D&D Review: Tales From the Yawning Portal
Wizards of the Coast has been keeping us fans on our toes with unexpected products that seldom fit into the comfortable expected boxes built by prior editions. Or, as their latest adventure module has demonstrated, even the pattern established by prior releases from this edition. Rather than a new storyline adventure inspired by a classical module, WotC is releasing Tales From the Yawning Portal, a collection of seven classic adventures updated to the current rule set.
What It Is
Tales From the Yawning Portal is a 248-page full colour hardcover book featuring four adventures from 1st Edition and two from 3rd Edition that have been updated to 5th Edition, along with one adventure from the D&D Next playtest. The adventures have been edited (or rather re-edited) to conform with modern standards of presentation and to be *slightly* more similar in tone, but are otherwise largely identical to their original publication. For example, read aloud text (aka grey boxed text) has been added to at least two adventures, which previously predates that innovation in adventure module design. Monsters matching the originals are used whenever possible, with close substitutions when the original has not been updated. The book features all new art, with a few updates of classic pieces, and other times featuring scenes not previously depicted.
As this product features such diverse adventures, before reviewing the product as a whole I’ll devote a few words to each of the included adventures. In order of appearance/ level range:
Originally 28-pages for levels 1 to 3, now 23-pages.
The first adventure published for 3rd Edition D&D, this adventure introduced many players to Dungeons & Dragons. It’s certainly been played enough times to be considered a “modern classic”. If something that’s 17-years-old can even be called “modern”.
I haven’t *really* played this adventure. I started it in a one-on-one game while (drunkenly) testing out the 3e rules with a friend. It didn’t go well and my adventurer was ripped to shreds by dire rats in the very first encounter. Reading the original and the reprint for this review was my first experience with much of this story. (I also hadn’t realized this was the source of twig blights: I’ve often wondered how these little guys had become so iconic.)
This adventure is a site-based adventure. It was designed to be classical and “old school”, being slightly OSR before that term even existed. There’s no real story per se, just an adventure locale that the players are expected to want to explore or that the Dungeon Master can insert into their world as needed. That said, there is an implied plotline, a literal seed of an adventure hook with the magical tree at the base of the citadel, but it and the villain don’t drive the story and don’t have firm plans. Regardless, the tree and the fruit make a lovely hook that makes it a very useful adventure. You can imagine a king or noble hiring a party to find the tree and the fruit to cure a loved one (like the magic flower at the start of Tangled). It’s small and simple yet can drive the action forward far more easily than “fortune and glory” or even vague apocalyptic threats which feel needlessly grandiose at first level.
The adventure site itself is interesting, being a fortress that has collapsed underground, but retained its integrity. It’s a lovely justification for a large improbably large subterranean dungeon beyond the usual “a wizard did it”. Sadly, the overland maps were omitted by the reprint, making this layout of the keep less apparent.
I quite liked this dungeon. Its biggest weakness is that it’s likely far too lengthy for levels 1 to 3 using the current experience rules. There’s a lot of encounters. But it would be easy to beef up the end and make it higher level, or customize the adventure as the basis of a story in a home game.
Forge of Fury
Originally 28-pages for level 3 to 5, but now 27-pages.
Like it’s predecessor, Sunless Citadel, this is an oft-played modern classic. Another site-based adventure that can be used if the party decides to explore a nearby mountain.
There’s no driving force to fully explore the areas provided by the adventure, and the supplied adventure hooks are completed halfway through the dungeon. This is a pure murder-hobo module where the PCs go forward for the sole reason of killing things and taking their shiny objects. Which could be “classical” but the dungeon lacks the interesting rooms and traps of truly classical dungeons. There’s no puzzles or riddles, no unique traps or evocative chambers. Instead, there are just tactical encounters. This is a dungeon where the interesting bits are defeating the orcs on the other side of a gorge crossed by a fragile rope bridge.
