Plumbing the Depths of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage -- A Review
  • Plumbing the Depths of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage -- A Review


    Wizards of the Coast has worked hard to provide a variety of adventure types for 5th Edition and with Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage they're tackling megadungeons. Mad Mage can be played on its own, if the players begin with 5th characters or better, or it can follow up the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist adventure, which is for 1st through 6th level characters. Please note: This review contains spoilers.


    The dungeon in question is Undermountain, the huge complex hallowed out by the titular archmage, Halaster under the city of Waterdeep. Personally, I've always wondered why Waterdeep's Masked Lords and Black Staff didn't work to seal off Undermountain. After all, having all of those evil creatures and even another city (Skullport) underneath your city has to be a security risk especially since the entrance between the two is in a bar, not a secure facility. But I digress...

    The book starts with a history of Undermountain, Halaster Blackcloak, the mage who created the dungeon as he descended into madness, and the Yawning Portal tavern, the entrance into Undermountain previously introduced to 5th Edition in The Tales of the Yawning Portal and the opening of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks in that chapter come in two varieties starting quests and quests that can only be offered after the players have accomplished other tasks. Both versions should work well.

    The 23 dungeon levels vary widely in challenges and even type of terrain as Halaster used magic to create them or import those who did. In comments to my First Impressions article readers asked if the dungeon had to be run as a complete unit or if the various levels could be used independently and dropped into another adventure or dungeon. The latter is definitely possible with a little tweaking and Skullport could be renamed and put almost anywhere for a nefarious town. For that matter, maybe Halaster has been expanding and building an off-shoot elsewhere or a place that magically connects to the Undermountain dungeon.

    While Mad Mage can be run independently of Dragon Heist, connections between the two books create a better experience together than separate. The Zhentarim and Xanathar's Guild are both active in Undermountain, especially the early levels, making it easy to tie into Dragon Heist.

    Some of the NPCs and plot threads in Mad Mage are a great deal of fun and could even be borrowed for other adventures, like the bandits who are failed actors and pretend to vampires to rob or exhort adventurers. Add in bandit leaders scheming against each other and that's a great mini adventure you could use with or without a dungeon.

    Mad Mage even sets the stage for a longer, more complicated story after the book adventure is done. After all, the way the dungeon is set up, permanently clearing it of evil creatures is virtually impossible so what happens if you remove the adversaries closest to Waterdeep who act as a buffer between the city and the evil creatures below?

    Remember to pick a goal for Halaster from the list at the top of the adventure so you can seed aspects of it through the adventure. The seeds can spur different types of stories from political intrigue to classic revenge.

    Halaster's complex is so large and old, it even contains things like a wrecked Spelljammer and a control helmet. That will definitely feed the guesses as to the next D&D setting despite claims it's not Spelljammer.

    The complex also includes gates to other locations and wait for it a flying saucer Halaster created.

    If Halaster is defeated that doesn't mean he's really dead. Similar to the options for Strahd in Curse of Strahd, Halaster can come back to bedevil future adventures. I'm not sure if I like that twist in Mad Mage or not.

    I really like the maps by cartographer Tim Hartin. Having a more clear grid on the map is a huge help. While the maps in the prior books, like Tomb of Annihilation, were quite pretty, Hartin's efficient maps are much easier to read and use. GMs have to juggle enough information when running a game. Having to figure out a map because it's too busy or unnecessarily detailed is frustrating. Sometimes streamlined is better.



    Mad Mage has less new creatures than prior books, especially Tomb of Annihilation, but personally I care more about quality than quantity when it comes to monsters and adversaries. On the other hand, I really like some of the NPCs and the hooks for them.

    All in all, I enjoyed Mad Mage, though for me the true test of an adventure comes with actually running it for players. It seems to have enough character-driven material and roleplay opportunities that the adventure is far more than the traditional dungeon crawl hack and slash.

    If you're a fan of megadungeons, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a must purchase. For everyone else, it depends upon the type of adventure you want to run but is definitely worth consideration. Plus, if you've run Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, you could combine the material in this book with original content, for easy customization and adventure beyond the scope of events in other books.

    This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!!
    Comments 35 Comments
    1. gyor's Avatar
      gyor -
      Honestly I'd used W: DH with W: DMM, so you could do things like having Manshoon in the dungeons, check up on Troll Skull Manor between doing levels of Undermountain as well as other business within Waterdeep.
    1. Charles Rampant's Avatar
      Charles Rampant -
      Is that a picture of a Githyanki asteroid base?!
    1. Alzrius's Avatar
      Alzrius -
      Does this adventure address at all why/how Halaster is alive again? Unless I missed something (which is entirely possible), he died as of Third Edition's Expedition to Undermountain, and nothing in 4E brought him back that I'm aware of. So how is he alive for this adventure now?
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by Alzrius View Post
      Does this adventure address at all why/how Halaster is alive again? Unless I missed something (which is entirely possible), he died as of Third Edition's Expedition to Undermountain, and nothing in 4E brought him back that I'm aware of. So how is he alive for this adventure now?
      One of the Dragon Talks podcasts mentions Undermountain keeps resurrecting him.

