Friday, January 7, 2022

Let's Look at Dungeon of the Mad Mage

In the city of Waterdeep rests a tavern called the Yawning Portal, named after the gaping pit in its common room. At the bottom of this crumbling shaft is a labyrinthine dungeon shunned by all but the most daring adventurers. Known as Undermountain, this dungeon is the domain of the mad wizard Halaster Blackcloak. Long has the Mad Mage dwelt in these forlorn depths, seeding his lair with monsters, traps, and mysteries—to what end is a constant source of speculation and concern.  (From the back cover of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.)

Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage by Wizards of the Coast picks up at 5th level, slotting in as a nice follow up to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist or one of the introductory adventurers like Lost Mine of Phandelver, or Dragon of Icespire Peak.  It covers 23 dungeon levels, taking player characters from level 5 up through level 20, and it weighs in at 320 pages, one of the larger adventure books on the WOTC 5E shelf.  (On cursory glance, only Rime of the Frost Maiden also has 320 pages; most of the adventure books like Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Descent into Avernus, et al are 256).

Dungeon of the Mad Mage has an impressive room count as well - 535 encounter areas across its 23 levels, including over 1220+ rooms.  That hearkens back to the 1,000 room dungeons of the olden days (back when druids were true neutral and elven fighters maxed out at 7th level, the way Gary intended).

Most 5E adventure books start with level 1 characters and take the party up to level 10 or so; there are a few outliers like Avernus and Princes of the Apocalypse that cover a 15 level span ( 1-15).  Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the only official campaign designed to challenge 20th level characters.  We shall see if it proves a challenge, when we get there!

It's fine as far as printed megadungeons go.  The levels are interesting and varied, and each is preceded by 1-3 pages of narrative laying out factional conflicts and politics for that level.  I may complain about the Fifth but I generally enjoy Chris Perkins' work as the lead adventure designer, and he did a nice job adapting and updating Undermountain.  There's some history of Undermountain up front - it's a long abandoned elven dungeon, and then a dwarven dungeon, and then a mad wizard's dungeon and all of his apprentices, down through the years.  One of the deeper levels has a portal to an asteroid in outer space!  The room descriptions are brief and use effective bolding to highlight important information for usability.  The text is not hard to run at the table.

The maps are another issue.  The map quality is fine, but the maps themselves are strewn through the text and it's unwieldy to run at the table without a lot of flip-flip page flipping.  Back when I started Undermountain with an Adventurer's League group pre-pandemic, I used the optional "map pack" accessory that includes separated glossy map pages so you can reference the book text and have the correct map side by side behind your DM screen.  Selling an "optional" map pack accessory was some shrewd capitalism by the WOTC overlords.  Of course since the pandemic we've been 100% online anyway.

I am not enamored with the Forgotten Realms.  Years of running published 5E campaign hardbacks set in the Realms have done nothing to dim my smoldering apathy towards them.  (I have a Drizzt Do'Urden voodoo doll in my desk drawer).  But I have learned to appreciate the special charm of having a sprawling megadungeon right under the player's home base city.  It's cool that a raucous adventurer's tavern surrounds the entrance to the dungeon, and rowdy tavern patrons place wagers as adventurers get lowered out of sight into the underworld.  We've gotten some excellent mileage out of those scenes.  The Realms may be bland to me, but putting your giant dungeon under a tavern - ten out of ten, Ed Greenwood, ten out of ten.  (You can't see it, but I'm sending him telepathic heart emoji's.  With my mind).

The Yawning Portal dungeon entrance - doesn't that look fun?

There is a significant issue with experience points and pacing with this 5E version.  It's been optimized for a party of 4 players, and there's just enough combat experience, if the players complete every room, to allow this 4-person party to level at the requisite pace.  That's terrible.  It's terrible in so many ways.  As we work through how I've tweaked Dungeon of the Mad Mage for my play style, we'll address the experience point problem right away.

There are essentially no wandering monsters.  On the first two levels, there are a few text blurbs about monsters that wander the levels, but that guidance stops from the 3rd level onwards.  Did Chris Perkins get tired of writing or just run out of space?  We may never know.  What I do know is that you'll be making your own wandering monster tables if that part of the dungeoneering experience is important to you.

Don't let these quibbles dissuade you from checking out Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  There is no such thing as a perfect WOTC adventure module; if they published one, the world would stop.  Be thankful for their imperfect products with correctable flaws.  Mad Mage is one of the good ones.  In posts to come, I'll lay out tweaks I've made to operate the adventure more to my liking, striving even for an "old school feel" (whatever old school means), and then I'll do some recaps of our play through.  It will be fun.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.


  1. Good to see you back, and nice to hear some more of your campaign war stories.

  2. When I wrote my B/X megadungeon campaign, I placed it directly under a tavern in a Lankhmar-esque city, using the ludicrous conceit that the current city was actually built atop the ruins of an older civilization that had fallen to disaster. (Like how there are Roman ruins directly underneath Bath, for instance.) So there's a tavern run by the Adventurers' Guild guarding one of the entrances to the underground city. It was the perfect setup for an episodic megadungeon campaign, where each session ends up back aboveground, so we don't have to worry about what to do with characters whose players couldn't make it to the next game, etc. And we had a fair bit of interaction with the people of the city, as the players sought out sages or equipment and so on.

    I don't think I had heard of Undermountain beyond the name before I came up with this idea, but I imagine Ed Greenwood just came to the same ideas that I later did, regarding the benefits of having an easy-to-access dungeon right below the party's home base. From what I've read, his early campaigns were similarly episodic in nature, with players dropping in when available.