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!
72 thoughts on “[Review] Maze of the Blue Medusa (OSR); Sadhouse Dungeon”
I suspect you have not read the Houellebecq Lovecraft brief text yet. I think it would set you up nicely for a serious appreciation of his best six or seven stories, which are incomparable in fantasy horror excepting WH Hodgson.
Lovecraft swings in and out of fashion like a bad moon pulling the plebs to and fro. No doubt you need to be in the mood, music helps with mood if you know music — some krautrock etc.
People who say Lovecraft can’t write well are not judging him on his best work. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me but he is clearly a better writer than Howard and CA Smith. In the end he is probably more potent than Leiber and Vance, but they are more exuberant. Hodgson plummets deeper than Lovecraft and is more aggressive than Leiber, Wolfe is a mystical fusion of Peake and Vance. Eddison stands apart, with side-glances down at Hodgson.
Another paragraph! Let’s go! The Icelandic sagas in the right translations are as interesting for the Quality AD&Der as Leiber & Vance. You will add a huge amount of low level resolution, meaning if you enjoy low level AD&D 1-3, 4-5 you can play in that campaign forever. The standard texts for these pre-Tolkien translations, Morris and Dasent, provide maps that Tolkien studied. Morris went exploring Iceland in the 1870s, and his maps are easy to find online. Anyone who thinks Tolkien could have existed without William Morris is mistaken.
Dante v Milton. Far above paygrades, but IMO Milton is a stylist like Jack Vance, a very high level indeed, but Dante is unique. You read Dante because you are a mystic.
I do struggle with authors on other authors. Perhaps it is a type of intellectual arrogance, or a lifetime of woolgathering or snooty penguin classics preambles. I’ll make another venture.
My respect for Lovecraft only grows with each reread. I have only recently completed a full readthrough of all 3 volumes. The creativity on display, the scope of his imagination, the way his cadences infuse the barely described monsters with revulsion, horror and mystique. Favorites are ever shifting: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Shadow out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, The Mound, The Curious case etc. etc.
Hodginson has been rewarding to me, and Night Land is due for a reread (also because I am curious about John C Wright’s pastiche). The archaic use of language again enhances the surreal experience. I have obtained a horrid self-printed version of the Boats of Glen Carrig also.
I had never read CAS in full, but I have recently come into possession of the Nightshade books volumes so I am going through them one by one. CAS is at his best when he is not doing lovecraft pastiche’s, and his imagination takes him to soaring otherworlds. I think I concur with you that Zothique is his best work, though there may be rare single stories that outperform even this. I am enamoured by City of the Singing Flame for example. Wolfe I have yet to discover fully, and BoTNS due for a reread, so lucky me. Eddison reads like a distillation of the whole canon of western myth, a cultural apex if ever there was one.
R.e. the Sagas. I must confess I have read most of the blog writings I could extract from the nooks and crannies on the internet of the subject. Morris’s translation of the Volsunga is rather strong, but Eddison’s translation of Egil’s Saga outperforms it by far in use of stirring language. There’s something about the fickleness of the Viking world, with its endless blood feuds, raids and occasional sorceries, that is compelling. Njal’s Saga was good. Holding out hope for Gretir.
R.e. Milton v Dante.
Milton’s prose is sublime but I will agree the Inferno (which is the only book I have read) has something transcendent which prompts occasional re-evaluation in a way that Milton does not.
== I do struggle with authors on other authors.
There are different cases of authors on authors. In this case there is an extremely realistic minimalist political popular author who depicts contemporary life in the 2000s as crude, degenerate and banal who is championing a extreme fantasist who rooted his grotesquerie in the 1920s as if he was a journalist with prose unacceptable for publication, but gripping for stories.
The love of Houellebecq for Lovecraft seems bizarre until you read his essay. You should probably read Atomised first.
