Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Not Quite A Review - Maze of the Blue Medusa

I've read through Maze of the Blue Medusa (from now on, MotBM) three times now. I would sit here and tell you how amazing this book is, how it is one of the finest RPG products ever produced, and how I can't wait to run it. However if you're even remotely connected to the RPG blogging community, you've already heard all that. Multiple people have already said it, and nothing I say would contribute anything new to that particular conversation. So I'm not going to talk about how good it is (which it is! Seriously, Buy it Now. Read it. I'll still be here when you're done.) - I'm going to talk about how important it is. And it may be the most important book ever produced for an RPG game. And it all comes down to personality, methodology, and ethics.

Personality

Let's face it - most adventures and modules published by the big companies are boring. Don't get me wrong, WotC and Pathfinder adventures provide plenty of action (if that's all you're interested in), and they definitely have lots of colorful art. And they often even have big-shot RPG-industry names attached to them - people who are known for great adventures and novels in the past, people who are extremely respected not only in the RPG industry, but even the broader fantasy spectrum. But the problem is, those products have no personality. Even though Strahd had the Hickmans - people who are known for having written one of the most beloved adventures of all time - it felt and read like it was typed up by corporate hacks with a board room overlooking all the decisions. Because it likely was!

Wizards has a business to run, and above them, Hasbro has a bottom line that is tied not only to fantasy role playing, but toys and movies as well. They have to play it straight. Even when they expand a little bit - and I reference Curse of Strahd again because though it's nothing special compared to a lot of older and/or indie products, it's still better and slightly different than the previous works Wizards has put out for 5E - they are still having to toe the line between producing "something new and interesting" and "something safe and sellable."

What this does is it dilutes the personality of the product. Much like when a movie is subjected to constant rewrites and executive producer meddling, it often becomes and bland mess (as opposed to letting the director, writer, and actors really showcase their voice and style). We all know what it's like to really appreciate a movie or novel specifically because of the voice of the writers, authors, or artists involved. This is extremely important for immersion and enjoyment.

MotBM was co-written by two people with a specific vision - +Patrick Stuart and +Zak Sabbath (artist of the painting). Patrick had a beautiful map to go by, several names and creatures created by Zak, and other than that, had pretty much free reign to do as he pleased to make an adventure he wanted. (For more on Patrick's thoughts and process, go here and read this four times like I did.) There was no meddling - the writer was the writer. The changes that came at the very end were a combination of Zak adding several things in that he wanted, and editing to help with the book's flow and organization. This was a huge book and a huge project, and assuring that it flowed well, both in terms of story and page layout, was extremely important and necessary.

So what we got was a book that was HUGELY Patrick. Zak is there too - with the map being so important, there was bound to be a lot of Zak showing up, and he had several of his own ideas to include in the story (though for what it's worth, the only other Zak piece I've read is A Read and Pleasant Land, so I may not be familiar enough with him to see everything that is "Zak"). But most of MotBM is undiluted, unfiltered, and unabashedly Patrick. And it shows. The prose is similar to Deep Carbon Observatory, but better, more refined. Aged, like a bottle of Craigellachie 19 (sorry, there are other examples I could have used for this analogy, but that's what I brought back with me from Scotland, and it is fine, and in front of me).

The story of the maze is beautiful and sad - a melancholy puzzle that is pieced together one NPC at a time. It is filled with despair, comedy, and adventure. Gothic horror in one room turns the corner to humorous antics in another, followed by anguished loneliness in the next room, and it all works! The sadness doesn't feel forced, and the humor doesn't feel farcical - everything fits together absolutely. And that's the beauty of having one primary writer with personality working amicably with just one or two other people - when the whole thing's done, it feels like an organic, unified vision, instead of a disjointed, amalgamated mess. Personality is the core of MotBM, and should be of any good RPG.

Methodology and Ethics

There are two common and basic ways that the majority of RPG products are created, printed, and released nowadays.

