Tales of the Yawning Portal Revives Dungeons & Dragons HistoryGames Reviews dungeons & dragons
Tales from the Yawning Portal is the new book of adventures for Dungeons & Dragons from Wizards of the Coast, but the adventures themselves aren’t new. It’s a compilation, a greatest hits album, of the most iconic and interesting modules that have been released over the course of the history of the game.
If you’re not familiar with the idea of “modules,” it’s pretty simple. Since the dawn of the game, there have been two broad ways of playing. The first is creating your own campaign, and the second is playing through a pre-written campaign or module. In reality, many players of Dungeons & Dragons end up somewhere in between. A dungeon master (DM), who is basically a referee for the game, will often take elements from published adventures and create new and specific work for her players.
Tales from the Yawning Portal compiles seven different iconic dungeons from throughout D&D’s history and makes them available for DMs and players of the game’s newest version, 5th Edition. This means that anyone who is currently running a D&D campaign can either run these dungeons as a complete adventure or, if they prefer, merely take ideas, set pieces, monsters, and items from these worlds.
There are lots of interesting things to take from the dungeons in Yawning Portal, and one of the more interesting ones is the namesake inn. The structure of the book is not a linear adventure with several planks, and is therefore nothing like last fall’s contained Storm King’s Thunder. Rather, the creators of this compilation have given us a “hook” in a tavern called The Yawning Portal. Within the fiction of the Forgotten Realms, the central world of D&D’s 5th edition, The Yawning Portal is a tavern created by an adventurer who braved and looted Undermountain, one of the most brutal dungeons in the history of the game. The book contains some characters and charts to fill out that tavern, and it suggests that the compiled dungeons are places that players might hear about (or overhear) in this bustling tavern of adventurers.
While the adventures contained in the book are all distinct, I will say that they all have several traits in common. They are all classic “dungeon delves,” and by that I mean that they are all adventures that put players inside of massive complexes full of enemies, monsters and treasures that need to be defeated, avoided or looted. Some of the adventures in the book, such as “Tomb of Horrors” and “White Plume Mountain,” are literally legendary dungeons that are brutally difficult for players to make their way through. These dungeons are light on story concepts and heavy on an antagonistic gameplay between the DM and her players. If you run “Tomb,” you are invested in killing off that party in interesting and brutal ways, and that’s just kind of how it is.
There are also “softer,” or perhaps more cooperative, dungeons included in the Tales book. “The Sunless Citadel” is a wonderful adventure, and it was one of the first prewritten campaigns that I played that felt like a real and fully-fledged little world. There is a kobold named Meepo in that citadel who still has a special place in my heart. There is also “Dead in Thay,” a complicated and long adventure that has the party going into the deepest and darkest sanctums of dark wizardry in order to mess up the most bad of wizard dudes.
Tales from the Yawning Portal rides the line between nostalgia and ease of access for new players. I can imagine sitting down with Danni, my Mages & Murderdads cohost, and replaying “The Sunless Citadel” and having as good of a time as we did all those years ago when we played it the first time (we’ve already had this conversation, in fact). I can just as easily imagine running headfirst into “The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan,” an adventure that I don’t know a single thing about, and trying my hand as a player or as a DM against the monsters and snail gods (yep!) that live there.
Tales from the Yawning Portal has a little something for every kind of D&D player or DM, and introducing your friends to the kobolds of the citadel (or your enemies to the horror of the tombs) would make for an excellent afternoon or two of serious, old-school D&D.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.