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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons - Tales From the Yawning Portal Review

Now that I’ve completed the guide to Tales from the Yawning Portal, I am ready to give the book a thorough review. This is the new adventure for Dungeons & Dragons and it isn’t like the others. There’s no overarching story. The book contains 7 separate, classic adventures updated to 5th edition rules. You could play them in order if you want to and make a campaign out of it with minimal effort, I guess. You can get this book at amazon right here.

I want to give general thoughts, then I’ll talk about each adventure, the presentation, and then I’ll ramble on and on about the adventures that they chose to put in this book.

Short Version: It’s pretty good. I think newer players will enjoy this book. The rules conversion is really well done and they did a great job cleaning up a lot of confusing entries. That said, I am really tired of these same adventures being trotted out in every edition, so this book didn’t do that much for me. Warning: Most of these adventures are absolute hell to prepare.

Initial Observations

The Tavern: The framing device of the Yawning Portal, a tavern in the Forgotten Realms, is a bit odd. I like it, I guess I just wish they gave us a few more pages of detail on it.

Also, the fact that the Yawning Portal connects to Undermountain makes this a little strange, too. This book has nothing to do with Undermountain. You could stick these dungeons in Undermountain, I guess.

The Main Hurdle: The biggest problem with this book is simply the fact that some of the dungeons are way too big. Sunless Citadel, Forge of Fury and Dead in Thay in particular. I’ve found that players like dungeons, but if they’re in the dungeon every session, things get bland and boring. Dead in Thay is really cool, but that is an awful lot of dungeon to crawl through.

You need to break it up a bit with socializing with NPCs, hanging out in town, and exploring a less limited “zone” so to speak.

Backlog: I definitely think that making this kind of book was a good decision because people are still playing through the other adventures. I know this isn’t a big indicator, but right now the guide that people read the most every day on my site is Curse of Strahd. I think that a lot of D&D players haven’t even started Storm King yet.

I have to say that I have become fond of the two adventures-per-year format. It’s fun. I really like how this edition is not relying on a constant flow of sourcebooks. In 4th edition, they burned through  everything so fast within the span of, what.. 3 years? It’s been almost the same amount of time for 5e, and there’s still so much stuff to explore. They thought this edition out really well. The rules are holding up, everything is smooth, it’s awesome.

The Adventures

OK, let’s talk about the adventures. The good part is that these conversions are great. They did an awesome job explaining things and taking weird, arbitrary rules from Tomb of Horrors and translating them into 5th edition rules. It seems like nothing at all is lost in translation, and many adventures actually benefit from the 5e rules.

Sunless Citadel

The most memorable part of this dungeon is Meepo, the kobold NPC. It seems like each group did something a little different with him, but everybody has a Meepo story to tell.

There are a lot of really cool, basic traps. I really like the one with caltrops. Nobody ever uses those things. I love the potion-dispensing statue, and the wyrmling is fun.

Overall, though, I have never liked this adventure. I don’t like twig blights, I don’t like kobolds and I don’t want to get into an epic struggle with a tree.

It’s also a bit of a bummer that the transformed adventurers can’t be saved. Why? It’s just evil bark, scrape it off.

Forge of Fury

This is another 3rd edition dungeon that is way too big. When an adventuring location is this full of stuff, it just feels like a chore to read and play through. I don’t think it’s an accident that White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors are so well-regarded and yet they are only about 20 pages long at most.

I understand that, in the 3e era, they needed to put in enough XP worth of monsters to make sure the group hits the right level for the next adventure, but it’s still pretty excruciating.

I can say that I absolutely love the whole section with the black dragon. It is fantastic. Dragon fights sometimes aren’t what they should be. You definitely want it flying around and generally being the threat that it is, and exploiting its lair fully. This is one of the coolest dragon fights I can remember reading.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

There’s good and bad with this adventure. The good part is that the set-up is awesome. You fall into a dungeon and you have to fight your way out. There’s a lot of really creative, highly-detailed rooms and encounters.

