Steer the Airship Right Across the Stars — Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe

One of two Portnoy projects from the late ’90s making a triumphant return this year (the other, of course, being Liquid Tension Experiment), Transatlantic comes back from a 7-year hiatus with The Absolute Universe, their fifth album. … Albums. One album and a half? The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life and The Absolute Universe: Forevermore are the two versions of the latest effort from the prog supergroup composed of dynamic duo Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, Roine Stolt of Flower Kings fame, and Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The Breath of Life labels itself an “abridged” version, while Forevermore is evidently an “extended” version. This alone is a bit odd to me as both of these labels would seem to imply a secret third version of The Absolute Universe that sits somewhere between The Breath of Life’s 64 minutes and Forevermore’s 90, but not quite. You can think of The Breath of Life as the theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Forevermore is the director’s cut. While the casual fan is more likely to enjoy the shorter, pithier abridged cut, the superfan may enjoy some of the longer, more abstract prog meanderings of the extended edition. Let’s cut to the chase. Is The Absolute Universe good? Definitely. Which version is better? Well … that’s a bit more complicated.

There’s a Nathan Pyle comic where one of his trademark aliens says to a companion headed off to bed, “imagine pleasant nonsense” as a play on the phrase “sweet dreams.” I have to imagine someone wished the same to Morse and Co. before they wrote and recorded The Absolute Universe, because “pleasant nonsense” is perhaps the best way to describe the album. By the way, “Morse and Co.” is a completely accurate way to describe Transatlantic on this effort, as — much like The Whirlwind before it, to which this very much feels like a sequel — The Absolute Universe is certainly a Morse-helmed ship. While all four band members get to share vocal duty much more evenly than ever before, The Absolute Universe is otherwise very dominated by all the usual Morse trappings, from his vaguely sanctimonious lyrics to his siren-like keyboard swells to the angelic choruses behind some of the album’s emotional highs. If you’re a Neal Morse fan like me, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re expecting something more along the lines of the band’s first two efforts or even their 2014 release Kaleidoscope, you’ll be in for a bit of a rude awakening. Many of both versions of the album’s rhythms and riffs wouldn’t sound out of place on The Great Adventure, Sola Gratia, or some Spock’s Beard albums like V or Day for Night.

I’m going to step through both versions of the album separately and point out some of the higher highs (of which there are plenty — these albums are tremendous if somewhat formulaic for anyone who’s been following the Morse/Portnoy musical story of the 21st century), starting with The Breath of Life. Like basically everything Neal Morse does, it opens with a mostly instrumental Overture, masterfully tying the musical themes of the album together. Reaching for the Sky and Higher than the Morning are both highlights of the album for me, the first an up-tempo rocker with all four band members represented on vocals and an anthemic chorus. We get some hints that the album is definitely the product of the lockdowns of 2020, with lyrics like “now we’re all locked away inside”. On that note, Transatlantic’s style of writing lyrics separate of each other lends this album a bit of a confusing quality, making it somewhat difficult to discern what exactly some of these songs are even talking about — if anything. The bridge is classic Morse, sounding like a cut off of The Similitude of a Dream, and Stolt’s solo at the end of the track is a treat. The “belong” theme starts Higher than the Morning, a mostly Morse-sung track that borrows from Vanity Fair and features some great Geddy Lee-esque bass work from Trewavas. The chorus is more catchy choral swells, and leads into a calm instrumental segment before the funky bass-driven The Darkness in the Light. This has some of Stolt’s best vocals on the album; his voice has always been an acquired taste but Transatlantic always does a great job of knowing when to utilize his talents. There are some great synth hooks between the choruses here.

Take Now My Soul is textbook acoustic Morse, injecting some of the strongest religious overtones (which are, interestingly, largely lacking from the extended version). Portnoy gives a wonderful turn on lead vocals on the second verse here. Over the last few years, it seems the drummer has come out of his shell a bit in terms of trying his hand at lead vocals, and it’s always a treat to hear his rough-edged tones on tunes like this. Take Now My Soul has one of the better choruses on the album and another nice, sweeping guitar solo near the end that eventually takes us into Looking for the Light. This has a more sinister-sounding edge, with Portnoy almost entering the realm of harsh vocals (thankfully not all the way, though, lest we repeat the cringe-inducing backing vocals he did on his last few Dream Theater albums). Apart from another vocal showcase from Portnoy and some fun riff work at the start, this is an otherwise straightforward track that leads into the album’s midpoint, Love Made a Way (Prelude), a short acoustic interlude with Morse hinting at the album’s finale.

Owl Howl starts with an exciting, angular instrumental segment that never gets quite as complex as I’d like it to, but it does lead into some really wacky vocals from Stolt before going full prog and finishing with a quieter, bass-heavy segment with sparse synths and flutes before finally swelling into some fun, chaotic noodling with some of Portnoy’s usual bombastic percussive work behind. Solitude is, ostensibly, the emotional heart of the album, though once again it’s rather difficult to discern any sort of through-line or overarching meaning. Trewavas takes vocal duties on this one, and I must admit his nasally voice does very little for me here. It’s a nice, piano-driven song with some good guitar and drum flourishes throughout, but it doesn’t really please the ear until Morse takes over at the end in a section backed by choral swells that may have literally been ripped from The Great Adventure. Belong begins with some sort of strange yodeling/crying sound effects that never cease to bewilder me, before leading into a Yes-style instrumental/vocal jam that, like most other tracks on the abridged version, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Can You Feel It features some more excellent tom work from Portnoy and another hopelessly catchy Morse vocal line. This track, in particular, feels like it was created with concert performance in mind.

Looking for the Light (Reprise) is a Kaleidoscope-esque instrumental jam for the first two minutes or so, with each instrument trading turns in the spotlight before Morse takes over Portnoy’s rough vocal line from the previous appearance of this track in a slightly darker reprisal. The Greatest Story Never Ends is a short-and-sweet almost ’80s-sounding anthem that reminds one at times of Mr. Mister’s Kyrie Eleison before becoming another instrumental jam very reminiscent of the back half of 2014’s Black as the Sky. Love Made a Way, the finale, sounds almost like a piano-driven Flying Colors epic, and is notably the only track on the abridged version that’s longer than 6 minutes. Like any good concept album finale, all of the musical themes get a reprisal here, in a way that’s predictable at times while still hitting the right emotional beats. It would easily fit in on The Whirlwind (featuring quite a few lyrical references) and ends with a two-minute long echoing final chord that seems to echo the classic Dream Theater epic Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

Phew. And that’s the “abridged” version. There’s an awful lot to like here, and of the two versions this one definitely feels like a Neal Morse vehicle featuring some other musicians and vocalists. There’s lots of spirituality in the lyrics, lots of his trademark emotional beats and acoustic sections, and choral backings behind some of the stronger musical climaxes. While some of the shorter song lengths are appreciated, as they tend to keep some of the more tired themes from overstaying their welcome as the runtime wears on, it does lend the album a bit of a samey feel and definitely tends to give the impression of missing out on some more, well, progressiveness. While Morse does most of the vocal heavy lifting, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas all get spotlight time on a few tracks, and are mostly a welcome addition to the palette. So, what makes up that extra half hour of music that’s not in The Breath of Life?

While Forevermore is considered an “extended edition”, and in some places that’s precisely what it is, the band has gone to great pains in all of the album’s promotional material to explain that The Breath of Life isn’t simply a shorter version of the album. Forevermore, thus, has quite a lot of similarities to its shorter counterpart, but also a lot of changes and tweaks that amount to more than just longer songs. The Overture adds quite a few new segments and musical themes, but as you’d expect serves the same purpose as it does on the abridged cut. At first blush, Heart Like a Whirlwind almost feels like a retitling of Reaching for the Sky, but the vocal parts actually have entirely different melodies and rhythms. I tend to prefer the abridged version, but I really enjoy the differences between the two. Higher than the Morning, similarly, adds more complex rhythms and switches some of the lead vocals around to different singers, but otherwise maintains essentially the same energy and structure. The Darkness in the Light, I’m fairly certain, is the same on both versions.

Swing High, Swing Low takes the place of Take Now My Soul, removing Portnoy’s lead vocal and some of Morse’s religious overtones and giving us an otherwise very similar track with different lyrics. Bully and Rainbow Sky are completely new additions, not present at all on The Breath of Life. The first is a short, organ-driven song with instrumentals that borrow from Emerson Lake and Palmer and a fast-paced vocal line that Morse has a lot of fun with. Rainbow Sky is an absolute delight, a patently Beatlesque track that Portnoy obviously fought to add here, with some really fun piano lines, and excellent vocals from Morse and Stolt. Looking for the Light is a little bit heavier on the extended version, but is otherwise essentially the same. The World We Used to Know closes the first disc, and opens up with some Keith Moon-style work from Portnoy, some really catchy thrumming bass from Trewavas, and some wonderful guitar and key flourishes over top. The instrumental work for the first couple minutes are a highlight of the entire album, but the song eventually sort of undercuts itself and turns into some saccharine melodies and vocals that are straight out of The Whirlwind and mostly seem to work toward the purpose of closing out the first half of the album in an almost obvious way. That said, it does serve that purpose, and hearkens back a bit to some of the older Transatlantic epics.

The Sun Comes Up Today works as a sort of entr’acte, and works great as a second overture. Trewavas has some good vocals here, though like much of the rest of the album, the lyrics make very little sense. We get a sort of unnecessary Love Made a Way (Prelude) featuring some of Morse’s weakest singing, and clocking in at just a minute and a half it feels like an afterthought to try and introduce the theme of the album’s eventual finale. It’s basically Morse and an acoustic guitar and unfortunately breaks up the flow between the previous track and Owl Howl. This track is basically the same as the abridged version, albeit with a longer, more complex instrumental section at its end, which makes it one of the extended version’s standout tracks. Solitude is essentially identical to its abridged counterpart and as a result is still a low point for the album. Belong, likewise, still opens with that weird sound effect before becoming a slightly-longer-but-otherwise-identical Close to the Edge-style jam. Lonesome Rebel takes the place of the far superior Can You Feel It, a much gentler acoustic track with Stolt singing. The final three tracks, Looking for the Light (Reprise), The Greatest Story Never Ends, and Love Made a Way are again very similar to their counterparts, with the second being a few minutes longer thanks to some great chaotic instrumental jamming. The final track is different insofar as it quotes Heart Like a Whirlwind‘s verses and melodies rather than those of Reaching for the Sky.

Oddly enough, Mike Portnoy’s vocals play a much, much smaller part on Forevermore than on The Breath of Life. By the same token, though Forevermore adds great tracks like The Sun Comes Up Today and Rainbow Sky, it’s missing Can You Feel It and the catchier versions of some of the modified verses and choruses from The Breath of Life. Trying to determine which of these two versions is superior is a bit of a fool’s errand, and ultimately I don’t think it matters particularly much anyway since most who listen to the album will already be Transatlantic fans and will thus be listening to both (or the actual third, “Ultimate” version which promises to combine the two). While I recommend the album as a sequel to The Whirlwind, some of Morse’s best work, and would posit that any fan of the Morse/Portnoy dynamic duo will be exceptionally pleased with this music, fans of Transatlantic’s first two albums or their last may feel this is a bit underwhelming. There are no true “epics” here of the proportion we’ve become accustomed to from this band, and where other albums had more complex musical and lyrical themes this feels like a bit of a step backward into Morse’s comfort zone.

Is more Neal Morse a bad thing? Almost never. Speculation about the process that went into the creation of this album aside, it’s clear to me that The Breath of Life was Neal’s preferred version of The Absolute Universe, where Forevermore was decidedly the result of other members wanting to go back to the original Transatlantic style. The results are mixed, but there’s not really anything bad here, and if you’ve got a spare afternoon (or three), I highly recommend giving both versions a few listens and drawing your own conclusions. With the amount of talent between these four musicians, you’re in for some serious prog goodness regardless of which version you choose. We can only hope it’s not another seven years before we get another album (or two?) from them.

