It’s time to get back into Dungeons & Dragons. In September 2023, there’s a brand new D&D starter set, which is taking things back to a decidedly more 2014 vibe. If you know D&D then you that many an adventurer has passed through the town of Phandelver. The quaint fantasy village is the starting point for The Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure that came with the original Starter Set for the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition in 2014. And now, D&D is returning to Phandelver, with a twist.
Here’s what you need to know about this new streamlined D&D, and what should probably be the second thing you buy after the 2014 starter set.
Lost Mines had everything you’d want for a first-time D&D adventure, an easy onboarding of the rules, colorful characters, and indeed, dungeons and a dragon. But that was almost a decade ago, and as D&D prepares for the next era of the storied tabletop game, one that will see a major overhaul of the rules that should make the game more accessible, it’s time to return to Phandelver. The next D&D adventure module, September’s Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk, is an updated and hugely expanded take on the classic adventure, one that delves into eerie, cosmic horror.
“Whereas the starter set was intended to be the perfect first experience with D&D,” explained lead designer Amanda Hamon during a press conference Fatherly attended, The Shattered Obelisk is “intended to be the perfect second experience with D&D.”
What this means is that any Dungeon Master dads out there who have already gotten their kids used to rolling a d20 now have the perfect successor to the much-loved adventure, one that any tweens with a burgeoning appetite for horror and fantasy can get lost in.
Lost Mines, a packet that came in the original D&D Fifth Edition starter set and which is available online for free, is not a full-fledged campaign compared to the other official adventure books D&D releases. Shattered Obelisk is a 226-page adventure that will take players from level 1 to Level 12 — a pretty respectable spread, as far as most campaigns go.
“It is a very iconic location, there’s a lot of nostalgia for players to return to this palace where they maybe had their first adventure and first discovered D&D,” Hamon said. The new book will help players “remember why they loved it… and introduce it to new players.”
Roughly the first third of the Shattered Obelisk will be familiar to anybody who played Lost Mines. It’s an adventure that takes traveling players from an encounter with bandits on the road, into Phandelver, and eventually into the titular Lost Mine, where they’ll do battle with an evil dark elf named Nezznar the Black Spider.
However, it’s hardly an exact repeat of the original adventure. In keeping with D&D’s continued, occasionally uneven efforts to be an inclusive, welcoming game, many of the characters in Phandelever’s race or gender have been changed, as depicted by all-new and much-expanded art that can be found throughout the book. Additionally, while the “how-to’s” for first-time players present in the starter set has been removed, Hamon says they “made some of the [game] mechanics more streamlined.”
“We’ve done things to make it more smooth and have more depth and more inclusiveness for players of all backgrounds,” she said.
Aspects of D&D that aren’t kid-friendly
Once you get past that first third, though, Shattered Obelisk gets somewhat less inviting for any players, young or old, who aren’t comfortable with horror. Though the book contains information on ways to tone down the horror — the exact plot nature of which the team wouldn’t spoil — Hamon was surprisingly frank in her words of caution. Young or sensitive players could simply play the first third of the adventure, which is after all an updated version of the starter set.
“When the grownups want to play the more mature adventure, you can start at Chapter 5,” she advised, encouraging any DMs to read through the book before starting rather than running it cold and further noting that the last chapter of the adventure is probably the least kid-friendly.
“The art style changes from his sort of ‘sunny, day happy’ moment to more twisting grim times,” said Bree Heiss, lead designer for the book, explaining how gradual and pervasive the descent from idyllic fantasy to nightmare is throughout the adventure.
Parental DMs’ own mileage may vary on how closely they feel the need to head to these warnings, though. Maybe kid adventures will be frightened by sights such as a cow that’s been mutated into some tentacled horror as a result of whatever eerie force is corrupting the lands around Phandelevers. (Her name is Daisy the Odd Cow, according to Heiss, and there are lots of other mutated versions of classic D&D monsters that DMs of all sorts could repurpose for their own games.) But, speaking from my own personal experience as a tween who loved horror movies, Shattered Obelisk sounds like it would’ve been right up my alley. It’s also entirely possible for players to pick up old characters from when they first ran Lost Mines and, now a little older and a little more prepared for a creepy adventure, jump back in and continue the story with Shattered Obelisk.
It’s somewhat amusing that D&D’s starter set adventure — something intentionally designed to be a broad, warm welcome to the iconic tabletop game — has returned as an occasionally icky campaign full of cosmic horror. But, the game grows up, and people grow up, too. If Shattered Obelisk isn’t the vibe a particular table or family is looking for, there are many other adventures out there (or you can just play the first third of it and come back later.) One thing everybody who has played The Lost Mine of Phandelver can agree on, though, is that the adventure is a treasure, and like any treasure, it deserves to be protected, albeit in this new, updated form rather than deep with a dungeon full of traps.
“We wanted to preserve The Lost Mine of Phandelver in a hardcover book,” Hamon said. “We wanted to preserve and update, quite frankly, that adventure [and] build it into the campaign that everybody wanted it to be.”