DM's Tips

Running published adventures – how to run official 5E D&D campaigns

Each year, WotC publishes an official adventure for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Some are adventure anthologies with several smaller adventures, such as Tales of the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh, while others are entire campaigns, like Curse of Strahd, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.

These official adventures are aimed at both newer and more experienced DMs, giving everyone a chance to run an adventure or even a campaign without having to come up with everything on their own. Of course, the adventure still won’t run itself – so how do you run a published adventure? In this post, you will find 5 tips for running published adventures that will help make your game as fun and exciting as possible!

Why Run a Published Adventure?

Having played fifth edition since early 2015, I have run nearly all of the published adventures for fifth edition, and written DM’s resources for several of them. Along the way I have also run my own, homemade adventures, and actually enjoy alternating between the two, as I feel that there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Check out our best-selling DM’s Resources for published adventures here.

While I enjoy the complete freedom of an adventure I’ve designed myself, there’s something incredibly inspiring about running an adventure filled with creative ideas and amazing content thought up by other people. And, there’s certainly a lot of time to be saved on preparation, as someone else have done most the work thinking up a story, preparing maps, designing encounters and so on.

For me, these are the two main reasons I run published adventures: because the adventure’s story and premise excites me, and because it saves me a ton of time thinking up my own stories, settings, and everything else that goes into designing an adventure.

But running a published adventure does come with its own problems. Of course, some of these problems (and their solutions!) are unique to each published adventure, but there are 5 general tips that I have found to be useful for all fifth edition D&D published adventures.

1. Don’t get overwhelmed

When I got my hands on my first published adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver from the fifth edition D&D Starter Set, I made the mistake of trying to read – and memorize! – the whole adventure immediately. This is a mistake I often see DMs make when running a published adventure – trying to take everything in at once.

While reading the whole adventure certainly won’t hurt, it’s rarely the best use of your time. Reading about locations in a dungeon that won’t come into play in your game for another three months won’t do much to improve the quality of your next gaming session, which should really be your priority.

Now, when I run a published adventure, I start by reading the introductory chapter, where the adventure’s background, synopsis and summary can usually be found, including – in some cases – visual aids such as adventure flowcharts. This is something WotC have gotten progressively better at over the years – campaigns like Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus have very good introductory chapters, that will help you understand the story quickly.

(Spoilers for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus below)

Flowchart for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus

After reading the introduction, and perhaps Chapter 1, which is likely the first content your players will play through, you can skim other chapters, mainly reading the chapter introductions and conclusions. Having a decent understanding of the bigger picture is enough – now you just need to stay 1 or 2 steps ahead of your players, reading ahead so you’re always well-prepared for the next session.

Breaking the content into smaller pieces instead of taking everything in at once allows you to become more comfortable with what’s immediately in front you. Take notes, think out encounters, prepare maps, and make adjustments – for what’s coming up next, and not the entire adventure!

In short, instead of reading the book from cover-to-cover, focus on being well-prepared for the next session.

2. It’s still your game

One of the downsides to running a published adventure is that you can feel restricted by what’s in the book – maybe you feel like you have to run it exactly as described to stay true to the story, or maybe you’re afraid to change things around because you might mess things up.

Don’t be.

It’s your adventure. Yeah, somebody else wrote the story and put all the pieces there, but it’s still your game. Throw away the pieces you don’t like. Change the pieces if you want to. Bring in new pieces – it’s your game, your rules, your story. Don’t believe me? Hell, even the writers say so:

So while it can sometimes seem like it, the adventure book isn’t describing the way you must run the adventure, but a way to run the adventure. It’s a recipe, and like all recipes, it can and should be changed to fit your tastes. The book’s purpose is to serve as a framework that inspires you to be creative, not a strict step-by-step manual that you must adhere to!

“But what if I mess up the story by changing stuff?”

Who cares? It’s your story! In most cases, if a change you make to the adventure early on messes up something later in the adventure, you can simply change that part as well. Even when you feel you can’t, you always have the option to retcon what has happened – and while not an ideal situation, simply saying: “By the way, the piece of information you learned back then was actually wrong – my bad – what you actually learned was that… ” is perfectly fine. Your players will understand. Trust me – I’ve been there.

Being comfortable improvising, changing things on the fly and then dealing with problems later is far superior to being constantly afraid to change things, just because it is written another way in the book, or because you’re afraid to mess things up. Don’t worry about it. Run the adventure like you want to. It’s YOUR adventure.

In summary, there’s no correct way to run a published adventure, so just run it your way! Don’t be afraid to make changes!

