This article contains spoilers for Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage and mild spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
First thing’s first. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is now available on D&D Beyond! All 23 deadly levels of the biggest and deadliest dungeon in Faerûn are now open for exploration. If you’re interested in running this adventure, let me be the first to urge you to get it in the D&D Beyond Marketplace. I love hardcover books, but being able to open the dungeon map in another window and view it beside the dungeon text feels amazing, especially compared to flipping back and forth between map and text in a hardcover book.
Last week, we discussed how to bridge the gap between Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. One option for tempting adventurers into a megadungeon was to play upon their simple desire for gold and experience through a missive from Obaya Uday, a Chultan priestess of Waukeen interested in purchasing rare artifacts drudged up from Undermountain. This letter—essentially a job offer—should be enough to attract characters who
- Need cash, and
- Enjoy adventuring.
Which hopefully applies to all players interested in playing Dungeon of the Mad Mage. (If that isn’t tantalizing enough on its own, you’ll have to get creative.) As an added bonus, here’s “Durnan’s Warning,” a note from Durnan, tavernkeeper of the Yawning Portal, which he slipped into Obaya’s message. This note is a bit of reverse psychology. Durnan is warning adventurers away from Undermountain, but his lavish descriptions of the magnificent treasure and thrilling danger to be found within will hopefully goad your players on, rather than warn them away.
Perhaps that is Durnan’s motivation in-character, as well. He makes money lowering adventurers into Undermountain from the Yawning Portal, and the overeager ones rarely return. Maybe those deaths weigh on his conscience. Maybe not.
Evening, adventurers. The name’s Durnan, and I slipped this note into Obaya’s letter while she weren’t looking. I’m the owner and proprietor of this inn and tavern, and let’s get one thing straight: this letter ain’t an invitation. It’s a warning.
I remember you lot well. I remember when you broke up the fight ‘twixt Yagra and those Xanathar goons, and when you fought that troll that climbed out of the well all those weeks ago. You’re fine adventurers, and I don’t want to see you throwing your lives away.
The Yawning Portal’s a splendid tavern. When I knocked down Halaster’s tower and built the Portal upon Undermountain’s only surviving gate, I wasn’t doing it to seal away some ancient evil. Undermountain don’t just belong to the Mad Mage. He is it. And it’s him. You’ll understand soon enough, if you go down there. I did when I first explored those damned tunnels.
When Mirt and I went down into Undermountain, we came out as rich men. Richer than any living soul has any business being, if I’m honest. He went and bought himself a mansion and made himself a fancy Masked Lord. Me, I built a tavern atop the yawning portal the tower left when I knocked it down. For years, I ran that place, watching adventurers like my younger self go in, seeking their own reward and oft only finding their doom.
About a full century ago, I went into Undermountain one last time, and I left the running of the Yawning Portal to my descendants—‘til I came up a few years ago with another pack full of treasure and bought the place back from my great-great-great-great-grandson. I haven’t told anyone what I did down there for the last century, and I’m not keen to say, but let me tell you this: things have changed in Undermountain. Something is brewing down there. I can’t say if it’s a threat to Waterdeep or the North, but if it is … well, it ain’t my problem.
I’m telling you all this because I know you—and I also know your type. You want gold and riches, but you also want more. You want to get stronger. You want to unravel mysteries. You want to become something … greater. It feels like a lifetime ago, but I’ve felt all of those feelings before. I’m not worried about the whelps who go down the well with a chip on their shoulder—you know the type—just to win bragging rights for killing a few giant rats in the upper levels. Every now and then, one of 'em gets killed by their own ego, but they’re smart enough (or cowardly enough) to know when the tuck tail and run.
You go down there, and you won’t never turn back. You’re dying to see the secrets of the Arcane Chambers and to speak with the disembodied presence of Halaster’s lost apprentice. You want to see the mystical underground forest of Wyllowwood and parley with a kindhearted dragon. You want to gaze into the stars and walk upon the surface of Selune’s Tears.
I only give warnings once; if you’re still keen on dying in the darkness, let it be your decision. But don’t let your need to thrills get you killed. Or your need to see “just one more room.” I won’t be disappointed to see you at my tavern if you do take this job, but I will mourn your descent.
Here, let’s make a deal. If you make it all the way to Skullport on the Sargauth Level—that’s the third dungeon level of Undermountain, for the record—find a place called the Guts & Garters. Find the proprietor, a tiefling who calls himself Quietude, and remind him that he owes me 100 gold, plus about 20 years’ interest. I don’t care much about the money; I just want to see how the old dog reacts. Come back and show me that you’ve got what it takes to make it that deep, and you’ll have earned my favor. You do that, and you’ll have a permanent room and a table in the taproom set aside for your party at the Yawning Portal… and an invitation to swap stories with me, whenever you’re back.
There’s no valor in death. Valor is what you make of life.
Onward to Undermountain
Hopefully, this message encourages your players to visit Undermountain, rather than dissuade them from taking your adventuring hook. Hopefully it spurs them to visit Wyllowwood and meet the good green dragon Tearulai, and to gaze into space from upon an asteroid in low orbit around Faerûn. More than anything, I hope this note will encourage them to try and melt Durnan’s icy exterior. Durnan is a fascinating character whose grim demeanor belies a kind soul and a wealth of knowledge and experience.
(Plus, bonding with Durnan over stories of adventuring will make his false appearance in “Alterdeep” even more of a gut punch.)
The little quest provided in this message is a jumping-off point for expanding Durnan into a fully realized character for your home game. The quest urges the characters to visit Skullport, meet with the proprietor of a tavern called the Guts & Garters, and ask him to pay a long-outstanding debt he owes to Durnan. Whether or not he pays the money is up to you, and frankly, Durnan doesn’t care much either way. Underneath his tough exterior, Durnan is beginning to care for the adventurers, because they remind him a little bit of himself.
Maybe if the characters prove themselves especially worthy, Durnan would grant the party’s frontline fighter with his beloved greatsword of sharpness, Grimvault.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his corridor critters, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.