Saturday, December 5, 2015

Which adventure to play?

With Wizards of the Coasts’ recent policy of releasing just a few big adventures each year, Dungeon Masters who want to run a published adventure for D&D Fifth Edition have a choice to make. I've written this article to help DMs make informed choices about the adventures they'd like to run. Since we're approaching the holidays, this is also an excellent opportunity to pick out the perfect adventure for the DM in your life. Take note, players!

Why listen to me? While I haven’t played through each of these adventures to completion, I’ve read through them all along with reviews and actual play reports of each campaign. In addition, I’ve played through most of Lost Mine of Phandelver, all of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, and about a third of Princes of the Apocalypse.

One last note: all of these descriptions are, by their nature, likely to spoil the content of the adventures discussed. I’ll try not to be too specific about plot points, but if you want to play through any of these adventures blind, don’t read ahead!

Lost Mine of Phandelver
Yes, this adventure includes a dragon.
It's on the cover.
What’s it about? A simple job to escort a wagonload of supplies to the frontier town of Phandalin evolves into a web of issues surrounding the town. In the search to find their kidnapped patron, the heroes may free a town from oppressive bandits, explore an abandoned town, confront a dragon, storm a goblin castle, and find the legendary Lost Mine of Phandelver.

What levels does it cover? The player characters start at level 1 and will end the adventure at level 4 or 5.

Why should I play it?

  • Because it’s part of the Starter Set, Lost Mine of Phandelver is designed for new Dungeon Masters and players – and it is designed well. The locations presented are generally very interesting and offer varied challenges for your player characters to take on. As a DM, you’ll find the adventure is well organized and easy to run.
  • There’s lots of room for Dungeon Masters to add their own spin on the adventure. Once the players have explored the initial two adventure locations, they’re “free to roam,” and DMs will have plenty of space to expand on events and locations that players latch onto.
  • Lost Mine of Phandelver only runs from levels 1-4, meaning that you can finish it in a much shorter time period than the other adventures listed here. If your group meets once a week for 2-4 hours, you’ll probably be done in one or two months, where other adventures might take half a year or a year to finish at that pace.
What are the adventure’s flaws?
  • While Lost Mine of Phandelver appeals to players who enjoy exploring an area, it is a little weak in the narrative department. There is a villain behind most of the threats presented, but he’s not particularly compelling. If your players want a super-coherent story, be prepared to do some work as a Dungeon Master.
  • As D&D adventures go, Lost Mine of Phandelver is pretty “vanilla.” The adventure lacks a strong theme, and characters will largely face off against common D&D foes. If your group wants something different, this isn’t it.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen
Expect even more dragons in this one. Perhaps
even a - dare I say it - horde of them?
What’s it about? The adventure features heroes who are dragged into an epic adventure after they save the town of Greenest from a mysterious force led by a dragon. They track the Cult of the Dragon’s movement up the Sword Coast, learning more about the Cult and wrecking its outposts along the way, ending by storming one of its strongholds – a flying ice castle!

What levels does it cover? The PCs begin the adventure at level 1 and end at about level 7 or 8.

Why should I play it?

  • This adventure is the most “epic” of the low-level offerings thus far. Players will get to face off with some powerful enemies, including multiple dragons, and experience a wide swath of the Forgotten Realms.
  • If your players like approaching challenges through stealth, guile, or negotiation, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. In many parts of the adventure, a frontal assault on the enemies is doomed to fail – your players will need to be clever to get past the challenges presented here.
What are the adventure’s flaws?
  • Hoard of the Dragon Queen is poorly edited, referring to things that don’t exist in the rules or in other parts of the adventure. Many of the maps are hard to read or are incorrectly labeled. In addition, many parts of the adventure are unnecessarily complex or omit important information, requiring significant prep work to understand and present properly.
  • The adventure assumes that your players follow a very specific path – a “railroad,” so to speak. If things go off track or your players don’t buy in to the missions they’re asked to complete, you’ll have a lot of trouble making this adventure work.
  • Because Hoard was designed while the D&D system was still in “beta,” some of the rules don’t match up with the ones in the core books. A few of the encounters are unnecessarily deadly as well. You’ll need to do some careful reading, or at least search up one of the online posts or forum threads that detail the problems with the adventure.

The Rise of Tiamat
Tiamat: Now with 500% more dragon.
What’s it about? Continuing the story of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the player characters serve as a representative of allied factions of the Sword Coast fighting the Cult of the Dragon. They’ll embark upon missions to fight the Cult and recruit allies, all leading to a final showdown with Tiamat at the Well of Dragons.

What levels does it cover? Characters for this adventure are expected to start at about level 8 and will reach 13th-15th level by the end of the adventure.

Why should I play it?

