Tales from the Yawning Portal: Review (Spoiler-Free)

IMG_20170402_143358[1]Here’s a pro tip for you budding game designers; don’t give your product a name that’s easy to pick on. Gamers can be savage critics and possessed of a crude cunning that will ensure that your opus “Gorefest in the Underworld” will soon be commonly known as “Borefest in Slumberworld.” It’s hard to prevent such puerile behaviour, but at the very least you shouldn’t make it easy for them.

Which leads us nicely to Tales from the Yawning Portal, a title that simply begs you to step up and make fun of it. Not only does it happily have a metaphor for “tired and bored” in it, but it can also sounds a little bit naughty. So step up and take your best swipe.

You’d better make that hit count, though, because you’ll be eating those words pretty quickly.

Yawning Portal is a hardback anthology of seven previously released modules (though technically Against the Giants was originally three modules, so you could say nine,) each updated to D&D5 and given fresh artwork and maps. Unlike previous adventure books for this edition, it doesn’t focus on running a long campaign but rather treats each module as a stand-alone story (perfect for one-offs or “filler” games.) As such it’s a sourcebook for DMs only, which is always a slight risk; it reduces the publisher’s target market.

IMG_20170402_143445The book plays to the tropes of the game, with an introduction that sets up a tavern, of course. Not just
any tavern, but the Yawning Portal itself; an establishment owned by an ex-adventurer and a prime spot to begin any random quest. Though the details are limited, I really like this framing device and I readily think of Durnan the innkeep acting like a Crypt Keeper, or Scheherezade, or Twilight Zone host, whose tales to a barfly fade away as we establish the game proper.

Despite this great idea, there are a couple of niggles with it. The first is simply that I would have liked to see more advice and tools in using the Yawning Portal as a narrative tool, but that’s a minor issue overcome by any DM with a bit of imagination.

The second is the most important feature of the inn; a massive hole that leads into an enormous dungeon complex (namely Undermountain, one of the largest dungeons ever designed for the game). Now that’s not a terrible idea at all, but it’s an oh-so-tempting teaser for a dungeon that doesn’t exist in the book. Again, a bit of creative fiddling can deal with this well, but it can’t help but stand out. Certainly it leads one to suspect that Undermountain may be the next big adventure released for the line.

IMG_20170402_143606The other end of the book contains a couple of appendices for items and monsters that are unique to the contained adventures. Though no pictures are included for the items (nicely compacted into two pages) the monsters have lovely artwork and these pages are of an equal standard to anything in the Monster Manual.

But all of this talk about introductions and appendices is pure guff! What we really want to know about are the adventures, and rightly so! For we all love a good adventure, especially if it involves a generous dollop of nostalgia.

The seven modules in Yawning Portal are updated reprints of previous material, each trying to remain true to their originals. They are arranged in order of difficulty, with beginning adventure The Sunless Citadel first up and then escalating up to the infamous Tomb of Horrors by the end. Most of the adventures are good old AD&D late ’70’s-early ’80’s dungeon crawls, but a couple of 3rd ed releases get a look in. The most recent module is Dead in Thay, which was used during the D&D Next playtests (which was part of the design process for 5th.)

cutEach of the modules gives an introduction, including a synopsis and tips for inserting the adventure into your campaign, as well as a brief bit of history on the original release (well appreciated, though it only just whets the appetite for more information). Maps are generally user-friendly (apart from the tiny one in Sunless Citadel, pictured; you’ll need your magnifying glass for that wee fella) and the artwork is of the quality we expect…

Ah! The artwork. Every module has a big, beautiful full-page picture and some are particularly unique (White Plume Mountain is glorious). And for a moment you might be excited to think that each module was given its own dedicated artist, lending each section of the book its own particular style. Sadly, that isn’t the case, but it would be my first request to Wizards if they ever make another anthology book.

One thing you’ll notice if you run the adventures is that monster stats aren’t included within the module text, so you’ll certainly need a copy of the Monster Manual. Likewise, you’ll need the DMG for some magic items. Naturally, the appendices cover the more unique stuff.

IMG_20170402_143545As for the quality of the modules, I’m going to get back to that in a later review. Discussing them will naturally contain some small spoilers and I’ve yet to read them in depth. That being said, though I’ve yet to read all the adventures on offer, I think that Yawning Portal is great. Some DMs may prefer the longer campaigns like Out of the Abyss and Storm King’s Thunder, but I love these small short-term games, especially when they offer something truly different.

I think it succeeds, and I’d like to see more of these anthologies in future. Maybe with brand new adventures. Or with special guest designers from other companies. Or a showcase of the various D&D worlds, with an iconic adventure for each (especially some of the more obscure ones like Birthright, Spelljammer, and Al’Qadim.)

IMG_20170402_143909But if you’re still sitting on the fence a to whether to buy this book, allow me to finish by offering one good reason to buy this product. I placed seven assorted old-school modules (mostly modern 3rd party products, but a couple of old-timers) in a stack next to Tales from the Yawning Portal, and as you can see they’re about equal height (taking into account that the stack isn’t as tightly compressed as the book.) In fact, the average page length of the anthology’s modules equates to about thirty pages per module, which beats out the 24 pages in the others (which admittedly have very small print). But the major point is that you can buy the hardcover on the left with seven modules (arguably nine) for about the same price as about five of the individual ones, all bound in a nice hard cover.

That’s value for money.

Tales from the Yawning Portal has an official street date of April 4th and is available from all good gaming stores. Check the official website here for more information.

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