Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

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.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

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.

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?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

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?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

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12 Responses to Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

  1. Joe says:

    Good morning David,

    Very nice review. I wonder if a discussion to have might be on a list of adventures for beginner, experienced, and advanced dms? Those three titles are a first attempt at categorizing, certainly not final. The new box set just came out, and I find that adventure, at first glance, to be even more new dm friendly than lost mines. Thoughts?

  2. Ilbranteloth says:

    I haven’t had the time to dig through adventures yet. Most of the time I’d steal ideas, maps, and such from whatever was available, rather than playing published adventures as is. But your list has been great fun and reminded me of some classics I haven’t looked at in a while.

    For Dungeon adventures, Randy Maxwell was a great author. Ex Libris is my favorite, which I’ve used many times. It’s one of the few adventures with an interesting mechanic/puzzle behind the dungeon that works really, really well (and makes sense within the setting). An absolute classic.

    • Norker says:

      Great to hear some mention of Ex Libris! Always been one of my fave adventures, especially for experienced players. The DM can easily scale its difficulty by removing clues or beefing up monsters. A fantastic puzzle that makes absolute sense and with a good theme.

  3. OZ_DM says:

    Storm Kings Thunder is an excellent adventure however it’s not for novices or DMs who aren’t prepared to build and mix and modify along the way to create connectivity between key scenes.

    Kobold Press one shot adventure is the go for short adventures.

  4. alphastream says:

    David, I can’t tell you how much I like reading your blog. It’s such great information and your style is so thought-provoking!

    Okay, some takes:
    The greatest high-level adventures from any era: I have to go with Throne of Bloodstone. While the design in many places is not exceptional, for a 1988 adventure it does a great job of showcasing how a truly awesome high-level plane-spanning adventure can work. It was very enjoyable as the end of my college campaign and took us to level 32-36 in AD&D play! (It theoretically can take you to level 100).

    The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting:
    For Dark Sun, Freedom does one of the best jobs at capturing a setting and introduces player well to the momentous events in the boxed set with the fall of Kalak. The same is true of the adventure included in the boxed set, which captures outdoor survival very well. Play those two and you get what Dark Sun is. Compare this to Dragonlance (or later Dark Sun adventures), where you feel like you get a bad version of the novels while the real stars are off doing the cool work.

    The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures: We’ve shared threads on EN World, and I think those lists are darn good.

  5. Djscman says:

    I enjoyed running Logan Bonner’s 4e adventure “Blood Money”, published in Dungeon 200, for my 5e group. The party tries to whisk away the payroll for a tyrant’s mercenary army. To do so they need to plan and execute a heist in the castle where the payroll is stored and guarded. If the mercs aren’t paid, the tyrant will be defanged. There’s a great premise, great NPCs, great rules and advice for pulling off the caper, and a funny twist. The party didn’t even necessarily need a rogue.

  6. wraithmagus says:

    Given the way that I play, I find what you say interesting, but not really applicable to me. I also am bewildered why you would create a list like this based on POPULARITY of all things, which is by far the least useful metric. If such a list is going to be useful, surely, they should be overlooked adventures, so that readers can have their attentions drawn to buried gems. Saying “Let me tell you about crap you already know about just so everyone can argue about how overrated it is” is as unhelpful as it comes. I also basically only use small modules because I hate railroads that longer campaigns invariably devolve into, so this basically was a list of modules I’d never play.

    It seems like the complaints for 5e’s design are that it’s too linear and railroady (which I agree with), and that it’s not railroady enough for lazy DMs who apparently want something that forces players to behave exactly the way the book dictates.

    Due to my age, I played many of the 2nd ed AD&D computer games when I was young (including some of the “gold box” games on my father’s old Commodore 64, even if I was too young to really understand them or get very far), but by the time I was really able to get into groups of high schoolers who also played in person, 3rd ed had come around…. and I never played a 3rd edition official module, ever. Nobody did. I barely even realized they existed. Why would you want to play through someone else’s adventure exactly the way that everyone else played it? 3rd ed also had a wealth of much more interesting splatbooks (which took up all the shelves of the LFGS alongside some 3rd party stuff), including ones that helped you build campaigns in specific environments, like Sandstorm which were much more interesting. In fact, I found the Saltmarsh in the back of the DMG II to be one of the most inspiring chuncks of content I’d seen because it was basically just a map with a giant list of adventure hooks that didn’t get bogged down dictating your campaign to you. We always played “DM by the seat of your pants”, building the tracks as the train was barrelling towards it. When computers are so much more fast and efficient, literally the only reason to play D&D on the tabletop was because it didn’t have walls and you could make the whole world fit to the quirks of the characters. (And we often played games with personalized plots, like everyone being agents of a specific kingdom that had a campaign centered around subterfuge, with basically no classic dungeons at all.)

    I didn’t play 4e, I went and played World of Darkness. Changeling: The Lost and Hunter: The Vigil felt much more true to the kind of fantasy I wanted to play. (If I wanted to play a video game, then video games do it better, cheaper, and with less scheduling issues.)

