Content of the article: "Goblins At Phandelin “- The Not So Deadly Ambush"
(First of all, english is not my first language, sorry for typos and inconsistencies)
In the last day or two, we had here a few threads about highly lethal encounters being on official modules aimed to low level PCs. Some of such encounters are the infamous Death House, from CoS, the Cold Assassin, from the new adventure Rhyme of the Frostmaiden, THE FREAKING MANTICORE AT LV 1 on DoIP, and the Deadliest Bath House Ever from DiA. While I do believe some of those are deadly on porpouse (CoS and RotF specifically), others are just mistakes that should never appear in said adventures (DiA and the Manticore at DoIP, AND THAT INTELLECT DEVOURER AT DRAGON HEIST TOO).
However, a very misunderstood fight that was called out is the first encounter from the module Lost Mine of Phandelver, and I'll be talking all about that one fight from now on. For those who never played it, there will be spoilers, so beware.
The encounter is an ambush from 4 goblins attacking the party during the travel to Phandelin. I'll be talking about various aspects from the fight and prove that it is not only beatable, but almost easy. Almost.
Part 1 – The Pregenerated Characters
A thing people often forget about this adventure is that it was made with those pre-gen characters in mind. So let's take a look on those first.
(Also, for the sake of consistency, I'll be using any dice roll as the average for our simulations this time)
Our options are the following:
2 Human Fighters (1 of those is STR-focused, the other is DEX-focused), Hill Dwarf Cleric, Lightfoot Halfling Rogue, High Elf Wizard and a Wood Elf Ranger. This adventure is for groups of 4 to 5 players, so we will be using every single character except for the DEX-focused Fighter, since people often avoid using the same class and race combo as other players when playing for the first time.
The Human Fighter – let's name him John Fighterman. John has 17 AC, 12HP, a Greataxe that attacks with an average of 15 and hits for 1d12+3dmg, dealing an average of 9 points of damage in one turn. He also has a Javelin that also attacks with 15, but deals an average of 6 points of damage. The downside of mr Fighterman is his -1 to initiative. With Second Wind, John also recovers 6HP once per short rest.
The Hill Dwarf Cleric – named Gulak Strongjaw. Gulak has 18 AC, 11 HP, a Warhammer that hits for 14 and causes 6 damage. He also has an handaxe that hits for 14 and causes 5 average damage. His downside is, also a -1 to initiative but mr Strongjaw is a man of god (or a man of a god?) and has spells. Our spell list is vast, but for the sake of brevity we will use the following spells: Healing Word, to help fallen friends, Guiding Bolt that attacks for 15 and causes 12 damage and give advantage to any ally that attacks the same target before the end of your next turn, Shield of Faith, for the extra AC for your peers, and Sanctuary to protect your squishy friends. He also has Bless and Cure Wounds, as he's an Life Cleric. He also has Light, Sacred Flame and Thaumaturgy as cantrips, with Sacred Flame dealing anaverage of 4 damage if it hits.
The Lightfoot Halfling – Samira springwood. She has an AC of 14, 9 HP and +3 on initiative. She's fastand sneaky, having a Shortsword and Shortsword both with 15 to hit and dealing an average of 6 damage. She also has sneak attack, making her able to deal an extra d6 damage (average of 3), bringing her sneak attack damage to 9 if she has advantage on the rolls or if an enemy of your target is next to they.
The High Elf Wizard – Viola Tautumn. She's 12 AC, +2 to initiative, 8 HP and a shortsword hitting for 14 and dealing 5 damage. The wizard has a spellbook with Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Mage Armor, Magic Missile, Shield and Sleep, of those we will prepare Shield and Mage Armor for the extra AC, Sleep for an AoE control effect and Magic Missile for the guaranteed average of 9 total damage. Also, the cantrips Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp do help with damage output, dealing averages of 4 damage each, with Ray of Frost making the target slower and Shocking Grasp cutting of reactions.
The Wood Elf Ranger – Erik Highlander. Erik has 15 AC, +3 to initiative, 11 HP, a shortsword that hits for an average of 15 and deals 6 damage, and a longbow that also hits for 15 but deals an average of 7 damage. His Favored Enemy of choice is "dragon". Which is useless for this experiment.
What did we learned here is the following:
With 5 players, our average damage output per round is an impressive 33 points of damage without spellslots being spent and we have a collective 51 Hit Points. Those are the basic numbers for our future stuff.
Part 2 – The Goblins
Well, now that we know our PCs, let's analyze the goblin stat block and learn more about their enemies.
Goblins have an AC of 15, granted by then because of their +2 to Dex, Leather Armor and Shield. (Side note: I recommend lowering the AC to 13, the shields are just overkill. But let's do calculations RAW just because that's the designers intent). They have Nimble Escape, making they able to Disengage and Hide as bonus actions.