The bad part is that this thing, the 5e version, is extremely painful to prepare. There are so many details you need to juggle. It’s impossible! It’s just too much. You get depressed at the idea of sitting down and preparing a section of this.

The final encounter has always been a weird thing in this adventure. I prefer the 4e version. I mean.. a hyena? That’s it? It feels flat. The group might be so drained and exhausted that they don’t even touch the altar. They just go home.

The main thing I wonder about Tamoachan is whether or not it really is a classic. I ran this in 3rd edition and it was completely forgettable. I also ran it in 4th, and the only parts people remember are the jokes I made out of the talking slug-thing and the werejaguar with six nipples.

I will never understand why the werejaguar has 6 nipples. Why do we need to know that? I had a player use the skin to make a 6-nippled vest/healing potion dispenser, so it worked out for us.

White Plume Mountain

I love this adventure and this conversion is stellar. It’s so short and yet so full of content. It’s amazing.

I am really glad that they went out of their way to make detailed art of the terraced room. That place has always been so hard to describe. It’s such an awesome room, it deserves the full treatment.

The frictionless room seems like it lost just a little something, somehow. It’s still fantastic. They kept the super-tetanus, which is the most important part.

They also did a great job of clarifying that hovering river, which I had a hard time with when I ran the original.They also described the crab room really well. It's a bit tricky explaining the "bubble" to players.

To me, this is the best adventure out of all of the ones in this collection by far.

Dead in Thay

I’m glad this is in this book. This a really fun dungeon and it deserves to be acknowledged as such. One of the things I like most about this is that you can pull out dungeon sections and use them however you like. Basically, you’ve got 7 or 8 dungeons to use as you see fit.

I’ve never fully grasped the glyph keys. Why is this so complicated? What’s the point?

It was only in this reading that I fully understood the phylactery vault. The phylactery vault is fantastic, a truly epic final encounter. I think I kind of blew it when I ran it the first time and I really want another crack at it. I mean.. a place full of lich phylacteries! That’s just awesome.

Also, the rooms where the Chosen are held in magic shrines are fantastic. Each shrine encounter is completely different and they are all either fun or really scary. None are boring. You could grab any one of these rooms to use as a final encounter for an adventure of your own making. Any time a bad guy steals someone to siphon the life force out of them, you’ve got plenty of encounters already made for you.

Against the Giants

I have never run or read this before. Now that I have read it, I guess I have mixed feelings about it.

Hill Giants: The Hill Giant lair is wide open. The prospect of running it is unnerving as a DM. There’s so many possibilities that you need to be ready for. I just feel like, if your group recruits those orcs downstairs, how the heck are you going to handle that? I mean.. you can’t roll that out.

Frumpy: Something doesn’t sit right with me when it comes to the descriptions of the giants. Here’s the description of “Frupy,” the fire giant king’s wife:

“She is, if anything, uglier than Snurre. Topped by a huge mass of yellow-orange hair that looks like a fright wig, Queen Frupy’s face is a mass of jowls and wrinkles set in the middle of a very large head that seems to grow directly out of her shoulders without the benefit of any neck. Her body is lumpy and gross, her skin covered with bristles the color of her hair. Her little pig eyes, however, are bright, suggesting intelligence unusual in a giant.”

First of all, there are plenty of us D&D players who have a low charisma (comeliness) and a high BMI. When I run into descriptions like this and then I think about who I’m running the game for, I have to change them because the game is not about insulting the people at the table.

Second, this description basically says, “Man, this chick is ugly. She’s so gross.” There’s too much emphasis on the way she looks rather than the threat that she’s supposed to be. Even her name is insulting. It’s one letter away from “Frumpy.” It feels like all that matters is how the female looks, when in the game it’s almost completely inconsequential. She’s there to be laughed at by all of the “physically perfect” men playing the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

I think this description should have been cut from the book or changed to something else. 

Frost Giants: The Frost Giant lair is pretty great, but I just don’t get the rift. Where am I walking? How do I get down there? This might just be my own poor reading comprehension skills, but it was a thing for me.

Fire Giants: The Fire Giant Hall is really cool. I love how you fight the king right away. Then you wade through the complex to find the real mystery villain of the scenario. I think they did a stellar job with the 5e version of the temple. It is really fun, really crazy.

