Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.
- The quality of art remains consistent (excluding dungeon maps, see section below).
- This is the longest adventure in this edition of D&D by pure page count at 320 pages long. I’ve been complaining that the adventure books were a bit light page count wise, so I’m glad to see this.
- Each level of the dungeon has it’s own unique scenarios and situations, making it a perfect place to steal things for your own games. Like the idea of a dragon being controlled by the sentient sword stuck in its head? Well, you could steal the whole level and place it into a forest. I’ll be doing a “Top 5 Things to Steal” article later for that reason.
- The encounters have a good variety of badies and situations, from beholders to lich, to social interactions and insanity.
Could Go Either Way:
- This is a really dungeon heavy adventure. It’s not just room after room dungeon delving, as each level has their own gimmick and events, but I think it really is meant for the dungeon delver party.
- The maps might rub you the wrong way. They’re not the super detailed or styled like Curse of Strahd, and instead more like the simple maps from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
- This another adventure with a Maps and Miscellany pack. If you want a nice collection of maps from the adventure for your use as a Dungeon Master, it exists. If you never liked the concept, well, not much to say. See my review of the pack.
- It doesn’t have the same hook or urgency as other adventures. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist had players racing to try to get to the treasure first. Out of the Abyss had demons wreaking havoc on the world. Curse of Strahd had Strahd on the heels of players, and their conflict needed to happen to escape the cursed realm they found themselves in. Here? They are exploring for riches, glory, and possibly a side quest that won’t even take them to the lowest level of the dungeon.
- There is art, but it’s not as loaded with it as books such as the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The majority of the art is maps and the typical half-page chapter starting images.
- Could have really used a map of which levels lead to which levels, and the page of the corresponding gate.
- I think it would’ve done well with better hooks linking it to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. It feels disconnected when it could’ve felt like a natural transition.
- No PDF*
* Denotes nitpicking.
|The cover of the adventure with our Mad Mage front and centre.|
Dungeons of the Mad Mage is an adventure released on November 20th, 2018 (yeah, this took some time to finish) taking place in Waterdeep and picking up at the level range right after Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. At the point of writing this, I’ve run through 4 levels of the dungeon and read the book cover to cover. I’d say it’s a well written dungeon delve that feels like the dungeon portion of Princes of the Apocalypse or the dungeon portions of Tomb of Annihilation. However, it doesn’t have the overland exploration portions of those and to enjoy it you need to enjoy dungeon delving. And with that, let’s delve straight into the dungeons.
New Player Options
We got nothing here for players. Don’t expect this to be a source of stuff for your players, outside of magic items that they can accumulate. I prefer this as it prevents bloat and I want my adventures filled with stuff for the Dungeon Master, but your mileage may vary.
This is a hard question to answer succinctly. If you only have the Monster Manual, these additional monsters are a nice addition to your games. The catch is that many of these monsters have already appeared in previously published books such as Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. If you have all of the other books in this edition though, you’ll see that most of them are repeats. I appreciate that someone who purchases this as their first adventure doesn’t need to buy all of the other supplement books in this edition, however they’ll be dead pages for those that already own them. That said, the monsters only take up ~8 pages, so it’s not much of a loss and still a very long adventure by the standard of this edition.
|An example of the chapter starting images previously mentioned.|
What You Need to Play
The rules now assume that you have the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. You might be able to get away with using the SRD, and basic rules along with some personal creations. However the adventure references items, traps and monsters found in those core rules. The result is that unless you are prepared to rewrite parts of the adventure to get around your missing books, you’ll want the core rule books to run it as intended.
The Adventure Itself
The adventure starts off in the Yawning Portal inn and quickly jumps into the different levels of Undermountain. Each level has its own set of challenges, and as you’d expect the challenge rating of monsters increase the deeper you go. The levels are connected through portals that don’t allow creatures to pass unless they are prepared, or the right level mechanically speaking.
The variety between levels is wide and vast. From bandits and goblins, to githyanki on a hollowed out asteroid, to a level touched by the Shadowfell, there are a variety of challenges and situations to come across. These feature combat encounters as you’d expect. There are also puzzles and social interactions with denizens of Undermountain. Often you leave the denizens behind as you advance to the next level. And the adventure isn’t afraid to have the Mad Mage act silly. This gives some personality, since they may be going through a deadly stretch of dungeon and barely survive a trap, just to find themselves being mocked or having a joke made at their expense. As an example, one level has a biased announcer that following the progress of the party.
There is also plenty of room for Dungeon Masters to put their own fingerprints on the adventure. Entire passages are left open for you to expand in a Keep on the Borderlands style. And with the completion of a level of the dungeon, there are side affects. Clear out a level and leave, and the Mad Mage of the cover may have repopulated it with a host of new beasts and monsters. This second part is largely left in the hands of the Dungeon Master so as usual, be prepared to need to spend some time preparing between sessions.
