Best beginner campaigns for new DMs

Starting out as a new DM but don’t know which campaign you should run? Check out these 4 campaign overviews along with pros and cons for new DMs.

The Dragon Heist DnD campaign art


So you are planning to or are thinking about running a DnD campaign? Well, this is the right place for you! Becoming a Dungeon Master (DM) can seem like a big responsibility and like there is a lot to learn, but with resources like this guide, you too can be leading your players through an adventure in no time.

The importance of choosing the right campaign as a beginner DM

DMing in Dungeons and Dragons can be a very fun and exciting hobby that can lead to amazing friendships and deep connections with others. It’s a great creative outlet that brings your ideas to life, it is an extremely social hobby that allows you to spend time with friends and is a rewarding experience as you create a wonderful and fun experience for your players.

Choosing the campaign to run can come with some special considerations, however. Considerations such as difficulty, level of the campaign, player preference and familiarity with the setting.

What makes a campaign good for new DMs?

So what does make a campaign good for newer DMs? Well, it can come down to quite a few factors. A good campaign for new DMs should be set in a well-defined setting that has clear objectives and balanced challenges. A campaign that fits these criteria will be perfect for a new DM as you will not have to worry about the anxiety of improvising or balancing encounters.

Well-defined setting

You may be asking yourself “What does ‘well-defined’ Setting mean for DnD?”. Well, there are seemingly infinite possibilities to answer that question but let me boil it down for you. A well-defined setting in DnD should have a consistent tone, theme and aesthetic to create a believable world.

Clear objectives

It may sound obvious but it really is easy to get lost in a tangent of side missions and exploration. And this is great, players should have lots of agency in DnD, but when it is because the players don’t know their objective or goal it becomes a problem. This is why it is important for a campaign to have a clear objective set out.

Balanced challenges

You would think balanced challenges come parse and parcel with DnD campaigns but you’d be surprised how many campaigns are intentionally made to be challenging, mean and unbalanced. It would be best to avoid campaigns like this as it can lead to an unhappy experience for DM and players alike. Instead of that, you want to aim for an experience that is not too easy or too hard, choosing the right campaign solves this problem for you!

Which campaigns should a new DM try?

Here’s the shortlist of campaigns we believe are great choices for new DMs to try:

  1. The Sunless Citadel
  2. Dragons of Stormwreck Isle
  3. Lost Mines of Phandelver
  4. Waterdeep Dragon Heist
  5. Curse of Strahd

Let’s get to it!

The Sunless Citadel (Level 1 to 3)

The Sunless Citadel is a classic, older campaign originally released in the year 2000 but has been re-released in the DnD 5e book Tales From the Yawning Portal. This adventure is a great one and was originally the first campaign I was a player in, so from personal experience, it’s very fun!

The campaign itself has the players entering into some underground ruins of the Sunless Citadel. In the upper levels, there are two factions of goblins and kobolds vying for control over these ruins. If you don’t know what kobolds are yet, they are small draconic humanoids that love gold; very fun to roleplay I can assure you! The campaign provides a very unique experience for the players as they can choose how they approach the story, by choosing a faction to support, going it alone or trying to play diplomat between the two.

Later on, the players will find themselves fighting an evil Druid controlling an army of Twig Blights; evil plant creatures grown from corrupted earth and going on to uncover the mystery of what is corrupting this place and other interesting side missions they discover.

Wizards of the Coast Tales from the Yawning Portal (Dungeons and Dragons)Tales From the Yawning Portal

The Sunless Citadel pros:

  • Easy to run: A relatively simple campaign that doesn’t require extensive experience as a DM to run effectively. It’s an ideal starting point for new DMs to learn the ropes.
  • Short campaign: Shorter campaigns reduce complexity overhead by decreasing the number of interactions you need to keep track of. This can make preparing your sessions easier as a DM.
  • Tried and tested: Originally released as an adventure for DnD 3.5 in 2000, The Sunless Citadel has proven to have widespread appeal and is a player favourite.

The Sunless Citadel cons:

  • Linear structure: The adventure is primarily focused on dungeon crawling, which may feel restrictive or linear for some DMs and players.
  • Pacing challenges: New DMs may find it challenging to maintain an engaging pace throughout the dungeon crawl, which could lead to slower or less dynamic sessions.

How many sessions should The Sunless Citadel take?

Approximately 5 sessions, which is 20 hours in total at 4 hours per session.

Dragons of Stormwreck Isle (Level 1 to 3)

Being the newer DnD 5e starter campaign, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle has a lot to live up to. It is a bit shorter than Lost Mines of Phandelver but manages to give both players and DMs a rounded Dungeons and Dragons experience. Dragons of Stormwreck Isle is made to be simple and approachable for new players and DMs and uses milestones instead of experience points for levelling up, which can be easier for newer DMs to use, being a less maths-heavy version with fewer things to keep track of.