As an example of this adventure’s design, this is one of three adventures in the book that includes yellow mold as an adventuring hazard. In the adventures from earlier editions, one uses an illusion of yellow mold to hide treasure, while another does the reverse and covers yellow mold with an illusion of treasure. In this it’s just yellow mold. Nothing clever, no tricks or surprises. You open the door and… yellow mold. That’s Forge of Fury in a nutshell. It’s the anti-Tomb of Horrors.
The dungeon doesn’t even really feel very organic or realistic. There’s four main areas to the dungeon, each the size of a city block, and most are inhabited with a different group of humanoids that largely don’t interact with the others but somehow have access to food despite a lack of exits elsewhere. While not the only dungeon that suffers from this lack of verisimilitude, it doesn’t have the excuse of the hobby being new to fall back on.
In case my opinions aren’t apparent, Ifound this adventure boring and uninspired. The dungeon isn’t remarkable, being your bog standard dwarven fortress mixed with natural caverns. Arguably it’s “iconic” being a dwarven city occupied by a dragon and you can easily drop it into a campaign when a dwarven citadel or mine is needed. And it’s good for that, being generic as eff. But there’s little else going on that makes you want to find a reason to use this adventure or an excuse to justify making your party venture into the dwarven fortress.
Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Originally 22-pages for levels 5 to 7. Now 35-pages for level 5.
I played in this adventure for a time, but never made it out of the lower levels. The inability to sit and rest makes this adventure tricky, but does add some pressure. I think we tried it simply at too low a level.
The different tone of the dungeon and inhabitants makes this a fun addition. Hidden Shrine is famous for its mesoamerican feel, as well as giving us the nereid and gibbering mouther. There is a sense of being immersed in a foreign and unfamiliar culture that is ancient. This and the time pressure to escape before being poisoned are fun.
Well… the time pressure *should* be fun. Would be fun for a smaller dungeon. But this dungeon is just big. It’s very large. A dozen chambers where you’re slowly losing health, and another dozen before you can safely emerge from the dungeon. If you’re not careful, the novelty of this dungeon crawl might run out. Given the players are trapped below and can’t just turn around and give up on the treasure if they’re stuck or frustrated is a problem.
Like the Tomb of Horrors, this adventure suffers from being an adversarial dungeon crawl where the DM is expected to be trying to kill the players. It also has a “big red button” problem in that you walk through the dungeon encountering interesting things and features: you really *want* to see what happens when you interact with the big red buttons – and often the most fun things in the dungeon happen when you push the button – but doing so is a lose condition. Personally, half the fun is seeing what happens when you pull the forbidden lever, opening the obviously trapped chest, or touching the glowing magical item. Adding insult to the button situation, “winning” the dungeon requires you to interact with some items, so you you can’t get out by not touching anything, and instead have to be exceedingly lucky-clever with what items you do poke.
White Plume Mountain
Originally 9-pages for levels 5 to 10. Now 13-pages for level 8.
This adventure was famously created a writing sample written to get the author hired by TSR: he took all his best ideas for dungeons and slapped them together. And it shows. The dungeon is a giant mass of curious rooms just forced together: it’s a vibrant clashing collage of ideas without any consistent theme or internal logic. Like a dungeon quilt. Or a dungeon created by mad libs.
(This adventure is also likely the source of the term “funhouse dungeon“, likely for its inclusion of a literal turnstile and rotating room.)
Thankfully, there’s some justification for the insanity, as the creator of the dungeon created this complex not as a place to live, hide their treasure, or serve as a tomb, but explicitly to challenge adventurers trying to explore each wing. It’s almost more of an XCrawl dungeon than a traditional treasure hunt. The dungeon’s creator doesn’t even make an appearance. He’s just things instigating force who sets things into motion and isn’t seen, like the victim of a murder mystery.
