Can’t decide which epic adventure to torment your players with next? We’ll help you decide.
So, you’ve played through the Lost Mine of Phandelver and defeated the despicable drow, Nezzar. Perhaps you’ve vanquished the vile white wyrm, Cryovain in the Dragon of Icespire Peak. Now you and your players are wondering “What’s next?” I’m sure you’d love to run your group through your homebrewed campaign filled with excitement, intrigue, action, adventure, and enough backstory, attention to detail, and lore to put Game of Thrones to shame. But who has time for all that?
Since the birth of 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast has released, to date, 15 Campaign Adventure books. Each one a 200+ page excursion into the themes, tropes, and locations that make D&D the best epic fantasy this mundane world has ever seen. From sweltering jungles filled with dinosaurs and death, to vast underground caverns overrun with the devious drow and death, to cursed lands and haunted castles plagued by vampires and death, and even to the bowels of hell, tormented by demons, devils, and you guessed it, life (no, I’m kidding, it’s death); these adventures have something for everyone. But not all adventures are created equal, and which one will best suit your group of players?
Let’s explore each published adventure and look all the things that make them special to find the perfect one for your campaign. We’ll talk about the central theme, settings, major monsters, main villain, and unique features of each adventure. I’ll also rank each one based on it’s use of theme, DM prep required, expected player experience, and how cohesive and well-presented it is. My rankings are purely subjective and should be ignored in favor of the theme and setting. All of the adventures are excellent and if the synopsis intrigues you and your players, then who cares what I think. That being said let’s start with the first and worst:
Horde of the Dragon Queen
As the seminal adventure that launched the revitalization of an entire industry, you would think that this adventure would be one of the absolute best stories ever written. But it is surprisingly mediocre. The story involves an evil dragon cult trying to resurrect Tiamat, the five-headed Queen of Dragon, and unleash a horde of dragons upon the Realms. An awesome idea, a classic D&D adventure with high stakes and epic consequences…
Except the adventure is a mess. There are barely any dragons, the plot hooks are weak, the villain’s scheme makes no sense, the excruciatingly long 2nd Act is dense, boring, and yet somehow devoid of any information about the locations visited, and it’s a total railroad, literally. The entire story follows a 2000-mile slog along a straight road, with zero deviation. It wants to be a grand tour of the Forgotten Realms, but they ended up with just two dots on an empty page with an arrow pointing between them. And, of course, the players’ actions mean nothing in the end.
But there are some good ideas here. The dragon siege at the beginning is badass and the solo combat challenge that one of the bad guys throws down is an awesome way to motivate players. The wyvern flight to chase a flying castle and the castle itself are great, if thematically nonsensical. There is just so much pointless padding in the middle, that it feels like they had a cool beginning and ending but nothing else. But the unforgivable is that there are no dragons in the dragon adventure. You are fighting kobolds, cultists, lizardfolk, bullywugs, and even a four-armed troll, a vampire, and a storm giant (for no good reason) but just one dragon, and it’s not even Tiamat.
Sadly, while the fun factor and PC challenge is low, the prep work required and the DM challenge is really high. A ton of effort is needed just to run the adventure. Right from the beginning, you need to railroad your players into even starting the quest. You have to convince them to use stealth when they want to fight, repeat whole sections of the adventure, constantly rework unbalanced encounters, force them into a tedious spying mission, then force that mission to fail. If the players do anything to actually affect the story, the DM is told to counteract them. If important bad guys are killed, they are immediately replaced, If the players get their hands on crucial magic items, they are teleported away. If you are determined to play a dragon themed adventure, this is it, but I’ve warned you.
The Rise of Tiamat
The direct sequel to Horde of the Dragon Queen improves on its predecessor in every way, but it’s still not great. At least it has dragons. A few, anyway. Unfortunately, it is also still a railroad, where the heroes have to do exactly what the book says and none of their actions affect the story until the very end. Remember that flying castle they got at the end of the last adventure? Well, they can’t keep it, so crash it. All that treasure they recovered and kept away from the bad guys? Well, they stole some more treasure when the heroes weren’t looking. That cult leader they killed? Well, he got replaced by and equally powerful foe. Oh, and the adventure starts in Waterdeep, so get your players there ASAP!
Once you get to Waterdeep, there are some cool ideas. The adventure is poised as a truly global threat, as numerous factions convene to stop the dragon cult. The players can affect these factions and how they will be involved in the final battle. Success on one mission might make one side commit more troops to the fight, or it might anger them, causing them to withdraw completely. A few of the dragon missions are good, especially the green dragon and the blue, even if the blue runs away (again) because he is needed for the final battle.
