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D&D 5E Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Adventure or Setting Book?

Endroren

Explorer
Publisher
Is it possible Dungeon of the Mad Mage was mis-marketed as an adventure when it should have been sold as an Underdark setting book? We've been playing through and running it as a straight dungeon adventure and it just wasn't working - even bringing in the cool story hooks on each level. The battles just don't have a lot of meaning, and the rewards were too few. SO the last couple sessions we decided to ignore the "defeat the level, gain a level" advice the book gives and instead just played it like a sandbox setting, and it seems to work MUCH better that way. We've pulled all the focus off of the "explore the levels" like it encourages you to do, and wove our own stories around the denizens and their lives.

It almost seems like that was the real intent of the book and somehow it got lost in the "adventure" marketing approach. Anyone else have a similar experience?
 

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Endroren

Explorer
Publisher
The major differences between "setting" and "adventure" are scope and level of detail.

So, an adventure is really just a smaller scope, high detail setting.
Yeah - not wrong. Although an adventure typically has a story thread woven through it that you're following - even if loosely. So you could have an extremely large adventure which you'd call an adventure by the presence of that unifying thread. So I'm not sure scope is the only factor.

I guess I view settings as not being so dependent on that narrative/goal/quest. Instead they are a place where you stage adventures. I think DoMM is great for this, but if you "explore every level" it's not all that interesting. Just felt like they actually wanted this to be a setting where you could have adventures but that's not how it got sold. shrug Might just be me!
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Yeah - not wrong. Although an adventure typically has a story thread woven through it that you're following - even if loosely.

Story elements are setting elements. Basically in the way that "history" is really just a bunch of individual stories rolled up for reporting purposes.
 


ardoughter

Hero
Supporter
Is it possible Dungeon of the Mad Mage was mis-marketed as an adventure when it should have been sold as an Underdark setting book? We've been playing through and running it as a straight dungeon adventure and it just wasn't working - even bringing in the cool story hooks on each level. The battles just don't have a lot of meaning, and the rewards were too few. SO the last couple sessions we decided to ignore the "defeat the level, gain a level" advice the book gives and instead just played it like a sandbox setting, and it seems to work MUCH better that way. We've pulled all the focus off of the "explore the levels" like it encourages you to do, and wove our own stories around the denizens and their lives.

It almost seems like that was the real intent of the book and somehow it got lost in the "adventure" marketing approach. Anyone else have a similar experience?
I think you are kind of correct. I had a similar experience, in that, after completing the Princes of the Apocalypse my player wanted to keep going to 20th level and I had Halaster trap them in Undermountain just 'cause.... I found a similar experience.

My feeling was that the levels are too big and a little under occupied for an old skool, kick in the door, kill and rob stuff but not big enough to develop a real theme or dynamic. In cases where there were factions or potential for something else the DM advice on the faction was often, well yes, you can ally with this faction but as soon as you do what they want they will betray you and try and kill you. Which is something I hate as it is hard enough to get the party to trust npcs (due to other DM experience) and petty betrayal is just petty.
I got bored of it before my players did but I did find a way to get them out of the dungeon and make a long term enemy in the process.
I have halted to campaign for a while now. I wanted the rest and had no idea where to go next but Fizban is giving me some ideas.

There were a couple of levels that were interesting but overall no. Use it to build on but there is not enough meat on it on its own.
 

pukunui

Legend
The old school lack of plot is actually the most appealing factor for my group. They are mostly older players who fondly remember playing 1e and 2e in their younger days, and this is bringing back happy memories for them.

I have incorporated the game show element from the DotMM Companion (DMs Guild) but it’s more of a background theme.

Halaster has challenged them to make it down to the bottom, and he gives them the occasional other challenge (like kill the drow on level 3), but for the most part they are free to explore.

I’ve also ditched the level-gating on the portals. We had fun with the PCs going from level 2 to level 4 and getting in over their heads a bit, for instance.
 

Endroren

Explorer
Publisher
The old school lack of plot is actually the most appealing factor for my group. They are mostly older players who fondly remember playing 1e and 2e in their younger days, and this is bringing back happy memories for them.

I have incorporated the game show element from the DotMM Companion (DMs Guild) but it’s more of a background theme.

Halaster has challenged them to make it down to the bottom, and he gives them the occasional other challenge (like kill the drow on level 3), but for the most part they are free to explore.

I’ve also ditched the level-gating on the portals. We had fun with the PCs going from level 2 to level 4 and getting in over their heads a bit, for instance.
Yeah...we ditched the level gating on portals as well. I love seeing the creative ways players survive encounters they can't just battle their way out of.
 

pukunui

Legend
My feeling was that the levels are too big and a little under occupied for an old skool, kick in the door, kill and rob stuff but not big enough to develop a real theme or dynamic.
I find it interesting you should say that the levels feel too big to be "old school" when the 5e levels are pretty much all a fraction of the size they were back in the old school days.

For instance, here's a map of the original level 1 with the 5e version superimposed on it:
3es3d2fgk3y31.jpg
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
"One big empty dungeon" is something I would associate with old school design.

I don't have a feeling that they were that empty, actually. In the Ruins of Umdermountain, Level 1 has 42 locations (plus a few other areas of interest), described over 38 pages crammed with information about each of the locations, all are not combat encounters but there are several long paragraphs for each location.

"several dungeons, small and focused" is modern.

