by Mike Shea on 14 August 2017
This article will provide a guide to the official fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. They are ordered in my own order of preference, from top to bottom. I intend for this article to help guide DMs who want a brief look at each of the D&D campaigns and offer links for further resources to run them.
Published adventures are amazing resources for out D&D games. Even if you don't run them as written, they provide a tremendous value of material you can use many different ways. Even when running your own campaign, these published adventures have a lot of material you can pilfer instead of building everything yourself. Stay lazy.
I'll update this article as Wizards of the Coast releases new D&D adventures and once I've had a chance to actually run them. Use this guide to help you decide where best to spend your time and the time of your players as you run your D&D games.
The first published D&D adventure also ends up being the best one so far. Lost Mine of Phandelver is included in the affordable D&D Starter Set and provides an excellent view into what D&D is all about. Lost Mine of Phandelver is presented in four chapters each of which will run roughly four hours. The adventures takes characters from level 1 to level 5 and the Starter Set includes pre-generated characters with all of the leveling up included right on the character sheet. Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.
DM Requirements: Very little. Like any D&D adventure, do what you can to integrate the desires of the players and the backgrounds of the characters into the game. The pre-generated characters include some adventure-specific hooks already so take note of those before you run it. Oh, and be nice to them at level 1. The first part of this adventure can be lethal for level 1s if you're not careful. Consider leveling them to two before they go to the goblin caves in chapter 1.
An adventure with a huge legacy, the 5th edition adventure Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in the 1983 classic, i6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full campaign. Instead of rethinking the adventure from scratch, this adventure keeps the original intact and adds new interesting and creepy places for our characters to explore before they head to the castle. Of all of the published campaigns, this one is the most solid, with a clear motivation and excellent locations.
Curse of Strahd is a world unto itself, unlike any other world in D&D. It is less of a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy romp and more of a dark horror-themed adventure. If that's what you and your players are looking for, it's fantastic, but it isn't what I would consider a "traditional D&D experience".
DM Requirements: Keep the threads going that bring the characters from place to place. Make sure Strahd is in the characters' face throughout the whole adventure. Run him as a true supervillain. Make sure, with the Sunsword and Icon of Ravenloft in hand, that they can't just kick his ass when they finally face him in the castle.
Tomb of Annihilation takes our adventures into the unexplored jungles of Chult in the southern Forgotten Realms. ToH keeps the characters tied to the Forgotten Realms but still gives them a mostly unknown setting to explore. The design of this adventure is excellent and easily broken down into its component parts to slide into our own campaigns. We can use Port Nyanzaru on its own as a miniature city campaign setting. Chapter 2 gives us more than a dozen small locations and lairs we could strip out and run as small one-shot adventures. While the city of Omu tends to tie close to the story, the final two chapters could be run as their own dungeon delves. I consider this adventure the most modular of the published adventures to date.
DM Requirements: Tomb of Annihilation has four problems DMs need to address when running it:
There is no introductory adventure. You can use the very popular Cellar of Death by James Introcaso or roll your own small adventure to introduce it. I used a session zero adventure of my own creation in which the characters hunted down the last Bhaalite priest (a cult fanatic) who knew of the death curse and that it was in the depths of Chult. That was enough to get us started.
Some NPCs can be a hassle when they join the group. Pay attention to which NPCs you want to join the party and have a good way to kick them to the curb when they become a problem. Some guides aren't worth the trouble and Artus Cimber and Dragonbait can quickly eclipse the characters in their raw combat power.
As written, the Death Curse is too urgent. Don't describe the daily decay of resurrected folk and instead describe the death curse more abstractly so you can use it as an urgency dial. Too aggressive and the characters won't want to explore. Too vague and they might forget about it entirely. Friend Teos Abadia wrote The Chultan Death Curse Revised an excellent product with options for scaling the Death Curse.
This is the biggest problem in my own playthrough. Once they reach the Tomb of the Nine Gods, the game becomes much more deadly. Players who have watched their characters grow for nine levels during their explorations of Chult might watch them die with a single button press. My best suggestion is to remove the instant-death components from the deadly traps and hazards in the tomb and instead replace them with permanent injuries from the Dungeon Master's Guide.
Even with these four problems, I still found Tomb of Annihilation to be my favorite hardback published adventure just behind Curse of Strahd.