From Labyrinths Below — A Continued Diatribe

Welcome back, folks. Last time I went on a lengthy, somewhat-incoherent tirade about my experience as a DM running Waterdeep – Dragon Heist. Today, I’m taking a look at its (alleged) follow-up, Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

As I noted last time, to say that these two adventures are dissimilar is an understatement of the highest caliber. Apart from a geographic connection that’s tenuous at best, Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage have practically nothing in common, and that’s not a great thing if your group enjoyed Dragon Heist.

In fact, before I start here, it might behoove me to recommend that, if you fall into the category of DMs whose players really loved Dragon Heist, you might consider … not running Dungeon of the Mad Mage at all. There are plenty of other published 5th edition adventures like Curse of Strahd and Descent into Avernus that lend themselves a bit better to roleplay-oriented groups (and I can’t go without mentioning the phenomenal 3rd edition adventure Red Hand of Doom). You could also build a campaign out of the micro-adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Tales from the Yawning Portal using Waterdeep as a hub, and even the hex-crawly Tomb of Annihilation gives a better balance of combat and exploration with still a decent chunk of roleplay opportunities. That said, if you’re running Dungeon of the Mad Mage (henceforth acronymed as DotMM) and are interested in my thoughts on it, here they are.

It’s not that great.

If you want my considerably lengthier thoughts on it …

Undermountain and Motivations

I’m gonna start by going over a general view on the dungeon followed by my group’s experiences with each individual floor. First things first, as you likely know, DotMM is a “mega-dungeon”. 23 floors of dungeon, to be exact, with each floor likely being bigger than one single dungeon you’d find in a regular published campaign. With that being the case, there is a lot of content to go over here, a truly massive number of rooms. As such, it’s natural that there will be a lot of hits and misses, and to be frank both the writers/designers and any DM who decides to undertake it are to be commended. It’s a behemoth.

That said, there’s a lot more bad than good by my estimation. Each floor has perhaps 3 or 4 rooms where there’s an interesting encounter or puzzle; a lot of what’s left is obscure, weird trivia no one cares about, empty rooms or rooms that might as well be, and puzzles that are either so obtuse as to make no sense to a normal player, or so easy as to make a group feel like they must be missing something. There were a lot of times where I had to almost force my players to leave an area after they spent hours investigating something that simply didn’t matter at all (most notably, this happened in the very first room of the dungeon they reached).

The dungeon has almost no tangible through line, indeed, no plot at all. Basically, your strongest motivation to get down to the bottom, as written, is some vague idea that Halaster Blackcloak is a bad dude, and we gotta get 23 floors deep and punch him in the face. There are “hooks” at the start that range from the incredibly boring to the … slightly less boring. Such quests include “find magic items and sell them for money,” “find the brother of this NPC you may have met in Dragon Heist [spoiler alert: he’s dead], “find this magic chair that weighs 12 tons and figure out how to get it out of there”, and my favorite, “some dwarf guy had a gem and died”. Yeah, your party is going to need much more substantial reason to go down there at all if they’re at all like my group, and (as I maintain) if they’re a group that enjoyed Dragon Heist.

Every floor of the dungeon is very different from the other floors, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it gives you a lot of diversity and stops things from getting too stale as you go from floor to floor, but it also means that you end up with a lot of pointless rooms that exist solely to adhere to whatever weird theme that floor has. If you’re in the swamps of floor 7, for instance, get used to lots of bullywugs and naga, and not much else. If you’re in the mazes of floor 12, hope you like minotaurs. If you’re on … well, one of basically 10 different floors, prepare for drow. Tons of them.

DotMM is absolutely obsessed with drow and duergar, and you’ll find them on over half of the floors as their primary resident. As someone who came to this set of adventures after running Out of the Abyss, I was … less than enthused. There are tons of crazy monsters in D&D’s menagerie, especially in books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and I can think of no better place to exhibit some of the truly weird creatures those books boast than this fabricated dungeon of insanity, but instead we get drow after drow after drow. Your players will likely get bored with the stagnation, as well.

So, what did I change at the macro level? Basically … basically, everything but the maps themselves. With regards to the dungeon itself, the biggest change that resulted in the most positive result had to do with the gates. Each floor has a number of gates that can be used to teleport from floor to floor — with a couple of catches. They all require strange things be done in order to use them, and there’s a level restriction to use them. After the first time my players tried to use one of them, I decided to do away with the second restriction. If they wanted to bounce around between the floors, I figured I might as well let them. A cursory glance revealed that not too many of the rooms they deposited you in were especially deadly, and with proper planning and stealth they could document what they saw and decide on a path forward. My wizard also decided to do some research on the dungeon beforehand, and with a good enough roll I gave him a chord diagram that documented which gates went where, which they were eventually able to decipher (it wasn’t labeled so they weren’t sure for a while what it represented).

You have to make sure you have an appropriate level of trust between you and your players if you attempt this, though. If your players are … well, stupid, they’re likely to just end up as paste, especially considering that some of the early gates jump really, really deep into the dungeon. You could have Jhesiyra Kestellharp (the disembodied force for good that inhabits the dungeons walls and gates) warn them about what they do before they attempt to traverse one, but I do think half the fun for my players was figuring out what gates when to which floors, and using them to get around pretty quickly. Floor 6 turned into a hub for them due to the sheer number of gates it contains. If your players play smartly they can use them to great advantage.

The biggest overall structural change I did to the adventure was providing plenty of content for them to play around with outside the dungeon by continuing many of the plot threads they began tugging on during Dragon Heist. As my players moved up in the ranks of their various factions, people like Laeral Silverhand, Mirt, Vajra Safahr, and Jarlaxle made many appearances, as did a lot of my own NPCs created for their adventures, like shopkeepers Merric Fastfoot and Celniana Queyore, Harper agent Juliana Greenhand, and my druid Gardenia’s terrorist uncle. I encouraged them to venture upward from time to time, and tried to make sure everyone even had a reason to go back down into the dungeon at all.