That, I can go with, really mega-dungeons are considered old school.
 

I don't have a feeling that they were that empty, actually. In the Ruins of Umdermountain, Level 1 has 42 locations (plus a few other areas of interest), described over 38 pages crammed with information about each of the locations, all are not combat encounters but there are several long paragraphs for each location.



That, I can go with, really mega-dungeons are considered old school.
You call the Ruins of Undermountain Old School?! It was published in 1991! Get off my lawn whippersnapper!
 



Lyxen

Great Old One
Temple of Elemental Evil (original).

Ah, OK, for some reason I did not remember that one, it never was one of my favourites, although Hommlett was cool.

It does not feel that empty to me. Again, not many combat encounters, Level 1 has 53 encounter areas over 14 pages and most have a boxed text and some ambiance and things to do. But yes, not one fight per room, for sure.
 

ardoughter

Hero
Supporter
I find it interesting you should say that the levels feel too big to be "old school" when the 5e levels are pretty much all a fraction of the size they were back in the old school days.

For instance, here's a map of the original level 1 with the 5e version superimposed on it:
3es3d2fgk3y31.jpg
Poor word choice on my part, it is that they felt big and empty compared to old school dungeons which had some many creatures and traps jammed into them that they became the subject of parody.

That map above looks like one where a party could get seriously lost in. I wonder how would one implement that on a VTT?

If you look at level 10 in Dungeon of the Mad Mage: "Murial's Gauntlet" over half the rooms are empty and most of the encounters are speed bumps for a level 11 party. I had to reinforce the drow heavily. I will admit that I messed up running Murial though.

Probably would help if more potions and trinkets were scattered about.
 

Poor word choice on my part, it is that they felt big and empty compared to old school dungeons which had some many creatures and traps jammed into them that they became the subject of parody.

That map above looks like one where a party could get seriously lost in. I wonder how would one implement that on a VTT?

If you look at level 10 in Dungeon of the Mad Mage: "Murial's Gauntlet" over half the rooms are empty and most of the encounters are speed bumps for a level 11 party. I had to reinforce the drow heavily. I will admit that I messed up running Murial though.

Probably would help if more potions and trinkets were scattered about.
There's an interesting variation in people's perceptions of how crowded or empty old school dungeons were depending on which old school products they look at and what their own DM's style was.

The original OD&D guidelines recommended a LOT of empty space, with only about 20% of rooms and chambers supposed to have monsters in them (not counting wandering monsters). If you look at Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, or the couple rare images of level 1 of Gygax's Castle Greyhawk which folks have passed around and pored over for some years, you'll see that they follow this guideline. You actually see the facing key page for the latter in the photo, and something in the neighborhood of 120 rooms out of 160 don't have a key code at all- totally devoid of description or contents in the key. This is also part of why I often recommend that modern DMs use Dyson Logos' updated triangular cross-section maps for Expedition rather than the original circular ones- they cut out a ton of "dead" space.

A big part of the original playstyle was navigating the dungeon, with mapping, resource (torches) and time management, being skills tested. Trying to avoid getting lost, trying to find hidden treasures without running into too many monsters, figuring out spots where it made sense to devote time to searches and risk more wandering monsters, etc. Dungeons with lots of empty space have greater verisimilitude from the perspective of having actual buffer space between monster lairs so it doesn't look like they would necessarily have killed each other before the PCs got there or be allies like you would assume if they live next door. They also give players the option to run away from and then maneuver AROUND a monster lair that looks too tough.

Tournament modules, OTOH, often had more dense content in part due to time concerns in limited duration convention play slots, and published designs were often much more dense than the original guidelines for similar reasons- players largely seemed to prefer hitting more monsters quicker, less maneuvering around empty rooms. There's a dramatic demonstration of this contrast between Mike Carr's B1 In Search of the Unknown and Gygax's B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Mike Carr's module is much more about exploring this weird, mostly empty, mysterious space, where the Caves of Chaos has all these lairs right next to each other.

Speaking of getting lost, one of the standout experiences I had over the last year+ of playing old school games online with remote strangers was playing in a "proper" megadungeon execution of Stonehell. The DM used theater of the mind combat and a single token for the party maneuvering on the map using 10' squares. He used dynamic lighting rather than Fog of War on Roll20, and the dungeon is BIG. So with 10' squares and 30' torch radius, we're looking at a visible area of 7 squares across, and mapping being actually very important to not get lost. We had a risky delve at one point down to a lower level and unfortunately wandered into an evil crypt that was one of the more dangerous spots, and woke up a Wraith. We fled post-haste and unfortunately had been a bit loose in our mapping, taking a wrong turn on the way out and being caught by the wraith. We got lucky that only one person got drained, and it was a really eye-opening glimpse into that part of old school play.
 
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Norton

Explorer
I think DotMM was simply designed for a one-shot vibe out of infamous Yawning Portal, which was the main attraction. Wanna run a game but don't have any ideas or burned through your library of modules? Have the party strut into the Ol' YP and knock out a level for fun and prizes.

I've used it once in a campaign and the puzzle aspect was fun for my players since I don't bother with them in my home brew stuff (unless you're talking about the macro stuff in terms of what's happening in the world). But it was weird to draw or manage the maps on the table, as this was back in the days when we could breathe around one another.

All that said, I can't imagine focusing on the entire dungeon as a complete campaign. I would be bored out of my skull and I think my players would eventually resent the slog.
 

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