The first comes from the corporate power-houses, such as Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. This method is the "old-school" way (not to be confused with the OSR in any way) - meaning, this is how books have been published for a very long time. A product idea is designed in a board room, group-think, or a series of brain-storming sessions, one that will likely have little personality, but will sell, sell, sell! Then the people with the money behind the board room - We'll call them "The Money" - will find artists and writers who are willing to work for pennies on the dollar (those artists and writers possibly usually assuming that the exposure will get them more reasonable work in the future, or they have contracts). The product is written, art is added, the book is sent to press, and bam, a few months later, we've got a book that sells, and The Money makes anywhere from 80%-90%* of the profits, while the tiny remainder goes to the artists, writers, and actual talent.

The second, much-more-modern method of publication nowadays is the crowdfunding method. Someone with an idea (possibly also the talent, but not the funds, to create said idea) - we'll call him "the Project Leader" - figures out what he will need to get a product into consumers' hands. Then they hire artists, usually on a "pay-when-I-get-paid" basis, so the artist either works for free up front, or works for a small percentage, "to be paid upon successful funding." This method is extremely popular since the advent of Kickstarter, and there's a very good reason why - there is little risk involved. The Project Leader only has to meet demands as they arise, and sometimes, doesn't even have to front his own money (or at least, has to put up very little in comparison with the overall costs of the project). If the project goes sour (not funded properly), it's no skin off his back other than what little he's put in up to that point. The artists and other talent involved either have to deal with the small/zilch they got paid in advance, or they have to go through the long and arduous process of trying to collect what they are owed.

Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good business people doing the second method right now - people who work with honesty and integrity, making damn fine products, and have yet to let down either their consumers or their talent. And as long as their hired talent agrees to their terms and get their due, that's all fine, I have no problem with that. But there's the known subset of this method that is concerning - artists and writers not being compensated properly, and end-consumers getting the shaft.

There are obviously outlier methods that may be successful. From what I understand, James Raggi runs a fair ship with LotFP, and there are others like him. But these outlier methods are very few and far between. Which is why it is important when one of these outliers creates a marvelous book, done in a completely ethical manner, that just blows everything around it out of the water.

+Ken Baumann of Satyr Press decided early on, when he wanted to create a new and beautiful rpg book, that he would do it the right way. As he says in the ethics section of his website, Zak was paid an advance, as was Patrick. He also hired a professional designer for the book's layout. Once initial costs are recouped, Zak, Patrick, and Anton (the designer) will receive very fair royalties.**

Ken also printed and manufactured the book through Friesens, a company with very high ecological standards. It is smyth-sewn, and on high gloss, thick paper. The smyth-sewn aspect may need a bit of breaking down if you're not into publishing (I'm really just now interested because of something I have coming up). Basically, multiple sections of the book pages - called 'signatures' - are sewn together. Then those are sewn to a fabric spine, which is then adhered to the book covers. The book lays completely flat, meaning it is extremely easy to read (or write notes in, if you're the kind of person that likes marking up such a beautiful book). The cover itself is a beautiful almost velvety cloth, with textured art. And as Ken says, Satyr Press itself is a one-man operation (two including his intern). So most of the pre-and-post-printing work done is done by Ken's own hand. He brought together a team of four to do something which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been done before. He created a book that is not only a great adventure, not only a great megadungeon, and not only filled with beautiful art and writing, but it is the highest-level of print job possible, and was made in a manner which had the smallest footprint possible on the environment.

Ken's ethics - both in terms of paying the talent, as well as in terms of printing the book - are just a facet of the kind of heart and soul he pours into the books he publishes. And when you consider that, at the end of the day, this book cost $50 to get into my hands, and a WotC book costs $40 (and big Paizo books cost more or less, depending on the product), then you have to wonder how a one-man operation can make such an amazing quality book for such a fair price, while we're paying for books from WotC that fall apart quickly, giving the vast majority of that money straight to WotC while the writers and artists get a few pennies here and there (sorry to keep harping on WotC, but truth is truth). It makes one wonder why WotC - a company that doesn't print 2000 books (like Baumann, in the case of MotBM), but rather 200,000 books - can't provide a book with this quality of craftsmanship. And why they can't pay their artists better.

So Why Is This Important?

To plagiarize from a much more famous nerd than I, because this is our time now. We're having bland, repetitious, formulaic superhero movies and franchises forced down our throats. We're having the same TV shows over and over again, just with different titles, marketed as something "new and exciting." We're having the same comic book stories rehashed and retold under new names, all because that's what sells. And in the near future, we're going to see, for the first time in almost 20 years, a blockbuster-level D&D movie.