I love the dragon, I wish a little more detail/personality had been given to it. The big problem with this fire giant section is that the dungeon is just way too big. It’s a quagmire and I can see most groups zoning out for entire sessions while they fight ropers and gnolls.

Agony: This adventure was such a pain to prepare. It was horrible. There is so much stuff to look up, it’s ridiculous. So many poisons, items, monsters, and of course the slimes, which is the most annoying thing to find in 5th edition except swimming/underwater rules.

You definitely need to know that Against the Giants is a real project to prepare. It really does feel like it takes more time to prepare it than to just make your own giant lair, and it shouldn’t be like that.

Tomb of Horrors

I always had a lot of trouble with the 1e version. Things were explained and worded in a very confusing manner. It was a cool dungeon, but it was difficult for me to grasp the more complex areas.

This 5th edition version fixes that completely. Completely! I remember the juggernaut being this big thing, complete with art (and it looked weird) and all these details. In 5e, the juggernaut is one sentence. And it works so much better. Amazing!

Preparing this one was a joy. It took awhile, but I didn’t mind because none of the rooms were that big, there was very little to look up (seriously) and things were described very succinctly. They didn’t change the adventure, they just vastly improved on the presentation.

General Thoughts
 
The Usual: I have the same complaints I always have with these adventures, and the same caveat – if this approach to how they make and present their adventures is working (and I think it is, big time) then they should keep doing it. I don’t like it, but apparently most other people are fine with it.

I really don’t like how you have to look everything up. Every monster, every magic item, every spell. The DM has more homework running a published adventure then just making it up their own. The whole point of a published adventure is so you don’t have to put in a lot of work! I’m paying $50 for homework? When I say homework, I mean a book report that will take you weeks to get a good grade on.

On top of that, they make it hard to look stuff up by not telling you the page number, they tell you the chapter instead. It’s maddening. Finding poison, suffocation and slimes is always annoying. In addition to that, you have the magic items that duplicate the effect of a spell, which you then have to look up because they don’t explain it in the entry.

The Art


I have the same feelings as I usually do when it comes to the art. It’s all good, but nothing is “holy crap” good. There is no modern Larry Elmore. I mean, there is, but that person is not making art for D&D stuff.

If you go on deviantart right now, you will find a pile of incredibly awesome fantasy art. There is a mind-boggling amount of truly talented and inspired artists out there who are making fantasy art for free, just because they love doing it. I don’t get why they are not being hired.

That’s not to say that this stuff is terrible at all. Across the board, the level of quality is high. If you look at, say, the 2e Player’s Handbook, you’ll see art that is really great and other art that is really not-so-great. In 5th edition, we have a consistent level of quality, but it seems like there’s a ceiling when it comes to good art. I still think the best 5e art is the landscape art, which is really weird.

The Maps

It’s hard to talk about D&D maps now in this post-Schley world we live in. Mike Schley is so awesome that you wish he just did all of them. It has gotten to the point where you feel like if you don’t have a Schley map, it’s not a D&D adventure.

Look at the Dead in Thay map. That’s insane. Is that the greatest D&D map of all time? It’s really not fair to compare him to anyone else. He’s been doing this for so long. I would honestly say that I think Mike Schley is the D&D 5e artist.

The Choice of Adventures

I have a beef with the adventure selection. I don’t think that both Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury should be in this book. They’re from the same path. Both of them were selected instead of including a 4th edition adventure.

Now, I know a lot of people hate 4e, but I also know that there are a bunch of awesome 4e adventures that, in my opinion, are much, much, much better than the citadel or the forge.

I get that they wanted to put adventures in the book that could be played in order. So I was wracking my brain to find a replacement for Forge of Fury (I like the forge better, but sunless is pretty iconic to most 3e fans) and I realized that the adventure that I would have liked in here is Siege of Bordrin’s Watch (I can't believe this, but it is available right now for free on the wizards site).

