Fiddleback vs. The Yawning Portal - Intro
Wizards of the Coast released Tales from the Yawning Portal for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons to the general public on April 4th, 2017. It’s now nearly May ’17 and there is no shortage of ‘unboxings’, flip-throughs, reviews, and more available across the internet. Well-respected RPG and D&D sites, YouTubers, and podcasters have cracked the book open as quickly as possible and shared their thoughts with anyone who might be convinced to read or tune in. Good for them. Get in early, get the views and clicks, and be done with it.
I can’t do it that way. Unfortunately, I have to sit down and read the thing before I can form a good, solid opinion. Flip-throughs are great for looking at the pretty art. Unboxings of a book are great if you like being read to from the front and back cover and maybe some bits of the interior. Reviews can, I suppose, be done to time with the release — or hit just after — if one can get things early; but I’m suspicious automatically of anyone who can churn one out in the first week. I’m never sure the reviewer has read and read thoroughly, or taken time to think about what they are reading. Besides, I can’t get things that early.
However, those reviews are out there and I’m sure at least a few of them are done by people who have taken the time to do them properly. Maybe go look some of those up and enjoy them for what they are.
What This is and Isn’t
What this is, is not a review. Not exactly. There is some review involved. I’ll certainly tell you what I think and whether I think this is a product worth having and I’ll explain why or why not when the time comes. There is more to it than that, though.
This project — and make no mistake, this is a project — came about because at some point I got a reputation for being nit-picky and a bit of a rant artist on Twitter. Also, I’m a roleplaying game GM (Gamemaster for those of you unfamiliar with the term) and have been for so many years that I’m almost certainly older than you. I’m sure my STR and DEX stats have started taking hits due to age and that’s an RPG joke to show you just how old school and old I really am if you get it. Combine those two things and add in the fact I do a lot of stuff in the gaming community and have occasionally been known to express a strong opinion on Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, RPGs, and so forth and several people decided they wanted to hear what I had to say about Yawning Portal and the adventures contained therein.
So, part of this is a review. Another part of it is critique; wondering about some of the decisions made or not made and suggesting improvements. Yet another part, and probably the largest part overall, is actual GM advice for running the adventures and making the most of them. Or at least some food for thought for prospective GMs preparing to gather their group and head off into the caverns and hallways of their first D&D dungeon crawls.
All of it is VERY SPOILER LADEN. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you are a player, and not a GM and you do not want every room of every adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal spoiled for you, DO NOT READ ANY OF THIS SERIES. (Yes, it’s going to be a series. There is a lot to look at inside this book.)
There are MANY SPOILERS because I have taken a room by room approach to the material. Unless a room is particularly straightforward or just not very interesting, it gets looked at individually and as part of the whole.
Who This is For and What to Do with It
I’ve never played any of these adventures before. I don’t have the nostalgia glasses on for an adventure I played twenty or thirty years ago. I recognize some of them as being classic names of course, but I don’t have the fond memory of being huddled around a dinner table on a Friday night with a big bowl of Cheetos and four of my friends from grade school or junior high when these first came out. If that’s you and you had those experiences and you built a lot of good memories around White Plume Mountain or Tomb of Horrors or one of the other five adventures included in Yawning Portal, this might be a good time to look away. This probably isn’t for you.
If, however, you are new to D&D — one of those brought in by all the cool YouTube or TV D&D game play you’ve seen in such popular shows as That One and That Other, Different One, or if you are totally new and stumbled in off the street not knowing what to do — then maybe you will find this useful in coming to grips with a pre-made adventure (when people were still allowed on my lawn, these were called Modules) and wrapping your head around how to start making the most of it for you and your group. By no means is this complete advice or a deep lesson intended to teach you all the many ways of the Dungeon Master (and yes, I will randomly alternate between Dungeon Master and Gamemaster or DM and GM. Good news: They all mean the same thing — the person running the game.), but it is a place to start. By the end, you’ll hopefully know a little bit more about one way to look at an adventure, size it up, and think about it in terms of how your group will fit into it.
