Escape from Undermountain

Author: Mark Anthony
Published: February 1996

1996! At long last, we’re into the final stretch of TSR’s existence. Hemorrhaging cash from many departments, they attempted to compensate by cranking out no fewer than fourteen Realms novels in a single year, several of them in hardcover editions which were ruinously expensive to produce. It was too little too late, of course. The fall of TSR and the continued survival of Dungeons & Dragons is a fascinating story, but only tangentially related to exploring the novels, so I won’t dwell too long on the historical background. Just remember one important detail: for all of the novels we’re going to examine from now on, the authors and editors will be underpaid, overworked, and dreadfully low on morale. As such, I don’t have high hopes for any of these books… but if we’re lucky, we might unearth a hidden gem or two amidst all the dross.

I especially don’t have high hopes for this particular book, considering that I found Mark Anthony’s previous novel to be a painful slog. Still, perhaps the pitch for this one — a motley group of misfits goes dungeon-delving far beneath the streets of Waterdeep — will force him away from his usual action movie and epic fantasy tropes and into a more constrained, character-focused narrative. Who knows? Let’s crack it open and find out.

Plot

Undermountain! Next to Myth Drannor, it’s the most famous destination for adventurers in the Forgotten Realms. Beneath the metropolis of Waterdeep there lies a vast dungeon full of monsters, traps, treasures, and the bodies of countless fools who thought they’d explore its depths and return rich. This book sets its stage with a cold open introduction, unrelated to the rest of the story, where a company of overconfident adventurers gets massacred on their way out of Undermountain. It’s a good opening that shows the reader right away what a dangerous and unforgiving place it is. [1]

Then we jump to the very straightforward main plot. Artek the Knife, a famous burglar, is freed from prison on the condition that he do one last job: rescue a lost noble from the depths of Undermountain. His patron is an evil double-crossing bastard, so of course everyone involved ends up stranded in the deepest levels of Faerûn’s most dangerous mega-dungeon. Artek and his new friends have to claw their way back to the surface within two days or else a magical curse will kill him.

But before we talk further about the plot, let’s talk about dungeon design for tabletop role-playing games. In the early years of D&D’s history, designers were content to make a dungeon by drawing a bunch of boxes, putting hallways between them, then randomly choosing monsters and traps to go in each room without regard for plausibility or narrative. It was more about “Let’s go have adventures!” than “Let’s explore this realistic place in an immersive world.” But eventually designers realized that once players start asking “Why would anyone put a trap in this out-of-the-way spot?” or “What were all these rooms originally used for?” or “Why is the blink dog den right next to the dragon’s lair?” and there’s no answer, it kills their suspension of disbelief. By the mid-to-late 1980s dungeons would often have histories that explained why they were built a certain way, the various inhabitants would have relationships with each other, and there would be some semblance of a functioning ecology.

Undermountain, the sprawling dungeon beneath the city of Waterdeep, is more on the old-fashioned end of that spectrum. It began in the 1970s as a stack of hand-written notes and cramped, scribbled maps, part of Ed Greenwood’s homebrew D&D campaign in the pre-TSR Forgotten Realms, and was eventually cleaned up and published as a boxed set in 1991. (The first three levels of it, anyhow; the rest would be filled in over the years by later publications.) While at its core it’s just an old-style series of disconnected rooms with weird things in each, Greenwood lampshaded it by making it the creation of an ancient, psychotic wizard. If a player complains about how random it is, the DM can always retort “Well, the guy who built it was crazy. What did you expect?” But there’s little in the way of an ecology, and the monsters, traps, and curious features in each room rarely have any effect on the things in nearby rooms.

Unfortunately, the structure of this novel’s setting is a major influence on the plot. As the party ventures through Undermountain they encounter a wide variety of random, strange things that are nominally exciting and get the author closer to his contractually obligated word count, yet very little of it advances plot or characterization in a meaningful way. It feels like the author plotted this book by reading through the various Undermountain AD&D boxed sets, picking out a bunch of rooms that sounded interesting, then writing them up as a series of separate episodes with a little connective tissue to move the characters between them. If stripped of all the padding and reduced to only scenes which further the bare “escape from Undermountain, remove curse, get revenge on our betrayer” plot, Escape from Undermountain would be a rather short novella. The overall impression is similar to those old television and film serials which had to end each episode on a cliffhanger to keep audiences coming back for the next installment — but the problem with those is that once you realized that all the sound and fury didn’t mean anything, they lost their ability to excite you.

