Can You Out-Skill a Fireball?

I recently got into a Very Online argument with Zak S, the author of MotBM. You can read through it here…kind of? Reddit’s not exactly a very readable format so I did the best I could to indicate as much of the discussion as I could capture. The gist of the conversation was that he went off about me being a troll, I refuted the accusation and explained why exactly I’ve made the posts I have, we got into an argument about whether the Maze does or does not result in constant death, etc. etc. I don’t want to talk about the Maze anymore, I’ve probably said more about it than anyone on the internet who wasn’t directly involved in it’s production. That’s not what this post is about. This post is instead concerned with the highlighted reddit post and the two replies below it.

I brought up the 1 HP thief Zak S had mentioned before with him. I want to say it was this one (NSFW); Zak S says the thief was named “Failure the Halfing” and was part of a game run by Ben L. I am unsure if they are one and the same but Zak, for some reason, gave me three separate blogspot links and one twitter account with no context and expected me to figure out where exactly the game was discussed by myself without any proper guidance. Or he genuinely expected me to ask four people I’ve never met about a character from a game that occurred 6 years ago as if they had full memory of it. Either one is equally strange.

Notably, Zak is unclear if the thief survived.  He does not say if they lived for very long, only that they “survived until he leveled up”–making it ambiguous whether or not they did in fact live for more than a few sessions. I perhaps falsely presumed that they lived, but if they did in fact die then that would make a lot more sense–as my two most logical inferences from this thief’s tale were that either 1: this did not even happen or was exaggerated, or 2: the way that monsters/encounters worked in this game was extraordinarily lenient and/or highly abnormal to the point of scarcely being recognizable as D&D.

I told Zak what I imagine anyone who’s ever played a game of D&D would: that taking damage in D&D is the norm, that 1 HP in AD&D means you cannot take any damage or else you are dead, and that there are many, many spells and abilities and D&D that always inflict damage even on a successful save. Zak seemed incredulous. He indicated that odds of PC survival will always increase in direct relation to player skill, and asked me in the reply to this post “Is this bs about fireballs more hyperbole? Or do you literally think there’s no way to avoid being fireballed in this dungeon?” To which I replied:

“To be honest, I don’t even remember if there is a monster in the Maze with fireball. It doesn’t really matter what ability you use as an example, there are many, many abilities that are almost impossible to completely negate in low-level D&D. There are even some that are outright impossible to avoid at low levels like Magic Missile. Fireball is actually one of the worst examples I could pick as there are many ways of negating the combustion. How we got into this argument was talking about the Maze’s encounters, so counter-question: do you really believe that any and all encounters that could ever be generated in the Maze can be outwitted and outplayed by a skilled player? Even if the dice does not favor them?”

Zak’s response to my question was simple: Yes. This belief of his is nothing short of monumental stupidity.  Notably he did not even qualify his statement with “given luck” or even “on average”, so he apparently believes that players could potentially survive any difficult adventure even if every single roll they ever make results in a 1. Why even bother disproving his claim? It’s like the RPG equivalent of debunking a flat-earther.

…If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, Zak S is not the only one who thinks this way. He may well be the only one who takes it to such a ridiculous extreme, but our argument about fireballs and random encounters and the statistical inevitability of defeat is simply a microcosm of a broader argument that has been repeated over and over since the 70s. The question is: How much does player skill matter in D&D? The most common form of this debate is one framed around the discussion of class imbalance. Someone will say that Wizards are vastly superior to Fighters in just about every circumstance, the counterargument will often be that the key determent of a character’s success will always be their ability to think tactically and problem solve–therefore even if Wizards are *mechanically* better, an adept Fighter will outperform a careless Wizard. It’s basically the TRPG equivalent of “A skilled Roy can beat any Fox.”

Of course, Zak’s take on the matter is stated in an entirely different fashion. Zak has no issue grasping the reality that Wizards are better than Fighters in any edition of D&D. While the balance-centered arguments are usually spoken with intent to belittle or outright deny the reality of objectively verifiable imbalance effecting the viability of a given class, Zak S outright worships at the altar of player skill in an almost parodistic fashion, with his arguments reaching much closer to the most reductive uses imaginable of the term “get good”. Zak believes that just about any obstacle can be overcome with player skill in an AD&D-adjacent game, even overcoming horrendous luck or outright hateful encounter design.

But more than anything I can get over this statement: “Play an old-school game online and you’ll probably find a lot of people who are way better at not getting fireballed than you are.”

So let’s get “tactical”, shall we?

To begin, let’s start with the AD&D spell, Fireball.

 

Level: 3 School: Evocation
Components: V, S, M (a tiny ball of compressed bat guano and sulphur)
Range: 10″ + 1″/level Casting Time: 3 segments
Duration: Instant Saving Throw: 1/2
Area: 2″ radius sphere

The caster fires a streak from their finger out to the range they desire, and if the path is unobstructed, the spell creates an explosive burst of flame that detonates with a low roar at that point. If the streak strikes something before it reaches that range, it detonates early It deals 1d6 damage per caster level to creatures in the area (creatures affected can save for half damage). There is not much pressure with the explosion, and it will conform to the shape of the area it bursts in, covering an area equal to its normal spherical volume (roughly 33,000 cubic feet). The fireball ignites combustibles, and melts soft metals such as gold, silver, and copper. Items exposed to the fire must make saves to negate the effect.

What we know from this: Fireball is an explosion that occurs when a combustive streak hits something solid. The streak is emitted in a straight line that flies directly from the caster’s finger to their target. If anything solid exists within the path to the target, it will explode on that target instead. The caster can target anything they can see within 10″ + 1″/level , including an object. Or they may choose to cast without having sight, taking a wild guess as to where their target is.

Here’s where it gets tricky: a 10″ cube is equal to 1000 cubic feet. If a fireball has a volume of 33,000 cubic feet, that would translate into 33.5 10x10x10 cubes. Those cubes fill whatever space is present as best they can. By these measurements, this will almost always fry everything inside a medium-sized room, including the caster. Which is exactly why this interpretation is often either not used or kept purely for outside spaces (as is typically the case for any given measurement not listed under the range category). The much more common interpretation is that Fireball covers a 20 foot radius sphere in most if not all cases. Though it should definitely be noted that a very common tactic back in the day was to target the ground with a fireball which causes the explosion to become a hemisphere rather than a sphere, becoming 25 feet in radius.

It’s also important to note that anything flammable is set on fire. Because AD&D was made by people who were, if their attempts at a unified rule-set are to be believed, certifiably insaneit will even melt gold pieces exposed to the flame. So if you get hit with a fireball, not only are you basically guaranteed to take damage from the actual blast provided you were targeted,you’re probably going to take damage from the flames as well–even if you were a stone’s throw away from the center of impact.

But what we really want to examine here is, of course, the 1/2 saving throw. If you’re hit with a fireball, you’ll always be subject to fire damage, the only thing you can do is save to instead take half of that damage. There is no such thing as the Evasion class feature in AD&D, and even if there was it would be irrelevant to the question of “can skill negate fireballs” because Evasion is an entirely passive feature that requires no player input. So what CAN you do to negate a fireball?

First of all, let’s set aside any instances of a party surprise attacking an enemy with Fireball before they can even cast it. It goes without saying that literally any encounter in low-level D&D can be beaten if you see it wandering around, it doesn’t detect you, and you line up shots on it. The best method of damage negation in any and all cases is to kill your enemies immediately with a surprise attack. That’s obvious. I will come back to this method of solving encounters in my conclusion, but for now just note that 1. such a method has nothing to do with negating fireballs and 2. “high-skill games” such as the ones Zak claims to play will never entail the players being able to plan an attack on every enemy. There’s also an argument to be made that auto-attacking an unaware enemy to death from a distance exhibits very little observable “skill” and is simply the most obvious answer for the problem, which Zak S has stated he does not care for. 

There are two categories of execution here: plans of action that stop the Fireball damage before it is cast, and plans of action that stop the Fireball damage during or immediately after it is cast. 

It is key to note here that any plan of action in the “before it is cast” category cannot truly be considered a method of “fireball negation” as spells and spell-like abilities cast by enemies are determined before the combat round plays out and there is no method provided within AD&D’s rulebook for explicitly identifying which spell an entity will be casting. Even if there was, this would provide no help at all against spell-like abilities that are identical to Fireball. Furthermore, we cannot even say that the party is acting against the threat of a Fireball spell if they have no idea that their enemies can even cast it. However there are a few ways to predict an incoming Fireball without resorting to meta-knowledge. There are actually very few monsters in the first few monster manuals that can cast Fireball, with the most common being various forms of firey skeletons like the Giant Skeleton. Most if not all of these monsters have some sort of blatant fire imagery. It certainly would not be out of the question for a player to deduce that a fire monster will be casting fire spells, such as Fireball.

Presuming that the characters do figure out that their foe will be casting fireball, what can they do? The answer to that question is messy because the AD&D initiative system is kind of a complete catastrophe. 1st edition initiative’s system was so unnecessarily complex that just about every group ran it differently. How you run this encounter will vary wildly depending on how the DM interprets initiative.

For now, let us just assume that the players encounter a group of enemies in a standard, barren room, and roll initiative with neither side being surprised. Only one of these enemies can cast Fireball, let us say it’s some manner of fire skeleton. There’s no method of balancing encounters in AD&D, so the players could potentially be any level, but this discussion was framed around low-level d&D, so let us assume that the party is somewhere in the range of level 2 – level 5. This means that a Wizard or a Cleric can cast up to level 3 spells at the highest and only level 1 spells at the lowest. Let us also assume that the party has all their spells ready and exactly the right spells prepared, since of course these incredibly skillful players will have already anticipated this situation. Here are all the methods of stopping Fireball before it is cast that I can think of:

  • A Druid preemptively casts Protect from Fire on themselves, thus negating any damage the Fireball would do to them. This is definitely the best option for protecting yourself from damage, but note that when I say “preemptively” I mean before the battle has even started, as the spell has a cast time of 5 segments, more time than Fireball’s 3 segments. This is also exclusive to the Druid class.
  • A Cleric wins initiative and uses Turn Undead. This is by far the most reliable method of preemptively stopping the fireball outright, short of killing the skeleton instantly with a surprise attack. Notably this example is dependent on a singular class, and is also dependent on the enemy in question being undead. If they are not undead, this example is non-applicable.
  • A Mage casts Invisibility and runs away in anticipation of the Fireball. With a cast time of only 2 segments this should occur before the enemy casts Fireball. This is very unreliable as there is nothing stopping the skeleton from aiming the Fireball where they last saw the Mage, and even if they throw it elsewhere, they are very likely to hit the Mage anyway given the spell’s radius.
  • Simply kill the skeleton before it can act. This might be more reliable than the Invisibility strategy, but not by much, and this method involves very little player ingenuity. Presuming that the players won initiative they may be able to take down the skeleton with speed, but this all depends on attack rolls, damage rolls, etc. etc. Should the luck of the die fail, there is nothing you can do about the fireball.
  • Running away. Fireball expands around corners so players will only escape if they sprint, allowing them to move 3 times their normal movement assuming terrain is not an issue. This, again, requires any given character to win initiative.
  • Custom magic items. Maybe someone in the party has a “Ring of Fireball Absorption” or something similar. Such things are totally irrelevant when talking about D&D in a broader context as they are totally dependent on the DM handing them out. They’re also virtually non-existent in OSR games.

And here are some examples of things that do not work, in case you were thinking of them:

  • Casting a charm/hold person spell. Skeletons are immune to such spells. This would work on an non-undead enemy, however.
  • Casting a spell like Pyrotechnics. Spells like this have very long casting times that are typically 5 segments. Besides, Pyrotechnics will be able to negate the aftermath of the Fireball, but not the initial explosion.

Notably, the only method a non-spellcasting character has of negating or stopping the fireball before it is cast, without DM-dependent items, is killing the enemy before they can act.

Now let’s go over plans of action stop the Fireball damage during or immediately after it is cast. Presuming that the enemy wins initiative in this case, then casts fireball…

There is only one option: a Druid preemptively casts Protection from Fire on themselves. Nothing else can be done about it at this level. This cannot even be used to fully negate the damage to the Druid’s party members as Protection from Fire does not provide any innate damage resistance if cast on someone other than the caster, it only halves fire damage.

Unless you are this Druid, there is absolutely nothing you can do about a fireball coming your way in a basic dungeon room, once it has been cast and is traveling towards you. You can make the save, of course, but you will always take damage. The only other thing I can think of, short of DM fiat, that would stop a fireball from hitting it’s target after it’s been cast, is some sort of shenanigan involving a familiar or pet popping up and intercepting the fireball before it reaches it’s target. Even this would not negate damage as the explosion would still reach everything on that end of the room.

Let me make that perfectly clear. In an instance where combatants are in an average room and neither side is surprised: if the enemy wins initiative, there is nothing you can do about damage-even-on-save abilities like Fireball once they are cast in the vast majority of instances. In this particular example, ONLY the Druid can negate the damage, and ONLY if they preemptively cast a spell while having it prepared. In examples like Magic Missile, which strikes unerringly, there is LITERALLY NOTHING you can do to not take damage if the enemy wins initiative and targets you.

What this means in the context of a 1 HP Thief is that such a character either must win initiative or must engage in a surprise round every single time they engage an encounter similar to this one, or else die. This remains true even if they are a 4 HP Thief at level 2, a 7 HP thief at level 3, and so on. The prolonged existence of such a character is entirely dependent on either pure luck or an extremely lenient model of encounter design and implementation that allows the players to act with time on their side in any and all instances of combat, including random encounters. The former is objectively luck not skill. The latter is an extremely low skill threshold that says less about tactics than it does the ability of the DM to teach players to ruthlessly exploit the immense benefits of a basic game mechanic against docile, stationary enemies which exhibit so little intelligence that they compare unfavorably to zombies.

Given that Zak would certainly state a hundred times over that he and his players exhibit high skill, we can apparently rule out the enemies being docile robots. So what actually happened?

The most likely scenario, given what we know about Zak and how low the odds would be of surviving as such a character, is pretty mundane. Here’s the best hypothesis I can come up with: this thief was probably played by a player who was pretty familiar with these types of games. Given that they had 1 HP and a -2 damage penalty it is likely that they stayed out of combat as much as possible, though the post on Zak’s blog indicates that they did enter combat at least once, and in a pretty deadly encounter as well. So how did they survive that encounter? Given the Thief’s toolset, the most likely answer is far more ordinary than Zak is hyping it up to be. The thief may have been attacked once or twice and both attacks missed. Or maybe the thief was never attacked out of DM leniency, or because other threats materialized from random encounters. In all likelihood? They were attacked, or maybe not. Didn’t get hit. Leveled up. Probably died soon after. Nothing more, nothing less.

A fireball would have killed him.

In the very first Dragon Quest game, known as Dragon Warrior in north america, the very first objective is to get to the Cave of Erdrick and retrieve the player’s proof of ancestry. This presents an issue. If you take three steps south of the main area, you will start encountering Drakees. If you take fifteen steps north of the main area, in the direction of the cave, you will also start encountering Drakees. Fifteen steps further north, you will start encountering Ghosts. 7 paces north from this, as you close in on the cave, you will start encountering Magicians, in addition to Ghosts and Drakees.

This presents a problem: at the start of the game, it is very difficult for the player to kill a Drakee, and mathematically impossible to kill a Ghost, or Magician. If the player is below level 3, their damage reduction will always be 0 no matter what they equip, and they cannot learn spells. Furthermore, no matter what they equip, they will always deal 1 damage on an attack to any of these enemies, unless they roll a critical hit.

The Drakees deal roughly 3 damage per round to any player character in this range and have 6 HP, meaning the player will take 6 rounds to kill them without critical hits. A player character can have anywhere between 12 to 24 max HP at this point, meaning the Drakees will kill them in 4-8 rounds depending on variance. The Ghosts deal roughly 5 damage per round meaning they will kill the player in 3-5 rounds, while the player will take 7 rounds to kill them without critical hits. Lastly, the Magicians once again deal roughly 5 damage per round on a normal attack, but can also cast “HURT”, which deals 3-10 damage and ignores damage reduction. The player takes a staggering 11 rounds to kill them without critical hits. The odds of a critical hit are 1/64, or 1.5%.

The odds of making it to the player’s proof of ancestry before reaching level 3 are astronomically low. As such, the player is forced to grind slimes in the forest north of the starting area until the reach level 3, at which point they can receive magic, purchase the club and begin to progress with a chance of success that is actually tolerable.

This is all just a means of repeating what I’ve already said through the lens of a different medium–in a conventional turn-based RPG, you will take damage and learning how to best mitigate that damage or minimize the instances where it occurs is how you progress without dying. That is, by definition, a skill. However, it is a mathematical reality that a player character in many games can in fact be so ineffective that it is impossible for them to exist and contribute on a meaningful level. This changes the progression quite significantly: an ordinary player character should take action to bolster their defense and avoid combat in instances where the risk is not worth the reward. But a gimped player character such as the 1 HP Thief or the Dragon Quest Hero has no option: they must take the path of least resistance, they must bolster their defense at every opportunity.

Dragon Quest 1 is most often remembered today as a horrible RPG. This article on the MOTHER series astutely notes that DQ is ” like a vibrantly-colored, jingle-spewing pachinko machine in which you insert minutes and hours instead of coins.” The player is told at the beginning of the game that they must, with all urgency, to seek strife in order to recover their proof of ancestry and begin their quest to defeat the Dragon Lord. The first thing that the player actually does at the beginning of Dragon quest is grind slimes in the starting area by mashing the attack command over, and over, and over.

Those last two sentences encapsulate everything I’ve ever written on this blog, every problem I’ve ever had with RPGs, and why I find Zak’s postulations to be dangerously stupid. In Dragon Quest, you are ostensibly a “hero”, but you can only play the role of hero by mashing the attack command against slimes. In the Maze, you are ostensibly a “dungeoneer” or “treasure hunter” or “monster hunter”, but the best and most effective way of playing the role of a traveling problem solver is by either dashing through rooms while paying as little attention as possible to their actual content, or by mercilessly slaughtering everything you catch sight of with a surprise attack. If your character is gimped, like the 1 HP thief, this changes from being the generality of what you do to being the totality of what you have to do to survive.

The most logical inferences from issues like this are that we should not have systems that allow players to generate characters that die in one hit if they are meant to seek out treasure from dangerous caverns and mazes, and that if one values player skill above all they should seek out systems and games which minimize guaranteed damage and maximize the ability for player characters to act ad-hoc. But this is not what Zak is arguing, as he truly believes that the 1 HP Thief is one of many things that make AD&D adjacent games great, rather than what damns them to the decades of scrutiny they have endured and justly earned.

As I have said on this blog on nearly every post, all games have expected outcomes, and they do so regardless of authorial intent. Contrary to his frequent claims that an “emergent narrative” (he uses the term differently from most) is the only narrative he’s interesting in designing around, Zak’s modules and gaming philosophy seems to line up perfectly with the phenomenon of forced grinding in japanese roleplaying games. In the real world, we are fed lies much like the ones Zak pedals: those who survive are the the most skilled. Which is of course, complete nonsense. You can be the best in your field and still be denied the career you’re looking for because you didn’t interview well, or because they’re not looking to hire women, or many other totally arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with your capacity to perform the job. You can, in fact, work hard, and be completely unrewarded for it.

In Dragon Quest, if you do what the game expects of you, you will inevitably win, and if you don’t, you will inevitably die over and over again. With enough flowery language, this could be stated as a positive quality, as it reflects idealized form of self-improvement. And you could, as Zak has, employ the same sophism to early D&D games, inferring that anyone who lived through the dungeon surely must have worked harder and thought more critically than those who died. The issue is that in both cases, the actions required to defeat the Dragon Lord or survive the dungeon are tedious, mundane, blatantly artificial, and require only slightly more brainpower than mashing the A button. You will not find the proof of ancestry without grinding. You will not escape a fireball or a magic missile without having killed or disabled the entity casting it before they can act. You must do these things in any and all cases.

The narrative contrived, in both cases, is that the world is hostile towards your existence. You begin unprepared and untrained to succeed where better men have failed. In order to succeed, you must sink into the mud, you must overcome trials, you must take the path of least resistance. And absolutely none of this, no matter how far it gets you, will stop a fireball from dealing damage to you.

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Re: “OSR and what to explain”

I was planning to let this blog rot, but I came across Scrap Princess’s blog post which was apparently inspired by my MOTB review. I’ve been meaning to put out an addendum and/or clarification of my review, and to, much more briefly this time, explain why I think this way about games.

First of all, if you’re reading this Scrap Princess: Hello! Believe it or not, your blogpost critiquing the spells of DND was the spark that led to me finally reviewing MOTB, despite wanting to do so since I finished it over a full year ago. It reminded me how totally bizarre the OSR crowd is. You made an extremely good case about what makes a good and bad DND spell, and even wrote down specific criteria for doing so. As I read through it, I thought to myself “She may be right. Can these problems be fixed? What would an improved DND spell list look like?” But my train of thought was suddenly cut short by your praise of Wonder and Wickedness’s spell list, which, by my understanding, falls quite short of your criteria for a good spell by a considerable margin.

It’s exactly as I said at the conclusion of my MOTB review. The OSR tends to be very good at identifying problems, and in some cases they even develop valuable metrics for solving those problems, but then you look at any OSR-written darling-of-the-week and it seems like these products actively invoke the very problems you were trying to address. It makes it impossible for me to take your corner of the blogsphere seriously–if I’m forced to be brutally honest, the whole thing seems a bit…circlejerky? It’s very hard for me to consider a game designer/theorist legitimate when you disproportionately praise products written by those who are like-mannered, and who have self-identified under your, quite honestly, pretentious name (whether the “R” stands for revival or renaissance, the name is still gaudy–though I’ll admit that “story games” is much worse an epithet). This is especially true when I can look up just about any given OSR writer’s blog and find out that they don’t practice what they preach.

But let’s address the post already. First off, let’s skip ahead a bit to the part where I’m addressed.

