Review: Tales from the Yawning Portal

It’s out! Tales from the Yawning Portal, D&D’s newest adventure supplement was released on March 24 in game shops and will be released on April 4th in other locations. As promised, the book consists of seven classic dungeons updated for 5e ranging from Against the Giants released in 1978 to Dead in Thay released in 2014. The dungeons can be run separately or strung together to form one long campaign. I’ve had a chance to thumb through it this weekend.

The supplement starts off with a nice overview and history of the seven dungeons. Here, we also learn where the book gets its title: The Yawning Portal is the name of an inn suggested as the headquarters for the players to rest between adventures and get their next dungeon quest. The inn itself sits on top of, and serves as an entrance to, a massive dungeon which, sadly, is not featured in the book.

The dungeons follow and each chapter has more or less the same structure: an overview of the adventure, suggested plot hooks and settings, and then room-by-room descriptions. Information is not repeated. Usually, I find this format cumbersome for open-world games, but it works well for dungeon crawls.  The maps are highly detailed and nicely drawn. However, many of them are quite small and there are no poster inserts included. Given their level of detail, DMs will want to pre-draw them. As a bonus, each chapter includes a nice blurb on the history of the publication.

The Sunless Citadel is the first dungeon and advances characters from first to third level. It’s billed as a great introduction to D&D for new players and DMs alike. The adventure has players exploring a subterranean fortress looking for a mysterious and magical fruit. There is a lot of variety and fun encounters, but like all the dungeons in this book, it is very much a kick-down-the-door and take the loot, with the overall plot being very loose.

The Forge of Fury brings characters third to fifth level. Sticking again to classic tropes, this adventure explores a multi-level ancient Dwarven dungeon reminiscent of Tolkien’s work. Don’t ask too many questions about why the monsters on each level don’t interact.

The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan is designed for 5th level characters. Although originally published in 1980, its setting is still unique for D&D and has players exploring a ruined temple influenced by Aztec/Mayan/Toltec mythology and society. Each room is packed with information and some descriptions go on for multiple pages.

White Plume Mountain is one of the most famous D&D adventures and has been modified here for 8th level players. Players make their way through a volcano dungeon to find three magical weapons. Filled with lots of challenges that basically amount to “roll above X number or take massive damage” and nonsensical monsters (you might even find the pitiful vampire that inspired the creation of the sinister Strahd), this adventure is more about nostalgia and kicking-in doors than anything else.

Dead in Thay is the newest dungeon in the book and takes players from 9th to 11th level. Players explore the Doomvault, a massive menagerie and laboratory run by evil wizards. The map for this one is gigantic and all squeezed onto one page. There are some bigger views of each sector, but you will probably still need a magnifying glass to see the detail.

Against the Giants is actually three mini-adventures which advance players from 11th to 14th level. There is kind of a three little pigs influence as any undefeated giants from one section will run to the next and DMs will have to do more legwork to change the dungeons to fit the players’ actions.

Tomb of Horrors caps the supplement. No suggested level is given except that parties should be large and well-prepared. The dangers here aren’t so much high-level monsters as tricky puzzles that will force players to use their own brains more than their characters’. Although this is one of the oldest adventures in D&D, this style of play will not suit everyone as there is little room for role-playing or even combat.

After all the dungeons, the book has two extensive appendixes of magic items and monsters. Thankfully, unlike other D&D adventure supplements, these are mainly stat blocks instead of descriptions, so DMs won’t find they’ve missed a crucial piece of lore when they flip to the appendix.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a fun supplement, especially if you are looking to replay, or play for the first time, classic dungeon crawls in 5e without having to do the conversion yourself. As is common with D&D adventure publications, there is a ton of information packed into prose-style paragraphs that can be hard to navigate as a DM. Information is not repeated and if you want to really absorb everything, you will need to read it closely. However, since each dungeon is self-contained, DMs can run these adventures with minimum prep. Tales of the Yawning Portal works well as either a supplement for a larger campaign, as mini-campaigns, or to run for a more casual group where players cannot make every session. Just don’t expect anything revolutionary.

 

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Charting the Underworld

Today’s inspiration is a campaign idea. Enjoy!

After death, the souls of the departed must find their way across the Underworld to reach the Heavenly Realms. Monstrous beasts, cruel demons, and unnatural hazards riddle the Underworld and claim many of these souls, snuffing them out of existence forever.

