On Thursday night, +Ken Baumann was kind enough to run a preview of Maze of the Blue Medusa, a megadungeon out soon on his own Satyr Press imprint. If you're reading this, I'm sure you know the deets: art by +Zak Sabbath (Playing D&D With Porn Stars, A Red & Pleasant Land, Vornheim) and words by +Patrick Stuart (False Machine, Deep Carbon Observatory, Fire on the Velvet Horizon).
Here's what happened. Spoilers follow. Ken plans to run a few more sessions as he gears up to run the Maze at cons this summer, so if you want to get in on those, stop here.
The cast of characters:
Gladys, a dwarf wizard, played by +Chris Weller (Rolang's Creeping Doom)
Halyard Fourguy, a half-elf barbarian, played by Chris
Issari Ricin, a human paladin, played by John
Milo, a halfling rogue, played by +Kiel Chenier (Dungeons and Donuts)
Severin, an elf rogue, played by me
Smudge, a gnome druid, played by Brian
Together we formed a ragtag and unscrupulous society of art collectors, having recently acquired the obscure masterwork False Chanterelle from a fencer of stolen paintings. It came with an unusual suggestion for its appreciation: hang on a room's north wall and view under the light of a full moon.
Naturally we obliged, and when the moonlight hit the pigment the chained woman in the painting turned and beckoned us to her. Suddenly we found ourselves standing in the depicted room with the woman, a painting of the place from which we'd come on the wall behind us. She begged for release, and with a swing of Halyard's axe we broke her bonds. She promptly backed away toward the painting until both she and it vanished. A fine how-do-you-do.
Rummaging through the room, Severin discovered a vial of unholy water, giving us all the sense that the woman had in fact been some evil priestess intent on switching places with us here, wherever "here" was.
To find out, we left through the only available door and found ourselves in the presence of a blue-skinned draconic woman pacing in a large empty room. She introduced herself as Lady Capilli and welcomed us to the medusa's maze, offering to pay us for any of the countless "nice things" around the maze we could recover for her. All in all, the nicest greeting for a prison-inside-a-painting we could hope for. Unfortunately, as an avowed aesthete she declined to tell us any more about the maze for fear of spoiling our experience. How considerate.
We left the lady and set off into a brightly lit circular room. Severin crossed the room to scout an open archway with Smudge following close behind. A little too close, turns out, because as soon as Severin cast a shadow in the room's uncanny light, Smudge fell right in as though it were a hole. Severin saved the gnome just as a hand dropped onto his face. A severed hand, in fact, with an eye in the palm. Suddenly overcome with a violent urge, Severin drew his rapier and stabbed at his friend Smudge, who dodged the thrust. Issari pried the awful hand from the rogue's face, but holding onto it proved too much, and it skittered into the darkness.
Using our lamps and torches to obliterate the room's shadows, we pressed forward through the archway to discover a regal-looking old man run through with three huge swords. Though in great pain, he was still up and walking. He begged for death, instructing us to pull the swords from him while noting that we probably shouldn't be near him when we did. Milo tied rope around the swords' hilts and bravely/foolishly volunteered to hold the man while the rest of us cowered around the corner and pulled on the ropes. The man was torn to bits and a mass of green vapor escaped him, dousing our lights.
As the vapor began to coalesce into three figures, Milo picked up the swords and ran into the adjoining room with the rest of us in tow, where we discovered three thrones. The figures turned out to be the old man's vaporized thanes: one golden and blinding, one flickering and electric, and one leafy and wild. They wanted the swords.
We dispatched the thanes with only one incident of running into a wall, and in the fray Milo discovered riddles written on each blade:
"You'd like to spend the night with me, but if you spend the day with me, we'll sleep together."
"I am a heavy burden, but anyone would take me from you."
"My clock counts years, not hours."
Examining the thrones, we discovered slots in the armrests and decorations on each: grapes, a crown, and a tree. Matching each to the correct sword, we placed them in their slots and heard a door unlock in the previous room. This led to a rope bridge over a chasm and beyond that a huge chamber.
This was a sight to behold: a giant worm writhing and drooling with madness in the center, babbling in an unknown language (translated as "I want rockth, I want rockth," by the druid) and a near-complete set of large stone chess pieces against the west wall, missing only two rooks. Severin snuck past the worm to inspect the chess pieces, and that's when things got weird. Thanks to a four-in-a-row streak of rolling 1s on Wisdom saves, four fingers on one hand broke themselves and he began to totter off toward the worm. He was saved by his friends, who stopped him and killed the worm. Cutting open its belly, the paladin Issari discovered the missing rooks and a scroll of petrification.
We tried to rest, but who should come creeping along but our old friend the severed hand. Its gaze made Halyard weep with fright, and the hand tried to take this chance to choke the life from him. Smudge saved him with a well-cast mage hand, though the nasty little bugger managed to escape again.
From here, we had two choices: northwest or northeast. The northwest chamber proved to be a no-go, full of scary black liquid and floating green gems that froze Severin in place for a few minutes.
So northeast: a small, stark-white room with a straight black line along the floor from the entrance to the exit. Smudge intuited that we should try to keep to the line and we set off in single file. Suddenly the line began to contort into shapes representing all our greatest fears, a path that would take forever to traverse. We resolved to go one at a time, but just as Smudge was almost across the room, a large scarab fell from the ceiling, biting him into unconsciousness and munching on the books in his pack.
The scroll of petrification from the worm's stomach turned out to be a dud, but Gladys finally killed the scarab with a ray of frost, and Severin bounded into the room to revive the fallen gnome. Turns out he doesn't know much about reviving fallen gnomes, but luckily Smudge came to on his own, and the group moved down the hall into a large chamber. There we met a blue-haired girl, nude and beautiful, and we had sense that we had just entered a temporal distortion.
"What took you so long?" she asked, and the session ended.
It was a blast. Ken is a great DM and "you're more than welcome to try" was the refrain of the night, as it should be. There were no stock encounters, and all NPCs and monsters felt thoughtful and unique. It seems the encounter table includes things like resource exhaustion to spice things up, which is something I've been doing in my games too.
The severed hand was pretty interesting. It seemed to be a random encounter - it would attack quickly and escape back into the shadows. I usually only include cannon fodder of the "d6 wolves" variety on random encounter tables rather than unique monsters meant to be faced more than once. Meeting the same creature in several random places gave the impression that some monsters wander the maze while others stay put. I liked the effect.
I enjoyed the metatext of art and "gaze". Medusas attack by looking at you and kill you by turning you into art. You get into the maze by looking at a stolen painting, and Lady Capilli offered to pay us to steal more art in the maze. She called herself an aesthete and gave us license to kill bloody-mouthed art critics on sight. The severed hand has its own multi-effect gaze attack (incidentally, I thought it was really smart of Ken to have players roll the effect and not the DM - there's no more fearful moment in a game than when you roll and know it's gonna be bad, but you don't know how bad). It comes off as playful rather than heavy-handed, but it helped give an unexpected coherence to the proceedings.
It's great how self-contained the whole thing is. It requires no longwinded campaign context - it creates its own context, as a megadungeon should (See Zak on Koolhaas on Bigness here). I can see this as a source for one-shot sessions that would never be the same twice.
In all, a great night. This was actually my first time playing a character in about a decade - I seem to be the only one interested in DMing among my friends. Gonna be hard to top this. Thanks to the other players, thanks to Ken, and thanks to Zak and Patrick for another killer experience.