The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Before I start I should mention that fellow Geekdad Rory Bristol has written an excellent review of Tales From the Yawning Portal – which can be found here.
This article, however, is more of a DM’s report on the preparation, planning and playing of one of the seven dungeons included in this fantastic book.
The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
When I first got my hands on Tales from the Yawning Portal, the first dungeon to catch my eye was The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and I’ve been waiting for an excuse to throw it at my D&D group ever since. We have just finished the first half of Out Of The Abyss, which sees the adventurers trapped in the Underdark, and the party managed to escape to the surface. So, before I send them back down into the deep darkness, what better interlude than to have them fall into a long forgotten dungeon filled with Aztec-inspired zombies, noxious gas, and enough trapped pressure plates to bring out even Indiana Jones in a cold sweat?
In a previous article I looked at the first five official campaigns for D&D fifth edition using five simple questions to compare them. I’ll do the same here, but go into a bit more detail.
- Will I be interested in the story, and will my players have fun?
Like most of the dungeons in Yawning Portal, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is more of an exciting adventure environment than a fully formed narrative. The shrine itself is a long abandoned subterranean complex, complete with tombs, wraiths, altars and mummified centaurs. But this just means the story can be whatever you need it to be, and will fit into any campaign as an interesting side-quest or interlude between episodes. It also means that there are very few (if any) NPCs in this adventure.
As far as the story goes, your players begin by falling into a room in the dungeon as the ground beneath their feet suddenly gives way. All they have to do is escape. In a way this railroads the players into traipsing through the whole thing, as the only way to get back to the surface is to through the Shrine’s many rooms. But if you warn them first, this might not be such a bad thing.
It is designed for characters of fifth to eighth level, but there is no reason why, with a little tweaking of the monsters, characters of higher level couldn’t attempt and enjoy it – I would be very hesitant to let lower parties explore as some of the traps and puzzles are quite deadly.
For this adventure, my group was made up of four level five characters. I told them that they had just completed a mission. They had been tasked with retrieving a mythical object from a forgotten tribe, which they accomplished, but were discovered at the thirteenth hour and so had to flee. As they fled, the ground beneath them opened up and they descended into the dungeon.
- How easy is it to run with the material given?
Not at all easy. Firstly, I felt like I needed to do a lot of preparation and planning. For me, this isn’t such a problem – aside from the time restraints of having a nine month old baby – getting to draw out maps and read through creature stat blocks is one of my favorite things to do. But for some people, the sheer complexity of the dungeon and the preparation required could be overwhelming and a real turn off.
I was using an excellent guide available from the DMs Guild which takes you through all seven of the Yawning Portal’s dungeons and which I thoroughly recommend if you are considering DMing any of them. Its first piece of advice was “make sure you are ready to run this dungeon” and this is very true.
As my group likes to use LEGO minis when we play, I decided that I would draw out the dungeon so we had a decent map. This was a big task and took a long, long time; in the end the map stretches out to roughly six meters long and I used two whole rolls of gaming paper to do it.
Note: this was the first time I’d used Gaming Paper and I was quite impressed. I’d read Michael Harrison’s quick review and agree with most of what he said; it would be nice if it wasn’t so glossy and easily smudged.
The other major piece of preparation for this dungeon is getting to know the intricacies of the traps and puzzles and how they work. If I’m honest I should have spent more time on this and less on drawing the map as there were times when I had to waste a couple of moments re-reading the text just to try and work out what would happen. Again, Sean McGovern’s guide on the DMs Guild proved priceless when this happened in- game.
- What’s the best bit?
The flavor of this dungeon works really well. Through precisely worded descriptions of rooms and some really well considered items and monsters, the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan wonderfully captures the feeling of exploring a century’s old exotic tomb.
Another really great feature of this dungeon are the unusual traps and puzzles it presents to your PCs. My favorite is where the adventures discover an animated pelota ball and must play a game – essentially quidditch – in order to pass on to the next stage. In our play through this lasted a whole hour of the session and was one of the moments that I’m sure my players will remember for a long time.
- What’s the worst bit?
This dungeon is really tricky if the party get separated. The old adage of ‘don’t split the party‘ definitely rings true here. In particular, there is one trap where the PCs get tempted by a Will-O’-Wisp and are drawn towards a sand trap. If the party is split by this point, which in my case they were, this trap would likely kill a character on their own unless the DM is prepared to get a bit creative and work around the text as written. I had an alarm sound as soon as the trap was activated which alerted the rest of the party to hurry and re-group.
However, the worst bit of the dungeon, from a player’s perspective, is the poisonous gas that fills the lower tiers. This wouldn’t be such a bad feature if the dungeon was smaller or if there were an easier way of dealing with it. The presence of the gas means PCs do not gain the usual hit point recovery from a long rest and is clearly there to act as an incentive for the players not to linger. For my group it actually meant they spent the whole time really underpowered as they foolishly used up their spells and abilities in the first few rooms, thinking they’d be able to rest and recharge. This wasn’t the case and it meant that the sorcerer didn’t have as much fun as he might have. To be honest this is more a critique on the way my group plays and not a flaw with the dungeon, but is certainly something I would think about changing if I were to play through the Hidden Shrine again.
- What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
Like all the dungeons in Tales From the Yawning Portal, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is packed full of content that can be dropped directly into pretty much any campaign. This includes: the whole dungeon itself; any of the unique traps featured inside; several magical items, including some which are cursed for added fun; more than ten exclusive monsters, such as Kalla-Kalka the giant slumbering crab, or the final ‘boss’ which is a fearsome mummified centaur.
If your D&D group likes fighting interesting undead monsters that have an exotic twist, if they enjoy solving puzzles and searching for traps and secret doors, and if they don’t just barge into every room they see, then the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan could be right for you. However, if they like a more straight-forward combat-oriented game, or one with lots of opportunities for rests and interesting NPCs, then perhaps you should give this one a miss.