Read through it in whatever way you like. Encounter by encounter, all the way through, whatever. The series is broken down into sections by adventure (aside from this intro article along with the Yawning Portal Tavern itself) and then further into logical breaks within those adventures. Each room mentioned is clearly marked and should be easy to find. Use it in a way that makes sense to you. It’s best to have Tales from the Yawning Portal open right next to you as you go along.
Remember, I am not an authority on how to play your game. Wizards of the Coast is not going to come pounding on your door and threaten to take your dice away if you adjust things to you and your tables liking. You’re encouraged to tailor the game to your players and the sort of game they enjoy. All my suggestions are just that. Ignore them or use them as you see fit.
Introduction and the Yawning Portal Tavern
Fly Leaf – Disclaimer:
Who is this for? Old, experienced gamers already know some of these adventures can be very dangerous. Or used to be. New Gamers, or people who have not played these adventures, are either having something spoiled, or have no context for this.
Besides which, this is a GM’s product. Players aren’t supposed to be anywhere near this if they expect to play in it. So, who is this disclaimer for? Who is this product for?
Wizards of the Coast (WotC) often has trouble knowing exactly how the books are used and confusion about who the end user is this early on doesn’t bode well.
Page 4 – Introduction
“The seeds of these stories now rest in your hand.”
Well, no. They don’t. Because a setting, as they ramble on about for a couple of paragraphs, isn’t a story in and of itself. It’s a place where a story happens. And these seven adventures in this book are full and complete adventures in their own right. They aren’t seeds. They aren’t little ideas tossed out to see what you can do with them. They are meant to be fully fledged adventures, ready for characters to tackle. Sure, you can rejigger them to fit your table and the worlds you use. And sure, you can tear them apart and use bits here and there as you see fit. But, that isn’t why this book exists or what the book is for. The main purpose of this book, its reason for being, is to present seven complete adventures ready for play as they are.
Page 4-5 – About the Adventures
From reading this section, one could be forgiven for thinking that no adventures of any merit came out from the year 1982 until the year 2000. Certainly no deadly ones, since these are “the seven deadliest” available. I can’t wait for More Tales from the Yawning Portal: Seven of the Most Touchy-Feely Adventures from the 80s and 90s.
Page 5 – The Green Dragon Inn
What are you meant to do with this sidebar of information? Are you running Greyhawk and don’t know about this? Is there a reason The Yawning Portal can’t be in Greyhawk? They just spent an introduction saying you could fit anything in this book into any setting. Are you supposed to run out and buy the 5th Edition Greyhawk setting that doesn’t exist?
Then again, maybe it’s because most of the seven adventures were originally set in Greyhawk. In which case, maybe they should really have spent more time talking about Greyhawk. Heck, they might have been able to cut a couple of the non-Greyhawk adventures and turned this into a preliminary setting book for the World of Greyhawk. But, who am I to say?
Page 5-7 – The Yawning Portal
Classic adventure design mistake. They made the backstory more interesting than it should be. Who doesn’t, after reading this, want to go into Undermountain? It sounds challenging, dangerous, and above all, rewarding. Let’s go to this Yawning Portal and set out into Undermou– Oh, you can’t? That’s not this collection of adventures? But it sounds cool, can’t we just… No? But there’s instructions for getting down… No?
Well, screw it.
Page 7 – Starting the Story
Sure, you can use these Mysterious Stranger things to get your PCs pointed in the right direction, or any direction at all for that matter, or you could just use the actual Adventure Hooks that come with the actual adventures. No sense adding extra complication just to have an adventure sort of but not really start at the Yawning Portal.
The Yawning Portal seems to be tacked on for no particular reason. Maybe they came up weird on the page count. Maybe they made a promise to explain the thing somewhere else and have now fulfilled it. I don’t know. No further use is made of the Yawning Portal and its surroundings. You can’t do anything here except listen to a few random rumors and look at things on a shelf. There is no actual adventure to be had at the Yawning Portal unless the DM wants to head into Undermountain and make it up. So, why is it here? It doesn’t even act as a hub to get to or from these other adventures. It’s seven pages of flavor text in a place it is entirely possible you’ll never need, or want, to use.