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5E The Flaw in Each Campaign Adventure (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
In all the official WotC adventures I’ve run, there have been issues I would’ve handled differently. Some are relatively minor, while others knocked the adventure off course. Obviously, these are all my personal opinions, and what didn’t work for my groups might work great for your groups.

Feel free to share your experiences and what you would do differently/change to improve the adventure.

(Of course, spoilers follow.)


Storm King’s Thunder

Early in the adventure the party is investigating the ruined village of Nightstone that has been destroyed by a cloud giant attack, with little information about what tribe did it or why. Out of nowhere, a ridiculous NPC appears in a comical flying tower with a hat on! This is a “friendly” cloud giant who the party is to assume isn’t going to attack him after finding evidence that the village was destroyed by a similar giant. This NPC (Zephyros) is the information dump, quest giver, and ferryman for the beginning of the campaign.

This setup really got my campaign off on the wrong foot. I was playing catchup for the rest of the campaign because my group didn’t trust him.

In the end the political maneuvering of the different Giant clans was way too complex with a shape-shifting dragon behind everything (and very little clues to figure it out). A simple, stream-lined sandbox adventure to take down evil giant chieftains in the Savage North would’ve been epic.

Tomb of Annihilation

While this was one of the best official adventures I’ve run for 5e, there are a few flaws. The driving impetus of the campaign – the Death Curse – is so deadly and fast-moving that it overshadows the rest of the adventure. The best part of the adventure (the jungle exploration and searching for the Lost City) is blasted through to get to the endgame to save the world. Plus there is almost no direction on how to find Omu besides just walking and hoping you stumble into it.

The Death Curse countdown should absolutely be eliminated. Find another less time-sensitive McGuffin.

Princes of the Apocalypse

Evil elemental cultists wreaking havoc on the Realms. Sounds pretty cool, right? So why in the unholy name of Lorraine Williams do you start off the adventure with a confusing dungeon of roleplaying opportunities with people who may or may not be villains? The Air Cult at the start of this adventure throws off the whole adventure. I’m an experienced DM who has tried running this adventure three times, and even I don’t understand what the point of this is.

If you want to have skullduggery, enemies switching sides, and more, put that stuff later in the campaign. Don’t kick off your epic campaign with villains with unclear motivations and a confused party.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

My initial take on this one is to simply burn it with fire. I guess to improve the main flaw I see with it is to add an actual adventure with player agency to the railroad structure that has been given to the group.

Out of the Abyss

Every time I’ve run this game the horde of strange NPCs following the group after the prison break has been a challenge to GM. I’ve tried running them as NPCs, putting them in the background, killing them off, giving players control of them. They need to be dealt with somehow. I’m wondering now if it’s not best to just give some of the traits of the NPCs to the characters as backgrounds – which might show up later in the course of the campaign.

Also, in the three times I’ve attempted to run this, it all falls apart at Blingdenstone. The group flees the Underdark here, never to return. The universal feeling is that they are too outmatched after running into numerous demon lords at low level that they just want to escape. Once given the opportunity, that is a satisfying enough ending. In hindsight, having Demogorgon appear when the group is around 3rd level is terrible for pacing and really destroys the arc of the campaign.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage

This one is bad, even as a dungeon crawl. It’s not particularly interesting as a campaign. I would recommend using it only to fill in gaps of your regular campaign and drop in the occasional level as needed and re-write it into your existing campaign.

Descent into Avernus

Ok, I haven’t run this one. But if/when I do, I’m not going to use the ghost toddler NPC guide. It seems to fall into the trap of a guide who can’t be trusted, info/dump. Fool me once with Storm King’s Thunder, I’m not gonna be fooled again.
 

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pogre

Hero
Dungeon of the Mad Mage
My experience is very different and my group had a blast with this one. The factions vying for control of the various levels and memorable NPCs made for a great campaign. For me, it played much better that it read.

We started it after Dragon Heist, which needed a ton of work. I appreciated running DotMM pretty much as written.
 

MarkB

Legend
Out of the Abyss

Every time I’ve run this game the horde of strange NPCs following the group after the prison break has been a challenge to GM. I’ve tried running them as NPCs, putting them in the background, killing them off, giving players control of them. They need to be dealt with somehow. I’m wondering now if it’s not best to just give some of the traits of the NPCs to the characters as backgrounds – which might show up later in the course of the campaign.
I tried going the "hand them out to players" route, but it was definitely unwieldy, and felt bad when half the players lost 'their' NPC due to tough battles - I was pretty merciless in letting them get killed in combat, to emphasise the stakes.

