A Guide to Official DnD 5e Adventures
Published on September 16, 2020, Last modified on March 21st, 2021
Update Sept 16. 2020 – Added Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden review
What are Adventures?
Adventures typically come in the form of 256-page hardcover books that can be purchased anywhere from $30-$60. Adventures come with a story for the DM to run for a party of 4-6 players. The stories are accompanied by a breakdown of the NPCs, locations, and monsters that players will encounter on their run through the adventure.
When getting into the world of D&D, newer players and DMs often look to the adventures published by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) to introduce them to the world of D&D. Some of the adventures listed below are great for newcomers, while others are not. We have rated the adventures based on their difficulty to DM and play through to help figure out whether or not the adventure will be right for your table.
Which adventure Should I Play?
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden takes place in Icewind, a northern region of the Sword Coast in the Forgotten Realms. As you may have guessed from the title and artwork, this adventure takes place in a frigid environment. This means that players will be dealing with surviving in the environment as much as they will be in combat.
The adventure is split into two main segments, the starting levels where adventures explore the Ten Towns (1st – 6th Level), and the “real adventure” segment (7th – 12th Level).
The first segment is an open sandbox type setting where players will travel between the Ten Towns and complete quests for different NPCs. These quests are well designed to help establish these characters in the early days of adventuring in this area. This segment culminates with the players saving the Ten Towns from an entity hellbent on destroying it.
The second segment works through three primary areas: Auril’s isle, the Caves of Hunger, and the crashed remains of one of the floating cities of ancient Nether. The culmination of this segment pits the players against the force that is imposing eternal night on the area and, hopefully, saving the day.
This adventure has already been praised as one of the most well-written, well-paced, and unique 5e adventures to date.
- Two entry points, one at 1st-level, one between 4th and 6th-level.
- Encounters include much more than just combat. Players are rewarded for being quick-witted, clever, and thinking outside the box during combat.
- The story contains multiple branching decision points so players don’t feel railroaded and even includes multiple endings based on the decisions of the players.
- The well-structured description of the different areas of Icewind can provide DMs a “campaign setting” for Icewind to go off of if they don’t plan on following the story.
- Survival and traveling between areas of the Ten Towns can become quite cumbersome.
- The final act of the 1st segment is an extremely difficult fight with serious ramifications if the party even slightly fails.
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus takes our players from the iconic city of Baldur’s Gate to the first layer of the Nine Hells, Avernus.
The Baldur’s Gate portion of the campaign is relatively short, even though it contains about 30 pages of backstory on the city. The party starts in Baldur’s Gate, gets sent on a fetch quest-based introduction to the story, and then they move on. After the Baldur’s Gate chapter, our players are sent to Avernus in order to stop the chaos that is leaking out of the Nine Hells onto the Material Plane.
- Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus contains an awesome amount of information regarding Baldur’s Gate and Avernus which makes this book a good pick-up even if you primarily homebrew your material. The book also introduces vehicles called Infernal Machines as well as providing guidance on making deals with devils and demons.
- The Adventure is straight forward and doesn’t dawdle like some adventures tend to do
- The part with the city of Elturel is particularly awesome.
- The adventure is very much a long fetch quest. Players meet an NPC and the NPC tells them to go to a location and get/do a thing.
- The section of the adventure in Baldur’s Gate is uninspired, especially when taking into consideration how much effort was put into outlining the history, geography, and political structure.
- The culmination of the adventure is very much about a particular NPC, rather than our heroes
For a more in-depth Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus review click here.
Dragons of Icespire Peak
Dragons of Icespire Peak is included in the D&D Essentials Set, along with a set of dice, a DM screen, and an abbreviated rule book. This adventure is widely regarded to be weaker than the Lost Mines of Phandelver, another “starter kit” type product.
The book outlines a situation in which a young white dragon has taken up roost in a location around Phandelver. The players then begin their story in the town of Phandelver, where they are expected to set out completing quests off of a job board. Once the jobs are done, a couple of side quests open up to give players a chance to further level up. None of these sidequests explicitly lead the party to Icespire Hold, the location of the young white dragon, but there are options to help guide your party towards the dragon when they are ready to fight it.
- While hard to loop into the story, the job board provides short, well-structured one-session adventures.
- There is plenty of player agency and non-linear storytelling.
- 1st level characters are extremely easy to kill by accident. This module pits 1st level characters against some pretty nasty foes including a CR 3 Manticore.
- The beginning of the campaign has an extremely weak plot hook that newer DMs might struggle with.
