Running the Sunless Citadel: First Steps

The Sunless Citadel is the first adventure in the new Dungeons & Dragons book, Tales from the Yawning Portal. This adventure is designed for beginning characters, and is also a very good choice for Dungeon Masters as their first adventure.

Here are a few tips for running your first session of the adventure!

Character Selection

The Sunless Citadel is a dungeon adventure, where much of the action will take place in ten-feet-wide corridors. By the rules of D&D, two characters can stand next to each other in a corridor. Typically, a party of adventurers will want two characters with good Armor Class and Hit Points standing at the front of the group, able to protect the more vulnerable members of the party. The default choice is a heavy-armor Fighter and a melee Cleric, but there are other character types that can work, for instance the Paladin, Monk and Barbarian can fill this role. Look for characters that have an Armor Class of at least 15 and a Hit Point total of 10 or more, armed with a melee weapon.

The group will want at least one character that can heal (Bard, Cleric, and Druid are the best selections), and having a character who can cast area-effect spells (e.g. Sorcerer, Wizard) to defeat swarms of weaker creatures is useful. The Sunless Citadel includes a few traps, so a character skilled at finding and disarming traps wouldn’t go astray. Although the Rogue is the normal selection, any character with proficiency in Thieves’ Tools can fill the role (one way of gaining the proficiency is through the Criminal background).

The archetypal party is the Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue, but you don’t have to have exactly those classes, and more players allow even more types of characters, with roles then overlapping.

If your group has never played Dungeons & Dragons before, I strongly recommend starting with pregenerated characters; you can allow the players to change the characters after they’ve got a feeling for the system.

The Village of Oakhurst

The Village of The Sunless Citadel is not described in detail (as opposed to the village of Phandalin in the D&D Starter Set). This is fine: you don’t need much information about it. You can assume it has stores that can sell the equipment listed in the Player’s Handbook, and a temple that can cast healing spells on the party if they require them. Apart from that, it provides a safe place for the characters to rest between expeditions.

The adventure gives a list of “Rumors Heard in Oakhurst”, suggesting that the players can discover the information by asking around. I recommend that you tell the players that information at the beginning of the game, even if they don’t ask for it. The rumors give them clues as to what to expect in the dungeon, and foreknowledge makes the players’ engagement with the adventure greater as they discover the truth of the rumors.

For the first session, I would begin by explaining why the players are going to the dungeon, using the Rescue Mission hook, inform them of the rumors, and then go immediately to the adventurers approaching the ravine in which the Citadel lies. Start the adventure! Don’t delay the enjoyment!

Travelling to and from the Dungeon

Assuming the adventurers haven’t enraged all the inhabitants of the dungeon, thus causing them to set traps for the party on the escape path, there should be no trouble travelling to and from the dungeon. When the party decide to leave, tell them that they take a few hours travelling and then return to Oakhurst; likewise for their return journey. There’s no need to make this adventure harder by adding in wandering monsters in the wilderness. The one exception is if you want to run the twig blight encounter in the wilderness to demonstrate to the party that there is something wrong in the area; however, only do this if the party will enjoy the distraction, not if they’re badly hurt and close to death.


The adventure suggests nominating one player as a mapper who then draws the map of where the party has explored.

Don’t do this!

Although mapping is a time-honored tradition from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s also a great way of wasting time and frustrating the players. There are groups of players and dungeons that I’ll use a mapper in, but this is not one of those dungeons – and you’ve likely not got one of those groups, especially if it’s the players’ first game.

Instead, you (as the Dungeon Master) should sketch out the map for the players as they explore the dungeon. I have a book of graph paper with 5mm squares (I guess quarter-inch squares in the States?), and I use this to draw the dungeon for the players. This allows them to easily visualize the layout of the dungeon, and prevents a lot of miscommunications.

For those groups who use miniatures and battlemats, it’s unlikely your battlemat is big enough to display the entire dungeon. I’d still use the graph paper in this case, just drawing on the battlemat when necessary for a combat.

Early Encounters

The first encounters of any game have the players full of anticipation. What sort of game will it be?

The Sunless Citadel begins with a combat against giant rats as the players first come to the chasm. The rats try to hide and ambush the party: You should make one Dexterity (Stealth) check for the rats. Each character whose Passive Perception is lower than this result fails to see the rats and is surprised (see PHB page 189) and can’t act in the first round. This is a great time to amp up your descriptions of the rats, how they’re Really Big, and running from the rubble, shrieking, to engage the adventurers!

Afterwards, suggest to the players that they look around – there’s an Investigating heading that describes what the players can find.

From here, the adventure switches to a mix of the three pillars of D&D: combat, role-playing and exploration. There are traps (that’s where the rogue comes in handy!), tricks (talking statues), monsters, and a few creatures to talk to. It’s having a variety of encounters that keeps the game interesting, and allow you to learn and use different skills as a DM. Don’t be worried if you do some badly – I’ve been running the game over 30 years, and I still make lots of mistakes.

The adventure is designed to channel the characters towards the kobolds – areas 6-12 are likely going to require the players to become more experienced first (and find a key deeper in the dungeon). I’ll talk about the kobolds in a later post. For now, good luck!

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6 Responses to Running the Sunless Citadel: First Steps

  1. says:

    Fantastic! I have been reading your posts for a while, even while not playing, but I will get a group to run this. I ran it back it v3.0 and 3.5, any thoughts own how 5.0 changes it? What are your thoughts on the construction of the dungeon?

    Thank you so much for your insights!

    • says:

      I don’t think 5e changes it that much; the low levels of all editions (except 4E) tend to play fairly similarly. I think it’s a fine dungeon, though I’d never describe it as one of my favourites.

  2. How long do you think it takes to run all of the content in the book, I’m starting up a new group and wanted to give them an up front time commitment. (In hours). Any advice would be great.

    • says:

      It’s hard to judge, as each group has its own playstyle. However, I’d put down the lengths of the adventures as follows:
      The Sunless Citadel: 6-12 hours
      Forge of Fury: 6-12 hours
      Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan: 6-12 hours
      White Plume Mountain: 6-12 hours
      Dead in Thay: 16-24 hours
      Against the Giants: 16-24 hours
      Tomb of Horrors: 5 minutes until TPK

      Very rough numbers. I was running Hidden Shrine last night, and we got through 16 areas of 52 areas in about 2 hours. You *can* speed through a lot of them, but typically they’ll take longer (especially if you’re doing the normal socialising as well!)

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