If these individual episodes had been skillfully executed, I’d be more forgiving. I think this book well and truly lost me during an early scene where the party is trapped in a tomb with two angry liches. The author apparently couldn’t figure out how to extricate them from the situation, because the liches defeat themselves by tripping on the way out of their coffins and smashing themselves to bone shards on the floor. Never before have I seen an author so clearly signal “I give up.” (And they’re not mentioned again thereafter, of course.)

The characters’ plan to escape Undermountain boils down to “track down Halaster’s six remaining apprentices and beg them for a way out.” (Naturally, they have to go through all six because the first five are no help.) Each apprentice’s bit is a disconnected episode bookended by more disconnected episodes, and almost all of them could be easily excised without impacting the overall plot. The party ends up visiting a number of notable locations from the Undermountain sourcebooks — the Grim Statue, the Wyllowwood, Trobriand’s Graveyard, the lanceboard room, the River Sargauth, et cetera — but it’s just a sightseeing tour on rails where they’re dragged from place to place by circumstance.

It picks up a bit at the end once the characters stop having random adventures and start doing things that actually get them closer to escaping Undermountain. I liked the bits where they finally meet Halaster (although it’s embarrassing how long they take to realize who he is), and while the manner of their eventual escape is a bit silly, at least it has some drama to it because it feels like an integral part of the story instead of a random sidequest. I was looking forward to seeing the characters return to the city and exact their revenge, but that rather important chunk of the plot is quickly wrapped up in a few final pages instead of being given the time it deserved.

It’s hard to see how this threadbare plot could have been saved, but I’ll venture a few ideas. First, it could use any subtlety at all. Making the villain so hideously evil from his very first scene was a misstep; if he’d started as a concerned benefactor, it would have meant something when his betrayal was revealed. The characters needed to know something about the places they were visiting, since without knowledge they can’t make meaningful choices. There needed to be recurring characters in Undermountain for the party to interact with rather than a succession of one-shot bad guys. And there’s only so much interaction you can milk from a small group of people wandering alone in a dungeon, so a visit to Skullport (the closest thing to civilization in Undermountain) to find information, companions, or supplies wouldn’t have gone amiss. But given the nature of the “characters escape from a big dungeon” premise, it’s a tough uphill battle to avoid falling into this sort of “sightseeing tour” structure.

Characters

Artek the Knife, our orc-blooded protagonist, is a mixed bag. My first impression was of a generic action-movie sort of hero, smoldering with a perfunctory sort of rage and quipping to an imaginary audience even when he’s alone. We’re told all of his backstory right at the beginning, but most of it only serves to explain how he ended up in his current predicament rather than explaining why he is who he is, or why he makes the decisions he does. But he does have the only major character conflict that lasts longer than one scene — his anger-management issues from his orcish lineage and upbringing — and it gives him a bit of much-needed depth over time.

Early on, he meets a mage named Beckla and they join forces to search for a way out. When the back-cover blurb described her as “comely but klutzy,” I groaned in despair. Good storytellers know how to create characters who feel like real people. Weak storytellers know that their characters are supposed to have flaws to balance out their positive attributes, but can’t bring themselves to sully their awesome characters with any defects that might make them less sympathetic to the reader. So nearly every time you see “clumsy” as a trait on a character in fiction, it’s because a bad writer thought “Here’s a flaw I can slap on my character which won’t make them look bad and can even be kind of endearing!” Their “flaw” is that bad things happen around them in ways that aren’t deliberately their fault, rather than the character actually making bad decisions, so the writer never has to make their darling suffer in non-superficial ways or do anything unpleasant the way they would if they were racist, bad-tempered, foolish, arrogant, or the like. And this particular “flaw” is almost always attached to female characters, probably because cute, endearing clumsiness makes a woman seem less threatening to a male audience.

Beckla’s whole shtick is that she’s a bumbling wizard of little ability, yet she spends the entire novel tossing around high-level spells like teleport and telekinesis like they’re nothing — but then, this is hardly the first time that Anthony’s played fast and loose with the setting’s rules when he has a story in mind that he wants to tell. Of all the characters she’s the quickest on the uptake and the least annoying, which makes her the best of the lot. It’s a shame that she gets shoved into a romantic relationship with Corin out of nowhere at the end, though. It’s as if the author thought that you can’t have a happy ending without someone walking off with the girl, but he couldn’t be bothered to build up any camaraderie or attraction between them beforehand.