Out of the Abyss is described as a dark version of Alice in Wonderland. Moreso than any other adventure I've played, Out of the Abyss captures the high fantasy of the underdark. It isn't just a bunch of caves. We have entire underground cities swamped in pollution. We have a vast lake with great horrors beneath its depths. We have a huge grove of luminescent sentient fungi. Out of the Abyss, like Curse of Strahd, is a sandbox of sandboxes, with many large areas open for exploration above and dungeons below tied together with a loose framework of a storyline, the first half of which is easily described with a single word: "escape".
Out of the Abyss starts off with the characters imprisoned and enslaved by Drow, a beginning that might not resonate well with all players or DMs. It's worth discussing this before you decide to run it just to ensure people are on board. The earliest levels of Out of the Abyss feel much more like a survival horror game than a fantasy roleplaying game. The search for food, clean water, and decent weapons dominates the first two or three levels. Eventually, the characters find enough resources to get on with their larger explorations into the mystery of the arrival of the demon princes.
I never did play the second half of Out of the Abyss so this description and recommendation come from playing through the first half.
DM Requirements: Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the underdark. Read chapter 7 early so you have some idea where chapters 2 to 6 are eventually headed. Enjoy and play up the truly alien and fantastic nature of the underdark.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat were the first two hardback adventures published for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Together they build a truly epic campaign in which the characters go to war against a newly risen sect of the Cult of the Dragon and their attempt to bring Tiamat, the goddess of chromatic dragons, to Faerun. These adventures begin with a town under siege, a new trope quickly becoming as common as meeting up in a bar. The adventure has the characters traveling all along the Sword Coast from Greenist, a town south-east of Baldur's Gate, all the way up to Waterdeep. One chapter in particular has the characters traveling nearly a thousand miles all built around a relatively delicate ruse as caravan guards that smart players might easily miss, avoid, or turn around into something else.
These two adventures have a great overall story but require a fair bit of work from the Dungeon Master to build into a great campaign. In particular, a few battles in the adventure were written before fifth edition monsters were put down on paper so the battles can be terribly one-sided against the characters.
DM Requirements: Find ways to give the players options outside the railroad in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Ensure the characters have some good ties and backgrounds to the NPCs. Is one of the characters a cousin of a villain? Be ready to come up with multiple reasons and multiple ways the characters will make their way from Greenest to Waterdeep. It's a long journey and the book only gives one narrow path to get there. Be ready to come up with your own. Rebalance some of the encounters like the vampire in the floating castle later in Hoard of the Dragon Queen.
Of all of the campaign adventures, few are wider in scope than Storm King's Thunder. Taking place all along the northern Sword Coast, this campaign adventure feels more like a campaign setting than a traditional adventure. It is built very loosely so each DM who runs it is likely to run it much differently than any other.
Because of this, I consider it to be more difficult to run than any other campaign adventure. This book does not hold your hand. You'll have to make a lot of choices and do a lot of work to build a cohesive story for your group when you run this adventure.
The adventure also offers multiple pathways at certain points so its unlikely any single group will be able to use every chapter from the book. For example, after the excellent introductory adventure, the DM is offered three choices for the adventurers' next path. This means they're not likely to see the other two.
Chapter 3 of this adventure is 46 pages containing information on 164 individual locations, each with potential hooks. This feels more like a miniature campaign setting than a chapter in an adventure and puts a lot on the shoulders of the DM to build a cohesive story in between chapter 2 and chapter 4. The wide-spread nature of this chapter might be useful for some but for others (like me) it makes the adventure more difficult to run.
The overall storyline of the plight of the giants also suffers from not being that relevant to the characters. Yes, the giants are in upheaval because their orderly stack-rank, called the Ordening, has mysteriously disappeared, but why do characters really care? So what? That's something each DM needs to make important.
Of all of the adventures, short of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, this adventure gives us the most straight forward campaign set along the Sword Coast and the North. It gives us a nice widespread campaign with lots of room for DMs and players to explore what they want to explore.
One great bit if fun is making this the five-year sequel to Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. Iymrith's motivation to get revenge against the cities of the Sword Coast for their victory over her dragon queen is a fun way to drive the adventure.
