We are now seven years into 5th edition, and, on average, Wizards of the Coast have put out two hardback adventures a year. It’s great to have these on your bookshelf, and there’s a lot to be gained from pilfering them for maps and story ideas.
For this post, I’ve gone back through my ten favourite published adventures and tried to rank them from least to most favourite. To be clear: they are all good. But some are better than others, either because they are more imaginative, or easier to run, or because the level of challenge is just right. Choosing your favourite adventures is inevitably a matter of personal choice, and I’m sure my ranking will provoke disagreement. Feel free to sound off in the comments.
Without further ado :
10. Out of the Abyss (2015)
A number of reviewers have compared this Underdark adventure to a survival horror game, and you can see why, particularly at low levels, which are brutal by design. The biggest strength of this adventure is the Underdark as a setting. It’s weird and dark and wonderful, and the adventure very much embraces the sandbox. The final boss fight is fantastic fun, too.
Even better ifs: The hook (‘you’re captured by drow’) is very weak and has rightly come in for criticism, and bits of the adventure feel a bit messy and disconnected. Expect to do some work if you want to DM it.
9. Storm King’s Thunder (2016)
I hesitated with this one. Maybe it deserves to be higher. A friend of mine had a go at running this adventure for our group, and he had a really hard time. Reading the adventure myself afterward, I can see why. In some ways, it reads more like a campaign setting than an adventure, and that might be how I’d recommend running it. The giants can be an ongoing event in the background, rather like the Oblivion Gates in Oblivion or the dragons in Skyrim, and the players can interact with them as much or as little as they like. If you like the idea of a loose sandbox with some fun adventure locations, Storm King’s Thunder might scratch an itch. But if you want a clear, structured story, or you’re a new DM, I would steer well clear of this one.
Even better ifs: The opening adventure is weak and rather forgetable. If you want to run SKT, skip it. The scope is vast, which means lots of gaps to be filled in. Players are often expected to do things with poor motivation for doing so (eg, ‘please travel 600 miles across Faerûn to Bryn Shander to deliver some sad news because I tell you to’). Players have little reason to care about some of the lore, either.
8. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage (2018)
This is a big, sprawling, old school dungeon crawl: 23 levels, each with its own unique setting and characters, covering the gamut from Tier 2 to Tier 4. So far, this is the only official adventure designed to reach 20th level, and the adventure assumes the DM and the players knows what they’re doing. Most of the maps are deliberately minimalist, with unfinished sections for you to add to, should you wish.
Even better ifs: This kind of play isn’t for everyone, but if you’re not too fussed about a big, over-arching story and you just want to explore dungeons and pick up sick loot, you’ll be happy here. To save on space, most of the rooms aren’t described, so the DM has to improvise on the fly. The sheer scope of this adventure might be overwhelming for less experienced groups.
7. Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden (2020)
Frostmaiden is a richly detailed sandbox with some cool set-piece encounters and a fantastic setting. The adventure is brimful of material, and players should feel free to roam where they like. The addition of ‘secrets’ for player characters is an interesting way of creating a sense of paranoia within the party.
Even better ifs: Structurally, it’s a bit all over the place, and as with Out of the Abyss, you may have a fair bit of work to do if you want to DM it. Tonally it’s a bit inconsistent, too, and it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity as far as the horror element is concerned. Some of the adventure hooks are better than others, and some of the links between areas are weak. You want to consider safety tools when you run Frostmaiden, too, as there are some darker elements that have the potential to be really quite upsetting.
6. Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus (2019)
I stole quite liberally from this adventure for my Rise of Zargon campaign, and I’m glad I did so. Avernus is filled with really cool adventure ideas, and if you want something a bit ‘metal’, look no further. There’s a nice story thread running through the module, and Lulu the hollyphant is an excellent character. As with Tomb of Annihilation (see below), it’s good to get away from the Sword Coast North, and the setting is fantastically vivid.
