New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
by Mike on 14 August 2017
This article was last updated 22 May 2021.
This article provides a guide to the official fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons hardback adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. Descriptions of these large campaign adventures are ordered by my preference and recommendations, from top to bottom. Use this guide to decide which campaign adventures may work best for your group. Each adventure description includes some DM tips and further references for each adventure.
For a video on this topic, check out my video on Ranking WOTC's D&D Published Campaign Adventures.
Published adventures are amazing resources for our D&D games. Even if you don't run them as written, they provide a tremendous value of material you can use in your own games.
I'll update this article as Wizards of the Coast releases new D&D adventures and once I've had a chance to play them. Note that I'm not including a few adventures that don't really fit the larger campaign style of the others such as Candlekeep Mysteries, Tales from the Yawning Portal, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage.
If you enjoy published adventures, please take a look at Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot. This book has ten easy-to-prep adventures for 1st through 5th level set in the vast chambers of Blackclaw Mountain wherein lies an ancient alien sentience known as the Grendleroot.
You might also take a look at my book on D&D game prep, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master which helps with prep for both homebrew campaigns and published campaigns like those below.
All published adventures need work to best support your game. Few DMs run published adventures without modifying them to fit their own style and the desires of their group. Adventure writers know this and recommend it. I have yet to talk to any adventure designer who does not expect and recommend that groups tailor published adventure for their group.
Here are some quick tips for getting the most out of the adventures described below:
The first published D&D adventure is also the best one so far. Lost Mine of Phandelver is included in the affordable D&D Starter Set and provides an excellent entry point into D&D. Lost Mine of Phandelver presents four chapters each of which run roughly four hours. The adventure takes characters from 1st to 5th level and the Starter Set includes pre-generated characters with all of the material needed to level them up right on the character sheet. Years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is still my personal favorite.
DM Requirements. Phandelver requires little preparation to run. 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 adventure-specific hooks already so take note of those before you run it. Above all, be nice at 1st level. The first part of this adventure can be lethal for 1st level characters if you're not careful. Level the characters to 2nd level after their first confrontation with the goblins and before they go to the goblin caves in chapter 1.
In the Fall of 2019, Wizards of the Coast released the D&D Essentials Kit which includes a new 1st to 6th level adventure designed for new dungeon masters. The box contains a slew of excellent D&D accessories including dice, maps, item cards, initiative cards, companion characters, and rules for running D&D with as few as one player and one dungeon master. Further, the box includes access to three follow-on adventures available through D&D Beyond to take the campaign from 1st to 13th level.
The adventure contains more than a dozen quests all offered through a central job board in Phandalin. It's an easy way for characters to grab a quest and go on an adventure. Since this adventure takes place in the town of Phandalin, just like Lost Mine of Phandelver, you can run the two adventures side-by-side for a rich campaign with lots of choices and opportunities.
DM Requirements. Be careful with 1st level characters in this adventure. The low-level adventures all include deadly foes for 1st level characters including ochre jellies, a manticore, and wererats. Feel free to replace these monsters with similar but more reasonable monsters like gray oozes, bandits, thugs, and others. In the case of the manticore, steer it towards a roleplaying encounter and weaken the manticore with wounds from the white dragon. Reduce its hit points and remove or reduce its spined tail attack.
An adventure with a huge legacy, Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in the 1983 classic, i6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full 1st to 10th level D&D 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 into Castle Ravenloft and face the devil Strahd. 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". Of all of the hardback campaign adventures, Curse of Strahd is definitely my favorite and I am not alone.
DM Requirements: To run this adventure effectively, you'll want to continually weave the threads and hooks 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, one who starts out curious about the characters and only later becomes hostile, once they've proven more than he can handle. Make sure that, with the Sunsword and Icon of Ravenloft in hand, Strahd still proves a challenging villain.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh presents seven individual adventures tied together into a single seaside campaign taking characters from 1st to 10th level. Though these adventures aren't directly connected, the book includes a campaign thread you can weave throughout all seven adventures. Running these adventures as a campaign alternates between focused seaside adventures and a larger political plot going on in the town of Saltmarsh. It makes for a fun gameplay switch involving a fair bit of downtime activities on one side and seafaring adventuring on the other. The book also includes a wonderful regional description of Greyhawk's southern coastline above the Azure sea and an appendix packed with alternative adventure locations and rules for ship combat. The appendix alone is worth it if you plan to run seafaring adventures. Though packaged as seven independent classic adventures, Ghosts of Saltmarsh makes for a wonderful campaign.
DM Requirements. A solid session zero helps players integrate their characters into Saltmarsh and the future adventures they share here. If running as a campaign, you'll want to spend time between each session understanding how the Scarlet Brotherhood plot plays out. This plot is great fun but can go in many different directions given the actions of the characters. DMs can also incorporate a larger Tharizdun-based story that ties The Styes and Tammeraut's Fate to the earlier adventures. DMs will want to tune and reskin individual adventures around this plot as their campaigns unfold. You'll also want to spend some time digging into the appendix and dropping hooks that could draw the characters to the three additional adventure locations. This gives the whole campaign a sandbox feel instead of a linear drive through the seven adventures.
