Interview with Zak Sabbath & Patrick Stuart by David Paul Hellings
“Infinite broken night. Milky alien moons. Wavering demons of gold. Held in this jail of immortal threats are three perfect sisters…
Maze of the Blue Medusa is a dungeon. Maze of the Blue Medusa is art. Maze of the Blue Medusa works with your favourite fantasy tabletop RPGs. And Maze of the Blue Medusa is the madly innovative game book from the award-winning Zak Sabbath of A Red & Pleasant Land and Patrick Stuart of Deep Carbon Observatory. Lethal gardens, soul-rending art galleries, infernal machines—Maze of the Blue Medusa reads like the poetic nightmare of civilizations rotted to time, and plays like a puzzle-box built from risk and weird spectacle. Art by Zak Sabbath; text by Patrick Stuart and Zak Sabbath.
Maze of the Blue Medusa is a 7.5″ wide and 9″ tall Smyth sewn hardcover book that features: 288 full-cover pages; full-color endpapers featuring tables, maps, and art; foil stamping on the front cover and spine; hand-tipped debossed images on the front and back covers; a jet black cloth cover; FSC-certified interior paper stock; and a bookmark ribbon. And it’s being printed in Canada by Friesens”.
For more information, click here.
David Paul Hellings: Thank you both for taking time out to chat to SFFWorld. Individually your work in the RPG field has gained a lot of attention, but how did you come to work together on this project?
Patrick Stuart: I quit my call center job in a fit of despair and was whining online about my poverty and fitfully pimping myself in a rather ineffectual way and Zak wrote to me out of the blue and said he had the Maze and was thinking of turning it into a thing and asked if I would write the key. So essentially he threw me a giant dinosaur bone.
Zak Sabbath: Yeah, I had done the painting which forms the map already–I was supposed to be doing a portrait of Charlotte Stokely in her backyard but I was stuck in Montreal in the winter because of Mandy’s (1) health, so instead I painted a cold dungeon full of trapped people. I showed the painting and sold it in New York–my art dealer, Jessica, was like “I like it when you’re depressed”. But I also had details photos taken because I knew someday I’d turn it into a functional dungeon. When I saw one of the best writers in DIY D&D needed something to do, I said: “Why don’t you key this map? You can do the first draft then we’ll work on it together”
DPH: Aesthetically, as a book, ‘Maze’ reminds me of Zak’s “A Red & Pleasant Land”. Was that a conscious decision?
PS: Probably, you would have to ask him. It’s a very high-end RPG book in a unique style that he basically invented himself. It has his art and his information design so it was always going to look like him. After R&PL it’s the only other thing quite like it so it would seem similar. I prefer to think of them as the first examples of a strange new phylum so they seem similar in the same way that the first two weird things to crawl out of the ocean onto the land might seem similar.
ZS: Well it’s created for the same campaign and the same players–and the women are the same models. But if you’ve seen Patrick’s stuff I’d say it’s a lot like his Deep Carbon Observatory and Fire on the Velvet Horizon, too, which he did himself. We have a similar sensibility, we like some of the same writers.
DPH: You chose to release ‘Maze’ through Satyr Press? Why this publisher and not one you’ve released through before?
PS: James (2) was busy, Ken (3) was free and is a hero from Greek myth.
ZS: Basically, yeah. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the go-to for experimental D&D stuff but by the time all 300 rooms of the Maze were written and we had Kirin Robinson give us the first draft of a way to graphic design it, LotFP was knee-deep in 16 other projects (including ours). So Ken–who normally runs a literary press called Sator but has always been into the RPG stuff, said “Hey why don’t I publish it?” and we were like “Uh…you can do that?” and then the sun came up behind him and he strode to the top of a pile of skulls of slain Laodiceans and said “Yes, yes I can”.
DPH: What sets this apart from any other dungeon or maze adventure?
We made it to be art.
All RPG adventures and Dungeons and Source books and whatever have some element of jagged art in them not always good art, but art nonetheless, but it was always like a thing that cracked out of them while they were doing something else. They briefly fractured forth a strange beauty that quickly dissipated and the people experiencing them would pause for a moment and think ‘what a strange feeling, I wonder what it would be like if a whole thing was like that’, and then they would read on to get more of it and maybe there would be more and maybe not.
We took that strange feeling and made it the point. We just said ‘this is going to be genuinely and meaningfully good. And we mean good good, not good-for-one-of-these.’
I don’t think we are smarter or more worthwhile that all those old dungeon-creators. They invented much of the intellectual superstructure we used. But I do think we have gone further.
