Yawning Portal

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 29, 2013

a-to-z-letters-yHow many times has your adventure begun in a tavern? Too many, I’m guessing. It’s one of the most overused settings in D&D and the go-to locale for lazy DMs who need a quick way to get the PCs on the path to adventure.

There’s a reason that so many adventures begin in a tavern – it works. After all, the PCs are usually of different races and have varying backgrounds so where else would this rag-tag, miss-match bunch of people ever meet other than in the tavern? The only other place that comes to mind is a prison cell, but beginning an adventure in prison forces a blemish on every PC that the players may not agree with so the tavern returns to the top of the list.

Despite having a good reason to begin an adventure in the tavern, the very idea of beginning another adventure in the tavern drives me crazy. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not the idea of the tavern as much as that fact that it’s a non-descript tavern. If the DM feels its necessary to start things in the tavern I think it’s his responsibility to make it more than just four walls, some tables, and a bar. If taverns are such an integral part of D&D then the DM owes it to the PCs to make the tavern interesting.

Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. We look at taverns and the importance of making them interesting, as is the case in today’s “Y” Yawning Portal.

yawning-portal-01Every tavern should have its own personality; something that separates it from the hundreds of other taverns that the PCs will visit during their adventuring career. If the tavern is in their home town, or some other place where they’ll be staying for extended periods of time, then the DM has to put some effort into making the tavern memorable.

One of the most interesting taverns I’ve come across during my considerable years of gaming is the Yawning Portal tavern in Waterdeep. Talk about a tavern that’s unique and has its own personality, DMs should look at the Yawning Portal and take note; this is how you make a tavern an important part of the campaign and not just a place where the PCs go to meet a stranger and get sent on their next quest.

The Yawning Portal is so named because in the centre of the main room is a giant 40-foot wide shaft that descends nearly 200 feet into cavernous Undermountain. Adventurers can pay a fee to be lowered down the shaft and begin their quest for fortune and fame.

yawning-portal-mapThe shaft and much of Undermountain itself were originally constructed by the Wizard Halaster Blackcloak. When he perished and his fortress destroyed, the Yawning Portal’s original owner built the tavern around the shaft. For over a century would-be heroes have paid for the privilege of using the portal.

The Yawning Portal’s owner and employees realize that there is always a possibility that the denizens of Undermountain may try to ascend the shaft, so they are always ready to fight off threats that may emerge unexpectedly. It’s rare than any uninvited guests make their way up the shaft. Most monsters know that their next meal will be lowered on a rope if they wait patiently in the shadows and corridors just beyond the main well.

Many local patrons find it thrilling to cheer on anyone dumb enough to go down the hole. As most people who go into down the hole do not come back up, the atmosphere in the Yawning Portal is usually one of celebration – a farewell party for those about to die. There is also considerable gambling as the locals bet on who may return and what state they may be in when they do. Returning adventurers who want to get a lift up must pay a toll or fend for them selves.

yawning-portal-02The Yawning Portal is a fantastic location that’s so much more than just your run of the mill tavern. It can still serve as a watering hole but it’s full of adventuring hooks, most notably the shaft to the lower levels. The DM can easily have anyone needed to move the campaign forward at the Yawning portal because they’re about to go down the shaft, they’re accompanying someone else who is, they might have just returned to the surface, or they might just be here to drink. The point is that the Yawning Portal has a personality and it’s memorable.

The next time you need a place to begin the adventure and you decide on a tavern do everyone a favour and make the tavern interesting. Remember the Yawning Portal and use it as inspiration. Even a few little details can make an otherwise normal tavern something memorable. Be creative and think outside the box, or in this case think outside the tavern.

For more information on the Yawning Portal pick up a copy of the Halls of Undermountain or use the reference links provided below.

For additional resources on taverns see:

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!



1 Geoff April 29, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Well said. I would like to add that creating a tavern as memorable as the yawning portal is as simple as picking an unusual feature to serve as its focal point. On my day W for the A to Z challenge, I mentioned a dockside bar made for my campaign that was decorated with giant crab claws. This led to a story for how they got there, and now, despite having only visited once, my players still remember that tavern years later.

So, pick something big, weird or fantastic and make that the defining characteristic of the tavern. Maybe it’s built in an old church. Maybe the bartender is a mimic disguised as a vending machine. Maybe it features cockatrice fights and a lovely statue garden.

Geoff at ROFL Initiative

2 Ocampo April 29, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Another interesting tavern is the Broken Tower in Neverwinter. Every night, the ghosts of wizards who died during the Spellplague recreate the last moments of their lives with cruel accuracy, as one of them falls down from the upper stories with his flesh peeling off his bones.

3 Brian April 29, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Tavern scenes suck, and it’s not just because the tavern itself is boring.

The reason tavern scenes suck is because the players are sitting around waiting for the DM to hang a hook in front of them (or, worse, sitting around trying to meet each other). The DM winds up playing a bunch of boring townsfolk, going through the motions of trying to convince the PCs to go along with whatever quest he planned out in advance. You can almost hear him subtly pleading with the PCs, hoping they take the bait and jump on the railroad, because he’s got nothing if they don’t. It’s a lot of pointless forced dialogue that can be replaced by narration and Q&A, allowing players and the DM to leap straight into action and badassery.

I wrote about this a couple months back: http://engineeredfun.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/taverns/

4 Karl April 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

Where can I find that map of The Yawning Portal?!? It’s awesome. I’m a big fan of city-based adventuring and love to get all the maps I can.

Thanks in advance!

5 Ameron (Derek Myers) April 30, 2013 at 11:20 am

The Yawning Portal map comes with the Halls of Undermountain 4e hardcover. One side of the poster is a huge updated map of the Undermountain dungeon, the other is the map shown here of the Yawning Portal. Personally I found this book was well worth the money. I doubt I’ll ever play the entire adventure as one massive dungeon crawl, but it’s a fun read and I’ve already stolen a few ideas from it for my home campaign.

6 karl April 30, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Thanks! I’ll be ordering it. I haven’t made the jump past 3.5 edition yet so I am largely in the dark about what has come out recently. I do find material from every edition has value though, even if its just a map, chart, or good story line.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: