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Saturday 26 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Isle of the Unknown

This is a review of the book "Isle of the Unknown", written by Geoffrey McKinney, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Visually (even kinetically, as a hardcover) this book is gorgeous, which makes it all the more tragic that it's godawful.  It is sold as a "setting designed to be placed in any fantasy campaign", though specifically created with Lamentations of the Flame Princess in mind. It is also advertised as a "hex-based adventure location".  In other words, it is designed for "sandbox"-style play, with every hex on the fairly large map getting one unique detail described (usually in the form of just a few sentences, and never a full page, as the book is only 125 pages long); this notion graduates the book from godawful to "disaster" since it is likely to totally ruin many novices impressions of sandbox play.  I will explain why.

But first, a bit more about the physical book itself. Its gorgeous; its a nice thick little hardcover, amazing colour cover-image (a true work of art, an image of a forest glen with a statue of a woman playing a harp, with strange glowing colours; quite subtle by LotFP standards, none of the usual gore or weirdness, just a vague eerieness).  The interior of the book is magnificent; the binding quality appears very nice, the pages are full-colour, have a matted texture that feels lovely to the hand, and there are amazing full-colour illustrations in almost every page.  The production values are amazing.  That makes it particularly tragic that as an adventure product the Isle of the Unknown is such a piece of shit.  What I wouldn't give to see the same level of quality in, say, Vornheim or The Majestic Wilderlands (not that either of those aren't very nice books, just that they don't match the lovely production values here).

So how to describe what's wrong with this book?  Well, if you're an old-school gamer you might remember your early efforts to make a setting area.  If you were like me you might have started with a hexmap (or graph paper, if you were really in a stretch), and then for each co-ordinate randomly determined the contents by using the "random monster by terrain" tables in the DMG, until you had a setting that made no fucking sense at all.

Isle of the Unknown is a lot like that.  But even in my most pathetic newbie crimes-against-nature I at least tried to create varied terrain, interesting kingdoms and populations, and some coherence, however minimal.

The one thing in which "Isle" marks some kind of "improvement" (and even that is very tentative) is that the creatures in the book are mostly original; except that they're not very good.  Every single creature is different, and usually a pastiche of various animals plus some weird quality. For example, a cat with metallic fur, immune to all mental attacks and ordinary weapons; it can see the invisible and has poisoned fangs.   Or a bipedal frog the size of a man, who can fly and is immune to surprise, and has a slime spit.  Or a bipedal skunk with bat-wings; where slaying it means the killer will later be pursued by its sire, who is a giant bat-winged skunk.

So there's no rhyme or reason to it at all; no tribes, no reason for the monsters to be there, nothing.  Its a menagerie of crap, and I'm sure its meant to be "weird fantasy" but I'd put it closer to "stupid fantasy".  The monsters serve no purpose, make no sense, in many cases what they do isn't even predictable (nor unpredictable in a good way; they just do things you wouldn't ever be able to expect for no reason at all). 

There are other notable, and equally stupid, features.  There are a number of hexes that contain magic statues of seemingly random characteristics, which have effects that also seem to have been chosen at random.  There are a number of hexes that have magic users, usually aggressive and with defenders, but there's not really any reason why they are there in most cases.  Likewise with a number of hexes that have clerics.  A tiny handful of towns are placed seemingly at random, and have no distinguishing characteristics.  The whole thing is unspeakably shoddy.

Think I'm exaggerating?  Let me give you an absolutely typical selection; I assure you this is par for the course, I chose them at random.  There are hundreds of hex descriptions and almost all are like this:

0806  This 200lb. white rabbit (ARMOR: as leather, HD 2, HP 8, Move 130', 1d6+1/claw) is immune to blunt weapons, and it attacks with its long claws on its front feet. 
(included in opposite page, a well-renditioned full colour picture of a rabbit with big front claws)

0407  A 6' tall roadrunner (ARMOR: as leather + shield, HD8, HP32, Move120', 1d6/beak, 1d4/tail) has glowing orange eyes which reduce its chance to surprise in the darkness to 1 in 6.  This monstrosity can travel upon walls and ceilings as swiftly as it can move on the ground.  It can project a 120' diameter circle of poison (16 points damage per round, save for half) up to 90' away.  The creature can also spit with a range of 20'.  Anyone hit by the spittle must make a saving throw or be stunned and unable to do anything for 1d8+1 rounds.