- There is no definitive, overarching plot that brings the party to the BBEG’s (a young white dragon) lair.
Similar to Tales of the Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh isn’t exactly an Adventure, but instead a collection of adventures from earlier editions of D&D that have been modified for the 5th Edition. Ghosts of Saltmarsh also contains a ton of really helpful information around using Saltmarsh as a campaign location, as well as rules for ships and sea travel, deck plans for various vessels, and an appendix with rules for new and classic monsters.
- The adventures in this book are all proven classics, adapted from earlier editions of D&D.
- The adventures and nautical mechanics are very easy to fit into other long-term campaigns, so even if you aren’t planning on running an entire campaign around Saltmarsh the book can be very useful.
- The book comes with some pretty good advice and ideas on how you can flesh out the story and give it an overarching narrative, but doing so will require a good amount on the DM’s end.
- If you go purely by what is written in the adventures then the book becomes nothing more than a series of loosely connected side quests.
- Some adventures (namely The Final Enemy) have a pretty weak finale.
- The RAW (rules as written) for nautical combat leave a lot to be imagined.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
Dungeon of the Mad Mage picks up where Waterdeep Dragon Heist drops off. The two adventures do not share a whole lot of plot, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is more of a setting extension that starts off in Waterdeep, but mainly takes place in the mega-dungeon of Undermountain. When we say “mega-dungeon” we mean the mega.
This sourcebook is very little other than a 23 level dungeon meant to put the limits of players to the test as they try to make a name for themselves and delve deeper than any adventurer has gone before.
- Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a set of 23 dungeons that interlink, each one is like a different world/experience so lots of interesting stuff to see and explore.
- While it is mainly a dungeon crawl, there are certainly a few hooks to draw players at least a couple of levels deep.
- If you are continuing on from Waterdeep Dragon Heist your players may have a lot of acquaintances built up in Waterdeep which are not involved in this campaign at all.
- At the end of the day, there is no real reason for the characters to be in the dungeon. If you are open to homebrewing an underlying story then Dungeon of the Mad Mage provides a solid framework of encounters. If you are hoping for a compelling story out of the box, Dungeon of the Mad Mage isn’t for you.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist
Waterdeep Dragon Heist, similarly to the Lost Mine of Phandelver, is a shortened campaign running characters from level 1 to level 5. This Adventure takes place entirely in the city of Waterdeep, one of D&D’s most recognizable locations. Wizards of the Coast calls Waterdeep “a sprawling melting pot held together by firm laws and swift justice”, which really holds true after reading the 256 page book devoted to fleshing the city out.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist’s title may be a bit misleading, as most people who see the title think that this Adventure would involve a heist. Some may be disappointed to learn that the heist actually happened close to 5 years prior and the players do a lot more investigating than heisting.
One of Waterdeep Dragon Heist’’s unique features is that there are 4 villains that DMs can choose to be the “main villain” of the story, while the other 3 take more of a backseat role.
- Waterdeep Dragon Heist has a number of interesting NPCs and good locations set out in the city of Waterdeep.
- It also has an intriguing premise, with the 4 different villains who can all impact the story in different ways.
- One of my biggest gripes with Waterdeep Dragon Heist is the fact that it devoted 60 pages of the book to describing each of the villains lairs in detail only to not take the players there at all.
- The whole 4 villain premise may have a semblance of replayability, but in truth, most of the Adventure isn’t affected by the villian that was chosen.
Tales of the Yawning Portal
Tales of the Yawning Portal isn’t exactly an Adventure, but considering its contents, it was included in this article. This book contains the framework of seven dungeons:
- The Sunless Citadel (Levels 1-3)
- The Forge of Fury (Levels 3-5)
- The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (Levels 5-7)
- White Plume Mountain (Level 8)
- Dead in Thay (Levels 9-11)
- Against the Giants (Levels 11-13)
- Tomb of Horrors (High Level)
These dungeons have all appeared in previously published D&D literature, so what Tales of the Yawning Portal has done is bring their mechanics into 5e and freshened up their concepts a bit.
All of the dungeons are very unique, ranging from a hack and slash murder fest in The Forge of Fury to a DM vs player type dungeon in Tomb of Horrors.
- The dungeons described in this book are very well created and are versatile enough to stick into any campaign or string them all together with a homebrewed story
- Honestly, this book does not have many cons. Tales of the Yawning Portal is a must-have supplementary resource for running some fun, engaging, and drastically different dungeons.
