Maze of the Blue Medusa (2016)
Zak Sabbath & Patrick Stuart
Levels 1 – 10
If I am to argue against Artpunk, as is my solemn duty, it is vital that in doing so we reach not only for low-hanging fruit, but to examine it’s most critical darlings. When Maze of the Blue Medusa hit the scene in 2016, the blogosphere was agushing with positive reviews, praising its art, its themes, its savoir faire, it’s je ne sais quois. It is certainly possible that some of these reviews involved actually reading the work, I cannot, at this time, be certain, however, in the current year, Artpunk has buried its most triumphant success for the sins of its author and thus with the reprint coming up it falls to me, the bete noir of the OSR, to render a summary verdict. It’s time for an XXXL Mega-review.
Maze bills itself as not only a megadungeon, but art, madly innovative art at that. It is 296 pages of sprawling, overwritten, creative, pretentious, loggorheaic and PLATONIC artpunk and it illustrates vividly the strengths of this approach while simultaneously highlighting its pitfalls and shortcomings. It is a benchmark for the eternal war between Innovation and Praxis. Can two talented but ignorant aspirants match their mettle against the ancient practices of the Greybeards. Can Maze beat Stonehell?
Let us begin with the premise. As in RaPl, we have the Zak-Sessian constellation of a Triad of Women , juxtaposed against a single woman whose existence is central to the Maze . A million bazillion years ago, an empire was formed around the worship of three immortal women, which were virtuous, yet the empire was horrible. Three ministers devise a plan to imprison them in the Maze of the Blue Medusa, itself erected by Psathyrella the Medusa, the module’s mary sue and maybe final boss, over the Archive of the now dead Reptile Empire (who figures into this later). This is expanded to house various petrified prisoners that Psathyrella has placed there over the years, mostly for the good of the world, but there are also daddy issues with her Archdevil father. The maze is a humble 8000 years old and can be accessed only through a painting covered by moonlight or a magic stairway on a faroff island archipelago, which is terribly inconvenient but also kind of neato. Now the maze has various intrigues going on that have not resolved themselves in a period of thousands of years, and thus it is up to you, the PCs, to throw a wrench into various schemes and explore the place for not entirely specified reasons after you have somehow obtained the painting that is the sole way of accessing it.
Before we go further it is probably worthwhile to consider that, despite pretensions to the contrary, Maze of the Blue Medusa is very much a funhouse dungeon in that it does not seriously attempt to portray a realistic environment with a sort of quasi-magical eco-system and is perhaps more reminiscent of a labyrinth one encounters in a dream, a journey into Alice in Wonderland or Silent Hill or some extra-planar trick dungeon, a place where the rules are different, reality is mutable and filled with bizarre horror. Questions of what the Cannibal Critics have been eating or why they are immune to the temporal distortion in the Gallery, where the fuck all those Chameleon women come from or why NPCs have been unable to find items or locations in a labyrinth that is 700 by 1000 feet after they have dwelled here for millenia could perhaps be raised but they don’t really touch upon the fundamentals of what Maze is trying to be about and do. I have read it more in the spirit of Cha’alt then anything else, a series of inventive encounters tied together with an (occasionally threadbare) layer of contextualization to allow the mind to hopefully maintain some basic suspension of disbelief. You’ve got moon men throwing their sickle shaped heads, celestial deep sea fish that purify the limbs with a touch, a matroishka doll lizard mummy that vomits forth successive lower HD copies and a slapstick lich that can make you vomit forks. It’s funhouse that takes itself seriously. It is a Sadhouse dungeon.
