I’ll admit, I was initially a little wary of picking up a copy of Tales From the Yawning Portal. I’m familiar with all of the Dungeons it contains and I even own a copy of a few of them. So, what would motivate me to pick up this compendium when updating the originals isn’t that hard a job?
Well firstly because I’m a nerd who cannot resist a good hardback book. Secondly, because I’m a busy man and although updating a dungeon isn’t hard, it can be time-consuming and thirdly because I was hoping for some kind of update or added content to the original seven dungeons. On that last point, I was to be disappointed.
Clocking in at 248 pages, Tales From the Yawning Portal is very much just a minor 5th Edition updating of the original seven “classic” dungeons, four from the first edition, two from the third edition and one from the D&D Next playtest days. Some additional elements are added, such as “read aloud” text for the older modules, and the maps and art have been updated. But other than that, very little seems to have been changed.
So, what bang do you get for your buck? Well let’s list them out:
- Tomb of Horrors –Originally printed in 1978 this beast is a Gary Gygax original and brings with it all of the baggage associated with that. Personally, I detest this module. It’s one huge, characterless, DM vs PC grind fest. Too long to finish in one sitting and not interesting enough to want to come back to for seconds. But I can see why people would enjoy it. It’s a classic and it harks back to the days of competitive play where the main aim of the game was to survive and get loot. That’s not what I got into D&D for, I already own Heroquest and Descent, but if that’s your bag, or you want to hammer it out just to see if you can survive then you won’t be disappointed. There are a bagillion traps (I counted) a grab bag of random monsters and enough poison to kill several minor gods. The updated formatting, maps and box out text add a little more flavour and certainly make it easier to run, but if you’re looking for story or cohesion you’re in the wrong place. If you’re looking for pain, lots of pain, then pull up a chair, it’s clobbering time
- White Plume Mountain – This is an odd one as people tend to remember the loot from this module rather than the dungeon. Everyone likes a sentient weapon and Wave, Whelm and Blackrazor certainly make for some great party #lifegoals. Phat Lewts aside, I much prefer this to TOH. While it is the very definition of a funhouse dungeon the traps are more puzzles to solve and less spiked poisonous death balls. While it a little irritating that you don’t get to have a proper rumble with Karaptis I do think if you’re going to try to ride through a “classic” D&D dungeon, this is probably the most approachable.
Fun fact, this was actually written as a writing sample written to get the author hired by TSR, it’s a hodgepodge of all his best dungeon ideas, and it totally shows.
- Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan – You love Indiana Jones, right? If the answer is yes, and it should be for any sane person, then this is your Jam. Set in a distinctly Mesoamerican theme Hidden Shine is probably my favourite 1st Edition Mega Dungeon. Although I never thought the time pressure and rest limiting effect of the poisonous cloud mechanic never really worked, then strong theming and clever traps and encounter more than makeup for it. What I enjoy most about this module is that you are shuttled from room to room, each containing a danger source so obvious it may as well be glowing red, and yet you still want to poke at it, it’s a wild ride. Also, my Tiefling rogue had a hat and a whip or I’m not playing!
- Against the Giants – Ok, first black mark. I don’t get why this was included. We’ve literally only just had Storm King’s Thunder. And I wouldn’t mind so much if it was excellent, but it’s not, it’s really not. Easily the weakest part of this book it was reportedly written to allow Mr Gygax to take a break between writing the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook. It comes across as a random half-finished doodle full of incomplete ideas. I get that the original was very formative, but surely a reworking was on the cards? Oh, wait, they just did that with SKT. Against the Giants is probably the only thing in this book that I have no intention of playing.
- Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury – I’ve lumped these two together they the only two with any form of a narrative link. They are good dungeons, characterful, less zany than the 1st Edition stuff and full of good traps and monsters. Most enjoyable they both have sections where the characters can properly roleplay and interact with dungeon denizens without immediately dying. I can see Sunless Citadel as a good way to introduce a new player to the game.
- Dead in Thay – The “Dreams of the Red Wizards” line of organised play encounters was “meh” at best. Compared to Legacy of the Crystal Shard or Murder in Baldur’s Gate it was lacking in almost every way, most notably how each new encounter requires the players to randomly skip a few levels. Separated from its parent storyline Dead in Thay actually works a bit better. It’s a nice mix of imaginative rules and good interactions, although the presence of the glyph keys, which I understand in the context of Organised Play, does slow the game down a little. Of all of the dungeons presented in Tales, this is the last updated, it’s got all its original maps and art work, which feels a little lazy, and the encounter at the end is still terribly, glaringly unbalanced.
The Round Up
So, overall I don’t feel like I’ve been cheated here, but at the same time, large sections of this book feel mighty lazy. There’s been very little attempt at rebalancing, additional content or any attempt to do anything beyond updating 6 out of 7 of the dungeons. It even asks you to refer to the DMG for the stats of the iconic weapons of White Plume Mountain.
What I would have like to have seen is two or three classics, probably the three 1st edition monsters they included, and then two or three entirely new modules based on the dungeon crawl style, but more fitting the direction of 5th edition. As it stands Against the Giants and Dead in Thay really do feel like copy and paste filler. I do play to run some of the dungeons, most likely Hidden Shrine, but for me, this is very much an optional purchase. It’s no Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide but when you can pick up the original modules for comparatively little on eBay, it makes a £40 hard back book full of unmodified content hard to justify.
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