Corin Silvertor [2], the noble whom Artek is roped into rescuing, is the archetypical upper-class twit: sheltered, impractical, not very bright. His main purpose is to serve as comic relief, bumbling into scrapes and saying daft things to lighten the mood. He gets some characterization later on as the unloved youngest son of an abusive nobleman, but it’s the kind of personal issue that’s dumped all at once and then completely resolved in that same scene by another character’s inspirational “believe in yourself!” speech, and it comes much too late.

It’s instructional to compare Corin with Giogioni Wyvernspur from Azure Bonds. Both are privileged, silly noblemen who serve as comic relief, but Giogi works much better because he’s still essentially human and not a caricature. He’s a fairly minor character in that book, but even with only a handful of scenes the reader still gets to see his kind heart, his lack of self-confidence, and his horrified curiosity about the messy, dangerous world he finds himself in. He makes funny mistakes, but they’re due more to naïveté rather than idiocy. Corin, on the other hand, is oblivious for comic effect — the sort of nitwit who goes “Jolly good, what a splendid adventure we’re having!” in obviously life-threatening circumstances when any sane person would gibber in terror. The upshot is that while Giogi feels like he stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Corin usually feels like a character from a slapstick comedy movie.

Guss, a sensitive and kind gargoyle whom the characters befriend in Undermountain, has a solid character premise that’s undone by a complete lack of subtlety. His main conflict is that Artek suspects him of being inherently evil, like most gargoyles, and doesn’t trust him, so Guss has to earn his friendship by proving his worth over the course of the novel. It could have worked if there had been any uncertainty about whether Guss was evil or not, but he’s so obviously sweet, optimistic, and thoughtful from his very first scene that suspecting him of being evil is like worrying that the sidekick from a Disney movie is a serial killer — you just can’t take it seriously. At one point Artek even sees him trapped in a magical illusion where he’s living out his deepest fantasy, and it turns out to be “basking in a sun-drenched meadow while sniffing wildflowers.” Even that blunt-instrument approach to characterization is still not enough to convince Artek, so the conflict feels manufactured.

The final member of the party is a canon character from the Undermountain tabletop materials: Muragh, the discarded undead skull of a long-dead priest. Surprisingly, I found him to be one of the better-handled characters here. He’s aggravatingly cheerful for most of the story — even decapitation and death couldn’t hinder his constant stream of blithe chatter — but he gets a couple quiet moments where he admits “Look, being dead really sucks and I’m terrified of being alone again” that throw the rest of his behaviour into a different light. He’s still an “annoying sidekick” archetype, but he’s got more going on than I expected.

The villain of this piece is one Lord Darien Thal, a bloodthirsty schemer who’s introduced in a scene where he murders a random person he meets for fun. For some unexplained reason, his arm ends in an Inspector Gadget-style Swiss Army Knife prosthesis; while it gives him a bit of a Bond villain vibe, the steampunk cyborg concept feels somewhat out-of-place in the Forgotten Realms. His evil plan is to dispose of Corin, his rival for a seat on the city’s Circle of Nobles, an organization which the author invented for this novel and that’s implied to have some sort of law-making powers. [3] As villains go, he’s not great — we know he’s evil from the get-go, we learn his plan and motivations early on, and then he spends almost the entire novel off-screen. Once the characters escape Undermountain at the end, he’s quickly dispatched. Let’s hope that nobody’s going to bother investigating the murder of a prominent, powerful noble, because the protagonists just leave his body on the floor and walk out without any proof of his perfidy.

Themes

By around the midpoint I noticed a thought stirring at the back of my mind: “I feel like I’m reading the novelization of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.”

Many of the plot points and character interactions have a sort of cartoony feeling about them, where it doesn’t feel like the party is ever in real danger. Characters exchange silly banter, take pratfalls, and have personal problems that can be resolved with platitudes. The setting is just a series of backdrops without much depth, each passed through once and then never seen again, and the opponents are often goofy in some way, like the “arr, walk the plank” zombie pirates or Trobriand’s dim-witted constructs, or dealt with in a goofy manner, like the aforementioned clumsy liches or the bit with the priests of Malar and the teleported rat. The universe behaves according to the rules of drama rather than the rules of physics: you can put hundreds of pounds of force onto a sword blade without shattering it into flinders, a cupful of old rum spilled onto someone makes them explode in flames as if you’d drenched them in napalm, and a refuse heap at the bottom of a long fall is enough to cushion one’s impact without even breaking a bone.

The episodic structure only reinforces the “series of short cartoons” impression, since there are almost no events whose consequences persist between episodes. When it does try to tackle heavier topics, like Beckla’s betrayal or Corin’s upbringing, they’re brought up and resolved in a single scene and then never mentioned again in a “very special episode” sort of manner. The end result is a staged feeling to the story that doesn’t do any favours for the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Writing

The narration is mostly decent, with the occasional detour into bombast:

No one knew from whence had come the one called Halaster.