One of the best complements we had is that it made jaded, cynical thirty-something intellectuals feel like they were kids again, which involves much more than aping the paradigm of childhood because to a child everything is new and every new thing feels like a moment of discovery, a movement into an unexplored world and an unrealized understanding of that world, but to a grim old intellectual, nothing is new, and to make them feel like a child you have to actually invent new things for them to explore, and they have to be genuinely new, and feel new to someone cynical that knows a lot. So if we did that I’m happy.
ZS: When I first opened a packaged module as a kid, all the things I’d read and seen made me expect a lot–
-A huge space
-A nonlinear design so you can end up doing the dungeon in any number of different ways.
-Things are weird but they have a reason they’re there.
-Enough danger that PCs look at every single thing in the dungeon sideways so every detail–even if harmless–is potentially important.
-Inhabiting monsters and creatures different than the ones who live there now.
-Times when a lever or key in location A can affect things that happen in location B, and you have to go back sometimes to find these things.
-Dangerous features of the dungeon that can be used against the dungeon inhabitants by clever PCs.
-Tricks and the traps that are integrated with monster fights so that they can work together, so you never fight the same monster twice because environmental factors make a difference.
..and almost none of the dungeon modules I read met this minimum standard I had in my head. On top of that, what was there was so poorly laid out you were flipping all over the book, and the ideas were either standard (Orcs! Orcs reskinned as lionmen!) or hokey (Dungeon construction crew with little jackhammers making new rooms! Vampires and every variation on vampires all in the same dungeon!).
All I really wanted to do was write a normal dungeon, just done right for once.
DPH: How did you find working with each other? What were the parts of the process that were the easiest and which the most challenging?
PS: It was ok. Our primary interpersonal skill is leaving the other one the fuck alone when necessary so our co-operation turned out to be one of us presenting the other with a big pile of stuff and saying “do what you like”. To begin with Zak presented me with a whole painting and said what a few things were and then said “do what you like”, then after five months or so I presented him with a huge pile of text linked to images and said “do what you like”.
We are both obsessive, smart, egocentric, spiky and think we know best so the only way to fruitfully co-operate is to gingerly poke our offering out of the radiating field of our psychic maelstrom and into the other guys maelstrom and then leave them to poke it back later if the want.
ZS: Yeah, the key to collaboration is to give the people involved clearly defined empires and let each rule with an iron fist in their own domain. You ever see that Metallica documentary “Some Kind of Monster”? Once Metallica started all trying to write the lyrics together they started sucking. James plays guitar, Lars plays drums. As God intended.
DPH: How was the process different from, say, “A Red & Pleasant Land”, or “Deep Carbon Observatory”?
PS: I think I actually finished this before DCO, which is strange as now it feels like a later work. DCO was a weird one as I was kind-of ‘in charge’ whereas here I was just a courtesan whose main job was being charming. DCO was done under (internal) pressure. I didn’t know I could do it and had never brought anything to completion myself before. Here, because Zak was ‘in charge’ it was more like play. I barely worried at all about whether I could do it, I just kind of wandered around it. There were some tough moments and some frustrations but no crushing self awareness where you come face to face with your own staggering limitations.
ZS: Yeah–in the original painting I basically was like “I can do whatever I want, WOOOO!” then I handed it to Patrick and was like “You can do whatever you want, WOOOO!” Then after I got his draft I sat down for the long and excruciating task of making what we’d made playable and legible.
In contrast, a lot of RPL was just collating notes I’d made while playing or reading Lewis Carroll.
DPH: You’ve dealt with cities, nations, monsters, now a maze? Why a maze?
PS: Zak is made of mazes. I think that’s just what the inside of his head is like. Like, if you leave him alone for long enough he kind of auto-generates complexity and dense intertwining structure. Vornheim was ‘The Grey Maze; R&PL was a nation on top of an endless megadungeon structure pinned by two brilliant nightmare surrealist horror dungeons at each end. He made Gigacrawler which is “what would it be like if all reality was a 3d maze?” It would be really more surprising if Zak made something that doesn’t have endless encrusted labyrinthine structure. He’s doing northern barbarian girls next and probably somehow there will be structures there and mazes in the blank white air.
ZS: Also, y’know, it’s D&D. Figured we should show people how to do a megadungeon right for once.
DPH: The Medusa is a creature that I’ve noted in “Vornheim: The Complete City Kit”, now here it is again. What is it about the Medusa that gains so much attention in gaming?
