DMing Dragon of Icespire Peak - Part 3
New Adventures Levels 1-3
This blog series teaches new and returning Dungeon Masters how to run the Dragon of Icespire Peak (DoIP) Campaign from the D&D Essentials Kit and provides advice and guidance for being an effective DM. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Welcome to Part 3! At this point, you have gathered your players, run Session 0, created characters, made some initial notes about the campaign, PC backgrounds, and NPCs in town, and run your very first session. Congratulations! You’ve completed the most challenging parts of being a Dungeon Master. From here, it’s all fun!
In this part of the guide series, we’ll look at how to hook the players during the early levels of the campaign, identify the plot threads that will develop later in the campaign, and discuss some of the quests.
Recap From Session 1
In Session 1, hopefully your party found their way to Phandalin, met some of the townsfolk, and completed one of the three starter adventures. If they didn’t make it all the way through the first adventure, that’s fine, too. It just means you might have a bit more work to do for Session 2 since the party will have several options presented and you’ll have to prepare for all of them.
After the first Job Board adventure is completed, make sure the party gains a level. This will do a lot to increase their survivability in the early levels!
Make sure after you complete the first session, you spend a bit of time making notes on what happened.
Did the PCs seem particularly interested in any of the NPCs in Phandalin? Perhaps someone they are suspicious of or someone they particularly want to help?
How did the PCs get to Phandalin? Did anything interesting arise as a result?
How do the PCs know each other? How did they interact with one another during the session?
Did any relevant PC background info come up during the session?
Capturing notes like this after each session will provide you with additional tools in later sessions to develop a narrative that is compelling and feels special and unique for your party.
Campaign Structure – The Early Campaign
Let’s review the structure of the campaign as written. Per the campaign guide, the party should complete two of the jobs listed on the Job Board, at which point, you give them access to three additional quests. After two of these are completed, three final quests go onto the Job Board.
There are several quests presented in the adventure that never appear on the Job Board. The party won’t stumble across any of these until at least the fourth sessions – or perhaps later. The only one you might want to look at is the Shrine of Savras quest, since the party could conceivably stumble across this as soon as Session 4.
The Job Board structure never tells you to remove incomplete quests, but I would recommend that you take them down after a session or two. This gives the impression that—unlike a video game—this world moves and changes over time. Doing every side quest before pursuing the main quest like in a video game isn’t always an option in D&D. The players will feel like their choices are more meaningful. They’re choosing between one quest and another.
Also, as we discussed in part 2 of this guide, the Job Board gives players a nice feeling of agency in deciding what quests to choose, but you can choose to leave quests off the Job Board if you don’t like them or if you want to focus your players’ attention on one or two quests in particular.
The Job Board is the advertisement for adventure, but which adventure will the PCs choose? As-written, there’s no real reason for the party to pick one adventure over another because they’re disconnected and don’t have any story elements to make them narratively significant. You’re going to change that.
Much like the first session, you want to look at what the players gave you during Session 0 and especially during your first session. You made notes about which NPC they liked or disliked. Make sure that NPC has an opinion about which quest they should go on next. You could have that NPC offer an additional reward for a particular quest, or you could connect one of the quests to one of the PCs backstories.
Here are a few ideas you can borrow to narratively spice up the early game quests:
Toblen Stonehill is acting as an agent for Halia Thornton and is trying to buy up all of the gold mines in the region. He sees the excavation site from the Dwarven Excavation Quest as prime real estate. The only problem are those pesky dwarves, Dazzlyn and Norbus. If the PCs make sure they “disappear,” he’ll cut them in on a share of the profits.
Replace Dazzlyn or Norbus with a NPC from one of the PC’s backgrounds – a cousin or brother or old friend.
Replace the shrine to Abbathor with another evil god—preferably one directly opposed to one of the PCs. Be sure that one of the townsfolk mentions this evil shrine being uncovered by two foolish dwarves.
Adabra Gwynn can be an acolyte of whatever god the party might be interested in supporting – Chauntea is fine but many other gods could serve just as well.
If the party manages to scare off or bargain with the manticore from Umbrage Hill, it should make an unexpected return appearance later in the adventure, as a friend or foe depending how the first encounter plays out.
