Review: Dungeon of the Mad Mage (and a new ranking)

When Wizards published the Waterdeep adventures in 2018, Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I have to be honest: I disregarded Mad Mage very quickly. 23 levels of megadungeon? Featureless, old school maps? No overarching plot? Like a lot of people, I was much more intrigued by Dragon Heist. Urban intrigue! A heist! Xanathar on the cover!

My friend ran Dragon Heist back in lockdown, and it is a really fun adventure – or at least, a really fun premise. As written, it’s structurally rather odd, and you only end up using a quarter of its potential. Our DM found a way of weaving together all four of the potential enemies and threw in a few improvements of his own, including an epic final battle. It’s a great adventure – but it needs a bit of work. And, as written, it’s very, very short. You’re not even meant to reach 6th level.

Mad Mage passed me by. And looking through the various ‘best 5e adventure’ listicles, it appears I’m not alone. There’s plenty of love for Curse of Strahd, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and Tomb of Annihilation, and lots of people seem to like the anthology adventures like Keys from the Golden Vault and Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. But Mad Mage never makes the top five, and some of my favourite bloggers don’t even list it.  

I’ve been running campaigns in the Forgotten Realms for 20 years; I’ve obviously heard of Undermountain and Halaster Blackcloak. But I’m a relatively late convert to the merits of megadungeons. In my naivety, I always thought they were a bit of a throw-back: an outdated system for a simpler time. My own campaigns tended to be very plotted and story-driven, probably influenced by the sorts of video games I was playing and fiction I was reading. The idea of spending a whole campaign going deeper and deeper into an endless series of rooms and corridors struck me as – well, a bit boring, frankly.

How wrong I was.

I didn’t pick up Mad Mage in 2018. I ran Tomb of Annihilation instead. Then, after playing through a couple of short campaigns with other DMs, I ran a homebrew campaign based on Zargon the Returner – it went from levels 1–20, a first for any of us, I think. As lockdown ended, I looked for a new in-person group in London, where I live, and after playing at the D&D Meetup group near Borough was lucky enough to find a fantastic group of players after a couple of months or so. We played an Eberron campaign for a bit, but as homebrewing became more and more challenging, I started to look for another hardback campaign adventure. And I looked again at Mad Mage.

The Yawning Portal

Looking back to when I pitched it as a new campaign, I think my group were maybe a little wary. They loved Eberron so much as a setting, and I think there was some trepidation about what a dungeon campaign might involve. Would it just be … combat? Was there a story? Was it going to be really deadly and brutal? Nevertheless, they paid their coin to Durnan at the Yawning Portal and took the bucket down to the bottom of the well. Every now and then I would check in with the group to make sure they were having fun, and I think after a few sessions they began to get a taste for it.  

I have written since about megadungeons. ‘Old me’ thought they were tedious, uninspiring, and repetitive slogs. Nothing could be further from my experience of Undermountain. What I love about this adventure is its sheer variety – and its humour. There are epic fight scenes, hilarious NPCs, cool magic items, interesting factions, and surprisingly poigant backstories. It really felt like there was something for everyone. And it’s made me think differently about the sorts of campaigns I might run in the future.

Yesterday afternoon, my friends and I sat down for our last session of Mad Mage. We have been playing since May last year, and the whole campaign took us 39 sessions – around 160 hours of play, by my estimate. One player had to move away half-way through, and another joined us in January, but all eight of us were present for the finale. It was my first experience DMing for such a large group, and I think we were all surprised how smoothly it ran! Without spoilers, it was suitably epic, and the final encounter with Halaster seemed genuinely touch-and-go at one point: probably the closest we have ever been to an actual TPK. But they did it – with a bit of help and some quick thinking!

Umbraxakar: a bronze dragon corrupted by the Shadowfell.