I read this Maze Of Blue Medusa review and the author appeared to have no understanding of other peoples play styles and it was a trip.
So I thought I could try and make a pre-face to use in future for any material I create.

The allegation that I do not understand the OSR (or, in this case and others, literally any playstyle but my own) has been repeated several times by different people. Given how many times I’ve seen this, I think I should be as clear as possible about what experience I have with RPGs.

I started started playing RPGs during my freshmen year of university. I was well aware of what DND was by this point as I had read through some 2E stuff (including the PHB) and played the Baldur’s Gate series/Temple of Elemental Evil video game. However, I was inexperienced and unfamiliar with anything but DND. I got into DND through my university’s gaming club and played a full campaign, plus a few one shots, with one of the DMs. This DM was the most popular gamemaster within the club and was graduating at the end of the school year, so, when his time came, he suggested that I take up DMing in his steed.

From that point on, I was running at least one session a week. DND was the most popular TRPG at university, and I quickly grew tired of it’s issues. The more and more I played it (3E, to be specific) the more I questioned it, to the point where I realized that I could probably fix many of the games problems by myself. Or, alternatively, I could run another system entirely. This did not bode well with the club, who feared that me using homebrew would throw off new players who wanted to use their characters across different university campaigns, and the common answer to the question of a new system was “Don’t bother. No one will play it.”

It was because of this that I left the club, and encouraged all of my players to play outside of it. I ended up playing Shadowrun, Call of Cthulu, Ryuutama, Symbaroum, Apocalypse/Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, FATE, Everway, VTM, and various other systems including numerous homebrew systems. By my count, I have played or DMed for 13 campaigns, and played with somewhere between 50-65 different players. This is by any reasonable measure, an insane amount of experience, at least for someone under 30 (which is the typical demographic of RPGs). I have seen more players, and more systems, than three DMs of my age group combined.

Now you might say that none of this means I have any understanding of the OSR. And given that this post exists, you might be right. But consider my experience, and then consider this: I’ve read at least half of Zak’s blog in full, and the entirety of many other OSR blogs. I’ve read numerous explanations of the OSR, most notably David Perry’s Principia Apocrypha, which is 19 pages long. I’ve played numerous games with the OSR stamp of approval, including Astonishing Swordsman and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Stars Without Number, and of course LotFP. Now, my question is this: If I’m not capable of understanding the OSR, given the amount of experience and reading under my belt, then who is?

That was a big part of what I was trying to say with my review. The reason why the OSR often gets branded as being less inclusive than the story games movement has nothing to do with who you are or what your orientation is, the reason is your products are often completely impenetrable and borderline unusable for many people. And despite what I believe to be Scrap Princess’s best intentions, an explanation of the OSR that holds up the adversarial, unintuitive and often outright hateful pillars of these types of games, is not going to make the OSR more attractive. It’s only going to make more apparent what the issues are.

Let’s finally get onto the definitive terms.

Players Decisions  Must Matter: The consequences of their actions and decisions is the engine of the entire game. It is what results in an “emergent story”, but even before then , the moment to moment play is interesting because what they are doing matters to what will happen. To best support this:
 They should be given all the information that would be available to their character.

The g.m should be prepared to accept the results of the dice and roll with the players effects on the world.

Ok, first off–vague. Very, very, vague. I had to look into the Google+ thread that spawned most of this to even begin to parse what you meant here, and even now I’m not so sure.

No one would ever argue against player decisions resulting in an emergent story. This is followed with “To best support this: They should be given all the information that would be available to their character.” I don’t know what this means. Who would argue against a character being given all available information within their grasp? What genre of RPG does not do this?

You state that the DM should be prepared to let events fall as they may within the luck of the die. Sure. I know people that would hate this, but sure, I’m on board.

Trying to force a conventionally coherent/cliche narrative for a “better story” by trying to force or cancel player decisions or consequences or ignore a dice roll, will always act against the mattering of player decisions.  Don’t worry about the final results working as conventional story , worry about the moment to moment play being interesting .

What you say here sounds non-contentious on first reading, but there’s very deliberate wording here that betrays your conceit. You begin with “Trying to force a conventionally coherent/cliche narrative for a “better story” by trying to force or cancel player decisions or consequences or ignore a dice roll” heavily implies that by adding story elements, you are forced to cancel player decisions or ignore dice rolls. In reality, story elements and emergent gameplay are not mutually exclusive.

In response to my MOTB review, many people misunderstood me when I used the word “coherent”. I use “coherent” almost exclusively towards design elements, in regards to player psychology. A coherent scenario is one that functions within the expectations of the theme, setting, and mechanics–which can potentially include “weird” outcomes if the theme, setting, or mechanics are themselves weird. An incoherent scenario is one that doesn’t do any of that, for example, being attacked with zero warning or narrative reason in a designated “rest zone”, or a generic Owlbear having 24 AC and +20 to hit when all other Owlbears have +9 to hit and 16 AC (thanks for the primo example, Pathfinder Kingmaker!). It most definitely does not mean “cliche”, and in fact I actively try to avoid cliche narratives. It’s sort of what led me to MOTB in the first place.

You state that we shouldn’t worry about the final results working as a conventional story, but that we should worry about the moment to gameplay, again implying a false dichotomy. Actually, I’m not even sure it’s a false dichotomy, it’s more like..saying “don’t do (thing), do (the same exact thing) instead”.

A story, for the vast, VAST majority of people playing roleplaying games today, is the moment to moment gameplay. It is what they are focused on most of the time. If you’re roleplaying as a character, every single thing you do within the scope of the game is in reaction or propulsion of the story. If there’s a bad story, people are going to be less motivated. If there’s a good story, people are going to be more motivated. Since literally every moment of the RPG sessions is going to be you acting in volition of your character, it naturally follows that what you’re doing most of the time (in other words, moment to moment) is participating in the story.

You can choose to have minimal story or dense story, but if you have no plot/an incomprehensible plot, players have no idea how to roleplay and thus, no idea how to play their character beyond “don’t die, be smart in combat”. Though given that your most popular tagline for the OSR movement is “You-Just-Play-Your-Guy-And-He-Might-Die”, maybe that’s the entire point you’re trying to make.

If so, I think a lot of the OSR’s understandings of game theory can be traced back to a false conception that adding any element at all to a game automatically takes away from the elements that are already there. I mean, you realize you can have strong pacing and moment-to-moment gameplay and an interesting narrative at the same time, right? Like you can just do exactly what you’ve been doing only make your settings actually convey an idea or, god forbid, even cater to your players a bit. This is in fact how most people run DND.

I noticed that both times narrative is mentioned here, it is preempted by a disparaging qualifier: first “cliche”, then “conventional.” The implication being that OSR games do produce interesting stories, they’re just not conventional. I find this argument to be pretty weak given how drab, and often even out-right bad the ancedotes of OSR-driven games tend to be. For example, on Emmy Allen’s post about her DMing style, she lists five of her favorite gaming anecdotes. Two of these involve being vindicated that a player character died, another is basically “I almost died because of a bad die roll, but then another die roll also failed so I lived”. The only anecdote that seems mildly interesting ironically comes from VTM, a story game. I can’t say I’m convinced to convert, with this coming from someone who earnestly considers these examples to be among the best things she’s encountered since switching to an OSR-driven DMing style.

> Any encounter /situation will be “balanced” ( i.e have the ability to effect) as is appropriate for its existence in the world.
Therefore the players should be able to seek the challenge they want by seeking out different areas, getting information, or coming up with plans, alliances or schemes to balance things in their favour. 

Outright avoidance , fleeing , negotiation, schemes, befriending, disguises, and the like are acceptable and even desirable outcomes.

Once again, this is an idea that very much appears to be a good one, but is often used as an excuse for poor design. It is all well and good that a creature has it’s statistics governed by what would be appropriate for them in a realistic scenario. Sure. And this might mean that characters may encounter something which is far too strong for them and they might be forced to retreat and/or die. Again, fine. Where this comes a problem is when players are forced into excessively difficult or excessively easy encounters on a frequent basis, to the point where living or dying is almost completely arbitrary and not at all defined by expectations of the system or fiction in relation to it.

It’s basically a motte and bailey argument where the ideal of a world defined by it’s setting is used as a shield to protect what’s really being said, which is that encounters should not be “designed” in any real sense of the word. In traditional games where narrative control is bestowed upon one person (the DM), that person has near-total control over the place, the time, and indeed, often, the outcome of encounters.  It is often stated by OSR writers that players are expected to play intelligently, tactically, to think ahead of time and preempt danger. Never do these people mention that players have no control over the environment, no control over what NPCs say or do, they have only the vaguest idea of what they’re going to fight next (and often, in OSR games, no idea at all), and often have zero input into when a fight is even initiated (as a result of random encounter rolls).

The cards are massively stacked against the PCs and the only way to make scenarios the slightest bit fair is to either ensure that all potential opponents (barring truly stupid player engagement such as picking a fight with an armed militia), no matter what, are defeatable and/or escapable within the realm of possibility *even if met in very dire circumstances*, or to craft encounters ahead of time so that both the DM and the players will be able to prepare for most rough circumstances by default. Or do both.

It is simply not good gameplay to combine deadly-as-should-be monsters with random encounters and vague, amorphous locations.  It results in frequent, inescapable death that will quickly kill player morale. If you seriously think that encounter design has no place in your games, I advise you to play Pathfinder Kingmaker. Never before has there been a more shining example of why game balance matters.

Because of above , only exp for killing monsters is a bad fit. Consider exp for treasure, pre-set goals, or the like

Sure. A lot of people were confused about my comments on gold for exp in my MOTB review, so let me clarify myself: I did run the game with gold for EXP, and gave a small amount of EXP for discovering each major section of the Maze. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with gold for EXP, and I don’t know anyone who *only* runs exp for killing monsters, buuuuut…

The thing about gold for EXP is that it often seems to be used as a concession for gold not actually doing anything else of real value past level 1 or so. This is not a problem unique to the OSR, but it is a problem. Really, what level your character is should rarely matter more than a little bit beyond determining challenge relative to capability and whatnot, because your players should be getting some sort of advancement (or at least going through some sort of change) independent of the system you are playing. Gold/cash in and of itself is very rarely a serious motivational factor, unless it is an extremely large amount in a system where people are debt-ridden and whatnot. Though to be fair, players that are especially demanding of advancement/motivational factors tend to not be great people to to game with, so this isn’t something I think is a major issue.

Now we get to the definitions provided by others:

Resolution of action by player skill first then dice or character mechanics. Like players don’t declare I roll X instead players describe their characters actions and rolls are done if neccesary.

Okay. Admittedly, I didn’t see this sort of thing as part of the OSR. I often see people, not necessarily OSR-aligned, denying the need to work out a character’s actions if the player doesn’t want to, so I always assumed that was an OSR thing. Guess not.

 Killing things is usually not the goal, there is nothing that is “supposed” to happen, combat is not the default assumption for an encounter.

Character death is not taboo and is to be expected.

