If you’ve ever had a character or two in the Forgotten Realms, prior to D&D 4E, chances are you have experienced – and possibly died in - the largest and nastiest dungeon crawl ever created: Undermountain!
This sprawling labyrinth of a dungeon has been part of the D&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting since late 2nd Edition. And to date, there have been six supplements and modules featuring various parts of this massive delve, starting with The Ruins of Undermountain boxed set in 1991, another boxed set called The Ruins of Undermountain II: The Deep Levels in 1994, three modules in the Dungeon Crawl Series in 1996, and a hardcover book, Expedition to Undermountain, published in 2007. There was also references to this infamous dungeon in two novels – Downshadow by Erik Scott De Bie and Escape from Undermountain by Mark Anthony.
Without a doubt, this super-dungeon has been a place of high adventure for a myriad of D&D 2nd Edition and 3rd/3.5 gamers over the past 16 years!
But finally, 4E gamers will have the opportunity to test their mettle, and pit their adventuring skills against one of the all-time great delves in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, now that Halls of Undermountain has hit the game store shelves. But how does this new version of the massive dungeon crawl stand up to its predecessors in its long product history?
Halls of Undermountain
Design: Shawn Merwin & Matt Sernett
Cover Illustrators: Scott Prescott
Interior Illustrators: Alexey Aparin, Christopher Burdett, Wayne England, Warren Maby, Jim Nelson, William O’Connor, Wayne Reynolds, & Ben Wooten
Cartography: Jason A. Engle & Mike Schley
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Media: Hardcover (96 pages) & Poster Map
Retail Cost: $29.95 ($18.48 from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Halls-Undermountain-Edition-Dungeons-Supplement/dp/0786959940/ref=as_li_wdgt_fl_ex?&linkCode=waf&tag=neurogames-20"]Amazon.com[/ame])
Halls of Undermountain is a D&D 4E Adventure Setting for the Heroic Tier, detailing the largest and most infamous dungeon delve in the Forgotten Realms. The book contains details about the history of Undermountain, and three adventures set in the first level of this massive super-dungeon, along with two poster maps of the dungeon and encounter areas. There are also nearly four-scores of encounters, ranging from traps to combats to exploration of areas, eight new magic items unique to the setting, and three new monsters known to haunt the hallways of the Undermountain ruins.
The production quality of Halls of Undermountain is excellent, with an engaging writing style and plenty of details, as well as a logical presentation of materials for ease of use of the product. The monster stat, trap stat, and magic item stat blocks are presented in clear and easy-to-read formats D&D 4E gamers have become accustomed to, and the adventure material is divided neatly by text formatting to differentiate the “read-aloud” descriptive text from the DM information text on the creatures and features of a given area.
The artwork is incredibly well-done and appears to be many new illustrations specifically designed for the adventure setting. The cover art which depicts a battle between heroes on ropes and goblins in a pit – which I took to be the entrance from the Yawning Portal – is both dramatic and eye-catching, and a good inspiration for an adventure setting of this type.
The cartography is also quite good, with two poster maps provided in the inner covers, held there by microperf until they are removed for play. The size and thickness of the folded maps did give me a bit of trepidation as I slowly tore them out of the covers, being concerned that the thickness of that many layers might make them prone to tearing. However, I got them out without issue. The first map details the entire first layer of Undermountain, with what I estimate is about a couple hundred rooms and corridors, although only about ninety-ish of the areas are detailed in the book. On the flip side is a fully detailed map of the Yawning Portal, the famed tavern with an entrance into the Undermountain. The second map details three encounter areas which appear in three adventures of Halls of Undermountain.
I’ll admit that I found the main dungeon map a bit perplexing, in that it had no numbers on it matching the room descriptions in the adventure book. There is a smaller one page map in the book with the numbers on it for reference, but I would have assumed that the large map would be numbered as well, unless it was planned to be used for the players. However, the poster map can’t be used with the players, because every secret door and every statue in the dungeon is marked quite clearly, so I was left pondering exactly what the poster map would be used for, if anything at all.
Halls of Undermountain is structured more like a super-big game module, and less like a sourcebook, in that it does not have chapters but instead is divided up into big sections detailing the important information for running the adventure.
The first section of the book details the history of the Halls of Undermountain, of the Wizard Halaster, and how the Spellplague affected the region. There is also a listing of two dozen known “regions” within the Undermountain, some of which had been detailed in previous products from earlier editions, such as Maddgoth’s Castle, the Lost Level, and the Sargauth Level.
Following this section is a listing of the various ways into the Undermountain, with such as the Long Dark Stair and the Grim Passage. The Yawning Portal is given the most attention here, with details about the tavern, as well as how it can be used to enter the Undermountain. Ten NPCs which frequent the tavern are listed here, with enough background information to suggest some possible “hooks”, and I was amused to find that a barkeep named Durnan was still running the place – admittedly, this was Durnan the Sixth in a long line of Durnan’s who have passed the place down generation to generation.