This adventure will have your players arriving in Stormwreck Isle. They will be introduced to the setting by a character by the name of Runara. They explain the history of the dragons in the area and how the island has many problems. The campaign makes sure to do a good job of not overwhelming newer players while allowing for fun story plots and quirky characters.

If you run Dragons of Stormwreck Isle as a new DM, I can almost guarantee you will learn good habits for DMing! This campaign will teach you about being flexible in encounters and adjusting difficulty mid-fight if things are looking bad. This is because the campaign is very freeform between the objectives and it allows for a unique player experience, sometimes leading to fights being unbalanced. The DM is also encouraged in this adventure to incorporate the player characters into the story, which is a great lesson, especially early on.

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: Dragons of Stormwreck IsleDungeons & Dragons Starter Set: Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

Dragons of Stormwreck Isle pros:

  • Comprehensive starter set: As with Lost Mines of Phandelver, being a starter set means you’ll get pre-made character sheets, dice and everything you need to get going.
  • A new adventure: Being released in April 2022 means this starter campaign will be far less familiar to many players than Lost Mines of Phandelver. If your DMing for more experienced players, Stormwreck Isle might have more unknown content for them, which will increase their enjoyment and sense of adventure.
  • DM tips: The 48-page document that comes in this starter pack contains some general tips for DMs, as well as some coaching on how to develop a DM style. Super helpful!
  • Failed forward approach: The initial campaign allows players to ‘fail forward’, still allowing them to progress if things go badly, rather than well, you know, killing them.

Dragons of Stormwreck Isle cons:

  • On-rails: A ‘sort of’ con, of course, you’re allowed to do whatever you like as a DM, but as a pre-made campaign it is a little bit more linear in scope, but this handholding could be exactly what new DMs need.

How many sessions should Dragons of Stormwreck Isle take?

Approximately 4 sessions, which is 16 hours in total at 4 hours per session.

Lost Mines of Phandelver (Level 1 to 5)

This campaign is one of the most popular modern introductions to DnD 5e and can quickly introduce both DMs and players to the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Lost Mines of Phandelver was the older DnD 5e starter campaign.

Right out of the gate in this campaign players are fighting in combat, exploring the world and having social interaction with characters. These are frequently referred to as the three pillars of DnD, which makes for a great introduction to teaching DMs how to make DnD as fun as it can be as well as finding out what their players prefer.

To make it easier on the DM this starter set comes with four filled-out character sheets that have backstories related to the campaign. If your players want to make their own character this is still useful as they can be inspired by the backstories of the different premade characters. These pre-generated player characters have bonds with non-player characters you may encounter throughout the campaign. This acts as a way to make the story feel more in-depth and connected, being a good experience for players but a very good lesson for new DMs.

The basic premise of this campaign is that hundreds of years ago dwarves and gnomes shared a mine that was rich in minerals and magic. Human mages helped create the Forge of Spells. This attracted power-hungry people and led to a disastrous battle, leading the mine and the forge of spells to be forgotten and abandoned. Some dwarven brothers have uncovered its location and commissioned the players to investigate it.

 Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit): Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter SeDungeons & Dragons Starter Set – Lost Mines of Phandelver

Lost Mines of Phandelver pros:

  • Beginner-friendly: Specifically designed for new DMs and players, making it an excellent starting point with easy-to-follow instructions and guidance.
  • Comprehensive starter set: As the adventure comes as part of the D&D Starter Set, it provides everything needed to begin playing, including pre-generated characters, rulebooks, and dice.
  • Balanced gameplay: The adventure offers a mix of combat, exploration, and role-playing opportunities, ensuring a diverse and engaging experience for both players and the DM.

Lost Mines of Phandelver cons:

  • Familiarity: As a widely known and played adventure, some players may already be familiar with the story and encounters, potentially impacting the sense of discovery and excitement.
  • Tropes and clichés: The campaign leans heavily on classic fantasy tropes, which may be appealing for some but might feel too familiar or clichéd for others.

How many sessions should Lost Mines of Phandelver take?

Approximately 6 sessions, which is 24 hours in total at 4 hours per session.

Waterdeep Dragon Heist (Level 1 to 5)

Waterdeep Dragon Heist (US version | UK version) is a very popular campaign to start off your DMing journey. Your players can explore one of DnD’s most famous cities while gambling it all to get rich. So, why should a new DM choose this campaign to play? One great reason too is that the adventure is modular meaning the DM is free to choose out of four antagonists which allow for different adventures. The freedom of being able to adapt to your players based on what they are enjoying can make a hugely rewarding experience for a DM!

Whether you should run this campaign is more about your players than whether it’s a good setting. Waterdeep Dragon Heist has an amazing plot and really cool setting but it is focused more on faction diplomacy, investigation, infiltration and intrigue, rather than adventuring and exploration. It is important to consider whether this campaign is what you and your players want, something you’ve hopefully discussed and hashed out by running a good session 0!

