Since its inception in 2014, the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 5e) has witnessed an impressive array of published modules. Each of these modules offers unique adventures that bring diverse themes, settings, creatures, and narratives to tabletops around the world. Modules, if you’re not familiar with the word, are books that contain pre-written stories for your Dungeon Master (DM) and fellow players to follow.
Because D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game that requires someone to do the grunt work, a player’s experience of a game can be wildly different from how a DM experiences it. Looking at you, Curse of Strahd, your amazing adventure that somehow requires a ton of external guides to run.
To save your party and DM some frustration, in this article, we’ll delve into some of the most captivating D&D 5e modules, showcasing the best of the best for both players and Dungeon Masters.
8. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist presents a unique conundrum for adventurers, making it a module that evokes mixed feelings. While it offers moments to love and loathe, its merits secure it a spot in the top five adventures. Renowned as the best urban adventure in the D&D 5e roster, Dragon Heist excels with its four exceptional villains, surpassing even the likes of Strahd and Acererak. Each villain boasts a distinct personality, motivations, and awe-inspiring lairs. However, there’s a catch: you only confront one of them in the course of the adventure.
The adventure unfolds in the grandeur of Waterdeep, a city brimming with intricate details, flavorful descriptions, rich lore, and breathtaking spectacles. Sadly, much of your time is spent in the city’s docks area, which may disappoint some. Dragon Heist also caters to roleplaying enthusiasts, though it presents an interesting twist—NPCs significantly overpower players, forcing them into diplomatic solutions for most scenarios. Despite the title, Dragon Heist leans more toward a treasure hunt than an actual heist.
Dragon Heist isn’t for beginners; it demands experienced players who relish roleplaying and appreciate the story’s meta-elements. To fully unleash its potential, especially by involving all four distinct villains, managing competing factions vying for the same treasure, and integrating a proper heist into the narrative, the adventure requires an extensive amount of DM preparation and customization.
7. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
After the grandeur of Dragon Heist, it might seem tempting to dive right into Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which delves into the sprawling dungeon beneath the city—Undermountain. However, it’s crucial to note that these two adventures cater to vastly different types of players. While Dragon Heist thrives on roleplaying, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is designed for players who revel in relentless dungeon-crawling and may have a penchant for 2nd edition D&D. The experiences offered by these modules are not complementary, and playing them consecutively is not recommended.
Despite this disparity, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a faithful adaptation of the original Undermountain, introducing numerous improvements. The original Undermountain, known for its colossal size, has level maps four times larger than those in Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The latter streamlines these sprawling levels to more manageable proportions, although they still retain their monumental scale.
Halaster Blackcloak, the dungeon’s enigmatic architect, serves as the nominal antagonist.
One significant challenge for Dungeon Masters lies in managing the extensive knowledge required to run the dungeon effectively, but if that’s your thing, this is the Dungeons and Dragons book for you.
6. Ghosts Of Saltmarsh
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is an anthology of seven adventures from previous editions, skillfully updated for 5e. Unlike some anthologies, Ghosts of Saltmarsh adheres to a central theme, significantly enhancing the overall narrative cohesion. Most of the adventures revolve around the coastal town of Saltmarsh and the aquatic perils that besiege it.
The campaign revisits and reprints the U-series of adventures, beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, followed by Danger at Dunwater, and concluding with The Final Enemy. Additionally, it includes several short adventures with nautical themes from the classic Dungeon magazine, enriching the campaign further.
Notably, Ghosts of Saltmarsh immediately surpasses its predecessor by providing detailed information, including a map, of the titular Saltmarsh. The story unfolds with a haunted house, segues into a raid against a tribe of lizardfolk, prevents an impending sahuagin invasion, and climaxes with confrontations against three aboleths and a cult devoted to the Kraken—an ominous and deadly sea entity. The campaign also introduces eerie derelict ghost ships and swarms of undead pirates, ensuring a plethora of nautical nightmares to explore over 20 to 30 sessions.
One of the campaign’s standout features is its seafaring rules, a valuable addition that can enhance any adventure set on the high seas.
5. Out Of The Abyss
Out of the Abyss plunges players into the treacherous depths of the Underdark, where they face the looming threat of the Demon Princes of the Abyss. Starting as prisoners, players must escape this perilous realm, emphasizing exploration and survival. As they encounter various denizens of the Underdark, including drow and deep gnomes, the story excels at conveying the eerie atmosphere and challenges posed by the Demon Princes.
Out of the Abyss is a veritable treasure trove of incredible ideas, possibly even too many to handle. It boasts one of the most compelling hooks of any adventure: Players are prisoners trapped in an alien world, and their sole objective after escaping is to survive. The adventure maintains dramatic tension throughout, with the added menace of pursuing drow hunting parties and the chaos unleashed by the warring Demon Lords, making survival a monumental task.
