Plumbing the Depths of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage -- A Review
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  1. #1

    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.

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    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.

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    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!!
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  2. #2
    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.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2005
    Glasgow, UK
    Is that a picture of a Githyanki asteroid base?!

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
    eastern United States
    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?

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    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.


    I think an AL adventure two or three years ago ended with his resurrection as well.
    Last edited by Jester David; Tuesday, 13th November, 2018 at 04:06 PM.
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  6. #6
    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.

  7. #7
    Re: crashed Spelljammer: are there any details on how Spelljamming works or rules for Spelljamming, or is it just a bit of funky scenery?

  8. #8
    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.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    New Zealand
    @brimmels: Dragon Heist is for levels 1-5.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Sep 2015
    South Carolina
    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
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