2 of 7 Tales From the Yawning Portal

Well here we are again.  Another Hardcover D&D Adventure, the first of likely two for the year.  I still never picked up Storm King’s Thunder having written it off as more of the same Forgotten Realms stuff.  When I actually read it I was pleasantly surprised to find it more of a DM’s Guide to the Sword Coast with a giant-themed adventure bolted on.  I elected to not purchase that one.  I’ve got some store credit somewhere, maybe I’ll use that for SKT.  Tales from the Yawning Portal I got on day one though.  It’s not because I know these adventures or ever played any of them, no, this one is all about The Maps and The Dungeons.  I have a High Level Eberron campaign ready to rock but I still need monsters and maps and dungeons to fill it out.

Somehow I always manage to spill, tear, stain, or otherwise desecrate my D&D books within 1 day of ownership.  Hoard of the Dragon Queen’s back cover is torn, the Temple of Elemental Water has mountain dew on it, and My Desk at work seems to have scratched TftYP within 5 seconds of me placing them on it.  Such is life.

Anyways, gather round and listen as I delve into the most delvable of dungeons to review Tales from the Yawning Portal.  I sit here with a Coke Life I will inevitably spill.  My cat, Edgar, my familiar, who always takes the Help action on his turn.

After a brief description of the adventures contained within the book gets to the history of the Yawning Portal, a tavern in the city of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms.  There’s some FR lore on its owner, Durnan,  a description of the tavern itself, and a few tables on the kinds of mysterious strangers you meet in D&D taverns.  This is only two pages.  It really feels like a intro to starting a D&D game in a tavern if one should be a new DM.  Between this style of writing and the description of the first adventure in the book, “The Sunless Citadel,” this feels like an adventure for someone who maybe hasn’t been a dungeon master before.  I like that.  Thinking back, one critique from the last three hardcover adventures, Thunder, Curse, and Abyss, is that they were very much for Advanced DMs.  I would agree with that assessment.  This book seems to be taking that to heart as so far.

The Sunless Citadel

The Sunless Citadel is an adventure I’ve often heard praised but never actually read myself.  I am familiar with the concept of the Gulthias Tree as it plays heavily into Curse of Strahd.  As one of the players from Curse of Strahd still carries a staff made from the branch of the Gulthias Tree which was in fact the final blow to stake Strahd von Zarovich in his coffin well…let’s just say I am very interested in anything valuable that can be looted from this chapter.  There’s a description of the adventure’s lore, the areas your players can expect to visit, and some suggestions for modifying the adventure.  What season is it?  That’s a good descriptive basic question to ask a starting DM.  There are descriptions on different campaign settings you could set this in.  My running theory right now is that we’re going to get a book at some point with like 50 pages devoted to Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron, maybe Dark Sun and Planescape?

There are some good hooks for why the players would seek out the Sunless Citadel.  A merchant family’s children went missing.  If the game is set in summer, the local goblins sell an enchanted apple that heals all ailments once a year.

It’s a good dungeon.  I don’t want to delve into the mechanics of each room but this is a perfectly adequate starter dungeon.  I wish there was more art of the exterior and where exactly you’re going.  I guess you take a rope into a ravine to get to this dungeon.  I’d like to see art of the ravine to get a better idea of what I’m looking at.  I like the encounter with the dessicated troll.  It has 30 HP now but it’s getting stronger the second the PCs take it out of stasis.  The adventure doesn’t say this but after this troll seems like a fine place to level up.

Then you get to Meepo the Kobold.  I’ve heard of Meepo but again, I’ve never read this adventure before.  In this dungeon, a tribe of Kobolds are at war with a tribe of Goblins.  The Goblins stole a white dragon baby the Kobolds were worshipping.  Meepo’s job was to guard the dragon so he’s up shit creek right now.  But the kobolds are willing to deal if the PCs can get their dragon back where presumably in 50 years it will destroy the local village of Oakhurst.