However, this monumental task is also the adventure’s greatest challenge. For Dungeon Masters, it demands a significant amount of effort to sustain tension while ensuring the world remains diverse, captivating, surreal, and manageable.
4. Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus
Descent Into Avernus is a classic tale of good versus evil. Players must save the city of Elturel, which is dragged into the Nine Hells, from certain doom. The story is replete with infernal deals, temptations, and terrifying encounters. From soul-powered motorcycles to cute flying elephants, this module offers a diverse range of experiences. Players can also explore the aftermath of this campaign in the video game Baldur’s Gate 3, creating a seamless connection between tabletop and digital adventures.
However, the adventure book itself mirrors the chaotic nature of the story. It lacks organization, often requiring Dungeon Masters to improvise or heavily railroad players from one point to another. The introductory levels set in Baldur’s Gate feel forced and tacked on, merely leveraging the recognizable name for marketing purposes. The treatment of the city is lackluster, and the players’ agency is limited, often leading to uninspiring motivations. The breadcrumbs guiding players to Hell are unimpressive, the path within Hell is unclear, and the amnesiac guide character, Lulu, can be particularly frustrating.
3. Lost Mine Of Phandelver
As the introductory module for the 2014 D&D Starter Set, Lost Mine of Phandelver serves as an excellent starting point for beginners. It seamlessly introduces players to key elements of 5e, such as exploration, combat, and social encounters, while offering an engaging storyline. The adventure, taking players from level one to five, blends intrigue and side plots, appealing to both novice and veteran players. Its enduring popularity has led to an upcoming update, Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk.
2. Tomb Of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation, penned in collaboration with Adventure Time‘s Pendleton Ward, combines D&D with elements of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. Players journey to the remote land of Chult to unravel the Death Curse plaguing Faerûn. This high-stakes adventure features rich lore, zombie dinosaurs, and appearances by established D&D characters like Valindra Shadowmantle and Acererak the Lich. The climactic Tomb, inspired by Gary Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors, ensures that the adventure lives up to its name, Tomb of Annihilation.
A substantial reason why this adventure is exceptional is that while many 5e adventures draw inspiration from a single classic module, Tomb of Annihilation draws from three.
It seamlessly integrates the finest elements of The Isle of Dread, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Tomb of Horrors, managing to enhance all three and rectify errors made in previous 5e releases. Unlike Storm King’s Thunder, this sandbox is perfectly contained, featuring the ideal number of locations in a manageable area.
Unlike Horde of the Dragon Queen, this adventure provides genuine villains (in fact, 2 or 3) to be loathed, despised, and feared. And unlike nearly every above-ground adventure, merely stepping ten feet beyond the safety of town is no guarantee of survival. Just venturing outside the walls of the exquisite home base, Port Nyanzaru, could spell certain doom. In fact, it’s even deadlier than Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd, making it the most lethal of all the adventures.
1. Curse Of Strahd
Here’s my personal favorite to run and my absolute most hated to run, Curse of Strahd.
Based on the classic Ravenloft module, Curse of Strahd brings gothic horror to D&D 5e. Transported to the cursed land of Barovia, players confront the tyrannical Count Strahd von Zarovich. The atmospheric setting enhances the sense of dread as players navigate this gothic nightmare. Strahd emerges as an iconic D&D villain, offering DMs a compelling character to roleplay as they challenge the party.
Can a perfect adventure be overrated? Curse of Strahd might be the one that comes closest to that paradox. Undeniably, this adventure is spectacular. Strahd may well be the finest villain ever created for D&D. While most adventures revolve around heroes in a peaceful society trying to prevent a cataclysm, in the land of Strahd, the villain has already emerged victorious, and the world suffers for it. The apocalypse is imminent, and players can only struggle in vain against him.
Yet, before that inevitable confrontation, the cursed land of Barovia offers a spooky sandbox of lost souls and unspeakable horrors. Every encounter drips with dread and pathos, delivering exquisite anguish. Count Strahd’s castle is a pinnacle of dungeon design, and the prophetic Tarroka (tarot) reading offers a brilliant means to reconfigure the story’s plot points, leading to boundless replayability—hence the annual Halloween Strahd-fests.
That said, the same replayability that gives Curse of Strahd it’s staying power makes it a bit of a nightmare for an inexperienced DM to run because the module isn’t exactly the most linear guide of the bunch.
If it’s too long and confusing for your tastes, though, just run Death House, a one-shot that’s meant to segue into the main Curse of Strahd campaign.