Storm King’s Thunder
Storm King’s Thunder takes the players back to the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms. The players are confronted with a staggeringly large world that is being torn apart by a giant civil war. Players are tasked to choose a side, make alliances with the giants, and eventually restore order before the entire region is crushed underfoot by the rampaging giants.
While we have taken a look at some other sandboxes so far in this article, none of them are quite as generous with their size or scale. Storm King’s Thunder covers the entirety of the Sword Coast region and includes information and hooks for 164 individual locations.
- Great balance of roleplay, exploration, and combat encounters.
- Awesomely open-ended world.
- The Giant Strongholds are extremely well built.
- Storm King’s Thunder works by simply providing locations and events that occur at these locations. It is very much up to the DM to link the locations together.
- The beginning of the Adventure doesn’t really include any good reasons for your players to be hooked into this Adventure.
- Giants are tricky to run combat encounters with. They have low action economy but could easily one-shot a player under level 6.
Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation is another departure from a typical high fantasy DnD setting. Mike Mearls, D&D’s lead designer, mentioned that the Tomb of Annilhation’s vibe was “Indiana Jones meets zombies”. This rings very true as the majority of the Adventure takes place in a deadly jungle surrounded by deadly fauna, dinosaurs, and ancient temples.
The Tomb of Annihilation module begins when it is discovered that a death curse has been placed on the land. The death curse causes the bodies of people that have been raised from the dead to slowly deteriorate. The party is pointed to the jungle peninsula of Chult as the source of the curse. Our adventurers are tasked with stopping the death curse by traveling into the jungle in order to find the cause of the evil magic.
- The creatures (aside from the undead) are alien enough to most adventures that they should regularly encounter new things, and some pretty cool stuff like unicorn bunnies, zombie T-Rexes, and killer jungle plants.
- Many things can happen due to the randomness of the encounters in the jungle. This allows for awesome replayability.
- Tomb of Annihilation is pretty dependant on the party to make their own fun once they have wound up in the jungle. If you’ve got an immersive party that’s into roleplay and playing it up a bit, it’ll be fine, but otherwise traveling around a hex grid will be tedious and boring.
- The final temple in Tomb of Annihilation has some pretty ruthless traps that can instakill players. I would recommend removing them or at least scaling them down a bit.
Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd is an ode to the classic standalone Adventure Ravenloft (1983) and certainly hits the mark. While not a traditional, Tolkien-esque D&D experience, Curse of Strahd features an awesome villain, a unique setting that provides great adventuring threads, and solid explorability.
Curse of Strahd takes place in the cursed demi-plane of Barovia where players are trapped until they finish the story. The landscape features many interesting places to explore and (potentially) finishes off with the iconic Ravenloft Castle. The whole module has a gothic horror feel and, thanks to the in-depth description of locations, NPCs, and monsters, creates an awesomely creepy atmosphere.
The Adventure centers around the most famous villain in D&D history, Count Strahd von Zarovich. In this tale, Strahd is a powerful vampire, a master necromancer, a skilled warrior, and the unquestioned ruler of the domain of Barovia.
- There are frequent hooks to direct players from one area to another or send adventures to key locations, which makes this a well-designed sandbox as it doesn’t rely on the players to just get curious or abandon plot hooks to see the most interesting locations.
- Unlike prior sandbox adventures, Curse of Strahd is fairly contained. The lands of Barovia only feature a couple of well built out locations so it is not overwhelming for DMs to prep or players to choose between locations.
- The story doesn’t allow for exploration outside of the small area provided for you to play in.
- The plot hooks in the first act are fairly weak. Extra DMing will be required to get your party invested in the campaign in the early stages.
- Most of the encounters with Strahd are left to the DMs discretion. This takes a solid understanding of how Strahd is supposed to be played. Without this, Strahd can come off as a lackluster character.
Out of the Abyss
Out of the Abyss follows the players as they escape a Drow prison, make their way out of the Underdark, spend some time on the surface, and finally head back into the Underdark to defeat some demon lords.
Out of the Abyss is truly all about the Underdark, providing amazing settings and inspiration that can be retained and reused in later campaigns. You get introduced to all of the main movers and shakers of the Underdark (Drows, Duergar, and other subterranean races), and the sandbox-like structure is accompanied with solid direction based on the NPCs the player interact with.
- The first half of the campaign where players are interacting with the prisoner NPCs and trying to survive in the Underdark is very fun and engaging.
- The final battle is a refreshing departure from your typical BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) encounter.
- This Adventure can essentially serve as a guide book on how to run the Underdark. If you are going to feature the Underdark in any of your campaigns I would recommend reading through this book to look at descriptions of different creatures and places you could use in your encounters.