One thing it took me a minute to figure out is how the PCs get to Meepo’s room.  At the beginning of the dungeon you can go left or right.  If you go left, there are some puzzles and it’s more or less linear path to the 30 HP troll.  You go right, you hit Meepo.  The Kobolds in this dungeon are one of those times in D&D where the default solution is talk to them.  You really have to fuck up or not be interested in order to start a fight with these guys.  Their leader offers the PCs a couple consumable magic items if they’ll recover the tribe’s dragon from the goblins.  She even throws in Meepo.  I always heard people complain there isn’t enough roleplaying in dungeon crawls and I never bought it.  There isn’t enough roleplaying in Bad Dungeon Crawls.  Between the Kobolds and the two goblin factions there’s plenty of RP to be had.  The Goblins are slightly less willing to deal but they can be bent.

Really there are three dungeons in this section.  The bottom linear section ending with the troll, the Kobold section that you’re expected to talk through, and the Goblin Section.  All of this is in a map the size of my palm which kinda sucks.  There’s loads of flipping and checking what room connects to what.  It’s a good dungeon but we couldn’t put this thing on even half a page?

The Grove Section that forms the finale has a gorgeous full page.  I really like this dungeon if mostly for it being evil druid themed.  This encounter with the Gulthias Tree is way better than Curse of Strahd’s.  Here the PCs finally confront the Druid Belak and his thralls, the adventurers the PCs were sent in to find.  One complaint is that one NPC has an item that destroys other items called Shatterspike.  It deals an auto-crit to objects and in combat he targets the PCs weapons.  Uhh…okay…how much HP does a quarterstaff have?  What about an arcane focus?  That seems like a big deal I have no idea how to adjudicate.

I like that the adventure probably ends with the NPCs dying as a sacrifice to bring down the Gulthias Tree.  Thralls of the tree die 24 hours after the tree itself.  So if you destroy the tree and didn’t kill them in combat they have one day to live.  That’s kind of haunting and tragic and I like it.

One thing that would’ve helped is some guidance on XP.  Up to this point the hardcover adventures have been explicit about telling you when the PCs should level up.  Sunless Citadel says the PCs should be third level for the Finale.  But then the next adventure, Forge of Fury, expects the PCs to start it at 3rd Level.  Meaning the PCs should not advance to 4th level at the dramatic end of Sunless Citadel?  I realize the two adventures aren’t direct sequels but they kind of are.  My rule on low level D&D is that the PCs should be level 2 in about 1-2 hours.  Then the PCs should be level 3 at the end of their second session, about 5-6 hours after they leveled up previously.

Forge of Fury

Forge of Fury is a followup adventure to Sunless Citadel released at the start of 3rd Edition.  This adventure is meant to take 3rd level PCs to 5th level “with good play.”  I am curious but doubtful that the adventure will explain what “good play” means.  Seeing as how every hardcover adventure up to this point uses the Milestone system for XP it feels odd to go back to counting points.  I ran into this the couple of times I’ve DMed Adventurer’s League Games, at the end the players ask how much XP they got and fuck if I know.  Some AL adventures have charts in the back giving out XP values for each monster and I’m like, really?  What is this Diablo?  It’s a dead system I no longer mourn.

Anyways, the story here is that your PCs are in the mountains and there are some orcs plaguing a local community.  They’re believed to be based in a Dwarven ruin that’s probably full of Dwarf loot.  The Dungeon has a few different options for attacking it and the Orcs are prepared to defend themselves against a frontal attack.  I like adventures that try to make frontal attacks a bad idea.  Often times I find PCs are content to sit back and lob attacks forcing the melee centric monsters to come to them.  This dungeon even has a round by round breakdown on what the orcs do in the event they’re under attack.  Then there’s a level of Troglodytes.  Then there’s a level of Duergar.  Then there’s a dragon.

I like how 5E does this thing where they have standard monsters but then say “This monster uses X stats and knows the following spells.”  Problem is I’m never going to remember where these monsters were.  I can see that Nimira is a Duergar who has different AC, HP, and Damage but it changes her CR in a way I’ll never remember or replicate unless I directly steal this monster.