My warlock Nia ended up being the biggest boon in that endeavor — by the end of Dragon Heist the group had cemented themselves as True Companions (give or take newest member Humphrey), and Nia knowing that she had to investigate … something down in the dungeon was generally enough to convince the rest of them to go along, too. Wizard Wobbles was keen on discovering what the deal was with Nia, and Copper and Gardenia were, essentially, his adopted children at this point. In addition, Copper was tasked by Force Grey with looking into Xanathar (who had retreated into Skullport after their brief encounter with him in his lair), and Humphrey had a link deep in the dungeon as well, in the form of a former companion he’d abandoned down there years earlier. Said companion turned out to be Fargas Rumblefoot, an incidental NPC from Out of the Abyss who appears as basically one paragraph and grew into a bona fide party member over the course of that adventure. I thought it would be fun to drag him back into this one, too. Speaking of NPCs who start as single paragraphs and grow into fully-realized characters …

The Tale of Halleth Garke, The Little Revenant that Could

In the very first floor of the dungeon, there’s a room with a hole in it, and in that hole there’s a revenant named Halleth Garke. He doesn’t know he’s a revenant, but he knows he was betrayed by his former adventuring companions, collectively known as the “Fine Fellows of Daggerford”, who have absconded with his map and holy symbol (he’s a cleric of Waukeen) and ventured further to floor 2. If the party agrees, he’ll tag along and try to get revenge on them, rewarding the party with the map to floor 3 (which is wildly inaccurate) before finally going on to the afterlife.

That’s the sum total of his character. In my game, he became … considerably more. As I always say, every party needs a cleric, and if you don’t have a cleric one will be provided to you by the state. Halleth seemed to me to have all the makings of a great ally for the party, with a few tweaks. I knew that Nia’s player enjoyed a good graph-paper romance in her D&D, and with her background as a noble and high Charisma score courtesy of being, you know, a warlock, I decided that Halleth would easily become attached to her, and through the following days as they tracked down and finally disposed of his former companions, he realized that there was something else keeping him “alive”, namely Nia and by extension her mission, though he had also become close to Wobbles through their journey. I made up some bullshit ritual they could use to un-revenant him via Nia’s patron (secretly Halaster, if you’ll recall) and firmly plant him as a part of her ultimate goal.

I had, a while before, decided that Nia’s goal would involve collecting 7 “apprentices,” as Halaster had before her, and that once all 8 of them were assembled in Halaster’s lair, they could perform some sort of ritual to “untie the Knot” in the Weave. I didn’t know anything other than that, other than, of course, the rest of the party would make up 4 out of the 7 apprentices. With Halleth, I had a 5th. Who were the other 2? No. Damn. Idea.

Halleth grew into a party favorite, and I enjoyed running him and his awkward flirtations with Nia that eventually (of course) wore her down. I decided his background needed some embellishment, and ultimately landed on him not only being from Daggerford, but actually nobility there (or whatever passed for it in a place as small as Daggerford). Then, I could have some movement from Gardenia’s terrorist family target Daggerford, and thus target Halleth, and really bring some of the threads together. It worked out pretty well as an extra-dungeon excursion for them to take when Halleth was kidnapped by the druid terrorists and Daggerford briefly taken over by their sect.

I know a lot of people frown upon the “DMPC”, and I see those arguments as incredibly valid. I go back and forth on the concept, myself, but I think, ultimately, in a game like DotMM, I really needed to have Halleth there just to prevent myself from going insane. I’m a big believer in the idea that you should try to have fun as a DM, too, because that fun is going to ripple out among your party. There are exceptions to this — I’ve had plenty of DMs who prioritize their fun at the expense of their party (or demand payment, but that’s a long post for a different day (which will never come)). However, I know my style well enough to know that I need to have at least one voice in the mix to be a creative outlet for me, a way to get them unstuck in certain situations where they think there’s a puzzle and there isn’t, or to provide some much-needed levity when there’s a lull. These lulls are bound to happen with frequency in DotMM — it’s a slog. So, Halleth the DMPC cleric healbot was born, and I have no regrets. I don’t think my party does, either. I imagine that, without Halleth in the party, the adventure could’ve taken twice as long. Sometimes you need NPCs around to clear the fog, and the fact is that there simply aren’t very many of them in DotMM, especially in comparison to what came before. Not only that, our little NPC romance plot was really one of the only instigators of roleplay that I was able to provide in many of the dungeon’s emptier floors. My players are always good about picking up the ball and carrying it but the fact is a lot of the floors in the dungeon had no such balls. … Yeah, I should’ve phrased that differently.

Floor by Floor

All right, at this point I’m going to run through my copy of the book and see what pops out to me as something worth remembering. I don’t know if this section is going to be very useful, but if I have any advice based on our experience, I’ll share it, along with any stories I remember. It’s worth noting that my players didn’t necessarily go through these floors in order — they used the gates to jump ahead and then retrace backwards quite a few times, especially in the home stretch.

Floor 1, the “Dungeon Level”, took the longest, as I recall. The first room alone, where there’s basically water, an old statue, and nothing else, took them an hour in itself. I was about ready to get the noose. There isn’t much that’s exciting here, kind of the usual dungeon fare. You’ve got a gelatinous cube near the bottom, which I don’t think they ever even found, our first gate to another floor, and a bunch of Xanathar Guild people that they didn’t really bother with. For the first two floors, since they did some research on the dungeon before entering, I gave them some distorted maps with stuff written on them that was vaguely indicative of what was on the floors. The manticore fight was pretty dull, and I’m pretty sure the only real thing of note from floor 1 was Halleth.

Floor 2 has the goblin bazaar and all of Halleth’s former traveling companions. I had some fun with the refrigerator (they saw “fridge” and “spiders” beneath it on the map I gave them, so they assumed there were “fridge spiders” somewhere in the dungeon, which was hilarious) and the walking ballistae, and the fight in the brewery with the beholder zombie was neat. Tracking down all of Halleth’s companions was amusing, and the best part of the floor was definitely the Circlet of Human Perfection in the goblin bazaar, currently on the head of the goblins’ leader. It’s an awesome item and gave Copper a lot of enchantment ideas. I don’t think they ever found the gibbering mouthers, but they did find that weird drow guy who has a map of the floor in his room. I don’t really know what that guy’s deal is. The “Kalabash” area is fun but kind of pointless.