But the white dragon scenario is too long (and pointless and redundant, since they already fought a white back in the first adventure). And there are no black or red dragon encounters at all, because they have already flown to the final battle. This is the adventure’s biggest flaw; nothing matters, except the final battle. There is nothing the players can do to slow the cult down, and no way they can stop the final battle from happening.
But the final battle is terrific! It is an awesome ending to a crappy campaign. In fact, it is too awesome. Armies of humans, dwarves, and elves fighting against unlimited hordes of cultists, kobolds, and dragons. Do the heroes get to fight in this epic war? Nope. What are the heroes tasked with? Run inside the temple and stop the ceremony. But of course, they have to fail, because then we get to fight Tiamat! See, it was all worth it. All that nonsense and frustration, but at least now we get to fight Tiamat. Right? Look, save yourself the aggravation; make 15th level characters and run this epic battle as a one-shot.
Princes of the Apocalypse
The next adventure began a trend that would see Wizards of the Coast through the next six adventures; mining old-school adventures for ideas. Based upon the classic but flawed, Temple of Elemental Evil, the adventure takes our heroes on a journey to dismantle yet another cult before they can wreak havoc upon the world. Or at least a small section of it called the Dessarin Valley. It is a perfect follow-up to the stellar Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, since the two locales are just a few days’ journey away. This time the cults have tapped into the unbridled power of the elemental forces of earth, air, water and fire.
While the original Elemental adventure is largely unplayable, this updated version has a ton of great ideas in it. To start with are the villains. An adventure is only as good as its bad guys, and these guys are great! Unlike the generic dragon cult who were all the same. These four are unique with different motives and goals. Some work together, some work against the others. Most importantly, anyone can be killed at any time, meaning that the players actions actually matter. Which villain will become the main villain? That’s for the players to decide. Before that, there’s a huge sandbox for the players to explore while they gather clues with loads of interesting encounters and locales to explore. But the location of the finale is still based upon player actions.
But not everything is perfect. The main mystery that draws the players into the adventure just disappears. A fair amount of work needs to be done to keep the various cults fresh; this one hits you with a wall of fire, this one hits you with a wall of air, this one hits you with a wall of… you get the idea. The “tutorial” adventure is just okay, but most Level 1-3 Intro adventures are just okay, and this one is better than most. I’m bummed that you only battle only one elemental lord, but it does make the adventure replayable. Of course, nobody replays adventure. You just move onto the next one.
For some reason this adventure never ranks very highly on most lists, and several “professional” DMs won’t even give it the time of day. But this adventure is far better than its source material and I love the idea of a gang of bad guys who basically hate each other, trying to destroy the world with natural disasters. It has a good balance of a little roleplay, good combat, and a light story. This adventure is great for the D&D groups who have moved beyond the basic adventure, but don’t want to commit to one of the more intense, hardcore modules, like this next adventure.
Out of the Abyss
From the light and breezy apocalypse adventure we head down into one of the most challenging meat grinders that is easily in my Top 3. A terrifying tale of survival horror, Out of the Abyss traps the players deep underground in a massive cave complex called the Underdark. Filled with unseen dangers around every corner, will the players survive to see the sun once more? As if the men, monsters and environment that all want to kill them weren’t enough, the Demon Lords have chosen here and now to wage war upon each other and anyone (including the players) who gets in their way. Oh, and by the way, the heroes are leading a ragtag group of prisoners to safety, except some of them have other plans.
There are so many incredible ideas stuffed into this adventure, it might be too much. It has the best “hook” of any adventure; you are prisoners trapped in an alien world. After you escape, you have just one goal: Survive. The Underdark is a fantastical realm, filled with terrific beauty and terrible denizens. And amongst your fellow escaped prisoners, there is a traitor in the midst who will kill everyone if able. It a perfect paranoia plot straight out of “The Thing” or “And Then There Were None.” The dramatic tension is relentless. Add in the drow hunting party trying to catch them and the chaos sown by the Demon Lords, just to survive the adventure in a monumental task.
And that is its biggest downfall. The whole adventure is a monumental task. For the DM, a ton of work is required to maintain that tension, while still keeping the world varied, fascinating, surreal, and manageable. About halfway through the adventure, the brilliant “hook” disappears and you’ll have a hard time motivating your players to solve the little “demon problem”. Plus, running the 10+ NPCs that are escaping with the players is a logistical nightmare. And it is no less difficult for the players. They will have to pay close attention to things that are ignored in most every adventure. Things like food, water, light, exhaustion, sanity, equipment, spell components, encumbrance, and healing are vital to this adventure.