I ended up ditching them all by the time they got to the Kuo-Toa village, culminating in the sacrificial ceremony happening to be held on a spring tide (coinciding with a full moon) so that Topsy and Turvy went fully feral during the climactic battle.

Also, in the three times I’ve attempted to run this, it all falls apart at Blingdenstone. The group flees the Underdark here, never to return. The universal feeling is that they are too outmatched after running into numerous demon lords at low level that they just want to escape. Once given the opportunity, that is a satisfying enough ending. In hindsight, having Demogorgon appear when the group is around 3rd level is terrible for pacing and really destroys the arc of the campaign.
I got kind-of burned out myself at that point. Having escaped the Underdark, some of the players wanted to carry on and come back for part two, but I bounced hard off the next chapter just reading it, and never could summon up the enthusiasm to run it.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Dungeon of the Mad Mage

This one is bad, even as a dungeon crawl. It’s not particularly interesting as a campaign. I would recommend using it only to fill in gaps of your regular campaign and drop in the occasional level as needed and re-write it into your existing campaign.
This is interesting - I've had the opposite experience with this one so far. I'm playing it with a table of first time players who range in age from 12 to 40 and they're all having a great time with it. We skipped the "Dragon Heist" part because they were already 6th level from some previous sessions and have just been doing a dungeon delve in Undermountain and they're all having a great time.
 

Retreater

Legend
This is interesting - I've had the opposite experience with this one so far. I'm playing it with a table of first time players who range in age from 12 to 40 and they're all having a great time with it. We skipped the "Dragon Heist" part because they were already 6th level from some previous sessions and have just been doing a dungeon delve in Undermountain and they're all having a great time.
Hmm. I guess maybe it's not "strange" enough for me? Or there's not enough character? Or something just feels generic and off about it? I feel like compared to other dungeons I've run (Rappan Athuk, Tegel Manor, etc.) that it's just sort of bland, boring, and too easy. The detail-free maps likely contribute to this.
 
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MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
I've also noticed issues with the published adventures ranging from small to concerning with the exception of Lost Mines of Phandelver. I think this is mostly due to it's smaller scope covering only levels 1 to 5. It knows exactly what it's doing: being a straight forward adventure suitable for beginners to run, but at the same time not being overly simple to the point of being boring.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Hmm. I guess maybe it's not "strange" enough for me? Or there's not enough character? Or something just feels generic and off about it? I feel like compared to other dungeons I've run (Rappan Athuk, Tegel Manor, etc.) that it's just sort of bland, boring, and too easy. The detail-free maps likely contribute to this.
I suspect audience expectations may be playing into it then. The group I'm playing with doesn't have anything to compare it to and so they're enjoying it, and I specifically picked it to be a "standard" D&D dungeon crawl so it's kind of generic nature is a plus instead of a minus.

(I do agree that the maps are not my favorite. I know a lot of folks really like the retro 1e / B/X feel of the black and white plain grid maps but I'm not one of them.)
 

Sadras

Hero
Great thread!

Storm King’s Thunder

Early in the adventure the party is investigating the ruined village of Nightstone that has been destroyed by a cloud giant attack, with little information about what tribe did it or why. Out of nowhere, a ridiculous NPC appears in a comical flying tower with a hat on! This is a “friendly” cloud giant who the party is to assume isn’t going to attack him after finding evidence that the village was destroyed by a similar giant. This NPC (Zephyros) is the information dump, quest giver, and ferryman for the beginning of the campaign.

This setup really got my campaign off on the wrong foot. I was playing catchup for the rest of the campaign because my group didn’t trust him.

In the end the political maneuvering of the different Giant clans was way too complex with a shape-shifting dragon behind everything (and very little clues to figure it out). A simple, stream-lined sandbox adventure to take down evil giant chieftains in the Savage North would’ve been epic.
My table didn't have a problem with the tower and Zephyros. Sure they were initially apprehensive but they soon saw him for what he was - a likable, small-folk loving, wizened-old giant. There are ways to make the tower's stairs more enticing i.e. describe how an impressively bright red welcome carpet slowly unfolds and rolls out over the steps reaching all the way to the bottom - making it less ominous.

