Review – Tales from the Yawning Portal (D&D)

Tales from the Yawning Portal is like most other Dungeons & Dragons 5E books in that it is a supplement that will let the DM run the characters from first level until somewhere in the teens. Uniquely, however, Tales from the Yawning Portal is an adventure supplement, rather than a campaign supplement. Rather than presenting an overarching story for characters to roleplay through, it presents seven independent adventures, each a re-implementation of a much-lauded dungeon from years past. The dungeons do, however, nicely cover most of the levels, allowing a group to play through them like a deliciously geeky greatest hits album.

When I look at the seven included adventures, they vaguely fall into two categories – dungeons that are “good” from a more modern roleplaying perspective, and old school dungeons that are classics of their era, but don’t really serve the same function one would usually expect from a modern adventure/dungeon. There’s some overlap, to be sure, but some are very clearly in one category or the other. This is part of what makes Tales from the Yawning Portal easily playable as a greatest hits album – the higher-level, super-tough, “grinder” dungeons weren’t designed to be parts of story arcs, anyway (and weren’t really designed to have all of the characters survive). All of the entries are true “dungeons” – it may not be literal dungeon, but each adventure features some grouping of interconnected rooms (dungeon, castle, cave, fortress, whatever) that the characters must make their way through.

This is normally where I would put a “spoiler” warning in a campaign or adventure review, but with seven adventures and no overarching story, this review is not going to delve into the particular surprises in a given adventure, or spoil any story points.

The leaders in the first category are the lowest level adventures – The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury. The Sunless Citadel (Bruce Cordell, 2000) and The Forge of Fury (Keith Baker, 2000) were the first adventure modules released for the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons (still the edition I have played the most and own the most books for). Each presents a dungeon that has a reasonable variety of opponents while maintaining a coherent purpose and theme for the dungeon. They present varied combat encounters, traps and other exploration puzzles, and the opportunity for non-combat interactions with some denizens of the dungeon. Together they will take a party from 1st through 5th level. These two adventures are re-implemented here because they are good adventures. Sunless Citadel, in particular, gives a great blend of adventure elements for an introductory dungeon. Even outside of the context of this book, it’s a good way to get characters up to 3rd level for those campaigns that don’t really start at level 1.

I also put The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (originally Lost Tamoachan; Harold Johnson and Jeff Leason, 1979/1980) in this category. From that date, you can tell that it is not a recent entry into the world of D&D. But it does present exploration, puzzles, and combat for the characters, with a smidge of non-combat interaction. It has a theme to it (an ancient Mayan/Aztec-themed tomb complex). There are a ton of traps, but not of the “kill the characters immediately because they forgot to check this square inch of the dungeon” sort of traps. And since the characters accidentally fall into the lowest level of the tomb and then have to get out, the DM doesn’t even need to come up with a contrived reason why the adventurers would be pointlessly breaking into this ancient resting ground. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is designed for 5th-level characters, so it can flow directly from The Forge of Fury.

White Plume Mountain (Lawrence Schick, 1979) shifts to the old school side of the spectrum. Although it is not a “killer” dungeon like some of the rest in Tales from the Yawning Portal, it lacks any pretense of a “real” purpose. A wizard has created this dungeon and stolen objects of value for the express purpose of luring adventurers into the dungeon so he can kill/enslave them. It is a dungeon for the sake of having a dungeon. There are three independent paths in the dungeon, each leading the characters through traps, skill checks, and ambushes to a mini-boss fight to reclaim one of the stolen valuables (there are some serious damage threats, although this is not to my mind something designed to just kill characters). The dungeon is relatively short, but achieves this by just skipping the chafe, and going straight to what the designers thought were the most interesting/clever bits (which can be justified because, after all, the whole purpose of this dungeon is to vex adventurers, not providing a breeding ground for bugbears and whatnot). White Plume Mountain is designed for 8th level characters, and I don’t think anyone is going to gain three levels from Tamoachan, so this is one place where a gap-filler (or some free xp) is going to be necessary between adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal.