It’s got a classic theme, it details an awesome city (Overlook) and the final encounter, “The Nexus,” is one that my group talked about for years after they played it. They still bring it up today, almost 10 years later.

I get that converting 4e to 5e is a unique challenge, but I don’t think it’s impossible at all.

There’s other worthy 4e adventures. Let’s stick to dungeons because that’s what this book is all about. I think that Last Breath of the Dragon Queen is superb. That’s Tiamat’s Lair. It’s so inspired and so epic, it would be a great final adventure for this book.

Another adventure that could have/should have been in this book is the 4th edition update of Baba Yaga. The 4e update, unlike the 1e original, actually gives you the finished details (for the love of god, thank you) and it has Mike Schley maps. The 4e version is awesome. It is completely overlooked and it definitely deserves to be in this book.

Also, I should point out that I went through the Chris Perkins 4e version/update of Against the Giants and it is fantastic. I really do want to convert it to 5th, I’m just worried about dungeon fatigue.

Paizo Stuff: I am very tired of the remakes of the 1e adventures. There are so many gems in other editions that are completely unheralded. From what I understand, the Paizo stuff won’t be used for legal reasons, but I can think of a bunch of Paizo-era adventures that deserve to be in this book.

The first adventure in The Shackled City is a freaking awesome dungeon. It’s fantastic and it is so well thought-out. Then, further in The Shackled City path is the kuo toa dungeon, which is probably my favorite dungeon of all time.

Now that I think about it, what about Gates of Firestorm Peak? That one is huge and really dense, but that would be a fresh choice to trot out.

While we’re at it, what about Labyrinth of Madness? I have literally waited 20 years to run it. I ran that for some ridiculously powerful characters and they bailed out on that place about 4 rooms in. I’m still waiting to run it again. It is a dungeon in the vein of the 1e classics and it is spectacular. At that time, Monte Cook was on fire. He still is, really. Despite how popular Monte is, I feel like his work is not appreciated as much as it should be.

Why These Adventures were Chosen: I believe that only a few adventures get remade because people haven’t played that many, even people who have been playing D&D for decades. That’s because of a few reasons:
  1. A lot of people don’t play pre-published adventures.
  2. A lot of campaigns fall apart after 6-7 sessions.
  3. It takes people a long time to get through one adventure, especially if they only play once per month. So people haven't played that many.
We have this situation here where there are hundreds of adventures from previous editions which very few people have played. There’s a lot of great stuff that is virtually untouched, and I think now is the time to shine a light on it. There’s all of this D&D lore waiting to be explored and exploited.

People just keep creating new things without implementing the concepts that are already there. To me, it’s a waste. The ingenuity of past designers deserves to be recognized, collected and dissected. It should be incorporated into the overall tapestry of D&D rather than be forgotten.

More Books Like This: Maybe they’ll do another book like this some day that collects adventures that are not dungeon-centric.

I think that if Wizards and Paizo agreed to put out a 5e conversion of Savage Tide or Age of Worms, it would be like a money bomb went off in their pants. Savage Tide is so ridiculously good that I am still picking content out of that Wolfgang Baur adventure (Enemies of my Enemy) a year after I started using it!

Overall 

If you and your group like dungeons, you should get this book. It is nice to take part in scenarios that many D&D players have gone through. You share the experience and have something to discuss and laugh about when you meet new players.

If you don’t like dungeons and you prefer to run a campaign that is more sprawling, event-based and story-driven, there’s a ton of stuff to pull out of this. It’s a good resource when it comes to using or making encounters. Even if you just need a treasure hoard, there’s a bunch of them that are ridiculously detailed in the book.

Thanks for reading! I’ll try and get the “How to Run Tales from the Yawning Portal” done as quick as I can.

7 comments:

Peter V. Dell'Orto said...

I was waiting to see your review of this. I just put a review up of my own today.

With regards to describing things in White Plume Mountain - all the times I ran it, from elementary school to a session a few weeks ago - we just show the pictures of the crab in the bubble, the river, the inverted ziggurat, etc.

Rosleaw de Silvanus said...

