[Finding Cragmaw Castle]Now that the heroes are level 3, it's time to specialise. After looking through the PHB, the Folk Hero chose to go for Battle Master instead of Champion (same as with the second group!), and the Rogue chose to pursue the Assassin specialisation. (Because it's their character after all, and we have the PHB available anyway, so we're not constrained to the Basic Rules.)
The next morning, the heroes are asked to help decide what happens with the owner of the taphouse. He was not a Redbrand, but he did little to constrain them. The Folk Hero suggests shaving his head bald and banning him from the village until his hair grows back -- which is promptly implemented. They also get the reward from Sildar for defeating the Redbrands.
Then the group turns their attention to their longer-term goals: they still do not know the location of Cragmaw Castle. Their best lead is the hint from Aunt Alderleaf: she pointed them towards the Druid staying in Thundertree, who knows everything about these lands. Looking at the overland map, they decide to travel to Neverwinter to do some serious shopping and then travel to Thundertree. They offer their services to Barthen, and he gives them a shopping list. They are to give this list to Barthen's contact in the city, who will prepare another shipment of goods. If they take that shipment back to Phandalin, there's some gold in it for them (like when they first came to Phandalin).
After some further legwork, the group secures another transport mission from Halia at the Miner's Exchange: they get a sturdy cart with iron tracks in the loading space. A very heavy strongbox, containing the mineral wealth that the miners have taken to the Miner's Exchange, is secured with sturdy locks to these tracks -- and the group doesn't get the keys. They are to bring this to a warehouse of the merchant's consortium that's managing the Exchange, so that it can be processed, and there's 50 gold pieces for them if they get the cargo to the city. It's all quite heavy, so they get two draft horses to draw the cart. (The heroes wanted to make their trips profitable, and this seemed like a good way to do it. They have proven themselves to be quite capable, so Halia is reasonably sure they'll get the job done.)
The Wizard drives the horses, with the Folk Hero riding shotgun (or rather, longbow). The rest of the group sort-of lounges around in the cart, but it's a bit uncomfortable: the cart is designed for transporting a heavy strongbox, not for accommodating travellers! The trip will take two and a half days (which means five checks for random encounters).
They make good time, and only trigger a random encounter when they are close to the city. Three wolves emerge from a bush at the side of the road. They are hungry (why would three wolves attack a pack of travellers otherwise?) and so two go for the horses -- and the third goes for the Folk Hero. The wolves' Pack Tactics really shine here, and the Folk Hero gets bitten badly while the draft horse is attacked. The Wizard has to spend their turn calming the horses, while the rest of the party dismounts and engages the wolves. The Noble gets into melee with them, and once the pack tactics advantage is broken up, two of the wolves are dispatched. The third flees, leaving behind one of the horses wounded quite badly. But, since this is D&D, there are no adverse effects to being wounded while you have even 1 hitpoint left, so the group manages to make it to the city without further problems.
They deliver the strongbox to the warehouse and get paid, then deliver the shopping list to Barthen's wholesaler. He will need two to three days to prepare the shipment, and the party (with the Folk Hero doing the negotiations, he's better with 'common folk') ask him to contact them when they get back from Thundertree. If they take too long, he is free to assemble a different party to bring the supplies to Barthen.
Then it's time for their own shopping. The Wizard invests in a few spells to inscribe in his spell book. The Folk Hero buys a slightly better armour. And then it's time to worry about transportation: Thundertree is close enough to walk to, but the road to Cragmaw Castle might be long and tiring -- walking all around the area on foot is not for heroes such as they are! Gold is pooled, counted, divided, counted again, and in the end the Wizard and the Rogue ride a donkey, the Cleric requisitions a horse and the Fighters both buy a horse. Together with saddles, saddlebags and feed, the party is now again strapped for cash (which is good from a DM's viewpoint: gotta keep 'em hungry!).
