THOUGHTS-ASSH, MAZE OF THE BLUE MEDUSA, LION & DRAGON
I am a huge fan of the game Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea (ASSH). I had liked the game before, but put it on the shelf for a bit right when I started going back to school again. I figured that GURPS is a game for engineers, and why shouldn’t I be playing a game for engineers? In that brief time I became reacquainted with the GURPS Vorkosigan Saga, and even started reading the Vorkosigan books. The best of the GURPS books will always inspire you to take a look through the source material. I tried to start a campaign using their superlative GURPS Discworld rules, but decided to wait for Dungeon Fantasy…and I waited…and I waited.
It’s probably a good thing that I waited for that boxed set to release. Calculus was definitely getting harder, and Chemistry was becoming more and more of a bear. The time commitments for both developing a campaign using GURPS, and reacquainting myself with GURPS, were not going to be there. I won’t even go into how surreal time management gets when my reserve drill commitments come into play.
In that time of waiting, the kickstarter for Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea paid off! The books arrived! I had forgotten that I had ordered two of them and was gobsmacked when they arrived! Now, I thought that a second edition of this game was completely unnecessary. The original was contained in two coil bound books, with the most evocative art I had seen in an OSR book. These books were digest sized, but the newer books were not. This book took everything about the original and turned it up to eleven! I was wrong. The presentation, and the minor corrections were more than worth the kickstarter. This single book took all of my GURPS books off the shelf. It is that good! The art design. The homage to the works of Robert E. Howard, Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, and Lovecraft are brilliant! This is the game that I have always wanted to play. It sits on my shelf, with its own line of adventures and Barrowmaze. This is my favorite game and book ever!
However, there are two other products that I would like to write about today. I’m somewhat reluctant to, given the vociferous reputations of both of the authors, but each of these works is superlative in their own way. I’ve been struggling, wanting to write this piece for months because these other two books are just that good, Zak Sabbath’s Maze of the Blue Medusa and RPGPundit’s Lion & Dragon.
I already have a favorite game, and I have neither the time nor the money to invest in further games. At this point, I hope to earn enough as an engineer to pay off my student loans and keep my wife from having to become a hooker. I was reading tenfootpole.org, when I came across a best of list. Maze of the Blue Medusa was listed as the best of the best. My opinion differs from the blog author’s in many ways. For instance, I enjoy the ASSH adventures, while he seems to hate them. But I had been looking at this product for a while, and with this recommendation I decided to purchase it. Lion & Dragon has just been released, and while it looked interesting, I couldn’t afford it. However, given the apparent snowflake reaction to pundit and the various shenanigans that rpgnow and onebookshelf seemed to engage in to drive his sales down, required something more than words from me. I purchased the book. I do not care for bullying.
So what are my thoughts?
Zak Sabbath has been pushing the envelope graphically ever since Vornheim was released. A Red & Pleasant Land pushed these boundaries even further. Maze of the Blue Medusa is his finest work so far. Graphically, I wonder if he is pushing the limits of what can be placed into a book. Now I say this, not having a physical copy of the book. My feeling is that just as much care went into the making of the book as the pdf. As much as I love my copy of ASSH, my feeling is that I would love Maze just as well. These products catch the eye, spark the imagination, and aren’t just a window into the mind of an author but enable any dungeon master to follow them and run the same kind of campaign just as effectively.
As an admission, I am not Zak’s audience. I have no desire to run an Alice in Wonderland type game. My stuff is much more mundane and much less gonzo. I prefer Greg Gillespie’s Barrowmaze, primarily because I like tons of undead running about. Barrowmaze is the ultimate in what I feel would be a standard dungeon. It’s only flaw might be in that it is not organized as a series of levels, but is one huge level. I understand this dungeon and could easily run it. Most megadungeons have trouble with their organization. The Dungeon of the Mad Archmage never grabbed me. The organizational aids for Dwimmermount, took a huge book and made it even more intimidating. Everything would be changing all of the time, renedering the original book moot at some point. Stonehell is interesting, if a bit staid. Maze of the Blue Medusa is something else altogether. It is a complete package of a wild and gonzo dungeon that anyone can run.
Zak and Patrick Stuart have taken this conceit and created a dungeon with deadly encounters, moral quandaries, allies, enemies, consequences for decisions, and they have organized it so flawlessly that anyone could run it. They have created a dungeon that any party can encounter. If you are low level, you can survive, if you keep your wits about you. Choice matters here.
I have never encountered any product that is organized as robustly as this one! If you only have the money to buy one OSR dungeon get this one! Even if you don’t want to run a gonzo dungeon, the hand holding and organization here will help you with your home game. This isn’t some guy bragging about their home campaign with a product so huge that you won’t know where to start. It is bigger than itself! Read it! Be sparked! And run something!
Lion & Dragon is much more down to earth. This is what Pundit’s Dark Albion should have been. By that, I mean that these are the rules that should have been in the book. No system notes from the campaign, no conversion notes from Fantastic Heroes and Witchery. These were good things, but they pale in comparison to the rules in this slim book. This is a medieval authentic OSR rules set. One that is true to the material, and that does a wonderful job of preserving player agency. For example, at each level you can either roll twice for your level benefit, or you can choose once from the table. Which will it be? The choice is the player’s.
Where Zak hits you, like that first time I saw the Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader preview in White Dwarf magazine, with a tightly packaged surprise of something that you never thought you would be able to run on your own, Pundit gives you an overflowing box of ideas that just keep leaking all over the place. Dark Albion has multiple small dungeons that you can place anywhere in your home campaign. They fit into the Dark Albion campaign very well, but they are almost modular in that they can be dropped into your campaign almost at will. His scenario The Child Eaters is one of the simplest and nastiest scenarios I have come across. This isn’t some fake cosmic horror, but down to earth terror that explains just why Dark Albion’s society is the way that it is. Cults of Chaos is designed for Dark Albion, but can put chaos as a horror front and center in your campaign in ways that Games Workshop hasn’t done in years! This is great stuff!
If I have twenty, then I’m getting ASSH. That game will not disappoint you. If I have ten for an adventure, then I’d get Blue Medusa. It may not have exactly what you want, but it can show you the way to get there. Afterwards, if I had some more money, I’d pick up Dark Albion. It’s not gonna exactly fit into my ASSH campaign, but it has enough adventure bits in there to more than make it worth my while. Most especially, it provides the background for Cults of Chaos which will fit into ASSH.
Talanian bears watching because of the overall excellence of the entire package in ASSH. Zak bears watching because his envelope pushing is going to go beyond the printed page at some point. My guess, is that he will come up with something that is going to redefine what can be done with a pdf in the near future. If I had the money, I would pick up whatever he had to offer in print. Those will be utterly fantastic books. Pundit…I would like to see him strike off on his own and form his own company. His products have always been playtested to death, but graphically the execution hasn’t always been there. Arrows of Indra was a brilliant OSR imagining of ancient India, but the art and design just wasn’t there. Dark Albion and Lion & Dragon are dramatically better. The maps alone are just amazing!
As a caveat, I have run ASSH. I have not had a chance to run either Blue Medusa or Lion & Dragon, so I would advise you to take my words with a grain of salt. All three of these products come with my highest recommendation. They will serve to take you places that you never imagined going. All of them will spark your imagination, and have been skillfully designed for ease of play at your table.