The Problem with D&D’s Adventures

The centerpiece of Wizards of the Coast’s product release schedule for 5th Edition is the summer super-adventure, which drives the annual storyline. Each of these adventure ties the miniature lines as well as other spinoff products, like board games and video games. The storylines even influence other roleplaying game products, with Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkeinan’s Tome of Foes providing new lore directly useful to storylines released around the same time, almost being support products for the adventure. 

After four years of official adventures done in-house (and another year-and-change of stories done by 3rd Party publishers) a pattern has emerged in how WotC outlines and produces their adventures, which is beginning to be slightly problematic.

Specifically, adventures seldom feel consistent and lack a single prolonged storyline, instead relying on open world gameplay as campaign filler. 

Sandbox vs Roller Coaster

At the risk of gross oversimplification, most roleplaying game adventures and campaigns can be reduced to primarily being either “sandboxes” or “roller coasters“. Sandboxes are more open and freeform, with the players choosing their direction and often having two or three possible story threads or goals at any given time. There’s always the option of just halting your current activity and wandering off in a different direction. In videogames, sandboxes are often described as “open world games” and are the bane of your free time. The alternative is the roller coaster, which is often called a railroad or linear game. An adventure on the rails has less ability to wander away from the plot and fewer side quests. 

The official adventures are overwhelmingly sandboxes. While there is typically a plotline that tenuously connects the beginning to the end, this plot is often paper thin and really more a planned scheme by the villain rather than a series of events. The giant sandbox in the middle of these adventures allows them to serve double-duty as a gazetteer of the region—typically in the Forgotten Realms—so those uninterested in running the adventure might still purchase it, while also padding out the experience so the adventurers will be the right level for the final dungeon crawl and an appropriate level to confront a challenge 16-20 opponent in a suitably epic climax. Because the adventures are also an excuse to provide stat blocks for famous monsters and NPCs and villains, and need to be high enough level not to be instantly defeated. (So the books really serve a triple duty.)

Having some sandbox adventures is undeniably good. Heck, having more sandboxes to roller coasters is arguably ideal, not just for the two benefits mentioned above, but also because they leave more freedom for DMs to pick elements of the adventure to run with or just provide a framework for DMs to customise the adventure into something entirely personal. Something almost homebrew. And because players chaffe at not having freedom or having their choices taken away.

But it’s preferable to have a mix of adventure formats: having all big plot-driven adventures affixed firmly to the tracks is a bad thing, but so is not having any linear modules and just variations of open worlds. Ideally you need sandboxes and plot heavy tales and megadungeons. But so far, the closest to a story-focused roller coaster is Tyranny of Dragons, but as it’s the smallest adventure by 50-pages, its sandbox elements were likely cut. (And it has many other problems that make it difficult to run in its current state.)

Heck, this format has even *ahem* infected some 3rd Party publishers, as seen in the generally excellent Demonplague adventure. The first two parts have a relatively restrained dash of sandbox amid the heavy plotting, but the third part just sets aside the story and progress combating the Big Bad to have the party wander around the Luna Valley for a few levels.

It’s good to have an option for players who don’t want to wander and just want to experience the tale, who want to sit back and enjoy the focused story, with twists and turns and surprises. And such a product would also serve an example for newer Dungeon Masters of how to write and plan a plot-heavy linear adventure while not hand-holding the players and also giving some choices. Plus, I would argue, that linear adventures are significantly easier for new Dungeon Masters to prepare to run.

That last point is worth expanding on. Each of the storyline adventures is written with the potentially being run by first time Dungeon Masters equipped with just the Monster Manual and a copy of the Basic Rules (okay… and probably also the PHB for added spells and DMG for magic items). But sandboxes are problematic as they’re inherently harder on new players, especially new Dungeon Masters. Sandboxes give more choices than are often necessary and there is the pressure to make the “right choice”, which can cause division at the table as different players wish to explore in different directions or have differing priorities. Meanwhile, for DMs, sandboxes increase the preparation, as there can be multiple directions that can be explored, and they need to be familiar with all of them. 

Take the Good and Take the Bad

Sandboxes adventures are often preferred to adventures on the rails. This is probably because a mediocre sandbox adventure is so much better than a mediocre roller coaster adventure. Heck, a mediocre sandbox is better than even a more than adequate roller coaster. Because when things go bad in an on-the-rails adventure, the story and campaign can fall apart. 

Linear adventures always have problems when the party zigs when they’re expected to zag, especially if the adventure provides less support to improvise. DM-written linear adventures can be particularly problematic for this, as Dungeon Masters will often assume their players will think and react like they would (occasionally forgetting to convey important details or assuming the players will remember key world details or lore), and not prepare or plan for the alternative. Railroad adventure often get a bad reputation for being the DM’s unwritten novel presented instead as a campaign, which is certainly an issue. 

In my too many years of gaming, I’ve run a mixture of adventures, having DMing both campaigns that are big sandboxes and campaigns that are dedicated roller coasters. I’ve run adventures that are good roller coasters (Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords) and bad roller coasters (a conversion of the 1st edition Dragonlance War of the Lance/ Chronicles adventure path). 