0609 Tulips of variegated colors bloom in profusion in a meadow roughly 300' in diameter.  When any human walks in the meadow, the stalks of the flowers bend toward the person, and a musical humming almost too soft to be heard emanates from the tulips.

0713 The delicate influence of the Enchantress of Petals, a 6th-level magic-user (ARMOR: none, HD 6, HP 10, Move 120'), keeps winter and autumn at bay in this secluded mountain vale.  Garbed in dresses made of flower petals, her fresh and tender beauty makes it impossible to attack her unless a saving throw is made at -3.  She can entice flowers of any sort to maturity in minutes, and she can make animated rose bushes with long thorns to both defend and attack (automatic 1d6 damage per round, no saving throw).
(note that at least here, unlike in some other selections of magic-users in the hexes, you get a title; though no name, motivation, alignment, purpose or point for the encounter)

0907  The people of this town (population 2600) often refer in awe to the Ice Wizard who is rumored to abide in the snowcapped mountains to the southwest (hex 0807).   Parents tell their misbehaving children "Be good, or the Ice Wizard will get you!"
(note that this entry is unusual because it is one of very few that refer to some other area; even so, we don't even get a name for the town, much less any other special features, or a map, or details on its contents!)

1101  This statue is of a long-haired woman with a long, billowing dress, all carved from pale blue crystal.  Those who gaze long at the statue will seem to hear a gentle susurrus, and will seem to see the statue's dress ripple.  If anyone attempts to harm the statue, a violent gust of wind will blow the person 30' away, doing 4d6 points of damage (save for half damage)

Anyways, you get the idea.

There's no organizations, no important NPCs (the mages, clerics, etc are all nameless).  There's no agendas or important events.  There are a tiny handful of cases where there's some connection made between one hex and another (the people of a town know about an ice wizard two hexes over, or a cleric in one hex wants to kill a monster in another hex).  There's no mention of lairs or treasures, no dungeon maps.  Even the hexmaps on the inside cover are of a featureless island with a hex-pattern overlaid, you can distinguish some area as brown and presumably mountainous, and the rest is green.  Its not a "fill in the blanks" kind of setting the way, say, Majestic Wilderlands (or any number of other settings) would be; the material here is too bizarre and frankly too useless to work well for that; it doesn't serve a purpose as inspiration for you to give it sense and structure. Instead, any attempt to create a coherent setting would be massively hampered, not helped, by the material in the book.

If I had to hazard a guess, if I didn't know better I would say "Isle of the Unknown" was written as insult propaganda; some anti-OSR fanatic from the Forge, writing a grotesque stereotype of how he imagines sandbox settings should work based on the dumbest prejudices of the most idiotic D&D games that were almost never run but exist more in the minds of those who hate that kind of game; and was then stunned to find that for some utterly inexplicable reason, James Raggi wanted to publish it.

I mean seriously, what the fuck has this McKinney guy have on Raggi?! What level of incriminating pictures does he possibly have that would compel Raggi to sell this drivel, and at such a high production value?

I mean LotFP has produced a few stinkers, a few dull books, and a few masterpieces, as well as one of the best OSR rule-sets in the business. But never anything like this before. There are meth-heads on street-corners with no gaming experience who could improv a better setting than this.

I give it two stars out of ten for the production value alone, but the content is unquestionably of negative worth. Its almost criminal that a book so pretty as a physical object could be so utterly fucking useless.


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Squadron Leader 


  1. I suspect Raggi liked it well enough to publish because all the creatures came from (or maybe just could have come from) rolls on his Random Esoteric Creature Generator.