For the purpose of this review I thought it might be fun to use one of the author’s own sales pitches and see how well it holds up. From the horses’s mouth a critique of how regular mega dungeon’s usually fail and this one intends to succeed:
Graphic and information design requiring too much page-flipping, goofy themed bullshit that’s basically just dad jokes, rooms that are just monster-zoos with no real problem solving, fighting the same creatures over and over, rooms that just aren’t that interesting and were written in bulk, low ratio of ideas-to-word, funhouse shit that goes way off-theme and doesn’t make sense even if a wizard did it, too few factions in the dungeon, events in different parts of the dungeon don’t affect each other, few ways to use the dungeon against itself, lots of other stuff.
We’ll use that as a sort of roadmap as we cover Maze, and I am fucking pissed because I lost half my notes for this review. Let’s get started.
1. Graphic and Information Design
This is by far the most interesting to tackle because I usually skip this element unless it is either intrusive or extremely well done but as a case study of whether Modules can also be art I would venture that Maze of the Blue Medusa is an almost platonic way of illustrating that the two are diametrically opposed and can only be combined by extreme force, wrangling, threats and russian spambots.
Observe in the front of the book, this elegant overview map, color-coded by area, with legible iconography so as to indicate locked doors, secret doors and obstacles. It does not quite have a gridmap (but it has a scale) and not all passageways are illustrated and it paves over any sort of architectural complexity under the banner of ‘muh Non-Euclidean geometry’ but overal it is legible, assymetrical, there are features that serve as natural obstacles that could be used as bottlenecks, there are strange passageways that allow you to end in other areas of the dungeon etc. etc. etc. There are also hazardous features that might require backtracking or going around appropriate to a magic dream labyrinth that makes no sense: a black pit on a glowing floor, a room that animates all your shadows into dopplegangers, a black room with eyes that paralyze etc. etc. It has the FEEL of an enchanted labyrinth. It even has an area, the Gallery, that has special conditions, where time passes quickly so your food rots and you must nevertheless eat every 30 min or take damage. There is no accelerated aging and the use of direct damage for starvation might be a bit questionable but it’s an interesting complication.
This is contrasted with the following, which formed as the inspiration to set this whole thing off, a mosaic of imagery, each of which inspires a single room. You can’t expect people to get more then rudimentary use out of this as the art makes everything hard to see and it isn’t keyed and that’s perfectly fine, it’s here for some sort of inspiration and to convey mood.
So then in order to prevent the much maligned page-flipping, maze makes a sub-division of each area, then further sub-divides each area into chunks of maybe 8-10 rooms, each of which is given its own printout map, an abstract of every room description, yet another reprint of the local area with a random encounter table that is identical except for 3 entries (we’ll get into those later) and then a random loot table that is identical for every area, applied for every creature and contains 20 unique entries. So for this short segment, which serves to increase the useability at the table, does the dynamic duo include a copy of the simple map or the art map? I know which one didn’t take fucking 20+ hours to make, so we get this.
Where the icons are pasted atop the greyed out artpiece and the walls and openings are still a scavenger hunt to find, no appreciable scale, and you still have to use the icons (which now have no index and are not intuitive, unlike the elegant S for secret, X for trapdoor, D for door etc.). Every 10 room section has 3 reprinted maps. Did we kill enough fucking trees yet? What baffles is that despite this pervasive redundancy, organization is still lacklustre. The elegant centred paragraph prefacing each sub-section contains threadbare info on conditions in that section of the dungeon, omits critical information about the NPCs that are there, nothing about important features, nothing to get you quickly up to speed on what the idea of the section is. The abstracts do nothing a title could not do and don’t contain statts or more importantly, the interrelations with other NPCs that are vital to this whole interlocking thing are entirely absent. How madly innovative!
The most madly innovative of all is that the secret recipe for megadungeon organization has already been cracked in 2009, when Michael Curtis wrote Stonehell. Are you ready? It’s hierarchical bitch! You put dungeon-wide conditions somewhere seperate, then you do a map of the entire area, then a long section (2-3 pages) covering all of the NPCs, interrelations and special/complex features, and then quick room descriptions. Same goes for Barrowmaze. If every 10 rooms require a reprinting of 3 maps, something is going horribly wrong.
The art of Medusa is also at war with the module proper. I fully understand the trouble of illustrating every fucking room, especially since almost all the encounters in Medusa are unique, which is why you can supplement the art with description. It’s all about conveying something to the GM. A picture is worth a thousand words. So with that in mind, what do you get from this picture?
They aren’t all like this. In some cases the text does provide supplementary information.
But in plenty of cases the stylized art doesn’t convey the thing it is describing, and the text manages to tiptoe around the issue like a flirtatious maiden. Here.
So what does this look like, if I, the GM, had to describe this to you? What is the purpose of flavor text?
Give Scrapprincess all the shit you want, but at least there is an understanding of what is being conveyed. Supplementary to the text. Elegant. Harmonious. Form follows function.
2. Fighting the same creatures over and over/Monster zoos.
While this criticism doesn’t really apply to anything I’ve seen besides Temple of Elemental Evil, variety is important and monster encounters are a huge component of overal dungeon quality. Maze proper almost entirely forgeoes the use of gygaxian building blocks and instead focuses on creativity, which is to its credit. There are plentiful unique monsters, factions or NPCs, and many of them want something. You have your chameleon women, a vast marble guardian in the shape of a hand that guards the gallery, a vine-like horror that oozes through the walls, reptillian liches stuffed with books, bizarro demons, thieves with enchanted bird-masks, orchid-men, each with unique abilities, the variety is unending and a genuine credit to both authors.
Encounter design itself is a bit primitive. Wargame DnD with it’s orders of battle, huge numbers of creatures, escape routes, hidden caches of treasure, morale, secret routes and flanking maneuvers is far away. Beyond the occasional dude one room over coming to investigate, most encounters exist in a vacuum. What Maze of the Blue Medusa DOES do to compensate, and what is interesting to look at, is that some of these unique abilities and creatures pose Lateral problem-solving challenges for both GM and player that don’t neccessarily rely on in-game knowledge to solve, both in combat and in exploration. There’s a prehistoric sphinx that poses prehistoric themed riddles to her adversaries, a demon plumber that can prevent the PC from repeating any ‘ action’, or a co-dependent terminally insecure lapis lazuli lion (that is actually a tiger) will ask deep questions of the PCs and attack them if they question any of it. Or you have to give a Sphinx specific riddles to answers she poses in order to get into the Reptile Archive. Draco Scabra the Lizard Ambassador Lich is immune to any damage that is not part of a joke (uh that’s a bit much). It also frequently happens that many of the monsters have some desire elsewhere in the dungeon or are affiliated with someone else so the PCs may befriend them. Beyond a vague commitment to having generic information, I would have enjoyed some system to tackle more explicit secrets about the dungeon proper, like, say, the Monster No-Face in the Gardens explicitly knows about a secret door that contains a quarterstaff thats been turned into a magic tree that allows no random encounters (!), or the Moon man can be prevented from yeeting you across the map if you get what he wants but most of the NPCs have something they want but its not always clear why you should care, like so.
This encounter here is my favorite of this more open-ended style. It has complications, it is not quite convenient, it displays a kind of restraint and its application is broad. Only HP and armor figures should have been included but this is good stuff and in this case it can be steered around.
As for fighting the same stuff over and over, here we run into an interesting situation. Zak for whatever reason either does not understand random encounters or plays in a manner that is radically different from anyone I know or have read and so he puts the random encounter frequency to 11 in anything he writes. He was actually kind enough to confirm via mail that yes, in RaPL in Castle Poenari, you are in fact supposed to encounter a random fucking vampire every 2 minutes with 50% frequency and you are supposed to have retarded conversations with all of them what of it? The reason why one might consider not relying overmuch on random encounters beyond their use of adding time pressure and depleting resources is that, unless you put elaborate notes or sub-systems into place to make those complex, you are going to get a lot of repetition and the burden of making those encounters interesting is going to fall on the shoulders of the poor, suffering GM.
So with that in mind Maze has 1 encounter check/turn with a 50% chance of encountering a monster using the same random encounter table with 16 monsters for every area (minus one that has only Oku). Brackets 21-50 vary with each area. You may have also noted that 7 of these encounters (but not the Curator, which is curious), will be replaced with Chameleon women if the original creatures are killed, a particularly nasty brand of humanoid that will stalk the players with 5 to 6 probability to attack during another encounter or whenever it is most shit and always includes one spellcaster. They are hunting the PCs so they will send successively stronger teams, which are (somewhat lazily) modelled as just getting 1 extra HD every time the PCs defeat them, to a maximum of the, quite formidable, 10 HD creatures. There are 304 rooms, the place is positively fucking networked with interrelations so backtracking is a guarantee even if you somehow find all the places where it’s fairly safe to rest inside the dungeon (there are…2? the stairway to the island and near the tree, there is a safe room but its in an area where you automatically lose all your rations and have to eat every 30 mins or lose hp) many encounters explicitly call for random encounter checks and the Cells have double random encounter frequency so you are going to be fucking swimming in Chameleon Women blood as you get further in. This is one occasion where devoting an entire page to different chameleon women weapons or getting really funky with the party compositions ah la the D series would have been warranted. It should be noted that most megadungeons do in fact introduce variety to their random encounter table with different areas.
I’m lukewarm about tables with temporal distortions that force you to eat a ration but it’s not horrible and I can imagine some sort of added resource management challenge, even if hp loss for starvation is a rough measure and leaving it on the random encounter table for the Gallery, where all food rots instantly and one must consume a ration every 30 mins or lose d4 hp per turn, is a bit cruel.
3. Goofy themed bullshit that’s basically just dad jokes
It would be a little disingenuous to write the entire review as a sort of ironic reversal of every statement above but it is interesting to observe how easy it is to find examples that are stupid puns. That being said, let’s talk themes and writing.
Maze can be neatly sub-divided into 7 areas, Chronia’s Halls, The Gardens, The Reptile Archive, the Gallery, the Almery, The Dead Wedding & The Cells. Each one is loosely ‘ themed’, some more then others, there is no standard progression (so you are as apt as to encounter dangerous creatures in Chronia’s Halls as you are in The Cells, although it does tend to ramp up. Maybe a short description of each area, along with some features of interest?
Overall each section is well differentiated. Use of themes is very heavy in The Gardens and light elsewhere, but every section has a gimmick, complications and feels distinct.
A good start. The vestibule of the maze, and immediately one important roadblock is introduced. The Half-Dragon Reptile Lady Crucem Capili (these names are a mess), is wrought with indecision on carrying out her assignment of breaking out the Medusa’s demonic archduke father (no I am not telling you his name) because she, get this, loves art. The idea is that when you see her after the initial transaction she demands some sort of art object or curio (random table time) and there is a random chance she will react violently if you do not have what she demands. This is kind of neat, and introduces a sort of ersatz mini-quest/shopkeeper mechanic since she is right in front of a fucking entrance although the d6 based reaction would have done better with an incremental chance of murderous rage as the failures mount. The instinct is good but the follow through needs occasional work. Good, weird encounter work. A room where shadows are pit traps, black ooze with floating jade eyes, escher stairs, a stairway leading to an island culture that treats the Maze as its spiritual afterlife. Central inhabitant is Chronia, one of the Three Sisters and the most alcoholic, who never ages but passess on her ageing (age a year/hour in her presence), along with clear goals, desires, rewards etc. etc. Infused with the frenetic energy of a project’s start.