They set out towards Thundertree, riding upstream along the river. Again, they trigger a random encounter during their trip: seven Goblins surround the party! The Goblins are wise enough to keep their distance and use their bows, but ultimately they are defeated. The Rogue loots the bodies for a few silver, but finds nothing else. (It did not occur to any of the party to capture one of the Goblins to interrogate them and to ask after the location of the castle.)
Towards the end of the afternoon, they reach Thundertree. They bind their animals to the post of the sign warning travellers to stay outside of the town and enter the village from the north-west. They know the Druid is staying in the village, so they seek out buildings that are relatively intact. The first one of those that they find is the Brown Horse tavern. When the Wizard and the Folk Hero enter, the Ash Zombies spring to (un-)life, and the fight is on! Getting disadvantage on attack rolls when the characters inhale a puff of smoke when a Zombie is hit really cramps their style, though -- so 'fresh' characters are rotated into the front lines when that happens. By the end of the fight, almost everyone is coughing...
A short investigation of the premises turns up nothing, except the big wooden brewery vats in the back room. But by then night is falling, and it seems like the warning about zombies and other nasties on the sign outside of town was not for nothing. The party does not want to spend the night within the village, and regroups outside of the woods where they camp in the open. Luckily for them, nothing happens during the night.
The next morning, they re-enter the village. A quick peek into the tavern reveals that nothing has been disturbed since the previous evening, and the Ash Zombies do not re-emerge. The group passes the ruined cottages and spots the Druid's Watch as the next intact building. With its reinforced doors and shutters before the windows, it gives a solid impression. Instead of breaking down the door and barging in, the party decides to knock. Reidoth opens the door at a crack (he is certainly not expecting visitors), and when he sees it's not those cultist guys, he opens the door for them and ushers them in. He is a bit angry with them for ignoring his warning at the edge of the village, and enumerates the dangers lurking around (spiders, zombies, the cultists and, oh yeah, let's not forget the dragon)!
But when they tell him about the attacks on Phandalin and that they are searching for Cragmaw Castle, his opinion of them turns around. They're actually respectful and (by the sound of it) a resourceful lot -- so they might be able to take the Cragmaw's down a notch or two. And it would get them out of the village too...
So Reidoth marks the location of the castle on their map and urges them to leave Thundertree. They say their goodbyes and go straight back the way they came, to their horses.
Skirting the forest, the group rides south towards the castle, and manages to find a good thicket to hide their horses and to make camp for the night. The next morning, they leave their horses behind and enter the forest. After some time scouting, they find the castle: it is set on a hill in the forest, and they circled the hill to get a rough idea of the layout. (I gave them the player map with the outline of the castle, but no further details.) During their circumnavigation, they find the path leading up to the entrance. The party decides to hide in the bushes and trees to see what comes in and goes out of the castle.
After some time, a hunting party returns. While they are still outside the view of the main gate, the party attacks the hobgoblins and wolves. The Wizard makes great use of his recently purchased Flaming Sphere spell, and the Noble turns out to have a thing against wolves specifically, after being chewed on during their travel encounter... But ultimately, the ambush is succesfull and the returning hunters are vanquished. The bodies are all dragged out of sight, and the heroes are considering their next step...
[My GM notes]Excellent work from this group: always keeping an eye out for making some honest money! And it allowed me to help them along a bit by giving them a cart on loan so they could get to Neverwinter in reasonable comfort.
I'm not so sure about the random encounters in the booklet -- they do not add that much to the game, and by now the group will tear through any random monster quite efficiently. As a way to diminish their resources, it's pretty useless as well: after the next stop, everybody is fully re-charged. There's not much point in these, unless it's the only way for the party to find the location to Cragmaw Castle. But as written, it would take several days of parading the Triboar Trail up and down until you find (or are found) by a group of Goblinoids... Not much point and excitement in that.
I was a bit surprised that the party took Reidoth's advice to leave the village of Thundertree without any talking back at him. The Folk Hero has plans for the village, and there's also the emerald necklace that Mirna told them about... But now they managed to locate Cragmaw Castle, and are about to start their raid on it, which is nicely according to the story progression suggested in the scenario.