At the end of the last session, the party had camped out in a blind where they could observe Cragmaw Castle overnight; they determined that there were gaps in the walls where stealth might allow infiltration, but they also spotted, much to their surprise, a group of Redcloak thugs leaving the keep, having apparently stayed there overnight.
This spawned a daring plan: the PCs followed and ambushed the Redcloak thugs, capturing two of them and slaying the third (you can't really strike to subdue with an arrow at 40 paces). They stripped them of their signature cloaks and interrogated them about where Brannar Diamondheart would be inside the castle. The Redcloaks did not have much useful in the way of information, guessing that there were "about thirty or forty" goblins in the castle and that any prisoners would probably be in the back with King Grol. During this investigation, the fact that Tylow had a history with the Redcloaks came to light, as did a hard side to him that the rest of the group had not yet seen. The Redcloaks were left disarmed and tied to a tree, and the party headed back to the castle.
The party split into two groups: Tylow and Elsa snuck around to the blind side of the castle to infiltrate one of the gaps, while Morgo, Gimlet, and Mei put on the red cloaks and strode up to the front door like they owned the place, telling the guards that they had been sent by Glass-Staff (leader of the Redcloaks) to speak with King Grol (the goblin leader) about "the dwarf."
The bluff worked, and the three "Redcloaks" were led to the chamber of King Grol, an enormous bugbear with a crown of stamped metal with daggers welded on to make its points, sitting on a Game of Thrones-style throne bristling with weapons. The King was engaged in negotiations with a drow female, which came as something of a surprise to the party; he seemed dubious of their story of having been sent by Glass-Staff to "ask the dwarf more questions," but he was also too distracted by the negotiations to really care, so he pointed them to the room where Brannar was, assuming that the PCs were mostly harmless, or at least not particularly important. While this was going on, Tylow and Elsa snuck in to the point where they could see the bugbear who'd escorted the others in (but he couldn't see them), and lurked there waiting for the trouble to start.
Finally! They'd found Brannar Diamondheart! ...In a room that only exited back to the goblin king's room. Continuing the pretense of "interrogating" him, they healed him up a bit, gave him a sword to defend himself with, and finally decided to try to bluff their way out, with the story that they were going to take Brannar back to Glass-Staff, "Who has a grudge against him." (Brannar did his best to help with this, saying such subtle things as "Oh no, don't take me to Glass-Staff, he'll murder me!" even though he had no idea who the heck Glass-Staff was– he just followed the PCs' lead.)
This began a three-way negotiation between King Grol (who had Brannar and Brannar's map and only really cared about being paid), the drow (working for the Spider, whose goals were to make sure Brannar was killed and retrieve his map), and the PCs. They did a remarkable job of sowing doubt and confusion: the drow came to the conclusion that Glass-Staff was trying to "get in on the mine," which of course was unacceptable to her, and they further "promised" King Grol 500 gold in Glass-Staff's name as payment for Brannar.
Finally the drow had enough. She attempted to quickly slay Brannar, grab Brannar's map, and flee. Fortunately, the healing they'd administered to Brannar earlier meant that all she managed to do was give him a nasty stab. King Grol, outraged that she'd "drawn steel in his presence," retrieved his morningstar from the back of the throne and attacked her, and the PCs happily joined in. Tylow and Elsa rushed in to help, and in short order the drow was subdued.
King Grol, far from being angry with the PCs, was delighted: after being sneered at and talked down to by the drow all morning, he finally had the upper hand. He locked her in the room where Brannar had been, and told the PCs they could take him to Glass-Staff at the agreed price of 500 gold, as long as they gave him 100 gold up front. They eventually haggled him down to 75 (not having a whole lot of gold among them), took their dwarf, and were shown the door. Brannar wailed about his cruel fate all the way out of earshot of the castle, which then turned to howls of laughter once they were clear.
The party returned to Welltide, avoiding Pellan as they finally caught a glimpse of the rumored dragon ("Yup! It's there. And it's green."). As they neared the edge of the forest, they were all very startled to be set upon by an owlbear, that had stalked them for an hour and rolled so well on its Stealth check that the first they knew of it was when Gimlet was lying on the ground bleeding to death from a critical hit. Luckily, fate was with the dwarven cleric that day, as he rolled a natural 20 on his first death save, instantly regaining 1 hit point.
The rules were a bit vague here about whether or not this gave him a turn (as "make a death save" is not listed as an action), so we had a quick table discussion on it. We finally decided that nerfing a 20 would suck, and as any enemy worth their salt is going to just take down an opponent who recovers 1 hp again on their next turn, a character who rolls a 20 on their death save should have a turn to get away. Accordingly, Gimlet stood up, took a disengage action, and ran for it.