== I had never read CAS in full, but I have recently come into possession of the Nightshade books
I bought the set on the strength of the Zothique stories which floored me as I listened to Brian Eno ambient. Further scrutiny has been disappointing. I believe you have to swoon yourself into a decadent languor, with drugs, music and mental exercises to indulge in CAS’s prose. Outside of the full moon his phrasing is clumsy. Though I did save some readings of CAS and F. Leiber which have been deleted from YT and which are fantastic, in that they are better than my own reading, professional actors with subtle atmospherics.
== WH Hodgson — The archaic use of language again enhances the surreal experience.
Thank you for the minority report.
== Wolfe I have yet to discover fully, and BoTNS due for a reread.
The Book of the New Sun is his limit as far as I can judge. He is a good SF writer but within those four volumes he at times achieve mysticism, in the manner of Peake and Hodgson. Of course the reader has to be sensitive, sympathetic and willing. And I find fantastical music a necessary accompaniment.
Stars of the Lid:
== Morris’s translation of the Volsunga is rather strong, but Eddison’s translation of Egil’s Saga outperforms it by far in use of stirring language.
Eddison’s Egil and Dasent’s Njal are the twin peaks but Morris was the grandfather of it all, and Eddison said as much. Morris’s genius was spread very wide. It is safe to say that that era of Englishman was so talented as to cast the modern American as an easily confused man-women degenerate.
There is a companion book I have – Dante 1893 Macmillan WH Church. His description of Florence and Dante is the best. Sinclair is the best translation.
I have started writing something to be thrown into the maelstrom of drivethrurpg.com. I want to put something on the record.
I have found an adequate template for my reaction video.
Temple of The Prime Five?
Makes sense. I concur with this review. The only way I could figure out how to use MotBM is to cut out the gardens, gallery & wedding, beat them over the head without mercy and add a bunch of my own stuff.
It’s… a slow process, and one wonders whether it’s at all worth it. Not all my flights of fancy are good ones.
I am convinced that MotBM was not playtested very much. In addition to the golden machine, there is that monster made completely out of gold, Torcul Wort. He has golden tablets in his room. How much is that fucker worth? No mention is made.
This review, like the work it covers, is messy. I’ll have to redo it at some later time to parse it down and condense it. There is some high-level synergy in most megadungeons that this thing is not tapping into but putting my finger on what it is not doing is tricky, there is so much information/data to consider. Very good subject for review.
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I have an inkling of what’s missing here. I think this is an issue that runs through Zak’s body of work, and it’s not always a problem, but it’s particularly pronounced in Maze. It’s his use of dream logic. He revels in the cleverness and creativity of his ideas, but this makes it nearly impossible for players to anticipate, plan and plot. I would never call this a railroad, but the players seem meant to interact with encounters on a purely reactive basis.
The NPCs of Maze have intersecting histories, antagonisms and such, but there isn’t much in the way of faction play. It’s almost a little video-gamey with fetch quests and the like. At least that’s how it seems to me on paper.
I don’t want to pile too hard on Maze. I think there’s a YMMV element, and some players may not have experience the issues that I am perceiving. Some will be delighted with the whimsy, and some GMs will find it easy to riff on the material. But when I think of trying to run Maze, I’m envisioning a bit of a slog, for all its variety and cleverness.
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But this dream logic point, AND the fetch quest point are both on point. Factions used to have concrete goals and your alliances are tenuous, fractious, volatile, with betrayal happening anywhere from in the aftermath to mid-battle.
In Maze it is both fetch-questy, but also fundamentally static. There’s no volatility, if the PCs don’t do anything the system remains as is.
I’m wrapping my head around how to convey it, but I am convinced this is NOT the way to go when you do mega-dungeons.
I think you make a lot of good points here. I used to be more enamored with this dungeon, but it’s been a while, and perhaps the noartpunk movement is making itself felt. MotBM is just too damn whimsical. There’s a masturbatory kind of creativity going on here, which is more about showing off its own originality at the expense of everything else. The descriptions of encounters, coupled with the art, is where you can see this mostly clearly.
