Fiddleback vs. Tales From the Yawning Portal, Wrap Up

The time has come to put an end to Fiddleback vs. Tales From the Yawning Portal. Over the course of the ten articles in this series, I’ve covered all seven of the adventures included in this book, some with detailed, room by room, commentary and others with a more traditional review-style approach.

When I started the series, I took as my goals a desire to provide some help and support for new Dungeon Masters just beginning their forays in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. I attempted to do this by showing them at least one solid way to evaluate published adventures, determine the adventure’s suitability for their group of players, and adjust those adventures as necessary for play at their table. Whether I have been successful at those goals is up to the reader to determine. I’ve done what I believe to be the best I can in those regards.

All that remains now is to consider Tales From the Yawning Portal as a whole and sum up my thoughts about it in the light of a thorough read through and critique.

In many ways, it is still a shame that the book, like its namesake tavern, is not focused on the Greyhawk setting itself. The majority of adventures are set there and it would have been easy enough to make this a sort of mini-setting book for the game by focusing on Greyhawk and fleshing out the world. By removing the non-Greyhawk adventures, room could be had to expand things.

It is a shame the Yawning Portal tavern and Undermountain don’t see more use and integration. The tantalizing promise of adventure in Undermountain is never paid off and ultimately the whole Yawning Portal aspect feels loosely tacked on with no real purpose. Almost as if it is just there to give the volume a “cool” name and not much else.

In the end, though, it is probably just as well not much more is made of Greyhawk here. The bulk of adventures set there aren’t the best representatives of the setting and are so gimmicky and full of special circumstances outside the course of regular play they give one the impression Greyhawk adventures never took themselves seriously and the designers were more interested in killing PCs and annoying players than telling exciting, worthwhile stories.

Sure, many of the adventures are legendary. But, like legends, they’ve grown in the telling, becoming exaggerated experiences and table stories that their original inspirations can’t possibly hope to live up to.

White Plume Mountain is an amusing and, importantly, short romp not to be taken seriously by either the DM or players. It’s a beer-and-pretzels-like diversion in the gap between more well written adventures. Taken in that light, it is the best of the S-series of Special modules from the early days of D&D in this book.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is the long, slow, tortuous counterpart to White Plume Mountain centered on the lengthy demise of a group of heroes. Except that it is entirely player focused instead. While it can be interesting and entertaining, with the wrong group and wrong PCs, it’s just an annoyingly long trudge without much actually going on. No real story is presented or advanced, it’s just something to do. Unless, of course, it is run as the actual competitive tournament it was meant to be. Then, the drive of competition makes it somewhat more worthwhile and a good shared experience teams can compare notes on and laugh.

Tomb of Horrors, on the other hand, is offensively bad. Embodying the worst sort of game design principles and without a doubt intended to screw over the players, it presents nothing of value to either players or Dungeon Masters except a guide to exactly the sort of encounter design to avoid. This is the sort of “adventure” written by grade-schoolers who have talked the rest of the group into letting them DM with the intent of getting revenge for that one time the regular DM killed their favorite character. You can practically hear Gygax sulking and muttering under his breath, “I’ll show you, you bunch of ingrates.”

Of the adventures in Tales From the Yawning Portal, and definitely among the old school adventures, Against the Giants is the best of the batch. And thank goodness it is. Where Tomb of Horrors made us doubt Gygax’s chops as a designer, Against the Giants redeems him. The intricacy of the module, the sense of moving story, and the clear DM instructions and advice make it the clear winner. It’s DM prep intense, but the payoff for investing the time is an epic adventure across varied landscapes and lasting memories suitable for table talk for years to come. Do not miss playing this one.

As for the more modern adventures, The Sunless Citadel is a decent introductory adventure, but suffers, for new DMs, from making a number of assumptions about those DMs and their players. Where it could be clear and instructive,  it often settles for simply mentioning what should happen without helping DMs work out how. Fine if you’re experienced, not so hot if this is your first time and you’re still trying to sort out how it all works.

Dead in Thay, because of the goals needed as a playtest document, never quite comes together as an integrated adventure. It feels much more piecemeal and repetitive. There is variety there, but it’s not variety of play, it’s variety of scenery. Like having different towels for every day of the month; it’s a change, but ultimately still the same bathroom as yesterday. Thay is much less tedious if made smaller by cherry picking sections to explore instead of the long slog its full version will undoubtedly become.

Finally, Forge of Fury is the second-best adventure in Yawning Portal. It opens strong with a well-choreographed intro section DMs would be well advised to learn from and apply to their homebrewed adventures.  The strong, exciting, and unique finish is only hampered by a weak and pointless middle. Still something to learn from it, but in this case, it is, again, what not to do. Aside from that, it is well worth playing if only to see how your group will handle the beginning and whether they survive the end.

That’s it really. Those are your seven adventures in Tales From the Yawning Portal. It’s hard to even call it a mixed bag. There are two strong stand alone adventures and the rest only really work in special circumstances if at all. Average that out and it is a pretty sub-par book in the Dungeons & Dragons line.

In terms of presentation, the art is nice enough, generally capturing the action or mood of scenes or characters well. You’ll soon forget about that though as you struggle to read the majority of the maps. So many poor choices were made with the cartography, including the inexcusable double page Tamoachan spread that loses rooms down the valley of the pages, that you begin to wonder if they really meant to include maps in the print edition at all.

While all the adventures included can be deadly in the right circumstances, perhaps the lesson to take away from Yawning Portal is that ‘deadliness’ is the least important measure of what makes an adventure good. Sure, there is fun and amusement to be had in attempting a deadly adventure, but that isn’t what keeps players and DMs coming back to play the game. While PC death can always be a possibility in any adventure, and arguably should be, it is far more important to provide consistency, story, a sense of place, and player/PC agency, among other things. When contemplating what Yawning Portal could have been with better adventure selection criteria, it’s a shame we were given this instead.

In the end, it’s impossible to recommend Tales From the Yawning Portal to the majority of DMs and players. It suffers too much from poor choices in both design, intent, and adventure selection. While I would love for you to play Against the Giants or Forge of Fury, $50 is a lot to pay for that privilege. Too much, in fact. Save it for a stronger supplement to come.