Sure. I got a lot of pushback for my MOTB review from people assuming I assumed every encounter was a combat encounter, which admittedly wasn’t helped by my misreading of the Blue Medusa’s column–I wrongfully assumed that the Medusa duels the players after a conversation regardless of circumstance. But remember, I got rid of the random encounter tables after the Garden. Even ignoring the fact that I did not interpret most encounters as combat-driven, if I did do so, it would still have resulted in less than half as much combat as if the Maze was played as written.

I don’t mind character death at all, but keep in mind that the idea that character death is “expected” is going to get you very strong pushback from many people. This alone will often be the deal breaker when it comes to selling people on OSR games.

I’d also like to note that despite the statement that “Killing things is usually not the goal”, killing things describes not only the bulk of OSR gameplay and stories but often the systems themselves. This statement being followed up by “there is nothing that is “supposed” to happen” leads me to believe that you are in denial of the fact that all games have expected outcomes and that this is true even if you intentionally try to make a game with no expected outcomes. Zak S once described DND as a “nihilistic” game, he meant it in the sense that it has no non-emergent theme or narrative–he is incredibly wrong about this, and I have a feeling this statement backs up that kind of face-first denial.

The adventure will not enumerate the one correct way to resolve conflicts and puzzles; player creativity is expected and should be rewarded by the referee.

But what you’re describing is creativity under the workload of the referee. MOTB had a major problem with rooms having zero defined meaning or purpose, I did not ask for the writer to enumerate the ways in which they could be useful–and in fact, a few times they did! What I instead asked was that the rooms be constructed in a way that would actually lead to some sort of habitual process or hook, some sort of lead-in, or even, if you’re feeling non-formal just directly tell me (as the DM) what this room is for. It has nothing to do with player creativity, and in fact what you are actually describing is a game where the solution has no defined conditions and therefore has no real hints or clues leading to it’s solution. What you’re describing is a literal guessing game. It’s not interesting for the DM or the players.

Also not liking the presumption that a solution being listed automatically means any other conceivable solution does not work. This logic makes no sense at all: you are claiming that no explanation being provided means any explanation is acceptable, but a single solution being provided means that no other can be possible. It’s absurd.

This is a game primarily about interacting with this world as if it were a place that exists. Outcomes will be based on how this world would react to your interactions, and challenges will be as unbalanced, unexpected, and exciting as they would in a real world. Your goal is generally to survive the enemies around you, whether that be via avoidance, negotiation, befriending, or creatively throwing the balance in your favor./
I think I just view story more as an emergent, secondary effect of OSR play rather than it’s active, primary goal. i.e. The goal is not to tell the most interesting story you can, the goal is to interact with and overcome the problems at hand. From those interactions, the story passively emerges.

By this point I think I can say for sure that there is a persistent pattern of OSR devotees prescribing virtues of their design methodology with an underlying implication that this is not the case in other realms of RPG theory, when in reality, it often is. The implication here being that OSR design creates worlds “that exist”, while others are merely curated. Someone should call up Zak and tell him this guy is proclaiming that the OSR is word-for-word the exact definition of simulationism.

Of course the goal is not to tell the most interesting story you can. The goal is never to tell the most interesting story you can, or at least god I hope not, this is a terrible medium for it. For most people the level of intrigue/”quality” of the story either does not matter or matters very little, the appeal is a story that is shaped by multiple people whether it be, good, bad, cliche or off-kilter. The problem with the OSR is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and make the claim that because “story games” are often coddling to players, any and all story elements are obstructive to interesting challenge-based gameplay. The claim here is that gameplay should be challenge-based, but by disregarding both story and encounter design you have effectively nullified any means to make your challenges actually interesting. You are going backwards.

 

 

Having said all this, you might be surprised to know that I actually consider myself to be more aligned with the OSR than I am aligned with the story games crowd. I would at least play basically any OSR clone, though I know I probably wouldn’t enjoy it, while I outright refuse to play any Apocalypse World variant or something like Ten Candles. I mentioned before that much of my history with RPGS was rooted out of a dissatisfaction for the mechanics, and much of this dissatisfaction sprout forth in much the same way that many OSR and other trad-gaming blogs critique and pick apart the game. If I compare the amount of stuff written by the OSR that I’ve found useful to what I’ve found useful by the story games crowd, the results are nearly 3:1 in the OSR’s favor. But the fact is…

I haven’t played or refereed RPGs in over a year and a half. My game of MOTB was the last game I played, and I knew it would be before I started it. Because the fact is, I have serious problems with the way RPGs are written, presented and designed. Why do I mention this? Because from what I’ve read, much of the OSR does as well. In that Emmy Allen post, she mentions that she hates “fights that go on forever, setting agnostic systems… slavishly rolling for everything” and mentions that she “doesn’t play RPGs for the story”, but rather the “ancedotes” and the setting. The things she’s describing are things common to almost all RPGs, and she can’t even enjoy the story–but she does enjoy the setting.

If this sounds like you, I’m going to be frank: You do not like RPGs. Or at least, not the part of RPGs that people commonly sign up for. What you like is emergent gameplay, which can be better obtained through video games and board games, without any of the awful scheduling issues or any of those things you said you don’t like. What honestly seems likely is that many people (overwhelmingly these people are DMs) are attempting to reverse-engineer the medium into something more palpable for them, and to be honest? I was once like that. It is an almost addictive experience, being a DM controlling a “living, breathing world”, and many people find that the desires of the players get in the way of this euphoria. It’s an ego trip. The OSR provides unlimited fuel for this ego trip, providing adventure after adventure where “anything can happen” but none of it really requires much consideration or personal sacrifice. Maybe I do understand the OSR, or maybe I have it all wrong. But it’s just like I said: all games have expected outcomes, and the ones I see in OSR games are overwhelmingly not healthy.

 

 

Playing the Medusa

I think personal experience has very little to do with the actual quality of a module. There are so many things that can drastically change your experience with one, from the DM, to personal circumstance, to the system being played. But just as a frame of reference, and because I know people would ask, here’s a synopsis of my experience with Blue Medusa.

I DMed the game for three friends. All four of us had D&D experience. We played with a slightly modified version of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, although I had to sell it as D&D because the players refused to learn what they perceived to be a new system, even though it’s basically just OD&D. I did not tell them it was a module until the very end, because I did not want it to color their experiences, as I was genuinely interested in how the game would go. As such, I renamed the titular Blue Medusa into something else entirely, to avoid any chance of google blowing the surprise. The players started at level 2, and received EXP from combat encounters + discovering each section of the Maze.  We played for three hours a week.

Within the first few rooms the players had already learned that touching things was a very bad idea. The “Starlit Stones” room with the shadows was, I believe, the first real challenge encountered, and as far as I can remember, the only encounter in the entire game that they approached with genuine interest and treated the results as an endearing challenge. Within the first session the players had already learned that they could sprint through rooms with no real risk to themselves, and basically speedran through the entirety of Chronia’s Halls. (In the only other actual play I’ve seen of this game, this exact sequence of events happened.)

A character had already died within the first session, though this was entirely a result of player stupidity so I only mention it for record keeping. In the second session they entered the Almery, which they quickly learned was a bad idea as the first enemy they encountered was way out of their league even with me actively cripplingly it as much as I could for the sake of avoiding a total party kill. Another character died this time, and the only living party member ran off. Within the next hour we had our two replacement party members, which appeared in the Garden that I basically railroaded them into. A lot of random encounters happened which went nowhere and left the players disinterested.

The players seemed totally clueless as to what they were actually supposed to do in the Garden and seemed to stay on track solely because of the deeds of the demon Carnifex, described in room 42. Carnifex floods the garden, which the players of course could not care less about, but he also manifested to trap the players, which was enough of a motivation to get them to find him. The players took several sessions to even find Carnifex, but they eventually did find and gut him. (Note: This is the only significant character in the entirety of the module that they actually kill.)  By the time he was found, the Garden was completely flooded, which made me question the rationality of the random encounter table as it was already stretching belief to say that these creatures would appear in the garden at all. Now if they showed up, they’d probably drown. I decided to drop the random encounters from the game entirely after this.

Next came the Art Gallery, which was the section of the maze I was most excited to DM. Unfortunately, the players did not feel the same way. One player in particular hated the survival mechanics (time passes extremely quickly in the art gallery, so the players must eat constantly to survive) to such a degree that he outright refused to play if it meant his character was forced to go through it. I was forced to GM fiat up an easy puzzle that allowed them to warp to the Reptile Archive through the Art Gallery, thus skipping pretty much all of it.

The Reptile Archive was a bit of a weird experience as it is pretty dependent on you going through the Art Gallery beforehand, as most of the antagonistic forces here are Chameleon Women who you’re supposed to know through the Art Gallery. That didn’t exactly happen, so I had to drum up a reason why the Chameleon Women were hostile. What I came up with was while the players was on their warp puzzle excursion, the birdmen from the Garden relocated to the Art Gallery after the Garden flooded, royally pissing off the Chameleon Women and causing them to go on full lockdown. It helped that one of the characters had a bit of an alliance with the birdmen…but that same character died not long after arriving in the Archive, so the sense of happenstance remained.

There are a ridiculous amount of rooms in the Archive which serve basically no meaningful purpose. The players once again did not know where to go so I basically had to play up like they were going somewhere, which I did by completely ignoring the provided descriptions of the rooms and coming up with my own internal logic for them. If you’re keeping track: I have by this point radically rebalanced the encounters, come up with my own explanation for many of the major events of the module, and am now essentially doing room design.

My goal was to goad the players into discovering the hidden Mile of Many Moons, an area which, in the module itself, holds a weirdly high number of meaningful encounters and evocative imagery with descriptions that suggest that it is a secret, but in fact it is incredibly easy to find. I actually hid it behind a puzzle, so the players had to actually do something other than search rooms for once. I fleshed out the See-No-More character to essentially blackmail the player characters. Finally there was some semblance of a reasonable story hook after 12 sessions: and it wasn’t even in the book itself. I made him out to be in cahoots with Torcul Wort, the son of the “boss” of the next section of the Maze.

The Wedding is probably the most well-crafted section of the module. It is also the part of the module that my players hated the most, as uncovering the mystery behind the doomed wedding is incredibly difficult, or at least it was for my players. It is probably the only section of the module that I ran completely as-written without regrets, though my players weren’t particularly thrilled with it. Especially, after, well…they all died. The Angelfish and it’s friends ripped them all apart.

Thankfully, I was well-prepared for this, having understood by this point that there was a very real possibility of a total party kill and that the players would have no motivation to go on if their stories ended there. I had already thought of a contingency plan: having died within the Maze, they passed through some sort of unnatural looking glass within the afterlife, and returned to the Maze as shadows, similar to the ones encountered in the first encounter I described. They would return to life, but with a catch: they had to find and take new bodies from the maze dwellers. One character refused to do this on principle, and died instead–with his death, all three of the original party members were now dead.

By this point I was already well acquainted with the Maze’s flaws and eccentricities, and reading ahead, found that they reached their most insufferable heights within the Almery. At this point, I figured that so much has gone south that I could probably make a far superior Almery by myself, ignoring the book entirely. So I did. Unsurprisingly, this is unanimously remembered by my players as the best part of the campaign.