I’m sure that if things were the way they used to be, Zak would show up here to condemn you for your pedestrian taste and an inability to think on your feet. Just decide how much the statue is worth, right? Too many random encounters? Just change them! What does Fracture-of-the-Bone look like? You decide! This is more about showing off the author’s imagination than stimulating the GM’s. Don’t you want to see close-ups of all the art that was stuffed into the map?
It’s worth mentioning the adventure’s genesis: Zak drew the map, and then Zak and Pat passed it back and forth, filling in the rooms over time. You see, at the start, there was Art, and the dungeon itself is basically a big magical Art Museum, full of commentaries on Art. Genius, right? This really is peak artpunk. I think you’re quite fair, pointing out that there are a lot of cool parts worth extracting like gold teeth from a dead hobo. But it could have been a lot better if it weren’t so full of itself.
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Yeah, self-indulgent. The priorities are off. Always have been.
[Reply from the author]
He’s never done so before (again, understandable considering my then YDIS affiliations) and considering the quality of that ‘fact-checking’ in his emails r.e. Vornheim/RaPL that’s probably a smart move on his part. There is a level of abstraction to his style of DnD which renders the whole a shallow experience. Low D&D.
I mention it somewhere but considering the length of this thing I can hardly fault you for reading over it.
I could try to weave some reasoning to support my observation, but fvck it. I know when I see D&D, and MotBM is not it.
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Gut is usually a series of subliminal impressions that the conscious mind hasn’t fully integrated yet.
There is a passage in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal that I like: “We assign a moment to a decision to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings, they are more often a lump than a sum.” Or put otherwise, gut feelings are fine.
“It is certainly possible that some of the (gushing) reviews involved actually reading the work” made me smile. The very best of the Artpunk stuff, such as Deep Carbon Observatory and The Gardens of Ynn, marries the highly imaginative with the playable, but even so I prefer the likes of No Artpunk 1, which happily has arrived on DriveThru.
Thanks for the head’s up!
Ha! Thanks for letting us know! 145 pages? Holy smokes!
It has just got bigger: 164 pages now. Mischievous Malrex left out the winner. He is jealous of Prince’s enfant terrible status.
Some of us settle for grumpy old git.
Stealing my thunder are we…it is well. Yes No Artpunk has arrived, warts and all, to herald in the OSR’s Rebirth.
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We were just anticipating your glorious announcement, your Highness, savouring the brilliance to come. And morale has skyrocketed since you started removing toenails; the rusty pliers were a touch of genius.
Everything here is seen in Pateriks other work.
The background is Zak for sure.
Silent Titans and the new work? He has been expanding the theames visited here. An inability to communicate being the basis for society.
Toxic relationships manifest in hate without break continuance
Not enough is written about Paterick here. Its the keystone to his work.
If you go 400 Blows then its a gateway to his mind. Zak makes hot punk women.
Paterick knows mental illness in npcs. They are aware yet unable to change their lives. They know what they want but don’t get it. They are cursed or dying, they are bbeg and everyone knows it. Unable to make them leave.
This is nothing about the play of the dungeon as you write above. Thats valid. Its often said a megadungeon is a gateway to the authors mind like few other RPG products.
I always thought it interesting what we see and can use to see as time has passed.
The Fire book will foresee the past that is written before.
Too big and interconnected ? Maybe but it does invite this kind of post. How many words did you write? How many will you? The c critics would love this ommm nom
You make some good points. I will probably revisit this at some point. Consider it an exploratory review.
“It’s often said a megadungeon is a gateway to the authors mind like few other RPG products.”
I’ve actually never heard that before, but yes. I believe it is.
I will cook and eat my own hat if any group of 4-7 human beings have ever sat down regularly for weeks and months to play through this thing. This could almost be another essay in and of itself, about modules and products designed not even really to be read (like the Paizo or WotC average consumer) but instead to be looked at as objects d’art. It’s almost a bestiary, though, and I think your *** seems good for it as a collection of oddities.