It all might be too much for your group. If they just want to stroll in, eat some pretzels, and kill some monsters, this adventure might not be for them. It also needs an experienced and organized DM. This is a serious adventure for serious players, or it will just be frustrating and not fun. But if you think your group is up for the challenge, this adventure might be the most harrowing, memorable experience of a (fantasy) lifetime. Oh, and just before the final scenario, your players (and you) get to fight a battle royale as you play as one of the Demon Lords in a winner-takes-all fight to the death. So, you got that to look forward to.
Curse of Strahd
This is arguably the most famous of all the adventures on this list. Based upon the beloved classic “Ravenloft”, this is the module that made D&D cool, at least among the hordes of goth kids in the mid 80’s. This adventure introduced the infinitely suave and sinister vampire, Count Strahd von Zarovich, and sparked decades of annual Halloween sessions. In fact, this adventure got me into art school, since I reproduced all the artwork as part of my portfolio. But the original is single module designed for levels 5-7. How does this full campaign of tragic Gothic Horror compare?
Is it possible for a perfect adventure to be over-rated? Cause this might be the one. This adventure is amazing. Strahd might be the best villain ever created for D&D. Most adventures revolve around heroes in a peaceful society trying stop the cataclysm. But in the land of Strahd, the villain has already won and the world suffers for it. The apocalypse is upon us, and we can only struggle in vain to vanquish him. But before that, the cursed land of Barovia (which is technically in its own shadow demi-plane) is a spooky sandbox of lost souls and unspeakable horror. Every encounter oozes with dread and pathos, the anguish is exquisite. The Count’s castle is a hallmark of dungeon design, and the prophetic Tarroka (tarot) reading is a brilliant way to rearrange the plot points of the story, leading to unlimited replayablity, hence the annual Halloween Strahd-fests.
But no adventure is perfect. The introductory dungeon is poor, tacked-on, nonsensical, and way to deadly. Welcome to Barovia! Oops, you’re dead, Strahd wins again! Mwah hah ha! The mystery elements need a lot of finesse, or they come off as painfully obvious or impossibly obtuse. The castle is a deliberately complicated maze. And then there is a vampire, Strahd. He is the most complex, sophisticated, soulless, tortured villain you will ever run, and requires the roleplaying chops to do him justice. For the players, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the theme and lose focus on the story. And I’m a little disappointed that the adventure only takes characters up to 10th level. I want more!
But really, the adventure is phenomenal. The book is well structured, and as the DM, you have great control over how hard you want the story to be for your players. If your friends like vampires, they’re going to love this adventure. And if they don’t, then get new friends. I have deliberately kept the details for this story to a minimum because you need to buy it and read it for yourself. So long as everyone is on board with the gothic horror theme, this might be the most fun your players will ever have at the table. But there is just one adventure that I like better.
Storm King’s Thunder
This one ain’t it. This is one of my least favorite adventures. Stealing the plot from the classic Against the Giants by Gary Gygax, this is the only 5th edition adventure that failed to improve upon the original, and frankly, the original wasn’t very good to begin with. I don’t know what it is about giants, but they bore me to death. Giants make a great out-of-the-blue random encounter, but to run a whole campaign with them is just dull. One throws a rock, another throws an icy rock, that rock is on fire! Yawn.
But on paper, the adventure seems an excellent idea; a giant romp across the breadth of the Sword Coast. The map included with the book is phenomenal and includes over 160 separate locations to explore. However, hardly any detail is given to any location. Take Waterdeep, the City of Splendors and home to 100,000 souls and twice as many secrets. If the players go there, they head straight to one spot, talk to one guy, and move on. If you’d like more information, you are directed to read The Sword Coast Adventurers Guide. And this is the case for every single location. It’s very frustrating. And none of these “quests” do anything. They’re just there, padding out the sessions.
Finally, after hooking up with a ridiculously nerfed Storm Giant companion, the story gets back on track. By sending them back on a quest to travel the breadth of the Sword Coast (again!) looking for plot coupons, I mean “ancient items of great significance.” At least it has giants. Eventually. After more delays, the player can go after some giants. I do like the frost giant and cloud giant setups, but my favorite part of the adventure is the wild goose chase aboard a floating casino that ends on another boat fighting a kraken. It’s not a good sign when the best part of your Giant adventure doesn’t involve any giants.