    Now that I’ve finally come around to playing 5e, I find some of the elements of the 5e campaign books interesting. The start of Out of the Abyss (that is, the demo part I can legally download online for free) is highly interesting for introducing ten whole NPCs with varied motivations and waiting conflicts with the party… but it’s still a linear railroad, so I can’t really use them.

    For my most recent game, I decided to start off with a small 3rd party module I’d gotten in a humble bundle just to buy time while I was building up the custom world. After the players had been invited into the house of the local timariotta (it’s an Ottoman Turks-inspired culture, since the players wanted something more exotic), she interrogated the player characters to assess whether they were trustworthy enough for the task she was going to entrust to them. (Most of the characters were escaped slaves or discharged former military or both, and due to a lack of cohesive backstory, I’d said they were in a governmental unit made mostly of criminals whose reward for success was pardons for their crimes, so even bothering to interrogate them was kind of being too generous. Anyway, this involved asking questions about the backstory of the characters, which had the added benefit of making PC backstory common knowledge to the whole party, but they had to roll for any lies they told to pass a bluff check or else they’d get grilled even harder.) Several of the characters passed easily (not all of them were on the wrong side of the law), one had to stretch the truth a little, but managed to make his check… and then the (new player who’d only ever played video games and never actual role-play) dwarf rogue basically just jumps up and angrily asks how dare she ask him questions, and threatens that if she tries to betray him, he’ll gut her…. I’m absolutely stunned and not at all prepared for this, but manage to reply “Threatening a noblewoman in her own parlor is far from wise.” He also naturally fails all his persuasion checks while trying to “make it better” (while not backing down on the death threat part), and the player characters wind up booted out of the timarotta’s house by the armed guards that filed in from secret doors (which I made up on the spot when I realized something like this might be necessary, because the module sure doesn’t prepare you for what happens when a player tries to start combat with the quest giver…). Quest failed. Module in the trash. Players don’t get to see what happens after that in the story.

    And that’s a key part of DMing that giant adventure books fail to deal with – the possibility of actually letting players fail the quest, and not seeing any more of it. When I’m running five or six small modules or homebrew plot threads (throwing in foreshadowing for one and dropping clues to another in the downtime while the party recovers from actively pursuing another), I can just plain have a whole module fail and throw it out. I can also much more easily rewrite massive chunks of it to suit my players without worrying about ruining crap way down the line.

    There is no “players missing content” when there’s a literally infinite amount of content I’m creating as the players walk to the next village, that’s a problem that only exists BECAUSE of being chained to a large module. (There is only “what kind of content do you guys want next? There’s a mystery in the town to the west, a dungeon in the town to the north, and an event chain to the south.) The players only run into content below or above their level when I decide they should because I’m the freakin’ DM, and I don’t have to put content in front of my players I don’t want in front of my players. These problems you are talking about are all problems purely because these huge everyone-plays-the-same-campaign-or-else in a book. (And don’t even get me started on the “nobody is allowed to role play or be an individual” crap that is the Adventurer’s League. Apparently, you’re not even allowed to have treasure anymore, much less the overt shackles on DMs to fix the broken rules and inability to make fun custom magic items…)

  7. Lucas says:

    I don’t really have any good answers to the questions you posed except maybe to say 5e curse of strahd for best setting adventure. I’ve almost always rolled my own for high level play, and the only Dungeon stuff that I remember were the first two adventures paths, not any standalone adventures.

    *SKT spoilers*

    However, I will hop in to say I am surprised SKT is getting much love. I am running it right now and while it isn’t bad, its very uneven. I ripped out the 1-5 intro adventure as I thought it was very bland, and instead ran a Ruins of Undermountain amalgamation (the 2e and 4e versions), which a few players actively did not want to do but ended up loving it. However, there are so many little fun hooks and we have been just exploring the North through the hodgepodge chapter for several months now. I plan on leveling the PCs way up with all this side stuff so they can actually fight the dragon with minimal giant help (another major flaw in my opinion with requiring the PCs fight with giants). I also just tossed all of the story lines associated with the tribal sites as I didnt think they were very good.

    I also think it would be really hard for a new DM to run it…but that freedom is what has also made it so much fun to play when you can handle the sandboxy-ness of it.

    All that to say, parts of SKT are fine, other parts need to be massively reworked or thrown away completely. OotA and Curse of Strahd seem like significantly better adventures to me.

    • OZ_DM says:

      I think the beauty of SKT is what you have found – contained within its pages is a story thread you do want to play.

      Some encounter options I don’t like, some I do, but overall with a bit of DM work there is the gem you and your players want at the table.

      • Lucas says:

        I guess to be clear I still think it is a good adventure and worth your money and time…I just don’t see it as ranking with the 10 best adventures of the last 20 years, especially when I can argue two of the three other 5e adventures I have ran or played in are significantly better (CoS and OotA. SKT is better than Tiamat).

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