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I'm thinking about taking a turn as DM after one of my current games wraps up next week. When we start, the various players will have had 0-4 sessions of experience with 5e, though some have played other RPGs. We'd probably play every other week over the summer, so about 8 weeks, but with the potential for most players to continue into the new year.

With where I'm at right now, I'd rather use a published adventure so I can focus on running the game over writing it. The one my FLGS has on the shelf is Curse of Strahd, but I've heard (vaguely) that it may not be the best for new or almost-new players. However, I don't have much to go on when looking for alternatives, though I know I want something with atmosphere, descriptive adjectives, and alternatives to violence, not just a list of encounters with monster statistics and traps. Ideally something like 25% of dilemmas and questions require some creativity and roleplaying, not just a big stick, while 25% require violence and the remainder could be either depending on how the PC's act.

Question: How should I go about choosing an adventure for a group of new players? What qualities should I look for, and how can I tell if a published adventure has them? Should I restrict myself to official WotC adventures on the presumption that they have the best writing and playtesting, or is there a way to identify third-party adventures with a similar (or higher) level of polish and quality?

(Once I actually have the adventure in front of me, I have sufficient experience running other games, playing 5e, and poring over the rules that I'm pretty confident about everything else. For example I'm happy to improvise, and if necessary give story XP, if the PCs go off script and bypass an encounter that I was counting on to prepare them for the next one, so I'm not expecting the writers to have thought of everything.)

Note: If this goes well I'm likely to do it again, so in the spirit of the Stack I'm asking how to fish, i.e. tools or heuristics to help identify what I want from what's out there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I see nothing wrong with this question as long as people answer it with thoughtful answers using Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, and not just naming an adventure they liked. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk May 10 '16 at 22:58
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How should I go about choosing an adventure for a group of new players?

The most important thing is to find something that speaks to you. If the premise leaves you flat, you are not so likely to be able to breathe life into the campaign.

The other most important thing is to find something your players will enjoy. Heck, they'll probably enjoy anything you DM cuz you'll be so great, but if they are all obsessed with dragons, maybe the module with the dragons, right?

What qualities should I look for?

  1. Make sure the module you select is for new first level characters. (Unless you really want to start at a higher level, which would make your work a bit harder.)

  2. Modules labeled introductory are good for starting DM's and players. They often reprise the rules you will need to be familiar with, and give points to where to look rules, etc.

    CAVEAT: The word "introductory" doesn't have a fixed definition. Some introductory modules will be entirely self-contained, while others might require other materials, such as the Monster Manual and the DM Guide.

  3. A module might be (A) specifically for particular game rules (like D&D 5e), (B) be "compatible" with a set of game rules, or (C) it might be just the "story" part without the monster stats. A module of the first type will be easiest to use.

...and how can I tell if a published adventure has them?

I think that a trip to your Friendly Neighborhood Game Store might serve you well. The staff of typically pretty knowledgeable, and you can flip through the merchandise. Other customers often might offer their insights as well.

This site and others have chat forums where you can get suggestions and discuss.

You might also read product reviews online. For the in-depth info you are interested in, I'd favor review website like Escapist Magazine over reviews at online stores (although both have their place).

Should I restrict myself to official WotC adventures on the presumption that they have the best writing and playtesting or is there a way to identify third-party adventures with a similar (or higher) level of polish and quality?

Probably not a bad idea to favor the WotC's D&D 5E material, if that's what you're going to be playing. This has more to do with the encounters being tailor-made for 5E, than one company's material being better than another.

So which are those?

Applying my own answers to your criteria, The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the D&D Starter Kit, and The Horde of the Dragon queen both would be solid choices. Phandelver also would be a good fit for the number of play sessions you mention.

You'd mentioned social encounters...

Most D&D modules have a whole lot of fighting involved, and the two I mentioned are no exceptions. Without doing any spoilers, Phandelver probably is more dense with opportunity for social encounters than Horde of the Dragon Queen.

The existence of opportunities for social encounters, of course, has a lot to do with your DM'ing. Monsters don't have to attack the party on sight, even if the module says they do.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If nothing else (and it's not"nothing else"), +1 for "monsters don't have to attack the party on sight, even if the module says they do." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 May 11 '16 at 3:23

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