The finale is suitably epic against a Blue Dragon (because the giants can’t be real bad guys here) and I love that the players can become actual giants themselves for the fight. But the whole thing is an anti-climactic disappointment because there were no stakes in the story. There is no threat, no ticking clock, no real reason to do anything. Except for the inciting incident, the giants don’t attack any more settlements while they give the players time to level up. The dragon’s plan is weak and ineffective and there are no consequences if the players fail. I applaud the story for attempted to go huge and make a globe-trotting adventure, but it went too big, dumping a long list of cool names and places with zero context and no details in our laps, and then having the gall to tell us to buy all the other books for “more information”! It’s shallow and crass. You can absolutely take the bones of this book and make an awesome giant adventure, but is it really worth the effort?
Tales From the Yawning Portal
The first proper anthology adventure is smack in the middle of WotC production schedule and despite claiming to include some of the “greatest” adventures in the history of D&D, it lies smack in the middle of my ranking; in fact, a little lower. It is perfectly fine for what is it, but it not a proper adventure and serves a very limited purpose. The early days of D&D had a unique subset of potential adventure, called the funhouse dungeon. Theses dungeons exist for only one reason, to be zany and wacky. Filled with crazy monsters, mazes, and devious traps, it tests the players, not their character stats. No hooks, no plot, no story, just go explore the dungeon and have fun. And these are all fun, fun, fun. Mostly.
Of the seven dungeons presented, some are better than others. White Plume Mountain & Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are phenomenal; cool and crazy, the best of the genre. The Sunless Citadel & The Forge of Fury are good and still fun, but forego wackiness for semi-successful storytelling. Against the Giants is better than its remake (see above) but it’s still a muddled mess. Dead in Thay is really a mega dungeon that I just can’t get into. Lastly, The Tomb of Horrors is the most famous module of all time, but it’s not a funhouse. It’s a deathtrap! Countless adventures have met their demise, and even more player groups have imploded at the grinning demon face of this mean-spirited, dick of a dungeon.
To run these adventures as a single story is a futile and unnecessary task. The authors don’t even pretend to offer any way to string these stories together. Then trying to link them to the eponymous tavern “The Yawning Portal” is another mistake. That tavern has the craziest dungeon of the Realms, Undermountain, (see below) literally beneath its feet. If you just want silly dungeons to explore, why would you ever travel to these other seven? The book is intended to be used by dropping the appropriate leveled dungeon into an existing campaign when you don’t have any other content prepared. But all the published adventures and most homebrewed have a tight-knit narrative. To ignore all that and explore some random dungeon just drags out the game and detracts from your main storyline.
As a retrospective of the evolution of dungeon design, the book is great. And if you need to fill that gap in your campaign, or if you just want to play in a dungeon for a couple of weeks, most are easy to run right out of the book. But to run it as a campaign, and to keep the latter adventures from turning into a total party kill bloodbath, a lot of work is needed to tailor this book to suit your players’ needs and your DM style. It’s still in the Top 10. If just barely. It’s just too random to recommend any higher.
Tomb of Annihilation
After my complaints about the Tomb of Horrors, you might me surprised that this, the Horrors redux, is my favorite adventure in all of 5th Edition. But it is. This is the perfect adventure. It has everything that every type of player wants. Sandbox exploration, exotic locales, high-stakes adventure with a world ending threat, cool unique monsters, bad-ass bad guys, and kick-ass dungeons. It has it all. Set in the teeming jungles of Chult, your players are tasked with stopping a global death curse that finally puts the fear of dying back into the players’ hearts. Along the way, they’ll have to contend with a mummified Yuan-ti and his army of snake people, the infamous lich Acererak and his armies of undead, not to mention carnivorous plants, enormous amphibians, and freaking dinosaurs!
Part of the reason this adventure is so good, is while many 5e adventures take inspiration from one classic module, this one mines from three. Taking the best parts of The Isle of Dread, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Tomb of Horrors this adventure manages to improve upon all three and corrects mistakes made in previous 5e releases. Unlike Storm’s King Thunder, this sandbox is perfectly contained with the right number of locations in a manageable area. Unlike Horde of the Dragon Queen, this one has a proper villain (actually 2 or 3) to be reviled, hated, and feared. And unlike every above ground adventure ever, just getting back to the safety of town is not guaranteed. Merely stepping ten feet outside the walls of the exquisite home base, Port Nyanzaru, could be a death sentence. Even more than Out of the Abyss & Curse of Strahd, this is the most lethal of all the adventures.