Also, I had his visions for heroes/saviours of the giant problem come in the form of a chessboard, with the one side being evil men, draconic, shape-shifting pieces and wet, while the other was represented with pawns wearing various faction insignia and heroes (PCs) in the back row as well as foreshadowing important NPCs (Harshnag the Grimm as one of the Castles). He explained to them that every time he tried to pick up the "good-aligned" pieces, they would turn to smoke and would never re-appear on the chessboards of future Contact Greater Plane castings. This he understood being that his role was not to interfere directly in the dealing with the giant-small-folk fall-out.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

My initial take on this one is to simply burn it with fire. I guess to improve the main flaw I see with it is to add an actual adventure with player agency to the railroad structure that has been given to the group.
I absolutely LOVE this adventure, but I did make it my own and I have had the benefit of hindsight from so many others who have run this before me - so I do agree with your advice on this.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Tomb of Annihilation

While this was one of the best official adventures I’ve run for 5e, there are a few flaws. The driving impetus of the campaign – the Death Curse – is so deadly and fast-moving that it overshadows the rest of the adventure. The best part of the adventure (the jungle exploration and searching for the Lost City) is blasted through to get to the endgame to save the world. Plus there is almost no direction on how to find Omu besides just walking and hoping you stumble into it.

The Death Curse countdown should absolutely be eliminated. Find another less time-sensitive McGuffin.
I haven’t run this one yet, but to me it would seem that the time sensitivity is the key selling point. Without that element, it’s just a hex wander, but the death curse gives the adventure focus, tension, and drive. I could see slowing down it’s progress to keep the ticking clock from being too oppressive, but I wouldn’t dream of removing it completely.
 

S'mon

Legend
Princes of the Apocalypse

Evil elemental cultists wreaking havoc on the Realms. Sounds pretty cool, right? So why in the unholy name of Lorraine Williams do you start off the adventure with a confusing dungeon of roleplaying opportunities with people who may or may not be villains? The Air Cult at the start of this adventure throws off the whole adventure. I’m an experienced DM who has tried running this adventure three times, and even I don’t understand what the point of this is.

If you want to have skullduggery, enemies switching sides, and more, put that stuff later in the campaign. Don’t kick off your epic campaign with villains with unclear motivations and a confused party.
My group love the Feathergale knights. But they only went there in session 5 - T1/M6 1491 DR session 5 Feathergale Spire XP 25+6=31 Lvl 4>5 - after playing through all the intro material, plus a near TPK at Scarlet Moon Hall. Two PCs eventually joined the Knights and got their own Hippogriffs. The PCs and the knights together stormed Sacred Stone Monastery and put the earth monks to the sword - 9-10/7/1491 DR Session 10 Attack on the Sacred Stone Monastery XP 60+8=68+1=69 Lvl 8>9. The adventure is set up as a sandbox, I agree the PCs shouldn't be funnelled to Feathergale right away.
 

THEMNGMNT

Adventurer
For the most part I agree with the OP. Each AP seems to have a fatal flaw that makes it less than the sum of its parts. That said, most are easily fixed, and despite my gripes I think that overall the 5E adventures are superb.
 

toucanbuzz

Adventurer
Curse of Strahd. As written, Strahd is just a dick who pops in from time to time to attack the group, but not enough to kill them because that would just be bad writing. As an eternal being obsessed with a curse, he has nothing better to do than harass low level adventurers. He needed a total rewrite in line with his storybook and lore character. Once done: totally one of the best adventures I've ever run.

Out of the Abyss: The 2nd half. There's a fun premise (go get the ingredients to an awesome spell) once you get past the piss-poor premise (we got all these epic heroes here but since you were in the Underdark for a few weeks, we need you to save the world, and here's some bare-bones stuff to do in our dwarf city), but there's nothing even remotely close to justifying the XP gains recommended for the finale. OH MAN, time's ticking and we need to stop the Demon Lords, but let's wander random tunnels in hopes of level appropriate random encounters...OR man, I just went from level 10 to level 13 in one week. I rock!
 

tetrasodium

Adventurer
Supporter
I agree with a lot of what's been said. Lmop works well because it's kind of a sandbox filled with people who have simple to convey and understand motivations that won't derail things if misinterpreted or even ignored.

A lot of the published adventures by comparison are double railroad things that run into problems if the party does anything unexpected in the storyline railroad or even worse derails the other railroad just by not acting as expected by the author.
 

werecorpse

Explorer
These are all helpful comments and solutions. I like a lot ofthe adventures but always change some stuff. Knowing what to change before you start can sometimes be tricky.

Re SKT I think the way the various beginner quests get introduced is also a poor tool and the GM should try and fix this, I’m not sure how yet as I haven’t run it. I think the giant in the floating wizards hat tower is fairly pointless. I also think the whole raison d’être of the campaign is weak. A solution seems to be to combine this campaign and tyranny of dragons which requires a bit of work but could make a fun sword coast travelling campaign. I haven’t run or played in either but I plan too.