PS: Medusa, (and the Medusa) is a really really powerfully nested network of symbols and root feelings. It’s rare to have a monster/character that bleeds such powerful energy in both the direction of genre/mythic craziness and drama/character. The medusa (and Medusa) must be a powerful monster, and she must have a powerful story and a background and a personality. With many monsters giving them too much personality abrades their weird mythic power, or is simply an add-on that neither increases or decreases it. With many characters, adding on super powers or genre crazy either reduces their dramatic story or just kind of sticks on to them, but with a handful of intensely felt monster/characters, the particularity of the monsters monsterishness and their personal history and deeply felt and particular character intensify and multiply each other. Dracula, or the Dracula-archetype is the closest male version to medusa.
She’s inverted weaponised beauty. The most elemental female power twisted inside out.
ZS: I remember flipping through the 3.5 Monster Manual once and it said Medusas collect paintings and other artworks and this fully-formed villain just showed up in my head. You see her, you become a statue, so if she saw the demons that lived at the beginning of the universe they would become the stone the earth is made from. And then she’d hang out with her statues and paintings and be incredibly lonely.
DPH: Before we talk in more detail about “The Maze of the Blue Medusa”, I’m interested why you think your previous work has proved so popular within the gaming world? Fell free to comment also on the other person’s work. So, Patrick, “Deep Carbon Observatory” and “Fire on the Velvet Horizon”?
PS: I suppose people like my – and Scrap’s (4) – stuff because we make original things. A small minority of people are very tired and bored with chewing the cud of the world and for those people we make things that no-one has seen or imagined before and that people have to work hard to describe because it hasn’t been done before. But really, we are a lot less popular than people who make less original things.
ZS: Patrick simply writes extremely well (which necessarily means he thinks well and thoroughly about what he’s writing, too). He shouldn’t be working a day job, he shouldn’t even be writing D&D stuff, he should be on an island somewhere surrounded by fawning students, telling attractive literary journalists that he doesn’t have time for Slate but maybe could do Vanity Fair if it doesn’t conflict with the Knopf deadline. If Nabokov or Julio Cortazar had D&D ideas, we’d all be dying to hear them. Or at least a certain kind of person would. And Scrap’s art looks like nothing else in gaming–an assured, energetic abstract style that finds its own vein and digs into it with real teeth.
DPH: Zak: “Vornheim: The Complete City Kit” and “A Red & Pleasant Land”?
PS: (Having re-read this I’m not sure if its in the right place but presumably you can move it) People like Zak’s stuff because he’s highly intelligent, deeply imaginative, incredibly driven and makes things better than anyone else. If you smashed him into three bits like a holograph (or horcrux) each shard would be enough to power a reasonably good RPG blog or create some much better than average art. There’s nothing that alien about hypercompetence, the only massively weird thing is that you have someone who could probably run a major company or an army battlegroup and is smart enough to to pretty much whatever they like and they are into D&D and that they so few fucks about common status markers that they just keep doing D&D.
ZS: Also, porn stars.
A lot of people take a first look because they heard about the porn stars (5).
DPH: “The Maze of the Blue Medusa”. Described as “The hyperfunctional megadungeon for the 21st century”, which sounds great. What is it? What isn’t it?
PS: It’s a brilliant piece of information design which uses all the triumphs and failures of 40 years of design to produce what is effectively a living dictionary of an imaginary space and time that you can use to decode that space and time in real-time in this world.
It’s a beautiful painting full of remarkable creatures and strange beauty that begs to be deciphered like a kind of mega-glyph of an unknown language. And which also has a girl with amazing boobs.
It’s a fun game you can play with your friends. A piece of art that become part of your mutual social memory in a way unlike almost any other brand or genre of art.
It’s a tragic fantasy story about isolation, sadness, desire and the horror of living with power. A story whose meaning and theme is only fully developed when you interact with it, and which will be different each time you interact with it.
And it’s all of these things in one and there is currently no word for that because no-one has done this before.
ZS: We tried to make it so you didn’t have to flip pages too much.
DPH: One of the many things I like about it is that it presents the basic information about, say, a room, then it’s on the next page that you get more information. It avoids the age-old situation where the referee accidentally reveals more information to the players than he/she should. That comes from playing. Despite the intricacies of both of your work, they aim to be user-friendly. How tricky is that to pull off?
PS: It’s very very very very hard and Zak, Anton and Ken did all the brute work while I (hopefully) offered some not-too-stupid suggestions at the beginning and then nodded along wisely while they trudged through the informational battle-lines. In terms of info design, think of me like Diana Rigg’s husband in Game of Thrones. I was technically in the room.