The next section is an overview of the nature of the dungeon itself, with rules about the strength of walls and doors, and what to expect when characters take short and extended rests in the Undermountain. There is also information about tying in the recent D&D EncountersElder Elemental Eye series to the Undermountain adventures, for those gamers wanting to take part in both this adventure setting and the community gaming experience.
For Dungeon Masters looking to expand on the setting, the authors also provided a section on creating one’s own adventures and encounters in the Undermountain. To assist the process, there are three nifty random tables to determine the room’s purpose, its natural features, and any magical features it might possess. Given the size of the first level alone which not covered by this sourcebook, there is plenty of places to create additional plots and adventures within the Undermountain.
All this information only encompasses about 17 pages of the book, leaving the majority of the remaining pages for the three fully-detailed adventures, as well as a listing of well-known Infamous Places, such as the Hall of Many Pillars, the Altar of the Spider God, and the Dead Man’s Throne. All told there are around 50 encounters within the three adventures, and another score’s worth in the Infamous Places – although many of these areas are what some DMs might call “tricks and traps”, but there are combat encounters here as well.
Without going into full details about the adventures, and to avoid any chance of spoilers, what I can say is that the three adventures are fairly comprehensive crawls, with a mixture of combat encounters, exploration of areas, obstacles and traps to overcome, and mysterious magical phenomena to puzzle out. The adventures are mainly aimed at low Heroic Tier characters, and offer a wide range of experiences for new and seasoned players.
The authors provide each area a number and the type of encounter that takes place here (combat, exploration, trap, etc.), as well as the encounter level and experience point reward. “Read-aloud” text is printed in sepia colored italics, while the DM information follows standard font, divided into sections for Features in the room, Creatures lurking therein, and Treasure to be found by the survivors. The authors also offer a meta-adventure which links the three adventure together, although they can be run separately as stand-alone pieces. There are several new magic items introduced in the adventures as well, some of which have specific functions that only work within the Undermountain itself.
Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5.0
Without a doubt, there’s a lot of fun and adventure in this new 4E version of the infamous Undermountain, and it’s likely to take DMs and players hours and hours to game through it all. The material is well-presented and offers not only options for stand-alone play, but for making the three adventures in the setting into its own mini-campaign.
Further, the authors provide the options for DMs to expand on the listed material, and make up Undermountain adventures of their own devising.
Where I feel the product was wanting was in the price point, and the contents. The original boxed product contained three adventures, plus pages more material and maps of not just one, but four levels of the Undermountain. The product offered nearly 200 pages of contents, and was far more comprehensive in its coverage of the area than the 4E version. Considering the price, I would have hoped for a 160-page book or at least a boxed set for a product with a pedigree as long as the Undermountain series has had, but lamentably, we end up a product with the smallest page length of any of the series – except the three mini-modules of 32-pages each.
Still, Halls of Undermountain is a solid product for what’s between the covers, but I’d be hard pressed to say it was worth the full retail price, and count myself fortunate to have bought it at discount from Amazon.com.
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Design: 4.5 (Awesome design for ease of use as an adventure setting)
- Illustrations: 4.0 (Great stuff, but would have liked to see more illustrations of the creepy areas)
- Crunch: 4.5 (Solid monster and trap design; plenty of both)
- Fluff: 4.5 (A lot of fun encounters of all types – a great delve!)
Value: 2.0 (I was just hoping for more material for such a steep price.)
This is the first book in a long time where I look at it and regret buying it at full price, but only because of how sparce it is in size. Part of me is kicking myself for going full retail, but the other voice is saying "what's done is done." Embracing the second voice, I dig this book. I have no plans of running it in the Realms (fortunately I have a large cosmopolitan jonce that I've been itching to delve under) but it's still useful.
Best part: General edition neutrality. While magic items specifically have detailed 4e stats, most monsters are not statted out, but referenced by book. When DDN gets released, I can see myself going back to this book (and previous Undermountain stuff) and use it well. I assume this was a deliberate choice informed by the looming DDN push.
I would say it's still relatively useful, assuming you're playing in the current post-Spellplague FRCS. The material contained references changes to Halaster's massive super-dungeon since the Spellplague, and even the Abyssal Plague demons put in a cameo.
Obviously, older Undermountain product material can be easily added to what you get in the Halls of Undermountain book, using the current 4E material as a guide. And the three adventures in the Halls of Undermountain are completely new ones, are well written, and are worth using, before you have to run off and start converting older material from previous editions.
First season of D&D Encounters was Undermountain: Halaster's Lost Apprentice by Erik Scott de Bie and the PCs entered through the Yawning Portal. Its not readily available but I figured I would point out one more source of 4e Undermountain goodness...
Very. There's a couple of slight changes, but they're to rooms that weren't described in the original boxed set and that are in the new. In fact, there's very little overlap - a few duplicate areas, but mostly this book describes rooms that were on the map in the original set but not described.
As a result, you can use the two products in combination.