@Commodore: I run this for 21 game sessions, total 42 hours, over a course of 3 months. Send pics from the meal!
We completed the halls, the garden, dead wedding, some of the archive and gallery. We barely touched the almery and never visited the cells. After 21 game sessions I was fairly bored and I think my players too, so they jumped on an idea of visiting Hill Cantons instead. I agree with the most of the review. I wouldn’t run it again, but it’s good for strip mining.
My teeth and my beloved hat are saved my the clause “through”; sounds like even though you put more time than I’d have thought possible into this thing, you guys still didn’t finish it due to boredom. Still impressive completion rate even so. What was the main initial appeal? I struggle to think of a single one of my players who would look at that art and say “I want to play this.”
The initial appeal was: I had very little knowledge & understanding of what makes a good OSR module (I only run Tomb of the Serpent Kings before) and everyone said this is the shit. Since this was supposed to be the Best, I figured it would be a good start (why play anything that is not). It was hard for me to evaluate before running how well it would play, so I just did. I suppose the players joined based on the reputation of the module itself too – I had an open table as in the Alexandrian manifesto and I was playing with people I didn’t know before.
I think the module initially keeps players entertained and engaged. Everything is new, lots of mysteries, strangeness. There is plenty of explore and discover. Unfortunately at some point it becomes boring, because there is no payoff from the discoveries, no dynamism and the previously visited regions become boring.
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To compare to Stonehell (unfair, because Stonehell is the peak, but whatever), Maze initially comes off more exciting. “See! New things! You’re not fighting goblins here! Here are some ghost fish, here’s an evil plant thing”
The problem is, Stonehell on subsequent delves reveals weird under the conventional. The grounding of familiar goblins and orcs gives way to rumblings of strange like the Out of Time Mine, which by the time you’ve descended to level 6 and beyond have given way to a kaleidoscope of weird. Not only that, but the module encourages the DM to have the weird infect upwards during restocking as the evil of the lower levels becomes more powerful.
Meanwhile, Maze robs you of wonder on subsequent delves. Oops, more Chameleon Ladies. Been through this room, know the trick to it. Maze is a megadungeon that’s meant to be consumed like an Adventure Path, there is very little to come back to once you use up the content in a room. And novelty, by definition, wears out pretty quickly.
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Ran it. Me and 4 other human beings 😉 Cleared somewhere near 80 rooms.
This is also a stellar observation. There’s a difference in progression. Stonehell eases you into the megadungeon and slowly starts building the mythology and pressure while Maze is more like Cha’alt, seeking to dazzle until it inevitably runs out of steam. The capstone of Stonehell is an insane crawl into surrealist hell, ending with a throwdown against some otherwordly horror that’s been well established, while Maze has at its centre some tumblr lady’s OC.
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Yeah, but Cha’alt isn’t a pretentious, sadhouse, art-punk, gay wedding, now is it? I get the similarities, truly. However, they’re not the same. At all.
Relax Hoss. I like Cha’alt, or I would not have consulted on it. And yes, there is nothing pretentious about it at all. It exists with perfect self-awareness or self-unawareness. Pure Gonzo there is the whole point. If I do a Maze comparison with Stonehell later on, i’ll do one with Cha’alt also because Maze and Cha’alt do have some features in common.
Also protip, say sorry to Bryce. He’ll accept it. Don’t get banned from there.
Sorry for what? Comments on his blog? I’ll reach out to Bryce since I have no idea what he might be upset about.
Regarding Cha’alt, I know you know. Sometimes, it’s just nice to hear you say it. 😉
An interesting review. I think I concur that strip-mining it for parts is probably wiser than trying to run it.
Read the link to that post of Zac’s as well, and think he has a good point there. A LOT of the best D&D modules are old, and arguably have not been improved upon. And that IS deeply sad. His list of things a good big dungeon needs is also lovely.
What’s also interesting? His summary at the end of why it’s such a good module: “there’s craftsmanship on every page, creativity on every third or fourth page, and there’s seventy-eight pages.” That feels like more-or-less exactly what people should shoot for, and ironically something that would have helped this module a lot.
