Thoughts on Dungeon of the Mad Mage

We’ve done it. We’ve finished Undermountain.

Portrait of Halaster Blackcloak with lettering saying, "Dungeons & Dragons / Halaster Blackcloak / Dungeon of the Mad Mage"

The rest of this post contains some mild spoilers for the dungeon, but honestly not a lot. Instead, I want to talk about what I learned about D&D and communities.

For context, Variant Roles ran the entire book as a community project, with different groups exploring different levels. I ran several myself, and in fact the first “random” group (assembled from sign-ups for level 15) turned out to click so well that we started playing together on a regular basis in the Gothic Brunch campaign. These weren’t the only friends I made in this campaign, of course. Overall, “Mad Mage” cemented VR as the community I want to belong to.

Dungeon crawls as roleplay drivers

This campaign also included some of the deepest, most emotional roleplay I’ve ever participated in. That surprised me, honestly, because I thought the “point” of this adventure was to explore Undermountain, maybe kick Halaster Blackcloak out, and find riches & magic. I loved this surprise, though, because dungeon crawls have been and probably will continue to be my favorite “play style” (although not the only one I enjoy).

Probably some of you are reading and thinking “well of course”. But believe me, it isn’t trivially obvious that dungeon exploration can lead to that sort of emergent story in which characters develop emotional connections and react strongly to the events in the dungeon and each other. This says a lot more about the players than the adventure, and I think that’s the point: folks will find a way to play the way they want to play regardless of the environment.

As an example: on level 15, the group found the resting place of a vampire named Zorak Lightdrinker. They “accidentally” loosed the vampire, who had his own goals and motivations (which naturally included killing at least one of the adventurers, a shadow sorcerer named Crawford). But as the players bonded over this, they decided the characters wanted to track down that vampire and get revenge. So I wrote up a small quest for a one-shot “epilogue” in which they followed Lightdrinker to his necropolis – and found that he’d raised Crawford to be his consort. The resulting monologue (improvised on the spot by my friend Val) left me deeply affected.

For another example, when the final group reached Halaster himself, the minotaur wizard Alisdair (with a Scottish accent) cast wish on the Mad Mage of Undermountain:

To summarize, he wished that Halaster was a baby in his arms. So, I took inspiration from part of the spell description:

For example, wishing that a villain were dead might propel you forward in time to a period when that villain is no longer alive, effectively removing you from the game.

Alisdair he suddenly found himself back in the faraway castle where the ancient wizard first drew breath, and when he eventually was able to wish again to be reunited with his family, I fast-forwarded to them all meeting again in the afterlife. That really took a lot out of me, honestly, because it dug deeply into my own emotions and personal memories.

“Play to find out what happens”

I honestly had no idea what would happen next almost the entire campaign. Sometimes that really had me scrambling to improvise, but that was just fine with me. As Dungeon World says, “play to find out what happens”.

I thought Halaster’s Lair would take four weeks, but they did it in three. Partly this was because they ran through the dungeon and took the idea seriously that “he knows we’re here, we’d better get through this”. Partly, though, this was because they zigged when they could have zagged and fortuitously went straight to him rather than explore some of the side passages. This definitely happened organically, though, because they clearly weren’t sure about choices as they made them.

So what happens next? I don’t know. I’ll be running a short Dungeon World game for four weeks on VR and keeping up with Gothic Brunch. After that, all I can say for sure is that my batteries for dungeon exploration are recharged!

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