Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Which Adventure To Play: January 2017 Edition

In late 2015, I published an article that considered and compared each "official" D&D Fifth Edition adventure released at the time. As my fifth most popular article of all time, and with two new adventures released by Wizards in 2016, this seems like an opportune time to update it. If you're a Dungeon Master trying to decide what adventure to run in the new year, this article is for you!

In this article, I'll walk through each hardcover adventure that Wizards of the Coast has released at the time of this writing (plus Lost Mine of Phandelver, which comes in the introductory Starter Set). I'll discuss the selling points of each one, as well as some pitfalls you might expect while running them.

Why listen to me? While I haven't played through each of these adventures to completion, I've spent a lot of time reading each of them along with internet reviews and actual play reports. In addition, I've been a dungeon master for all but Out of the Abyss, and played a character in the Tyranny of Dragons adventures as well as Out of the Abyss and Storm King's Thunder.

Before we start, I'll point out that 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. In other words, SPOILER ALERT!

Lost Mine of Phandelver

Jaime Jones created this awesome art for
the Starter Set cover. That adventurer
could be you (or one of your players)!
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. (If you're looking for additional guidance, I've written a series of articles on running your first game with the Starter Set.)
  • 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. The dragon in Thundertree is also notably lacking in personality or motivation. 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 is looking for something different, this isn’t it.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

As an adult white dragon, Glazhael pulls no
punches in this cover art by Raymond Swanland.
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 allows your players to do “epic” things at relatively low levels. The heroes will 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 look up one of the online posts or forum threads that detail the problems with the adventure.

The Rise of Tiamat

Tiamat, the Queen of Dragons herself, is
depicted here by artist Michael Komarck.
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 in this adventure are expected to start at about level 8 and will reach 14th-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 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’ll have a hard time running this one “out of the box.”
  • The 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.

Princes of the Apocalypse

Raymon Swanland paints the air cult prophet
Aerisi Kalinoth backed by a storm-wracked
Dessarin Valley in this striking cover art.
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 very helpful. 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 serious 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

It's the Demogorgon, illustrated by Tyler Jacobson!
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 arguably 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 QueenOut 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.
Curse of Strahd

Ben Oliver portrays Strahd, a villain like no other.
What's it about? Our heroes are trapped in the cursed land of Barovia, and they can only escape by slaying its ruler - the vampire Strahd von Zarovich. To have a hope of doing so, they must explore the land, searching for legendary treasures and allies against Strahd while facing the horrors of Barovia.

What levels does it cover? Curse of Strahd includes the "Death House" mini-adventure to advance level 1 characters to level 3 (available free as an online PDF), but the meat of the adventure goes from level 3 to level 10.

Why should I play it?
  • Curse of Strahd masterfully presents a setting of horror and despair. It's not typical D&D fare, as players are often confronted with horrible situations that they can't easily solve. This adventure touches on a lot of classic gothic horror tropes such as unwilling transformations, the human struggle against an oppressive darkness, and confronting one's own evil impulses.
  • The various locations in Barovia are all well-detailed and engaging. The adventurers are trapped in a land with finite borders, but there are strong reasons for them to explore and travel from location to location. The adventure's greatest strength is its NPCs, who lead believable lives and have interesting motivations.
  • Where other adventures are flashy, Curse of Strahd is subtle. Rather than presenting puppy-kicking villains out to destroy the world, it plays on small details to create more realistic - and perhaps more terrifying - foes. Success for the heroes might mean recovering a wedding dress just in time to prevent a psychopath's rampage or ensuring that Barovians still have access to the wine they need to drown their sorrows.
What are its flaws?
  • Curse of Strahd is far from the typical D&D experience. If your group likes feeling like powerful heroes who slay monsters and save the world without much thought, this adventure might not be for you. Similarly, if your group prefers antiheroes who are only in it for themselves, this might not be your style of adventure either. Maximizing Curse of Strahd requires a balance between heroism in the face of darkness and confronting one's own inner failings.
  • Running this adventure effectively requires a lot of roleplaying skill. NPC's motivations are of paramount importance, and choreographing encounters with Strahd to maximize his villainous potential is a challenge. In addition, you will have to work hard to create a setting of ambient horror - otherwise this adventure may fall flat.
Storm King's Thunder

Cover artist Tyler Jacobson captures this
adventure's mood: "King Lear with Giants."
What's it about? When the Ordning - a divine decree that keeps order between the different races of giants - is broken, ambitious giant lords take action, causing massive chaos and devastation across the Savage Frontier of the Forgotten Realms. Our heroes must make their way to the legendary Temple of the All-Father to ascertain the cause of the giant menace, face a giant lord and ruin his or her well-laid plans, and delve into the intricacies of the Shakespearean storm giants in order to stop the giant threat and restore the Ordning.