The owlbear then turned its attention to Elsa, who had charged in raging to cover Gimlet's escape. The owlbear tore into her for 40 hp(!), but thanks to her rage, this was halved to 20– still huge, but 3 points short of one-punching her. Wisely, she also disengaged and ran for it. The rest of the party poured their biggest attacks into the owlbear at range, knocking it down 2/3 of its hp in basically a round. I decided this warranted a morale check on the part of the owlbear, which it failed. It is an instinctive hunter and its plan had been "kill one of the smaller creatures and retreat, coming back and eating the kill when the rest of the creatures left"– getting ripped to shreds by something that could fight back was not consistent with its agenda. So the owlbear ran for it, too! Unfortunately for it, the PCs were having none of that, and kept on firing until it was dead. Gimlet then tromped over and beat up its corpse for a while, infuriated that after all that brilliant infiltration of the goblin castle, the most dangerous thing that happened to them that day was a random owlbear. The rest of the party members, even the badly beat up Elsa, were highly amused.
It was well into night by the time the party got back to their rooms at the Stonehill Inn. Brannar called for drinks all around, then revised that to drinks for his friends and his kin. Lord Sildar, attracted by all the noise in the common, came down from his room and had a joyful reunion with his friend and the PCs. Then they all began to talk serious business.
Brannar informed the PCs that he had found Wave Echo Cave, an entrance to the Phandelver Mines. Phandelver was a huge complex of caves under and around the Silver Spires Mountains connected by an underground lake, which had been lost since the days of the North Kingdom. And while the mines themselves were valuable, what was really important there was "the Spellforge," which he described as "a magic weapon factory," which would be priceless to any nation. Obviously, this must be what the mysterious Spider must be after, as well, but Brannar and Lord Sildar were intent on reclaiming it for Argent– making themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams in the process. Brannar's brother Thobald was still down in Wave Echo Cave, and the supplies the PCs had brought to Welltide were intended for the expedition.
Lord Sildar also told them that he had been given a commission by the Princess of Argent to take over where Lord Albrek had left off, mustering a militia and creating a constabulary for Welltide, and that the Redcloaks had been outlawed by royal decree. The Redcloaks had not responded to this yet, but what they knew of Glass-Staff suggested that he wouldn't take this sitting down. Lord Sildar very broadly suggested that he could use capable bodyguards, and while he could not condone assassination (cough, cough), would be very interested in having Glass-Staff captured or otherwise taken out of the picture. We ended the session with Brannar telling the party, "Well, it looks like you've got a choice to make: stay in Welltide and help Sildar with the Redcloaks, or come with me to Wave Echo Cave!"
This was a very fun session! Heavy on the RP, but still tense moments of high adventure and exciting action. The shift in my thinking away from "scenes" and toward "scenarios" really paid off this time: I had expected the PCs to do something totally different, but what they did instead was so much better.
I was figuring that they'd probably infiltrate the goblin castle by way of the drainage pipe from the dungeons, doing a surgical-style commando strike. In the mode of the games we've come to do over the past few years I would have decided that was "the right answer" and then put all kinds of pointers that way and impediments everywhere else (more guards at the front gate, guards around gaps in the walls, etc.), and set up anything in the path between the dungeon entrance as a cool set-piece encounter. Then any plot-relevant info they should get would be delivered in the form of found correspondence, because obviously, all the monsters would be dead and unable to talk.
This time, I didn't do that. I did put a few interesting things down in the dungeon in case they went that way, but mostly I just created the castle as it would make sense for it to be based on the goblins' psychology and resources. King Grol, while always on the alert for treachery and revolution within the goblin ranks, is not real worried about an external invasion at this point– Cragmaw Castle is remote and mostly unknown. He's got some guards and patrols as a sort of "due diligence" measure, but they are neither mind readers nor paranoid that someone's going to come along impersonating their allies (although this may change if he discovers what the PCs pulled).
Since Grol and the drow continued on their own agendas once the PCs showed up, the players learned all of the relevant plot info they would have gotten from "found correspondence" naturally over the course of the encounter instead, and I was really impressed with how well the group manipulated the NPCs even with the limited information they had available.
So now, instead of a castle full of dead goblins, the campaign has a pissed-off drow who's been screwed over by the players, a very self-satisfied bugbear king who believes he's owed 500 gp by the local crime boss, a local crime boss who's going to have an unpleasant surprise in the days ahead, and a party of PCs who pulled off a brilliant and daring rescue using their wits instead of just becoming yet another goblin exterminator service.
Big win, all around. :)