      Dragon Talk is a surprisingly valuable source of information as they share the lore that ended up cut for space. I've learned more from that podcast in several subjects than the book the podcast was trying to promote.

      -edit--

      I think an AL adventure two or three years ago ended with his resurrection as well.
    1. mykesfree's Avatar
      mykesfree -
      While I have not ran W: DMM, from reading the book, it seems like a DM could run it as an episodic TV show. Each level seems like it could be short enough for a single 4 hr session and besides Halaster each level has very little to do with one another.

      So far each Dungeon has bad guys to beat via combat, but also contains many, many Role-Play oppertunities. Also in my opinion each Undermountain level, seems so modular that it could be used as stand alone dungeons for easy plug n play.
      @Jester David Looking forward to your reveiw on 5MWD.
    1. Ath-kethin's Avatar
      Ath-kethin -
      Re: crashed Spelljammer: are there any details on how Spelljamming works or rules for Spelljamming, or is it just a bit of funky scenery?
    1. doctheweasel's Avatar
      doctheweasel -
      One thing that should be said and is probably obvious to some and not at all to others is that this is not an "adventure" like the other modules where there is an overarching plot/goal to pursue.

      There are some hooks to accomplish a few specific things, but in the end either the GM or PCs will have to find a reason to go all the way down and experience it all. That is fine for some groups and a non-starter for others so keep that in mind.
    1. pukunui's Avatar
      pukunui -
      @brimmels: Dragon Heist is for levels 1-5.
    1. robus's Avatar
      robus -
      Quote Originally Posted by pukunui View Post
      @brimmels: Dragon Heist is for levels 1-5.
      Or even 1-4 with some random attempt at supporting level 5
    1. PointOfIsnpiration's Avatar
      PointOfIsnpiration -
      Quote Originally Posted by Alzrius View Post
      Does this adventure address at all why/how Halaster is alive again? Unless I missed something (which is entirely possible), he died as of Third Edition's Expedition to Undermountain, and nothing in 4E brought him back that I'm aware of. So how is he alive for this adventure now?
      Undermountain resses him.
    1. Demetrios1453's Avatar
      Demetrios1453 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ath-kethin View Post
      Re: crashed Spelljammer: are there any details on how Spelljamming works or rules for Spelljamming, or is it just a bit of funky scenery?
      Yes, the Spelljamming helm from the crashed ship is fully detailed with a description on how it works. Granted, the helm is on a different level than the ship, and getting the ship out of the dungeon is going to be more than problematical, but if you are able to do all that, you'll have a functioning Spelljammer ship with the rules to run it. And a space port to run it from as well, if you've cleared out yet a third level (the asteroid pictured in the original post).
    1. Turgenev's Avatar
      Turgenev -
      Thank you for the kind words about the cartography, brimmels. I'm a firm believer that while a map should be pleasant to the eyes*, it must also be functional for the DM. Doing the maps for Undermountain was a huge thrill for me.

      * Naturally what looks nice varies from person to person (it is subjective in nature).

      Cheers,
      Tim Hartin
    1. Joseph Nardo's Avatar
      Joseph Nardo -
      Quote Originally Posted by Turgenev View Post
      Thank you for the kind words about the cartography, brimmels. I'm a firm believer that while a map should be pleasant to the eyes*, it must also be functional for the DM. Doing the maps for Undermountain was a huge thrill for me.

      * Naturally what looks nice varies from person to person (it is subjective in nature).

      Cheers,
      Tim Hartin
      You have participated in the greatest dnd product ever. I have fallen in love as I sit here and read my copy. Your maps are old school excellence!
    1. Joseph Nardo's Avatar
      Joseph Nardo -
      My mind is blown on how fantastic this book is!. This truly is the adventure I've been waiting for since 1982. Although I'm 100% a dm, I can only imagine how incredible this will be for players!
    1. gyor's Avatar
      gyor -
      One thing I'm curious about is how well mixing in Tales From The Yawning Portal with W: DMM will work, because W: DMM, D: DH, and TotYP all revolve around the Yawning Portal.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      Spoilers.
      24 A leads to Sunless
      41 Tunnel leads to an archway opening to the Forge ETC.
    1. R_J_K75's Avatar
      R_J_K75 -
      SPOILERS, SO STOP READING IF YOU DONT WANT TO KNOW:

      I got this today. Admittedly I have only browsed it for a bit but from what I read Im somewhat disappointed. For starters, and this has been going on for some time, the lack of stat blocks is just ridiculous, so on the face of it I can anticipate alot of prep being needed to run even small portions of the dungeon. Seems alot of the features that made UM unique have either been left out or severely truncated. One thing that I didnt see was a section on ways in and out and the inability to teleport in or out. All the doors are wooden?, I seem to remember other door types in previous editions. I didnt see a wandering monster table. Lack of a poster map(s) really aggrevates me. The Map Pack wasnt worth the money IMO, I was hoping for some tables to help populate/furnish the dungeon. I found two things as far as story line disconcerting as well from the two parts I did read. In Wyllowood, the Temple to Malar simply being abandoned seemed plain lazy. Stardock in its own adventure was controlled by the Twisted Rune, why not expand on that instead of just leaving them out?