Tomb of Annihilation takes our adventurers into the unexplored jungles of Chult in the southern Forgotten Realms. ToA keeps the characters tied to the Forgotten Realms but still gives them a mostly unexplored setting. The design of this adventure is excellent and easily broken down into component parts to slide into our own campaigns if we choose. 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.
Tomb of Annihilation works very well as a full campaign. The growing threat of the death curse, the mysteries of the ruins in Chult, the political intrigue in Port Nyanzaru, the micro-setting of Omu, and the deadly threats in the Tomb of Annihilation all bring high adventure to our characters for hundreds of hours of gameplay.
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.
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.
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 press of a button. I recommend removing 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.
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 thwart 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. During the adventure the characters travel 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 into something else.
These two adventures have a great overall story but require a fair bit of work to build into a great campaign. Be ready to customize the adventure to fit the directions and drive of your own group.
DM Requirements. Find ways to give the players options outside of 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 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.
Of all of the campaign adventures, Storm King's Thunder has the widest scope. Taking place all along the northern Sword Coast, this campaign adventure feels more like a campaign setting than a traditional adventure. It is built loosely so each DM who runs it is likely to run it much differently than any other.
Because of this, Storm King's Thunder is more difficult to run than other campaign adventures. This book doesn't 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 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 widespread 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 suffers from not being particularly relevant to the characters. Yes, the giants are in upheaval because their orderly stack-rank, called the Ordening, has mysteriously disappeared, but so what? Why do characters care? 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.
It is almost better to think of Storm King's Thunder as a campaign setting along with the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. DMs can use them to thread their own campaigns together just as easily as running the one outlined in this book.
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 can be the prime driver in this 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 Tales of the Yawning Portal and let the characters go where they feel like going. 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 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 1st through 5th level instead of the larger level ranges 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 makes it ideal for groups that want a shorter and more focused adventure. 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. It also means a lot of the material in the book isn't likely to come up in your game. For example, the book includes four villain lairs that actually have no hook from the main adventure and would likely end up deadly if attempted.
Dragon Heist includes a fantastic short description of the city of Waterdeep written from the perspective of Volothamp Geddarm called Volo's Waterdeep Encheridion. 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 being called "Dragon Heist", characters don't really engage in a heist. Instead, they investigate 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.
Chapter 1 and 3 of this adventure run well as-is but chapters 2 and 4 require work on behalf of the DM to run smoothly. The open-ended nature of chapter 2 requires tuning from the DM to tie it closely to the motivations of the characters while chapter 4, presented as a chase, works best as a longer and less frustrating investigation.
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. This isn't a book full of a bunch of boring caves. We have entire underground industrial cities swamped in pollution. We have a vast lake within which great horrors stir. 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 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.
Rime of the Frostmaiden is set in the far north of the Sword Coast, in an icy land above the Spine of the World known as Icewind Dale. An endless night has fallen over the land for two years and the people are suffering. Sacrifices are being made to the goddess Auril, the Frostmaiden, hoping to appease her wrath but she does not listen.
Rime of the Frostmaiden took me a lot of work to wrangle into a fun campaign for my group. Like Descent into Avernus the tone is easy to screw up, leading the players to say "why would we help people who are busy murdering their own citizens?". The book offers dozens of cool adventure locations with few deep hooks to take characters through them. There's a large imbalance in the difficulty of encounters, some far too hard at lower levels and some far too easy at higher levels.
DM Requirements. Start the characters in Bryn Shander with the Foaming Mugs quest. It's a great 1st level quest and few of the other "starter" quests are survivable at 1st level. Ensure players build their characters around the goal of working together with the people of Ten Towns to survive the endless night otherwise it can feel like an aimless crawl through meaningless adventures. Add a Cult of Auril to take blame for the sacrifices of Ten Towns. This adds a nice villain that can't simply be defeated in combat because half the people in Ten Towns think they're the saviors. Take careful control of the quests in front of the characters. Ensure you're giving them options but still driving direction to the parts of the adventure you want to run.
Princes of the Apocalypse is a single campaign adventure set in the Dessarin Valley of the Sword Coast and pays homage to the classic adventure Temple of Elemental Evil. Like other campaign adventures it has an introductory adventure that gets characters to 3rd level and then begins with the main story of the campaign.
Princes is set up as a sandbox, with many avenues to explore and many ruins to dig into. Princes has two problems, 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 4th through 7th level while each connected dungeon is tuned for 8th through 11th level. Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a 4th level dungeon to an 8th level dungeon with just a few steps.
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 somewhat of 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" result 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 characters between each of the four cults.
Descent into Avernus takes characters from the doors of Baldur's Gate to the first layer of the nine hells. The characters must find a way to save the city of Elturel from the massive chains that bind it into place. Along the way they meet scavengers roaring across the wastelands between armies of demons and devils waging eternal war in hell. The characters must choose which evil they wish to ally with in order to save the city.
DM Requirements: Descent into Avernus takes more work to hammer into an excellent adventure than other larger hardcovers. The adventure doesn't have a clear theme up front and choosing the wrong theme can steer the characters away from the motivation to play the rest of the adventure.
Like any adventure, though, it can be salvaged and recast into a solid adventure if organized carefully. Many supplementary guides, adventures, and accessories exist on the DM's Guild to bang this adventure into shape. It's a beautiful well-produced book but the adventure itself is flawed and takes work to maximize it's potential.
Here are seven tips for running Descent into Avernus:
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