As for their actions, Goblins have an average of 14 to hit with their Scimitar and Shortbow, both dealing 5 damage on average. With 4 goblins, we have an average of 20 points of damage per round and 28 total hp.
Part 3 – The Confrontation
This is where the problem lies. As per written, the Goblins will try and ambush the players and, if the PCs fail to detect the presence of Goblins, the little bastards will get a surprise round. The DM will roll a stealth check for the goblins against the Passive Perception of the players. I find that to be not very in favour of our friends whose biggest PP is 15 while the goblins get a +6, averaging at a roll of 16. However, I believe that the DM should adjust this on the fly depending on the party. If they are all new players, let they make some rolls for perception and use the highest value between their PP and the rolled number.
However, that's not Rules As Written. So, to make it fair this time, I'll talk about how the confrontation can go with and without the surprise attack, but first a disclaimer: This encounter should not be runned optimaly by the DM. That means that I'll not put in consideration things like "all goblins focusing the attacks at the cleric to down him first" or other taticts. Those are semi-feral goblins. They barely are part of a group (Cragmaw Goblinoids) and this specific 4 goblins are VERY low on the pecking order. Probably they woundn't even attack if the players weren't open for a surprise attack due to the numbers game.
3.1 – Surprised Players!
This is a very bad situation for the players. Even if you run this encounter as intended, the goblins' attacks will probably wound the rogue and the wizard, while their high initiative modifiers can make they go before the fighter and cleric, making even more damage. It's totally possible that the wizard can go down before having a turn or that the cleric would spent spells on his first turn to stop a death.
If the players can survive the first round of combat after the surprise attack, they have a very good chance of beating the encounter, since their damage output far outweights the goblins'. The enemies can only one-shot a PC if they crit, while the PCs have ways to one-shot goblins or to incapacitate large scales of them with an AoE spell like Sleep or Burning Hands.
3.2 – Even ground
This is the scenario I truly believe the encounter was balanced around. On an even start, the players should be able to defeat the goblins in 1 or 2 rounds, since their damage output is almost the double of the goblins' combined HP, and the goblins' total damage would be less than half of the player's combined HP. And even if the goblins go before most of the PCs, they don't have enough damage to kill every menace. The fighter alone can one-shot a goblin, and so does the ranger with his longbow. If the wizard manages to get an action, she can use Magic Missiles to one-shot a goblin without rolling to attack, or even putting all of them to sleep.
Meanwhile, with the highest AC of the group, the cleric can pick his friends up in case someone goes down while not being hit as much as the goblins would be after wasting a round trying to hit Gulak.
4 – Development in Different Scenarios
Regardless of surprise mechanics, the battle still goes as the dice wants. Here's the five most common "variations of luck" in this scenario.
1st- The players are lucky, the goblins get unlucky – In this scenario, they have an auto-win against pretty much anything, even goblins at level 1.
2nd- The players are unlucky AND the goblins roll well. – This is the doomsday scenario. They pretty much are dead here.
3rd- Average rolls – This can only result in Player Victory, even with Goblin's getting a surprise roll, they won't be able to do huge damages to the Cleric or the Fighter, and the Rogue can start doing her sneaky attacks too.
4th- Players and Goblins rolling very well. – I can see this depending on the players. If they are rolling well, the casters probably can take down the goblins with Sleep, Burning Hands and other spells. While the martial PCs take care of the remaining goblins with ease.
5th- Everyone rolls very badly. – The PCs will win, eventualy, perphaps. It will be very funny, but can go either way. But the PCs still will have more potential damage output, making the odds being at their favour.
5 – Conclusion
The first goblin ambush of LMoP can be deadly if the player's get surprised, and unfortunately that's very possible to happen if you go with the book 100% as written. However, that's also not as deadly as some people think it is. The trick here is the DM playing possum and not going all out against the players with tatics and what-nots. These goblins are not a cohesive unit, have very low damage output in comparisson with the players, are constantly open for the Rogue's Sneak Attack if they try to attack on a melee range, can't one-shot the Fighter (highest Damage dealer in the player's side) and can be knocked-out after 1 sleep spell + some attacks.
TLDR: Goblins are very deadly if you make'em act as a military unit instead of the semi-feral pests they should be in LMoP. The Players can outdamage and outlive this enemies in almost all scenarios.
Do you disagree? Agree? Do you think that the Green Dragon fight is a better example of an unbalanced fight in this module?
- Roll for Initiative– How I Hope to Speed Up Combat
- Always enter combat before making any attacks
- My first time DMing
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