DM Requirements: Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on. Mix this adventure up with adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse or Yawning Portal and let the characters go where they feel. Tie the characters to a single faction and let that faction guide their interests and motivations to deal with the giant threat. Read through chapter 3 and note the areas that catch your interest. Only pick a few of these and don't feel like your game needs to spend a month wandering around the North.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist is a very different kind of adventure than the others in this list. The scope of Dragon Heist is much tighter than the other big epic spanning adventures like Storm King's Thunder or Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Dragon Heist covers only levels 1 through 5 instead of the larger 1 to 12 or even 1 to 16 of other adventures and can probably be played out in 16 to 32 hours instead of the hundreds of hours of the bigger ones. This puts the dollar per hour of this adventures higher than the others but for many people, a shorter adventure is preferred. It can be hard to get people to commit to a year-long campaign adventure but a shorter adventure might perfectly fit the lives of busy people.
Dragon Heist also includes a fantastic short description of the city of Waterdeep written from the perspective of Volothamp Geddarm. It's a great description to get a DM's mind deep into the city of splendors.
DM Requirements. In my experience, this adventure works best as a stand-alone small campaign. Players will likely have the most fun with new characters built to engage in the investigations throughout the adventure. Investigation and roleplaying are the key pillars in this adventure. Despite the name of the adventure, characters won't really engage in a heist. Instead, they'll be investigating a heist that took place five years past near the end of Rise of Tiamat. I also recommend building in the expectation that these characters won't continue on beyond Dragon Heist. There's a good chance they could end up rich and rich characters are hard to put back deep into the depths of some horrible dungeon.
That said, this adventure fits nicely against the level 5 to 20 dungeon adventure, Dungeon of the Mad Mage. If you play it right and if your players are happy diving into a twenty-three level megadungeon, it might work out just fine.
Princes of the Apocalypse is a single campaign adventure set in the Dessarin Valley and pays homage to the classic adventure Temple of Elemental Evil. Like other campaign adventures it has an intro adventure that gets characters to level 3 and then begins with the story. Prince is set up as a sandbox, with many avenues to explore and many ruins to dig into. Princes has two problems, however, though neither is insurmountable. First, if characters aren't careful, they can definitely "dig too deep", going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered. Each upper dungeon is tuned roughly for levels 4 to 7) while each connected dungeon is tuned for levels 8 to 11. Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth level dungeon to an eighth level dungeon with just a few steps.
This might be fine for some groups who prefer that the world does not conform to the level of the characters. There are two ways we can handle this. First, we can simply telegraph to the players that they might be heading into an area with dangers that are beyond their capability. Simply saying "you feel you have entered an area beyond your capability" is usually enough of a telegraph. Second, we can lock parts of the dungeon with doors and keys that only become available when the characters are ready for the challenge. This turns the sandbox into a railroad but that might be fine for you and your players. The choice is yours.
The second problem comes with the thin storyline of Princes. It starts off as a missing persons adventure but actually keeping track of who got lost and where they ended up gets a bit loose throughout the adventure. It's up to the DM to tie the threads together so that characters have a clear motivation for going from one place to the next.
Still, Princes is a nice solid D&D adventure with a lot of dungeons, interesting NPCs, and some fun battles. If one is looking for a nice traditional D&D sandbox campaign, this is a fine one to consider.
DM Requirements: It's up to you to fill in the blanks when it comes to tracking down the lost expedition. You can only dangle the "sorry, your dwarven explorer is in another dungeon!" so many times before players get frustrated. Consider whether or not to lock the more difficult dungeons or ensure you tell your players that there are areas beyond their capabilities if they explore too deep. Outline strong hooks that take the charactes between each of the four cults.
Tales of the Yawning Portal is a very different hardback book than the other adventures Wizards of the Coast has released for D&D 5e. Instead of being part of a large campaign, Yawning Portal* contains seven classic adventures updated for D&D 5e. These include:
Because it is very easy to convert old adventures to 5e, this book may not be that useful for those who already have the original adventures. The book does contain new maps and new art, however, along with updated stat blocks for certain monsters and updated DCs and damage output levels. For those seeking a set of individual and traditional D&D adventures this is the perfect book. It's a great book to have on hand when one wants to insert particular dungeons in the middle of a campaign. For example, one can stick White Plume Mountain right in the middle of a Storm King's Thunder or Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign.
DM Requirements: Find ways to insert these dungeons into your ongoing campaigns. Fill them with character-relevant bits of backstory. Ensure you run otherwise boring rooms full of orcs as a single organic area in which orcs can move around and get alerted. Be ready to cut off parts of the dungeons you don't like or think will bore the players. Enjoy the old-school feel!