  2. Maybe they had all this art laying around that they had paid for and needed an excuse to sell it to us?

  3. Joshua: You may be right.

    Scott: Nope, not even that. The art was very clearly and specifically made FOR the book.

  4. I posted my half thoughts:

  5. "There's no organizations, no important NPCs (the mages, clerics, etc are all nameless). There's no agendas or important events."

    Um, isn't the GM supposed to add these? I think that's the point. You take the framework provided by the product and add in the rhyme and reason behind all the stuff. Why do we need the author to make all those decisions and take that creativity and imaginative exercise away from us? Isn't part of the fun and challenge of being a GM the work that goes into creating such cohesion out of chaos? If run improperly, sure, Isle of the Unknow could be a silly funhouse of non-sensical encounters and locations with no connections whatsoever. But if you put some work into creating a structure, it becomes a sandbox instead.

    1. If I'm taking the time to use a prefab module I think I'd at least like the author to meet me halfway and make it coherent/usable. If I'm having to do the footwork to make it all make sense then I might as well do my own module, right? If I were to run this particular module, I'd take it as a deliberate design decision that the module had no coherent narrative or underlying plot/NPC it wouldn't make sense to me to add that if it wasn't built for it in the first place. The author could add one paragraph about the "wizard who did all this" and you'd have a basic plot frame on which to drape all the strangeness. Given it's absent, I would think that implies the module was specifically written without that narrative/plot framework for a reason.

    2. Anthony: There are some gamebooks where there's a setup of a "framework", where the author provides seeds and then the GM will fill in the blanks.
      This is not one of these. There are no blanks. There's also no framework. There's nothing significant to hang an emulated world (that is, an imaginary world that nevertheless makes sense) off of.

      So again if the goal was to be a "sandbox facilitator", in comparison to other (excellent) products out there, Isle fails miserably.

    3. From the description, it strikes me that this is a random encounter / random plot hook table disguised as an adventure setting.

    4. That would kind of be accurate, except its more like he made a random table for himself and then rolled it for each hex.

  6. To clarify my position on this module: this little controversy reminded me I owned a copy, and actually got me to read it. Honestly one of the more creative and interesting sandbox exploration books out there. Rpgpundit maybe it's time to retire to the creatively dead quagmire if you think this module is some sort of stealth attack on sandbox games...this book is the very definition of just how interesting they can get with a bit of creative effort, and an example of why this style of play can be so much better than all the ordinary crap. I'm honestly surprised to see you criticizing something for lacking narrative context. It seems....contradictory to your other prior well known stances on narrative/story games.

    1. And one more clarification, or maybe a question (based on reading Greyhawk Grognard's post on sandbox games): is there really only one correct way to do a sandbox? To take the Isle module, my first thought for using this is a sort of Dreamlands Crossover, a weird realm in which the lack of coherence is part of the underlying intent. There may be a plot thread I choose to weave in, but this sort of module strikes me as emminently malleable (and therefore in slight contradiction to my earlier comment to Anthony about taking a module at face value). The point being: yes, there is a great narrative-driven open world sandbox formula out there (I use it all the time) but the existence of that model does not exclude the sort of model that the Isle module --pure exploration with no intended narrative-- strives to achieve. I would suggest that if one does not "get" how to run Isle of the Unknown then sure, it's not going to work for you as a module. But there are are many for whom a module that deliberately avoids underlying narrative might be construed as the best sort of sandbox, because it allows the GM a lot more potential narrative freedom to extrapolate those connections through emergent play.

      Don't know why I'm writing so much about this. I have no bone in this fight, other than that I find it annoying when what I generally regard as the "better" side of the gaming set becomes dogmatic in its interpretation of what is acceptable in sandbox design.

    2. I wasn't criticizing for a lack of narrative context, I was criticizing for a lack of EMULATIVE CONTEXT. A real regular RPG depends on having a believable consistent virtual world to play in.

    3. And in response to your second reply: if the very best thing you can present as an option for Isle is "we could say it was all a dream!", then that pretty much highlights all the reasons why Isle sucks.