The only thing remaining were the cells, and the final encounter with the renamed Blue Medusa. By this point, I could tell my players were worn out, so I skipped the cells entirely (they are severely lacking anyway) and went straight to the final room. As written, the Blue Medusa is supposed to duel the players, culminating in an escape sequence where the Maze starts to crumble apart. Knowing better at this point, I ended it with a conversation.

Misgivings About The Medusa

motbm_book

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 written about almost any RPG module, as they all have very common issues. The sheer regularity with which I encounter modules with exactly the same flaws as Blue Medusa in the RPG scene astounds me, and is my primary reason for writing this post. It is certainly not to single out Blue Medusa as a product.

I use Blue Medusa as my primary example of bad module design for two reasons. One, because it has received quite a large number of glowing reviews, almost none of which seem to be coming from people who have actually played or attempted to DM it. Two, I have played it, in full, which is something that I suspect that only a handful of people have ever accomplished, with the designers themselves being the only group I know for sure have tried.

For those who want to know how my run through of the Maze went, I have a post that details just that. There’s nothing there that’s necessary to understand this review, but it’s there for those that are curious.

 

The Rorschach Medusa

There are going to be a number of times in this review where I mention things about the story, maps, and encounter design that may not gel with your experience, or interpretation, of the Maze.  This is because the book itself is incredibly vague.

For example, what level is the Maze supposed to be run at? Zak S has stated on reddit that the Maze will function fine when ran at any starting level from the range of 1-8, and that the game works well with any form of D&D, but the monsters still have statblocks that heavily imply the use of LoFTP, and there doesn’t seem be understanding or acknowledgement of the world of difference between a level 4 character in OD&D and a level 4 character in 3rd edition.

The Maze isn’t “level-gated”, aside from starting at Chronia’s Halls the players can end up anywhere at any time, but the statblocks very obviously conform to a linear difficulty curve–the enemies get progressively more difficult in accordance with the order they are presented in the book. So what happens when the players go somewhere that’s level-wise, way out of their league? Is the GM expected to balance these encounters on the fly? Are the players supposed to run, come back later? I don’t have a problem with any of these options, what I have a problem with is that the book never explains what to do in these situations. 

There is practically nothing in the way of designer intent within the book. Rooms will be filled with queer objects that connect to different rooms and the DM (and players) are fully expected to figure out for themselves what kind of circumstance the writers were trying to create. Encounter design is nonexistent besides a stat-block. Sometimes statblocks will include enemy behaviors that don’t rely on numbers but beyond that you’re on your own.

This even bleeds into the story, where the only entirely coherent information provided is that the three sisters of the fallen empire were deceived by their council and taken to the Blue Medusa. The only way this story can support even a hint of player motivation is to have the world of the Blue Medusa be the one the players grew up in, and for the players to have a pretty high level understanding of the patchwork world presented within. This requires the DM put more work into rationalizing the world than the writers did, since there is no real functional synopsis of what is happening or even what has happened (the timeline at the beginning of the book is laughably useless for anything beyond a vague sense of which NPCs are oldest and which are youngest).

Some key characters will have “motivations” listed, which I use quotation marks for because the writers of Blue Medusa did not seem to fully understand what a motivation is. The motivations listed fall almost exclusively into the “what I want” camp, while very, very rarely explaining the much more important “why I want it”. For example, the Blue Medusa has the following listed as her motivation:

  • To successfully sleep with Chronia.
  • Wouldn’t mind having the Liches removed from her dungeon. (Draco Scabra is ok.)
  • To know (but refuses to ask) why Chronia stopped writing to her.
  • Something new to read.
  • Some way to neutralize or remove the powers of the Torn sisters. (See above.)
  • Anything vibrantly new and interesting in Art.

Beyond the information provided above there seems to be nothing to her besides the fact that she is very bored and essentially runs a giant asylum (The Maze). She, like a lot of characters in the Maze, is extremely passive, both in nature and in a literary sense, which doesn’t exactly hype players up or provide them with reasoning to traverse through a 300 room deathtrap. There’s also no reasoning provided for why the Blue Medusa, an exceptionally powerful and gifted individual above the leagues of even the essentially god-like sisters, cannot simply tackle these tasks herself, despite being immortal and feared by literally everything in the dungeon.

There are people out there who like products like these. There are DMs who enjoy the challenge and freedom of putting a dungeon together from a mismatched framework, like it’s a puzzle to be solved. It is surprisingly common for RPG modules to be written as if they contain secrets even to the DM that can only be revealed when the time is right–for example, the well-acclaimed Shadowrun module “Universal Brotherhood” begins with a literary chronicle of the carnage within, without yet revealing the source of the carnage. Only by reading the module to the very end does the DM learn what the terror is. But Universal Brotherhood is at least layed out in full after a complete read, while, in Blue Medusa, one can potentially read through all 248 pages and not have the slightest clue what is going on or even why the module was written.

There is nothing wrong with treating Blue Medusa like a puzzle, or an incomplete framework, but understand that if you do so, it becomes difficult to differentiate between the use you’ve gotten out of the product and the use you’ve gotten out of your own ideas in interpretation of the product. When I ran the Maze, I noticed that the more I diverged from the product as written, the more the players enjoyed what they were playing. At what point does a DM go from running a module to using it as a point of inspiration? Isn’t the whole point of a module to provide interesting encounters and situations for DMs who don’t have the time to come up with them on their own?

 

The Map

I should probably dedicate some time to the map, because looking at the reviews, it seems to be the primary hook behind the product. On a purely artistic basis, the fully painted map is undeniably impressive. Without accounting for D&D products with a huge following like Baldur’s Gate, I have never encountered an RPG map that contains as much detail as Blue Medusa’s. If you run Blue Medusa and show players the map provided, they would have to be made of stone to not be impressed and intrigued.

Unfortunately, the map is all style and no function. The painted map shown in the previews is completely unusable in actual play for many, many reasons, but for the painted variant, I’ll provide just one especially pertinent reason: The map is essentially a spoiler. Both for the obvious reason that it shows you the exact route to the Medusa, no longer making it a ‘Maze’, and because you can tell which rooms are particularly important because they are given larger, more evocative paintings with more use of color. The module does provide you with an appropriate in-universe reason to use the map, that being a hidden map of the dungeon located about 3/4ths of the way through, long after the players will have encountered most of the major rooms. There is still ample reason not to use the map: for one, “most” does not preclude “all”, but more importantly…

Even if you use the spoiler-free map–the paint-less “function only” map on page one of the module, there are quite a lot of problems with the map design. The map is designed with very little regard for the form and function of the rooms within, resulting in many instances where a room’s scenario seems to be written with a large room in mind, but the actual room on the map is tiny, or vice versa. This sort of design creates a particularly large problem with combat encounters where quite a lot of the monsters can be lured, either intentionally or accidentally, into rooms where they simply do not function. The Maze, both narratively and by design, is hostile to essentially everything in it, there are very few NPCs within the map that have many friends and even they tend to have a lot of enemies. A smart player can easily cheese just about every combat encounter in the Maze, as written, by running from everything at full speed until encounters bleed together into a massive katamari ball of indescribable violence. Which might sound ok, until you remember how badly combat works in D&D with more than 10 active combatants.

There are a number of instances where a room’s size and/or location seems to be outright contradictory to it’s stated purpose. There’s also a fair number of instances where things like locked or secret doors can be very easily bypassed by going around in a different direction–I actually don’t think I can recall a single instance where a locked door ever meaningfully impeded progress, and this was DMing for a party that didn’t have a thief/specialist until half way through the game. Maybe this is by design, but it’s still weird.

 

The Bit Where I Rant About Published Adventures And Their Poor Sense of Challenge

To keep the designer theory nonsense brief and understandable, a “challenge”, in real life, is anything that tests your abilities. In D&D and many other RPGs, we have things called skills and attribute checks that are ability checks boiled down to the simplest, most boring resolution method possible, die rolling. Suffice it to say that an adventure that consists entirely of skill checks would be dull as dirt. “Climb that tree” is a fun challenge in real life, in an RPG it’s just a matter of number generation.

D&D is a “pen and paper RPG”, it must, by design, be simple enough to have all granularity fit on a few sheets of paper. This obviously isn’t to say that D&D outright prevents you from using a grid or a dart board or a deck of cards, but in general: everything in D&D is going to be something you can describe with words and numbers. In other words, a story.

Stories appreciated by the masses tend to either intentionally or unintentionally follow a narrative structure. That narrative structure is what gives the characters and their struggles meaning and context–essentially, it’s a format for challenging your characters. Those sorts of stories are what directly inspired D&D, and adventure writers know this, so they’ll usually try to mimic what those stories are doing and plaster it over the mechanics of a game. The good ones will have a better grasp of the mechanics than the bad ones. But in most cases, especially D&D, it’s the challenges they craft that make the module memorable.

Probably the most famous model of narrative structure is Freytag’s Pyramid, which divides a classical drama into 5 parts of rising and falling action. This model is almost useless for both modern literature and for RPGs, as Freytag’s model is centralized around the action peaking at the middle, the climax, whereas many stories and modules have no climax, or even really rising and falling action, they are “sandboxes” or intrigue stories. A much more appropriate narrative structure, one that is often utilized in JRPGs (video games, not the pen and paper stuff): Kishōtenketsu. Kishōtenketsu’s structure is as follows:

Introduction (ki): introducing characters, era, and other important information for understanding the setting of the story.

Development (shō): follows leads towards the twist in the story. Major changes do not occur.

Twist (ten): the story turns toward an unexpected development. This is the crux of the story, the yama (ヤマ) or climax. In case of several turns in the narrative, this is the biggest one.

Conclusion (ketsu), also called ochi (落ち) or ending, wraps up the story.

You can pretty much ignore the descriptions provided here, it’s best to think of all narrative tools in a nebulous sense. Just keep in mind: Introduction, Development, Twist, Conclusion. Take this approach to a boss fight, for example: Boss gets introduced, it has it’s basic moves, resistances and what have you, there’s a twist to the fight that gets introduced slowly or quickly (maybe the boss splits into two, or maybe it’s armor hardens to resist the damage type it was last hit by), and then the players either kill it, run away, or die.  That isn’t to say that all challenges should follow this structure, it would get pretty tiring if literally everything you did got introduced, got progressively more difficult and tried to twist the script. That’s where pacing comes in–not everything should be a full-fledged challenge.

If you want an even simpler structure, the Introduction-Development-Twist-Conclusion pattern can basically just be boiled down to an Introduction and Twist, since it sort of goes without saying that all significant challenges need to be developed and all of them are going to end. Take this formula: “I need to do X, but Y.” The most cookie cutter challenge I could think of in D&D would look something like this: “I need to climb to the top of the mountain, but there’s monsters there.” That really isn’t that good of a challenge, especially in a published product, because there’s monsters everywhere, it’s D&D. But it’s good enough if you’re an amateur DM or playing with completely new players.

Some more examples of a decent challenge:

  • I need to find some buried treasure, but it’s hidden in a highly poisonous swamp.
  • I need to light up the cave, but the cave is enchanted and puts out any form of fire (magic or mundane).
  • I need to prove that the duke is up to something, but he won’t let me inside his manor and the guards will attack me if I don’t have an invite.