There are some minor quibbles. I wish that the book gave more details about the unique African/Mayan culture and lore that is teased and hinted at, but not fully explored. Next, you must alter the start of the adventure to allow the players the joy of exploring the jungle before compelling them hunt down the source of the time-sensitive apocalypse. Before starting the death curse, I had the players get hired to lead a safari, giving them a reason to map the interior and explore a little before all hell breaks loose. Lastly, while the final dungeon is a vast improvement on the original Tomb, many of the same gags, traps, and unique monsters are included and will need to be adjusted even more for players who are familiar with that module, which seems to be everybody.
Overall, this is the best adventure I’ve seen that preserved the old-school mentality of play, while keeping the far better structured and streamlined rules of modern play. The hardships of the jungle may be too much for a lighthearted group of players and the Death is Permanent conceit may be a stark reality check for those used to epic heroic fantasy (i.e. they never die). This is a raw and gritty adventure, akin to Conan & The Lost World. But this adventure has the decency to lay its deadly cards out on the table from the start, preparing the players for what will be the most tense, gripping, challenging, and exhilarating adventure in any role-playing game ever. Choke on that Cthulhu!
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
This is the adventure that I am most conflicted about. There are parts that I love and there are parts that I hate, but I love the good parts so much that it is still in my Top 5. It is the best urban adventure I’ve ever run or read, and it has the four(!) best villains ever. Even better than Strahd and Acererak. Each villain is unique with believable goals and motives and four amazing boss lairs. But as written, you only get to see one of them. The book presents the awesome splendor of the greatest fantasy city ever, filled with detail, flavor, lore, and spectacle. But you spend almost all your time down at the docks. This is also a roleplay player’s paradise, but only because every NPC is 15 levels more powerful than any player; the players have no choice but to talk their way out of every scenario. Also, it is not a heist. It’s a treasure hunt.
The gist is that half a million in gold is hidden somewhere in the city. Based upon which season (winter, spring, etc.) you choose, that determines which villain you face, which plot to thwart, and where the treasure is found. The explosive action that starts the players on this chase is exciting and the use of factions to steer players in the right direction is well done. There are plenty of cameos, easter eggs, sly references and subtle wit that don’t fit in most adventures, but are perfectly at home here. But it is the city that is the star of this story. Waterdeep, the city, is as much a character here as any NPC. Even the villains, as awesome as they are, come in second place when compared to the city. Except don’t tell the Xanathar that or he will kill you!
Speaking of villains, they are the best and worst part of the adventure. There’s Jaraxle Baenre, the drow ne’er-do-well from the Drizzt novels; Lord and Lady Cassalanter, members of an infamous noble family; Manshoon, the exiled leader of the Zhentarim who may be a clone; and The Xanathar, the mad beholder crime boss with an affinity for goldfish. Their schemes and methods vary from playful to insane, but they all leave a lot to be desired. Jaraxle wants the gold to pay his way to legitimacy, Manshoon wants to bribe his way to a lordship, The Cassalanter want to sacrifice the gold and 100 innocent people(!) to save two kids, and The Xanathar just wants more gold, dammit.
Of course, since the players are such low level, the villains never want to kill the players (highly convenient and wholly out of character for most of them), and the players can thwart each bad guy just by finding the gold first (also convenient and wholly lame). Also, this is not a beginner adventure. It needs proficient players who like to roleplay and will appreciate all the meta elements of the story. As written, the DM workload is Medium. You could play adventure straight out of the book, but to truly present an epic quest with good villainous plots, and more importantly, play all four different bad guys, plus all the other factions, all vying for the same gold, and homebrewing a proper heist somewhere into the story, this adventure will require an exorbitant amount of work. Still, Top 5.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
After the sprawling, complex, and exciting adventure in the city of Waterdeep, who wants to delve into the sprawling, complicated, and tedious dungeon under the city of Waterdeep? After teasing the existence of the dungeon beneath The Yawning Portal tavern in two prior adventures, we finally get to explore Undermountain, the mega-dungeon that has 23 separate and distinct levels and is the only adventure to take players up to the pinnacle 20th level of experience. This has to be the best adventure of all time. Right?
Not so much. Improperly hailed as the sequel to the excellent Dragon Heist, do not play these adventures back-to-back. These two adventures are written for two very different types of players. Dragon Heist is for roleplayers, Mad Mage is for grognards who want to hack and slash their way through wave after wave of dungeon critters, and probably never stopped playing 2nd edition D&D. Don’t get me wrong. I love the concept of Undermountain and I even own the original. This new version is very faithful to that original and yet improves upon it on many ways.