The section that comes with an admonition to change it if you know your players might get triggered. Probably the strongest section in the whole book? One of the themes is ‘abusive relationships.’ Spicy. Theming is the strongest here and length is 40 rooms. The most psychedelic of the sections, and it reminded me of Silent Hill, with its forlorn, mad NPCs that all seem to exist in their own private hells, heavy psychological abuse theming mixed with vegetation, general creepy atmosphere and weird attempts at interactive physics. The vines can be removed, one of the grasshoppers can be given godlike might and a series of pipes must be repaired for No Face. Its possible to flood the entire dungeon to 5 ft, with no possible means of restoring it, which doesn’t really make sense but okay, it is a change. This is also a section where tackling the NPCs and their various struggles before the room descriptions would have been a good solution, as written unless the GM reads the entire book cover to cover (what are you some kind of psychopath?) so they know who everyone is. It’s actually mostly good stuff, a love-mad lich, the dead body of Zamia Thorn (groan…) which can be re-united with her spirit elsewhere in the dungeon, there is occasional magical treasure like the Shield Rex Absentia, which only aids when running away, there’s an honest to god secret area to discover. Golem flowers think you are various NPCs and will become hostile if their questions are not answered. Genuine exploration elements too. That’s good stuff.
There was one particular section that I think illustrates a point about the writing. Can you spot it?
No it’s not that photons carry information in vector, frequency and polarization (?) and thus to directly observe the light you would be observing the future and that the photons that reflect off the artwork would convey information about the artwork which is in the present, it’s the fact that information cannot travel in time, yet you can learn events from the shadows of light from the future. The module deals with plenty of concepts like time, enthropy, physics etc which is laudably ambitious but the explanations that are provided do little to paper over the incongruities and often serve to illustrate, rather then conceal, the irreality of the thing that is described. Mystery, not a voodoo shark explanation, would probably serve better. A wizard did it is not good, but it’s better then a nonsense explanation.
A literal art gallery. A good idea hampered by somewhat lacklustre execution. The idea is that Mopy the Medusa has stored her art here, but because of the presence of Chronia Thorn there is some temporal bullshit going on. TLDR your rations rot instantly and you need a shittonne of food. It is filled with psychotic cannibal art critics (remember this is not a funhouse dungeon but a serious work of art!) that are for whatever reason immune to this bullshit, a monstrous golem caretaker that gets hostile if you fuck up the art, and an asshole gemstone bird that will try to lead the characters into trouble. Less interaction then the previous sections. Do you fiddle with the potentially horribly dangerous magic artwork? occasional use of secret door to different section notwithstanding. The repeated use of cannibal critics present in the rooms after the PCs depart is predictable. A statement is made on how art critics are cynics that want to isolate art from the public? How daring and provocative. How about you tackle the fact that modern art is essentially a tax evasion scheme for the ultra-rich and everyone is in on it? More goofy then horrific. There is an orrey here that, if matched with another orrey (that is trapped by the vines, which is why you might have a reason to wreck them) can be used to foretell fortune. Some use of a textbook with other languages, which is another good feature, secret passageways which are always a delight, as is an imprisoned serial killer that reveals more info about the dungeon proper. Not the strongest but not bad.
The Reptile Archive
Constructed by the ancient reptile empire and inhabited by liches, nominally still sort of allied with the Chameleon Women of the current reptile empire although culturally the two could not be more seperate. The dungeon mentions the Chameleon women will attempt to turn the Reptiles against the PCs but doesn’t really operationalize. There’s something about infra-red moths that can only see killer’s eyes, I think in this section the ideas sort of start to clutter the flow of information. Also a more relaxed environment, only direct looting or vandalism is likely to get one into trouble. An order of battle for all the Saurians or some form of higher organization like some alert procedures are sorely missed, a shame considering the relatively small size of the place. You end up with about a dozen reptile mummies with quirky habits and one unique power each. The way its organized its almost a social encounter for the entire area until you run into certain individuals so it could be a heist.
