Ranking 5e Modules
I wrote this on Reddit the other day, might as well drop it on here too! D&D fifth edition has been going for 7 years now – yet the list of official modules is not that large. A stroke of genius from Wizards if you ask me, on par with their decision to set everything in Faerun and create an almost MCU-like consistency. These things are easy to complain about but I think they are a large part of the success of 5th ed.
So why not rank the current crop of modules! Here we go!
Caveats: I do not own all the books. I definitely haven’t played through all of them. So most of this is based on reading, not playing. The ones I have played, I’ll denote with an asterisk.
D, E, and F-Tier (Irredeemable to Bad)
As I mentioned, WotC has made some very strong moves with its fifth edition release schedule. Fewer books, with higher quality in production and content. None of the modules published so far are actively bad. Especially when you compare them to stuff like some word-salad railroading late 2e adventures, or many of the Adventurer League adventures (names withheld to protect the innocent).
Hoard of the Dragon Queen + The Rise of Tiamat. These suffer from being the first outings, still looking for a voice, and working with an incomplete system. They’re not bad per se but they are flawed. More railroading than they should be. Generic. Abstracted (a whole side-trek to Thay, which could have easily been its own sourcebook, is condensed into a short chapter).
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. Has a great sense of imagination, some incredibly well-designed locations, but pairs its highs with some frustrating lows. Take the blatant cross-promotional inclusion of MtG planeswalkers, for instance: “No stat block for Tumblestrum is necessary, since she won’t harm or hinder the characters and can’t be seriously harmed by them. Her thoughts are likewise hidden since no magic can read them.” Blah.
Descent into Avernus. Some very cool ideas. The Baldur’s Gate guide is top-notch. But the adventure itself has many flaws, mostly in the super-rigid structure defined by a series of pointless fetch quests.
Rime of the Frostmaiden. A theme emerges in recent offerings. Yet again there are very evocative concepts at play, but the execution is lacking. I wrote about Karkolohk here.
Princes of the Apocalypse. A remix of Temple of Elemental Evil, this is essentially a megadungeon with a surrounding area and multiple detailed bases that can be stormed to gain access. It tries to walk a line between sandbox and plot and mostly hits that line. It does lack the out there inventiveness that later modules have though – just think of the pitch to potential players “fight cultists in holes” and compare that to the pitch for Avernus “Mad Max in hell!”.
Out of the Abyss. One of two takes on Alice in Wonderland (the other being Witchlight). It’s neat! Good locations, fight demon lords, strong opening with the prison break. Feels like it will be a bit of a slog, though, especially when the module wants you to go back into the Underdark after working so hard to GTFO.
Storm King’s Thunder. Remix of Against The Giants. Awesome giant lairs alone are worth the price of entry. A bit of weird plotting here and there, but makes up for it by being a better guide to the north than was in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. This adventure can be the basis for a solid traditional campaign, supplemented by smaller modules for local adventures, while the larger threat of invading giants slowly builds up Game Of Thrones’ white walker style.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh. This is just a collection of classic dungeons, but the ones chosen are classics for a reason. Supplemented by a description of the town proper that is better than it needed to be. The only thing holding it back is that the adventures themselves are not as good as the ones in Yawning Portal. I’ve written my own adventure for the pile here.
A-Tier (The Best)
*Curse of Strahd. A remake of a beloved classic that adheres closely to the original while enhancing it with great locations and characters. Has a great flow to it (talk to Madame Eva, find the artifacts, defeat Strahd) without forcing anything. Randomized item locations create a sandbox environment (don’t stack the deck!). It is very good. Could have done with better indexing, cross-referencing, and the castle, in particular, is quite difficult to grok.
*Tomb of Annihilation. Evocative, inventive (Pendleton Ward consults!), and perfectly paced with the three chapters moving from jungle crawl to city crawl to dungeon crawl (and Nyanzaru has enough detail to serve as a 0th chapter if the DM is ready to put some work in). There is just so much going on and it’s all great and none of it is forced. A remix of Tomb of Horrors and Dwellers of the Lost City (and some other stuff I’m sure). Probably the best adventure so far. I have homebrewed one of the less detailed locations here.
*Tales from the Yawning Portal. It’s a bunch of the most highly rated classic adventures. What else is there to say?
Dragon Heist. A great idea, with brilliant options for antagonists, inspiring description of Waterdeep – and the enemy lairs are superb (albeit unused). Marred by a weak fourth chapter (but points for innovation). For its execution, it would have been lower on the list if it hadn’t been so brimming with potential. I’ve created a one-shot from one of the enemy lairs here.
*Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Good, complete, megadungeons are rare. Stonehell, Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk, Darkness Beneath (almost complete, anyway). Dungeon of the Mad Mage can claim its place among them with head held high! There is very little plot going on, but if you just go in with a “let’s explore and get rich!” mentality there is loads of fun to be had. Almost every monster in the game can be found down here, and clever play is rewarded if the DM allows it, through intelligent factions. I’ve written an OSR-ification guide to the dungeon here.
I don’t think any of the WotC offerings have reached perfection just yet. The A-Tier modules all have some warts here or there, good as they are. So I’ll just leave a non-WotC recommendation here: Anomalous Subsurface Environment. This book combines a setting with a city, environment, starting adventure, and megadungeon. It is close to Tomb of Annihilation in that regard. It just wins out by being oh so playable (random innkeeper NPC tables – WotC take note!) and imaginative, while still feeling like D&D at its core. If Wizards release a Dark Sun module and it looks exactly like this, they will have won at roleplaying games.