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Halaster’s Missed Opportunities? Perhaps, But It’s Still Good D&D

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a hardcover adventure produced for use with 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. The physical product is 320 pages packed full with detail after detail of 23 levels of the megadungeon under the Yawning Portal tavern in Waterdeep. My short take: This book contains a massive amount of information and almost all of it awesome. It can be used piecemeal – as in, you pull a level or two out of it and use in your own campaign – or you can use it as a massive megadungeon campaign in its own right.

I’m not going to provide a fully detailed description of every level – If you want to read a review containing that information, you can go to this excellent review article by Brandes Stoddard. What I will mention are details of the parts I find fascinating, interesting, worth checking out, or in need of improvement! This is NOT a spoiler-free review, so if you are going to play in this adventure, you may want to hold off on reading this.

Dungeon Done Right

So what is there to like about this product? There is a lot of awesomeness in this book! Here is a brief rundown of good stuff in bullet-point format:

A) The dungeon levels are very well designed. Each level is cohesive within itself and several of them have connections to the levels directly above or below.

B) You can pull out one, two, or a few levels of dungeon from this book and make a spectacular, but much shorter, set of dungeon based adventures.

C) The seadeeps level has an interesting matrix-style set-up. An Ulitharid is maintaining the Alterdeep, an alternate reality creation that, if done well, can be a highlight of the dungeon. The Ulitharid is basically playing a video game and the PCs are in the game, given the right circumstances. Can they escape? It could be fun to find out.

D) Lots of factions and NPCs inhabit the dungeon – often controlling more than one level. This allows for non-combat interactions that have the ability to change conditions in the dungeon. Faction related plot-lines are abundant, but usually only directly affect the current level plus or minus 1.

E) Despite the presence of the faction groups, there is no overarching, all-consuming plot for the party to sink their teeth into. Depending on how you want to run this, that could be seen as a feature or a bug. Since it allows for the various levels and factions therein to be mixed and matched as the DM sees fit, I’ll put it here as a feature.

F) NPCs have goals, attitudes, and motivations that are easy to find in the text and are easy to work into roleplaying situations. These do not come with a metric ton of pre-written dialogue (though there is some) so it is easy to work what the NPC knows into the conversation in a natural way, without worrying about including all of the specifics in the pre-written quote.

G) Many locations have a trap + combat aspect that integrates well with the explore & investigate style of dungeon crawling, but also allows for cool battle scenes.

H) Pop culture and silly references in the names of sections and subheadings (e.g. some room names: Jibber Jabber, Nothic-To-See-Here!, and We All Float Down Here). This isn’t in every level, so it isn’t oppressive or overpowering, and it is purely DM facing material so I appreciate that the authors wanted to lighten up the feel of the text. If this was PC-facing material, I would probably feel that it is too goofy or silly to keep the proper tone. As is, it is good for me.

I) There is an attempt to weave a few medium sized stories through some of the different levels of the dungeon. Completing certain quests opens the door to pursuing a related quest for the same patron. There are four of these in the future quests section of the introduction.

J) Special Gates located at various places in the dungeon allow the party to move quickly through the dungeon. There are requirements to use the gates, but they are not difficult to use. Again, depending on how you want to run this campaign, the gates can be a feature or a bug.

K) There is a good variety of challenges in the dungeon as a whole. Some levels have plentiful traps, some have plentiful enemy combatants, and some have plentiful NPCs with problems the party can help solve. Some require puzzling out clues and some require dextrous disarming of deadly traps, while still others require combat and quick thinking.

L) The secrets cards are a great idea! I like having cards with dungeon specific information to help set the tone or reveal the truth about a faction.

M) Halaster’s Elder Runes – also a great idea, and a good execution as well. The runes can become an object of study for the party, or one PC in it! This could lead to all sorts of shenanigans as that PC starts to gain abilities (and attention) they might not actually want!