What were our favourite moments? I put this to the group over a celebratory round of drinks at the end. Here were some of their answers (and mine). Be warned, there may be a few spoilers:

  • The barbarian ‘flexing hubristically’ in front of a cursed mirror.
  • Accidentally summoning a loyal goblin servant named … Keith.
  • A pet stirge named … Mozzie.
  • A nature spirit called Winnie in the form of a snuffly black bear.
  • Finding out that the party rogue was an ex member of the Xanathar Guild.
  • A very nasty fight with an aboleth.
  • Killing a green dragon and running away fast through a portal before his allies came after them.
  • Pulling an extremely powerful sword from the head of said dragon and bonding with it as a warlock patron for the rest of the campaign.
  • Finding out that the dwarven barbarian was the last remaining heir of Melair, king under the mountain.
  • Sneaking around an empty tower, just as its owner, a serial killer, returned home.
  • Repeatedly using a rod of rulership to command a small army.
  • Organizing a fake party at an evil wizard academy and releasing a bone devil to cause mayhem.
  • Hunting (or being hunted by?) a hideous and insane scorpion-mage.
  • Picking a fight with a small army of githyanki, one of whom used telekinesis to throw the party rogue on a one-way trip to the Astral Plane.
  • Turning a shadow dragon back to his old self by reminding him of the goodness still burning inside him.
  • Singing genies! With tunes from Mary Poppins, Moana, and The Little Mermaid. And yes, I did the singing.
  • A mind flayer space pirate with a pet hamster.
  • Standing in judgement before a fallen angel.
  • Nearly getting absolutely destroyed by a demigod.
  • Ending the campaign by flying off in a spaceship.

Two years ago, I placed Dungeon of the Mad Age eighth on my own list of best official 5e adventures. Having now DMed it from start to finish, I would rank it much, much higher. Comparisons are hard: I’ve played with different groups, in different settings, on different platforms, and my own tastes and playstyles have changed over time somewhat. I’m also conscious that the campaign you have just finished is always going to feel like the best campaign you’ve ever done. Even so: I would definitely put Mad Mage in my top three now. As an adventure, I might still put Curse of Strahd first. But as an experience, this adventure in Undermountain might be the best non-homebrew campaign I have ever run. 

My tips for running Undermountain

  • Print copies of the maps and annotate them. Keep them in a folder and prep them when you have a spare moment.
  • Always prep at least one level ahead. Ideally two.
  • Work with your players to tie their background into Undermountain in some way. By the end of the campaign, almost everyone had a story connection.
  • Every level can be expanded, but you really don’t need to. There’s plenty there as it is.
  • Lean into the silliness. Halaster is a tragic, dangerous maniac, but he’s also hilarious.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop the party from using a gate if they are underlevelled. You know how.
  • Use the Mad Mage subreddit for tips and resources!
  • If a boss is coming up, try and end the session just before the fight. It makes a great opening for your next session!
  • As written, the adventure is a little light on magic items. Consider adding some of your own.
  • If you’re not sure about running the adventure in one go, Muiral’s Gauntlet (Level 10) makes for an excellent half-way point.
  • Consider limiting the party to one long rest per (dungeon) level. That said, the first three levels are some of the biggest, so play it by ear.
  • Undermountain breathes. Every time the party goes back to Waterdeep for some downtime, the dungeon should evolve a bit. Let the players see how their actions have made a difference.
  • You won’t love every level equally, and that’s OK. Your favourite levels probably won’t be the same as ours.
  • Award XP and roll hit points and ability scores for an old school vibe.
  • Start every session with the theme tune to Hitchhiker’s Guide!

Have you played Dungeon of the Mad Mage? Where would it rank on your list of favourite adventures? Share your experiences in the comments below.

You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter @scrollforinit, and Instagram @scrollforinitiative. And if you want to make my day, you can support me on Patreon or buy me a coffee here. 

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3 thoughts on “Review: Dungeon of the Mad Mage (and a new ranking)

  1. Couldn’t even guess the number of hours of fun the boxed sets bought us back in the day.
    And I’ll never understand how mega-dungeons got such a bad reputation. The opportunities for varied encounters is, imho, only enhanced.

  2. I am currently playing Dragon Heist and our DM wants us to start the Dungeon of the Mad Mage in January. We are starting the chase sequence at our next session. Our DM seems to be doing a good job bringing all of the factions into our campaign but it feels like we have done a lot and have not received much treasure or experience as we are still level four. I am playing an Artificer and am quite disappointed in my characters abilities. Is the Dungeon of the Mad Mage as lacking in rewards as Dragon Heist?

    1. It’s pretty limited on rewards, yeah. There are some really good magic items with a cool story attached to them, but they are few and far between.

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