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Should you start with homebrew or pre-written D&D adventures?

Ok, so you've decided to run your first ever Dungeons and Dragons campaign - that's awesome, I'm proud of you! You are gonna have an absolute blast! There's one big question though - should you start with running a pre-written adventure or create your own homebrew world? Well, there's not exactly a right or wrong answer to this - it's largely gonna be a question of your preferences and how much time you're able to commit. That said, there are definitely pros and cons to each approach, so let's look at them now so you can make up your mind.

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Pre-written adventures

Starting with a pre-written adventure is probably the easiest way to run your first campaign. I am a big fan of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure from the 2014 Starter Set(*), and am currently enjoying running the Dragons of Stormwreck Isle campaign from the 2022 Starter Set(*). What both of these campaigns have in common is that they are well written, well balanced, and will have been play-tested many times before being published - to ensure that the story and encounters all work well. The other advantage of the campaigns from the starter sets is that they are relatively short.

If you're starting a new campaign, one of the biggest problems you are likely to face is scheduling. When a longer pre-written campaign like Curse of Strahd(*) might take 18 months to 2 years to complete, the Starter Set campaigns may only take 6-8 sessions or so. This not only increases the chances that you and your party will actually get to the end of it, but it also takes a lot of pressure off you, as you're signing up for less work (just in case you don't love it!).

Other advantages

The other main advantages of pre-written campaigns is that you can quickly get an overview of the whole campaign, so you know roughly the direction that your players are going to go throughout the campaign. Not only does this ease the mental burden of having to figure out where your adventure is going next, it also gives you the opportunity to give information throughout the campaign which hints towards future plot developments. This can make the story more enjoyable for your players, and increase their engagement in the world.

An extra bonus to having this overview as to where the story is going is that there will be less awkward pauses when your players get a bit stuck and don't know where they're going next. If you've got an overview of the whole story, you can gently nudge them in that direction.

By and large, pre-written campaigns should also require less prep time. Now, this obviously varies from session to session, and whether you do quite comprehensive prep, or take a less intensive approach. Pre-written campaigns not only have the story planned out for you, though - but depending on the campaign, there may also be a load of world lore and backstory already in place, or a pantheon of gods, or pre-made NPCs etc. While this doesn't mean that prep for pre-written campaigns is insignificant (even just reading the relevant chapters of the adventure take time) it should be less than for a homebrew world.

Crowdsourcing advice

Finally, with pre-written campaigns, you also have the option of benefitting from the advice of other DMs who have run that campaign (or indeed from players that have played it). I had played Lost Mine of Phandelver before I ran it, so I knew (slight spoilers ahead) that the Black Spider was a bit of an anticlimax. In my mind, there wasn't enough background given to him to make the encounter truly satisfying, and he wasn't powerful enough to truly challenge the players. So I had a look on reddit for other DMs' advice, and using a mixture of that and some of my own ideas, I built up a more elaborate backstory and world lore, which was revealed throughout the campaign. I also dramatically altered the final encounter, to try to make it much more epic and enjoyable.

Whatever pre-written campaign you decide to run, you can easily just check out other people's reviews of it, and then figure out what tweaks you might like to make to improve the experience for everyone. Obviously, with Homebrew adventures, this isn't a possibility.

Homebrew adventures

While more of an investment of time, and an outcome that is far less certain, homebrew worlds have a huge amount to offer (if you have the time and creative energy to put into them). In short, homebrew worlds offer full creative control - so whatever kind of campaign you want to run, you have the freedom to tailor it exactly as you'd like to.

Want to steal worlds or characters or settings from your favourite books or films? Go right ahead. Want to set it in the Wild West or Ancient Egypt or Outer Space because that's what your friends are really into? Again, go for it! When creating homebrew worlds, you really are only limited by your imagination - so if you have some burning ideas inside you that you'd love to play out with your friends, then creating a homebrew world just for that might be the best way to go!

Homebrew adventures also mean that there's more scope for you to be surprised at the direction the adventure goes in. With a pre-written adventure, you know that sooner or later you're gonna have to get your players to follow (at least some of) the encounters in the book, and that the adventure is leading towards a final showdown with the antagonist. In a homebrew world, though, if players don't want to go in the direction you'd anticipated, then you can completely re-write things on the fly! If they start voicing theories as to how some innocuous looking NPC is actually the overall villain pulling the strings behind the scenes - then feel free to totally steal that idea even if that's not what you'd been planning!

In short, if you enjoy the improv aspect of D&D, and enjoy being kept on your toes, then a homebrew world is likely to throw more curveballs at you than you'd typically get from a pre-written adventure.

A middle way

Of course, there's nothing to stop you from trying to get the best of both worlds! You can absolutely start with a pre-written campaign, and then add any kinds of homebrew elements you like. You can add in NPCs, items, sidequests - whatever! However you see fit to alter the game, that's totally up to you! You can also re-write any of the lore pertaining to the adventure, expand the world in any ways you see fit, and maybe completely re-write the ending or take the story in a new direction. Nobody is gonna care if you do this (and most of the time your players won't even know!)

This way, you have the safety net of a complete, professionally written adventure to fall back on should you need it -but with the flexibility to add any extra elements you think your party would love! For a first-time DM, this approach gives you a taste of the benefits of homebrew and all the fun it offers, without having to commit huge amounts of time to prep each week. It also means you can relax a little - safe in the knowledge that the adventure is one that's gonna make your party (and you) keen to come back for more!


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