Phandelver and Below reimagines the original 5th edition Starter Set
Dungeons & Dragons is more popular than ever, but the pathway to onboarding new players into the tabletop game’s 5th edition ruleset has become a bit overgrown. The best option available to true newbies, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, was published way back in 2019. Thankfully, publisher Wizards of the Coast was recently able to take a break from its burdensome 2024 rules revision to revisit an old favorite, an adventure from the original Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set first published in 2014. The new full-size campaign based on that adventure is titled Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk, and it feels custom-made for a new kind of d20-curious consumer: rabid fans of Baldur’s Gate 3.
Larian Studios’ long-simmering classic-style role-playing video game is, for many outlets, currently a leading contender for game of the year. It marries a meticulous reinterpretation of traditional D&D mechanics with an excellent storyline, and throws in a bevy of thirsty suitors to boot. It’s taken the video gaming zeitgeist by storm, overthrowing games like Fortnite and even The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom to become the most talked-about new game in years. Its shadow looms so large that it’s even impacting development of the soon-to-be-released Warhammer 40,000 CRPG Rogue Trader. But clearly Wizards predicted some of that success, and built Phandelver and Below with plenty of touchstones that should be familiar to those graced by Astarion and Shadowheart’s charms. Just don’t head into the 226-page tome looking for romance — this is a stoically PG-13 adventure, as are the rest published so far for 5th edition.
What you will find inside is a beautifully rendered romp through the countryside of The Forgotten Realms’ Sword Coast, filled with both dungeons and dragons as well as a lovely little border town in peril. It evokes a strong and comforting sense of place — maybe even belonging — and then uses those warm feelings to create a compelling adventure that delves deep and wide across the lore of 5th edition.
The campaign begins just outside the town of Phandalin, a bustling village on the outskirts of Neverwinter. Players will become immediately embroiled in a quest to save a captured traveler, and from there things play out pretty much as they did in the original Starter Set. It’s a brisk set of encounters that even inexperienced Dungeon Masters should be able to handle in three or four gaming sessions, at most. The setting even makes it easy to swap players out over time, fattening your gaming group to six or eight players in all. That should make it much easier to get a full table together on the regular for the final batch of encounters, which is far more challenging. By the end, everyone in the party should be somewhere at or near level 12.
[Ed. note: What follows will spoil some of the surprises found in the back two-thirds of Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk.]
But what’s the hook for fans of Baldur’s Gate 3? I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that Phandalin is plagued by a grand conspiracy, one perpetrated by heinous illithids. The mindflayer encounters will roll out thick and fast in the book’s final 152 pages. So too will the bodily fluids, with the same kinds of viscous, fleshy environments common to the opening level in Baldur’s Gate 3’s doomed nautiloid ship. The reveal of the tentacled freaks’ involvement is exceptionally well done. It should have experienced fans of the hit CRPG rubbing their hands together in anticipation once the secret gets revealed.
It’s the climax of this adventure that really sells it, however. The forces of evil may not all be working together, but they certainly do have it out for the tiny town of Phandalin. Time spent growing players’ affinity to the village and its many denizens will pay off in the finale, its epilogue, and beyond. That’s because Wizards has helpfully drawn a series of narrative lines directly from this adventure out toward other epic hits from its back catalog. After Phandelver and Below, players will be primed to experience modern classics like Tomb of Annihilation, Storm King’s Thunder, and Out of the Abyss. There is even a rock-solid connection to the Nebula Award-nominated Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel — including an adventure that can be played immediately after the end of this new book.
But the publisher goes even further than that. As part of Wizards’ ongoing efforts to grow more DMs, the final few pages of the book reveal even more unanswered questions about the Forgotten Realms. Those who become invested in this adventure should be all set when the highly anticipated new Dungeon Master’s Guide drops in 2024, which will help them to reach further into their own creativity to build adventures, even entire campaigns, of their very own.
At the same time, Wizards is showing more of its hand when it comes to the pending 2024 rules revision. Inside this new campaign book you’ll find expected nods to the company’s newly revised, progressive content policies — more diverse non-player characters, for instance, as well as examples of non-evil characters based on previously irredeemable enemy races. It also includes a handy worksheet for DMs to keep track of the ongoing narrative — a prelude of what’s to come in the new Dungeon Master’s Guide (2024).
Finally, the adventure also features many, many doors left open for players who are eager for more action at the table. Phandelver and Below even includes multiple hooks for eager new fans to become engaged with Baldman Games’ licensed organized play program.
While there is a lot to love about the book, longtime fans will notice there’s absolutely nothing here in the way of new character races or classes, just a smattering of thematic backgrounds and hooks. What the book does feature is lots of good guidance for DMs, both new and old.
While D&D starter sets have traditionally been the best place to begin with the classic role-playing game, Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk is easily the best new starting point around. Especially now that the core of Wizards’ 5th edition ruleset is, and will forever be, free to download and play at your table, this new campaign represents one of the best on-ramps into the life of adventure that Wizards of the Coast has to offer.
Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk will be available starting Sept. 19 as a physical product. Those who pre-order the book directly from Wizards of the Coast will have early access via Dungeons & Dragons Beyond beginning Sept. 5. The book was reviewed with a pre-release copy provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.