If the party is looking for a merchant in town that sells magic items, potions, scrolls, and the like, you can give Adabra this role, which will encourage the PCs to develop a positive relationship with her and allows you to leverage her as an important NPC in later adventures.
Replacing one of the NPCs in Gnomengarde with someone from the PCs background is a good way to setup this quest.
Korboz’s madness is said to be triggered by a mimic attack. Instead of the mimic specifically, the madness could have been triggered by dragon fear incited by the white dragon Cryovain, establishing early on the harm the dragon is having on the region.
You can also seed a clue in Gnomengarde to one of the secondary quests later in the adventure—for example, the party might stumble across an old map with the symbol of Savras on it (DC 15 Religion or History to recognize).
With each quest, try to create narrative hooks and connection points like this. Doing so will help to create a broader sense of purpose for the PCs rather than just go kill the monster and get gold as a reward.
Speaking of gold…
Shopping and Gold Sinks
Most of the quests in DoIP reward the players with gold, but the shops in town don’t carry anything interesting besides mundane items. Adabra sells potions of healing, but that’s it.
I would highly recommend you enlist Adabra Gwynn or someone else to sell not just healing potions, but other minor magical items as well. You can have a rotating list of these that change every few days of game time. This gives the party something to spend their hard-earned cash on.
I do recommend taking shopping time “offline” though – your game time is precious and spending it having players pour over equipment lists isn’t the best use of your time or theirs. Instead, just have players equip and update their character sheets before the next game session.
After the players complete a few quests, you should offer then a home base in Phandalin. There are many ruins in town, including Tresendar Manor (described in Lost Mine of Phandelver) that Townmaster Harbin Wester might offer to the party for a discounted sum of gold.
Having a base of operations will not only give them something to spend money on, more importantly, it will help to strengthen the players’ feelings towards Phandalin. They’ll start to think of it as a home, a place to be protected.
That way, when you threaten Phandalin later in the campaign (cue maniacal DM laughter), the players will be really motivated to defend it!
First up, during the first three or four sessions, don’t worry too much about the broader narrative arc you’re building. Trust yourself that it will come together as things move forward. Just try to seed lots of interesting hooks and narrative connection points and see what your players pick up on. Don’t try to force anything – let them decide what’s important. As the campaign progresses, you can start to reinforce their decisions by leaning into their choices and building towards a crisis that’s intimately connected to the threads they chose to follow, but you don’t need to worry about what that is now. Just let the game flow and see where it takes you!
Second: always remember as well that nothing in the campaign is set in stone until your players see it at the table. You may have decided that Toblen Stonehill is greedy and conniving, but perhaps one of your PCs misinterprets Toblen’s behavior as being altruistic and your party seems to like this. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from changing Toblen on the fly. Or maybe you plan for the party to visit Butterskull Ranch where they’ll learn about the Shrine of Savras from a strange old hermit. But the party never decides to go to Butterskull Ranch. You can just move that old hermit somewhere else.
Don’t be afraid to change details of the campaign on the fly to suit the needs of the game. Your players don’t know when you change things. In their minds, the world they’re exploring just is. As long as you don’t tell them you changed something to achieve a particular outcome (and you shouldn't), they’ll just assume that’s how it was supposed to be all along.
Final tip – when the PCs return to Phandalin after each quest, make sure to show small changes. Have the important NPCs in town start to recognize them. Change the inventory of the shops. Introduce new NPCs or have others leave. By showing a few small changes like this, it will help to create the sense that the world the PCs are exploring is a living, breathing place, particularly if those changes are connected to the quests or the PCs decisions.
Keep Crushing It!
I hope you are having a great time running Dragon of Icespire Peak. Make sure to lean into the parts that are the most fun for you as well. As the DM, you are a player as well and this should feel like fun, not work or stress. If you find that you get stressed by improvising, then spend extra time in advance of the game making some notes and reviewing maps and take advantage of building a campaign notebook. If pre-game prep feels like work, then try minimizing your prep using the Lazy DM method.
What happened during your first few sessions? Do you have questions about how to handle specific encounters? Advice for other DMs? Ideas for where your campaign will go from here? Post your questions, thoughts, and feedback in the comments below, and share this blog on Facebook, Reddit, or Discord.
If you want more D&D tips, articles on sci-fi and fantasy, and a free story, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter at https://www.shannonrampe.com/signup.