Floor 3 was the last place where they spent a long while. They knew coming in that Xanathar was nearby, and they dispatched basically all the drow pretty quickly. The hags were a fun little encounter since they didn’t really feel like attacking them, resulting in some humorous roleplay, and Azrok’s Hold was a delight, especially Kinrob the Oni and the fact that all the characters have to fill out ID cards when they first show up. They knew Azrok was a jerk, but they couldn’t really do anything, and were thoroughly creeped out by Preeta Kreepa, who was transmuted into an abomination by Arcturia. Skullport was moderately interesting, with them meeting a Harper contact and buying some pets, learning about some duergar who may have stolen from Azrok, and then facing off against Xanathar.

The fight against Xanathar was the most memorable session, I think — it was the only one our group had as an in-person session (otherwise we played over Fantasy Grounds), and I built a ton of plaster terrain using molds from Hirst Arts (highly recommend their stuff). I even painted a mini! The fight was intense; Wobbles got disintegrated and Halleth got dead, and they got some great loot. Afterwards, Wobbles was reincarnated using Gardenia’s druid grove (from Matt Colville’s incredibly hit-or-miss Strongholds and Followers) and turned into a halfling. Not bad. Halleth got better, as well. From this point, the Blackstaff gave Copper a promotion and let him send some Gray Hands operatives down to floor 1 to create a base of operations before sending him further down to deal with Halaster. This is also when I finally convinced them not to be completionists about the dungeon so we could finish before we all were drinking Moon Juice with president Ariana Grande. As such, they began to jump around and only spent time looking into the things that they actually thought were interesting.

I don’t have anything to say about floor 4 because they completely skipped it! As I recall, the party jumped down from floor 3 to floor 6, which is kind of a “hub” of gates given that it connects to a whopping 11 other floors. As such, when they got to floor 6 and were thoroughly underwhelmed by it, they dug around through a few more floors and eventually decided to climb back up to floor 5. They had actually already looted the lair of Tearulai — the dragon with a sword embedded in his brain that makes him good — by sneaking in through another gate. They didn’t realize for a while that that was actually what they’d done, so it was kind of fun for them to learn later on that they’d accidentally stolen a bunch of stuff from him. Wyllow is a somewhat interesting character, on whom they’d also already spied thanks to a different gate bringing them into her attic, but unfortunately the book doesn’t really give you a lot to go off of for her. She’s got a sufficiently tragic backstory, but there’s no hint as to what you’re actually supposed to have her … do. So they talked to her, got sad, and then left and never bothered to deal with her again.

As mentioned, floor 6 is kind of stupid. It’s nice in that it serves as a giant train station for gates, but if you’re running the book as it’s written you’re not going to be able to use many of them. It’s kind of neat because it’s sort of a “recently uncovered” floor dug into by umber hulks, which are basically the only combat encounters you can hope to find here, so floors 5 and 7 actually connect to each other, as well. There’s some interesting stuff here involving Clan Ironeye and the history of the dwarven king buried here, but a lot of it is shit you can’t hope to ever do anything with unless you think to cast Legend Lore, which … who ever prepares that spell? For being as massive as it is there’s shockingly little going on here. Floor 6 also has what’s probably the dumbest thing in the entire book, which is the revelation of a magic word — namely, “xunderbrok.” After some convoluted puzzle-solving, the book rewards them with a word that, if they say it in certain rooms, reveals a secret. Of course, the rooms where this actually works are insanely few in number (I think there are maybe four places, total), and much, much deeper than floor 6. Your players are going to forget. You’re going to forget. And it doesn’t matter at all. As I recall, my party went through every gate, and then decided to stick around on floor 13. They did, eventually, make their way back to the floors in between.

I can’t say I remember exactly when in their excursion they touched on floor 7, but I really enjoyed it. The concept of Maddgoth’s shrunken castle doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, and is pretty clearly a hasty adaptation of an older, famous module, but it’s fun nonetheless. The area surrounding the castle doesn’t have much going on, but the idea of the players approaching the castle and getting shrunk down to a tiny size where Otto the faerie dragon can actually be a threat is great. I also really love the absurd magic shit here, like the buttons that electrocute the whole castle, the lost homunculus wandering around aimlessly, the room with an oven that lets you make golems, and the helmet that gives you immunity to all damage while inside the castle. All really fun stuff but ultimately rather pointless. There isn’t much to do here other than harass Otto and pick up the ship in a bottle (which ended up being extremely useful later on), a fun magic item that turns into a full-sized longship. They came back through here another time and I decided to have Maddgoth (basically a garden-variety lich) show up. He killed Wobbles, since they definitely weren’t expecting to actually find him here when they traipsed back on one of their journeys back to the surface.

Floor 8 is pretty boring unless you love bullywugs, and I’m pretty sure we spent less than a session here. It’s just super underwhelming for a level 10 party, which is what they’re expected to be. The temple is moderately interesting but ultimately lacking in anything worthwhile. There are nagas here, which can pose something of a challenge, but my players never had a reason to go very far south in this floor, especially once they found the gate to floor 10. Floor 9 is actually very cool. My group’s druid Gardenia had them ‘special eyes’ (high wis, proficiency in perception, and the Observant feat) so they came out of the staircase and immediately found the secret door, causing them to sort of circumvent the primary entrances. The trapped demon in the southwestern rooms was a treat for them to contend with, and they ended up letting him free. They slaughtered a few of the students before eventually finding the professors, and also shoved a petrified dragonborn in their bag of holding, leading to the worst NPC in the entire godforsaken game. They found him in their bag maybe ten sessions later and decided to use a greater restoration to bring him back to life, and of course the book gave me exactly nothing to go off of regarding who the hell this character is supposed to be. And thus was born Bartholomew Rafghanistan, a dragonborn sorcerer who was essentially just an expy of Tiberius Stormwind (but significantly less creepy) who screwed off after precisely five seconds.