  • The Rise of Tiamat is truly epic. Your player characters will be able to battle dragons in their home territory, negotiate deals with powerful factions, survive assassination attempts, unite the people of the Sword Coast, and fight a god. This is an adventure truly worthy of high-level characters.
  • There is a lot of room for player character choices to matter in this adventure. The way your group handles certain challenges and makes decisions may determine whether they end the adventure with all the factions on their side or just a few, as well as whether the final battle is winnable.
What are its flaws?
  • While individual missions are usually well-described, the structure of the adventure lends itself to extensive prep work on the DM’s part. Because players will be trying to appease disparate factions, the DM will necessarily have to keep track of a lot of NPCs and their reactions to the players’ actions. You’d have a hard time running this one “out of the box.”
  • Rise of Tiamat is designed for Milestone play. If your group likes leveling up when the DM decides, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you use experience points for leveling, there aren’t enough in the adventure for characters to reach the appropriate levels in time to confront certain sections. This problem is compounded if you play in the D&D Adventurers League, as this program doesn’t let the DM grant additional XP or add encounters.

Princes of the Apocalypse
Rest assured. Despite the misleading cover
image, Princes of the Apocalypse includes at
least two dragons.
What’s it about? In the Dessarin Valley, a backwater vale in the Forgotten Realms, evil is stirring. The player characters will search the Sumber Hills and outlying towns of the valley for outposts of an ancient cult worshiping evil incarnations of the four elements. As they investigate the mystery surrounding the cults, they will explore ancient dwarven ruins, fight to protect the towns of the Dessarin Valley, and confront the “Princes of the Apocalypse” themselves!

What levels does it cover? The “main adventure” of Princes of the Apocolypse begins at level 3 and runs until level 15, but the book includes a small selection of mini-adventures to bring characters from level 1 to level 3.

Why should I play it?

  • If your group enjoys “sandbox” play and you are looking for a long campaign, Princes of the Apocalypse is for you! Starting from the level 1 side adventures, Princes gives players the freedom to choose what hooks and adventure locations they investigate or just to explore the Dessarin Valley. This means that characters can wander into an extremely deadly area early on! Of course, if your group doesn’t enjoy this style of play, it’s not too hard to guide players into areas appropriate for their character level.
  • As a guide to a setting, Princes of the Apocalypse is excellent. The Dessarin Valley area is well-detailed and contains numerous interesting adventure locations. The elemental cult outposts and dungeons are the main attraction, of course, but Princes also contains a selection of eight "side treks" in and around the valley for characters of various levels. Even if you don't run this adventure in full, there is plenty of material to borrow here for your own game.
  • Each of the sites in the adventure are generally well-designed and interesting to explore. There is a fair bit of variety, too, especially in the Cult outposts in chapter 3. In some places, players may choose to go in guns blazing - in others, they may not be sure whether the Cult is even at work there at first.
What are its flaws?
  • Princes of the Apocalypse has a lot of dungeons – counting the Cult outposts, players will explore 13 or more dungeons (or similar adventure locations) over the course of the campaign. If your group prefers other sorts of adventures, you’re out of luck – although there are some neat side adventures included, the majority of your game will take place in a dungeon.
  • This adventure has organization problems. Details about the adventure’s plot, characters, and adventure hooks are scattered across several chapters, and since the adventure has a “sandbox” design structure, it’s vital to have quick access to all of this information. Expect to do a lot of work taking notes and figuring out how everything fits together.

Out of the Abyss
Here you were, thinking that Out of the Abyss
wouldn't have any dragons in it. Silly you.
I won't tell you where, but there's at least one
dragon somewhere in the Underdark.
What’s it about? The heroes have been captured by drow! They must now plan an escape, navigate the unnatural world of the Underdark, and figure out how to return to the surface. As they do, they discover that magic gone awry has summoned the legendary demon lords to the Underdark, letting their maddening influence take possession of a world that’s already just a little bit mad.

What levels does it cover? Out of the Abyss starts at level 1 and ends at level 15.

Why should I play it?

  • Of the Fifth Edition adventures released thus far, Out of the Abyss undoubtedly has the most personality. The adventure presents an Underdark that feels alive, with strange civilizations and unusual characters at every turn.
  • Beginning in the Underdark with few resources and no familiarity with the environment is a true challenge as far as D&D play goes. Players will have to improvise, learn quickly, and make allies – great fodder for challenge and storytelling.
  • Similar to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Out of the Abyss allows low-level characters to encounter high-level challenges. The adventure strays away from the design paradigm of set-piece encounters and level-appropriate challenges, instead putting characters in situations where they are forced to think their way out.
What are its flaws?
  • Out of the Abyss is a demanding adventure to run. The campaign begins when the player characters meet a host of quirky Underdark NPCs that could become the players’ lifelong companions or go insane at any moment. Playing these unique characters, along with others the players may meet on their journey, is a tough challenge, and representing the alien environments that the Underdark presents will make things even harder.
  • Aside from the logistical challenges of running such a complicated adventure, there's also a lot of skill required for this one to balance the difficulty of the Underdark environment with the enjoyment of your players. A Dungeon Master who misjudges the difficulty level his or her players can handle will end up causing a lot of frustration, as will one who fails to give his or her group the options and information they need to succeed . A quick search of internet message boards will turn up plenty of players who have been disillusioned by this adventure - so before you run it, make sure you're very confident in your DM skills and ability to work with your group.

In the year and a half since the first Fifth Edition adventure was released, we've seen a variety of adventure designs from Wizards, covering everything from "sandbox" exploration missions to epic quests to save the world from dragons to a whimsical journey through an alien environment. Hopefully this article has given you some insight on which of these will work best for you and your group. I'll see you next time on Pact of the Tome!