Perfect Adventures for the New Dungeon Master
Playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time is a daunting task, especially for a new Dungeon Master. Thanks to D&D Beyond guest author Mike “SlyFlourish” Shea, we now have a handful of articles to help you get started, including advice on how to find and hold onto your first group, how to improvise when your players defy your plans, and how to run your very first D&D game.
When it comes to your first D&D session, however, the most important thing isn’t knowing all the rules of having perfect character voices. The most important thing you can prepare for your first game is an adventure that helps your players have fun. Your players don’t expect a story worthy of Shakespeare, but they do want to have a good time.
What do your Players Want?
If you’re a new Dungeon Master, odds are you don’t know what your players want out of D&D. Some players want to go on an epic quest like in The Lord of the Rings, while others want to have an open world sandbox to joke around with their friends, like a multiplayer version of Skyrim. Other players are wallflowers that just want to hang out with their friends and are content to swing their sword when their turn in combat comes around.
If you know exactly what your players want, great! You can skip ahead to the next section and just skim through some adventures. It’s fine if you don’t know your players’ tastes very well, though. Odds are, if your players are newbies also, they don’t know for sure what they want either. In situations like this, it’s a good idea for your first adventure to be a buffet of different playstyle options. That way, your players will probably find some part of the adventure they can latch onto—just be sure to take a note of when each player’s eyes light up, you’ll want to include more of that in future adventures.
The best beginner adventures are short, feature memorable NPCs, give the players clear objectives, offer lots of room for player creativity, and allow the players to make their own stories. It may seem disrespectful for the players to ignore the adventure’s prescribed plot, act out-of-character, and all but completely trample over the rich lore of your fantasy world… but remember, they’re here to have fun! If they’re new players, they probably have a lot of nervous energy and may feel awkward about roleplaying. You may feel discouraged, but as long as you keep speaking in character and highlighting what’s important about your world, the players will eventually settle into their characters.
Most of all, remember that the story you’re telling is not just the plot of the adventure you’re running, it’s the story of incredible successes, hilarious failures, and riotous jokes that your players create when their characters breathe life into the sterile plot on the page.
The Best Beginner Adventures for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons
In my opinion, the best D&D campaigns are those you craft yourself. By crafting a series of adventures with your own dungeons, villains, traps, and encounters, you can tailor your content to your players’ tastes—and to your tastes, too! The reverse is also true, however. If you don’t know your players’ tastes (or your own tastes, for that matter), writing a homebrew campaign can be overwhelming.
By running a published adventure, you avoid much of the work of creating villains, dungeons, and encounters, and are also safe in the knowledge that your adventure has been thoroughly playtested. The encounters will be balanced and increase smoothly from easy to challenging as the adventure goes on, giving the entire adventure a difficulty curve that will excite your players without overwhelming them.
You should read the entire adventure from cover to cover before running it. If you really want to give your players a top-notch experience, practice speaking character as some of the NPCs or monsters in your free time. You should also make sure you’ve read the monster stat blocks and dungeon areas in the adventure so that nothing in the adventure text catches you off guard. I guarantee you that your players will do things you won’t expect, so be sure you at least know how the adventure is supposed to work so that you can improvise more easily when things inevitably go off the rails.
Now, without further ado, a list of the best D&D adventures for new Dungeon Masters.
Lost Mine of Phandelver (D&D Starter Set)
by Richard Baker
Lost Mine appearing at the top of this list should come as no surprise to D&D veterans. More than simply one of the best adventures for new Dungeon Masters, it’s one of the best adventures fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons has to offer, period. In addition to a lengthy introductory adventure, the D&D Starter Set also includes pregenerated characters to get new players right into the action without undertaking the challenge of creating a character, a set of dice, and an abbreviated rulebook for players that don’t own a Player’s Handbook. If played from start to finish, your characters will start at 1st level and finish the adventure at 5th level.
In my experience running Lost Mine of Phandelver, this adventure excels in introducing new players to D&D because of its clear objectives, its loose plot, and its many sidequests, which give the players plenty of opportunities to have fun making their own story as they explore the wilderness around Phandalin, rather than rigidly following your prescribed plot. This sandbox feel is perfect for players that want an adventure like Skyrim or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or for those who just want to have fun with their friends instead of telling an epic story.
New DMs seeking to play this adventure, however, should be aware that it is long. If you or your friends aren’t sure if you really want to play D&D, you may want to only play a single session (a “one-shot” game) to test the waters. Fortunately, Lost Mine of Phandelver can be shortened if need be; just run the opening adventure (in which the players save Sildar Hallwinter from the goblins of Cragmaw Hideout) and end the adventure when they return Sildar to Phandalin. Throw a big party in which the people of the town call the player characters heroes, and end things there. If your players want more, you’re in luck! Lost Mine has a ton more content to play through.
