Monday, July 11, 2016

I Have a Medusa, and She is So Blue

When I was plugging Forgive Us I remember saying at least a couple of times that I wanted it to be a game book that was also an art book; looking back I can see that this claim was ridiculous because I was nowhere near. With Maze of the Blue Medusa, Zak S and Patrick Stuart have achieved what I could not.

I mean that literally too; the basic concept seems to have been "what if we turned one of Zak's super detailed paintings into a dungeon?" and that's what they've gone and done, the cheeky, talented blighters.

(In a fun self-referential twist, one of the dungeon's main entrances is a magical painting.)

In a way, MotBM is quite a traditional dungeon adventure; at a basic level it is a list of rooms and what's in them, but it's the "what's in them" bit that makes this worth playing. There's something interesting in every location -- even empty corridors or stairways have something to prod or explore -- and by "interesting" I don't mean "1d12 orcish Morris dancers" but rather things like a lantern that projects light from the future, or scattered clues hidden by some mysterious and unseen benefactor who has been through the dungeon before, or a floor map that's also the key to a high-level campaign in itself.

There are monsters, indeed there are a lot of monsters, but almost none of them exist as big jangling bags of experience points to be fought and killed; every creature wants something or has some relationship with another being or object in the maze, and many will talk to the player-characters about it.

The inmates, occupants, and visitors are arch, decadent, strange, or all three at once; there is plenty of odd magic-science and weird energy floating around the dungeon; and there is a general feel of decadence and entropy throughout. It's all characteristic of Patrick's adventure writing style, but it's also characteristic of Zak's; they work together well, and it's difficult to tell where the join is. One could say that the cannibal critics are an obvious Zak creation given his background in art but I would not be at all surprised to learn that they sprung from Patrick's imagination.

The book looks great, not only because it has 250 pages of Zak's artwork, but because of its clever but simple layout and organisation from Anton Khodakovsky. The original painting is sliced up into smaller, more manageable chunks and each double-page spread deals with one of those chunks; on the left you get the chunk in context with the neighbouring parts of the dungeon, then on the right there's another version of the same image with something approaching a traditional dungeon key. Below that, you get a summarised description of the room contents, then the next two or three pages expand that summary into greater detail.

Here's a typical spread:

Then the more detailed gubbins on the following page:

Each of the seven main sections of the dungeon is colour coded to match a little tab at the edge of the page so you can see at a glance which section of the book relates to which section. This is a simple and practical idea that I haven't seen often in game books; the fifth edition of Call of Cthulhu used it to indicate the main rules, and I have a vague memory of other Chaosium products from the same era -- Elric! perhaps? -- using it. What I like is that it's clever but that's secondary to being useful, and such an approach says good things about the designers.

If I had a criticism -- and I am struggling to find anything negative to say about this book -- it's that the writing is a bit wordier than I like; I would have combined the summary and the more detailed text into something shorter, so everything would fit into double-page spreads, but that's just me. Brevity is not always a good thing and you know, it's good writing; it's always fun to read -- not Small But Vicious Dog level fun, but more than good enough to keep the reader entertained for almost 300 pages of room descriptions -- and if I wrote as well as these two, I'd show it off too.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is fun to read, it looks wonderful, and it's designed to be useful; there are plenty of game books that fit into one of those categories, fewer that fit into two, and not many at all that fit into all three, let alone doing so while describing a setting that can provide months, if not years, of continuous play. This is a very good book and I cannot recommend it enough.

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