The original Undermountain is actually too big. Each level is four times bigger than that in Mad Mage. Mad Mage trims the fat and presents still huge levels than are more manageable. If being slightly less than monumental is considered more manageable. And Mad Mage presents all 23 levels while the original gave us only the first three. Some of these levels are spectacular. The city of Skullport, haven of thieves, assassins and worse, on level 3 is excellent. As are the shrinking castle in level 7, the twisted magic school in level 9, and the spelljammer ship in level 19. There are more cool bits and pieces, but there is just as much mindless walking, empty rooms, and dull encounters to slog through before you get to the good stuff. They threw hundreds of ideas at the dungeon wall and hoped something stuck.
On top of that, Halaster Blackcloak is a powerful but unmemorable villain. Plus, he has no sinister plot to avert or evil acts to avenge. In fact, he is just defending himself against intruders in his own home, which is pretty much legal in every state. There is no real challenge for the players beyond buying 10,000 feet of string to find their way back to the surface. Meanwhile, the DM has to pretty much know the entire current level, and god forbid if the players find the stairs leading down early and you haven’t even read that chapter yet. Personally, I used the first three levels of Undermountain during the Dragon Heist campaign when they went looking for the Xanathar’s Lair. I felt that was more realistic than the 300’ ladder listed in the book.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh
I initially bought this adventure for one reason only: The rules on seaborne travel and ship-to-ship combat. But the adventures included with it are pretty good too. Another anthology adventure, this time they stuck to a central theme and the whole story is much stronger for it. Most of the adventures are based around the coastal town of Saltmarsh and the underwater terrors that besiege it. A reprint of the U (for underwater) series of adventures, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was followed by Danger at Dunwater, and then The Final Enemy. Several short adventures with a nautical theme from the classic Dungeon magazine round out the campaign.
First off, the campaign immediately improves upon the original by actually including details (and a map) of the titular Saltmarsh. The story starts off with a haunted house then a raid against a tribe of lizardfolk, averting an invasion of sahaugin, and culminating against three aboleths and cult devoted to the Kraken, the deadliest horror in the sea. Throw in some derelict ghost ships and hordes of undead pirates and you got enough nautical nightmares for years (or at least 20-30 sessions). The seafaring rules are another highlight and will be useful in any adventure set on a boat.
Except this one. Despite being given a ship and having the players set out to sea, there isn’t a single scenario that takes place on board any active ship. No foul weather, no whales, sharks, or shipwreck causing reefs, not one single pirate attack. Missed the boat on that one, WotC. Also, they marketed this as the pirate campaign (with no pirates), but it’s not. This is a campaign of nautical horror, filled with ghost stories and tragic tales of unspeakable evil rising from the depths. It is Call of Cthulhu, not Pirates of Penzance. Also, since this is an anthology, there is no main bad guy and no big threat to overcome. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the stories come off as small and personal instead of grand and heroic.
The adventures are pretty easy to run and play, but it does take a slightly more experienced DM to make the theme memorable and slightly more mature players to appreciate it. It wouldn’t take much work to make the whole thing more pirate-y and more cohesive. Just have every NPC say “Argh”, “Ahoy, matey”, and “scallywag” all the time. It is a perfectly average adventure, placed dead in the middle of the ocean of my rankings.
Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus
By the Nine Hells, I want to love this adventure. If you thought that Out of the Abyss or Tomb of Annihilation dropped the players into a hostile environment, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Welcome to Hell! The entire town of Elturel has been lifted out of the earth and teleported to the first layer of Hell, Avernus, where devils and demons have fought an infinite war for all eternity. And somehow it is the players’ problem to go there and get it back. Filled with crazy encounters, devilish deals, and fiendish fun, this adventure is hilariously sinister and macabre. But the book is a dumpster fire of disorganization and chaos.
As for the good, it’s all about hell. There are so many intriguing, philosophical, morally grey ideas that present really unique roleplaying opportunities. Using souls as currency, saving people by turning them evil, deciding which evil is the better evil. Even the little details, like altered spell effects and the devils that tempt you during a failed death save, offering life for your mortal soul, are unlike anything you’ve encountered before. The antagonist, Zariel, is wonderfully complex. As a fallen angel, she is unlike any villain before and she can be saved, defeated, or doomed based upon the character’s actions Very cool. And I love that Zariel’s backstory is played out by the players during a dream. Even the map of Hell is a chaotic fever dream of ambiguity. But by far and away the coolest thing has to be the infernal war machines, fueled by souls in a Mad Max style death race across the apocalyptic hellscape.