For generations, people have had to endure that their beloved may have never reached the promised lands, but perished in the jaws of a dire crocodile or been burned by a demon. Most spent their lives sacrificing to the gods, hoping they will guide them to safety.

When a goat herder accidentally found an entrance to the Underworld in the remote Green Mountains, King Ovin knew he could change all that. He hired teams of adventurers to chart the Underworld and publish the findings in a guidebook all could use to reach safety. Unfortunately, the dangers of the Underworld do not limit themselves to the dead, and three teams have already fail to return, save for a lone adventurer, too traumatized to be of much use. The King has had to search ever wider and up the reward to find any adventurers brave enough, or stupid enough, to face the Underworld.

Random Encounter Table for the Underworld

Inspired by Ancient Egyptian mythology of the Underworld, today’s inspiration is a random encounter table:

Roll Encounter
1 A group of hostile undead mindlessly attacks the PCs.
2 A dirty river filled with hippos or crocodiles who might be hostile.
3 Shadows unpeel themselves from their hiding spots.
4 A pack of roving Hell hounds attack.
5 A group of souls living in rotten structures. They are determined to stay here instead of moving on to the next phase.
6 A lost pet soul wanders across the PCs path looking for its master.
7 A friendly traveler hails the PCs. She’s here on a mission to recover some rare Underworld plants for her research.
8 A group of fading souls meander aimlessly. They will soon vanish if nothing is done.
9 An angel, its wings chained and broken, pleads the PCs for help.
10 A solitary door covered in ancient runes.
11 A temple with a group of strange creatures performing some kind of sacrifice.
12 A small woods in which the trees seem to fade in and out of existence.
13 A broken machine in scattered pieces, its gnome owner sits nearby trying to fit two back together.
14 A crashed boat, its captain dead at the wheel.
15 A Glabrezu offers the PCs a deal.
16 New souls arriving. Most begin to silently make their way across the Underworld. Some don’t seem to realize they are dead and rush about confused.
17 Giant boils rupture out of the ground. Some of them pop, releasing a noxious slime.
18 Gold, honey, and fruits suddenly appear, reflecting sacrifices made on the material plane.
19 The ground becomes soft and gives way into a cavern.
20 A group of manes eating souls.

Wisdom Tree City

Wisdom Tree City has always existed, nestled on an island where two mighty rivers pour into the ocean. Every hundred years or so the Goddess Weeps, as the natives say. The two rivers swell, merge into one, and overrun the city. After they retreat, they leave behind a thick sand burying everything except the peak of the great magical library, The Wisdom Tree. The citizens return and rebuild. The library grows taller. Probably no one would bother settling here if it weren’t for its position of a great port, a natural magic aura, the library, and the mines.

The Wisdom Tree stands in the middle of the city, its roof so high it seems to scrape the sky. Underground, floor upon floor descends so deep that no one knows where it ends. Side passageways split off from the main tower and meander through the city’s sand-filled ruins like the roots of a tree. The library’s ancient magic prevents any mud from leaking through and keeps the air circulating at the perfect temperature.

Mine tunnels built by prospectors also twist through the ruins. Every miner hopes to find valuable artifacts from forgotten times, but few do. Most arrive in the city poorly equipped and many perish digging through the ruins. In the upper mine tunnels, petty thieves, transients, and the desperate take up residence in the relatively safety. More sinister criminals live in the mid-tunnels, planning heists and waiting to prey on lost miners. Only the bravest dare venture to the deepest levels where unknown monsters lurk in the dark, and the most valuable artifacts wait.

But by far the most popular attraction for common folk is the Aquatic Arena, a giant stadium built in the middle of the bay where teams compete in impressive water battles. No expense is spared. Warriors clash on top of exotic sea monsters captured from the Far Seas. Gnomes command huge whirling machinery, slicing through the choppy waves  to tear apart their opponents. Wizards using the latest magical discoveries dart across the arena, easily passing from the sky to under the water, painting the battle with the bursts of spells. Continue reading “Wisdom Tree City”

Ghost Origins

A good ghost has a good background, but it can be hard to think up a background on a spot. Here is a list of backgrounds to help.


The Lost Lover: A young woman who ran off away with a sailor, only to be sacrificed by the crew to appease the sea gods when a storm hit.

