Friday, January 6, 2017

Maze of the Blue Medusa (Actual Play Report)

Started running Mazeof the Blue Medusa for my Friday night group.
Realized there were very few “actual play” reports.
Thought I’d write one and fix that.

System: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed.

Group: 5-8 PCs, depending on the night. Healthy mix of veterans and newbies. 60/40 male/female split. Age range between 24 and 39 and our typical soundtrack is 90s hiphop, just in case anyone cares about stuff like that.

Format: PCs are in bold. NPCs are in italics. I’ll highlight them the first time they appear in a section because I think it makes these reports easier to follow.

Intent/Assumptions: I’m assuming you have the book or the pdf so I’ll only give skeleton details. I’m not going to list game stats or plagiarize anything, but I’ll quote it now and again. If I’m a liar or I’m giving up too much/too little info, let me know so I can fix it. My intent is to share the experience of running Maze with y’all, from my own biased perspective, and obviously, there are spoilers.

Pitch: On a moonlit night in a nameless city, a desperate band of thieves steals a famous painting - The False Chantrelle.  If the legends are true, the painting is really a portal to a fabulous lost world, where treasures untold lie beneath the dust of eons. This is the story of those thieves, and of that legend, which happened to be mostly true.

THE HEROES (Level 1)
Fitzy, Air Genasi Sorcerer. Noble runaway. Really wants to find his dad. Assumes everyone knows about Genasi stuff and high society life because why wouldn’t he? Thoughtful and analytical.
Smallbeard, Dwarf Wizard. He was on his way to becoming a petulant little crime lord when… well, you’ll see.
Teka, Human Fighter. Rastafarianish. Tight with the Bard.
Jezebel, Human Fighter. Soft-spoken, hard-hitting, practical.
Nagus, Ferengi Cleric of the Great Nugget. Because someone can’t just roll a damn Elf.
Moonblossom Honeywine, Wild Elf Bard. Anti-materialist. Thinks all art should be free, man. Like, literally free. Impetuous. Tight with Teka.
Ea, Tiefling Monk. She’s got a demon-stone-thing that ruined her childhood and she can’t get rid of it, so she wanders and hides and wanders and hides, a lot. These thieves are kind of her buffer against the outside world, so she sticks close because there’s a cult that wants the stone and… Actually, have you seen The Final Sacrifice, or (more likely) that MST3K episode where they riff it? She’s Zap Rowsdower. A bright red, gender-swapped, ram-horns-and-hooves-havin’ Rowsdower.


Moonlight hits The False Chantrelle. Chantrelle stirs within the frame and silently calls for help. A cautious party touches the painting, realizing that it is, in fact, a portal to another world. Fitzy throws coins at it. He fusses like Woody Allen and wants to conduct experiments. Nagus is dead-set against going in. Other party members, especially Moonblossom share the total opposite sentiment: She’s the first one to go through the portal, and by the time Fitzy and Nagus finally stop pacing and take the plunge for themselves, she’s already freed Chantrelle from her chains and gone on to the next room. Nobody interrogates Chantrelle (not seriously, anyway: They learn she’s a slave and a prisoner and that she’s disoriented, but that’s about it) – they feel sorry for her, apparently, or they’re caught up in the wave of their own reckless excitement, or both. Chantrelle plays the role of the confused victim and escapes without incident as the party pursues Moonblossom into the next room.

Moonblossom meets Lady Crucem Capelli and, picking up on her draconic heritage, starts to apply some subtle flattery. Lady Capelli is haughty but pleasantly charmed by the elf’s attentions – but the moment is ruined by Fitzy when he starts to ask pointed, logical questions. “Who are you?” “How long have you been here?” “What is this place?” “Are there treasures here?” Lady Capelli gives him cagey answers out of irritation, like an annoyed parent placating an inquisitive six-year-old.  The others swing the conversation around to art, and Lady Capelli lights up, forgets Fitzy, and gives them all a fetch-quest in a moment of whimsy: “Find me some music, good music, and then tell me what you think of it. If your opinions are worth anything, I’ll reward you for them.” The party seems pleased with that. They don’t press her for specifics, and Moonblossom is already opening another door, so off they go.

There’s a weird, Escher-esque staircase up ahead. As the party tries to get to the bottom (or the top?) of it, they run into a band of seven Oku (random encounter: human thieves perpetually dressed in bird-masks, prone to fits of insanity). Half the Oku are acting rationally; half are preening themselves like birds. The Oku leader is surprised to see the party and asks if they’ve seen Akerstrom. Someone doesn’t like someone else’s tone; the mood turns aggressive and the conversation breaks down pretty fast. The PCs throw the first punch. [This happened three weeks ago, so I can’t recall specifically what led to the fight, only that it was totally the players’ fault].
Smallbeard casts sleep and two Oku go down. Jezebel gets a spectacular critical and glory-kills one from full health in a single two-handed chop. Fitzy miscalculates his thunder-wave and gets stabbed a few times for his inaccuracy; likewise, Moonblossom gets a good knifin’ and nearly passes out from blood loss. When the murder-make concludes and the bodies are looted, the party is the proud new owner of a crappy map, a slime-polished zircon, some blood-soaked cloaks, knives and masks, and a tin of enchanted lip balm. “Enchanted lip balm! Behold! Whatever you kiss while wearing this balm, it shall form a mouth and speak to you!” The group immediately decides to save it for weird blowjobs.

At the bottom of the stairs, there’s a door without a handle. Neither Teka nor Jezebel can force it open, and no one brought Thieves’ Tools. Smallbeard emphatically suggests they use the lip balm to kiss the door and find out how to open it, but he’s openly derided for his wastefulness. In a passive-aggressive huff, he goes back up the stairs to sulk.  Nobody follows after him. The party gives up on the locked door, goes back up the stairs, and winds up in a totally different room than the one they expected.

(Subfoetens & the Shell: I changed this room a bit. I made the Shell into a big, Cthulu-esque sea-monster, upped its hit dice, and made it a dedicated caretaker to the weird child-thing. No mechanical reason; I just liked this take on it.)
The party (minus Smallbeard) stands at the threshold of a dark room where the sound of light snoring mixes with a phlegmatic lullaby.  Characters with darkvision notice a door on the far end of the room, and also a horrible nautiloid thing holding some kind of creepily organic cradle. Stealth is agreed upon as the best option and, sticking together, they quietly move past it. All except Moonblossom. She’s last in line, and she can’t help but try to harmonize with the lullaby. Her performance is miserable. The child-thing in the shell-basket awakens and screeches, and the party goes a little bit insane. (Perform skill check roll of 2, baby wakes and drains 3 Wisdom from the whole party). The freaked-out heroes book it, fast.

               The party flees until they discover a large, plain room, in the center of which is a bizarre sight: a grasshopper-headed idiot worm-child gnawing on screaming chess pieces. This is Gibba Gognata, one of the Medusa’s spawn, and the party falls in love with him. They try to defend the chess pieces, yelling at him half-heartedly that eating people is wrong, but as players, it’s toward the end of the night, we’re all a little buzzed or tired, and this encounter just turns into a bunch of inside jokes and funny voices and yeah, fun stuff.

               Meanwhile, Smallbeard finds his way back to Lady Capelli, and is complaining to her about this party he’s stuck with. “They are ridiculous! Fools! They wouldn’t listen to me, so I’m going to find these treasures for myself. What’s through that door over there?” Lady Capelli is amused. She states coyly that she won’t tell him. She doesn’t want to ruin the aesthetic purity of his experience with the Maze. She does, however, wish him luck.

               Smallbeard ventures into a room filled with weird lighting and constantly shifting shadows. He makes it about six feet in, then trips into a pit created by his own cast shadow. He’s injured, alone at the bottom of a pit, and the top of the pit is now a stone slab. He panics a bit, then considers his options and concocts an escape plan. His plan is this: Cast light on his walking stick, affix his stick through a backpack loop so that it’s casting his shadow on the ceiling, then climb up the wall and out through the shadow-hole. He gets so close. At the last second, he flinches; the shadow’s shape changes and he is cut in half by a stone floor which wasn’t there a second ago. He dies alone and afraid, in a strange place, and no one mourns his passing.

One of the things I like about Patrick and Zak S’s work is their emphasis on “you did this to yourself” gameplay. It really works well for a large group of somewhat incautious players. If your group lacks a good pace-setter or is prone to aimless wandering, they won’t get far, and they may just die for no good reason. It’s the sort of design which encourages consciously playing the game and owning your decisions, good and bad.

On the Death of Smallbeard: Because no DCs are listed for saving throws, I use a rule of “12+5.” Easy is DC 12, Medium is DC 17, Hard is DC 23, Nightmare is DC 27, and Fuck You is DC 35. I find these numbers work really well with 5th Edition math. I don’t like DCs less than 12 because I feel like you shouldn’t need to roll dice to accomplish a trivial task, although I might still make a player roll if there’s a chance the consequences could mess them up. In that case, I typically the DC at 5 or 8.

Anyway, in Smallbeard’s case, I set up an easy Athletics check (failure = you fall, take d6 damage), an (optional) easy insight check (failure = no result; success = Dex check DC becomes 12 instead of 17), and a medium Dexterity check to escape the pit (failure = the shadow’s shape is wrong, and you get cut in half). He made the climb, failed the insight, and failed the Dex check by 1. Some DMs would’ve been kind and fudged it, or given him another save for being so close. I am not one of those DMs.