And yet… for all its crazy flaws, White Plume works as it’s just less mean than the Tomb of Horrors: the problems are more obvious and it rewards experimentation and creative solutions. It’s less about getting out of a corridor without an obvious exit (or with the obvious exit also being an obvious deathtrap) and more getting passed a frictionless hallway or giant chamber filled with boiling mud. It’s the dungeon equivalent of the Flash Gordon movie from 1980. It’s crazy and colourful and cheesy as eff, but it’s fun to run and play in a winky retro way – the perfect beer & pretzels module – but it’s hard to take seriously. However, even if you never, ever plan on running it, it’s an excellent source of inspiration for making your own dungeons.
Dead in Thay
Originally 66-pages for levels 6 to 8. Now 55-pages for level 9.
This reprinting of the dungeon omits the initial encounter covering the assault on the Bloodgate and the Elemental Nexuses. Originally this was published as a PDF for the Encounters program of Organized Play. It was part of the “Dreams of the Red Wizards” series and sequel to Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and Scourge of the Sword Coast. I was initially critical of this adventure and series. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle skips a number of levels and doesn’t have an ending, with the plot of the Red Wizards collecting key left dangling. Scourge of the Sword Coast is its sequel, but since it starts at level 2, the same characters can’t continue the story, and it also doesn’t resolve the plotline. Dead in Thay ostensibly serves as the end of the trilogy, but it uses 6th level characters so the 4th level heroes from Scourge of the Sword Coast can’t continue, and it hastily wraps up lingering plotline in the aforementioned first encounter. It’s a disappointing end.
Freed of the above baggage, the remaining Doomvault section of the adventure comes off much better. It’s a sizable mega-dungeon featuring nine different sub-regions. There are a lot of imaginative rooms and chambers, with some great traps that feel like they could have come right out of a module from the ’70s or ’80s. And the final encounter area of the Phylactery Vault is really cool. There’s a lot of filler encounters between the most interesting rooms (likely because this dungeon is so very, very large) but there’s so much going on that few rooms seem to fall flat. So if one chamber is bland, you know there’ll be a good one coming right up.
To move between rooms in zones you need glyph keys, and other intangible barriers separate the various zones. While necessary for organized play this would get super tiring playing at home. It eats up a lot of space in the book and I wonder if this aspect would have been better off removed, and players permitted to freely wander the entire complex.
This adventure is republished almost verbatim to its original. It uses the original maps and art, which are typically NPC portraits. It even includes a reference to the language “Primordial”, which didn’t make it into 5e proper.
While the text is almost entirely unaltered, the encounters are tweaked in places, but otherwise it’s the same as the PDF. Ironically, one of the encounters that isn’t rebalanced is the final one, which brings in a freakin’ Challenge 18 demilich against <12th level PCs.
Against the Giants
Originally 29-pages for levels 8 to 12. Now 46-pages for level 11.
This is an odd choice for inclusion, given the preceding adventure was Storm King’s Thunder, which reimagined and updated these very adventures, albeit with non-drow pulling the strings.
One of the earliest published D&D adventures was G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which was later compiled into the larger adventure, Against the Giants. While there are older adventures out there published by other companies, there aren’t many. This adventure was written back when Gary Gygax had been Dungeon Mastering and writing dungeons for probably only half a decade. They were reportedly written to allow Mr. Gygax to take a break between writing the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook.
It’s hard to quantify these adventures. I’ve been DMing and designing adventures for my home games for almost twenty-five years, likely five times as long as Gygax when he penned these adventures. And I have the benefit of years of development and refinement in adventure design (*ahem* standing on the shoulders of giants). There’s certainly some funkiness in these adventures, such as the lower levels of each dungeon, which are filled with random monsters (and decidedly few giants). Sometimes there’s a loose thematic tie – such as flame creatures in the fire giant dungeons and ice creatures in the frost giant lair – but others are just filler. Dungeon rooms that exist just because there was space left on the piece of grid paper. And there’s lots of weirdness, like the adult red dragon whose lair is in the fire giant’s subasement with no easy way in or out, which is made extra weird in the reprint as the lair is now an extradimensional space for no good reason other than explaining how the massive dragon can fit in the small chamber.
