Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
Wizards of the Coast
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the latest official adventure from the maniacal minds over at Wizards of the Coast. This tome guides players down over 20 dungeon floors beneath the eponymous city’s western mountain to thwart the titular mage. It also serves as something of a sequel to the September release of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, progressing characters from levels 5-20. In fact, part of what makes DotMM unique is that it’s the first officially published adventure with content intended for the level band above 15, known as “tier four”—that’s fifteen character levels of content jam-packed into 319 pages! To those of you adventurers whose curiosity is piqued by the phrase “mega-dungeon,” I will simply say: Get this for your group’s dungeon master, pronto, and that I highly recommend that you don’t read beyond this paragraph. There are minor spoilers contained within my review intended only for those entertaining the idea of running the adventure.
The premise is straightforward enough—an immortal, crackpot wizard went and turned the backside of a nearby mountain into a sadistic amusement park. Don’t mistake the “amusement” as necessarily intended as your own; Halaster Blackcloak, the aforementioned, arcane looney, has gone to great lengths in order to play with the playthings that wander his halls in search of wealth and fame. As such, DMs have a glut of monsters, traps and magical malefactions to inflict upon unsuspecting opportunists. Disembodied voices that provide play-by-play commentary as heroes suffer through obstacle courses? Check. Warring factions which vie for underhanded assistance in order to thwart nearby rivals? Massive check. Underground castles housing serial killers? You bet your dragon-scaled ass. The adventure as written is thrilling and eerie, with plenty of opportunity for an unexpected twist to surface.
All that said, my main criticism with this book is the columns and columns of text that start to blur together. Each chapter follows a near-identical format, making it difficult to differentiate which floor had what trap or if that cave actually contained a giant centipede or interplanar frog people. Each dungeon level features a contextual header to complement its contents, a full-page map, and occasionally something smaller to represent a magical artifact or creepy-crawly. This has a bit of a knock-on effect to the art department. While still present, the usually prominent and evocative illustrations that adorn each Fifth-Edition book thus far feel somewhat sparse in DotMM. I cannot say whether that is simply because the ratio of text is higher here than other books, but my suspicion is that the art had to bear the brunt of the editor’s knife in order for the page count to remain within reason. It’s certainly nothing damning, but my favorite palate cleanser to word walls was just a little bit drier on this adventure.
The running recommendation of most adventures is for the DM to read the whole adventure, beginning to finish, before starting. While I usually agree with that input, my advice here to you is to only read one or two chapters at a time: the floor your party explores and the one below it. You may do yourself a disservice otherwise, trying to keep track of which floor had what nooks and crannies. The world needs more dungeon masters, and the last thing I would want for new DMs is to take one flip through the book, hastily scoop up their jaw from the ground, and run away screaming in terror.
There is an embarrassment of riches in Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Honestly, even if you had no intention of running the entirety of the campaign within the mega-dungeon itself, each chapter is a dungeon easily weaved into anyone’s campaign, whether you find yourself behind the screen for the first time or the hundredth time. You aren’t alone if you feel even mildly intimidated when undertaking this adventure, but with the variety and mischief in spades on offer, this makes an excellent Christmas gift for that special dungeon master in your life.