Most decent module writers are well aware of everything I just said. They know they need to provide a challenge, and they know that a challenge needs to have development and a twist. Where they commonly drop the ball is how they incorporate both of those things. What commonly happens is that they’ll drum up a challenge and then seemingly make the call to not even think through the solution. Take my “duke is up to something” challenge as an example. In most editions of D&D, that challenge is basically unwinnable for low level characters, because stealth is hot garbage in D&D. If the module doesn’t provide you with an invisibility potion or something, or makes all the guards deaf and blind, you’re never gonna break through the Duke’s manor without getting caught. Especially if no one you’re playing with rolled up a thief. To make matters worse, nine times out of ten, a writer for that scenario would gleefully make the guards several magnitudes of power higher than the PCs. You will not only fail, you will probably die.

To the designer, the challenge works like this. “They have to sneak through the duke’s manor without brute forcing it. They’ll have to be quick, but if they play smart, they’ll narrowly make it out, and get away with the proof they need.” To the player with anything less than a party thoroughly tailored for the adventure, that description might as well end at “They have to sneak.” Addendum game over. It basically comes down to a lack of experience with the system, and a lack of knowledge on how most players act. Adventure writers are usually hired for their skills with writing and scenario design, they aren’t hired because they DM the game on a regular basis.

Well…that’s how it works with, as I said, decent module writers. Who seem to be few and far between these days. Other modules, especially those written by amateurs, will be seemingly unaware that challenges even need to be structured. After playing through MOTB, watching an incomplete playtest, reading commentary of the authors, and reading the book cover-to-cover several times, I honestly think that MOTB’s production, or at least *most* of it’s production, worked like this. The writers thought of “interesting concepts”, like a lich consumed by love, or a dude who’s body is made entirely of knives, and haphazardly shoved them into a 300 room dungeon while making some attempt to present them in a manner that would present a compelling scenario.

What we get is a huge book of really compelling ideas and imagery with almost no information on how to use those ideas in any way that might even slightly resemble a narrative structure. I honestly can’t even say that these characters are particularly interesting in a *character* sense, that is, their actions and demeanor. The bulk of of the book is aesthetic pulp with no bite or practical use. MOTB honestly feels like a book of concept art presented as an adventure.

 

Aldia’s Maze

The Maze has a lot of rooms that are entirely keyed to poking and prodding. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say this. There’s two entire areas (The Art Gallery and The Cells) that consist entirely of rooms that only have events if they’re interacted with, and can be easily skipped. This being the case I’m pretty sure that the writers were well aware how much of the Maze can turn into a casual stroll (The random encounters are meant to fix this, but they don’t). I just don’t know why in the world it came out this way.

Out of curiosity, I went through all of the rooms in the book and categorized them based on their content. If you’re curious, you can see the results here.

There are a grand total of 111 rooms in the Maze that only provide content if the players choose to mess with the contents of the room with little to no provocation. Already, we’re off to a bad start. But it gets worse. Let’s take that 111, and add to it the number of rooms that exist only as access (stairs, etc.), and then add the number of rooms with nothing of even minor interest to them. We arrive at a staggering 161 rooms that do not provide any sort of meaningful content to those of the “ten-foot-pole” mindset, and this is without even including the number of rooms that only include basic items, or the number of visually interesting rooms that exist for little reason other than ~lore~. That’s 161/304 rooms. More than half of the book provides rooms that are of no real interest to a cautious player.

This sort of thing is staggeringly common in module design, and I have no idea how or why people treat it as acceptable. I’d like to, for a brief moment, talk about something outside of tabletop games, because it’s the best example I can think of to illustrate why this sort of design is bad.

Aldia’s Keep is a dungeon in the action RPG Dark Souls 2. I use the term “dungeon” very loosely here because it is essentially just a straight line with rooms you can visit at your leisure.

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The “straight line” I mention is just to the top of those stairs, at the centerpoint. If you choose to stick to the straight line–and why wouldn’t you, the camera and lighting direct you towards it–the dungeon will be over in less than a minute. The only challenge you will encounter will be ogres bursting through the walls in set places, which are basically just a cheap “gotcha” that you’ll fall for once and then never again. Once you know the ogres are hiding, you’ll approach the walls carefully, walk on by, and finish the dungeon, never once deviating from that straight line. There is no challenge here, especially since this is a late game dungeon–you are literally just walking from one area to the next while occasionally getting attacked. There is nothing you need to do except walk.

There, are, however, rooms within Aldia’s Keep that exist outside this straight line. There are hostile knights that break through mirrors from the inside. There’s a giant basilisk trapped in a cage. There’s a devious NPC that will ask you to free him, without telling you that he’s a dangerous psychopath. There’s an item hidden in some ooze, wading into it will break your equipment.

What do all these detours have in common? They’re all completely optional, and they’re all entirely rewarded with danger, violence, or otherwise negative results. Sure, you might get an item here or there and some souls, but you can get both those things pretty much anywhere, the world is bursting with them. If fighting the mirror knights, the ogres, or the basilisk were in any way engaging or different from what you’ve been doing for over 20 hours at this point, I might be inclined to say that the journey beats the destination here. But since that’s definitely not the case, and because getting through the dungeon is so effortless, why would you ever bother with anything outside the main path? Dark Souls 2 is a primarily single player game where death is practically meaningless and I still feel this way. Imagine how I would feel if I was playing with friends, who all came to be entertained, and my character’s singular life was on the line.

I think you get the point. MOTB is Aldia’s Keep stretched out to a 6-area dungeon. Either you act rationally, don’t randomly fiddle with things, and finish the module bored and confused without much happening, -or- you figure “well, guess I better mess with things, it’s clearly the point of the module” and do so for metagame reasons only to find yourself punished for doing so.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all modules ever should adhere to a grounded, narratively structured and fully coherent challenge, or that all modules should be “fair”, or whatever. With something like Tomb of Horrors, you know you’re going to die and you know your characters would have to be insane to be this tenacious, because to even enter the Tomb of Horrors you have to go through an absurd gauntlet that is blatantly designed to kill characters arbitrarily. A good DM will have outright told their group that they’re probably going to die, but even if they don’t they’ll get the message long before they enter the Tomb, and adjust their playstles to extreme paranoia–the way the module wants you to behave. You have to think in a non-linear nature to survive the Tomb of Horrors, whereas in MOTB, you can just walk past almost every major threat. Why even bother?

 

“But, Treasure!”

We’ve established that the Maze is dangerous, offers little interactivity, has no plot, and is honestly pretty boring in general. Here’s what Zak S said when I asked him the obvious: why stay in the maze? This was his response:

“Why stay here?”

Because there’s treasure.

Like most dungeons.”

Zak, if this is seriously all you’ve got, that’s pathetic. You know what has treasure in D&D? Every location of interest. You’re going to have to do better than that, sorry.  This thing we have called “plot” has kind of proven itself worthy, after of 26 centuries of preservation. People respond positively to it.

And before you go mouthing off about how old school RPG modules went plotless all the time–no, they didn’t. Not the good ones, anyway. Take Tomb of Horrors, for example, commonly considered to be one of the worst modules ever made by many people. Even in Tomb of Horrors, there is a reason to go through the Tomb, and no, it’s not the treasure that was promised–although even that is a vastly superior method of presenting treasure as a motivator because it is immediately stated upfront that vast riches exist within. Here’s what Tomb of Horrors presents as information available for players:

“Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt (Be warned that tales told have it that this being possesses powers which make him nearly undefeatable). Accounts relate that it is quite unlikely that any adventurers will ever find the chamber where the demi-lich Acererak lingers, for the passages and rooms of the Tomb are fraught with terrible traps, poison gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, the demi-lich has so well hidden his lair, that even those who avoid the pitfalls will not be likely to locale their true goal. So only large and well-prepared parties of the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the Tomb, they must be prepared to fail. Any expedition must be composed of characters of high level and varied class. They must have magical protections and weapons, and equip themselves with every sort of device possible to insure their survival.”

There you have it, up front: The crypt contains riches, it’s guarded by a lich, you’re probably going to die. You’ll want magic weapons or you’re definitely going to die. That’s pretty much the Tomb in a nutshell, and provides everything players need to know in a no nonsense matter. Their primary motivation is not going to be the treasure, although that will certainly help as an added benefit. Their primary motivation is going to be to beat the odds. The tomb is a deathtrap. Only the most wizened adventurers will get through, it even says right below this:  “THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE. AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY!”

There’s not even any indication for players that there even is treasure in the Maze to begin with. I mean, realistically they will of course know that there is treasure in the dungeon, because D&D, but narratively speaking, the players are provided with absolutely no reason to go in.

But let’s assume a generous position. Let’s say that your group is thoroughly motivated by treasure. Let’s say that your group does not care in the slightest about plot, or that they’re going to be stuck wandering halls for the vast majority of the adventure, because they really want that sweet, sweet treasure. What does Maze of the Blue Medusa offer, in terms of treasure?

Well, if gold’s your thing, you’re set for life. There’s certainly a ton of gold in the Maze, I won’t deny that. If you’re playing with a ruleset that allows gold for experience, it’s very likely that a player who enters the Maze at level 1 will end up leaving it at level 8 or above because of the absurd amount of gold that lies within. If you’re insane enough to run the Maze with random encounters as written, they’ll probably end up even stronger than this. This is one of many reasons why I don’t consider this to be an integratable module–your campaign will start and will end with the Maze. So good for you, you’ll end up with a high level character that you most likely will never use beyond the Maze itself because it’ll steamroll any campaign. If you even survive–played as written, you most likely won’t.

If you’re not playing with gold for experience, the gold isn’t going to do jack squat for you. Like I said, you’re never taking that character out of the maze unless your DM decides to quit the module halfway through, and nothing in the maze accepts coin or acts as a vendor, so uh…hope you enjoy hauling around worthless pennies. If your DM decides to implement some sort of shop above ground or within one of the secret worlds, you might get some bang for your buck.

But what about things that aren’t gold? Well, to give the Maze some credit, there are a fair number of knicknacks and basic equipment lying around, like lanterns, skeleton keys, holy water, etc. The “I search the body” table actually does provide some pretty nice rewards, things that the players could always do more of. But treasure? Things of significant value? Besides gold, there’s almost nothing. There’s a shit ton of magic scrolls that are going to be absolutely useless to you if you don’t have a Mage in your party (which my group essentially didn’t–he died in the first session). There’s the magic swords that function as a reward for a puzzle in room 5, which are nice. The book goes out of it’s way to tell DMs not to tell players what they actually do, though, which is actually a lot nicer than what would usually happen; they’d turn out to be cursed. The lizardman in the Art Gallery actually has 7 pretty nice magic weapo–oh wait, they’re destroyed after he uses them. Nevermind.

I want to show you an excerpt from the book, because it’s absolutely staggering:

This gigantic orrery of alien worlds is activated by a visible central switch. When triggered, the planets swing and spin on their brass rails. Apparently made by the same hand as the Orrery of Spells in Almery 205. Dialing both orreries into an astrologically correct position for the current moment (needed: astrological almanac or other special expertise) then reading them both (needed: INT check) grants everyone present an advantage on their next three saves (roll twice and pick the better save), as they can hazily predict their future.