Nester the necromancer ended up being a hilariously awesome fight, with the party split and Wobbles and Nia being forced to contend with him alone (it didn’t go well). The rambling professor orb was a lot of fun, too (one of those pops up again in Rime of the Frostmaiden), and even though I accidentally let it slip that the headmaster was a yugoloth pretending to be Halaster when they conversed with another professor, it was still a pretty fun romp through the segments of this level that they chose to deal with … and then there are the statues. At a few points on this floor there are sets of statues of Halaster that say random things when you walk between them. All of them are stupid. All of them are harmless. Except for one. If you roll an 8, the statues yell “Die!” and cast power word kill. It’s kind of an insane thing to even think about putting here. And I knew as soon as I read it that someone would die here. It ended up being Halleth, contributing to our party’s meme about his life being a colossal disaster (I think at last count he died 7 times, including one time when he was killed by his own mother (which we’ll get to)). Luckily, it ended up being a great narrative moment for his burgeoning romance with Nia when the time came to bring him back to life (thanks be to Matt Mercer’s resurrection rules, highly recommended).

Floor 10 was an odd one, since they’d come through here in different places several times thanks to the numerous gates that spit you out here. The drow intercom that constantly drones platitudes and orders is a nice touch, and when they came down for the last time they finally got a taste of their own medicine when a veritable army of drow came bearing down on them after they thought they’d escaped safely through a gate right inside the throne room. They fought basically the entire population of the floor in one room, and then had to contend with Muiral, the floor’s namesake. This was where I decided to start enacting my plan to have them face off against Halaster’s apprentices, only a few of which are actually present in the book. Muiral was a worthy opponent, using walls of force to lock down single targets and wail on them. It was a tough fight and well-memorable. Then there was the room with a statue that made Wobbles go nuts and try to kill everyone, which was also a great time. that room is famous in our group for being the one where everyone learned that gaseous form is kind of a shitty spell. This floor is probably among the best-designed in the book, despite the fact that it has the same problem as the others: way too many goddamn drow.

Level 11 is rather pointless. It’s basically just troglodytes and drow, and an admittedly cool encounter with a behir. This was the floor they went as their first foray into the dungeon with shopkeep Merric Fastfoot, who officially joined the group after they did him a big favor up above. Other than the behir, I remember precisely nothing of interest about this floor. Level 12 is the Maze Level — a bit of a misnomer because it’s really less of a maze and more of a handful of tunnels full of minotaurs (a huge step down from the Labyrinth of Out of the Abyss, if you ask me) and, of course, drow. This was where Fargas, or as he was known to Humphrey, “Silk” (a codename he chose based on being stuck in a bunch of spiderwebs in the Underdark when the old party discovered him) was wandering around after having gone insane. The gang had seen him a couple of times after gate-hopping and just knew him as “that guy eating bugs”, which Humphrey never realized was Silk because … why would he? They came to this floor rather late in the game and Wobbles and Copper managed to get themselves charmed by a pair of incubi, which led to a pretty awesome fight by the rest of the party to go and get them back from the otherwise rather dull drow fortress taking up the northern chunk of the map.

Level 13 is one of my favorites, and begins a string of great levels of the dungeon. Not only is it home to the Lava Child, the most existentially horrifying image produced by any D&D sourcebook ever, it’s got a big-ass worm, some hobgoblins, and Zox Clammersham (and his pet badger!). Zox is a rarity in the dungeon, especially this deep, as a person who’s actually rather rational. They popped up in his house via the gate in his parlor the first few times they came to the floor, and indeed the first time they arrived they were rather underleveled for such a deep floor. They stuck around nonetheless, and befriended Zox (who is a goddamn archmage). Taking out the Bore Worm was fun, and though they never fought Shockerstomper in here, he did come back later on … Additionally, the hobgoblins led by Yargoth from floor 14 were fed up with their leader’s weirdness brought on by cavorting with a flumph, so the gang was able to convince them to just make their way up to floor 3 and take up residence in the house that used to be Azrok’s. Neat. Floor 14 is pretty cool, too, and let me make great use of our good friend Vincent Trench (you know, the rakshasa?). By this point, the party knew he was a rakshasa and had been tasked by the city to get rid of him. He had asked them to find an old friend of his in the dungeon named Alussiarr, the rakshasa that Arcturia has locked up in area 39. I thought that might be a good way to give that guy something to do because the book doesn’t explain a single thing about him or why he’s there, really. It worked, and they stayed away from the creepy bone room with a gate in it until later on. Arcturia was a brutal fight (I decided to bring her to floor 14 instead of all the way at the end of the dungeon where she’s supposed to be), and the whole Mecha-Halaster thing is … interesting, I guess? More importantly, there’s a completely inexplicable animated stove. For some reason. Unfortunately, they never used the giant magic thing that disintegrates everything on the floor because, quite frankly, the various keys you need to use to unlock it are way too hard to find. I had Zox mention something about them to try and let them know it existed because otherwise they would’ve totally ignored the whole thing. I mean, they did anyway.

Level 15, alas, was another floor my players skipped, despite how stoked I was for the obstacle course. Ah, well. Don’t worry, Netherskull came back later in a big way. Level 16 is kinda nuts. At first glance it seems pretty basic — a big set of rooms full of gith with weird holes and some constructs. And then you realize that the holes are actually portals to space, and the other half of the floor is a giant asteroid with a dragon living on it. Awesome. At least, conceptually. Unfortunately there’s not much to do here other than look at the cool stuff. There’s not much incentive to fight anything here and the stairs down to floor 17 are, like, right there. Level 17 is another wacky floor. It’s got a gigantic god damn neothelid, some of the scorpion bots from floor 13 but with brains in glass cases, doors that are basically impossible to open, a whole heap of mind flayers at war with the gith from the floor above, and … oh yeah, the Matrix. It was my devout hope that the mind flayers would knock out the party when they confronted them and they would wake up in Alterdeep, the simulated version of Waterdeep run by the illithid, but it never got to happen. Instead, that’s where the gang found Silk and promptly cured his insanity. Shortly thereafter he joined the gang full-time, bringing the 7th member of Nia’s inner circle. 15-17 is honestly the highlight of the whole dungeon.