But the book is just as chaotic as the adventure. There is no organization, forcing the DM to wing it on the fly, or railroad the players hard just to get from one place to the next. The intro levels in Baldur’s Gate feel ridiculously heavy handed and tacked on just to slap the recognizable name onto the cover. The treatment of the city is shoddy at best, and the treatment of the players is worse. Upon pain of death, the players must do as they’re told. There’s some lazy motivation. The breadcrumbs to lead you to Hell are lame, the path to follow in Hell is non-existent, and I hate the amnesiac guide that drags the players from one point to the next. Screw you, Lulu!
The is one of the hardest adventures to run and play, mostly because of how confusing it is. The DM workload is possibly the highest of all the published adventures. Almost all of the adventures can be run straight from the book and the difficulty comes when you want to really make the adventure soar. But this requires constant reworking just to run the adventure, Baldur’s Gate is awful and could be exorcised completely. The Candlekeep section is weak, and Avernus is awesome but whole scenes need to be rewritten, encounter balance is out of whack, and the story flow is viler than the River Styx. But if you’ve always wanted to banish your players to Hell, (and frankly what DM hasn’t) than buckle in, for you’re in for a Hell of a ride.
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden
From the fiery pits of Hell, we travel to the frozen hell on earth, Icewind Dale. Made famous by a particular drow ranger and his panther companion, Icewind Dale is a harsh land of frozen tundra. The creatures (and humans) who call this land home are among the toughest in the Realms. Just to survive the summer season is a herculean task. Are your players up to the challenge? While you’re at it, do you mind saving the settlements from a few calamities, including the predation of a gnoll vampire, an enormous machine dragon unleashed by some really angry dwarves, a mad demi-lich from a dead empire who has no idea what year it is, oh wait, and an evil goddess who forgot to pack her sunscreen so she cursed the land into a state of perpetual night and eternal winter.
The creativity of ideas in this adventure (as seen above) puts this adventure firmly in the upper tier. This story is packed with cool concepts and its setting in the frozen wastes of a world buried in snow just hammers home its harrowing, deadly, alien atmosphere. As a villain, Auril is the first actual god (goddess) that any group has had to face. Sure, she’s a minor goddess, but still no one to be trifled with. Another thing I love, is that the land is dynamic, while the players are doing one thing over here, other things are happening over there, and the players cannot save everyone. Bad things will happen, and they’ll have to deal with it. The Tests of the Frostmaiden section is excellent, forcing players to think coldly and rationally. I also love that the players get to accidentally (and purposefully) do some catastrophic and irreversible things, including unleashing a tarrasque, and time travelling the entire world 2000 years into the past. And I love the finale on a crashed floating city.
Of course, not everything is a winter wonderland. The structure of the book is weird. You actually confront Auril in her lair halfway through the adventure, but then you are supposed to go on a really long, extended mega-funhouse dungeon looking for items that might be used to defeat Auril. It’s like the chicken and the egg; it isn’t clear which comes first. Also, Ten Towns suffers simultaneously from unique NPC overload & too much similarity and sameness. One freezing, inhospitable village is pretty much like every other freezing, inhospitable village. And there’s ten of them. Also, also, the duergar stronghold is way too deadly for its suggested levels. Lastly, bafflingly, there is no Drizzt Do’Urden! Epic fail.
But these minor flurries are no match for the bonkers blizzard that is Frostmaiden. The bleak environment may get a chilly reception from those who like a more conventional fantasy setting. The harsh nature of the campaign and the fact that death is inevitable and capricious might make some players frosty. And this is a hard adventure for both players and DMs alike. There’s just a lot to deal with on both side of the DM screen. But if your players are up to the challenge, you could do worse than to settle in for a long, cold winter with the Frostmaiden. Just bring a good book to read in front of the fireplace.
Speaking of books, the next adventure is another anthology collection, but these adventures are wholly original, no reprints of previous modules this time. Candlekeep is actually a giant library dedicating to preserving knowledge at all costs. Its halls hold untold thousands of tomes from simple nursery rhymes to massive treaties about the meaning of life. But some books have deeper mysteries than just the words on the page. While your party is exploring the library, they discover 16 books, each of which leads to new adventure. Each claim to be a mystery, but take that with a grain of salt. It is more, “Isn’t this mysterious?”, rather than Who-done-it.
In reality, these adventures are rather short, akin to a one-shot (single session) dungeon rather than a full campaign. The stories vary greatly in style and tone, but could conceivably take players up to 16th level, as each story gets more and more dangerous. You also face a variety of foes. The first adventure pits the group against several animated objects and an imp while looking for the password to exit a magical mansion. The third, is clearly the Halloween adventure, as the party is vexed by scarecrows, gargoyles, ghosts, and other undead. Some stories are good, others just okay. My favorites are the deeply disturbed children’s book “Shemshime Bedtime Rhyme” and “Kandlekeep Dekonstrukion”, which ends with one of the castle’s towers blasting off into space.