This is cluttered and probably too dense. There is a level of organization to this area that requires a certain amount of detail to function and go off without a hitch so some of the quote-unquote creativity comes across as white noise. The Lizard mummies are chill with having a swarm of undead bees that blocks access to a sad wax golem that I think might be one of the rare potential henchman NPCs? There’s details about the Nyctocaust, the cataclysm that killed the reptile empire that involves some interplay of darkness and light? Holds one of the three councilors that brought the Three Sisters, and some way of actually killing him, which makes sense considering his treasure. There is a good tempting possibility of treasure that can start a fire, and a way to make everyone fucking hostile by screwing around, which is good. A were-titan, a sort of primordial lycanthrope of all creatures, is held by a set of moon-tiles and as written there is some way to absorb their light but ruling or guideline is given for his escape, which is again, a shame. I feel this is becoming more obvious as encounters go on, ideas are introduced and connected to other events in the dungeon but the actual game mechanics, the praxis of turning the imagination into workable gameplay, is often not or poorly considered. The end result is a bewildering, clamourous tapestry of flighty ideas, barely given room to gestate.
The Dead Wedding
Someone invented a machine to turn souls into gold and someone else used it to fuck up a wedding. Someone’s soul is in a golden swan. There’s spooky ghosts! Fuck If I know. If the wedding goes through and they kiss, someone else dies for convoluted reasons. Some sort of master level overview, some method of discerning all the relations at one glance so the point of the section becomes obvious, rather then concealing it behind double/triple redundant mapwork, would have helped. The sequence is explained in room 179 for some baroque reason. I give shit like this a pass in old modules, but keep in mind Maze is both A) explicitly attempting hyperfunctionality and B) much more interconnected and complex then things in its weight bracket. Sophronia Wort, chancellor of the Big Three, is about to marry a couple, hears the whine of her Golden Engine, stops time for the wedding couple, puts her soul illegally inside a swan, and now the spirit of Sophronia Wort (not her Soul) and the Empty Knight, a creature of justice, are chasing eachother in this area (I think for 1000+ years?) and the situation will not be resolved until you open the soul swan…and that’s, wait in room 189 they explain the Swan can’t be opened until the Kiss ends, but time is stopped. It’s like one of those Sierra Adventure Game Puzzles only there is an extra puzzle and its cobbling together what the point of this section is. I note a 10.000 gp chandelier that can only be moved if a magic candle is placed inside it which is a good idea and move on. Which brings us to one of the most interesting sections of this area, the Golden Engine itself. Also a deep sea fish that is god. What if instead of these things you had a nice section, some Chameleon guys, maybe one is on guard or they have a hostage, and you have to find out a way to free the hostage huh? How about something normal gramps? We’ve been having nothing but Chameleon women stew and Uncle Zak’s mystery Chili for 30 fucking sessions and I am mighty tired of the taste of moly and aids inhibitors thank you very much.
Now PCs being what they are, they are of course going to try to capture people and turn them into gold. I find it rather shocking that no formula for the operation of the device is provided, but I will discern it from what helpful hints are provided. A fieldmouse worth of gold dust is worth 200 gp. Most Fieldmice weigh about 20-40 gram, but lets take 45 gram. Now let’s take an adult human male, weighing about 90 kg (or less if one of the module authors). 90 kg/45 g or 90.000/45 = 2000x, so an adult human male, by the information provided, should generate about 400.000 gp worth of gold. How much XP do I get GM?
Sort of a personal museum from the Medusa’s adventures, and also the most spatially fucked up location? The descriptive text very kindly gives me an overview of what to expect, immediately soothing to the brain. The trick here is that part of the Almery is suspended above the infinite void and there are some opportunities to fall into a pit trap of hell. Also a minor side note, I like most trap use in Maze. Treasure is trapped insufficiently, which is gay, but the dungeon treats trapped areas more as obstacles that must be carefully or cleverly circumnavigated and will prove lethal if they are the site of battle, which is likely to occur often. Sort of a wizard’s house. The moon man councillor of Mopy the Medusa stalks around this area and meeting him is a death sentence if he fights or random teleportation if he is merely annoyed. There’s a quest to find his kids in which case he won’t set his super-charged bulldog on everyone. This section is mostly hazard free which is interesting, its mostly bizarre treasure collections like this, or strange prisoners like an asshole Time Elemental.
Another feature becomes suddenly noticeable. Maze rooms are single instance only. 1 Object or perhaps 2 if a creature is present. Occasionally a link will branch out to some other point in the maze. Every idea stands on its own, in seeming isolation. In this it is also like Cha’alt. There are no hallways and organization is tenuous beyond the single room level. Secret panels are placed by Levaillant Green, imprisoned super villain but there is nothing hinting their presence, with the exception of one in a petrified fire giant. There is never debris and no sense of space being inhabited. This adds to the dreamlike atmosphere but its also limited. The cycle of visual –> exploration –> deeper revelation only ever proceeds unidimensionally and does not branch out. When compared with the relatively tight thematic focus of Gardens it’s a whole different ball game.
This one is good. It’s not a good room, it’s a good creature. Charming, creative, not overwritten and noisy. If this was a review about stripping something for parts this would be all smiles and humility and fireworks but it’s a kaleidoscope of saturday night specials, assembled in modular fashion, compulsively interconnected. This is probably not the way.
Also honorary mention goes to a part where you step on a minature world map and you have to fight bizarre creatures at each location and you are allowed to retrieve or deposit one soul, which means…? Where do you store the soul? How does this work? What do I do in this place. The ideas are still present but the implementation dies off as the work progresses inexorably to its final conclusion.
One concept repeated infinitely. Stone prisoners. Suprisingly little of them can be recruited as NPC hirelings, which I think is a tremendous missed opportunity, and the ones that might work with you are murderous. There are terrible guardians surrounding the cells, making it close to a final area, or at least one that is hard to get into. If the medusa is slain, all the prisoners are set loose at once, with a hilarious 1 minute random encounter table that guarantees a shitshow. Curiously little means of turning stone to flesh are available in the adventure. Multiple random tables appear to be missing from this section but then again they are reprinted so often it does not greatly matter. This room is permeated with secret panels containing instructions by levaillant green. I think a sentence on searching the room requiring one Search Hidden doors or panels check for 1 turn would have been a good idea, there are almost no visual cues or hints that there are hidden panels otherwise.
First a bad encounter and then a good one.
Invasive and clamouring noise hides what should be a straightforward encounter with monsters with boring abilities. No use of suprise ever. We are to perform surgery on a petrified pixie man minutes from death for which, for once, some mechanics are provided, or to study a boy holding closed the puzzle-box prison of the devil duke Dendrosathol. Contrast with:
Other then what you would search this is sublime, both NPCs have goals, there is mystery, the treasure is not statted, nor is it considered whether the Paladin would join the party afterwards, but the kernel of a gameable idea is present. This area does suffer from immense repetition, and breaking up the endless torrent of petrified prisoners with possibly some guards (again, random encounters are present), or other features would have given the place some breathing room. Prisoners become increasingly less gameable and more conceptually strange as the module wears on.
So what actually happens if you meet the Medusa?
I think I busted my gut. So this is basically someone’s 5e OC bio, turned final boss. What’s kind of telling is that as written, the Blue Medusa is basically the hero of the piece, she has done no wrong, she has travelled the world and imprisoned mostly villainous assholes and her evil father. This HAS to be some sort of partial insert. Why are we killing her again? Again, note list of objectives, and nothing about a reward. Now there is approximately a fucktonne of gold in this place, in such quantities that it is abbreviated so it’s not like she’d lack means, and she has a rapier that will kill you unerringly unless you accept a challenge to a single duel, with spell turning against any spells cast while performing said single duel, and a mirror mask that breaks all spells. Notice subtle objectives that amount to getting gossip from the immortal living 300 feet away in dungeon. Her motivation is that you must find a way to rid the Sisters of their curse, so they can have gay sex. That’s not a joke. Upon her death the dungeon will, perhaps fittingly, desintegrate.