Back when I wrote a lot about Space Marines, I used to tell people that they were better off exploring one or two unique ideas than throwing in fifty. It’s a wise principle. Also lets you stretch your good ideas further.
I also feel like there’s a no-Artpunk challenge in “this older module established X innovation. Do it even better.”
I love that suggestion for the old modules New Artpunk, looks like we aren’t going to run out of ideas for it soon.
Zak’s criticisms certainly have a point, (although they are occasionally self-serving) but the proposed solution requires correction. The treatment of dungeons as a series of encounters with creativity as opposed to a process flow or complicated machinery is one of the inevitable results.
40k just fills me with sadness now. A long, drawn out death by corporate whitewashing.
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I do not own this. I have not played, run, or read it.
There are different ways to “RPG.” People…for DECADES…have spent huge amounts of time sticking square pegs into round holes when it comes to individual RPGs. There’s a good reason for that: we read a game and it fires the imagination in a way that only the exercise of reading does. Text is processed by the mind; the imagination creates images based on associations with text. Synapses fire, endorphins flare, and the reader shouts a mental EUREKA! THIS, they say, is something I must play/run/enjoy because it will allow me to EXPERIENCE thing “x” (that the text reader associates in their imagination and is ga-ga over).
RPG play is primarily about experiencing something as a participant. It is not putting on headphones and listening to music. It is not sitting in front of a TV or film screen and being fed a story created by the filmmaker. It is not going to a museum and being stimulated by incredible works of art. It is not even reading a novel and being fed a plot or quirky characters by some authorial word-smith. As a medium, RPGs are COOPERATIVE. The players and DMs contribute their individual bits to the imagined environment in order to create “play,” and all are participants in the act.
Different RPGs facilitate different types (or styles) of participation by their design. Dungeons & Dragons does not readily facilitate all types…but since D&D is ubiquitous, people are constantly insisting on using it for types of play that are clumsy or antithetical to its design parameters.
And, no, I’m not just speaking of “war gaming.” You can do a lot with D&D beyond simple dungeon delving or smash-and-grabbing.
“Vignette play,” however, isn’t a great use of the game. Wandering around and “experiencing” the shit a DM (or an author) has created just for the sake of experiencing something creative is NOT what the game is about. D&D is still an RPG…not a film, museum, record album, novel, etc. Players are supposed to be active and (hopefully) proactive within the rules as designed. D&D…as a concept…has players playing ROLES and working in conjunction with other players (and their respective roles) in order to actively engage with game in order to overcome challenges and achieve objectives.
An adventure composed of dozens (or hundreds) of uniquely creative encounters requiring creative solutions and “lateral thinking” with no objective or respite is not really D&D as designed.
And…from the reviews I’ve read of this adventure (here and at Bryce’s blog), that’s what this adventure is…at best. At worst it’s just a piece of art masquerading as an “adventure” meant to be read and admired instead of being played (or with play being secondary to admiration). I like art. I love a good art show (especially with free wine), just as I enjoy a good book or film or concert. But art masquerading as an adventure is pretentious trash. It reflects the author’s narcissism (not a good thing) because it fails at the job of giving the participants what they are expecting in their RPG experience.
BUT…as I wrote in the first line of this comment, I do not own this book. I have not read, run, or played it. My reflection on just “what” this adventure “is” comes wholly from parsing out other folks’ reviews. And as such, it is wholly unfounded in any type of direct interaction with the material. Maybe Maze “plays really good at the table” and becomes a vital part of any DM’s campaign as soon as they incorporate its 144 page bulk into their setting. Maybe. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that.
I understand the need for something other than a five room goblin warren. MotBM would appear to be at the opposite end of the adventure design spectrum. For MY particular D&D, that’s not a good thing: the game is supposed to be about the players and their impact on the (game) world. From the way I read it, this adventure would only be about the players reacting to the world of the authors…a world of dreams that break and twist the usual (game) physics and paradigms that the players must trust in to grapple with the (game) world in a meaningful, expected fashion.