But it’s hard to be too critical, as these adventures are so very formative.
Tomb of the Horrors
Originally 9-pages for levels 10 to 14. Now 17-pages for a vague “high level”.
The advantage of this adventure being reprinted here is that WotC is now unlikely to try and expand it into a level 1-10+ campaign. Like several of the above, it is a classic, but there’s just not enough to really expand into a full storyline adventure.
I’m not a fan of this adventure. It’s adversarial and punishes the players for not thinking like the author. While ostensibly written to be a “thinking man’s module” it was really written to humble Mr. Gygax’s experienced players. It requires a type of play style that is just less common at the present, where players aren’t acting as their character, but being themselves and trying to metagame their way through the dungeon. There are some clues to the “solutions” to the “puzzles” presented in the Tomb, but it’s pretty murky and there’s not a lot of assistance for the DM. It can be an awkward and slow read with some unfortunate Gygaxian turns of phrase. Getting through the dungeon is less “how do we get past X” and more “where do we go now?”, which is inherent slower. You’re given one path forward, and it’s usually a trap. It’s a dungeon that doesn’t just expect you to push on the walls, but wants you to be explicit *where* you push on the walls.
And, as mentioned in Lost Shrine, there is the issue of big red buttons: if done “correctly” few of the traps are triggered and the most interesting parts of the dungeon remain unseen (my “solution” to this was posted earlier ).
This adventure has some moments that are as deadly as always. And a few traps that just don’t seem as scary (like the falling rocks). Characters in 5th Edition have more hit points and are able to fairly easily heal via short rests, so attrition is less dramatic. Traps might need a little more *oomf* to have that same sting.
The adventures seem well updated. Fans of the originals should be happy that classical elements – and even text – are retained. Most encounters have been rebalanced to provide an appropriate challenge. But care was really made to keep monster substitutions appropriate, such as replacing a thoqqua with a flame snake in Sunless Citadel. This is a little fuzzier for the higher level adventures, as there’s such a wide range of power levels for groups when you get above 10th level. But the rebalanced encounters seem reasonable for a baseline group.
The updated formatting is handy, especially for the older adventures. Having subheaders for rooms and details clearly delineated rather than just all jumbled together makes running the adventures much easier. Even the 3e adventures are a little cleaner in this respect. If you were planning on running one of these adventures, the formatting alone might almost be worth the price of admission.
Treasure in the higher level adventures is also reduced to be closer to the 5e guidelines. So you can play these adventures without overloading players with gold. And there doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of magical items. Mostly…
Because these adventures are well known, the most iconic scenes and locations were familiar to the designers. As such, there’s now art for may of the more iconic moments, such as the entrance tunnel to the Tomb of Horrors, the roper fight in Forge of Fury, the brainwashed adventurers in Sunless Citadel, the three artifacts beneath White Plume Mountain, and, of course, Meepo the kobold. I quite like the shot of the adventurers with their barkskin effect, their skin slightly more arboreal in appearance but without looking like entlings.
There are a lot of monsters new to 5th Edition in this product, including the sea lion, siren, nereid, kelpie, and the freakin’ choker. How has the choker not been updated before now?! There’s also a “malformed kraken” for a weaker version of that foe, along with an NPC that serves as a lower-challenge lich.
In addition, Dead in Thay makes use of a “reduced threat” template for many monsters, which is often used for young creatures. This is super handy. I know the Pathfinder RPG has simple templates like this (advanced and young) and this is something which should see a lot more use. It’s a paragraph to photocopy and stick inside your Monster Manual.
While I praise the art for picking some excellent location shots and scenes, not everything could be illustrated. Both the Tomb of the Horrors and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan originally featured art booklets, so a LOT of art was not updated. There are a few iconic scenes, like the Great Hall of Spheres, which just didn’t make the cut. I’m stunned there’s no shot of the iconic Face of the Great Green Devil.
