In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.
Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.
The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.
I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.
Recipes and ingredients
Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.
Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.
To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.
The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.
As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.
Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.
Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.
How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?
Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.
- City of Skulls (1993)
- City of the Spider Queen (2002)
- Ruins of Undermountain (1991)
- Forge of Fury (2000)
- Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)
- Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001)
If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.
Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.
Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.
When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.
I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.
I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”
None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.
Attention and recency bias
Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.
Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.
When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.
What happened between 1986 and 1996?
I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”
Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition
Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.
Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.
No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?
In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.
Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.
My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.
- The greatest short adventures published after 1985
- The greatest high-level adventures from any era
- The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
- The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures
Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.
Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?
Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10