescues their missing sibling from the clutches of some evil half-orc cultists or a white dragon.

Importantly, you don’t need to figure out all the details of this character-specific quest now. Just find the initial hook or connection point and go from there.

One caveat: some players may not bother to come up with important background quests. They might just have traveled to Phandalin for fame and glory. This is fine! Some players have more fun discovering what’s important to their characters as they play. But if you’re spending time focused on those PCs who have well-developed backstories or compelling connection points, the players who are just there for adventure might feel left out. Therefore, it’s important to develop situations, problems, even quests where their characters can play a significant role. See below for ways you might make this happen.

For more on factions in the region and other potential connection points to the character backgrounds, check out the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide published by Wizards of the Coast.

Develop the Townsfolk

As-written, Phandalin is a pretty dull place. All the of the NPCs presented in the story are flat, one-dimensional characters. Each of them exists only to relate “tales” to the characters that point them towards side quests that may not show up on the town board, or to sell them things.

The two most interesting characters as-written, are Townmaster Harbin Wester, who has become a shut-in, and Halia Thornton, who runs the miner’s exchange and who is only interesting because she’s an agent of the Zhentarim who, according to the campaign guide is “working slowly to bring Phandalin under her control.” Unfortunately, we never hear another iota about her.

Whether or not you choose to build quests around these characters, I’m going to strongly encourage you to take a little bit of time to flesh out the NPCs in town a little bit more. The PCs are going to spend a lot of time in Phandalin, talking to NPCs, and you’ll have a lot more fun roleplaying if those townsfolk have some personality and their own agendas.

Therefore, I highly recommend you make a few notes about each NPC the party is likely encounter. I want you to come up with three traits: what is one thing that the character wants? What is one interesting personality characteristic? And how does this person feel about outside adventurers? That last trait is interesting because it is likely to evolve over the course of the campaign.

Simply answering these three questions for the named NPCs in town is likely to give you a lot more to go on both in connecting to characters’ backstories as well as in establishing narrative tension.

Let’s go back to Halia Thorton. An agent of the Zhentarim, you say? Those are bad guys! She could recruit the players and turn them into allies, only for them to discover later they’ve been working to advance an evil agenda. Or they could discover exactly how Halia Thorton is trying to take over the town (and who in town is trying to stop her).

Again, as you’re thinking through these narrative ideas, look for ways they might connect to the existing locations in the adventure. Maybe she’s trying to take over all the gold mines in the region and so wants the party’s help in securing some of the locations.

In any case, having some interesting characters who want different things and who may even be opposed to one another will create lines of tension in Phandalin. Some NPCs will become the party’s allies, some will become enemies.

Critically, you don’t need to answer all these questions at the outset. Just answer the three questions about each character: what do they want, what’s one personality characteristic, and how do they feel about outside adventurers. Then, once you start playing and the PCs begin interacting with these characters, you’ll have some guidelines on how to react and how to roleplay them. The players will find them to be interesting and will naturally begin to develop feelings about them – maybe they really like Toblen Stonehill but come to distrust Harbin Wester and his insistence on hiding in the Townmaster’s Hall. What’s behind that door he hides behind, anyway? Just like with backgrounds, you’re letting the players do most of the work here. Let them clue you in on what they find interesting. Then you can flesh out those characters and their problems more as the campaign develops.

If you want some additional background on the NPCs, check out the Lost Mines of Phadelver campaign from the original D&D Starter Set, which talks more about some of the NPCs in Phandalin. You may have access to it as part of your D&D Beyond account if you have one – it was free there for a while.

Threaten Phandalin

You won’t want to do too much with this at the beginning of the campaign, because an immediate threat to the survival of the town is something that first or second-level characters won’t be able to deal with. But it’s important to start thinking about this because this is really what the dragon is – an outside threat to the town.

You might choose to have other threats, chiefly because there’s no particularly strong reason for the dragon to be the central villain (the “big bad evil guy” or BBEG, in some parlance) of the campaign.

Thanks to the fact that you spent time to flesh out the NPCs, the PCs are going to develop relationships over the course of the campaign. They’ll have some NPCs they care deeply about, some who they see as enemies, and some who are simply useful allies. You’re going to leverage these feelings later in the campaign by threatening Phandalin, either with the dragon or with some other threat.

Presenting a direct threat to Phandalin brings a crisis to the campaign that it is lacking. The players arrive in this rustic mining town and do a bunch of quests to help out, but to what end? Developing relationships in town and then protecting the town from an existential threat is a compelling, gripping climax that will leave the PCs feeling like the heroes of Phandalin and will give the players a well-deserved sense of accomplishment.

Again, you don’t need to figure this out now, but rather just know that there will be an existential threat to the town, and you should start looking for it as the campaign progresses. Maybe Cryovain is going to decide that Phandalin is too much of an annoyance and it’s going to come attempt to destroy the town or kill some important townsfolk. Maybe the Zhentarim decide Halia Thornton isn’t doing enough and it’s time to take a firmer hand. Maybe the Talos Anchorites that keep popping up have organized the orcs and ogres in the region and launch a full-scale assault on the town with the aid of the Talos Avatar Gorthok.

See what develops. See what the PCs focus on. And look for opportunities to make connections to the existing campaign quests. Whatever this existential threat is, connecting it to other quests in the campaign will help to ensure that those quests feel meaningful and important in the long run, rather than just busy-work.

Considering Cryovain

The Young White Dragon Cryovain is presented as a central villain in the campaign, but the most story we get is the idea that the arrival of the dragon has disturbed other monsters in the region and that’s why all these quests are popping up. The campaign presents a random chart for locations where Cryovain may pop up.

This is a nice idea, but never ensures that the PCs will encounter Cryovain. Instead, I recommend that you use some narrative tricks to make Cryovain feel like a threat. Every couple of adventures, make sure the PC’s are finding evidence of the threat that Cryovain presents. Maybe they come across the frozen carcass of a half-eaten owlbear. Maybe they pass by a farmhouse that’s been destroyed, the people missing. Maybe they see the beast from a distance. Maybe while they’re camping, the dragon passes overhead, chilling everyone with dragon fear.

Keeping the dragon present ensures that no one ever forgets – there’s a big ass monster out there and it’s making problems!


Starting the Adventure

For the first adventure, work with the players to figure out how the characters arrived in Phandalin and if they know each other. For my campaign, we decided that the PCs were working as caravan guards on a supply caravan coming from Neverwinter. We even had giant spiders attack the caravan before we reached Phandalin, giving the party an opportunity to test out their skills in combat.

Once in Phandalin, give the PCs an overview of the town and its key locations. Allow them to interact a bit with the different NPCs and pay attention to who they connect to. Make sure to point out the job board and the starting quest(s) attached to it.

One thing I would recommend doing is having the different NPCs in town talk about the specific quests associated with the job board. For example, if the PCs ask around about buying healing potions, you could reveal that the herbalist and midwife Adabra Gwynn lives on Umbridge Hill, but she hasn’t been back to town for a while. The Townmaster has even posted a reward for someone willing to go check on her. Or perhaps Toblen Stonehill mentions over a mug of ale about the two treasure-hunting dwarves Dazlyn and Norbus who went looking for an old excavation, suggesting greedily that if the pair “disappeared,” the ruins they went to claim would be up for grabs.

The townsfolk can even talk about characters or threats from other quests that won’t appear on the job board until later, such as referencing orc raiders or marauding wererats. As mentioned, the module offers you rumors that you can roll randomly, and these can be useful later in the module to signal specific locations you want the characters to visit, but I like to make it feel more organic than a random roll.

By presenting the quests not just with signs on a job board, but with connections to the townsfolk, you will begin to make the PCs feel invested in the quests and the town of Phandalin and you’ll start to make Phandalin feel like a real place rather than a video game quest hub.

Suggestion: Start with a Single Quest

One of the biggest hurdles with starting to run Dragon of Icespire Peak as a DM is that you have to do all this reading and prepping the townsfolk, and then, because there are three possible quests the PCs can choose from, you have to be prepared to run any one of the three. You don’t want the players looking at the quests on the board and saying, “Let’s do this gnome thing” and you have to say “Sorry gang, I didn’t prep that one. Can you pick one of the others instead?”

So, if you want to make life a little easier on yourself, don’t put all three quests on the board at once. Just put one there! You can still have the townsfolk talk about the other quests, then when the PCs return from the first adventure, they’ll see the quest and they’ll remember the NPC mentioning something about that, which makes you look really, really clever! And then you only have to prep a single quest, and because it’s the first adventure and the players don’t really know what it’s about yet, they won’t feel railroaded. Instead, they’ll feel like they’re taking the hook and seeing where it leads.

Which is exactly how this campaign should feel.

One Final Note

Remember, the PCs are still only first level. They are squishier than a rotten kobold. A single solid hit or a crit from a monster is likely down them or possibly kill them. I’m not going to tell you to fudge rolls – how you handle stuff like that is down to part of your DMing style, and it’s something you need to figure out with your party. BUT, it’s worth knowing how lethal the starter adventures are and thinking about some ways of managing the threat a little.

The PCs are squishier than a rotten kobold.

For the Umbrage Hill quest, the manticore is a really challenging fight for first level characters, especially given that the beast can fly and gets multiattack. It also has a solid attack roll bonus, a fat bag of hit points, and does decent damage. It can definitely kill a first-level character or two before it gets taken down.

The adventure notes that the manticore was driven from its home by Cryovain and that the party can negotiate with it. The monster stat block indicates that the creature is intelligent and speaks Common. You can prompt this idea of negotiation by having the manticore talking when the PCs arrive at the location. It can be outside, threatening Adabra Gwynn and telling her how hungry it is and how it would satisfied with just a leg. This could prompt the PCs to negotiate with it or threaten it, perhaps bribing it with some rations or making a deal to hunt down another animal.

Alternately, you could have the monster simply fly off when threatened. You can describe the beast as looking particularly scrawny and hungry, or wounded from a prior battle. When the PCs engage, don’t make the manticore fight to the death. Instead, once the creature reaches half or fewer hit points, have it fly away, maybe sending a spray of tail spikes at them as it departs. This is the sensible way for the monster to behave anyways. (It’s not like fighting to the death is a great idea when you’re losing!)

For the Dwarven Excavation quest, it’s worth noting that ochre jellies are immune to slashing damage. The first time a PC hits it with a slashing weapon, be sure to use the creature’s Split ability and be sure to indicate that the attack didn’t seem to deal any damage. I would recommend that wherever the PCs encounter the ochre jellies, that you indicate there are a couple of old clubs, staves, or other blunt weapons lying about.

You may also want to clue the PCs into the fact that the ochre jellies are very slow. A clever party will quickly realize that they can simply stay out of the monsters’ movement zone and attack them with ranged attacks and spells.

Also, look out for that explosive trap. If multiple PCs are downed, rather than kill them, just rule that they are knocked unconscious and the dwarves Dazlyn and Norbus dragged them out of the ruin after hearing the explosion. This now presents a new narrative opportunity as it puts the PCs in the dwarves’ debt.

Back to Phandalin

Once the PCs have completed the first quest, they’ll likely return to Phandalin to collect their reward. Be sure to indicate what quests are on the board and try to get a sense from them of which quest they’d like to tackle next. This will give them a sense of choice but also by having them pick the quest before you end the first session, you will know which quest to prepare for the next session!

That’s a Wrap!

You did it, you’ve run your first adventure and begun the Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign. Feel good about yourself! You have taken the first step on a grand adventure and you’ve already accomplished the most difficult part… you got started.

More Resources

There are some terrific guides out there on Dragon of Icespire Peak, including some great advice for specific adventures. Additionally, the Dragon of Icespire Peak subreddit has lots of great discussion, tips, and resources for quests that you can take advantage of. Here are a few links I recommend you check out.

Final Thoughts

How did your first session go? Do you have questions about how to handle specific encounters? Advice for other DMs? Post your questions, thoughts, and feedback in the comments below.

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