Into the Depths of Madness: A Review of Dungeon of the Mad Mage

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Into the Depths of Madness

A Review of Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Unpopular geek opinion: I hate mega-dungeons.

As a professed “role”-player, gigantic dungeon crawls have always felt more like an endurance test than a game, especially as the Storyteller. Wading into a sea of mechanics and detailed minutia of these labyrinthine books makes my skull hurt, and attempting to memorize, or at least to heavily adhere to an adventure of such complexity tends to override any ability to improvise story, or really dive into strong roleplay. My gut response to most mega-dungeons is to throw the book across the room and go replay Diablo.

Despite my passionate dislike of the mega-dungeon, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying Dungeon of the Mad Mage. As something of a Faerûn aficionado, I have run more than a few campaigns within the City of Splendor, and the Realms have become the canonical setting of choice for my High Fantasy over the years. The legends of Halaster Blackcloak were the stuff of many a bar tale or camp-fire Bard musing. The Undermountain was a place of great infamy, and my players had spent their share of time hunting the tunnels and passageways of Waterdeep’s underbelly.

But all of those adventures were of my own making. And I humbly submit, paled in comparison to what Perkins and crew have presented here. And, dare I say it, even the time-honored Ruins of the Undermountain and other like-minded classics never offered this much insight into the belly of the beast.

Oh, I said it. The new is better than the old.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage is damn near as close to a perfect mega-dungeon as I have ever read. With a masterful layout and ease of design, the Mad Mage demands that you explore it. Even as you read through 300+ pages you feel as if you are progressing deeper and deeper. You are descending into the depth of what is, for all intents and purposes, its own world. With 23 fully details levels, this module is more than just a sum of layers. It is a window into madness and darkness that is both thrilling and dangerous.  This is more than a dungeon, it is an immersion.

Each level feels unique while maintaining a tie to its predecessors. Instead of a randomized zoo of traps and monsters, it feels both coherent and surprising. At no point does this feel repetitive or predictable, which, considering its size, is a remarkable feat. But perhaps best of all this Mad Mage feels like an adventure, not just a dungeon crawl. Yes, it has its fair share of loot and peril, enough to satisfy the most murder-minded of players, but what sets this mega-dungeon apart from the rest is the room left for roleplay. From manipulating waring gangs to negotiating for lost Aelinthaldaarian thrones, the draws for PC involvement and story are there. It is a perfect balance of hook, with plenty of room for DMs to add their own flavor and plots.

And there is wonderful meshing of the 5e ingenuity and old-school trickery. There are dead ends, fake traps and treasures, and places were balance and fairness of challenge are thrown to the wind in order to really establish the peril of Undermountain with both realism and risk. This bridging of old and new is present throughout the bones of this dungeon, as both past and present are entwined. Remnants of old adventures and previously plundered are seamlessly woven along side new intruders and inhabitants, all of which make significant impacts on the game and how players interact. This is truly a “living” dungeon, with so many different NPCs and factions to bring it to life. In more than one way, this feels like a modernized B4-The Lost City, in both heart and structure.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of Dungeon of the Mad Mage is what else it could be. Like its predecessor, Tales from the Yawning Portal, this latest instalment to the 5e library is organized in such a way that it could easily be scrapped for parts. Each floor is its own unique environment, which opens up the potential for using each as its own setting, its own individual dungeon that could be crafted to fit just about any campaign.  Don’t want to pay Durnan his due to ride the crane three or four dozen times? Want to create your own sandbox with 23 progressive and individual locales? Or just looking for a few dungeons to cut a corner or two in your already existing campaign? Whatever the purpose, Mad Mage is like a Christmas present to all time-crunched DMs across the world wide, making it also one of the best source books currently available for 5e.

Does it have its faults? Yes. I would have liked to have seen traps, treasure, and monster encounters more clearly marked, but it feels more like a nitpick than a true fault. My more serious complaints are focused on content. While the expansive detailing of Skull Port was a welcomed addition, Waterdeep itself still remains a vague cloud in the 5e universe. And the usually strongly detailed and useful D&D Appendixes were lacking, which made for a weak finish to an otherwise great book. Further adventure, additional plot hooks, even just a few hints of the great city above or a few new artifact descriptions would have gone a long way to cementing this book among the ranks of D&D’s finest publications.

All in all, my party and I were quite pleased. While my view of mega-dungeons as an exercise in mathematical masochism holds firm, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a useful and engaging book, one that proudly continues the momentum of the D&D Renaissance.

 

THE FINAL GRADE: A-    

So much more than your average D&D spelunk!