Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the latest Dungeons & Dragons campaign from Wizards of the Coast and is it HUGE! This is the mega-dungeon of whisper and rumor and it has finally been released for 5th Edition.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage
Ever since a brief interlude in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, where I first heard of the sprawling dungeon complex below the Yawing Portal in Waterdeep, I have wanted to descend into the depths of Undermountain and explore the fabled dungeon. So imagine my disappointment when Tales From the Yawning Portal was released in 2017 and DIDN’T include it. I have since come to terms with that loss and even forgiven Tales, as it is really quite good nonetheless, but that didn’t stop me wanting more.
Then, earlier this year, WotC released Waterdeep Dragon Heist , a fantastic treasure-seeking caper that features the aforementioned tavern prominently. Now I was getting excited. However, still no Undermountain. In fact, my only qualm with this campaign was that it was quite short, only taking characters from level 1-5, and it could stand to be grander. That certainly cannot be said of Dungeon of the Mad Mage.
Set almost entirely in Undermountain, the subterranean dungeon complex created by Halaster Blackcloak, this new campaign comes straight out of left field and at first glance seems quite different from WotC’s other 5th edition releases. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
While not a direct sequel, this adventure follows Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, even coming with the same title prefix, therefore it makes sense to employ the same criteria of five simple questions to see if Dungeon of the Mad Mage lives up to the hype. Those questions are:
- Will I be interested in the story, and will my players have fun?
- How easy is it to DM with the material given?
- What’s the best bit?
- What’s the worst bit?
- What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
Naturally, this article will contain spoilers.
Will I be interested in the story, and will my players have fun?
Essentially this is an exploration-based campaign, so if that’s not your thing, look away now. In all there are an astonishing 23 separate dungeon levels to explore in this adventure, and that is ultimately the crux of the story. Any adventurer worth their salt who enters the Yawning Portal Tavern and doesn’t want to immediately descend into the dungeon of myth and legend really does need to go home and re-think their life.
That being said, there are other story elements at play, and it isn’t just a big dungeon delve. There is plenty for players to get their teeth into; there’s a number of interesting story hooks and NPC quests that all provide more than enough reason for players to return to the dungeon.
Each level of Undermountain has its own faction and politics to contend with. Will the adventurers join forces with ex-apprentice Jhesiyra Kestellharp to defeat Halaster? Will they Let themselves be possessed by the ghosts of adventurers long past to help defeat an undead beholder? Will they get embroiled in the never-ending conflict between vying Gith factions? Or will they just run through Undermountain and kill everything without forethought or prejudice?
Whether your group includes players who focus on roleplay or combat, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has enough of both to satisfy most parties. It is at times both fun and funny, and there will be plenty of those classic moments that your players will remember forever, “Hey, do you remember that time I got polymorphed into a Gelatinous Cube and we fought a mindflayer pirate captain who couldn’t stop singing sea shanties?”
How easy is it to DM with the material given?
Warning: If you are a new DM do not pick this as your first campaign. This adventure expects a lot from its dungeon masters, and includes almost every additional rule and sidebar from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as well as a few extras of its own thrown in for good measure. What’s more, Dungeon of the Mad Mage includes no read-aloud text boxes, there are no baroque room descriptions or NPC speeches, and no color maps included, so for new DMs this is not an easy-to-run, by-the-book adventure.
However, for a DM who knows what they’re doing, this campaign is very well put together. All of the chapters are given the same layout and format and the black and white maps all follow a consistent and easy to follow formula. Seasoned DMs who know where to look, will not struggle with running the majority of Dungeon of the Mad Mage thanks to its easy layout and intuitive flow. Although you will definitely need the Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and potentially Volo’s Guide to Monsters too if you want to get the most of out if. Players can even end up in the Shadowfell for a time and so DMs will need to understand what happens there when they become fraught with Shadowfell Despair.
What’s the best bit?
The sheer fun of it all. With 23 unique levels to play through, each one with its one theme, monsters, politics and dangers, no two sessions in this adventure with ever be the same.
As well as that, there’s the ever present Halaster Blackcloak who’s essence permeates Undermountain in the most surprising, unexpected and at times joyous ways. His presence in particular can be felt on level 15, The Obstacle Course, where Halaster’s disembodied voice magically chimes in with sarcastic play-by-play commentary of events.
Finally, if you play Dungeon of the Mad Mage to its conclusion, your PCs actually have the chance of reaching level 20. This is a first for a WotC official releases in 5th edition and I know there are players out there desperate for the opportunity to test out their high level Barbarians, Wizards and Rogues on some official content.
What’s the worst bit?
Like hundreds of adventurers before them, it would be quite easy for your players to simply get lost down in the never-ending dungeon, forget why they’re there and give it up all together. I fear there may be a danger of dungeon-delving fatigue for any players or even DMs who aren’t truly serious about exploring the whole thing.
There’s just so much to do and no real overarching narrative that strings it all together, aside from searching for fame, glory and legend. Which for some may well be enough, but unlike many of the campaigns that precede it, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has no world-ending consequences if the heroes decide to go home. There’s no ticking clock to stop giants or dragons taking over the world, and no sense of dread or horror if things go wrong. Perhaps that’s up to the DM to inject? A good Dungeon Master will look through this tome and be whetting their lips at all the possibilities, but for someone less seasoned or new to it all, it could all just get a little overwhelming.
What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
All of it. This book is both massive dungeon delve and treasure trove of inspiration. Each of the 23 levels could represent a whole dungeon in any other campaign, and there is nothing stopping you cutting and pasting them straight into your next homebrew adventure.
That aside, there are two additional locations that you could build a whole campaign around: Skullport the shadowy, cutthroat reflection of Waterdeep, a city beneath the City of Splendors where Duergar, Bugbears, Wereats and Flameskulls vie for supremacy; and Stardock, the asteroid that orbits Toril (the planet where the Forgotten Realms is based), filled with Gith and Red Dragons. There’s also new magical items such as the Dodecahedron of Doom, and 12 monsters stat blocks not featured in the Monster Manual (including one for Halaster Blackcloak, the mad mage himself).
Following on from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, released earlier in the year, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is set in a gigantic mega-dungeon below the City of Splendors, but it soon eclipses mere geography. This adventure is more than just a deep delve into another formulaic dungeon, it is an epic trawl through the history and future of Dungeons & Dragons, with nods to some of the most famous, and less well-known corners of the D&D universe. Not an adventure to be taken lightly, if you plan on running or encouraging someone else to run this campaign, then you are looking at a big commitment. To go from level five to level 20 will take years of serious play, and there is more than enough material in this book to last you for a long, long time. But if you are ready for it, it will be an adventure you’ll likely never forget. I personally cannot wait to enter Undermountain.
Disclaimer: Geekdad received a copy of this book for review purposes.