+Patrick Stuart (of Deep Carbon Observatory) and +Zak Sabbath ("Red and Pleasant Land" among others) and published by Satyr Press.
All of that is relevant to the review that follows. First, you can see the DNA of both DCO and RaPL in Maze of the Blue Medusa (MoBM hereafter). Not to say this is the child of the other two, unless it is a child the same way a medusa is the child of an arch-devil, but there are fingerprints all over it.
Satyr Press is important too. Not because you have heard of it (I hadn't) but because they are not known for their RPG books. In fact this is their first and only one to date. You won't find MotBM on DriveThruRPG or RPGNow. I have no idea if my favorite local game store carries it (though they did have RaPL). So already we should know from all of this we have something different. And we do.
I have had MotBM now for a little while but I have been purposefully holding off on reviewing it till know for a very specific reason. I want to review it now so you can vote for it at the ENnies. Yes, I know that calls my bias into question and my intentions. But there is the Product (which I am reviewing here) and there is the Philosophy (which is why I want you to vote). I am going to review the Product, but I want to talk about the Philosophy.
Ok brass tacks. What is Maze of the Blue Medusa?
Extremely simply put MotBM is an adventure. It is a huge dungeon in the very, very classical sense that for what ever reasons your characters will investigate. The PDF is 296 pages. This contains a map of the "Maze" (spoiler: it's not really a maze), both Zak's lavishly painted version and a utilitarian numbered one that is also hyperlinked (Philosophy vs. Product right there). The PDF is massive, hyperlinks everywhere and the art is, as expected, top notch material from Zak. I can't help compare it to Red and Pleasant Land, and favorably so. The art is central to the map. OR the map is central to the art. They are one and the same really. So don't come to this product if you want grids or blue borders on your maps. I love all that stuff, I do, but that is not this product, nor would it ever be.
The maps remind me also of the board game Dungeon! a little bit. Same sort of color, same sort of "flat yet, multi-dimensional" feel to it. I will be honest that was what attracted me most from the start.
The Maze is both explicitly and implicitly multidimensional.
The only thing I can relate it too was this multivariate regression course I took back in grad school where we tried to replicate 4, 5 and more dimensional multivariate axes on two-dimensional paper.
For me, at least, not only is the PDF hyper-linked, the Maze itself is hyperlinked.
We are given a brief history and a timeline involving an immortal medusa and three perfect sisters.
There is insanity all around them, thus the Maze.
I like the background and it pulls me into this world, but it happened (game wise) so long ago how can any of the PCs be sure? Implicit in the design is that you can do what you like here. This is evident in the coding of the monster stats in some Ur-D&D. Designed to be flexible and compatible with a wide variety of editions and games.
Which gets me to my first big point on Philosophy.
The Maze has no meaning save what the reader/player puts on it.
I am not trying to discount what Zak and Patrick wrote in the book. Not at all, quite the opposite. They worked very hard to provide a copious amount text and background. But like the medusa who changes people with her gaze, the Blue Medusa is changed by the gaze of others. The details are enough to get you going but how it works in your world with your players and your style of gaming (not to mention the ruleset you choose) will change it. The language used here is less "I am telling you what is happening" to "I am inspiring you to tell what is happening". The difference is profound. It made the work Zak and Patrick had to do harder, but more rewarding. It is not their domain (or dare I say even their right) to tell me why the Medusa or Chronia don't age, it is enough that they don't and the world moves on. Do you need to know for your game? Maybe, that is up to you.
The monsters, or really NPCs, are unique and tailored to this. Same with the magic items. Sure there are some liches, but that seems to be expected given the rules of the Maze to be honest. Hell I might throw in a couple more and have them be former adventures from my gaming groups of the neolithic days of D&D just amuse myself. But in truth no-one is there without a reason.
One could, based on the surface features, call this a dungeon crawl but that is nowhere close to what it really is. Yeah you can use it as that, but that is a waste of material.
Plus, unlike the great adventures of yesteryear (which I am still inordinately fond of) there are good reasons why these monsters/npcs/characters are hanging around here. There is no sphinx guarding the corridors as in White Plume Mountain. There is no monster here because it fit the challenge rating of the rest of the dungeons. Things are here because they serve a purpose in the Maze itself independent of whether or not the PCs are there.
There are also enough things going on in this dungeon/book that I could not help but be amused by knowing the histories and interactions of the designers. I nearly spit out my coffee at the Canibal Critics. I also have to admit I adore the Glyph Witch.
Now personally I am huge fan of the PDF. It is hyperlinked and I can jump all over the Maze in a way that is both utilitarian (Gods...I just called a Zak Sabbath book "utilitarian") but also aesthetically pleasing. I want to say though that the pictures of the hardcover are absolutely gorgeous. It's the type of book you leave out and hope your non-gaming friends find a leaf through.
Sometimes They Get Lost
With so many characters (both senses of the word) wandering the halls of the Maze I can't help but have two thoughts. 1. Is this the authors' idea of what hell is? It has all the features of the Greek Hades or even Dante's Inferno. I am quite certain that all the NPCs represent real people in the lives of the authors. I have not identified them all and I am not likely too, but it is a fun exercise. Also 2. Is this where all the lost characters go? Sometimes when you play with a group, players come and go, what happens to their characters? I am not talking about inbetween major adventures, but in the middle of one. One session there are there and the next...gone. Maybe...just maybe some of them end up here. They are lost in the truest sense of the word. Not evil, not good, but lost. Maybe they have wandered the halls for a thousand years but still think that it was only minutes ago they got here. Maybe they are all too painfully aware of what is going on but are powerless to do anything about it.
Why Should I Buy Maze of the Blue Medusa?
Buy this if you are the type of gamer that loves a new and unique challenge. Buy this if you are the kind of gamer that is bored of the typical dungeon crawl where you kick in a door, kill the giant rat and collect your 2,000 coppers. After 36+ years of gaming, precious little seems "new" to me. This feels new. The ideas are old, but the presentation and the execution are new.
Buy this for the jaded gamer who thinks they have seen it all.
I am going to pick up the hard cover because I also think this adventure makes for good reading. There is an implicit story here I would love to tease out for my own world.
Why Should I Vote For Maze of the Blue Medusa?
Obviously, I think the product is worthy of such consideration. This why I am posting now as opposed to last week or after I get my hardcover. This is my next big point on Philosophy. You buy MotBM for the Product, but vote for the Philosophy. Zak's writing, work and much of his blog is about how games can and should be better. MotBM is the tangible artifact of that ideal. Now my "better" and your "better" and his "better" might not all be the same thing, but the effort to do something different needs to be rewarded. The effort to try out adventure design where one designer paints and the other writes and they go back and forth should be rewarded and acknowledged. There is also the fact that this is essentially a D&D product. If this were (gods I am going to catch shit for this) FATE adventure or something from the Indie Press Revolution, the style would be heralded and pedalstooled by that faction of gamers. This is the Indie RPG aesthetic applied to DIY D&D.
Maze is up for the following ENnies:
Best Electronic Book
and Product of the Year
Personally, I think it is worthy of all of these. Foremost Best Adventure and Best Electronic Book.
Buying sends the message to the authors that you appreciate their work. Voting sends the message to other authors that this is the sort of thing you like and you want to see more. So please, vote for this.
We need more adventures and supplements like this.
I have no idea where I am going to use this, but I will use it.
Good job +Zak Sabbath and +Patrick Stuart. Looking forward to seeing what is next.
I am up for an Ennie this year for Best Blog!
Please click on the link and vote "1" under "The Other Side".