Every Dungeon Master starts somewhere. For most of us, it’s a matter of fumbling our way through things and making a lot of mistakes. My first campaign ended in literal tears with an accidental total party death, because I focused on all the wrong things. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? Now that I’m on the “parent” side, I prefer to give new DMs somewhere to start, a nudge in the right direction. There are 10 reasons the newly-released Tales From the Yawning Portal is perfect for new DMs who wish to avoid some of the classic mistakes that sometimes destroy their first campaign.
1. New DMs start with very little story guidance.
The Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual are full-up on theory, but lack story. The seeds of an infinite number of worlds are at your hands, but there’s no sapling. Tales From the Yawning Portal starts at ground zero and helps you tell your story from the beginning.
2. DMs shouldn’t have to reinvent the world to have a great game.
Many new DMs want to put their extraordinary worlds on display. We don’t put hours into our world for nothing—we want to bring that world to life. The challenge is in balancing the world with fun for your players. Tales From the Yawning Portal includes seven full adventures which can be set in any world—even the Plane of Bizorxiccs, Land of Cotton Candy. Okay, I just made that last one up for effect, but my point remains. Using the book gives your world a story to start with. Add in the quirks of your world as you go—and it will be easier to bring your world to life, because the dungeons are already set up for you to start.
3. We want to challenge (and surprise!) our players.
Many DMs, including myself, are faced with the challenge of their players having all the resources. When your players know what every monster, magic item, and trap is made of, it’s hard to challenge them with something new and bewildering. Tales From the Yawning Portal introduces dozens unique items, monsters, and NPCs which allows the DM to slip some tricks up their sleeve. This is really good for players who meta-game (using information their character wouldn’t know), breaking the mood. When you can surprise those players, it feels like a win. That’s one of the key parts of good storytelling.
4. Story hooks are hard!
Even seasoned DMs run into trouble sometimes with generating a plot hook for their players. It can be frustrating to set up a dungeon crawl, just to have a headstrong character run the other direction. Creating a good story hook is critical for preventing this. If your players really want to chase the story, they will. The hard part, though, is making something unique. The Yawning Portal (after which the book is named) is the ideal starting place for thousands of stories by nature of being what (and where) it is. This fantastic inn is built over a dungeon, owned by a seasoned adventurer, and begs for stories to be told. If your player can’t find the story here, they won’t find it anywhere.
5. Maps take forever.
Anyone who has drawn up an entire dungeon can sympathize with the hours it takes to create a map—and you might only use it once! Once again, we are saved by the book. There are dozens of maps waiting in the pages of Tales From the Yawning Portal, most designed for DMs’ eyes only, and some for players to look over. Lakes, shrines, dungeons, keeps, strongholds, prisons, and more await your excuse to use them, each detailed with dynamic details that react to how your players behave, true to the 5e standard.
6. It’s a good idea to trust the classics.
The adventures in Tales From the Yawning Portal aren’t brand-new content, which is great—in this case. These seven stories have been told over the last 39 years, from the Tomb of Horros created in 1978 by Gary Gygax to Dead in Thay written for the 2014 playtesting that led to 5e as we know it, these stories are both classics and fresh. They’ve all been updated to 5e, and are written to evoke the spirit of D&D, and many of them are little-enough known to be brand new to most tables.
7. Magic items get too predictable.
Lots of new DMs want to pull away from the standard +1 Broadsword of Stabbiness. We all want our players to have to figure things out, and consider the consequences of their items. Many traditional items don’t change gameplay, other than adding static bonuses. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say this: in the 15 new magic items, players might find items that require them to convert to a new deity, might curse them, or could even kill the user.
8. Monsters don’t always feel all that monstrous.
When a new DM sits down to tell a story to their (probably much more experienced) friends, they know most of the same tricks, and the same-old monsters just seem less intimidating. You want to make your characters feel the awe of facing a truly terrible monster. Adding in horrific monsters, unsettling fey, and unique undead change the game up. My favorites are the Nereid and the Centaur Mummy. They just aren’t what your players are going to expect, and they show up in interesting places within the adventures.
9. Creating perfect pacing is almost impossible.
Getting your players to the right place at the right time doesn’t just happen on its own, and wealth distribution can be a nightmare of its own. Tales From the Yawning Portal takes your characters through a series of challenges with good progression for experience and treasure. Even if you don’t use the dungeons and monsters included (which you probably should), you can use it as a guideline for appropriate challenges and rewards for your players. Using The Sunless Citadel as a guide, you can take your players from level 1 to level 3, for example. If you need to go from 5-8, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is an excellent guide.
10. Taking a party from 1-20 takes a lot of work.
Even if you get everything else right, telling the story of your world which will take the characters to their natural conclusion takes an awful lot of writing. Tales From the Yawning Portal starts at level 1, and can bring your players to high levels without quite so many hours. Don’t mistake—it still takes preparation, but most of the heavy lifting is done for you. Here are the level breakdowns:
- The Sunless Citadel 1-3
- The Forge of Fury 3-5
- The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan 5-8
- White Plume Mountain 8+
- Dead in Thay 9-11+
- Against the Giants 11-14
- Tomb of Horrors “high-level”
Now, I know it looks like there’s an ambiguous gap at the end. It’s actually ambiguous on purpose. You might also notice that White Plume Mountain and Dead in Thay are very similar in level. If the adventures are played back-to-back, you’re likely to attain a higher level than 14 by the end of Against the Giants. If your players are thorough, they could even manage level 16 by completing various side-tasks. If they accidentally kill someone they should have saved, or the other way around, there are lots of places in which extra encounters can be added seamlessly. This is especially good for Against the Giants, because if your players have climbed too high, things can get easy for them. Thankfully, each of the sub-adventures has its own section (and map), so adding in an extra challenge here or there can feel like a natural part of the dungeons for your players.
Once they’re in the Tomb of Horrors itself, it’s too late to finish preparations—they need to be there before they enter the first time. The Tomb of Horrors has more traps than monsters, so if their skills are sub-par, they’re never getting in. Or worse, they’ll die immediately. If your players aren’t close to level 17, I’d add in a sub-adventure.
My best suggestion is for players to foray into the Underdark. In a couple of their other adventures, they’ll encounter chances to enter the Underdark. Now, they don’t have to take down any big bads. It would be enough to run them through the areas surrounding the dungeons they’ve already cleared. When they return from Against the Giants, have their patron send them back in to seal the entrance to the Underdark. Something as simple as that can get them another level or so before moving on to the Tomb of Horrors.
Bonus: It’s easy to combine with other adventures.
Tales from the Yawning Portal is also a great way to add to your other pre-made adventures, letting you take these heroic (and horrific) adventures further than ever. Against the Giants has a lot of great content to add to the mix for Storm King’s Thunder, and Dead in Thay and Tomb of Horrors make for some creepy and interesting content for Curse of Strahd.
In summary, Tales From the Yawning Portal is one of the best resources out there for new DMs, thanks to its exhaustive and comprehensive stories. It just came out last week, and is already an Amazon best seller. As ever, a great DM is one who is willing to put in the work. This resource can make that process much simpler, so take advantage of it.
Note: A copy of Tales From the Yawning Portal was provided for review purposes.