Seriously? (Also, “from whence”?) But by and large it’s quite serviceable. The dialogue, on the other hand, is oddly clunky. In particular, characters will repeat what other people have just said at the drop of a hat to give them the chance to dump exposition:

“This must be the River Sargauth!” Muragh exclaimed, practically leaping from Artek’s hands as his jaw opened and shut in excitement.
“The Sargauth?” Artek asked.
Muragh managed to approximate a nod. “It has to be. Only the Sargauth could be this large. According to all the stories I’ve heard… [exposition, etc., etc.]”

If you were to turn it into a drinking game where you take a shot every time Artek restates something someone else has just said as a question, you wouldn’t make it through the book.

All of the protagonists come off as a bit dim, in fact, even though the author tries to play them off as clever. For instance, the party has just been magically gated to the lower levels of the dungeon. Beckla explains how you can’t teleport out of Undermountain, but gates still work. Then this happens:

However, according to Beckla’s spell, they were terribly deep — deeper than anyone had gone and managed to return in nearly a thousand years. Artek didn’t like those odds, and instinct told him that there was little hope in heading upward. But what other alternative was there?

His black eyes glittered sharply. The inkling of an idea crept into his cunning mind.

His bright idea is “Let’s find another gate to get out of here!” Well… yeah, buddy. Obviously. There are a handful of scenes like this where we have to watch the characters laboriously puzzle out something that was obvious to the reader, since the author usually spells out the answers to any potential mysteries a page or two before the characters have to solve them.

Conclusion

Grade: D+

This is the final novel that Mark Anthony wrote for TSR — sort of — and I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the end of them. At best they were inoffensive; at worst they were painful. Escape from Undermountain lies somewhere in between those two extremes: poor structure and poor characterization, but bad in a run-of-the-mill way rather than an “epic fail” way.

In fact, he wrote one more novel after this, a 1997 Drizzt novel entitled Shores of Dusk that TSR offered him the chance to write after they burnt their bridges with R.A. Salvatore. Mere weeks before it was due to be released, while the final copy was being typeset, the new management at Wizards of the Coast reached an agreement with Salvatore to have him write more Drizzt books instead. The completed Shores of Dusk was thrown on the scrap heap and we got Salvatore’s 1998 novel The Silent Blade in its place. It’s been an object of some curiosity for Realms fans throughout the decades because, as far as I know, no copies of the text have ever surfaced. But let’s be honest: it’s just as well.

Footnotes

[1] It seemed odd to me that the last survivor of the party would be murdered by the Yawning Portal’s staff for not being able to pay a one-gold-piece debt, given that its proprietor is a supposedly good-aligned Lord of Waterdeep whom you wouldn’t expect to kill a helpless man over a single coin. Turns out that’s actually part of the source material, though!

Note that individuals ascending without a gold piece to pay must forfeit all that they wear and carry in lieu of payment. If they refuse, or if they have nothing of any measurable worth, they are dropped down again— — without a rope, if their objections are too hostile or strenuous.

Apparently Durnan really is that much of an asshole.

[2] Waterdeep is a remarkably well-detailed setting. The city’s dozens of noble families were exhaustively enumerated in the AD&D tabletop materials: their prominent members, their business interests, even down to their coats of arms. But I’ve already gotten the distinct impression that Mark Anthony isn’t the kind of author who plays well with others in a shared setting, so I shouldn’t be surprised that he just made up a couple of family names for his noble Waterdhavian characters instead of using any existing ones.

[3] Again, you’d think with all of the tabletop materials Anthony referenced for this book, he could have taken a look at the ones that thoroughly detail Waterdeep’s government instead of ignoring it and making up something else.

6 Replies to “Escape from Undermountain

  1. The basic plot is a “homage” to the movie Escape from New York, although it goes a bit off the rails later on. It’s not ripping off if you admit it!

    1. Augh, you’re absolutely right! It’s been so many years since I saw Escape from New York that I didn’t recognize the identical premise: a prisoner is freed and sent to rescue someone important, but they’re fitted with a device that will kill them after a certain period of time if they fail. Escape from Undermountain doesn’t steal much besides that vague premise, which is actually kind of a pity. I never thought I’d root for a novel to steal more material from its inspiration, but this book would have benefited from having more factions, a twistier plot, and a depiction of an interesting society.

      I should go watch that movie again. John Carpenter is pretty fantastic.