What levels does it cover? The introductory chapter, "A Great Upheaval," quickly brings characters from levels 1-5 (this part is available as a free PDF download on the Dungeon Master's Guild). The main adventure of Storm King's Thunder, however, begins at level 5 and ends at level 10, with the DM's option to extend the adventure to level 12 or so.

Why should I play it?
  • Taking the "giant" theme to heart, Storm King's Thunder presents an adventure over a vast expanse of the Forgotten Realms. Your players can explore a huge swath of the Sword Coast and beyond, with many different quest hooks and locations detailed in the adventure. More so than other large adventures, this one takes advantage of its setting in a big way.
  • There are a number of particularly cool and imaginative elements included. Characters may gain access to an airship, enter a dungeon beneath a whirlpool and meet multiple ancient dragons - just to name a few things.
  • Storm King's Thunder is very well organized in comparison to other large adventures. There is an adventure flowchart, outline, and a table of important characters early on, and each major giant stronghold contains a roster with information about what the inhabitants will do if they're put on alert. This adventure has many moving parts, but it's relatively easy to run.
What are its flaws?
  • The giant lairs and other major locations in this adventure are well described. On the other hand, Chapter 3, where the players explore the Sword Coast, doesn't give the DM much to work with besides basic details. The chapter covers a ton of locations, but many of them receive no more than a paragraph's description and sometimes a single, bare-bones encounter. Depending on where your players go, you may need to build encounters and add specifics on the fly.
  • Parts of the adventure's plot feel disjointed, and the hooks for getting from one place to another are fairly weak in the first half of the adventure. As a DM, be ready to patch plot holes, come up with more compelling hooks, and make sure your players have the chance to figure out what's going on behind the scenes. You'll want to think ahead and add in foreshadowing for upcoming plot points as well.
  • The first chapter, "A Great Upheaval," isn't bad, but it feels rushed. Players may only complete one or two encounters before gaining a level in places. Unless you want to introduce a group with level 1 characters, this part could easily be skipped; it could also be easily replaced by another adventure like Lost Mine of Phandelver.
  • The adventure's "real" beginning in Chapter 2, "Rumblings," is kind of odd. The three towns (only one of which you'll use!) are detailed, but most of the details aren't likely to come up in play, as the towns mostly serve as encounter locations. In addition, the players are supposed to control extra NPCs during this session in addition to their regular characters, which adds potential for confusion at little extra roleplaying value. It's a neat experiment but in my experience, it doesn't work well in actual play.

Which adventure would I recommend?
Everyone's tastes are different. Some players like classic D&D challenges like fighting dragons; others seek out new and different experiences every time they play. Some DMs like adventures with a strong central plot; others prefer sandbox environments that offer their groups plenty of room to roam. That said, here are the adventures I would recommend based on my experience:
  • If you or your players are just getting started, play Lost Mine of Phandelver. It's set up well for beginning players and DMs and serves as a good introduction to D&D. Feel free to check out my article series on running this adventure for advice and guidance as well.
  • If you and your group have played before, but you like classic D&D experiences, play Storm King's Thunder. This adventure is exciting, fairly easy to run, and shows off D&D at its best. Unless you really like playing at low levels, go ahead and start the adventure in the second chapter, at level 5.
  • If you want to try something different, play Curse of Strahd. This is an adventure that focuses on different aspects of the game than the "typical" D&D experience. You'll get the chance to play a terrifying and intriguing villain, your players will get to face down darkness in a setting where the light is scarce and dim, and you'll all get to discover the secrets of Barovia together.

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 epic quests to save the world to "sandbox" exploration missions to a whimsical journey through the Underdark to the oppressive evil of the iconic D&D vampire. Hopefully this article has given you some insight on which of these will work best for you and your group. In March, we'll see the release of a new adventure compilation: Tales from the Yawning Portal. You'll be sure to hear about it then on Pact of the Tome!

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