I have read through the following D&D modules and have run most of them at a table in some capacity.

  • Curse of Strahd
  • Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden
  • Wild Beyond the Witchlight
  • Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
  • Dungeons of Drakkenheim
  • Lost Mine of Phandelver
  • Candlekeep Mysteries

As a new Dungeon Master, you need to understand that running D&D modules is more complicated than taking a book off the shelf, turning to page 1, and running it with your friends.

While I generally think it is best to start with a D&D campaign module to generate ideas and learn the flow of the action, here are the elements I found work well, elements that need to improve, and my recommendations for running a D&D campaign module at your table.

Skip to recommendations.

What Went Well

Wonderful ideas, art, and themes

This is a timeless quality of the modules. No matter when you pick up modules, I find them excellent sources of inspiration for the module itself, homebrew campaigns set in a similar setting, or even in other campaigns that are totally unrelated.

When I want to add a different dungeon, puzzle, or other scenario to my campaign, I can just pull one from a book! Don’t be afraid to mix and match.

D&D modules are relatively easy to prepare

While there are plenty of shortcomings with D&D modules and they are not ready to run out of the gate, I still find it far easier and less time consuming to run out of a module, compared to doing something from scratch.

Books have a collection of characters w/ motivations, a story from beginning to end to follow, dungeons, magic items, treasures, trinkets, spells, monsters, and often information about the world.

Another unsung trait of D&D campaign modules is the ability to easily incorporate milestone leveling, which is far simpler than tracking experience points. With a general understanding of the timeline story beats of the campaign, milestone leveling is made simple.

A template for running skill checks

While modules don’t do a great job of teaching EVERYTHING on how to run a game, I have found that handling the basics of how to handle individual encounters is explained pretty well in the books. Boxed text helps get in the mind space of explaining important details. Suggestions of skill checks a player could reasonably do and what the difficulty class would be for those checks helps dungeon masters understand how to improvise in the future.

The branching paths of Curse of Strahd

Despite what people say, I actually think Curse of Strahd is a great D&D module for beginner DMs.

A core reason for this belief is that Curse of Strahd provides sandbox elements without going fully sandbox. Players have many different options for where to go and what to do next with meaningful choices and outcomes, but the map layout and story design prevent these options from becoming too overwhelming.

The “Story Tracker” in Wild Beyond the Witchlight

In the back of the Wild Beyond the Witchlight is a “Story Tracker” section, which pairs nicely with early chapters in the book. As players accomplish tasks in Chapter 1, the module tells the dungeon master to add a trigger to a future chapter in the book and to capture it in the player’s “Story Tracker.”

This lays the groundwork for teaching a dungeon master about campaign tracking and session notes.

The “Secrets” of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden

The dark “Secrets” that players assign their characters and keep secret from their allies at the beginning of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden are both thematically excellent and functional.

Secrets are just one ingredient you can add to the meal that is player hooks and quests, but including this in the beginning of such a campaign allows the dungeon master to think with player focus in mind.

“Factions” in Dungeons of Drakkenheim

Hot take. I think Dungeons of Drakkenheim would be hard to run as a first time dungeon master (though perfectly designed for seasoned-DMs looking for a ready to run campaign).

Regardless, the Factions content in Dungeons of Drakkenheim is rich with detail to include in your game-any module you run. You can pull the ideas from these factions right into your stories.

What Needs to Improve

The books often don’t teach you how to run the game

This is hard for me to gauge, because I first played D&D for years in a campaign, led by a seasoned DM, but I would bet that, if you just picked up any D&D module, you really wouldn’t know how to run it. A newcomer DM might want to watch some D&D content out there or read tutorial books first, to get a handle on what the game actually is.

Most D&D modules are written like linear novels

This is probably my biggest issue with D&D modules, and this one issue trickles down to every other improvement topic I will discuss. Worse, I don’t think there is a great solution for this issue on the part of the writers and designers.

Where some third-party content like Dungeons of Drakkenheim breaks this trend, I think those books swing too far in the other direction. Using a car analogy, a module like Waterdeep: Dragon Heist provides you with a very specific make/model/trim to your car and tells you to drive it a specific way. A module like Dungeons of Drakkenheim gives you a bunch of car parts and gives you a really basic lesson on how to build a car.

A huge deal with running Dungeons & Dragons is breaking out of a lifetime of storytelling habits, to present an open, undecided future for your game. Too much linearity in a module inspires old habits. More on that below.

Hidden story beats, with little foreshadowing.

“Luke, I am your… *checks notes…* father?!”

Imagine you are a dungeon master running a Star Wars trilogy campaign module. You are running the game with friends and get to Chapter 8 of the campaign. Suddenly, you see it, in the event text, you see that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker’s father, and his goal is to convert Luke to the dark side!

Because these campaign modules are often written like novels, it is stunning the types of revelations you will learn too late in the process. Since you are effectively guiding the story, these are revelations that you would probably want to know at the beginning, to help lead up to the pivotal moment.

Loads of NPCs

So. Many. NPCs.

D&D modules are often chock full of these suckers, and they can be hard to remember and track, even with yourself and your players keeping notes.