    2. Also, what’s with the mouse fight at the end? The premise is incredibly silly, but then the battle is described in gory detail. Leave that poor rodent alone!

      1. On the one hand, yeah, it’s a mouse. Not the most threatening thing in the world. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t want to fight a rodent that’s the size of a bus compared to me.

  2. -I read Kindred Spirits, the Dragonlance book Anthony co-wrote with Ellen Porath, as a teenager. While I don’t remember a whole lot of it, I do recall it not being very good. The initial incident just strained disbelief for me, the plot depended on contrived coincidences to move forward, and the characterization seemed off.

    -Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are the only D&D authors I’ve ever read who really did a dungeon crawl right. They filled it with character moments ranging from Sturm and Caramon wanting to fight the dragon to the tensions in Riverwind’s and Goldmoon’s relationship to Flint’s Fantastic Racism against the gully dwarves to Raistlin’s kindness to Bupu and his desire for Fistandantilus’s spell book, which impacted a lot of their character development later on. The Greyhawk dungeon crawl novels I’ve read ranged from average to terrible.

    I’ve considered writing a dungeon crawl-style story, but I just can’t figure out how to make it compelling beyond just fight scenes and trap challenges that become tedious if you use too many of them. It’s still something I want to do, but I’m struggling with how to actually execute it well.

    -Your comment about Anthony playing with the setting’s rules kind of builds on what we discussed on another thread about how the D&D game rules help shape the narrative. It’s one thing to bend the rules to develop characters like Tika Waylan and Pikel Bouldershoulder, but I take it that doesn’t happen with Beckla.

    -If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that giving R.A. Salvatore’s characters to Mark Anthony was a deliberate “screw you” to Salvatore on the part of TSR’s management because even Salvatore’s dogs would have literally produced something of a higher quality.

    -I can actually sympathize with Anthony not doing well with canon that he might think weighs him down, his inclination to just make up details to fit his story and his not playing well with others in a shared universe. Then again, that’s why I write fanfiction without getting paid for it, whereas Anthony was a full TSR employee.

    -Two liches-canonically wizards of 18th level or higher-die just by tripping over their own feet? I get this image of Vecna facepalming at the kids these days and thinking about how in his day liches were terrifying Big Bads who struck fear into the hearts of living adventurers.

    1. Anthony wasn’t a TSR employee, to the best of my knowledge. His was a work-for-hire arrangement, like most of the other authors. Only a small handful of authors (Jeff Grubb, James Lowder, David Cook, Jean Rabe, and Jim Ward, to name a few) were actual employees, and the rest were freelance writers who produced novels by contract. The most likely scenario for Anthony being offered the chance to write a new Drizzt novel is that he was a proven author who was available and could get work done on a deadline. I don’t think the higher-ups really cared one way or another about quality at this point, so long as someone produced something they could print for money.

      I can sympathize with feeling constrained by canon when you’re working in a shared universe with other authors. It’s easier and more satisfying to indulge your creativity and do whatever you want than it is to do research and have people correct you on things. But another way to look at it is that a shared universe like the Forgotten Realms is like a giant story where each novel is an individual chapter. If you have authors who can produce a consistent tone and keep details reasonably consistent across all those chapters, you don’t get jarred out of the story. But when you have one author who says “screw this, I’m doing my own thing”, the overall effect puts me in mind of the Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow” song. You get a couple chapters of your story that feel like they belong to a different book altogether.

      Honestly, I’m not particularly a nerd about canon. This isn’t a holy text, and I appreciate seeing people do interesting new things with it. What I’m passionate about is internal consistency: that every part of a story hangs together as a coherent whole, without jarring you out of the story with contradictions. If someone is going to redefine the canon and break that internal consistency, I expect it to be for a good reason, that the payoff for the new material will be worth the loss of consistency. In this case it wasn’t. He invented things that didn’t really need to exist, because there’s already no shortage of noble families or reasons why they might want to off each other in the source material, and it would have been easy to avoid breaking that consistency.

      If I may quote Mr. Anthony himself out of context: “Therein lies the danger of writing in a licensed world like the Forgotten Realms.” When you sign up for such a gig, you take both the good and the bad. You get money, you get a novel published, you don’t have to do the work of setting up the entire world, but on the other hand you’re expected to color within the lines unless there’s a good reason not to.

      It didn’t explicitly say that they were liches, but they were clearly intelligent magic-using undead, so that’s the most likely scenario. Either way, rescuing the characters from certain doom by having their foes trip and break themselves is decidedly underwhelming.

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