Brother Sean, first of all, thanks for your blog its awesome. I ve read it all. You mention in this post that a fellow like me should check some old adventures, can you recomend some to me? I ve already check the ones you mention in your past posts, and i would love to follow your lead in my knowledge gathering journey to the past of d&d. Thank you again, you are my inspiration. (Sry for the bad english, im from Argentina)

Pedro Obliziner said...

great job, again.

I think the adventure that shouldn't be on this book is AGainst the Giants, we have enough Giants already with SKT and they could've saved it for a GDQ-inspired module.

I agree with your statement about Mike Schley, he and Chris Perkins are the names of 5e so far.

Unknown said...

Great review! I've been following this blog for quite a while now and I love it. I baught youre Guide to SKT. I was quite new to 5th edition and your Guide helped me a ton and made me a more confident DM.

Im about to start a Campaign with a second group and reading your last Post I stumbled upon and read a bit of the "Scale of War" module and I find it very interesting so far. I'll have to convert the 4e stuff to 5e but I don't mind that.

Do you recommend the module or should I keep my eyes open for something else?

Felipe Sazanowicz said...

Great review! It's a shame that they did not include any adventure of 4th edition. I would like to see Thunderspite Labirinth instead of Forge of fury

Sean said...

Peter V. Dell'Orto: Yep, the pictures helped big time. I read your review, awesome stuff. I'll link to it. Thanks!

Brother Rosleaw: You read it all?! That's a lot of stuff, thank you! It's hard to say too much, basically: Almost anything in 2nd edition written by Monte Cook or Bruce Cordell, the Paizo Adventure paths in 3rd edition and many of the Scales of War adventures in 4th.

Pedro Obliziner: I agree, they always go overboard with giant stuff! Thank you!

Unknown: Thank you, I really appreciate it! Do I recommend Scales of War? Yes, but keep in mind that converting it is a lot of homework. Some of the 1-10 adventures are a little shaky, especially the gnoll temple, but that path is awesome. You will probably need to ditch some encounters, as there are a lot of them in each adventure.

Felipe Sazanowicz: They could have done Thunderspire, that would fit! I accept that most people don't like 4th, but I hate the idea that the cool events and adventures would be ignored. There's a ton of cool stuff and it shouldn't go to waste.

Michael English said...

Awesome review, as usual. I’m a little surprised this article got me stirred up. I was just going to skim through real quick, but you seem to know how to make things interesting. From the top:

My group started Princes of the Apocalypse only months after it came out, and we are still happily playing through – 10th level, three temples and two prophets down – so when exactly are we gonna get to a second adventure book? I have no idea. When we finish this campaign, we’ll probably do something completely different. We meet for 5 hours every two weeks, skipping only 3 or 4 times since the start. Maybe it’s the adventure itself, but I don’t remember a campaign taking this many solid hours getting to 10th level (and we started as 3rd level characters!). Like I said, however, everyone seems to be having fun.

Don’t have a Meepo story. Sorry. Don’t know who that is.

Forge of Fury is one of the few published adventures I ran in 3.0! So, counter to what is going on with PotA, it only took the party I was running two, maybe three sessions to complete the whole thing. I don’t know what would take so long. We had a great amount of fun doing it. Maybe the party wasn’t worried about getting every point of xp. Also, they might have been slightly above level. I’ll have to pull that out, look at it again and see if I skipped or took out something boring.

Though I’ve played since AD&D first appeared, I haven’t seen Sunless, Hidded Shrine, White Plume Mountain, or Dead in Thay. Now I have a better idea of why I might want to get Dead in Thay. I’m not sold on the others though.

I played in, so never read, Against the Giants. Luckily I don’t remember the DM ever giving us detailed descriptions of the major NPC giants. I’ll agree with other comments though – I don’t think they needed another adventure featuring giants (yet). On the other hand, if it is more linear than SKT, it might be valuable to some groups.

Agree so much with your complaint against not providing all the information right in the published adventure. Might be why I made up most of my own stuff over the years prior. Generally, I find large dungeons are fine for picking portions to use as smaller excursions within a more social based campaign. To me relationships are king IF you are running a role-playing game.

Keep up the great work!