I wanted to learn how to build dungeons and stock with them encounters. I do not just mean monsters to fight or traps to avoid but a full adventure. So I looked to the professionals of the "world's greatest roleplaying game" and picked up the mega-dungeon known as Undermountain.
This is a review for "Dungeon of the Mad Mage".
Wow, this module is versatile. The flexibility written into this mega-dungeon is amazing. I was expecting something that was a one-size-fits all sort of thing. You know, something like the modules that Adventure's League DMs run: the players arrive for X reason, and then Y happens. Let the players react and then tell them to do Z. This book isn't written like that at all. In fact, it is so flexible it is less of a pre-written adventure and more like a pre-written setting that includes set-piece events for a DM to use or adapt for their own adventure.
For instance, the first chapter provides adventure hooks for the party but acknowledges that players can have their own reasons for entering Undermountain. The players aren't locked into a particular quest or storyline. A DM could make up their own reason. This is an easy thing to do. I found myself coming up with several hooks for venturing to particular levels; hooks that didn't have anything to do with the specific adventure suggested but just the setting provided.
The same chapter has this sidebar listing off possible motivations for Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage himself, to tolerate the adventurers intruding in his lair. There are six in total, and they can change whenever the DM wants without explanation. As the book says, "he is the Mad Mage, after all". So the DM could make up some totally bonkers motivation, and that would be totally legit. If they don't want to include him, then they can leave Halaster in the background.
The dungeon levels themselves are flexible. Each level map is created with tunnels that lead off the established area. These are marked as "tunnel leads to expanded dungeon". So the DM can add rooms and events if they want, or they can pretend those tunnels don't exist and treat the area as a solid wall.
A list of wandering monsters is often provided that the DM can include if they want to shake up an existing room. Even if a player has read this book, they can still be surprised by these wandering creatures, or who may or may not appear.
Finally, while each level is written with its own storyline, the book acknowledge multiple ways that the players could resolve it, or even ignore it. This is tacit encouragement for the DM to tweak things to fit their own narrative. I see the levels more as "template settings" than hard-coded adventures. Indeed, one doesn't even have to use them for Undermountain.
Each level is designed to work within Undermountain. Of course, it is, because they are included in this book. However, they can take place elsewhere. A little tweaking of lore or re-flavoring of certain factions or items, and any given level can be its own stand-alone adventure. For example, there is no reason why Dweomercore, the school for evil mages, has to be inside Undermountain. It could be some isolated mansion in the woods, or part of an urban city with either a public reputation or secret existence.
I do not mean that this flexibility is nothing but options. There is a concrete path to walk if you choose to walk it. A DM can run this adventure exactly as it is, no changes necessary, and it would still be a complete adventure. There are storylines, individual events, monster encounters, and treasures of all kinds already provided.
Each level of the dungeon is supposed to be balanced to the party's level, and there's even a in-universe mechanic to prevent players from going to levels they may not be ready for (if the DM wants to use it). The experience gained from each level will help the party level up and be ready for the next one. As for being balanced treasure-wise, that is something I want to address.
I don't really understand the value of the wealth-per-level thing. It sounds too rigid for storytelling. Why should the same dungeon contain more or less treasure for parties of different levels? It sounds like game-ism for the sake of game-ism. The treasure found in Undermountain makes a great deal of sense with its story.
The majority of the treasure found here is from other people who have set up shop in Undermountain. The bandits, the Drow Houses, the Hobgoblin army, other adventuring parties (living or dead, but mostly dead) etc. are the ones with the treasure. This is because the player's party is not the first to go into Undermountain. Heck, the main entrance to Level One is basically a tourist attraction in the Yawning Portal tavern. Lots of adventurers have gone in and searched for loot. So the book mentions empty treasure chests, already-looted vaults, and other signs of previous adventuring parties. There is STILL treasure to be found, but it is going to be on deeper levels, in better hiding places, etc. I find this a fantastic thematic device.
The artwork and maps and all that stuff look good too. I just don't want to go into detail about it. Rest assured that flipping between the map and the descriptions of the rooms keyed to the map is an easy thing to do. I did just that when I was reading through the book to get a sense for how the level was laid out.
As a dungeon master, my reaction to reading even the first several levels was, "I want to play through this with someone."
Trickster Eric Novels gives Dungeon of the Mad Mage an A+
Click here for my previous book review: Pendragon's Heir (book 1)
Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.