Re Out of the Abyss, I agree the use of initial NPCs is more trouble than its worth. I like your idea to maybe give the players some background traits. The group I ran got tpked in Gracklstugh, so I went totally off the rails, they made up new Underdark appropriate characters and spent the next 8-10 levels there interacting with the Out of Abyss adventurers league adventures and other stuff which I tacked on. They have just overthrown the Deepking and replaced him with an ally who they hope will keep the city strong against various demonic armies building in the Underdark while they now finally head to Blingdenstone for reasons.

Re Tomb of Annihilation, I played this one and our DM doesn’t really kill PCs and we kinda just forgot about the timeline as it didn’t directly impact us. I think a better way to impose a timeline is baked into the campaign. Undead issues, the rising of Ras Nsi, rival explorers from Thay looking to ally with the undead and make Chult a province, ruined cities to explore before the bad guys can. That’s plenty enough motivation. The side quests in this are good but solving them was often a bit too easy and didn’t really go anywhere, so a bit of a let down.
 

pukunui

Hero
Feel free to share your experiences and what you would do differently/change to improve the adventure.
My thoughts, plus some responses to your thoughts, plus some commentary on the adventures you didn't touch on:

Storm King’s Thunder
I have played all the way through is adventure as a player, and I am almost finished DMing it. So far it has been one of my favorites. However, I acknowledge it has some issues, so the other DM and I both put a fair bit of work into addressing those.

The DM who ran it for me started with Nightstone, but replaced the Dripping Caves with an older adventure, the name of which I cannot remember, and skipped Zephyros. We ended up going to Goldenfields and thence to Grudd Haug. We then paused there and "rebooted" with a new set of characters so the DM could use more of the giant lairs. He had us start with a modified version of Murder in Baldur's Gate that was moved to Luskan. We ended up completing SKT and have since moved on to a modified version of Scales of War.

For my SKT campaign, I skipped Nightstone and ran "Trouble in Red Larch" from PotA, followed by Scourge of the Sword Coast. We are most of the way through SKT. The PCs are hunting down some giant lords before taking on Iymrith. So far it's been a blast. That said, some of my players are big Skyrim fans and loved the whole "open world full of sidequests" sandboxy element.

Tomb of Annihilation
While this was one of the best official adventures I’ve run for 5e, there are a few flaws. The driving impetus of the campaign – the Death Curse – is so deadly and fast-moving that it overshadows the rest of the adventure. The best part of the adventure (the jungle exploration and searching for the Lost City) is blasted through to get to the endgame to save the world. Plus there is almost no direction on how to find Omu besides just walking and hoping you stumble into it.

The Death Curse countdown should absolutely be eliminated. Find another less time-sensitive McGuffin.
I wholly agree with you here. I want to run this campaign again as just a jungle sandbox without the Death Curse. I also want to kick things off with the mini-adventure from The Tortle Package. I might introduce the Death Curse later on, once the PCs are high enough level to seek out Omu and deal with it, but I might just ignore it.

Princes of the Apocalypse
My beef with this adventure is its repetitiveness. I don't think I could run it as a full campaign. That said, I love "Trouble in Red Larch" and have used it to kickstart two separate campaigns now. I remember some people saying they start every campaign with The Village of Hommlet. For me, it's Red Larch!

I have also used elements from this adventure in different campaigns to great effect.

Tyranny of Dragons
Yes, it's a bit railroady. I started it off with the PCs already in town (and they were also 3rd level). I had the right group of players, though, so they didn't mind the railroadyness and had a blast with it. Both adventures struggle with some pacing issues, as well as some incomplete rules issues. I wish the recent reissue had done more to address those, but it sounds like it was pretty half-assed.

Out of the Abyss
I like the idea of this more than the execution. I don't think I could ever run it as a campaign. However, I have used it as a sourcebook for the Underdark and have used bits of it in other campaigns. For instance, I ran "Neverlight Grove" on Halloween as a sort of bad acid trip one-shot during an episodic campaign.

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
This one is bad, even as a dungeon crawl. It’s not particularly interesting as a campaign. I would recommend using it only to fill in gaps of your regular campaign and drop in the occasional level as needed and re-write it into your existing campaign.
I can't speak to it as a campaign, but I wanted to run pieces of it for a different campaign and a) couldn't find any dungeon levels (that were the right level for the party) that I liked and b) struggled to figure out how to separate them out from Undermountain as a whole. It also sucks that they left out the big shaft in the middle of Undermountain that made it easier to reach the lower levels.

Descent into Avernus
I haven't even read this one yet, let alone run it, but I've read about it, and it seems the glaring flaw here is that the actual Avernus content is sparse. Apparently WotC went the DLC route with this one, relying on the DMs Guild Adepts to fill in the gaps. It also had like 16 writers and apparently that shows as well.