Floor 18, the Vanrakdoom. There’s a whole bunch of backstory about sad shadow dragons and their special traveling friend who have a serious case of the Not-Gays, and then a whole bunch of vampires. The party came down here way too early the first time, killed some cultists, and then got spooked. I basically had to spoonfeed them the whole story about how to purify the shadow dragon (via some helpful lore dumped on them by Vincent Trench when they blackmailed him into scouting ahead for them … it’s a long story) because otherwise it wasn’t ever going to happen. Then I buffed the vampires considerably and dropped a Nightwalker in as another of Halaster’s apprentices. Let me tell you, those Nightwalkers don’t mess around. It was an amazingly tense fight, with everyone getting charmed and nearly dying to the Nightwalker’s crazy abilities. The whole Shadowfell-adjacent thing this floor has going on is pretty cool but ultimately doesn’t really make a difference. There’s also the random civilian who’s here, who I really didn’t know what to do with. Floor 19 has little going for it, in my book. The genie fight is kind of cool, I guess (though my party totally ignored it and went straight for the spelljammer ship). What’s cooler is the bigass Nautiloid shipwreck with, essentially, Davy Jones aboard. I had him not be instantly hostile, because why would he be, and offer to give them the ship if they could find its helm and help him get it out of where it was stuck. Neat. They spent half a session here and dipped for level 20.

Level 20 is stupid. There’s a lich here, who’s probably a pushover for the level they’re supposed to be, and that’s basically it. It was the first place they sort of interacted with Halaster, through the big chunk of runestone floating in the middle of the cave, and you’ve got to love the giant jigsaw puzzle that blows you up, the magic-8-ball wall that only answers vaguely, and the statue that dispenses moldy cheese and candied plums, but really there isn’t a lot to do here. The lich, Ezzat, is obsessed with destroying Halaster, so he’s probably not going to try and wreck the party if he knows what they’re doing. I had him drop some info about how Halaster’s lair worked and then be completely gone the next time they came down. I guess there’s also a mummy lord in here that’s pretty much impossible to come across, and a room called Toothy Maw that I have to assume is a dig at Matt Mercer. Level 21 has, hooray, more duergar, along with an insane planetar that gives you a stupid social encounter where he’ll basically just fight you unless the players do a very specific thing they have almost no chance of knowing about. So that’s cool. The duergar is kind of a neat tie-in to Gracklstugh if your players have done Out of the Abyss, and he’s also married to a dragon? Which is neat? Not much worth doing here other than finding the dead cleric and figuring out why the planetar is here before you go kill him.

I thought level 22 was going to be a lot cooler than it was, but essentially it just became a sneak-fest down to the bottom where the gate to Halaster’s floor is. The big black obelisk that’s here is a nice tie-in to the other adventures, which all have them as well (pretty much only bother with it if you’re going to run Rime of the Frostmaiden, though), and a pretty dull fight with a Death Knight. Meh. The aberration stuff is kind of neat but really doesn’t actually impact the floor much. I increased the rarity requirement on the gate to Halaster’s lair, because I don’t think by this level giving up an uncommon magic item is much of an issue. Level 23, the final level, is admittedly rather awesome. The tension is ramped up significantly just by virtue of it being the final level, and there are some really interesting traps and areas to explore before you figure out how to proceed. I planted Trobriand here as a sort of traitor to Halaster who fought them because he knew their actions were unwittingly helping Halaster achieve his goals. They mortally wounded him before he explained that by removing all of Halaster’s apprentices, they were actually strengthening Halaster’s bond to the Weave (all a bunch of made-up mumbo jumbo on my part). And man, is Trobriand a cool villain. So long as you don’t just find him as a comatose old man possessing a suit of armor. The tower has some goofy little traps and areas that befit Halaster, and the floor has random gates to, like, everywhere, that you can use as easy ties in to further campaigns. The gnome in the mirror is tragic, and the naked statues of Halaster riding a donkey are the best.

Loose Ends to be Tied

In completing my version of Dragon Heist, the group had a lot of unfinished baggage with each of the villains left over from that campaign. Jarlaxle became a close ally of the group, and they called on him for a lot of favors which he made them swear they would one day repay — and they did. On one of many visits to Luskan to restock on resurrection diamonds, they were confronted by Jarlaxle saying the time had come for him to finally amass his allies and return to Menzobarrenzan to kill his sister, the Matron Mother Quenthel Baenre. I decided this would be a fun little jaunt for my two players who’d been in Out of the Abyss, and provide me with some interesting things to do with Jarlaxle and the drow in the future games I would run. They went to Araj, the tower of Vizeran DeVir (from OotA, natch), and snuck their way into Menzo to confront Quenthel head-on. It was an awesome fight, made even better when they discovered that Vincent Trench, whom they’d sent there to spy on her after arranging for the city to pardon his crimes, was in the room to join the fray. Jarlaxle poetically got the killing blow, and the party was handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

Manshoon was a notable thorn in the party’s side for the entire run. I decided that he was Halaster’s seventh apprentice, and put him in possession of the Hand of Vecna, along with the Tome of the Stilled Tongue. For a time, he worked with Gardenia’s terrorist uncle Nyl and set them on some heinous deeds (including indoctrinating Halleth’s mother and briefly taking over Daggerford) before tricking the party into acquiring the Tome. Halaster’s plan all along was to possess all the Vecna artifacts, but he didn’t want to cede his control to the God of Evil Secrets quite yet. Manshoon was a pawn without realizing it, but he was able to antagonize the gang several times on the surface. One notable mission had them teaming up with Davil Starsong and Ziraj the Hunter, the only remaining members of the Doom Raiders, to find and kill many of the bio-terrorists working for Nyl, and take down one of many of Manshoon’s simulacra. Some stay there are still some out there …