      Do I regret purchasing this, no, will I use parts of it, yes but I wont run it straight through. Im gonna re-read all the old stuff and this and put together my own campaign. Im not trying to discourage anyone from buying this book but I just wish that once in awhile WotC would deviate from their standard product format and release something bigger, as it seems they tried to cover too much in too little of a page count. Im sure there are plenty out there who would pay $100+ for something like the size of Ptolus or Rappan Athuk.
    1. Patrick McGill's Avatar
      Patrick McGill -
      Quote Originally Posted by R_J_K75 View Post
      SPOILERS, SO STOP READING IF YOU DONT WANT TO KNOW:

      I got this today. Admittedly I have only browsed it for a bit but from what I read Im somewhat disappointed. For starters, and this has been going on for some time, the lack of stat blocks is just ridiculous, so on the face of it I can anticipate alot of prep being needed to run even small portions of the dungeon. Seems alot of the features that made UM unique have either been left out or severely truncated. One thing that I didnt see was a section on ways in and out and the inability to teleport in or out. All the doors are wooden?, I seem to remember other door types in previous editions. I didnt see a wandering monster table. Lack of a poster map(s) really aggrevates me. The Map Pack wasnt worth the money IMO, I was hoping for some tables to help populate/furnish the dungeon. I found two things as far as story line disconcerting as well from the two parts I did read. In Wyllowood, the Temple to Malar simply being abandoned seemed plain lazy. Stardock in its own adventure was controlled by the Twisted Rune, why not expand on that instead of just leaving them out?

      Do I regret purchasing this, no, will I use parts of it, yes but I wont run it straight through. Im gonna re-read all the old stuff and this and put together my own campaign. Im not trying to discourage anyone from buying this book but I just wish that once in awhile WotC would deviate from their standard product format and release something bigger, as it seems they tried to cover too much in too little of a page count. Im sure there are plenty out there who would pay $100+ for something like the size of Ptolus or Rappan Athuk.
      Not all doors are wooden, it is simply that it is assumed a door is wooden unless the adventure mentions otherwise. Each level has a list of possible wandering monster encounters, though it is not in table form.
    1. R_J_K75's Avatar
      R_J_K75 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Patrick McGill View Post
      Not all doors are wooden, it is simply that it is assumed a door is wooden unless the adventure mentions otherwise. Each level has a list of possible wandering monster encounters, though it is not in table form.
      I understand, but thanks I didnt notice that. I just miss the old 2E days of boxed sets, where you got DM screens, maps and other stuff to make things less linear and helped you run things on the fly. I'll just make sure I do more prep when I start running my UM campaign this January.
    1. Demetrios1453's Avatar
      Demetrios1453 -
      Quote Originally Posted by R_J_K75 View Post
      SPOILERS, SO STOP READING IF YOU DONT WANT TO KNOW:

      I got this today. Admittedly I have only browsed it for a bit but from what I read Im somewhat disappointed. For starters, and this has been going on for some time, the lack of stat blocks is just ridiculous, so on the face of it I can anticipate alot of prep being needed to run even small portions of the dungeon. Seems alot of the features that made UM unique have either been left out or severely truncated. One thing that I didnt see was a section on ways in and out and the inability to teleport in or out. All the doors are wooden?, I seem to remember other door types in previous editions. I didnt see a wandering monster table. Lack of a poster map(s) really aggrevates me. The Map Pack wasnt worth the money IMO, I was hoping for some tables to help populate/furnish the dungeon. I found two things as far as story line disconcerting as well from the two parts I did read. In Wyllowood, the Temple to Malar simply being abandoned seemed plain lazy. Stardock in its own adventure was controlled by the Twisted Rune, why not expand on that instead of just leaving them out?

      Do I regret purchasing this, no, will I use parts of it, yes but I wont run it straight through. Im gonna re-read all the old stuff and this and put together my own campaign. Im not trying to discourage anyone from buying this book but I just wish that once in awhile WotC would deviate from their standard product format and release something bigger, as it seems they tried to cover too much in too little of a page count. Im sure there are plenty out there who would pay $100+ for something like the size of Ptolus or Rappan Athuk.
      The inability to teleport in and out (as well as other changes to magic and spells) is detailed on pages 10 - 11.

      As for the two changes you mentioned concerning Wyllowwood and Stardock - well, it's been over 100 years since the earlier products. A century of adventurers, internal conflict between dungeon factions, planet-wide catastrophes, and Halaster being just plain ornery is going to mess with the status quo. Logically, there are just going to be some changes during that time frame!
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