Lost Mine of Phandelver, the original introductory adventure to Dungeons & Dragons 5E, has become much beloved in the community, serving as the entry for quite a few new or returning players (you can check it out for free on D&DBeyond). The central town in that adventure, Phandalin, has gone on appear in Acquisitions Incorporated and then the second D&D 5E starter adventure (in the Essentials Kit). Rather than spinning off of Phandelver generally, Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk is a reprinting and continuation of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. As always, The Lost Mine of Phandelver takes characters from levels 1-4, while the new “and Below” portion runs them from levels 5-12.
Note: This review isn’t going to spill the beans about everything going on with the Shattered Obelisk (i.e., the parts of this book from levels 5-12), but it does have some high-level spoilers. It’s less concerned about spoiling the contents of The Lost Mine of Phandelver, given that the adventure is almost 10(!) years old and the fact that most of the readers of this review have probably already played through it.
The Lost Mine of Phandelver is known for giving players options of what to do before funneling them back in. Help folks around Phandalin, and in the course of that figure out and deal with the immediate issue in the town. Go adventuring out of town at the players’ choice of several locations, and in the course of that figure out where the final confrontation will be. The Shattered Obelisk continues that for as long as it can, as the characters do immediately have to look around at new troubles in Phandalin before chasing off after the culprit. Then back to Phanadlin and a few more errands before picking from the available out-of-town dungeons to explore. At that point the characters are ninth level and the book pushes the characters back to Phandalin one more time. In-game the purpose of this is to obtain information. From a meta perspective it’s to show the characters the town for one last time before they charge off to complete the adventure. It’s a lot easier to populate a small town with tasks appropriate for lower-level adventurers, so it’s understandable that the longer things go on the more the campaign shifts away from Phandalin itself. But if you’re a fan of Phandalin (and I know a lot of us are), the writers here do keep bringing it back home, not just with the town itself, but having named, recognizable people from the town placed out away from the town as well.
Note that there have been tweaks to The Lost Mine of Phandelver itself, which takes up about 75 pages in this book, although they aren’t always intuitive. For example, there’s a well-known encounter with a dragon in the adventure that’s widely considered to be extremely tough for a party of that level – indeed, it’s pretty clear from the original adventure that the characters aren’t supposed to be able to defeat the dragon, but at best drive it away. The updated version here makes it somewhat harder to drive the dragon off, which is probably the opposite of what most DMs would have done if adjusting this encounter.
The early portions of Shattered Obelisk send the characters down into a mining outpost with some clever mechanical aspects, starting with being able to use actual mine carts to move around in places. This stage also sees the characters start to really crack open the mystery of what’s going on. The I like the third act of Shattered Obelisk best out of the three, but the mining outpost is my favorite single bit. This is also the section of the campaign that feels the most like The Lost Mine of Phandelver, with the most interaction in Phandalin and the most ‘human’ problems for the town – psychological issues for now, with physical mutations to come.
The second stage of Shattered Obelisk is the most traditional setting for Shattered Obelisk, taking the characters to an ancient crypt, an Underdark crossroads, a buried dwarven fortress, and an Underdark metropolis. The most traditional doesn’t mean it’s just a series of hack and slash encounters, however, as there are still some distinctive NPCs and non-combat options available. The characters will have options for several encounters, and the obvious way isn’t consistently right or wrong, as characters must consider the inhabitants motivations and occasional factional struggles in deciding how to respond. Phandalin is present, with a dark ritual starting to strongly affect the town and its environment.
Near the end of this second stage and into the third stage, however, is where Shattered Obelisk gets the most interesting, as the campaign goes from below to beyond, with the characters visiting other realms entirely to progress the story. There’s one larger ‘dungeon’ style area in these realms, and even that is bizarre (in a good way). But much more of it is islands (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical) to visit, allowing the writers to introduce a variety of odd flavors into the campaign, such as an unusual cafeteria, a maze with rotation, miles of swimming, and the insides of a cosmic roundworm. There is still opportunity for social interaction here, but the game swings more towards puzzles and battles against unnatural unearthly backdrops. Phandalin is there right at the beginning, but the town’s issues can now only be addressed with heroics, the corruption of the town is getting out of hand.
Phandelver and Below is a welcome return and expansion of a beloved adventure. Other than the location, The Shattered Obelisk is not all that tied to The Lost Mine of Phandelver, but I think that’s fine because tying the whole campaign more tightly together would probably mean more alterations to Lost Mine of Phandelver, which kind of defeats the purpose. Instead The Shattered Obelisk brings a related but independent campaign that mixes the style of Phandelver with a bit of horror and an expansion in scope as the characters become more powerful – grown beyond the town of Phandalin, but still (hopefully) saving it. The Shattered Obelisk has less sandbox and more ‘dungeon,’ right up until it blows the doors open to take the player characters into more mind-bending locations. Phandelver and Below is particularly well-suited for anyone who is coming to D&D 5E for the first time from Baldur’s Gate 3.
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