Because of the lower challenge of many monsters, a few interesting encounters that are now lackluster. The most noteworthy is the roper encounter from Forge of Fury which used to be a deadly fight that required diplomacy and negotiation or exceptional tactics. But, in 5e, ropers are less intelligent, can’t talk, and are an appropriately levelled challenge. It’s unfortunate. But probably more fair…
Another complaint related to the Forge of Fury is that this adventure features little to no reduction of treasure. There’s a fair number of magical weapons, armour, and gold at the end, including a +2 axe. It’s just a little *too* much treasure and magic.
The Yawning Portal of the title refers to a tavern in Waterdeep associated with the vast dungeon complex known as Undermountain. But Undermountain is just name dropped and doesn’t factor into the adventures. Literally any tavern could have been used, including ones from Greyhawk or Dragonlance. This could have been Tales from the Green Dragon Inn or Tales from the Inn of the Last Home. The Yawning Portal is somewhat well known, but in doing so included this dramatic and evocative story element (the well to Undermountain) that doesn’t have any payoff. Undermountain and the Yawning Portal is a Chekov’s Gun that remains unfired. It might have been better to save the Yawning Portal for an Undermountain product.
I’m not a fan of the updated versions of Against the Giants’ maps. The negative space is too busy, they’re too distractingly colourful and cartoonish. Also, the text labels are dark, making rooms hard to identify in a few places. (If I were going to try and make use of these adventures, I’d likely invest in Mike Schley’s updates from a Dungeon magazine.)
While I’m kvetching about maps, putting the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in a the two-page spread means a chunk of the dungeon is lost in the books gutter. While flipping it 90 degrees would have shrunken the map, it would have been more legible. Which isn’t a huge hurdle, as you can buy that map as well.
(As a side whine, I’m saddened I can’t find the map of the Tomb of Horror for sale, as a player-friendly version of that dungeon would be keen.)
Also, the maps could really use some labelling for stairs. Large dungeons live and die by the DM’s ability to navigate them mentally, finding which stairways lead where. Arrows and map keys directing the paths up and down would have been lovely, especially colour coded ones. There was a stairway in Against the Giants which lead *somewhere*, but the room text was no help and I couldn’t find the source. Similarly, the infamous plastered over door in Tomb of Horrors is never described from the other side. But almost every group who finds that door is going to discover it from the far side and try and attempt to open it, but there’s never any description of the door in that chamber or DC for the Strength check needed to force it open from the far side. (Reading through the dungeon from start to finish, I’d forgotten about the plastered door when I hit the other room, and spent several minutes trying to track down where that stupid door led. And I have vague memories of doing something similar when reading the dungeon in the Dungeons of Dread reprint.)
Which leads me to a major issue with this product: it doesn’t tweak or “fix” old school modules. The weak points (like random monsters, unclear descriptions, nonsensical dungeon layouts) remain. How dungeons are designed and presented has evolved greatly over the years. If you’re not a fan of the originals, there’s nothing here that will change your mind or make you reconsider giving these adventures a second look; the originals have been around for years: if you and your group haven’t played them by now, it wasn’t likely because of a lack of availability.
And now the elephant in the review. A diplomatic description of this product would be “low effort”. (A less generous descriptor I’ve used elsewhere is “lazy”.) It’s not designing new dungeons, creating new stories, or generating new encounters but simply editing existing text. Nothing new is being added. It’s exceedingly easy to update 1st Edition (and low level 3rd Edition) adventures into 5th Edition: I’ve done it on the fly. This product doesn’t offer much that couldn’t be replicated by a used copy (or cheap PDF) of the original and a simple conversion document. It’s literally the type of product Mike Mearls tried to discourage people from doing on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, instead telling writers to add their own spin to classic adventures (not that updates didn’t immediately spring up). Or, as was recently announced, done under licence by a 3rd Party. This isn’t the sort of product that WotC needed to do at this time. It feels like a late edition softball product, or schedule filler…
I like that each section includes a small sidebar on the original dungeon, with an image of the cover. It emphasises that these aren’t just any old dungeons.