Curse of Strahd
This one is fantastic. It's not perfect, but nothing is. I've both DMed it and played it as a player and really enjoyed it both times.

Lost Mine of Phandelver
Another good one. I think it suffers a little bit in the middle, where the players are encouraged to do a bunch of side quests in order to level up instead of going to look for the missing NPC guy. That's easy enough to fix, though: I let the PCs find him first and then said he needed time to recover from his ordeal, so they went on the side quests until he was well enough to take them to the climactic location.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
This one is just plain awful. Worst of the lot. It doesn't know what it wants to be -- a railroad or a sandbox or a tavern simulator. It's got horrible pacing, some of the most egregious examples of railroading I've seen in a long time (that make Tyranny of Dragons look good in comparison), and to top it all off, it's got a bunch of content you probably won't ever use and a terribly anti-climactic ending that will most likely be resolved by uber-powerful NPCs like Lady Laeral Silverhand.

Tales from the Yawning Portal / Ghosts of Saltmarsh
I haven't run all the shorter adventures in these compilations but I have run a few. I think some of the selections are questionable at best, and I also question the value in such straight updates to 5e. Some of the older adventures don't translate that well to modern RPG sensibilities, while others should've had more than just a literal update. Some more thought needs to be put into these if they are going to do any more.
 

Rabbitbait

Adventurer
Tomb of Annihilation - I like the fact that you go into the jungle without any idea of where to look and then find clues along the way. It all seems to hook together nicely for my group. However the Death Curse is on way too tight of a timeline and by the time my group got to Ras Nsi he was almost dead already. I think the timeline should be way longer, but by the time the group is getting close to Omu they should start losing 1hp per week as the soulmonger starts taking the essence of every living being. That will certainly get the tension up without actually having too much in-game impact.
 

FrozenNorth

Adventurer
I have played “Curse of Strahd”, I owned “Out of the Abyss” and I thumbed through “Tomb of Annihilation” to decide whether to buy it. For me, they all had the same flaw: you made a character with an interesting backstory? Too bad! Your character must immediately go somewhere where the background won’t matter, there is zero chance of running into someone who might know you, and you are indistinguishable from all the other murderhobos.

I understand WHY they did that, it’s just that it is possible to make an adventure background agnostic without making backgrounds completely irrelevant.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Tomb of Annihilation

While this was one of the best official adventures I’ve run for 5e, there are a few flaws. The driving impetus of the campaign – the Death Curse – is so deadly and fast-moving that it overshadows the rest of the adventure. The best part of the adventure (the jungle exploration and searching for the Lost City) is blasted through to get to the endgame to save the world. Plus there is almost no direction on how to find Omu besides just walking and hoping you stumble into it.

The Death Curse countdown should absolutely be eliminated. Find another less time-sensitive McGuffin.
The direction on getting to Omu is relatively simple; you ask the guide you hire. They won't know, but they usually know where the Naga oracle is, who in turn does know where Omu is.
 

Retreater

Legend
The direction on getting to Omu is relatively simple; you ask the guide you hire. They won't know, but they usually know where the Naga oracle is, who in turn does know where Omu is.
None of the groups I've DMed hired a guide who could help. They all got betrayed by the yuan-ti. Haha.
But it is a pretty weak connection even under the best circumstances. IIRC, the party has to guess they need to find Omu, guess who knows where to find it, guess where that person would be, etc. It's the weakest part of the adventure.
 

MarkB

Legend
One of the things about Out of the Abyss that I'd want to tweak if I ran it again is the whole concept of the places you visit having been somewhat twisted by the madness unleashed as the demons invade the realm. The big problem with this - and I feel like maybe this is one of the reasons they added the NPC companions, to serve as viewpoint characters - is that the Underdark in general and the locations the adventure covers in particular are going to be strange and unfamiliar enough to most players that there's no really obvious line between the demonic-inspired weirdness of the adventure and the more generalised weirdness of the setting.

I'd be tempted to re-write the initial chapters - the capture by the Drow, and the exploration/survival section - and replace them with something of a whistle-stop tour of some of the major locations - Blingdenstone, Gracklstugh, Sloobludop - as, say, part of a merchant caravan, so that the players can see these settlements in their normal state, maybe make a few friends and enemies, get a feel for the setting.

Then boom, have the caravan attacked by Drow, and just as it's getting overwhelmed and most of the NPCs are dead, have the Drow in turn be attacked by demons. Leave the PCs stranded in the underdark with a rough idea that they'll need to hit up their contacts in each of the major locations in order to gain passage back to the surface, and then let them see how the spreading madness has started to affect the various settlements they're familiar with.
 

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