A brief summary of the adventure begins with the plot that one of the Lords of Waterdeep has stolen a large number of gold pieces (called Dragons) and hidden them away somewhere in the city. After doing this, he magically wiped his own memory by storing his memories inside a magic item that is also somewhere in the city. There are many factions at play in the city trying to retrieve this gold as well as the players.

At the start of the adventure, the players meet in the famous Yawning Portal which is a well-known tavern in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Here they get introduced to the plot of the campaign and get caught in a bar fight, potentially making allies or enemies of different factions in the city. The players get gifted their own tavern and then they get to spend time making alliances with different factions around the city.

Here they get to be really involved with their environment, having lots of time to roleplay. Suddenly however their tavern is attacked with a powerful spell which destroys the building and potentially kills some characters. This leads to them finding the antagonist responsible, which in turn takes them closer and closer to the vault’s location.

After a few interesting encounters, they draw closer to the vault’s location eventually until the big showdown when they are ambushed by the antagonist.

 Wizards of the Coast D&d Waterdeep Dragon Heist Hc (D&d Adventure)Waterdeep Dragon Heist

Waterdeep Dragon Heist pros:

  • Urban adventure: Waterdeep Dragon Heist takes place in the iconic city of Waterdeep, offering a unique urban experience with political intrigue, social interactions, and exploration opportunities that differ from traditional dungeon-crawling adventures.
  • Replayability: The adventure includes multiple storylines and potential villains, providing a different experience each time it is played, which increases replayability and keeps it fresh for both players and DMs.
  • Follow-up content: The adventure can be followed up with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, allowing characters to continue their journey in the city of Waterdeep and explore its iconic mega-dungeon.

Waterdeep Dragon Heist cons:

  • Less combat-focused: As an urban adventure, “Waterdeep Dragon Heist” places a greater emphasis on role-playing, investigation, and social interaction, which may not appeal to players who prefer a more combat-heavy experience. This is the kind of preference you can discuss in a session 0 to make sure players’ expectations and goals are met.
  • Complexity: Of the recommended campaigns for new DMs, this one is on the more complex side with an intricate plot and numerous factions that can be challenging for new DMs to manage. It does require some background reading to get a solid understanding of the city, its factions, and politics.

How many sessions should Waterdeep Dragon Heist take?

Approximately 10 sessions, which is 40 hours in total at 4 hours per session.

Curse of Strahd (Level 1 to 10)

The Curse of Strahd is a very popular and very long campaign for DnD 5e. It is not high fantasy but instead is dark fantasy, with its gothic horror world and its vampiric villains. If you are wanting to run something a bit darker for your campaigns, Curse of Strahd is renowned as one of the best.

Driven by gothic fiction, this story is set in a land called Barovia, a Domain of Dread found in the Shadowfell. I know, it sounds spooky already! This supernatural and unforgiving land leads the players on a journey as they learn about the story, and gain knowledge and skills before they face the big bad himself, Count Strahd Von Zarovich.

The adventuring hook that can be used for this campaign varies as there are four different hooks you can choose based on the kind of party the players have. Interestingly, this campaign is set in a kind of pocket dimension it is fully integrable into your custom-made setting if that is what you want, or continuing on into your own homebrew setting afterwards.

 Curse of Strahd: A Dungeons & Dragons Sourcebook (D&D Supplement)The Curse of Strahd

Curse of Strahd pros:

  • Urban adventure: Waterdeep Dragon Heist takes place in the iconic city of Waterdeep, offering a unique urban experience with political intrigue, social interactions, and exploration opportunities that differ from traditional dungeon-crawling adventures.
  • Replayability: The adventure includes multiple storylines and potential villains, providing a different experience each time it is played, which increases replayability and keeps it fresh for both players and DMs.
  • Follow-up content: The adventure can be followed up with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, allowing characters to continue their journey in the city of Waterdeep and explore its iconic mega-dungeon.

Curse of Strahd cons:

  • Dark themes: It’s a double-edged sword. While some people may love horror themes, it may prove not suitable for all groups or players with some finding the content too dark or intense.
  • High lethality: Curse of Strahd is definitely the most ‘dangerous’ out of the adventures we have recommended, so it carries a much higher risk of player death compared to other campaigns. This may be tricky for new DMs to manage.

How many sessions should Curse of Strahd take?

Approximately 20 sessions, which is 80 hours in total at 4 hours per session.

What is the best campaign for new DMs?

Everything weighed up, if you’re brand new to DnD, or even if you’ve never played D&D before, I would recommend going for the Dragons of Stormwreck Isle Starter Set. It’s really hard to go wrong with this campaign as they’ve done a fantastic job of bundling things up, giving you everything you need, allowing a margin for error and some great DM handholding tips to boot.

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Matt is a Game Designer/Developer with a passion for not only video games but also the table top variety. Having survived the curse of the forever DM, at the moment he can be seen playing his monster slaying Thief Rogue Halfling.