Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is by far the greatest dungeon written by Wizards of the Coast for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. It is massive, stretching through twenty three subterranean levels, with monsters and challenges that will see players progress from 5th to 20th level should they explore the entirety of the dungeon of Halaster Blackcloak. Written as the successor to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, it presents Undermountain as the solution to adventurers looking for their next challenge following their (hopeful) success in the question for Dagult Neverember’s cache of dragons. Dungeon of the Mad Mage pays homage to classic dungeon crawls, bringing time-tested adventure style into fifth edition D&D.
Released only two months after the first printing of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the adventures into Undermountain are presented as a natural next step in the series, though Dungeon of the Mad Mage can be run as an independent adventure. Running Dungeon of the Mad Mage after Dragon Heist, players will begin already familiar with their characters and their abilities at 5th level, which I see as a great starting point for as extensive of a dungeon crawl as Undermountain is.
The unique aspect of Undermountain is that it is so much more than just a dungeon. Of course, there are classic dungeon elements with entire levels dedicated to the challenge and feel of “traditional” dungeons. The various layers of the dungeon delve deep into a vast array of encounters, environments, and monsters in ways that other adventures cannot. Most classic adventures, particularly those published for the Forgotten Realms, end up centered around a particular type of monster or theme, such as giants in Storm King’s Thunder, dragons in Tyranny of Dragons, and devils in Baldur’s Gate: Descent to Avernus. As Undermountain is the realm of a powerful and eccentric mage, Halaster has been able to bring many different elements into the different layers, drawing from the immense variety of D&D and the many planes of existence to populate the dungeon.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the only published 5e adventure that can carry an adventuring party to 20th level, so that already is an indicator of the vastness of Undermountain. This adventure has an intricate web made up of layers of magic, contesting interests, side quests and missions from interested parties, powerful figures and rivals within Undermountain vying for control, and of course the ever-present Halaster Blackcloak himself with his own ambitions and goals. In this book, Dungeon Masters will get a glimpse into the history and legend of Undermountain and Halaster, as well as how the dungeon came to be. Players have the opportunity to learn more about Undermountain as they travel through its depths, but Dungeon Masters can also provide bits of relevant information for them prior to entering or between excursions. Through the patrons of the Yawning Portal, the tavern through which adventurers must venture in order to enter Undermountain, players can uncover rumors and whispers regarding the dungeon below. Some rumors are true and provide some insight into the nature of the dungeon or the Mad Mage, while others are nothing more than rumors and have little or no truth to them.
The Yawning Portal offers several benefits to players, especially those who have completed Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Several quests from patrons in the Yawning Portal can provide direction and additional motivation for adventurers venturing into Undermountain. The Yawning Portal is the direct access to the mega-dungeon, and characters who decide to escape to the surface in order to reorganize and reassess do so through the tavern. It also has several useful NPCs who could have been friendly, contentious, or simply peripheral to the early campaign, providing a measure of familiarity in the setting.
Running the Dungeon
To understand Undermountain, the first thing to recognize is that the dungeon crawl style of adventure is rare in fifth edition D&D. There is a very important distinction between adventures that are dungeon crawls and adventures that have dungeons in them. There is a significant difference. In any adventure with a dungeon, they can be short and contained experiences that players go in and out of in a single session, or somewhat longer and take longer to complete or traverse. In a dungeon crawl, that dungeon is the adventure. Likely the majority of the adventure, if not the entirety of it, will be spent in a large, expansive dungeon. There may be ways to retreat and then return to the dungeon, but in a dungeon crawl, that is the adventure. Understanding the style of play is different from a classic D&D adventure, recognize that it may be initially more challenging for some players and the playstyle might take some adjustment.
The dungeon is written for a party of four characters, starting at 5th level. A party of more than four characters can have the same experience in Undermountain and can offer more versatility, though they may find themselves progressing more slowly than the book suggests. That is no problem for balancing, as a larger party will be able to tackle a challenge meant for a smaller party of a higher level with similar results.
Undermountain rewards creative players and parties that work well together. While it might be tempting to create a “dungeon delving” party, the landscape is varied enough that it is not entirely necessary. Players will have to think and recognize that not all challenges can be met head on and faced with brute force. It is certainly not as punishing of a dungeon as some classic iterations, such as Tomb of Horrors. It offers a challenge for players that is rewarding for those savvy enough to outwit the mad mage.
Variety in Depth
The deeper you journey into Undermountain, the more variety you experience. Within the descending layers, adventurers will reveal diverse environments, monsters, creatures, and challenges within the established setting of the Forgotten Realms and Waterdeep. It is a veritable menagerie of enemies, potential rivals and allies, varied terrain and landscapes, all curated and arcanely influenced by Halaster over hundreds of years. The twenty three layers have influences of subterranean creatures and cultures such as drow and duergar, there are goblin halls, enchanted forests, an obstacle course with a sarcastic play-by-play announcer, a mind flayer sea captain, and so much more, all before ending at Halaster’s lair and the sanctum of the Mad Mage himself. There is more than enough provided within the book to run an extensive adventure, but Wizards of the Coast knows how creative their Dungeon Masters can be, and provided more than enough leeway to create additions to the written content. Beyond suggestions for changing and adding monsters from alternate sourcebooks such as Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, there are extra tunnels drawn into each level to lead to expanded dungeons to be created at the Dungeon Master’s discretion.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a wonderful and refreshing addition of the fifth edition D&D. It brings a classic adventure format into the current edition and makes it accessible and enjoyable for newer players. It has variety and flexibility for each Dungeon Master to put their own stamp on the mega-dungeon. Understanding that over the source of the entire dungeon, there is a single, great antagonist that is actively pursuing his own machinations as the party progresses is a journey of storytelling that only becomes greater with the length of the adventure. It is a challenge for players and for Dungeon Masters, as the dungeon is expansive and complex, but through intentional play and preparation, the journey into Undermountain promises glory and riches, along with an unforgettable adventure.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is published by Wizards of the Coast.
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