A handful of exceptions to the norm is variety and the spice of life. This is a different game.
I don’t know where you get 144 from, its 296 or something.
That was the page count cited in Bryce Lynch’s 2016 review:
He was far more flattering of the adventure, calling it better than The Best and tied for one of its top favorites of all time. Mostly, I am on board with his grading criteria, but this one would seem to miss the mark.
296 pages is…a lot. For an adventure.The DMG is only 240.
It actually strikes me that I might need to do a follow up if only because I have reviewed Maze in the most favorable way, using one of the author’s own stated criteria for what makes a good dungeon, which are evidently incomplete, judging from all of his work. I think if you compare Maze to any other Megadungeon it will probably fall flat precisely because it is a series of encounters (which are interactive, for the most part), but which have been assembled piecemail. There is no intrigue at the homebase, no surrounding in which it can be embedded, no introduction, no restocking, no consideration of long term campaign play beyond multiple atomized environments, no buildup of tension and few indicators of meaningful progression. Levels with different encounter difficulties. It seems so simple yet it adds so much potential.
Also a correction, Maze is not mostly puzzles, it is mostly talking, circumnavigating weird obstacles and beating up random encounters.
Commodore how does ones players “finish” a megadungeon? Players don’t finish RPG material like a video game because they are people and there is no game over or you win at x time.
Princes players did not finish B10, they got bored/ wanted to explore. Is B10 bad now?
Is Prince a bad DM?
If I may take the liberty Prince. I would posit that neither is true
I doubt one ever “finishes” a megadungeon Zac, but I’ll call meeting the Blue Medusa in a product called “Maze of the Blue Medusa” is a decent milestone.
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Perish the thought! My players would have continued with B10 if I they had not tinkered with the orb that transported them to the Age of Dusk.
B10 is very good in a grand sense.
Thanks for this review. It helped me sort my thought. I have the think as a book – bought it second hand in bulk with other stuff from a guy who decided to sell off his collection. Since then, it’s been sitting there (like many others). I’m torn. On the one hand, I really like it. Any time I open a page, there’s something fascinating and excitingly adventurous. On the other hand, I’m don’t really feel like actually running it – somehow, I feel like I couldn’t manage, that it would melt my brain.
I think you managed to finally tell it as it is. There’s too much bizzare stuff in too little space.
But still… it could work. The thing just needs to be placed in a mundane(r) environment and be used not at the sole content of the campaign, but rather as a flavourful intermezzo that your players will visit every now and then, entering and exiting through the painting that they carry around on their adventures.
I’ve been thinking of a Planescape campaign with this being the core megadundeon that players may visit if they feel like it.
It could just work…
So yeah, I’m torn.
God damnit, how do I edit my post to fix all those typos?
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The name of all commenters.
UGH! “The BANE of all commenters,” not the “name.” Jeez Louise…typos!!
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I’d loot it wholesale for Planescape. Spread it out, though. Too much amazing all at once blends together.
Also, I can’t help but feel like this should, somehow, be what it’s like when the Lady mazes someone.
If you already have it, I say go for it, and your idea of just dumping it somewhere for the PCs to wander as they please might be the best way actually. Planescape might work better with it then most, or maybe not, I don’t know if it would work better as weird against weird or weird against a normal backdrop.
I think its important we don’t discount actual play as Gabor says its paramount
I think it was Bryce that said the only module you need is Thracia
Interesting review. It would be even more enjoyable to read without the many English errors.
Ultimately, the main fault of most “artpunk” is that it’s just self-indulgent showing off to the detriment of playability. (“Ooh, look how creative I am! You can’t use this half-assed crap at your table? Maybe you’re not creative enough to bear my visionary Art.”)
For my tastes, it’s usually also ugly as hell, which doesn’t help.