rooms that just aren’t that interesting and were written in bulk
I think this one highlights the differences in approach. In your grandfather’s megadungeon it is very much about the process. You will have slow days, rooms that contain nothing interesting, mundane encounters, or moments of relative calm to serve as a firmament in which the more special moments can be embedded. Maze is essentially 200+ saturday night specials, placed in order and given causal connection. There is a type of authorial, pride? entitlement? at work here which stands out. Coming up with ideas is the most exciting part of writing and this is clearly where most of the effort has been devoted towards, and more power to y’ all, there are plentiful ideas here that could be spun up into any number of adventures or encounters. But the elbow grease, the nitty gritty, the part where you connect all the cords and hammer in all the nails to make sure another GM can translate that idea into a game, this is lacklustre in places. The annoying reality is that implementation is everything.
low ratio of ideas-to-word
Again, if the objective is sheer density of ideas none can fault Blue Medusa. Its imagination is fecund, occasionally too out there for my personal taste but I have no doubt people seeking to mine a book for ideas would not be able to find 30-40 encounters that are fairly portable and re-usable in other places. But there is a design, a grand sort of organization to most adventures that Medusa doesn’t really have, probably as an artifact of its production method. Every room was hand-crafted by Stuart/Zak based on a picture Zak drew. The result is a clamorous wildgrowth of creativity that is straining under its own weight. Put some water in there. Give ideas some room to breathe. The Lycanthrope Titan alone has fascinating implications that can be explored for sessions upon sessions.
funhouse shit that goes way off-theme and doesn’t make sense even if a wizard did it, too few factions in the dungeon, events in different parts of the dungeon don’t affect each other, few ways to use the dungeon against itself
These are abbreviated because by and large they are present, with the exception of the Wizard did it. Mortality, Space, Time and biology are such fluid concepts in Maze of the Medusa that literally anything can be in the next room and it would cause no great consternation. A gigantic green ape tattooed with the formulae for eternal life riding a clockwork (not robot, must maintain themes) crocodile that is a parallel version of Shakespeare could show up to challenge the party to a lovemaking duel and none would bat an eye. It is the funhouse that takes itself seriously. It is Sadhouse. Chorus. But yes, the dungeons inhabitants are almost compulsively interrelated, there are plentiful factions and there are natural hazards say, that may be used against the opponent.
Digesting this thing took a while. Kudos.
I think as far as stated goals are concerned it is fair to say that most of them were attained but there is something lost in this translation. The traditional method of high level organization with building blocks and proper enemy and treasure placement allows for a great degree of variety, complexity and dynamic gameplay that Maze, with its countless unique object’s de art, does not reach. There is something fundamentally static and artifical about it that is hard to shake off. The very open-ended lateral gameplay that is in some areas encouraged (by say, means of riddles, or the flower things that ask questions forcing you to impersonate NPCs further in the dungeon) is truncated by the artifical format and isolated encounters. There is something missing and that something is engagement with Wargame D&D, the fundamental gameplay, the pitched battles, the tactics, the versimilitude, the listening at doors (yes I know it has some doors), the intricate dance of treasure placement and technique.
On the one end there is the open-ness to experience and the fascination with the new, the alien and the unknown on the other hand there is the satisfaction that comes with deep mastery, with watching new possibilities unfold after N hours of blood, sweat and struggle. If you are A) then this is very much your thing and you should get it. If you are B) this is not your thing and you probably won’t like it. Choose.
** for actual play, and an honorary high *** for stripmining/educational purposes. If you are going for it maybe do the PDF.
UPDATE: I’ll do a full post later, but NO ARTPUNK is out. Looking for things you might actually run? Look here!