3. Take breaks and regroup

Ever had your players do something completely unexpected? Veering off the road to Waterdeep to explore that forest on the way? For some reason deciding to fight the king’s soldiers, even though it’s very clearly a bad idea? Of course you have, that’s what players do. It’s what makes the game fun.

When you’re running your own adventure, these sudden detours or unexpected events are often easier to handle. You have a better understanding of the world and who inhabits it, and the locations within it, because it was born inside your head. When running a published adventure, you will often find yourself relying more on what’s actually written in the book – that’s the whole point, after all. But, that means that you have to read it first – and sometimes you haven’t read just that part.

If your players do something you are not prepared for, and you don’t feel comfortable improvising what happens next, and need to read up on it – just tell them. It’s always okay to just say: “Alright, so you’re doing that. Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. Okay, just give me 10 minutes, I just need to look at some things”.

Take a break. Read up on whatever you need to read up on, get comfortable with the material, and then call everyone back to the table. Hell, sometimes you will even need to call a session short because the players do something entirely unexpected and you need a lot of time to prepare for the new situation – it’s okay. Make the call.

It’s generally good advice, published adventure or not: improvise when you feel like it, but don’t be afraid to take a break, regroup, and make sure you’re prepared and comfortable with the material before continuing.

4. Make it personal

This is actually a very important piece of advice, that I find that many DMs overlook or forget, especially when running published adventures. D&D is a roleplaying game, and roleplaying is, inherently, personal. So, unless you’re playing the game solely as a tactical combat game (which is perfectly fine, you do you), you will probably want to get your players invested in the story. And you do that by making it personal!

When running a published adventure (or any adventure, really), its always a good idea to have a Session 0. Explain to your players what kind of adventure they will be playing (in vague terms, of course) – what’s the setting and environment, will it feature travel or be more stationary, what kind of creatures are they likely to interact with a lot, do factions play a large role, and so on.

Having this information allows your players to not only creature characters that fit mechanically with the adventure, but also craft backgrounds, bonds and motivations, that you can help fit to the story. Listen to their ideas and offer friendly suggestions – “picking Zhentarim as your faction will really make things really interesting, that’s awesome”, “a character that has vowed to kill all giants probably won’t work too well in this adventure, how about just all fire giants?”, “you say you’re looking for a lost ancestral item, what do say if it’s this item here..” and so on.

In addition, you should also try to fit the adventure to the players’ characters by making changes to the adventure that reflects the characters’ backgrounds, bonds and motivations. Each published adventure contain countless of NPCs, items, locations etc. that can easily be changed around without making the slightest impact on the greater story, giving you opportunities to built upon what is in the book to hook your players’ characters in.

That prisoner in Chapter 2? It’s the Fighter’s long-lost sister, and now getting her out alive is suddenly far more important. That magic axe in Chapter 5? It’s now a magic greatsword, the one the Paladin has been looking for all his life! The temple where the big climax is? It’s actually a temple to the Cleric’s god, and the villain’s defilement of it has now made things very personal!

The point is, helping the players make characters that fit the story and altering the story to fit their characters makes your players more invested in your campaign!

5. Take Advantage of Online Resources

One of the greatest strengths of running a published adventure is that thousands of other people are doing it too, and some of them are likely to have the same problems, questions or requests as you! For each published fifth edition adventure out there, there’s a slew of both free and paid resources available online.

Most published adventures have their own subreddits and Facebook groups, where you can find useful resources, additional maps, and get answers to both general and specific questions from other people in the exact same situation as you.

In addition, there’s also entire sections of resources available on the Dungeon Masters Guild – just click ‘Storyline’ on the menu to the left. This includes our own resources for Storm King’s Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, which feature tips & advice, maps, additional sidequests and adventures, DM’s cheatsheets and much more.

While some of these resources have a pricetag, but you can also find free resources right here on this page, as we have made blog posts about several of the published adventures – sometimes including cheatsheets, additional encounters and free maps. And there’s plenty of blogs out there like this one, which will have other stuff available as well.

Wherever you go to get your resources, the important thing is that you take advantage of online resources – there’s plenty to choose from when running a published adventure!

Conclusion

Alright, that’s my five tips for running a published adventure. Feel like I missed anything, or disagree with something? Let me know in the comments below! I’m also planning to make more posts like these about published adventures, so let me know if there’s any adventure in particular you would like to see covered. Oh, yeah, and sign up to our mailing list to be notified about new content and other good stuff.

Until then, have a good one!

J. A. Valeur

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