As a side note, I found this passage in the Keycock description hilarious: “Chainmail unknits like spaghetti.” … Do the authors really believe that chainmail is knitted like a steel pullover?? Just how dumb and ignorant they must be?
Ironic, to unknit can also mean unravel or unwind.
I don’t think either author is stupid, I think the above is a result of talent being missaplied under wrong assumptions of what makes a good adventure.
It the conceit of the premise really; that it’s some brilliant art/exceptionalism before It’s a game meant to be played. A lot of BM and other such works forget the game part; hence the static moments of brilliance in a morass of ennui and the weird flatness pervading throughout. I contrast this to DCO which is a wonderful adventure first before it tries to be anything else.
Yeah DCO was a little rickety when I reviewed it too but at least it has a structure that its following. A Conradian odyssey into a mythical underworld.
Thanks for this review! I bought MoTBM when it came out and was initially wowed by it, but when it subsequently became time to run something I made other choices. Your review helps me understand why. I completely agree with your assessment of ‘too much wierd in too little space’. It feels way mashed together. It might work better if the set pieces in it were set in a pointcrawl/hexcrawl encompassing an entire strange kingdom. But, it’s easier for me just to use something else than to do all that work, so instead it sits on my shelf.
Finally! MotBM review is here!
I ran it in my campaign. We cleared somewhere near 80 rooms if I remember correctly. As a DM I can tell it required me to make shit tone of prep for this stuff to work. I gave my players the “map painting” and it was fun for them to crack their route seeing this random shit on it and to plan exploration.
I think you need to have an adventure in your mind when dropping players inside this dungeon. Otherwise it’s just an art gallery and it will be boring after few rooms. Your players need to have an objective entering this place. As for the weirdo entrance – one thing I hate about it is that it’s easy to cut players’ way out (moon light) and they’re stuck in Maze which sucks, because there is really no place here to heal/regenerate/sleep etc.. As for the painting as entrance – I found it cool, as in my game players had to go on an adventure to first get the painting, so we had fun.
Overall I highly enjoyed the game we had, but I spent tons of time preparing to actually run it. I may sound as an asshole but I think lots of this fun we had is due to me adjusting/fixing this module. But as an end product – great fun, with lots of problems (where are my empty rooms?).
“So this is basically someone’s 5e OC bio, turned final boss.”
JESUS. FUCKING. CHRIST. My thoughts exactly. Pure gold, this sentence.
Great review. You did very well chopping it to parts, explaining topic by topic!
PS. I hope Polish spambots don’t harass your blog anymore.
Hi Wiz! 80 rooms? Damn!
” As for the weirdo entrance – one thing I hate about it is that it’s easy to cut players’ way out (moon light) and they’re stuck in Maze which sucks, because there is really no place here to heal/regenerate/sleep et”
There are at least 2 I think. The stairway to the island works and is in room 15 so that might be close enough. The other is the druid tree with spells, which is hard to find.
” Overall I highly enjoyed the game we had, but I spent tons of time preparing to actually run it. I may sound as an asshole but I think lots of this fun we had is due to me adjusting/fixing this module. But as an end product – great fun, with lots of problems (where are my empty rooms?).”
That’s good to hear. Its always possible and its a little hard to say. The first thing I ran for my current players were B11 and B12, by no means stellar modules, but they had a great time of it, particularly the keep assault, for which I had to do some improvisation. It can be difficult to extricate GM style and the quality of an adventure.
Thank you for your praise, I understand my own take on it much better then I did before. The review proper is a little rough, and I’m not sure about this format, but it seems to resonate so who knows.
I should issue a correction, they were evil Russian spambots instead!
I’d rate B11 as a good beginners (players and referee) module; less exciting for experienced hands. But B12 is a strong (albeit not stellar) module; if there is a fortress which will come under multiple assaults, it relies on intelligent referee reaction to player attacks. In what is a stellar module, the giants don’t just linger in their rooms in the Hall of the Fire Giant King after the initial attack.