But as always, the anthology nature is its biggest weakness. There’s no real drama at stake here. If a book stayed on the shelf, there would be no adventure. There is nothing driving the plot forward. The book is also very heavy-handed in its motivations. There is no player agency. This is evident right from the start, when they players are told that they have come to the library, searching for a way to save some random town. When was that decided upon? Then, the next scene begins, “When they enter the magic portal…” What if they never enter it? Never assume your players’ actions or present them with one choice. They will defy you every turn of the page.
Truthfully, this book works better without the Candlekeep connection, and you shouldn’t use the same book quest delivery service for each one, it gets old quick, But if you need that quick boost of experience for your party; say that they are level 4, but they really should be 5th for the next adventure; then have them find a book in their latest treasure horde and run the appropriate adventure. These are great one-shot adventures and should be used as such, not as the epic library adventure. Since each story is self-contained, they are easy to run right from the book. No need to waste time making it better, just make sure it’s not past its due date.
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight
Finally, the last (or at least, most recent) full campaign adventure, and the one that I’ve been waiting for the longest. A mad-cap irreverent romp through the Feywild. If the Shadowfell is the dark reflection of the “real” world in D&D, the Feywild is the chaotic reflection of the world. Not evil, just crazy. Everything is bigger, bolder, brighter; and maybe a little insane. Furthermore, this version of the Fey draws heavy inspiration from one of my favorite genres of writing: nonsense literature. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and more recently, The Princess Bride and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are classic examples of the style that includes puns, limericks, double entendres, and shifting narratives. I was giddy with antici… pation to try my hand at a little linguistic repartee.
This book also brags that you can complete the entire adventure without a single combat. A lofty goal, and one that is impossible to succeed at. It requires that every player commit to finding the pacifist solution, but inevitably someone will break the pact and attack out of frustration. In hindsight, the labyrinthine path needed to find the peaceful solution is filled with so many character and moral compromises that it’s just easier to exterminate the irritation, than talk your way around it.
So, what’s the story? Three deliciously detailed, deceptive, and devious hags have usurped this realm of the Fey from a mysterious yet obvious fourth who is trapped inside their own palace. The hags have carved up and twisted the domain to reflect their creepy personas. And that is the best part of the story; the locations, the atmosphere, and its inhabitants. It really feels like you are adventuring in Wonderland. Despite being mechanically similar, the three hags are surprisingly memorable and unique. But the story is rather repetitive, as you bounce from land to land, marking items off your checklist; find a guide, find a vehicle, perform meaningless tasks to gain allies, meet the hag, make a deal with the hag, get out of town before the hag kills you, rinse and repeat.
But the real problem is maintaining the tone of the adventure. If just one player insists on making it a hack & slash, then the whole story ruined for everybody else. Plus, literary nonsense is actually hard. Professional writers spend weeks crafting the perfect combination of words to appear witty. It is practically impossible for a gaggle of fantasy geeks to do on the fly. For the DM, the adventure requires a fair amount of work to keep the theme alive and all the characters, locations and plot elements present throughout the story. The theme is not for everyone and that’s why it didn’t rank higher. But if you have the right group of dedicated players, this could be one jolly, fun yarn.
My Final Rankings
Whew! That’s all of them. But how do they stack up against each other? Here is my rankings list from best to worst with their total score out of a possible 20.
- Tomb of Annihilation (19)
- Curse of Strahd (18)
- Out of the Abyss (17)
- Rime of the Frost Maiden (16)
- Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (16)
- Princes of the Apocalypse (15)
- Descent into Avernus (15)
- The Wild Beyond the Witchlight (14)
- The Ghosts of Saltmarsh (14)
- Tales From the Yawning Portal (13)
- Candlekeep Mysteries (13)
- Rise of Tiamat (12)
- Storm Kings’s Thunder (12)
- Dungeon of the Mad Mage (11)
- Horde of the Dragon Queen (10)
Now this list isn’t etched in stone. My favorite adventure is always the one I’m thinking about playing next. There’s something for everyone in every campaign book. Part of the fun is picking apart the things you love and brewing them together into your own great adventure. So, stop reading about playing. Grab an adventure by the reins, and let’s get playing. Game On!
Or better yet, give me your rankings. What is your favorite? What is your worst? Am I mental for not putting Strahd first? I wanna know.