Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
What it says on the tin… (amended for brevity)
THE GREATEST DUNGEON OF THEM ALL
Explore the mega-dungeon of Undermountain in this adventure for the world’s greatest roleplaying game.
In the city of Waterdeep rests a tavern called the Yawning Portal, named after the gaping pit in its common room. At the bottom of this crumbling shaft is a labyrinthine dungeon shunned by all but the most daring adventurers. Known as Undermountain, this dungeon is the domain of the mad wizard Halaster Blackcloak.
This adventure picks up where Waterdeep: Dragon Heist leaves off, taking characters of 5th level or higher all the way to 20th level should they explore the entirety of Halaster’s home. Twenty-three levels of Undermountain are detailed herein, along with the subterranean refuge of Skullport. Treasures and secrets abound, but tread with care!
Dungeon of the Mad Mage will last the average D&D group two years of sessions if they push to its finale. Disclaimer: my group did not. Consider this review only exact to the first six months. The rest is posturing.
If your table agrees to winch into the Yawning Portal, they’ll get the layer cake that is Undermountain. This particular campaign focuses on just one slice lorded over by Halaster Blackcloak.
Halaster is the wizard your friend might have played if they reached level 23. Unhinged. Flippant. Self-indulgent. So proficient at magic they’ve disrupted the tone of the book they’re in (that’s this book).
He’s a bored man who built a mega-dungeon for fun, then filled it with monsters and characters like a demented Wes Anderson. The player characters are going to be house guests for Halaster to entertain like a game show host, except this Monty Hall is more murdery.
Let’s talk about the physical book.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage are made like sides of a coin. Each feature an ensemble of villains on the cover. This one’s villains look meaner. And redder.
The pages themselves are good. They dialed back the paper texture and neutralized the colors. Which helps with reading and skimming over the rat swarm of words packed inside.
Sidebars are used sparingly. Pictures are sparse but not brutally non-existent. The maps head their respective chapters. 12 new monsters are in the appendix, but the rest of this dungeon’s foes (and their stat blocks) are in the monster manual. There’s a page with 9 magical runes you’ll discover in the dungeons. And finally, there are two pages with 18 secrets about the dungeon that the DM doles out.
It does not have a traditional index of words, terms, or names. Which means this mega-dungeon’s deadliest trap is the one in the back where more pages should be.
In summation, its hand-feel and aesthetic earn a place within the WotC trophy cabinet of quality productions.
This book rests on a treasure trove of material from the decades before it. There are literal rooms filled with cool encounters and set pieces, recycled or reimagined from the articles and modules of earlier editions.
The rest comes from the creative minds of D&D’s most prominent content creators. (I have no idea how wizards chooses its designers. Maybe Chris Perkins is Captain America?) Either way, they’re not starved for ideas.
However, this adventure is a tonal Frankenstein. One level’s theme is “generic”. A few stairs down it gets wacky. Then nightmarish. Suddenly quirky. Before too long you’re fighting a space pirate, enrolling at Hogwarts, and fighting fake Robocop. If you think the combinations of these dungeons is arbitrary, you’d be right.
Every single level feels random. Some of them better executed than others. In the end, it’s murder holes connected to other murder holes with different paint and doormen.
Verisimilitude is hard to maintain when zoomed out on this mega-dungeon. It’s not a tapestry that tells a story. It’s a quilt. And the thread holding them together is just one man.
The insane Halaster is this products narrative device for why this mega-dungeon exists, but that doesn’t make it feel better. Because when you pull the curtain to see the man shaking your ant farm, you’re also pulling away the illusion this is anything other than an obstacle course with dice.
By the way, one of the levels is an obstacle course. That’s not a hot take. In the table of contents it says, “Level 15: Obstacle Course.” It has gith and a death tyrant. Don’t think too hard why.
This adventure was made for the smaller audience that loves mega-dungeons, and that’s a problem, because this isn’t an outstanding mega-dungeon.
It’s not the ideas that are holding the product back, it’s the execution and structure of them. Other games have been refining this genre for years. From the abstractions and subsystems of story games to the hyper-playable information architecture of OSR. The tabletop community has developed best practices for mega-dungeons.
This product uses none of them.
Dungeon maps. Each one is crammed into its own page. This is normal and part of contextualizing it to the DM.
However, without other devices, room descriptions span dozens of pages.
This means DMs must flip back to the map, find the room, flip back to the description, then flip back to the map to see if the next room is the respective description before flipping back to realize they need to flip two pages forward because the characters aren’t exploring in the order the book lists them.
What if that dungeon level was separated into smaller parts later in the chapter for granular use? If sections were separated and made bigger we could have room names on them (in addition to the number) and summary sentences or bullet points.
That way the DM can interrupt play less often, prep faster, buy fewer supplements, and riff off the material more.
This is not a new idea. It’s a technique of award-winning products, making it an egregious oversight not to incorporate them.
Layout. The two-column format stays, but the type treatments within those columns continue to morph.
Wizards has been experimenting with their read-aloud boxes. In this product they’ve done away with them.
Normally, I’d argue for a two to three sentences for DMs. It reduces prep-time and telegraphs a dungeon’s tone. However, to keep this product from bloating into five-hundred pages, they’ve done away with them. Wise.
Now, Dungeon Masters have to read sentences, sometimes seven or more to understand what’s in the room, then decide what the players should know. This makes it feel like a miss.
To make matters more complicated, they have room features with bolded titles (good), but are inconsistent about what features in the room should receive that treatment (bad).
Writing. The ideas are good. The writing is better than what you see here.
But it’s too long and difficult to incorporate into play. Sentences and sentences and sentences about lore players will never learn or have means to learn. The creators of these products insist you can ignore as much of the text as you want, nothing is sacred, but the lore gets more space than gameable elements sometimes.
In copywriting, what you choose to talk about implies what you think is important.
Beyond these top-level issues in the product’s design. I wish there were more swings at innovation. Because the root problem isn’t from taking risks, it’s from using the same format they’ve used in different adventures for a very different adventure.
Buy or not buy?
No, but if the stars align, yes.
Let me explain, if you want a mega-dungeon your players will play for over a year from start to finish. This isn’t it.
If you want a collection of maps with hack-and-slash monsters and assorted stuff to steal, this might be it.
But only if you love the city of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms and want to read from people who love it like you do.
In the end, this product feeds the beast inside us who wants RPG stuff.
+ Great outside product presentation
+ Months worth of gameable content
+ Feeds the Forgotten Realms beast
- Interior presentation is average
- Uneven/cobbled story design
- Unintuitive adventure design
- Not for new Dungeon Masters
- Unavoidable prep DMs shouldn’t have to
As always, I still had fun playing this, even if I had to flex more than usual to do so. If you want to chat about this or general gaming find me on Twitter or assorted forums.
Buy it at a friendly local game store… or buy it on amazon here…
I get a small kickback from the amazon link, but judging by this review, I’m not planning on a cash cow.