Thursday, May 3, 2012

Halls of Undermountain 4E - A Review

This is actually pretty good and I'm a little surprised - but happily so!

Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Undermountain:

The first one: I thought it was awesome - look at those poster maps! This was the first time I ever saw poster-sized dungeon maps and the mind reeled at the potential - one giant dungeon ... multiple groups ... multiple campaigns! Sure I had read about Greyhawk and such but hearing or reading about it and seeing the maps on the table are two very different experiences. I was later disappointed to find out that the books only covered parts of the dungeon - I thought that they should cover all of it and that anything less was a failure to reach the concept's potential. Still, publishing giant dungeon maps with at least overview notes on what they contained was a step farther than we had seen up until then. I still thought of it as somewhat failing to live up to its promise though.

There were more expansions, and they left a similar sensation of reach exceeding grasp. I have most of them, have for many years, and yet have never run an Undermountain campaign - or a Waterdeep game for that matter.

They just keep coming ...

I considered using Waterdeep/Undermountain for one of my 4E games but we ended up going in a different direction. That's one reason I'm fairly familiar with it, because I was looking through the original set just last year in one of my Megadungeon-obsessed phases. It passed, and the Apprentices are playing Temple of Elemental Evil now, heh.

That's not the last one...

On to this book:

  1. Giant Dungeon Poster Map Like the Original: Check
  2. Poster-Sized Encounter Maps like Most 4E Adventures: Check
  3. Notes on Effects of the Spellplague: Check
  4. Watered-down overview of levels with short weak adventures thrown in like the original - not exactly
First, the book only really covers the first level of Undermountain. That's not a harsh "only" though because a bunch of the book is taken up by the 80 room descriptions and I don't mean "10 - Empty Room" and "27 - 6 orcs, Hp 5,5,4,4,3,2, 6 gp each" but a DM description, flavor text, and notes on traps, features, monsters, and magic items (if any) for each. Within these descriptions are 3 separate adventures for character levels 1-5, new monsters, new traps, and new magic items. They do not do the standard 4E 2-page encounter presentation but in this case it's just fine with me.

You can tell it's big because it's really really small ... right?
Beyond this core there are 3 d100 tables for Room Purpose, Natural Room features, and Magical Room features. There is a wandering monster table for the first dungeon level. There are notes on the various ways to enter the dungeon and notes on some NPC's and why they might ask or hire the party to do so. In other words, it's a megadungeon starter kit! In a 4E book no less!

I'm convinced I could run a 4E megadungeon campaign now with little actual work on my part. Starting with this book and adding in Dungeon Delve and the dungeon sections of the various published WOTC adventures (Pyramid of Shadows anyone? Thunderspire Labyrinth?) and Essentials boxed sets and I could easily put together 10 levels of big dungeon and have some nifty poster maps to use without straining myself at all. Think of it as a Greatest Hits compilation of 4E adventures.

It's called "milking the brand" folks

So who would get the most out of this book? Someone starting a new 4E campaign - start your party at 1st level and let them jump right in! After all, 4E characters are so much more powerful that this old dungeon should be a piece of cake, right? Since it sits right next to a huge city you can mix in some of the political stuff as needed or for a change of pace and then get back to the kicking in the doors and the taking of the gold pieces that so many of us seek!

Someone already running a high Heroic or Paragon or Epic campaign is not going to get a lot of direct use out of it, but it's still a nice example/backup resource to  have on the shelf.

Never actually played this one

There is one thing that makes me see a little of the "failed potential" theme even here: Imagine if this had come out in Year 1 of 4E. Then imagine in Year 2 we got "Caverns of Undermountain" with another 80-100 rooms and a level or two for slightly higher levels.  The in Year 3 we see "Fiery Depths of Undermountain" and a similar amount of content. How great could that have been? I'm glad we got this one at all, even late in the apparent lifespan of 4E, and it is a very good book. I'll take it, and likely use it sooner or later, but it would have been that much better though if it had been volume one of a new series. 

Ah well, perhaps a project for sometime down the road. Maybe some kind of collaborative project with stat translations for multiple editions. Something to ponder.

Legendary! The Bad Kind!


Kiltedyaksman said...

It amazes me that TSR/WotC has made so much over so little.

Undermountain has a great name, but that's the only thing great about it.

Blacksteel said...

Every edition gets an Undermountain! It's required!

Seriously though there is a ton of potential here - mad wizard creates dungeon, city grows up next to it, that's a classic setup. We just need more meat on it.