Dungeon Done Wrong

So what do I dislike? Well, there is a fair bit, but most of it is what I consider to be missed opportunities, rather than pure faulty design (hence the name of my review). Here is a list of things that fall into the not-so-great side:

a) The 800 pound gorilla in the room – This isn’t actually a sequel to Waterdeep: DragonHeist. It just simply isn’t. DragonHeist is an urban game centered on finding a macguffin while parlaying with various nobles, merchants, trusted allies, faction leaders, and other various and sundry NPCs. The patron the party works for, the factions to which they belong, and the motivations of the party all matter to that adventure (along with the city itself, which can be considered an NPC). Dungeon of the Mad Mage is only a sequel in so far as it takes place in the same city, and then it doesn’t really do that – the party crawls down the pit the in the Yawning Portal and then the city itself doesn’t even matter. So yeah, not a true sequel. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or that you can’t possibly make the two have any relationship – you can, but you will need to lay the groundwork early on in DragonHeist and keep supporting it throughout that part of the campaign. Otherwise there isn’t a lot of connecting tissue between the two.

b) Speaking of connective tissue, I want more connective tissue between the levels in Mad Mage. There are story elements there, but because different authors wrote the levels here (I presume at roughly the same time) there isn’t a ton of connection between many of these. Some sets of levels have the same theme or contain members of the same factions, but I want more connecting tissue written into the book. This is one of the missed opportunities – give me more of those FUTURE QUESTS that connect the factions inhabiting different levels. The four that are there are pretty good. I want more. One level has a side-quest that offers a similar connection, but isn’t mentioned in the future quests section. Each level has an Aftermath section that could have some future quests added to it.

c) Another missed opportunity: Halaster’s Goals make very little difference to the party. It’s nice to give the DM ideas about what Halaster might be doing or what he might be looking for, but ultimately these are not fleshed out enough to make me want to use them. If the authors really want the party to interact with Halaster throughout the dungeon exploration, there are better ways to do that than a simple sidebar with a short list of ideas. As is, the DM will need to do a lot of work to make Halaster’s goals important.

d) Where is my vertical map? This is a serious missed opportunity from the designers. This product features 23 levels, not all of which are completely flat, and not all of which have similar entrance and exit stairs (like, for example, the Tomb of Annihilation with its grand staircase). A vertical map would be a HUGE help to a DM wishing to provide their party with a full on dungeon delving experience – elevation changes matter!

e) Despite the presence of the faction groups, there is no overarching, all-consuming plot for the party to sink their teeth into. Depending on how you want to run this, that could be seen as a feature or a bug. Since it means that making connections is more work for the DM, and keeping the players interested might be more difficult for the long haul, I’ll put it here as a bug.

f) Magic items? Meh. They just aren’t that inspiring. If my people are going to delve down 23 levels into a mad mage’s home turf, I want to have some unique, expensive, powerful magic items to show for it!

g) The secrets cards are a great idea, but I would like to have a tiny bit more information on them – tell me who would pay good money or trade an important artifact/key/item/bit of knowledge to me in order to learn that secret. Perhaps tell me who in the City of Waterdeep would find this information useful – and what would they pay? And what might be the future consequences of that? This could be an extremely rich opportunity to provide more hooks and reasons to explore.

h) Layout of the book is okay, but not great for use at the table. The maps to each level are only located at the beginning of the level and they don’t have any other partial maps or map callouts anywhere else in the level. The text itself is small and dense, but broken up with nice headers. Sidebars are obvious and formatted in a way that is pleasing to the eye. The first page of each level has a nice piece of art, but that is almost the entirety of the art in the book, so it seems lacking. They make up for it by packing this thing as full as possible with good room descriptions and interesting encounters, but it is still super dense and low on art. This book is not for the faint of heart.

i) Speaking of maps! I like them, but there is another missed opportunity all over this book. There are several places where the text states that the PCs find a map, or there is a map carved into an alcove, or a temporary map set up using stones on a tabletop… And NONE of these are depicted anywhere in the book. That means I have to make them myself. If I say that the PCs see a partial map of what looks like a level of a dungeon carved into a wall, the players are going to want to see it. THIS is what should have been in the supplementary map pack they sold separately.

j) Speaking of handouts I have to create myself – there are also several places in the book where an NPC or rival has a couple of pages of a journal, or a few scraps of paper with notes on them, or passphrases. These are all things my players would like to see, and having at least some of them depicted would have been a useful addition to the book.

k) And the last missed opportunity… we are told that adventurers go into undermountain seeking treasure all the time. Yet we run into no other adventuring treasure groups in the dungeon. Well, there is one, the Fine Fellows of Daggerford, which have gotten themselves into some hot water, but no other adventurers are in evidence. It is a common trope in old style dungeon crawling to have rival adventuring parties that are trying to find the most valuable treasure before your party finds it. At times you may end up rescuing your rivals and then they owe you, or perhaps both groups find themselves in trouble and agree to work together until you all get back to town alive and then part ways. Or you may remain rivals, but earn a grudging respect for each other. None of this is possible in this adventure because there just aren’t any rival groups to speak of. Yes, there are factions of drow, goblins, mind flayers, and other monstrous creature groups, but no other rival adventuring NPCs – it’s too bad.