Wow, golly gee! You mean to tell me that if I happen to have a character specifically trained for this absurdly specific situation, or if I managed to grab an unmarked book after killing a crone (who is NOT EVEN IN THIS AREA) that does 5d6 fucking damage per turn to anyone who hears it, I can make a check to do this ridiculous tinkering maneuver that no one would ever be able to figure out, and then do that again in an area on the opposite fucking end of the maze, then if I do all that, I get advantage on my next three saves! Nevermind, this whole critique’s invalid, I can definitely see how the Maze is just brimming with reward for curiosity.

 

The Randomly Generated Elephant in the Room

Random encounters are very important—many of the rooms in the Maze are mere curios unless activated or interacted with. Without Random Encounters, the party may find themselves simply sneaking past lots of things they’re scared to touch—remember to roll not only when the party is noisy but also every in-game 10 minutes. That means every time the players stop to do a thorough search of a room, for instance, or if they take their armor off.

That’s from the guidelines section of the book, which contains almost no other information besides “be intentionally vague” and “the Maze isn’t supposed to make sense, you gotta deal with it”. There you have it, random encounters will solve our “Maze Tourism” problem. As an aside, I find it amusing that the writers think that the players will have to “sneak past” things they’re scared to touch, as if players will really feel the need to tip-toe past inanimate objects.

Here’s the random encounter table:

encounters

You’re supposed to roll a d100 every time a “Turn” passes (10 in-game minutes). In OD&D, a “Turn” is basically a unit of measurement that means whatever the fuck the DM wants it to, but it’s usually used as a time requirement for breaking down doors or picking locks. Other than that, you’re kind of on your own when it comes to a reasonable estimate of when you’re supposed to roll. There’s a roll every time that the players stop to do a thorough search of a room, which is reasonable, and a roll every time that the players take their armor off, which is less so (I’m going to assume as a general sanity check that they meant heavy armor. Unless the authors honestly think it takes 10 minutes to take off a hide cuirass or brigandine garment).

You’re also supposed to roll when the party is being noisy. What “noisy” means, they don’t really say. The previous blurb about the players having to “sneak past” areas makes me wonder if you’re supposed to be rolling any time the players make a noise that would startle a librarian. To me, “noisy” would mean the sound of clashing swords, or the sound of moving furniture, or a character screaming at an NPC, and so on. Which isn’t something that’s going to come up very often. Not to mention, as soon as your players see you rolling dice in response to noise, they’re never going to make loud noises again.

Most of the time when loud noises are heard, they’re heard because something eventful is already happening. To me that defeats the purpose of an encounter check in the first place. It’s reasonable to assume that you’re not supposed to roll for an encounter during a combat encounter, so I’ll ignore the extraneous possibility of the players having to fight thirty-fucking-two birdmen at the same time. But it’s still quite possible to have an encounter show up during something that already constitutes a notable challenge, such as getting past the light-swallowing painting in the art gallery. Or it could be a player character that’s causing issues during one of the many, many sequences of mind control or magical compulsion.

Let’s stop dawdling and actually look at this encounter table. First thing to note is that there’s a 25% chance of nothing happening. Which gets pretty funny in instances where the book says there’s a 70% chance of a random encounter check, so you roll four different dice for what could potentially amount to nothing happening at all. There’s an 18% chance of some sort of light source being extinguished–I don’t know what it is about module writers and not knowing that light sources in D&D are stupidly easy to come across. Not to mention that most of the Maze is well-lit anyway, so this basically amounts to an additional 18% of nothing happening.  On a 74 you get “a wave of unspeakable melancholy”…okay then…?

Another big thing to note is that a lot of the encounters are actual individuals rather than nameless members of a faction, which means that if they die, they’re gone for good. The replacement for these encounters are pretty much exclusively the Chameleon Women, which are a standard band of humanoids with abilities similar to the PCs. They carry barbed nets, which makes them pretty much the only encounter in the entire Maze that you cannot reliably run from (It is still quite doable as they move at human movement speed, but it varies by location).

Let me tell you: the Chameleon Women are going to get old. Fast. Encounters with small squads that have roughly the same degree of power as you are pretty consistently fun in D&D, but not when they’re the same group of humanoids over, and over, and over again. There are some exceptions, there are some pretty good encounters in the Garden area where the Chameleon Women set up some ambushes that put the PCs in a pretty tough spot, but most of the time, due to the “random” nature of the random encounter rolls, you get Chameleon Women showing up to bust the PCs as if they’re cops with nothing better to do. If you’ve gotten most of the major encounters in the Maze by the time you’ve gotten to the Cells, there is a whopping 39% chance of Chameleon Women popping up on a random encounter check. (I count the Negamancer as a Chameleon Women, because they’re basically just a Chameleon Sorcerer with some extra abilities.)

The second most common band you’ll encounter are the “Oku”. These are the birdmen I keep mentioning. The Oku are standard humanoid fighters, but a lot better than the Chameleon Women because they have names and more personality than just being faceless reptilian cops. But in a way, that actually makes them worse. Specifically because of this line:

The results of particular interactions with PCs are more powerful than the results of this table. If PCs make a genuine enemy, or friend, that particular “Oku” will act accordingly no matter what the table says.

Basically, treat the Oku as individuals. But somehow have them popping up everywhere as a result of a random encounter check? And then have them be vulnerable to diplomacy, when these checks are supposed to be creating tension and stakes? I’m not saying this is all bad of course. My party befriended the bulk of the Oku, as I suspect most parties would. It’s good for the PCs to have allies within the Maze, characters they care about. But it doesn’t fulfill the stated purpose of random encounters, which is to make the hundred+ boring rooms actually mean something. Most of the time the party is going to encounter an Oku, say hi, and move on. The best and most interesting part of the Oku’s behavior table is the 3/16 chance that they’re fleeing someone they’ve robbed, which can lead to interesting shenanigans. Which the writers, of course, made the least probable outcome of the table.

I really can’t stress how likely it is that, unless the DM almost never calls for a “Turn”, these random encounters will be occurring in a place that is clearly not meant for the occasion. Sometimes there will be encounters that are flat-out impossible by the Maze’s own “lore”. You get an encounter with some Aurum Specters on a roll of 11. The Aurum specters? The ghosts of the wedding guests within the Chapel, the Chapel that they are incapable of leaving until Sophronia’s curse is lifted? Yeah just throw some of those in the Garden, that’ll work.

Most of the “individual” encounters are taken wholesale from a more organic place within the Maze, meaning every time you use one of the encounters on a roll of 14 or less, the Maze gets a little less interesting. Most of these encounters will either be a complete joke or a total party kill depending on where and when you encounter them. You can potentially encounter Torgos Zooth’s hitsquad on a roll of 14, who has a minion that attacks D10 TIMES PER ROUND (this would be unacceptable no matter where and when you encountered it, really) plus a different minion with 19 AC and 10 hit dice, in the first area.

No, the random encounters don’t solve the problem of the rooms lacking challenge. Even if all the random encounters were amazing, it still wouldn’t solve the issue–you’ve still got the issue of a random location for each of these encounters. Area design is really the bread and butter of D&D’s combat–without it, you’ve just got a subpar war game. If it’s purely a matter of chance where you encounter something, there’s always a chance of a good encounter feeling wasted.

 

Wizard Needs Food Badly

A party is far more likely to starve to death within the Maze than die as a result of an encounter. The amount of food, or even edible creatures, that exist organically within the Maze, amounts to maybe 3 different snacks over a course of 304 rooms. There is a piddly 4% chance of finding a ration on a dead body. You honestly stand a better chance of surviving the Maze if you come in with a bag full of potatoes than you do bringing ropes, sleeping bags and torches.

Rules for starvation differ wildly with each variant of D&D, so experiences are going to vary on how miserable your hungry party is going to be. A common ground between most of these rulesets is that going without food and water for three days will leave you either way too fatigued to actually do anything, or outright dead. But even if you play an edition with extremely lenient starvation rules, or just flatout decide not to use them, MOTB has an area where they’re forced upon you:

Due to the mutant time leached from Chronia Torn and fed into the gallery in order to preserve the artwork, some aspects of time work differently for nonartworks here. All food and drink spoils in seconds. PCs will become hungry after about ten minutes and will lose d4 hit points if they don’t eat and drink something ten minutes after that. They then need to eat a meal every half hour thereafter or, again, lose d4 HP every 10 minutes. This is where the Cannibal Critics came from.

The addition of a survival mechanic within the Art Gallery was likely included to give the Gallery some sort of death-risk considering that the number of ways the characters can enter combat here are slim to none. If you’re familiar with the rules of D&D, you’re probably already aware of the insane problem presented here, but in case you aren’t let’s break it down.

You’re going to need to keep track of every Turn that passes. A turn, as described in the previous section, is ten in-game minutes. A short rest in 5th edition is 1 hour, or 6 turns. So if the players want to take a short rest, each of them need to have 2 instances of food on hand, because as described in the 5th edition manual, a short rest cannot be undertaken if they risk taking damage during the rest. 2 instances of food for each party member in an area where food and drink spoils in seconds. You see the problem.

You’re not gonna be able to take a long rest at all, either in the Art Gallery or anywhere else, if you play the Maze as written. A long rest is 8 hours, so the players would need 16 instances of food, and the food must be eaten and irregular intervals (the Gallery’s survival mechanics do not state that food can be “stacked”, i.e., that you can eat twice within one sitting and avoid the next two hunger checks), so it is literally impossible to take a long rest within the Art Gallery because you’re going to be sleeping instead of eating. Unless you have a race that allows you to ignore sleep or nutrition, which is basically god mode in this module.

Those turns I mentioned, that you’re going to have to make a very meticulous record of in order for this insane system to function? Remember that you’re supposed to roll a random encounter roll for every turn that passes. That isn’t me taking things out of context here by using the nebulous term “turn” either. The book states in no uncertain terms that a random encounter check happens every 10 minutes, and the 5th edition manual states very specifically that a short rest is 1 hour. Translation, you are making 6 random encounter checks every time your party stops to take a break. Functional!

This doesn’t become any less insane anywhere else in the dungeon. Every time your party stops to take a break, they’re going to be accosted by a random encounter. Some of which, as I’ve illustrated, will completely break your party’s kneecaps if they’re encountered at the wrong time. So, the vast majority of the time, your party just flat-out won’t rest. Or they will, at great risk to themselves. And because a long rest is practically impossible as written, any class which relies on such a thing i.e. casters is going to be completely useless for most of the dungeon.

To be fair, there is a way that parties can actually take a rest and grab some food without much risk to themselves. The stairs in room 14 will transport the players to a peaceful area with food vendors and sleeping areas, and the description states that it’s unlikely that any maze-dwellers would find their way in. It’s better than nothing, but: 1. It requires the players to find a secret just to make the module even slightly functional, and 2. It’s in the first area of the maze, and no such area exists anywhere else. Every time your players want to undertake a long rest they’re going to have to backtrack to the stairs, which is sometimes outright impossible due to some areas working better on the way in than the way out, or because the players have gone way too far in and forgotten their barrings.

