Dungeon Masters getting ready to run a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (5E) campaign should strongly consider using one of the two adventures (Tyranny of Dragons and Elemental Evil) published by Wizards of the Coast.
The Tyranny of Dragons and Elemental Evil ‘adventures’ aren’t.
First, despite Wizards of the Coast calling these books adventures, they’re not.
Veteran role players typically think of an adventure as a string of related encounters that allow characters to earn treasure and experience. This might be a dungeon crawl, a rescue mission or — really — anything else. After each adventure, characters typically rest in a town, gain a level, upgrade their gear and then look for another adventure.
These books — Hoard of the Dragon Queen, The Rise of Tiamat and Princes of the Apocalypse — give dungeon masters a series of adventures meant to take characters from level one to 15.
Veteran role players typically call a series of interrelated adventures a campaign.
Wait, there are three books and two adventures?
Yes. The Tyranny of Dragons adventure is split across two books: Hoard of the Dragon Queen (for characters level 1-7) and The Rise of Tiamat (for characters level 8-15).
The Elemental Evil adventure occupies just one book, called Princes of the Apocalypse. It will take characters all the way from first level to 15th level.
What’s in these books?
The Elemental Evil and Tyranny of Dragons books supply everything a Dungeon Master needs to keep a party moving onward and upward. In some cases, these are the relatively simple things you expect from a module — like stats and personalities for key NPCs, random encounter tables, and maps. But the books reach well beyond that, giving textured, interconnected bits of information.
Here’s one example. (Warning: spoilers.) In The Rise of Tiamat, the players barrel toward an encounter that they can’t possibly handle themselves. We’re not talking about a powerful lich or king or legendary warrior. We’re talking about Tiamat: an evil dragon goddess. With FIVE HEADS.
The player characters need help from some or all of the 10 power blocks present at the Council of Waterdeep. But the player’s can’t simply ask for this help. They need to earn it, and they do this with their choices.
The book gives players a series of adventures that players can choose to go on, or not. And most of those adventures give the players additional choices — selling a powerful artifact, for example, or returning it to its rightful owner. Each choice impacts how the campaign’s power blocks feel about the player characters. In general, as the group does more “good” things, the power blocks like them more. But sometimes a choice will garner players more favor with some groups while losing them favor with others.
The book gives the dungeon master a handy matrix to track the party’s favor. While this is something that dungeon masters could do on their own, it’s a lot easier to keep together when someone else has already done the math for you.
Do they railroad my game?
Will the Wizards of the Coast D&D 5E adventures turn your game into a “railed” experience where players don’t make any real choices?
Both adventures have a definite ending in mind from page 1, but that’s not a drawback. Any campaign should task a party with working toward an ultimate “big bad” that they defeat, declare victory over and then ride off into the sunset.
The trick is to not railroad the party to that ending. And these books do a nice job of avoiding that. The Princes of Apocalypse adventure, in particular, includes the the tools necessary to let the players work their way through the plot in their own way. In most of the encounters on the way to The Big Bad, the writers have included contingencies to account for how players approach each challenge.
If your players wander into their first evil site without a clue about what’s really going on, the cultists might turn them away — sternly, but politely. The group shows up with enough knowledge to claim to be friends? The cult accepts them in. Your party decides to sneak in? The book outlines how likely the cults are to notice and how they’ll react once they do.
Your party just can’t seem to stumble in the direction of the adventure? Princes of the Apocalypse has that covered, too.
Why should I use these books in my game?
For some of us, creating a rich and interconnected world is part of the fun of running a role playing game. I, personally, spent four hours designing the map for my current campaign.
For those who don’t thrive on world-building, it can be a joyless time-suck. But without grafting adventures onto a larger story, a campaign can jerk from dungeon to dungeon without any sense of continuity. If that’s what you and your group likes, that’s fine, but that’s not what most players want out of a D&D game.
If you’re a DM who wants to tell a story and doesn’t want to spend hours on preparation, these books are fantastic. They give you all the tools you need to run your characters through a truly-epic campaign, and customize some bits in between.