Adventure Complexity and the New Dungeon Master

Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game. It’s one of the most enjoyable pastimes you can have and, especially for Dungeon Masters, can require varying amounts of your time: from just a couple of hours running a session, to many, many hours preparing, designing and planning your world and future adventures.

These days, I typically use published adventures for most of my games. They allow me to run games that are completely different to what I’d design myself (which can, at times, get repetitive). I’m an experienced Dungeon Master with several decades of experience and can run most adventures you put in front of me. If you’re starting out, it’s different.

Here’s a secret: Not all adventures are good for beginning DMs to run. Some require more skill than you currently possess.

This is especially true of the current run of official Wizards of the Coast adventures. Most beginning DMs should be able to handle the adventure in the D&D Starter Set – just as well! However, if you’re a first-time Dungeon Master, you’re likely to find the beginning section of Out of the Abyss extremely challenging, if not impossible, to run well or to run at all. Indeed, I am very wary about running the start of Out of the Abyss, and I’ve been DMing for about three decades!

So, should these adventures have warning labels on them? “Experienced DMs only”?

My belief on this issue is no; although perusing a few reviews of an adventure before buying it is probably a good idea. The reason I don’t think such a label helps is because the reasons that people find DMing some adventures difficult vary from person to person. Dungeon Mastering is a collection of several skills: running combat, running non-player characters (NPCs), crafting storylines, evoking the world through descriptions and so on. We all differ on the areas we’re good at handling and the areas that give us trouble. Where I have trouble having just two NPCs accompany an adventuring group, there are new Dungeon Masters out there who delight in this, and create a much better game than mine with the same material.

An adventure I find complex is not necessarily an adventure someone finds difficult to run.

I have also recently seen the suggestion that adventures should be simple so everyone can run them. This is something I strongly oppose. The original run of 4th edition adventures were written simply so that anyone could run them. The result? The most depressing set of linear, boring adventures you could imagine. Not every adventure was bad (there are a few good ones), but the homogeneity of the approach became less and less appropriate, so that the high-level adventures, which needed to show off the best of the game, were extremely underwhelming. The amazing bits in some of the original designs were flattened out to fit the linear approach, and the result was less than it should have been.

Having an adventure that is challenging to run isn’t a mistake; it’s what should happen. These are adventures that challenge the DM to improve their skills, to become a better Dungeon Master. Relish them!

Nor should complexity just be limited to the higher levels of play. If the story works better with a complex beginning to the adventure, that’s where it should be.

If you’re a new Dungeon Master, it’s fine to not be ready to run every adventure that is published. It’s probably still a good idea to own and read the official adventures, just so you can become aware at the range of play available (and this run of adventures is one of the finest I’ve seen in the history of the game). However, if you think running multiple NPCs at the beginning of Out of the Abyss is too much? You can leave that adventure for later and run something else.

Each adventure provides its own set of challenges. Hoard of the Dragon Queen needs you to run set of potentially deadly encounters at its beginning for first-level characters and try not to kill all the PCs in your group. Princes of the Apocalypse requires you to craft a story that gets the PCs where they need to be (and not trying to take on 10th-level foes at 3rd level!) Curse of Strahd requires you to evoke a horror setting and have an ancient vampire play games with the characters. Storm King’s Thunder requires you to handle political intrigue. Learn from them, and rejoice in the range of different play that Dungeons & Dragons allows!

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