Dead in Thay (Scott Fitzgerald Gray, 2014) plays like a modern effort at an old-school killer dungeon, which is good because that’s what it was designed as when originally rolled out for the D&D encounters program and a playtest for the 5E rules. It presents a truly massive dungeon (the Doomvault) – sure, this isn’t “we spent 500 pages on this one dungeon” territory, but there are 107 areas before the characters manage to break into the final Phylactery Vault. The Doomvault presents a multitude of zones, each with its own environment and types of monsters. There’s really no way that a party could make its way through all of this without pulling out to rest, but the dungeon isn’t really designed for that (it also includes the required hand-waving to make sure that high-level spellcasters can’t simply circumvent the flow of the rooms). But all of that variety of environment is really put to good use – sure, it’s contrived that the Red Wizards have this vault with nine different zones covering every sort of monsters you could think of. But each of those zones has its own rhyme and reason once the characters are in it. There’s a lot to fight and puzzle out, but there are also others in the vault who are there against their will (or maybe agreed to be there in the first place but aren’t too thrilled about it now), so there are more non-combat possibilities that you might expect. The dungeon is also fairly free-form, ironically made possible by the very controlled movement and teleportation system (the controls are necessary because pretty much everything is connected to everything, instead of being linear), which is itself a nice think-y aspect to the dungeon. If you want to play a big giant dungeon, but don’t need the nostalgia of the modules that are older than you are (well, they’re older than I am, at least), Dead in Thay is probably the better experience. Dead in Thay is designed for levels 9-11, so it fits in nicely after White Plume Mountain.

Against the Giants (Gary Gygax, 1978 as individual adventures, 1981 as the three-part form seen here) is the first of the two truly “old school” vibe modules (Tamoachan is almost as old, but isn’t as a killer like the last two here). Against the Giants (for 11+ level characters) is, essentially, a combat grind. You go in and you kill lots of giants, or maybe they kill you first. This isn’t to say that the adventure doesn’t require thinking – it does. But it’s pretty specifically combat planning (including figuring out when you aren’t supposed to take on a particular group that will wreck the party). This is classic-style D&D – the sort of thing that makes some folks talk about “roll-playing” instead of “roleplaying” – less of a cooperative storytelling process than a tactical combat simulator, where the challenge for the players is to figure out how to maximize combat potential.

Tomb of Horrors (Gary Gygax, 1975/1978) is arguably the ultimate “killer dungeon.” Unlike Against the Giants, which is combat-focused, the Tomb of Horrors is heavily focused on traps. And, yes, they will kill the party. Repeatedly. It isn’t really the sort of dungeon where the players can maybe if they’re clever figure things out the first time – they can’t. It’s designed to challenge the players in a very particular way, making them throw characters and brainpower at the dungeon, trying to figure out exactly how to get through – what to touch, what not to touch, etc. The dungeon is aimed at very high level characters (at least 14+ after working through Against the Giants), but the character levels almost don’t matter for parts of it, if you’re already committed to throwing them through the buzzsaw. It’s as much a big puzzle as it is anything else.

I think that there’s a lot of fun to be had in Tales from the Yawning Portal for most groups, up through White Plume Mountain. You get some good to great low-level dungeons, a few truly old school experiences that hold up reasonably well, and then the modern “killer dungeon.” Against the Giants and Tomb of Horrors will, I think, have a more mixed reception. They need to be approached knowing what they are – they are classic early D&D modules, but modern D&D is not early D&D (and, however fond memories may be of early D&D, those changes from the early years have been for the better). If the players know what they are, and are up for a taste of that sort of experience, this is a neat way to experience it without digging up those old modules and re-learning (or, more likely at this point, learning in the first place) those old rules. But that aspect won’t be for everyone.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.



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