One of the funniest examples is Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which cold opens in a tavern with (I’m not making this up) 85 named NPCs and 7 additional NPCs that are more directly related to the bang bang opening scenario.

Single points of failure

Speaking of NPCs, D&D modules often have many single points of failure, meaning, if players don’t discover or save something, the story can’t move forward. For example, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden requires a specific NPC to guide the players to multiple locations towards the end of the game.

Sometimes, the modules even string these single points of failure together. As an example, a module might assume that players ally with an NPC, who leads them to a dungeon across the world, which has a secret door in it that has a challenge the players need to complete to get a special item which is the only way to access the final area of the game.

If anything breaks down, the campaign effectively ends. You will figure something out as a DM, but it is frustrating that these elements exist.

Terrible character hooks

With few exceptions, D&D campaign modules are bad at providing your players and their characters with compelling and meaningful adventure hooks.

Player motivations often take the form of finding treasure, beating a bad guy, or gaining power. For the characters, these goals should often surface as personal quests. D&D modules generally offer few (if any) hooks to get the table interested in the game or the hooks they do offer are not very enticing. Exceptions would be Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Dungeons of Drakkenheim, the latter because it offers tons of quest hook ideas.

Keep in mind, D&D modules are often multi-year affairs with weekly sessions. Having a compelling goal for the people at your table is pretty important.

Recommendations

Plan around motivations and scenarios, not determined outcomes

This is the biggest recommendation I can give, especially when running modules, since they read like linear stories.

As you run the module and prepare your scenes, allow for deviation of the book outcomes if it better suits the results of the player’s actions. Maybe Luke doesn’t escape from Darth Vader on cloud city and is turned to the dark side. Maybe Neo takes the other pill. Maybe the players find a creative way to bypass a blockade.

Stop thinking of D&D modules as linear stories that the players are witnessing and start thinking of them as a collection of players, characters, and villains, their motivations, dungeons, and scenes.

Read the entire D&D module, cover to cover, and take good notes

I can’t stress this one enough. You need to read the whole module before you run it. Cover to cover. Line by line.

Even in random rooms in random dungeons, modules will hide important clues or details that impact the story of the game. The back of the book might reveal the motivation of the primary antagonist or even who the antagonist is! Wouldn’t it be great to know what is happening, so that we can foreshadow and plan for it?

While you are reading take notes on particular problem areas, revelations you want the characters to learn, or single points of failure that might halt the campaign progress. Start capturing the names and motivations of the “important” NPCs and villains of the story. Begin to see where you could weave your player backstories into the game world.

Use a session zero to build characters w/ story connections and motivations

Once you have read the book, run a session zero with your players to establish ground rules for the campaign and set expectations. Build characters together, so that you can tie them into the story. Maybe one of the players can be the Luke Skywalker stand in, and Darth Vader can secretly be THEIR dad!

Consolidate NPCs and tap into character backgrounds

Similar to the above, see where you can tie players and their characters to the important NPCs. Furthermore see where you can consolidate NPCs or lean on player favorite NPCs to take multiple roles in the adventure.

A great example of this is Song of Ice and Fire vs the Game of Thrones TV series. The TV series took storylines of many characters in the books and crammed them into one character to make it simpler for the audience to track. I don’t think this is a bad idea in your D&D campaign.

Maintain session notes and have players keep notes

Since many of the technical details (dungeons, magic items, monsters, characters and motivations) are handled by the module, you can focus on keeping track of deviations and statuses with your prep time.

Maintain session notes and have your players maintain notes as well to help you out.

Maintain a villain roster with overarching goals and tasks

For every villain and major NPC in the campaign, keep a roster of these people, their current status and what it is they are trying to accomplish.

Being a business nerd, I look at this like their overarching goal and how they will achieve it.

Here is an example from a villain in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden.

[Villain Name]Objective: Take rulership over the Ten Towns

  • Establish underlings as mayors in each of the three major Ten Towns
  • Ally with Xardarok to coordinate attacks on the players.
  • Gain ownership of a magic item rumored to create unlimited food.

Maintain a factions list

Identify the factions important to the players and maintain a list of them, their members, the players’ standing with them, and any boons or disadvantages they get with them as a result.

Factions can be any relevant group of people from literal factions (ie. the Harpers) to villainous organizations to institutions

Maintaining the factions will help get characters get out of binds, potentially solve for single points of failure, add complications to scenarios, and make the campaign world feel more alive.

Maintain a revelations list

After you have read the book and determined what revelations you want the characters to learn, start listing them down and then list at least three ways that you could sprinkle clues leading the characters to that revelation.

Using our favorite Star Wars example…

Revelation: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father

  • Successful insight checks on Obi Wan while he tells stories about Luke’s father and Darth Vader reveal caginess and that he is hiding something.
  • A medical record discovered while exploring the Death Star lists Darth Vader’s name as Anakin Skwalker and an age of roughly 20 years older than Luke.
  • Luke’s father’s lightsaber is the same construction and make as Darth Vader’s lightsaber.
  • A benefactor Jedi knight rewards Luke with this knowledge for completing a quest for them.
  • An interrogated stormtrooper tells Luke that he reminds him of Darth Vader.