In a good roller coaster adventure, the rails are invisible. There’s an illusion of choice, where the players feel like they could go left instead of right but “choose” not to, not only because the hooks tell them to go to the right and that’s where the adventure is but also because it makes logical sense. You want to follow the rails. In a bad roller coaster adventure, following the plot requires illogical actions or liberal meta knowledge. You’re expected to make curious decisions, head in strange directions, and generally have no choice because the choices you want to make aren’t accounted for. You can’t do the logical thing. 

Writing a good roller coaster requires a lot more skilled adventure design and playtesting, which is probably why the official adventures have defaulted to the significantly easier to pen sandboxes. You don’t need to worry about presenting a bad choice that forces the narrative or takes the power away from the players, because the players have options.

That said, it’s also possible to make poor sandboxes. It’s very easy for sandboxes to become unfocused, with the players just wandering around aimlessly. Every D&D campaign has a story. The narrative is whatever the player characters experienced. But sandbox campaigns can feel less like a single story and more of a series of random events with common characters. A little like how Monty Python and the Holy Grail is less of a single story and more a series of random skits that all relate to the same time period, occasionally only connected by the main character riding past.

It’s also possible for side quests to replace the primary quest, as the players drift further and further away from the planned story, making it harder to return the players to the plot for the grand finale. This can be especially problematic if the sidequests become more interesting than the main story, or the players forget what got them started in the first place. Which can also result in sandboxes feeling curiously static. By the nature of the sandbox, story elements going on seldom advance until the players are ready to encounter them. If the party wanders off on a sidequest for three-months in-world, little tends to progress and change unless the DM makes modifications, and the main plot will remain ready for the PCs to encounter it. 

Making the issue even more muddy, because D&D is a level based game and pages are limited in the hardcovers, it can be difficult to provide multiple choices for a single level band. As such, many adventures are sandboxes in name only: there is an expected path players should go through the story and between locations, and varying too far off the invisible rails can be deadly. 

Sandboxes are also potentially inefficient with content. You’re unlikely to see every location in a sandbox adventure, which is potentially wasted sections of an adventure. Content that won’t be seen, NPCs that won’t be encountered, and plots that are never resolved. That’s pages you paid for that never added any value to your game. 

Frankenstei- ed

Part of this is a side-effect of how Wizards of the Coast writes and presents their adventures. They don’t do large single adventure but have “super-adventures” that are two or three separate adventures stitched together or a single small adventure grafted to secondary stories, like hideous adventure-module-flesh-golem. Most of the modern storyline adventures are inspired by elements of the D&D back catalogue or are direct reprints/ updates. Dungeons & Dragons has a wealth of fantastic and iconic adventures—most of which are 16 to 96 pages in length—making them awkward to work into a 200-page book. Some ideas can be expanded into full stories, but other times it’s just easier to take the primary elements of two or three adventures and mash them together.

An example of ideas that were expanded are Curse of Strahd, which has the 32-page book expanded into a full campaign by adding a series of prequels. Or Princes of the Apocalypse, which expands the Temple of Elemental Evil format largely by having multiple different elemental themed dungeon crawls. Storm King’s Thunder takes the concept of Against the Giants and adds additional giants and a reason for the giants simultaneously getting ornery. In contrast, Tomb of Annihilation is basically a mash-up of Isle of Dread, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Tomb of Horror but placed in the Realms with all new dungeons.

As such, there’s often not a lot of plot. There’s an initiating event and maybe a few other things going on, but precious little actual story. Despite being twelve times the length, Curse of Strahd doesn’t have any more story or plot than Castle Ravenloft. Stuff happens, but none of it really ties into the final story, the conclusion, or has any relation to Strahd’s plot… if he even really has one. 

Even the other adventures often have a “plot” that could fit on an index card. Princes of the Apocalypse can be summarised as “evil cults doing evil, go stop them”. None of the elemental prophets have any motive or larger schemes beyond Iago-esque “motiveless malignity”. And the plot of my beloved Tomb of Annihilation could be summarised as “lich is draining the life of people to make a god”. You could condense the entire plot of the super-adventure and hit every single key plot point into a one-shot four room dungeon crawl. The most egregious example is still Storm King’s Thunder, which *almost* has a plot, albeit one entirely unrelated to the meta-event and larger storyline. There’s the absent titular Storm King, a scheming dragon, two scheming sisters, and a kraken. There’s all these players acting on the abduction of Hekaton… but no one is actually doing anything. The wicked sisters are presented as desiring the crown, but that’s just in the background and nothing is actually presented in the adventure relating to that. If the players decided “eff these giants, Imma going to side with this blue dragon and help out her scheme”… good luck with that as she doesn’t have an end game beyond causing strife. The adventure just gives the DM a whole bunch of toys for the sandbox but offers few prompts with how to use them. It’s trusting that the DM is skilled enough and adventure design that they can just invent a reason for their use. Which is problematic if the DM just wants to buy the adventure and run it straight. 