Looking into this thing I see a lack of concrete elements – a WHY for all the WHAT the authors throw in our faces. There are steps in the right direction (mutual hauteur prevents the lesbians-to-be from just asking after each other like normal people) and if those steps were taken with determination, the Maze feels like it would work according to a consistent, gameable principle. Nobody can leave their own chambers until a condition is met – the drumming stops, the letter is answered, the book is returned – and until then the stasis of eight millennia continues. Give me Hall’s Law in action: one hook off which to hang this multitude of hats.
With that pretext of resolving arrested action I could run this thing. “Your characters have somehow had their room resolved. They – and you – now understand that everyone in the Maze could be set free as they have been, though many of the denizens would rather remain on their own petards than lower themselves to compromise and liberty.” Or something like that.
Good to see you back man.
I remain unconvinced that adding more conditions and sense-making to what is fundamentally inexplicable and dreamy is the way to go, but I like the idea of gradually introducing motion, that might be a way to do it so who knows.
The adventure seems a bit overly detailed. Details that add color to the storyline are outweighed by those that are there for their own sake. Not only that, but it’s overly femme-centric. Certainly the real world is trending toward a matriarchy, but do we have to mirror this in every work of fantasy we encounter?
Such is the way of the Artpunkman.
A very convincing perspective on MotBM, thanks Prince!
I still stand by my two points from when it came out: Maze is actually Art (capital A!) in two ways, one is obviously the actual painting, and the second one is Maze managed to present a new form to the hobby, widening discourse and practice, making people see with new eyes, inspiring. Was this avant-garde effort high in usability?
No, but it does not have to be. That it is even (partially) playable is a small miracle. And in this weird way it was ‘hyperfunctional’.
You are entitled to your own perspective, of course, but I will observe that if it demonstrated anything to my eyes, it was that the method of DnD as Art and DnD as game have not been unified. Until they are, this is a perversion, not an achievement (although many of the rooms and ideas, as mentioned before, are pretty good).
Keeping it 100: When it came out, I did think it was a playtested megadungeon, though.
Unlikely, but even if it happened they may have been looking at different criteria.
I was mostly miffed at the sheer ungodly amount of prep work you have to do, I ran stonehell flawlessly for two years with nary a pause or need to flip. Players had an enormous amount of fun. In this, they got the room where you have to pretend to be waiting in line(in real life) and decided to leave. Later told me it was the worst adventure they’d ever played, the worst sessions they’d ever had, and the worst campaign I ever ran, even worse than my first campaign where I just read verbatim from Hoard of the Dragon Queen because I wasn’t aware, new to RPGs, that when the book says “the man offers you a quest” you are supposed to do that with some improv and not just say “uhhh i guess…this man offers you a quest”
That kind of feedback is painful, but necessary. Haven’t picked up anything from Zak or Patrick since then, and we have since switched back to ACKs, which everyone liked the most anyway.
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The review is decent if you can tolerate the glibness inherent in the Nostalgia Critic -like voice you’re adopting, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why a piece written by an adult (?) in 2021 (?) would be dropping the r-word, AIDS jokes, and ‘gay’ as an insult like a teenager in 2010. It’s obvious you do have actually cogent things to say about where the work could have done better (say, your point about the art gallery industry), so why these lapses into the idiom of a 13-year old sexually frustrated teenager who’s yet to learn what the Alt Right is? Did you just have some kind of a weird quota to fill? Did your marketing department mandate you add cross-market appeal for habitual 4chan users? Or is it some kind of a metacommentary, the subtlety of which is escaping me? If I’d continued reading, would you also have gone on a tear about how women journalists are ruining the game industry? Maybe dropped some vintage 90s sitcom jokes insinuating Zak Smith — a person whose deep and well-documented flaws are very clearly not down to him knowing what sex is, contrary to what you appear to be trying to communicate — is trans?
Nice review otherwise, good luck with your special with Channel Awesome where you will be saying that The Room is a bad movie because it’s gay and that Tommy Wisseau has ebola.
Thanks. What other parts did you like?