We're at a major crossroads in the gaming era (and even more broad and general geek era). Ever since Peter Jackson proved that fantasy was not only viable to the larger community, but Academy Award material, we've had a steadily-increasing influx of speculative fiction targeted to the mass audiences. Every year, the releases have bigger budgets and larger actors attached to them, and every year, they are slightly more bland than the previous. How many young-teenager-goes-off-to-some-sort-of-exclusive-magic-or-otherwise-supernatural-school/facility/detention-center Harry Potter rehashes do we need? When something original does show up, it can't reach the wider audience, because it's not what sells. There is a (small, but albeit existing) chance that the D&D movie will be unique, exciting, new, and full of personality - but the far greater chance is that it will be packaged to Sell First, Entertain Second.

All of this is applicable to tabletop gaming. Critical Role, Acquisitions Inc, and their ilk have within the last year, shown people what real tabletop games look like. And guess what - it's exciting and awesome! More people are wanting to start their own twitch.tv channels, playing their own homebrew games. We're seeing more and more new faces looking to get into RPGs - and specifically, D&D - every day. We should keep them excited, and we should be helping spark the creativity in a new generation to make even better games than we've seen and played. But we're not going to do that with adventures and modules that are so boring, so by-the-book, so mundane, that there are dozens of reddit threads a week asking "How can I make XXX module more interesting? How can I keep my players engaged?" We're going to do it with new and interesting works - books with huge personality that not only inspire GMs to dig deep into the game and run with it, but inspire new writers to write their own adventure, creating a "circle of life" for RPGs. We will do it with projects that have a look, feel, layout and art style that not only helps inspire the GMs to run the game more efficiently, with more control, and with more style, but also that inspires new artists to create works which will grace the covers and interiors of next year's books, thus becoming the next inspirational works.

Maze of the Blue Medusa does all that and more. It is, as far as I am concerned, the new Quality Standard for Publication, Talent, and Ethics. It creates a new bar to surpass in form, function, and finesse, one that is not even that high (and certainly not too high, especially for companies with a budget like WotC), as long as a little bit of common sense, combined with solid business ethics, is used in the products' creation. And it should be on every shelf, at least one copy in every store, helping people see what an adventure with style, artistry, and quite frankly, big honkin' balls, can look like. I think it's fair that we insist on holding other publishers to these same standards of publication quality and product craftsmanship, and possibly more importantly, to the same standards of personality and story craftsmanship.

Otherwise, we can watch Wizards of the Coast flood the market with so much bland and forgettable content, that players who don't know of other, better options, have little choice but to find new pastimes and hobbies that are more fun. Personally, I'm more interested in making sure MotBM and Satyr Press win every category they're up for at the Ennies ("Best Adventure," "Best Cartography," "Best Electronic Book," "Best Writing," "Product of the Year," and for Satyr Press, "Fan Favorite Publisher") so that everyone in the greater RPG community learns of its existence, and maybe picks it up and finds out what a real adventure with some true artistic merit is all about. Maybe we can start flooding the market with style, personality, originality, and exhilaration - stirring our own little Renaissance of frog demons, flumphs, and flailsnails. Maybe the best writers, those with actual talent, can get involved in the larger community, writing and producing art for companies that will pay them for quality, not quantity, thus pushing books to the market that people actually want to read and run. And who knows, maybe in five years, when the inevitable sequel to the upcoming D&D movie comes out, we'll see Patrick Stuart and Zak Sabbath as writing and/or consulting credits, with Vin Diesel playing a CGI Imprisoned Were-Titan, watching on as three perfect sisters await their destiny under the lazy machinations of a blue-"haired" medusa. One can hope.

You have until tomorrow evening to do something useful. GO VOTE!

* - This number may be an exaggeration in the greater scheme of things - I used two sources - one was personal emails between myself and a publisher for a product I was working on last year, and the second was an article written in 2013, so granted may be a bit out of date. However, the great discrepancy still exists, even if those numbers aren't exact.

** - Satyr Press Ethics Statement

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