Sunday, 10 July 2016

Maze of the Blue Medusa review

Short version: it's pretty great.

Long version:

OK, so Maze of the Blue Medusa (available from Sator or I guess Satyr Press) is a megadungeon collaboration between Zak S. of Playing D&D with Porn Stars and Patrick Stuart of False Machine. It is a copiously-illustrated hardbound book in the style that you've come to expect from the previous work of both creators: taking the basic structure of D&D and making it memorably weird. Although there are traps, monsters and treasure, there are no orcs; the scoundrels exploring this bizarre environment are going to be up against chameleon women, moon men, masked weirdoes who think they're birds, the sinister Empty Knight, mummies stuffed with books, liches, aurum spectres, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, the titular Blue Medusa.

Here is a video I made showing what the book looks like. If you don't feel like clicking on it, basically, it looks pretty great and is well laid out and easy to use, more so than most gaming books.

The Maze

OK, so the titular Maze is a megadungeon of about 300 rooms, roughly divided into a bunch of smaller thematically and geographically-linked sectors. At the heart of the maze is the medusa herself, basically acting as a jailer for all kinds of monsters, demons, freaks of nature, supervillains, would-be tyrants and so on. Around the medusa and her collection of petrified hellraisers you have the usual accretion of scoundrels, lunatics, power-mad schemers, hapless dolts, hubristic adventurers, pitiable survivors of long-collapsed empires, religious devotees and bizarre products of reality-warping events. In particular, three sisters who once headed an empire are imprisoned here, together with the treacherous ministers who betrayed them. Their interlocking ... areas of effect, I guess? ... are a big part of why the different sections of the Maze have their different feels.

Aside from the random encounters, the monsters in the maze tend to be unique -- so there's a minotaur, for instance, but he's a named character with particular personality and agenda. There are various liches and mummies, but they are each distinct -- if sometimes briefly sketched -- individuals. And quite a lot of the monsters are one-offs of various kinds, like the two-headed monstrosity made from the severed hands of a giant demon.

A lot of what appeals to me about the Maze is the way in which it's a product of its history, without needing a history lesson to understand or explore. Everything in it feels like it's weighed down by millennia of betrayal and isolation, without you necessarily having to know about the relationship between the Triarchy and the Saurid Empire to appreciate it. A lot of the characters in it are about the weight of years and history, and the way in which life can narrow over time into futile, destructive obsession, but it doesn't feel preachy or on-the-nose.

The writing

I like the writing style here -- it's evocative and moody without being pretentious (well, that's a matter of taste, and I accept that I might be more inclined toward pretentiousness than most) or overlong.

Here's an example from the Gallery section of the Maze.

121. Fortuna -- Crown of Night

Sphinx-like statue recovered from ancient realm. Her crown is composed of the battlements of the city she was made to defend. She knows a lot about that city and not much else. Quite depressed as her city is long gone, locked away in the hidden storage area of a forgotten dungeon. 

Then you get a description of the city (which Fortuna is trying to remember more clearly) and a really clever and fun riddle mechanic by which the PCs can help Fortuna recover her memory.

Like any dungeon book, Maze of the Blue Medusa is probably not best read straight through, but I was so keen that that's just what I did. And there was a point, somewhere around room 200 or so, that weirdness fatigue set in. I started thinking "oh, ho hum, what's in this next room? I bet it's a tragic grotesque performing a futile task." But that's what you get when you try to read something that's not meant to be a novel as though it were a novel (is that why many scenarios are hard to use at the table? Because they're written to be read in a sitting? I suspect at least partly).

Set meal or a la carte?

Maze of the Blue Medusa is very different from your typical D&D dungeon, which to my admittedly inexperienced eye seems like a good thing. It might be hard to integrate into an existing campaign, especially one that has a lot of conventional fantasy elements. Even I, who love the weird stuff, tend to like occasional moments of dreamlike Gormenghast-on-acid fantasy against a backdrop of relatably mundane humanity, while Maze seems more into presenting a world of bizarre Gormenghast etc. which, when entered with the appropriate spirit, eventually reveals its tragically relatable humanity.

Now, there are two ways to deal with this: first and most obviously, the dungeon contains its own isolating idea -- it's not a hole in the ground, but rather some kind of alternate dimension. In fact, one of the cultures that has access to it thinks that the Maze is literally the afterlife and that all the people and creatures in it are gods or spirits. So even within the context of the regular 2d4-orcs kind of world, the Maze can fit because it's meant to be totally bonkers in context. So in this case the relatable everyday-ness comes from the PCs rather than their immediate setting.

Secondly, you could just break it down for parts. I think you'd lose some of the charm of the dungeon like this -- it's the balance of all the different elements that I think makes it really amazing -- but there is definitely a lot of good stuff in there. Individual traps, characters, magic items and so on are so densely-packed that I think I found a couple of dozen bits I'd be willing to steal just within the first section of the dungeon.

Honestly, what I might do is pilfer a bunch of individual characters and locations for my current (relatively high-level, probably not long before concluding) campaign, and then, at some point in the future, drop the Maze whole-hog into my next D&D game.

Using the Maze in 5th ed. 

Maze of the Blue Medusa is pretty systemless; most of its monster mechanics are one-off. It's grounded in a sort of consensus version of old-school D&D, which means that its HP totals in particular are probably a bit lower than you'd expect from a 5th ed. game. If/when I run it, I might add a bit to most bad guy totals and implement some kind of rule of thumb for calculating save DCs. Other than that, with a little bit of flexibility I think it's perfectly doable in 5th at the indicated levels. The book suggests that characters of level 1-5 can do this, assuming they box clever and don't mind dying a bit, and characters of level 6-10 should be pretty comfortable. I wouldn't say for certain without running it, but that sounds about right to me. My party are level 14 at the moment, and in stand-up-fight terms they'd stroll this, although the brainy parts are equally challenging for characters of any level.

There's a fair bit of blending player and character wits, and a surprising amount of stuff that's based on the characters' past and experiences. The latter part means that I'm not sure you'll get the most out of this dungeon if you just drop fresh characters into it. Fortunately, even getting into the dungeon requires pulling off a presumably complex art theft, so you can start the characters out with that and build up some fodder for when they meet the various memory- and regret-themed critters that play on their pasts.

So overall, then? 

Ultimately, dungeons are for playing and thus I can't really tell what this one is like for me and my players until I actually run some of it. But I found the writing evocative and almost always clear, the layout convenient and easy to use, and the art (with one or two minor niggles) cool and inspiring. If a regular old dungeon were presented with this level of clarity and efficiency, it would be excellent, but Maze of the Blue Medusa combines accessible presentation with a dungeon that's genuinely fantastic and eerie. If this sounds at all interesting to you, you should at least splash out a few bucks for one of the PDF options.


  1. I threw down for the hardcover and have zero regrets other than the usual slight guilt for overspending my gaming book budget for this paycheck.

    1. I know how you feel. Still, quality costs, I suppose.