I am currently running this module after having played through myself and also having listened to podcasts of others play it. Based on this experience, I have made some adjustments to the standard method of running it that might be of interest to others.
First of all, I wanted to make it more sandbox and less of a railroad. When I played through, we were laser focused on the main story - find Gundren and get to Wave Echo Cave. No time for any side quests. It made sense to us - our boss was kidnapped and we had to go get him! The problem is we missed out on a ton of stuff. I actually asked the DM when we were done why they had a dragon on the cover, since we never saw one. He told us our characters skipped past that part. Whoops.
This time, I have things starting out with arrival in Phandelver. In this version the player (my kindhearted wife) arrives in Phandelver after a four day overland journey. I used the wilderness encounter table included in the adventure, and rolled nothing for each day and night of the journey. She had a very relaxing and peaceful trip.
On arrival, she was immediately accosted by Redbrands, telling her they were "protecting" the town, and that she would have to pay a 10 GP toll. They were drunk, and loudly mocked her slight gnomish stature. She tried to charm the leader, but he resisted. She distracted one with an illusion, causing him to leave. The other three became insistent, and she tried again to defuse the situation with an illusion, but it failed. Angered by her actions, they attacked what they thought was a defenseless gnome. At that point, she gave up on diplomacy and assumed the animal form of a brown bear (She is playing a gnome druid, and I started her at level 2 since she is solo for now).
Her bear AC is only 11, and they scored quite a few hits since each Redbrand makes two attacks. However, that just wasn't enough to match the hitting power of an angry bear. She quickly knocked one unconscious, and reduced a second to below half hit points. She had specified that she was doing non lethal damage, not wanting to start off her visit to town with a bunch of murders.
I had the two remaining Redbrands roll morale checks (wisdom vs DC 10 - I figured they would be pretty surprised by the bear knocking them around, but still not total cowards). The injured Redbrand failed his roll, disengaged and fled. The third passed his check and went on the offensive, causing one more hit (her bear form was down to 8 hp from 34). She gave him another swipe that reduced him to 4 hp, and he rolled a 1 on his next morale check. I had him flee in terror, not even disengaging. She swung at him as he sped away screaming, but caught nothing but air.
Suddenly aware of all the shocked townsfolk staring at the massive bloodied bear knocking around ruffians in the middle of the street, she quickly reverted to gnome form. Barthan, a nearby shopkeeper, called her over and enthused at how she had trounced the Redbrands. He complained about how difficult business had become since they took over. He also mentioned that a dwarf associate of his, Gundren, was late with a delivery from Waterdeep, and that he was concerned. He thought that a druid of her talents might be able to find out what, if anything, had happened to him. Barthan then apologized, saying she must be very tired and directed her to the Inn, asking her to come back the next morning.
She proceeded to the Inn, when Stonehill the owner again complained of the Redbrands, and offered her a night's room and board on the house. Just as she was settling in with the locals, hearing gossip about orcs on the Eastern trail, a well dressed and imposing woman entered. She introduced herself as the owner of the miners exchange, and said she had heard of what happened with the Redbrands. Her jeweled hands clenched into fists as she spoke about how the Redbrands were cutting into her business. She finished by saying she would handsomely compensate anyone who eliminated their presence.
At that point, our tired gnome retired for the night. However, after only a short rest she took on a cat animal form and slipped out the window to explore. She passed the Sleeping Giant Inn, where loud shouts and drunken revelry could be heard. She also overheard one of the Redbrands she had fought bragging to a serving maid about how he had fought off a crazed bear that wandered into town out of the woods. He neglected to mention the gnome part, or the part with him and his friends running away in fear.
She continued up the mansion ruins, and easily avoided detection in cat form as she hid in the shadows. Two more drunken Redbrands passed through and down into the cellar without noticing her. Her hide roll was 22 (cat form +4 stealth) versus their perception roll of 18.
Deciding there was not much else to do at this point, she returned to the inn and slept though the rest of the night. The next morning she explored the town a bit. First, she visited the town master, seeing his sign about trouble with orcs. He was a fat, sweating man draped in ermine and already into a goblet of wine even though it was early morning. He was derisive of her inquiries about the orcs, saying that was a task to which she was not equal, although stating that there was a 100gp reward if any real adventurers could deal with the menace. He also complained about how difficult it was being town master in this town. He mentioned that for instance, just yesterday some very decent, upright citizens had been attacked by a bear right inside the town. He was counting stacks of gold as he told the story. He mentioned that a new volunteer militia was keeping order, and that she should be mindful during her stay not to break any of the town's many ordinances. She left in disgust.
Next she visited the Lionshield Coster, where she was told that many of the shop's recent shipments of provisions from Neverwinter had not arrived. The proprietor was concerned they would have to close if those goods could not be located. She offered 50gp for the return of those items. The gnome agreed to look into the matter, and left.
On her way to Barthan's she passed a shrine to Tymora and lit a candle. The shrine was deserted with no priest or priestess in sight. At Barthan's she was again told of his concern for Gundren. He offered 10gp if she could travel the east road to Waterdeep and find out anything about his whereabouts.
Worried she might be offered more quests if she stayed any longer, she agreed and set off on the road once more. On her way out of town she noticed Redbrands watching her movements from a safe distance. She tried to approach them, but they fled before she could get close enough to tell them "I will be back."
I was very happy with how this went. It still starts with a fight, but a much more manageable one. Even if the players lose they can just get thrown in the town master's jail for the night, and then let out with a fine and warning. It jumps into more role playing rather than dungeon crawling, which will be better or worse depending on your group. I found getting more setting established early in play helpful. I was a bit nervous about making the sandbox TOO big. If she had decided the orc quest was the way to go, then she would have been in a lot of trouble. Also, she could have decided to go for the Redbrands right away. That would have been hard, but Druids are so tough that she probably could have done it with some patience and luck. Her 2 x animal form power regenerates with a short rest, so she can take a potential 175+ points of damage before needing a long rest. That's just crazy.
I'm hoping she will rescue Sildar and then he can become a party NPC. I plan on playing him as a senile, quixotic sort of character. He can still fight, but forgets what he is supposed to be doing outside combat. The two of them should be able to whip through most of the adventure pretty easily.
One thing that really irritated me about playing through myself the first time was how weak the final big bad was. Plus, he was just some random guy. I am planning on integrating this adventure with Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This module already has dragon cultists in Thundertree, so it's a no brainer to have the Black Spider be a dragon cultist too. He will have some sort of note or map on him with Greenest circled on it. Plot hook...
I expect to run this adventure many times in the future, so I think it is worth trying to "get it right". I hope this post was helpful to anyone else running it, and any feedback is much appreciated!
DM Chris Scott