My biggest criticism of Lost Mine of Phandelver, however, is its uninteresting NPCs (except the fascinating NPCs in the town of Thundertree). The core NPCs of the adventure, even its main villain, the Black Spider, are dreadfully one-dimensional. One of my favorite D&D podcasts, The Adventure Zone, sidestepped this issue by adding one distinct character trait to each of the NPCs. While these reworks were all very simple, they imbued the NPCs with infinitely more charm and character than the original text provided—such as burning Sildar Hallwinter, a character with no memorable traits, into Barry Bluejeans, a throwaway NPC with one defining trait: his blue jeans—or making the bland dark elf villain the Black Spider into a campy mustache-twirler named Magic Brian with a hilarious German accent.
My advice to new Dungeon Masters running Lost Mine of Phandelver is twofold. First, run the first section of the adventure (“Part 1: Goblin Arrows”) for your players as a one-shot. If they like it, you can expand the whole Starter Set adventure into a mini-campaign. Also, choose one defining character trait for each of the NPCs in that part and make that character trait huge. Don’t be afraid to go overboard.
These NPCs are:
- Gundren Rockseeker, the dwarf that sets the characters on their quest. He’s secretive about why he hired the characters, but maybe he’s an absolutely terrible liar.
- Sildar Hallwinter, a human friend of Gundren that was taken prisoner by goblins. He is a kindhearted warrior sworn to protecting the realm… but maybe he’s also incredibly greedy.
- Yeemik, a goblin lieutenant that wants to take control of the entire goblin clan. While Yeemik is ambitious, maybe he’s also a sniveling coward!
- Klarg, a bugbear that commands the Cragmaw goblin clan. He’s a bit unhinged and talks in the third person like the Incredible Hulk. Maybe play up that Hulkishness… or go the way of The Adventure Zone and play him as a tea-drinking softie!
This adventure is available on Amazon, in the board game aisle of major retailers like Target, or at your local game store.
Defiance in Phlan
by Shawn Merwin
This adventure, crafted to introduce players to the D&D Adventurer’s League organized play program, is actually five adventures in one! While this adventure doesn’t come with pregenerated characters or a dice set like the D&D Starter Set, Defiance in Phlan features five mini-adventures (each about one hour long) that introduce new players to the basics of D&D through simple NPC interactions, fast combats, and even a bit of exploration. If played from start to finish, your characters will start at 1st level and finish the adventure at 2nd level.
Defiance in Phlan’s greatest strength is its length and its modularity. Each of the hour-long mini-adventures are short and self-contained, meaning that a group full of new players only somewhat interested in playing D&D can engage in as few or as many of the short adventures as they like. A group full of focused, excited players could blaze through all five adventures in single evening, whereas a group of players who like to crack jokes and take it easy might only get through two mini-adventures in an evening.
Each of these mini-adventures also has crystal-clear objectives. The players will always know what they’re trying to do in this adventure. This lets the players focus on roleplaying their characters without having to unravel a complex plot. Remember, the story of a low-level D&D game isn’t about the plot of the adventure, it’s about the misadventures of the characters.
While I consider these traits to be features, not flaws, you should note that Defiance in Phlan has simple NPCs, plots, and encounters. If you or your players want to delve into a rich story, play tactically, or roleplay with deep NPCs, this adventure may be a bit too shallow for you. It is, however, an excellent starting point for DMs and players who have never played an RPG before.
This adventure is only available as a digital download on the Dungeon Masters Guild.
Your Own Adventure!
Here’s a dirty secret of DMing: most players don’t care how good your adventure is as long as they get to hang out with their friends. My players love it when I break out a deep and intricate storyline, but they’d just as soon kill some goblins, tell some jokes, and eat pizza. As long as you give them a simple quest with a clear objective (such as to save a person, find a treasure, or kill a monster), with a funny NPC to make fun of, they’ll have the time of their lives.
The very first game of D&D I ever ran followed this exact formula. The player characters met in the small town of Onset. They were summoned to meet Duke Frederick (one player character tried to secretly poison him with their snake familiar, but the snake was killed by a guard), who tasked them with apprehending a mysterious kidnapper that had made its lair in the nearby forest. They traveled through the forest, fought a river monster, and then found an abandoned ruin. They avoided a few traps, and then found a Green Hag in the ruin’s basement. Then they beat up the hag and went home happy.
Frankly, that adventure was crap from a storytelling perspective. Its NPCs were flat, it had no personal stakes for the characters, the monsters had no unified theme… but none of that mattered. We just had fun.
Don’t let your own anxieties stop you from running a fun, terrible first game of D&D. Everyone has to start somewhere.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his two reckless adventurers, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.