Even better ifs: The adventure as a whole has the potential to be rather railroady, and some players might need a stronger hook for descending into the Nine Hells. Avernus as a setting could get a bit bleak and depressing after a while, and some of the encounters are pretty challenging (the final boss is CR 26). The infernal war machines aren’t as fun to run as you might expect, and the gratuitous gore and grossness of the setting might be a bit much for some people.
5. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (2018)
A good friend of mine took over the DMing for this one, and I had a lot of fun. Waterdeep is a great urban setting and is richly described in the adventure. It’s fun to play an adventure that’s more event-based than site-based: you really have the sense that you can go anywhere and do anything.
Even better ifs: As written, the adventure assumes that you pick a season and one of four major NPCs to be the villain. This is simpler, perhaps, but it would be far more fun to have all four NPCs involved, and that’s exactly how my friend did it. This is a shorter adventure than most of the others in this list, and it’s likely to all be over by 5th level. Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess, and the ending is quite lacklustre, so to make up for it, I highly recommend the Alexandrian remix. It’s also a shame that the adventure doesn’t link up more cohesively with Mad Mage. They couldn’t be more different. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Dragon Heist isn’t really a heist . . .
4. Ghosts of Saltmarsh (2019)
The first hardback adventure to step outside the Forgotten Realms, Saltmarsh hearkens back to some of D&D’s oldest and most enduring adventures. In fact, all of the adventures in this module have been published elsewhere. Unlike Tales from the Yawning Portal, however, which makes minimal effort to link its parts together, Saltmarsh is a complete campaign, and the adventures are nicely linked together. It even suggests ways to incorporate the adventures from Yawning Portal, so if you own both books, you have enough material to keep you going for months.
Even better ifs: This is more of a sandbox than a linear campaign, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Linking the different adventures together requires a bit of work from the DM and could be a headache.
3. Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014)
The central adventure of the D&D Starter Set and the first official adventure for 5e D&D, and still one of the best! It will also be the introductory adventure for many newcomers to the game, and I can think of few better ways to start. Lost Mine of Phandelver is solid, fun, and easy to run. For many players, it encapsulates perfectly what D&D is all about. If you’re a new DM and don’t want to write your own material, start here. Dragon of Icespire Peak in the D&D Essentials Kit is OK, but wasn’t as memorable somehow. You could always combine the two.
Even better ifs: The opening encounter is infamously deadly, and there are a couple of others of extremely challenging fights throughout the adventure (curse you, Klarg!). The NPCs are a bit forgetable and benefit from a bit of DM creativity. The main villain is particularly weak. For experienced players, the setting might prove a bit vanilla.
2. Tomb of Annihilation (2017)
I DMed ToA about a year after it was released and had a lot of fun doing so. Chult is a fantastic setting, and it’s a breath of fresh air to finally get away from the Sword Coast North. There’s a lot of humour in this adventure (Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time was a consultant), and I’m a big fan of the puzzles (of which there are many). I nearly put this in first place.
Even better ifs: As written, the opening hook is terrible. Make your own. It’s a shame that Chult is such a fantastic sandbox, and yet the Death Curse pushes groups to race through it. You end up with lots of loose ends that the players never tie up. The tag-along NPCs, Artus and Dragonbait, don’t add much. Meat Grinder Mode is brutal, and constant character death can become a bit of a downer after a while.
1. Curse of Strahd (2016)
A firm fan favourite, yet I agonized about putting this first. I’ve DMed it twice, and I love it, but it’s not without its issues. I worry that it is in danger of being overhyped. And yet . . . it really is great. It’s an excellent balance between story and sandbox, with fantastic locations and memorable NPCs. The Tarokka deck gives the adventure tons of replayability, and even after two complete playthroughs, there are still adventure sites I’ve yet to run. The intro adventure, ‘Death House’, is also very good. Curse of Strahd brought me back to D&D after a hiatus of nearly a decade, and I’m glad it did.
Even better ifs: Some of the encounters are far too deadly (coffin shop and Old Bonegrinder, I’m looking at you). The layout could be improved: there are important plot points that are buried at the end of a chapter. Strahd, the final enemy, is laughably easy. Some uncomfortable themes need better signposting.
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