 

Various Nitpicks

The very first thing the players will likely encounter in the Maze is a demonic woman with 20 AC and 14 HD that capriciously requests that the players fetch various curios and objects for her. If she sees the players again, and they don’t have anything interesting to sell to her, she will either ask them to find even more things, torture the players, kill them, or attempt to destroy the entire Maze. (The description, vague as ever, makes no statement as to whether she is even capable of burning it down.) Believe it or not, this is actually one of the most well designed encounters in the entire module, because it provides players with a reasoning to interact with things. It would only make sense at this point that the only thing to accomplish this is a vain god-NPC with no respect for the players.

There are many, many things that are seemingly connected in the Maze that have no explained connection or interactive properties. It would make sense for the Emperor’s Rose, which causes all around it to obey a leader, to be nullified by the Jacobin Rose, a rose that slays rulers. But nothing is ever written about this. It would make sense for the Medusa to have dialogue or motivations pertaining her deformed child in room 10, but nothing is ever written about this. You could argue that these things don’t need to be written down because a DM who sees the connection could choose to implement them themselves, but if they’re that obvious I don’t understand why they’re not in the book.

I don’t understand why the Medusa has “quests” and incomplete tasks for the players when the encounter with her is just her challenging the players to a duel to the death regardless of circumstance, thus ending the module.

The encounters with Zamia and Chronia Torn are so out of the way and obtuse that they are essentially secret. It’s very likely that players will end up never even meeting two of the four major players of the Maze.

It’s very strange that not a single inhabitant of the Maze seems to be interested in escaping. To me that makes a lot more sense then committing to elaborate, century-long schemes that never pan out anyway. My players and I were in unanimous agreement that a lot of the module’s issues with plot would go away if the direction was shifting from entering the maze to escaping it.

After killing the Medusa, the Maze will begin to crumble apart and destroy itself from it’s foundation. As written, escaping the maze is basically impossible. Once the Maze initiates it’s destruction all the prisoners in the Cells become unpetrified and go out for blood–many of these prisoners are dangerous even alone, but in a group, they’re practically unstoppable. Each section of the maze starts to cave in after 1 or 2 hours, meaning the players are forced to go through an absolutely insane gauntlet of everything they might not have dispatched, without rest, with several of the easy exits no longer accessible. This would normally constitute a massive flaw with the module as it is essentially unwinnable, but by this point I refuse to believe that anyone running the module would have the abject stupidity to run it as written by the time they reach the final encounter, so it’s of only mild concern.

Lastly, I want to read you a description of one of the NPCs, because it is outright insultingly idiotic:

Levalliant Green is a supervillain. He lives by different rules. Literally. As far as the GM is concerned, LG may have planned, prepared, and predicted anything. The variety of his response is infinite, but must be constrained by the tables below. Green is exceptionally brave, intelligent (18), driven, and perceptive. He has 1 HD and no magical powers of any kind—use standard NPC schmuck stats. He tends to refer to people by their first names, which he usually knows. (Of course letting his arch-enemy petrify him then waiting for you to kill her was all part of his plan.) Pyxis (Cells 297) served him.

Green’s Defenses once unfrozen

If Green wins initiative, he will disappear and become undetectable—by the most mundane means available other than the means by which the party thinks he did. If the first thing they think is he drank an invisibility potion, it wasn’t that. If they first think he ran around the corner, it wasn’t that. If the first thing they think is secret door—nope.

In fact, he definitely didn’t disappear by the first d4th reasons they think of. It’s something else. The GM should decide something and write it down. This is, by usual GMing rules, totally unfair—but Green has one hit die and lives by different rules. If Green loses initiative (which is rare; he generally tries to hold still with a readied action to flee), he will not be killed or captured in the first round of combat—again, for the most mundane reason the players can think of that’s not among the first d4. Illusory self? Nope. Magic item? Nope. Write down the reason the attacks of the first round failed. These two tricks work twice each per combat. He knows where all the secret doors in the Maze are (though he hasn’t opened them all), and whatever happens in the Medusa’s room is likely part of his eventual scheme. Play him as hard and as deviously as possible.

I want to make it clear that this is his entire blurb. There is nothing provided in the entire book for why this character acts this way or what he’s after.

 

Separating Art from the Artist

I’m going to drop some quotes here that I think are particularly relevant to Blue Medusa.

“Going through all this WOTC and TSR stuff I’m definitely amazed and almost impressed how few genuinely gameable ideas manage to get communicated in these texts.

How do they do it? I went through and tried to figure out the most important bits:

1. Pretend a standard monster in a standard room is an encounter worth paying for.

This is the biggest one by far: Yes, it is fun to fight an ogre in a room, but it is not fun to pay to be told that there’s an ogre in a room, especially not for 8 paragraphs. The idea that an ogre can be in a room is logically implied by the ogre being in the Monster Manual, which you probably already own.

If I am actually paying for it–the environment should be complex, the creature should be complex or both.”

“I’ve noticed that if you have a weird room and a weird monster (not just reskinned weird,  but like what it does is weird) then sometimes it’s super fun but sometimes it’s just incomprehensible.

Weird rooms plus nothing is sometimes spooky but sometimes just like the players are like whatevs and walk past.

Weird room plus normal monster though–that’s almost always a good time. Understandable enough that players can use their heads, novel enough that they have to.”

 …

“To me, just as the point of combat and action mechanics is to facilitate the creation and in-game use of interesting dungeon puzzles and similar tests of tactical wit, the point of interesting social mechanics would be to facilitate the creation and in-game use of interesting social puzzles.”

All three of those quotes express pretty strong, agreeable sentiments. They’re sentiments that damn MOTB in particularly harsh terms if you accept them as fact. Here’s the catch. The author of all three of these quotes? Zak S. The primary author of MOTB.

Obviously, this is all a bit baffling for me.

Those familiar with the RPG industry will be well aware that Zak S is a very controversial figure, having garnered as many fans as he has people who literally believe he should be killed. I want to make it very clear that at the time I ran MOTB, I had no idea who Zak S or Patrick Stuart were. My experience was not biased by any sort of pre-conceived notion of his character. I earnestly believe that MOTB is a terrible module for reasons that do not in any way involve the actions or public image of it’s authors.

That said, I could tell pretty much immediately upon skimming the PDF that what I was reading was probably written by someone with some…personal issues, let’s say. This is, in fact, the most common criticism of MOTB. A vocal minority have stated that they felt creeped out and/or annoyed by the prose and scenarios presented within the book, often using words such as “edgy” or “cringey” and what have you. Having read some of LOFTP’s other modules, MOTB is pretty much as ordinary as whole milk in comparison, so I can’t say that I felt the same. There’s definitely an underlying current of abrasiveness throughout the whole module, though.

For example, it’s pretty clear that one or both of the writers had a hell of a thing for cunning, capricious, sexually open, extremely powerful and classically beautiful women. This archetype appears so often in the module that it becomes difficult for a DM to stop the NPCs from feeling samey. There’s the Medusa herself, the three torn sisters, Ashen Chanterelle, Lady Crucem Capilli, the Sphinx, the list goes on and on. I’m not saying I have any real issue with these NPCs, it’s just very obvious that there’s a “type” being imprinted on you here. Gay men and heterosexual women who play through the module will probably start to roll their eyes after a while, especially since there’s no examples of male beauty or even male cunning unless you count the terrible Levalliant Green NPC.

When Zak and his pals talk about their experiences with the Maze I consistently see them mentioning cannibalistic behavior. If you read the blurb on the Art Gallery, you probably figured out that the whole thing is basically just a set up for unnecessary cannibalism. Obviously Zak doesn’t play D&D with the same people as me, because I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a single player or character who would consider cannibalism preferable to just walking away from the table. I suppose eating the Chameleon Women technically isn’t cannibalism, but you’re not exactly going to be able to cook them either, so “raw reptilian meat” probably isn’t even going to register on most players’ list of viable food options.

If you compare the best rooms in the Maze with the worst rooms, the difference is staggering. We have the Wedding area, the Chapel, which creates a really interesting, “slow burn” style story with the players uncovering more and more about the details of this disastrous wedding and what really happened. It’s easily the best area of the entire dungeon and if it was printed as it’s own module, I would probably say it was brilliant. Then we have the Almery, an area that exists for seemingly no reason, with no real theme or central motif. It’s filled with terrible encounters that are all either way too easy or ridiculously powerful. We’ve got the Reptile Archives which is essentially a sequence of dead ends and empty rooms with the only thing of interest being an utterly bizarre werewolf subplot that never goes anywhere or provides anything of interest to the players. It’d be nice if I could claim that all the good rooms were written by the better writer of the two and all the bad ones written by the worse, but obviously the truth is far more complicated than that.

I don’t know if Zak or Patrick ever got to the end of the dungeon with any of their parties, and I suspect that neither of them particularly cares because that was never the point.

I struggle to understand how people this passionate and with this many strong convictions about gaming managed to put out a product like this. If I’m forced to come up with an explanation for all of this, the closest thing I can think of is that Zak S and Patrick Stuart are writers who are very, very perceptive when it comes to noticing problems with the common malaise of RPG products, but neither of them has the slightest clue how to actually fix those problems. The most kind way I could approach MOTB is by calling it a failed experiment. It wanted to be The Megadungeon That Didn’t Suck, but was doomed, because the writers refused to acknowledge that they the games they were playing did not necessarily reflect a game that most others enjoy, or even really function in many settings. There is a sense of active contempt that emanates from MOTB, it is a contempt directed towards the very idea that “good gaming” or “good art” is subjective, or that the vast majority of tables do not share the same values as their groups.

There’s simply no way that the writers didn’t understand that there’s a massive world of difference between OD&D and 2E, 3E, 4E, etc…no, there’s no way that they didn’t get that making a “system agnostic” product was outright impossible in the way they were presenting it. They knew, they just didn’t care, because they were going to mod the game to fit their personal preferences anyway. Completely disregarding the entire point of a module, to act as a point of context for players who can’t afford to be doing that type of thing. This ostrich-in-the-sand mentality seems to stem from an absolutely militant insistence that anything to do with designer theory is the literal devil. MOTB sucks because it was put together in a way that could only ever suck. From the very beginning it was doomed by nature:

I made a painting and then Patrick wrote room descriptions for each part of the painting. Then we passed it back and forth for years writing and rewriting, trying to make it into the kind of dungeon we wish we found all those times we cracked open a new module only to be disappointed—something strange and interconnected and bringing enough ideas to the table to be worth what you paid. And we wanted to make sure our maze was designed so those ideas weren’t buried under piles of words but instead unfolded as it was read and became easier to run for that unfolding. When fickle players send you flipping pages toward one of 300 rooms, we want you to land thinking “Oh yeah—that guy, I know how to run him.” Let us know if it worked. —Zak

This is not the way you design a functional dungeon. Designing an abstract piece and then trying your damnedest to unnaturally force an actual ecosystem into it after the fact it is not going to work. Dungeon crawls live and die by the presentation of their challenges, you will not produce compelling challenges if you are forcing a square peg into a circle.

So no, it didn’t work, Zak.