Tips and Tools to Prep Mad Mage

Here are some suggestions and tips that will help you run this massive dungeon adventure:

Point 1: Set your players expectations before they even make their PCs. Tell them it is a massive dungeon crawl and tell them exactly what that entails.

Point 2: When your players create their PCs, make it mandatory that they build a reason for exploring Undermountain right into their backstory. There has to be a character motivation for each PC that will keep them coming back to the dungeon, otherwise there really is no reason to keep going back. If you don’t request this your campaign will fall apart before you get to dungeon level 5.

Point 3: Provide the PCs with an easy way to cast Detect Magic. There are so very many items in this dungeon that will peak their interest and they will want to know if the item it magical. Just in the first two levels there are 15 instances where the text says “A detect magic spell reveals…” And I’m not talking about magical treasure either, I’m talking about interesting environmental items (bas reliefs, pillars, mirrors, etc) that the party might want to explore. It’s great that the book tells you what information a detect magic spell will give you, but the implication is that you need a lot of those spells. So you need to make a choice, you’re either going to tell the players that the item has a magical aura without making them cast the spell, or you need to give them a wand of detect magic with 100 charges, or you need to just let them decide how to manage their arcane resources. It’s better to make that choice early in the game, if not before the first session than to try and decide this on the fly.

Point 4: Make handouts for your players before the game starts. Look through the next couple of levels the party will be visiting and write down all of the possible handouts you might want to make. Some examples: A side view map carved into the wall on level 1 room 37, Map of the Sargauth level on an NPC on level 1, Trenzia’s log entries from pages 32-33, the constructed map in room 14 of level 2. And those are just the ones I saw as I flipped through the first few pages of the book!

Point 5: Stat up a rival adventuring party that your party can run into or see evidence of. You don’t have to create a full set of PCs, instead, just make some general decisions about the makeup of the rival party – how many fighters? Do they have a wizard? Cleric? Rogue? Write down some names and a quirk for two of them and you are good to go. Remember that this is a rival team, not a set of combatants, so it’s okay if you don’t have complete stats – you can just use the knight, acolyte, mage, and priest stats in the back of the monster manual – you really just need something to point you to the attitude of the rival party and you are good to go.

If you want more info on how to run a megadungeon campaign, you can click here to see my recent article.

Dungeon Do Be Do Be Do

To round this up… Who is this book for?

Do you want to run a single dungeon level, but have nothing prepared? This book will work for you! Do you want to run a full-on dungeon crawl campaign that sends the party into the dungeon for the majority of the campaign? This book will give you everything you need to keep it going! Do you want to run 5e D&D like an old school dungeon crawl with true equipment management, encumbrance challenges, and resource scarcity? You can do that with this book, and it will probably be a truly fun campaign, even if you have to put a little work in.

Do you want to run a plot driven story-based campaign that will keep the PCs investigating, foiling vast plots, and always one step behind the manipulative villain? Eh, this book is not what you want, so you should skip it. Do you want a game with lots of urban challenges, intrigue among the ruling counsel, and race against time to find the goods? That’s not this book – that is Waterdeep: DragonHeist (sort of).

Despite my criticism, I really do enjoy this product. It has a lot to offer if you want to a set of pre-generated dungeon levels, and also if you want to run a dungeon-crawl campaign in 5e. There are some kinks, but ultimately this is a substantial value – 320 densely packed pages of well-designed dungeon goodness! I recently recorded an episode of the Tome Show in which we reviewed this book – check it out HERE.

I hope you enjoyed this review!

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!

~DMSamuel

About

DM Samuel is the owner of RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show, where he also hosts the Edition Wars Podcast. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). He lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel or support RPGMusings by subscription at Patreon.com/RPGMusings or by direct payment to paypal.me/DMSamuel