The Cassalanters were a rather depressing case. I decided that Vincent used to work for their family as a sort of fiendish liaison, and that he had orchestrated the eventual downfall of Nia’s noble family at their behest. Not only did this provide some nice tension between him and the party, it also gave me something to do with the Cassalanters, in whom the party was never particularly interested in. They became aware of their dealings with Asmodeus during Dragon Heist, and at a few points idly wondered what had become of their children. They scryed on them and discovered they’d fled to an island far in the ocean and stuck their children in a Mirror of Life Trapping. Pitying them somewhat, the group reached out and found that Victorio had been journeying trying to find a way to break their pact with Asmodeus, while Ammalia waited for the legions of devils to swamp their island. The party cajoled Jarlaxle into bringing them with, and I came up with this group of aging former privateers who had hired Jarlaxle’s services to bring them somewhere where they could fight a monster. Those guys were some neat NPCs but the party didn’t really have time for them so they were effectively written out. Shit happens.

Rather amusingly the party got most of the way to the island where the Cassalanters were to be beset upon by armies of fiends before realizing that they didn’t really care what happened to them. As such, they got about 3/4 of the way there and then turned the ship around and went back home. So those kids are super dead.

The last major excursion was a favorite of mine, where the gang realized that in order to destroy Halaster, empowered as he was by Vecna, they would (of course) need the Sword of Kas. So they called upon basically every ally they’d made in the past years (plus Boogaloo, the slaad friend they made in Out of the Abyss because of reasons) and set sail to far, far away (which they were able to navigate thanks to the one and only successful Divine Intervention Halleth was able to get). I threw a ton of crazy encounters at them that I pulled out of my ass, like a giant rock they could inscribe a vow on to get a feat (which two players did, one choosing Sentinel and the other choosing … Grappler …) massive, insane maelstroms, inversions of gravity, and even passing through the lair of Scylla and Charybdis. I decided that, the farther one went into uncharted waters, the more resistant the world became to further travel. I think the weirdness and tension worked to great effect, and eventually they came upon the massive Zaratan that housed the Sword. The gang split into separate groups to effectively navigate the various threats they faced, and Humphrey had an intense duel with the Aspect of Kas before besting it and receiving the nasty weapon. Hastily, they teleported back before the ship got eaten by an island (with a minor mishap involving accidentally teleporting Merric’s dragon wife into Waterdeep, which has a magically-enforced strict no-dragons-allowed policy).

I managed to wrap up basically all of the extraneous plot threads the group had on the surface before they delved into the final levels of the dungeon to eventually face Halaster. A particularly memorable session had Copper’s burgeoning love interest Celniana captured by a handful of bandits. Preparing for a nasty fight, the party was somewhat shocked to discover that, no, these were just regular bandits who stood absolutely no chance against our legendary heroes. It’s kind of fun once in a while to remind your party of just how strong they are compared to an ordinary Joe Schmoe, and it was a fitting tribute to the countless thugs they faced in their early days in Dragon Heist. Before they went down the final time there was a big meeting of the various movers and shakers of Waterdeep to discuss everything (one of my favorite sessions) where Manshoon was secretly acting as one of the Masked Lords to propose bringing the Walking Statues out of the ethereal plane (so Halaster could use them, you see). It went off without a hitch.

Duel with the Devil Living in your Mind

I’m going to be blunt — as written, Halaster sucks. He’s a total pushover for a 20th level party (which mine wasn’t). I buffed the shit out of him. He was able to, as a lair effect, summon a creature from a random floor each round — this was how they finally did battle with Netherskull and Shockerstomper — he summoned Manshoon partway through to finally kill him and retrieve the Hand of Vecna, and once they put him down and managed to perform the rather involved ritual I made up, he managed to trick them into letting him free to activate the gate back up to the surface. In so doing, he revealed to Nia that he’d been her patron all along (thanks to a carefully-placed journal documenting the other half of the session recaps I’d been writing on our Discord server) and awoke the Walking Statues of Waterdeep.

I had an epic second half of the boss battle planned, but of course Wobbles wasn’t having any of it and used his carefully-preserved 9th level spell slot to Wish Halaster into the dirt. So that was that. And it was awesome. Copper destroyed the Tome of the Stilled Tongue he’d been holding onto, the other Vecna artifacts were similarly dealt with as best as they could be, and everything tied up in a neat little bow with a handful of marriages and the usual end-of-campaign trappings.

If you’ve read the DotMM campaign book you’ve probably realized that this ain’t it, chief. And it’s super not. I changed practically everything to fit the kind of game I wanted to run and my players wanted to play. Does that mean DotMM is a bad campaign book?

Yes. Look, if you want a megadungeon full of drow and duergar and a bunch of samey rooms with boring puzzles and the occasionally accidentally interesting NPC, then sure. But to be quite honest, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is really just a bigger, worse version of Tomb of Annihilation or Tales from the Yawning Portal. It’s not fun unless you put in stupid amounts of work, or if your party is that kind of party who probably decided to do this because they finished Gloomhaven. If that’s your party, great! If that’s not your party, you can either try to enact something like the myriad changes I made to make this enjoyable, or … just … just run a different adventure. If you like one of the floors, steal it and use it as a standalone dungeon. It’ll work just fine. But 23 dungeons of varying quality do not an adventure make.

If you’ve made it to the end of this 8,000 word tirade and still have any questions about my experience with Dungeon of the Mad Mage, please feel free to ask! I love talking about my D&D games to anyone who will listen, and though the book itself is rather weak, I still had a blast with this campaign and I think (hope) my players did, too. I learned a lot from the two years I spent with Waterdeep, and though I’m not in a hurry to get back, I appreciate this one for what it is. Dragon Heist is, by the way, definitely worth the buy. Despite my misgivings about DotMM, its predecessor is one of the finest adventures WotC has published for fifth edition.

All right, my hands hurt. Enough about this. Maybe in another couple years I’ll have something to say about Rime of the Frostmaiden.