But I also attribute this general lack of story and narrative to the reliance on sandboxes as the middle arc of most of the adventures. As these focus more on scenes and less on story. 

Disconnected Delving

The problem with the official adventures isn’t that they include sandboxes, but that they use of sandboxes as a transitional element of the adventure. It’s filler that connects the introduction that starts the plot to the climax, and between these two points the story is largely paused. There’s typically an initial opening that gets the adventure started and a much more linear ending, with the middle being a sandbox.

To put this into perspective, adventurers are expected to gain six levels just sorta wandering around in Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation, five levels in Curse of Strahd, and three levels in Storm King’s Thunder.

As a result, the first third of each adventure often feels unrelated and detached from the final  third, and the campaign might have an odd tonal shift. This can also make the plot feel unfocused, with the PCs meandering, slowly trying to rediscover the story. Because so many levels are expected to be filled by the sandbox and general wandering, this can be problematic for more focused groups who are interested in just following the story, who will quickly find themselves under-levelled for the content. They’re expected to “grind” in the sandbox for a time.

The best example of this is Tomb of Annihilation. Now, I loved Tomb of Annihilation and gave it a favourable review and it was the one adventure I actually partially ran. But the structure of the adventure was deeply problematic. It has the “ticking clock” of the death curse, which is a countdown that doesn’t affect the PCs (as none of them would have been resurrected). They can spend months wandering through the jungle and interacting with the goblins and Flaming Fist mercenaries before finally getting back to the story… by which point anyone raised from the dead should probably have succumbed to the curse. 

The is a feature/bug of the adventures. Because there is a disconnect between the beginning & end, you can play the first half and then move onto a different adventure, or drop only the second half in an existing campaign. It makes the adventures more flexible for people who don’t want to invest in playing the whole thing, at the cost of making the products less consistent for people who are playing from start to finish. It’s also less than satisfying to wander around a map looking for the plot, potentially wasting two or three rare gaming sessions on side quests, especially if you can only roll dice once every couple weeks leading to a month or two between major plot developments so important details are forgotten. It’s fine to choose to wander away from the main quest on a tangent, it’s another to have the plot threads vanish and have to rediscover where to go. 

Sometimes this disconnect works well. Such as in Out of the Abyss where you spend half trying to escape the Underdark and then the second half trying to complete a ritual. Or even Tomb of Annihilation where you spend a the first half wandering aimless in the jungle and the second half in a series of deathtrap dungeons, making it’s easy to just drop the death curse and provide a new reason to be crawling through the jungle, or jump right to the tomb with pregens of the appropriate level. (Or, like I did, and add the tomb to an existing campaign, excising the jungle exploration.) But sometimes this disconnect doesn’t work, such as Storm King’s Thunder where you spend half putting out fires caused by the giants and their changed status quo and the second half dealing with unrelated familial problems with storm giants that has literally nothing to do with the breaking of the ordning or the restoration of the giant social order. 

The Alternative

I’d love to see an official D&D adventure that is more linear with a denser story. One where something happens every chapter that changes or impacts the villain’s plans. Where we see the villain’s scheme unfold over time, though a series of successes or failures and they have an actual plan rather than just being a dick , and where the plot and the initial adventure hook aren’t one and the same.

Even just one new adventure. Just as an alternative. 

There are many great examples of this in gaming already, with many adventures during 2nd and 3rd Edition being more plot driven or just devoid of a rando sandbox in the middle. Arguably the best adventure in the last thirty years is the highly linear Red Hand of Doom. And several others, such as Dead Gods, Gates of Firestorm Peak, and Age of Worms. Plus the 1e dungeon crawl collections like Scourge of the Slavelords or Queen of the Spiders. To say nothing of the many fantastic Pathfinder adventures, all but two of which are incredibly linear and plot driven with unfolding schemes and slowly answered mysteries.

Heck, for a DM that doesn’t feel comfortable (or have the patience to write a full adventure) but is happy to convert stat blocks I’d probably recommend Rise of the Runelords or Curse of the Crimson Throne before any of the official D&D adventures. (Especially if you can track down a conversion guide that does some of the work for you.)

Having done homebrew for the last several years (excluding a stint to the Tomb of Nine Gods) I’m debating running a published adventure for my next time behind the screen, and it’s noteworthy that I’m going straight to a Paizo adventure without even considering an official D&D adventure. (And even if I did have to pick a 5e adventure, I’d probably go for one of the early ones that weren’t written by WotC staff, such as Out of the Abyss). This is in no small part because my players just want to be entertained and just prefer the experience of knowing where they should go next and not having to waste a third of a session in debate. Despite my efforts at telling an engaging tale with a sandbox, they just prefer more focus and structure. They want the roller coaster that takes them through loops and spins while they hang on for the ride. And, from experience, if running a sandbox I prefer to homebrew rather than having to read and prep for a half-dozen outcomes from a book. But it would be nice to have an official adventure or full 5e adventure that isn’t a sandbox to save me the time of having to convert Curse of the Crimson Throne or Carrion Crown.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this content, you can support me and encourage future blogs.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts,Traps, Diseases, Legendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic!