By Art Schmidt
Dungeons and Dragons has long been the most famous and widely-enjoyed of all fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), and for good reason; the various folks who have been behind the brand for the last forty-some-odd years have been putting out quality adventures that capture the imagination and set the standard for RPG campaigns. From Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to Tom Moldvay and Dave “Zeb” Cook, Frank Mentzer, Lawrence Schick, Tracy Hickman, Bruce Cordell and countless others, they all knew one thing: that while the rules are necessary to provide a common framework for play, it’s the adventures that capture the imagination and draw the player into the story. A good adventure is like a delightful story shared among friends; it entertains while you are lost inside it, and it sticks with you afterward.
Every six months for the past three years, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has published a thick hardcover campaign book containing an over-arching storyline full of locations, quests, monsters and exotic treasures have which provided players and their dungeon master with countless hours of excitement and enjoyment. The first was the two-book Tyranny of Dragons campaign, or “storyline” as the publisher calls it, taking player characters from lowly first-level nobodies and allowing them build up through a series of interlocked adventurers into the world’s most formidable heroes. Then the story pitted those heroes against a five-headed dragon god named Tiamat in a bid to save their world from enslavement and darkness. Exciting stuff!
Subsequent storylines have followed the same basic formulae, although in vastly different and colorful ways; one storyline pitted the players against elemental cultists bent on (you guessed it) taking over the world, another trapped the heroes deep beneath the earth in subterranean labyrinths in a quest to not only escape the Underdark, but also save the world in the process (of course). Yet another whisked the heroes away to another dimension ruled by a dark lord, a vampire rivaling Count Dracula in his evil power, and the heroes had to defeat their undead overlord in order to escape.
The last storyline involved rampaging giants wreaking havoc and destruction across the countryside in a bid to rule their kind, and all of the little folk in the process. Again, players created neophyte adventurers and ran them through a sandbox world full of colorful peoples, quests both simple and majestic, nasty monstrosities and wondrous treasures, bastions of light and dungeons full of darkness, all in an effort to save the world from giant rule.
But not really. Sure, saving the world is the main goal of the characters in the story, and that’s all well and good. I don’t know many fantasy novels where the heroes spend three hundred-plus pages saving a kitten from a tree, or ordering takeout, or trying to find the best deal on car insurance. Saving the world is a noble goal, and will likely be the objective of story-driven fiction for the foreseeable future. But the objective of an RPG adventure is, first and foremost, to have fun! This is the main goal of the players, and anything the characters happen to accomplish along the way is just plain gravy.
In addition, the previous storylines all so far have lacked one thing which long-time players have been craving; a big, fat, old-timey dungeon crawl. Sure, there have been dungeons in some parts of the previous five storyline campaigns, but none really more than a small section of the overall adventure. After all, dungeon-crawling doesn’t easily lend itself to a big, wide-world-saving tale. It’s fun and all, but saving the world often requires traversing it to different locales and interacting with the folks of said world which you are striving to save, most of which are above ground. But still, the call persists. “Dungeon Crawl, guys!”
NOTE: Yes, the forth storyline “Out of the Abyss” was essentially one huge dungeon crawl, in that the entirety of the adventure took place underground in the “Underdark.” But really, that wasn’t one big dungeon, it was a world unto itself, beneath the earth, and had very few traditional “dungeons” in it.
So it comes as no surprise that the folks at WotC might be looking to put together a campaign hardcover that maybe, just possibly, doesn’t have an over-arching storyline quest to save the world. Who would have thunk it? But that’s just what they’ve gone and done.
Tales from the Yawning Portal is the sixth of the storylines in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons campaign books, and it is the first to leave out the “storyline” part in favor of providing DMs and their players with seven updated classic dungeon crawls for their enjoyment. And these are some of the most famous adventures ever written for the game.
The name of the book comes from a tavern in the massive port city of Waterdeep, one of the main epicenters of adventure in the Forgotten Realms, WotC’s main fantasy “world” with regard to the D&D game. The Yawning Portal Inn gets its name from the fact that a giant chasm exists in the middle of the Inn, right where the patrons sit, that extends down into the vast dungeon crawl known as Undermountain, which extends far beneath the city of Waterdeep. This is intriguing and makes for a great backdrop to the adventure collection, but one things sticks in the DM’s mind as he peruses this fine collection of tales; none of the printed tales actually take place in Undermountain, and the Yawning Portal, while a compelling setting in which to center the players, kind of loses its relevance when they first walk in, take a look down the long, deep chasm, and then are told “Hey, nothing in this adventure takes place down there. Don’t look at that again. And don’t even think of going down there, because you’ll be indefinitely lost and will have to roll up a new character. I mean it. Get over here.”
Now, any enterprising DM will work around (or even with!) this glaring discrepancy, and after all it’s a neat place to name the collection after. And what a collection it is. Seven of the most popular adventures in the history of the game, including with some of the original convention adventures ran in the 1970s, Against the Giants.
The collection offers adventures in a range from 1st level all the way up to “high-level adventurers” and can, in and of itself, provide most of a campaign of sorts. But that isn’t the objective of this particular hardcover, as it states in the introduction. These adventurers are meant to be enjoyed as side quests, inserted into an existing campaign and enjoyed much in the same vein as this hardcover was written; as a break from your standard “saving the world” yarn.
The introductory-level adventure The Sunless Citadel and the second adventure, The Forge of Fury, are the only two adventures originating from the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and provide players with a place to stretch their 1st level characters’ legs and advance up through 5th level.
The third and fourth adventures are both from the original publication of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons which was the first edition of the game to be sold in the three standard hardcover books, the Players’ Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. These fine adventures, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and White Plume Mountain, are vastly different and both loads of fun, the first for 5th level characters and the second re-written for 8th level characters.
The fifth adventure is the excellent Dead in Thay or, more precisely, the “Doomvault,” the massive dungeon crawl which was the centerpiece of that adventure. Dead in Thay was originally written as the playtest adventure for the 5th edition of D&D (the current edition), and was play-tested by nearly two hundred thousand players worldwide. It was meant to pay homage to the original “killer dungeon” The Tomb of Horrors, which incidentally enough, also appears in this collection. Dead in Thay is meant for a party of 9th or 10th level characters.
The sixth adventure is the classic Against the Giants, a compilation of three separate adventures from 1980 in which your band of heroes strives against a malign alliance of giants of all kinds, whose goals are no less than, you guessed it, to take over the world. Funny how often that happens! This adventure is meant for characters of 11th level.
The seventh and final adventure is the one to rule them all, the classic player-killer and every dungeon master’s best friend, The Tomb of Horrors. It doesn’t even have a level recommendation; it’s just for “high-level” characters. The higher the better. Of course, the higher-level your character is, the louder you will cry when the DM askes you to give him your character sheet after said hero is squashed into jelly, disintegrated into nothingness, or sucked into a demi-plane from which there is no escape.
What makes this adventure so unique, so classic? Well, it is as deadly as it is nonsensical to be honest, a deathtrap full of deathtraps, an adventure sure to cause more than one player to lose their favorite character for all time. No “Raise Dead” spells or “Resurrection” magics will work to return your character from some of the gruesome ends that this adventure has in store for those who dare to enter it willingly. It was originally written by one of the co-creators of D&D, Gary Gygax himself, as a lark, a joke, something horrible to throw at cocky players who said that their characters were invincible, all-powerful, and couldn’t be killed by anything.
“Oh really?” you can almost hear Mr. Gygax snicker as he pulled out this adventure. “We’ll see about that.”
And many have, oh so many have. And now, you can too! 😊
Tales from the Yawning Portal is available now in select gaming stores, or tomorrow, April 4, 2017, to the public at large. You can order it from Amazon here or your favorite bookseller.