- The large number of NPCs can be hard to DM and can significantly slow down encounters.
- The second half of the book (after the party escapes the Underdark) is essentially one long fetch quest that can get tedious.
- The second half of the book tends to provide your party with easy encounters that will need to be buffed if you want your players to face a challenge.
Princes of the Apocalypse
Princes of the Apocalypse is an Adventure that has love for one thing and one thing only: dungeon crawling.
This module consists of 13 dungeons. Of these, 3 are devoted to each of the elements (fire, earth, air, water) and 1 is a neutral dungeon. The reason players are crawling through these dungeons is to rescue a delegation from the clutches of 4 crazy cults, each devoted to the 4 elements.
- There are some really cool, unique dungeon designs and encounters.
- The delegation plot hook is super weak. Players should be told ahead of time to expect to play the typical “hero” who is willing to crawl through 13 dungeons for the good of the realm.
- The dungeons do get monotonous after a while but tend to freshen up a bit towards the end.
- The dungeon’s locations don’t really make sense. To read about fixing this check out Power Score’s guide.
- The 4 prophets aren’t great villains as they are written.
Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver is included in the D&D Starter Set and is probably the most well-received 5e Adventure to date. The moduleice is intended to serve as a basic introduction to tabletop D&D. It contains a set of basic rules, an adventure, several pre-made character sheets, and a set of dice.
The Adventure takes place in a fairly small, unspecified geographic area, and the story is split into 4 chapters. Lost Mine of Phandelver is a typical high fantasy setting and starts your party on the road as you get ambushed by a group of Goblins. The story continues around the area, visiting a goblin cave and a nearby city, and ends with an awesome final boss fight in Wave Echo Cave.
- Lost Mine of Phandelver is a great start to any DnD campaign. It is meant to serve as a jumping-off point for DMs to either start their own adventure after or jump into another module that starts at level 5 such as Storm King’s Thunder.
- The module features well-crafted combat scenarios, a dungeon crawl or two, and a town that’s understandable, which all serve as awesome tools to get your party accustomed to the world of DnD.
- An added bonus of the D&D Starter Set is it comes with five Ready-to-Play Characters, Six dice sets, and an introductory D&D Rulebook (note: the Introductory Rulebook is not the same as the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
- The first part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver can be pretty deadly for level 1 players. Consider leveling your party to level 2 before the initial Goblin encounter.
- The villain is not great. However, it can be taken advantage of if you sell that he’s more of a henchman of a bigger evil when it’s over and the party can ride off to the bigger adventure after.
Tyranny of Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Tyranny of Dragons: Rise of Tiamat
Pages: 96 pages (Hoard of the Dragon Queen) and 96 pages (Rise of Tiamat)
Published: Aug. 19 2014 (Hoard of the Dragon Queen) and Nov. 4 2014 (Rise of Tiamat)
Levels: 1 – 8 (Hoard of the Dragon Queen) and 8 – 15 (Rise of Tiamat)
DM Difficulty: Hard
Player Difficulty: Hard
Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat
were the first two published adventures for D&D 5e. Together they make up the Tyranny of Dragons Story Arc.
The Tyranny of Dragons Story Arc takes players through the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms as they attempt to stop a cult of Dragon-Worshippers from bringing Tiamat, the goddess of chromatic dragons, to the material plane.
Being the first two written D&D 5e Adventures definitely shows for two reasons:
First, the actual book style is different from the rest of the Adventures. These two Adventures are printed on heavy stock, non-gloss paper instead of the glossy paper seen in later printed Adventures.
Second, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat were written before the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual was finalized. This has caused some issues with the Adventures, mainly the fact that some encounters are particularly unbalanced.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat are not what I would consider Sandbox Adventures. Players are directed from one location to another, though they are still tasked with how to handle the situations they find themselves in. Some players may not notice the railroading or may actually like it, but players that want to have more of a hand in the decisions they make will find this frustrating.
- There is a lot of negative talk regarding Hoard of the Dragon Queen specifically, but most of the criticism is followed up with “the story has good bones”. I tend to agree with this and Power Score has an awesome article on how to modify Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat to be better experienced.
- These Adventures were built before rules and monsters were finalized, which causes some encounters to be extremely deadly for players.
- Hoard of the Dragon Queen is known to be very railroady, specifically the Caravan section.
Other WotC Published Materials
On top of prewritten adventures, Wizards of the Coast releases a number of books that focus on Campaign Settings and Expanded Rules, you can find the links to their reviews below:
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