The multiple links between levels through portals makes it hard to keep track of what level links to what level. Just having an illustration or a couple more columns in the chart to show where portals lead and what the key is would be incredibly helpful.
The other thing about this adventure is that it doesn’t have the same focus and pressure as some other adventures in this edition such as Curse of Strahd or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. There are plot hooks and quests that will take you to different levels of the dungeon, but there isn’t really a central goal to take you all the way to the Mad Mage. Some of the plot hooks can lead to fun adventures as you go to the level you are interested in, but as written some have a minimum level before being offered. This means your players would need to enter first, leave, and then be lured back with the promise of riches from a new quest. And even if they do bite, they might not make it all the way to the end before finishing their campaign. In that way it almost reads more like a book on the layout of Undermountain and the goings on, and the quests are reasons to brave the dungeon’s challenges.
With that said, the adventure is massive. At 320 pages long, it’s closer to the length of a core book than it is to a standard adventure in this edition. And many of the levels are good enough on their own to use for your own adventure or arc. Some of the layouts and traps are also clever. I plan to do a top 5 reuse in the future for this reason. Of particular note is an evil magic school for apprentices and would-be apprentices of the Mad Mage, a level ruled by a twisted fallen angel, and a level run by followers of Shar, goddess of loss, who are trying to bring their level into the Shadowfell. The Shadowfell level is set against the tragic story of a man turned death knight and his dragon friend who followed his fall. Now long after the dragon, twisted into a shadow dragon, is left alone.
|You know I like my undead.|
The art style is what you’ve come to expect, and I’d still like to see more realistically styled art such as the cover of Rise of Tiamat. I still like the cover of this one, however. In that respect, it’s generally good. The issue is that there isn’t as much of the rest. I’d loved to have seen more depictions of some of the items, carvings, and scenes the players come across. We have massive caverns, and richly decorated buildings. We could even have a view from space. How cool would it have been to see out from the dock and see the planet below? I generally love the scenery shots, and they are a great source of inspiration for me. Please, next time have more.
The maps are simple, clear, and fine. However, they are by far not my favourite in this edition. I’d greatly prefer maps in the style of Curse of Strahd or Black Scroll Games. I like that extra detail that helps the mental images just roll in. The maps present here do work, and are clear. However, it’s fair to say they aren’t my style. I prefer more detail and more colour.
Another adventure another $50 cost in the States and $64 in Canada. Well, that’s what the MSRP says at least. As usual, most places have the book at a lower price. Look around and you can save a respectable portion.
What I felt was Missing
I really felt that this adventure could’ve done with a map showing the levels of the dungeon and the routes to get from level to level. It’s a rather confusing dungeon with portals skipping over levels, and level restrictions on portals thanks to a friendly ghost trying to save your players.
I also think a tighter hook to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The level range of the two adventures basically begs them to be played back to back, but the connection between them isn’t really there. It feels more like a sequel taking place in the same place than one that continues the story.
Some more art could have gone a long way. There are long section without any art, and most of the art either comes at the start of the chapter, or from the maps.
This adventure is the dungeon delve incarnate. It’s the longest adventure book in this edition, and it’s basically dungeon from beginning to end. If you want Waterdeep outside of the Yawning Portal, go get Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. This is you descending from the Yawning Portal through 23 levels of dungeon. It has interesting events and gimmicks on the different levels, and is a good place to steal from for your own games.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you don’t like dungeon delves, and the heavy exploration (new locations, creatures, physical hazards, riddles/puzzles, etc.), it could feel like a bit of a slog. It doesn’t have the plot focus and constant pressure like Curse of Strahd or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The levels on their own, however, can be pulled out and used as their own adventures. A personal favourite of mine is Vanrakdoom, involving a shadow dragon, the shadowfell, the legacy of a death knight, and the cult of Shar. It’s also not and easy one for your new Dungeon Master. This adventure pulls out a lot of tricks such as rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, quite a bit of tricky things to balance combat wise, and there is a lot of room for expanding. Tunnels are left for you to expand, and it’s rather reasonable that your players may leave dungeons of Undermountain that the adventure is named after and return later. This means you’ll need to repopulate the levels of the dungeons and handle the aftermath largely on your own. Such a thing can be exactly what experienced Dungeon Master’s desire, but it is something that the Dungeon Master must write themselves. There’s quite a lot to like here, but if it’s not your thing it’s not your thing, especially when we have other great adventures in this edition.
- Reading which gates lead where and what the minimum level to advance through the gate makes for a rather confusing experience. I’d recommend looking ahead to what gates lead where, and would’ve liked a map showing these links.
- It feels very heavy on the dungeon delve.
- I can see some combat encounters needing care. This definitely seems like one of the adventures where you want many of the creatures to fight well, but not like grand chess masters. Monsters should make mistakes.
- This is an adventure where you don’t want them to rest after every encounter. Such a thing would bog it down. Instead, they should clear multiple rooms or even floors at a time. And when things start, the creatures should react.
- The condition of my book was great. No issues at all.