A few monsters used in this book come from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. While WotC could have required that book for use (or included them in the Basic Rules and directed people there) they instead just reprinted those monsters in this book. It’s small, but it’s a nice addition.
Dead in Thay retains its ties to the Sundering event, which is odd in an otherwise story-neutral product. One such reference to the divine Chose is the Chosen of Bhaal, who was determined by the results of D&D Encounter play. In the original PDF the identity was left vague, but this book uses the publically determined Chosen as canon. Nice to see organized play’s impact be recognized. I approve of any ways of having the players influence events in the setting and larger canon.
I imagine this product exists so new players can have a chance to play these classic adventures. It’s for the new generation of gamers who might be turned off by black-and-white modules with limited formatting, amateurish production values, and walls of uneven text. So they can join their gaming peers with conversations on King Snurre, Acererak, or Meepo. I can’t fault that. The more gamers who end up having stories about stepping into a Green Devil Face or falling into a crypt of poison gas the better. It gives us a shared narrative. A common ground to initiate conversation.
I’m starting this conclusion with a small personal anecdote.
When this product was announced, I had the day off and was killing the morning online. I saw the forum post discussing the product on ENWorld and skipped it, thinking it was a fan’s new product on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. Then I saw a tweet on the book from WotC (complete with the cover) and realized it was official product. And, again, I assumed it was a digital product for the Guild. Because updating adventures is so very, very easy. Regardless, I was excited by it, because there was a demand for smaller adventures, by fans not served by the large storyline adventures.
Then I saw the price and realized it was a hardcover book. And immediately went into denial. “This can’t be the storyline book for the spring. They must be doing another book in addition to this.” When I realized that, no, this was indeed the sole product for the first half for 2017 I was rather pissed. Yeah, I wanted people to have small adventures, but not at the expense larger storylines. And not updated versions of content I already owned!. Then I began to hope the product wasn’t just a reprint. Maybe they were updating the classics. Reimagining them. Fixing all those cheap gotcha! traps and reducing the adversarial DM vs player tone to some of the modules. Tying them together. If they did that it’d be cool! After reading the previews II just became sad. I wondered if this was the first 5e book I was going to skip. I owned half of these adventures already, especialy having just purchased the Dungeons of Dread hardcover not that long ago. Could I justify the purchase? Finally, I admitted to myself that my obsessive collector’s impulse wouldn’t let me skip the book, that I wanted to see what they’d do with the product and write a review.
This product literally put me through the five stages of grief!
The above is somewhat exaggerated, and my personal reactions only. I’m mentioning it for a couple reasons. Firstly, because I think it’s slightly amusing, if only from a psychological perspective. But, also to clearly lay out my personal bias against the product, which existed fairly early. Tales from the Yawning Portal was always going to have had a hard time winning over my affections. It’s not a product I wanted nor found particularly necessary. However, not everyone feels as comfortable spontaneously updating modules, and would prefer a more professionally updated product. That and the revised formatting often makes just finding important details in the rooms easier.
I’m not sure there’s a large number of brand new players clamouring to play unfamiliar dungeons from thirty years ago. But this might get them interested in a few of the classics, and curious about the history of the game.
To me, this is a one-shot book. Something for those times when one player can’t make it to the game or you need a break from the regular campaign. Pull out some pregenerated characters or the heroes from a previous campaign and run through a classic module. Fun and low prep. I’ve never run the Tomb of Horrors and this products might have pushed me to give it a try…
Literally. One of the reasons I was able to justify buying Tales from the Yawning Portal was that that I had some extra funds from book sales.
I have a number of PDF products on the Dungeon Master’s Guild website as part of the 5 Minute Workday Presents line. Such as the Rod of Seven Parts, Giant Killer’s Companion, Traps, Diseases, Legendary Monsters, and Variant Rules.
Additionally, my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase on DriveThurRPG or Print on Demand through Amazon. The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.