I’m not certain how to feel about this review. On one hand, it points to very legitimate criticisms of Zak and Stuart as designers. My brother uses “This idea is a little stupat.” when he’s saying I wrote something that’s unplayable as written or “This is too Zak S” when my writing is a grab bag of ideas with no connective tissue. This isn’t to say that they don’t have clear strengths and innovations, especially Patrick Stuart, but they aren’t the gods some folks in the OSR seem to think they are.
On the other hand, large parts of the review are complaining about something not conforming to the orthodoxy of 5e adventure design or working well with 5e when it’s written by designers of primarily OSR games. If a giant is in a 3rd level adventure, it’s not some evil thing that will always destroy the party. They can rally 20 peasants, steal a ballista, use a magic item creatively, set up a trap for the monster, etc. 5e makes this sort of gameplay more viable than in 3rd or 4th because of the way the saving throw and attack.vs.AC math work. Part of this though assumes characters can gain information about threats before having to encounter them. Which is why “disconnected list of ideas” is one of the worst things for making this location based design work at the table.
“The map can’t be shown to the players.” is where the criticism gets bizarre to me. The players or GM draw up the map as they explore. A “player map” is an in-game object, usually has false info or speculations on it. It’s alien to me, I played a ton of d&d from 2000-2014, went to school and now I don’t really understand a lot of these bloggers. He is fundamentally right that the map doesn’t match the room descriptions though.
Where he really loses me is in the idea that enforcing a narrative structure should always be a goal of modules. Engaging freely with the location should provide some good gameplay and you can have momentum, but narrative design falls apart when player choices can’t be predicted by the GM. It’s the fundamental difference outside of anything else on story design. My last adventure, I was confused why it got called OSR since the dungeon design is based around 5e but ya know. Presenting a location and scenario rather than a story makes a 5e adventure designed for 5e gameplay somehow OSR.
Aside from the higher feasibility of sneak in lamentations, “structuring challenges” comes down to a problem of flexibility. There’s pushback against “structured challenges” because of how garbage the structuring usually is. If I have a physical obstacle such as underwater diving or an enemy with a strange ability, running the challenge and letting players figure it out is easier in play and more enjoyable ime than when designers assume or enforce a specific solution. Not to say you can’t have things to help with the challenge but my experience with modules is that no structure is on average preferable to poorly designed structure.
As far as the overall structure, I’m convinced Stupat doesn’t really playtest the adventures. The complaints of lack of food or places to rest are irrelevant in a “repeat delve” dungeon. Going into the dungeon is about pushing your luck until you need to leave. Maze is designed with ideas created for a repeat delve but fails by destroying the ability to leave. Essentially, it’s design by rote without thinking through why the design exists the way it does. Allow free travel through the painting and Maze is greatly improved.
This review is a mixed bag for me. I’m glad to see someone take Zak and Stupat down a peg for some of the terrible design they seem to get away with. The “it should be a story” sort of thing and complaining about a lamentations thing not working for 5e(though this adventure honestly shouldn’t have been system agnostic) rubs me the wrong way. The worst games I’ve been in were ran by folks who stuck to that orthodox modern design sphere which ime is almost the same in play as 40-ish folks who run 2e modules. Not certain fully how to feel about it.
Note: I rewrote this since I initially sorta skimmed, shot from the hip and then acted dumbly inflammatory at parts. So I thought I’d rewrite a more considered commentary.
Maze of the Blue Medusa is a 300+ room megadungeon module written by Zak Sabbath and Patrick Stuart, both acclaimed writers within the small, small world of tabletop roleplaying games. The book, which contains an elaborate painted map of the entire dungeon, received quite a bit of good press when it was first released, which is how I came to hear about it. Having purchased the module, and having DMed it to the best of my ability, I believe it to be almost unusable for the vast majority of DMs out there, and a strong example of the structural issues with RPG modules in general, particularly mega-dungeons and other large dungeons trying to maintain the feel of “the classics”.
I don’t mean to imply that Maze of the Blue Medusa ranks among the worst modules ever written, I have seen far, far worse. In truth, this article could have been…
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