The Rising star and Fans: A famous singer and his audience who died in a theater fire.

The Time Traveler: A wizard who wanted revenge on his father, but accidentally went back too far and committed the murder before he had been conceived.

The Accidental Tourists: Sightseers who died when their touring carriage accidentally entered a desert pocket dimension with no way out.

The Informer: A barmaid who got caught buying illegal drugs. She became an undercover informer for the City Guard to avoid punishment, but the drug gang found out and had her executed.

The Tortured: Not even after they shoved needles up her toenails or held her over burning coals would she tell them where she had hidden the Book of the Moon.

The Lost: A party goer who got drunk, entered the catacombs on a dare, and never found her way back out.

The Falconer: A woman who trained and piloted giant falcons, but was eaten by her own Red Eye. Continue reading “Ghost Origins”

Dwarven Ruins

This week, three box-text descriptions of unique dwarven ruins.


Dwarven Racing Ground Ruins

Giant racing wheels rust on the overgrown track. A breeze blows through the arena, stirring the wildflowers and rattling the empty stands. The place would be very quiet if it weren’t for a small building on the far end. Light and voices stream out of its windows.  A gruff shout for music and the sounds of fiddles and singing join the noise. Over the inn, a giant bell engraved with Dwarven lettering sways in the air. Each time the clapper strikes, the wheels in the yard seem to twitch as if disturbed from a deep sleep.

Dwarven Moonshine Operation Ruins

Copper tanks of all shapes and sizes spill across the mountainside. The smell of alcohol still wafts up from their broken hulls. On every one is painted a red circle pierced by an ‘X,’ letting all know that the King’s agents have found and destroyed this tax-dodging operation. 

Dwarven Shipyard Ruins

Black slabs of ships float next to docks. On board, rows of golems stand ever ready to load cargo and sail across the seas to wherever it’s needed. Their salt-pitted casings and the slime covering everything informs that no cargo has come for a long time. 

Flikers

Another Dungeon World Monster this week. This is my first try at the “statless” monster – one that relies entirely on its special moves instead of its stats. This creature acts like a virus, harmless when outside the body, devastating when within.


Tulippe smiled at Garyver stretched out on the picnic blanket. He smiled back and told her how beautiful she looked with the sun shining off her hair. Tulippe blushed and told him he wasn’t so bad himself. The afternoon whittled away with the sweethearts eating their paper-wrapped food, talking of small things, and exchanging kisses. With the sun still bright in the sky, Garyver asked Tullippe if she had remembered to bring that dandelion wine with her. She answered by running to the stream and pulling out a glistening bottle of blonde liquid. Garyver looked just as the glass winked in the light. A stinging pain struck through his eyes and down to his feet, but then was gone. He finished the rest of the picnic, but it felt weird. The colors slightly off, the sounds slightly the wrong pitch.

As the days went by, he began experiencing more odd things. He’d feel bugs crawling over him, but no one else could see them. He’d hear people whispering about him, but when he turned to confront them, there was no one there. Despite the summer heat, he’d sometimes feel so cold, he’d cover himself in wool blankets and heavy furs. One day, the light got so bright all he could see was whiteness. He curled up in a ball and lost sense of time. He came to again at night in his bedroom. Tulippe was sleeping in a chair near his bed and a full moon shone through the window. He reached over and shook her shoulder to wake her. She opened her eyes and began to say something when she looked into his eyes. Her face froze for a second, her mouth hanging open, and then she shook her head as if trying to fix her vision.

Flikers appear as the shimmer of the sun on waters, as the sparkle on snow on a bright day, as the glitter cast by a young woman’s sequin dress, and anywhere else light twinkles. Usually they pass through the air harmlessly. But when infused with light, they gain the temporary ability to enter the eyes of anyone looking directly at them.  Once inside the body, they disrupt the host’s senses, slowly driving them insane. The afflicted have run off cliffs, clawed out their own eyes, and dumped boiling water over their head. Only extreme measures or luck will save them. Administering a cure can be dangerous, as the Flikers often appear as the glint in their victims’ eyes and thus spread to another.

Instinct: To infect and spread

Poisonous, Minuscule, Infectious

No HP, Armor or Damage Die. See special moves.

Special Moves:

  • Get inside you and confuse your senses
  • Slowly make you go insane
  • Spread to someone else