This gif illustrates the process of information design https://66.media.tumblr.com/04a37082705aae6df7ffd3c5f322545a/tumblr_n40ctyLbE21qiaxzfo1_250.gif
ZS: The hard part was finding a way to make it easy and fast to use without sacrificing too much of the prose. The dungeons in Red & Pleasant Land & Vornheim have very short descriptions. These got more complicated. We wanted to combine the depth of information you got out of having longer descriptions with the speed you need when one player is running south on fire and another is listening to hear what’s behind the west door and another is randomly teleported by a Chameleon Woman 100′ north.
DPH: What was the hardest part, creatively, of putting ‘Maze’ together?
PS: The time it took. Getting the time-line of the dead wedding and the golden machine right. Interrelating everything into one huge story without making it reductive. The time it took. Having to number it and re-number it a bunch of times and realizing I had missed a fucking room again. Being edited (HE CHANGED MAH WUURDS) and, of course, the long time it took.
ZS: Yeah–and making it playable. Like it had to be poetry but, y’know, in motion. Some stuff sounded good on the page but didn’t actually do anything interesting to the game.
DPH: You’re both key talents in the OSR (Old School Renaissance), which seems at times to get a negative and patronizing response from old school players. Why do they take that view of OSR games and systems? Is it just game snobbery?
PS: I don’t know and don’t think about it very much. I pretty much live on my own little intellectual planet and dedicate a reasonable chunk of my energy to shutting bullshit the fuck out of my head.
I suppose when you play a game it paints a picture of the inside of your head, not just boring stuff like desires and psychology, or stuff like intelligence, but how your mind puts things together. Different people put things together differently. Someone who really loves storygames and someone who likes disciplined and anarchic rules-light Old-School D&D and someone who finds 4thed D&D perfect, fluid and reassuring all end up looking across a kind of cognitive gulf at each other. We just don’t get each other very well, event though, to anyone observing, we would seem to be doing almost exactly the same thing.
Various things to do with the internet and culture make it difficult to find a way to deal with this difference but the difference would still be there even without that.
ZS: When do you get online and talk about your computer? Unless you’re an engineer: when it’s broken. So a lot of people are just online to talk about their problems with games.
If you have a problem with tigers, you scream when you go to the zoo, if you have a problem with pigeons, you scream every day. So the less reasonable your problems, the more complaining you’ll do–and the bigger web presence you’ll have.
Also they’re dicks.
DPH: Where there any ideas that you decided to take out of the ‘Maze’? Do these ideas end up in other work?
PS: I took NO ideas out. My job was to cram as much stuff in there as possible. Zak was the surgeon, he excised things so he can tell you best. Briefly, he took out anything he found glib or ‘zany’, a few things he thought were tired, functionally repetitive or over-familiar to him and carved things down to produce a sense of flow or movement through different kinds or quality of challenge.
ZS: Pretty much. I remember the first draft of the gallery had a lot of “…and then the statue comes to life and tries to kill you”–so we did some work on that and tried to leverage the wandering monsters more to make that environment more complex.
DPH: The editing process. This is usually a huge amount of work. What was the editing process like for ‘Maze’?
PS: It began with me doing a whole bunch of stuff and Zak offering suggestions when asked and reviewing each segment as it was finished. Then me going through the whole thing multiple times to try to synergise it. Then handing it to Zak and then me saying ‘O.K, do what you like’ (probably with a mutual sigh of relief as we wouldn’t have to argue over the exact construction of a sentence any more.)
ZS: And the final copy-edits were excruciating because it’s 300 rooms. If you look at any megadungeon out there from TSR or WOTC, there’s typos and mechanical mistakes. We made some. Everything in room Z that references room Q needs to work even if you got widget B from room M. It’s not just copy-editing, it’s also making sure these mechanical bits mesh. I suppose the last phase is probably something like what people who write code have to do.
DPH: There’s a lot of people designing their own adventures and self-publishing now. What advice would you give them?
(1) Mandy Morbid – actress, gamer, and Zak’s partner.
(2) James Raggi IV – Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
(3) Ken Baumann – Sator Press.
(4) Scrap Princess – artist
(5) Zak’s LA gaming group information can be found at his blog site listed below.
Mask of the Blue Medusa is available for sale at:
Patrick’s other work is available at:
His other writing is on his blog at:
Zak’s other RPG work is available at:
His other writing is on his blog at:
This interview originally appeared on SFFWorld at: