by Mike Shea on 14 August 2017
This article was last updated 24 September 2019.
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 in my own order of preference, 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.
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.
This article will be updated as new Wizards of the Coast D&D adventures are released and once I've had a chance to play 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.
If you love 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 some work. Few dungeon masters run published adventures without modifying them to fit their own style and the desires of their group. Adventure writers know this and embrace 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:
In the Fall of 2019, Wizards of the Coast released the D&D Essentials Kit which includes a new 1st to 6th level mini-campaign 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 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 entry point into D&D. Lost Mine of Phandelver is presented in four chapters each of which will 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 very 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 to them at 1st level. The first part of this adventure can be lethal for 1st level characters if you're not careful. Consider leveling them to 2nd level after their first confrontation with the goblins and 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 1st to 10th level Ravenloft 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 favoritea and I am not alone.
DM Requirements: To run this adventure effectivly, you'll want to continually weave the threads 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 hostile, when they prove 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 is presented as a series of four individual nautical adventures spread throughout a three-part series focused on the seaside village of Saltmarsh. The adventure takes characters from 1st to 12th level throughout these adventure and, while not always directly connected, the book includes a campaign thread that 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 seafairing 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. Though packaged as seven independent classic adventures, Ghosts of Saltmarsh makes for a wonderful seafairing campaign.
DM Requirements. A solid session zero will help players integrate their characters into Saltmarsh and the adventures they will share here. If running as a campaign, DMs will want to spend some time between each session understanding how the Scarlet Brotherhood plotline plays out. This plotline is great fun but can go in many different directions given the actions of the characters. DMs will want to tune and reskin individual adventures around this plotline as it unfolds.
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. I consider this adventure the most modular of the published adventures to date.
Tomb of Annihilation works very well as a full campaign as well. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. Durig 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. In particular, a few battles in the adventure were written before fifth edition monsters were fully designed so the battles can be terribly one-sided against the characters.
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 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 loosely so each DM who runs it is likely to run it much differently than any other.
Because of this, Storm King's Thunder may be more difficult to run than any other campaign adventure. 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 also 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 together their own campaigns 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 levels 1 through 5 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.
Dragon Heist also 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 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.
Chapter 1 and 3 of this adventure run well as-is but chapters 2 and 4 will require some 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.
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 3rd level and then begins with the story. 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 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 the fifth edition of D&D. Instead of being part of a large campaign, Yawning Portal contains seven classic adventures updated for fifth edition. These include:
For those seeking a set of individual and traditional stand-alone D&D adventures this is the perfect book. It's a great book to have on hand when you want 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 as a single organic area in which monsters 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!
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