I’m not crazy about this adventure.  I think The Sunless Citadel did a better job of having a story despite being a dungeon crawl.  This is “go kill some shit and take their stuff.”  And let’s just keep sending in monsters until you fight the DRAGON at the end of the DUNGEON.  Then when the PCs are standing over their treasure one of them asks “how the fuck do we get this to the surface?” just roll credits.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

This adventure intrigues me because I always wanted to have a Dark Sun campaign that climaxed at the great step pyramid of Draj.  That city-state and this adventure both try to have that sort of Mayaztintec feel.  This is also where I ran out of gas to write this review.  From this point forward the encounters sort of just all blend together.  At the time of this writing, the book’s been out for about a month and I’m thinking lets post now.

White Plume Mountain

After Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain is probably the 2nd most famous of the adventures in this book and at 12 pages the easily the shortest.

Dead in Thay

I think this might be the most controversial entry into this book.  At 54 pages, it seems weird that Dead in Thay takes up almost double the space of any other adventure in this book.  I don’t think I’m speaking heresy here when I say that of all the adventures in this book it has the weakest pedigree.  The rest of this book  is at least 15 years old but the biggest adventure in the book is this young upstart barely 5 years old.  Dead in Thay was written as a tribute to Tomb of Horrors.  Great.  You have Tomb of Horrors in the book, we don’t need a tribute to it.

I should also mention that the suggested location for this dungeon in Eberron contains a major setting spoiler just casually tossed out there.  You know, in case your DM was trying to keep some things secret in the event that they have players new to Eberron.  I should probably not write this.  Please do not read this sidebar if you’re an Eberron player.

Against the Giants

Coming right off of Storm King’s Thunder I actually have nothing to say here.  There are giants, fight them…again.

Tomb of Horrors

Well here were are at last.  The Tomb of Horrors.  The most infamous of adventure of all time and hey, wait, this is 16 pages?  I realize the original was not a 256 page module but it seems staggering that the most famous adventure in the book takes up such a small part of it.  I got through it all and…that’s it?  Its puzzles you won’t get unless the DM tells you.  It’s pretty vanilla easy combat.  It’s the end of the book and a big pile of money which is probably meaningless to the “high” level characters the adventure is meant for.  Could they have maybe edited a story or something into this?  I think this would come across as boring at the table.  A lot of poking with ten foot poles and I hope your rogue took expertise in thieves tools.  I’m not a fan of adventures where “if the rogue took expertise in this skill, you’re on easy street.”  Most often that’s Thieves’ Tools.  I can’t really think of anything else to say here.

Final Thoughts

Am I the only one who finds it odd that in a book called Tales from the Yawning Portal there are no adventures set in Undermountain?  I can see why, if you set it in Undermountain it becomes a Forgotten Realms adventure.  But if they didn’t want to set it in the Realms, why did they name the book after the Yawning Portal?

I mentioned earlier that the book gives suggestions on where to locate each of these adventures if you choose to set them in the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dragonlance, or Greyhawk.  One thing I noticed is that White Plume Mountain in the Realms is next to Neverwinter.  So it’s a day’s walk from a major city.  In Eberron however the suggested location is a mountain range in Xen’Drik.  Now if you don’t know, Xen’drik is meant to be a sort of “darkest Africa” pulp unexplored jungle region.  Months from civilization, deadly as hell.  Hey guys?  …Shouldn’t the suggested areas be like, semi-comparable?  Like, a Realms party can visit White Plume Mountain on a weekend jaunt.  An Eberron party needs to have a fucking adventure just to get there.

I started to lose interest in the dungeons as started looking more at individual encounters about halfway in but your mileage may vary.  If nothing else, this adventure has a dandy supply of monsters and magic items in the back including numerous humanoids.

Even if I don’t ever actually run any of these adventures I don’t regret picking up this book.  Tales from the Yawning Portal is a selection of rich spices best applied to the tasty meat of your campaign.  There are traps, monsters, and encounters that you could spend years looting piecemeal to enhance your own adventures.  Especially with encounter math routinely called out as one of the weakest most scattershot parts of 5th Edition, I’m always pleased to read what the designers believe are appropriate encounters.