PrinceofNothingReviews: Isle of the Unknown (Lotfp); Creative but frustrating

[Sandbox]
Isle of the Unknown (2011)

Geoffry McKinney (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels 4 – 10 (est.)

I have an odd attitude towards the works of Geoffry Mckinney. I think they are creative and that there is vision behind them but they tend to be implemented poorly. Carcosa had a great premise and wonderful imagination behind it but its actual rules were shit and its content had problems (see also why Chris Roberts hex descriptions were better). Isle is no different. There is something here, some creative vision behind it, but the product is hard to use and lacking in several places. I will attempt to explain why.

Isle of the Unknown for Lotfp is a 330 hex sandbox centered around a mystical Isle the size and shape of Corsica. It is filled with strange chimerical monsters, enchanted Statues, wizards themed around astrological signs and the Clerics of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne. It is, as you can surmise, a place of ethereal beauty and wonder but it is also very flawed. Isle means to convey this sense of wonder by making every encounter something new, undescribed in the core rulebook or prior supplements. Every spell, item, event and monster in Isle was meant to be unique and, in the truest sense of the word, Unknown. An interesting premise with a flawed execution. Let us begin the autopsy.

I usually ignore the art but this thing is gorgeous and filled to the brim with art. All the monsters have full colour art. All the wizards have full page illustrations that look more like paintings. The cover depicts a gloriously decadent roman statue of a naked lady with a harp and is gorgeous.

The island itself is only described in terms of its fantastical elements. Mundane elements are left up to the GM, but 13th century Auvergne is used as a placeholder for mundane human habitation, and it shows. Towns are described in terms of population figures and a single rumor or quest hook only. Any mundane encounter tables are meant to be created by the GM, which I guess is not entirely unreasonable since mundane encounter tables would take up valuable space and we purchase modules for the creative shit but somewhere I sense a flaw in this approach. I think an opportunity was missed to make the Isle feel lived in and vivid to appease the tired trope of ‘it must be adapted to suit the GM’s need yadda yadda.’

The Isle starts with a rumor table (Yay!), the first 19 of which are true and relate to the natures of the mysterious statues that dot the Isle. Those I like and they provide an incentive to visit the various towns along the coast of the Isle. The rest of the rumors area a mixed bag and their truthfulness is entirely up to the GM. They are pretty good hooks, they make me sad that McKinney didn’t make more use of them when he wrote the content for the Island. Tantalizing hints that the Isle might be the mystical remnant of Atlantis, whispers of a plant empire with human slaves ruled over by a sentient flower deep in the forest, rumours of the Yellow King and his underground domain where everything is coloured yellow etc. etc. The rumors are really awesome, but it is up to the GM to make them work, something I consider a lost opportunity, especially when you compare them to much of the content that IS on the Isle.

The Isle proper has several types of encounters with little or no deviation from the formula and its contents are therefore easy to group and summarize.

* Clerics: Holy men, sometimes loosely based on the clerics of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne’s stories. Clerics tend to be benevolent (although sometimes they are on a quest to slay evil, so you don’t want to mess with them) and have a single unique ability.  For example, the cleric in hex 0413 will heal his men at arms for the amount of damage he takes from attacks. Clerics usually have some sort of goal that Players could conceivably hinder or help, and therefore might generate gameplay. While their abilities are “unknown” the lack of impressive names or personality traits tends to make them come off as generic. Credit where it is due, they do at least have goals. Half points.

* Settlements. Boring. Settlements are described in terms of population figures and 1 single rumor or quest (e.g the villagers are preparing a hunt to slay the creature in hex 1105). Very little to work with and the quests are all crude.

* Wizards: Fucking frustrating. Mckinney populated the Isle with 12 wizards  corresponding to each sign of the Zodiac and each with unique powers (and a handful of throwaway miscellaneous wizards like the Ice wizard). These are not your grandfather’s bookish wizards that study all day. These are like your drama school wizards that have delved too deep and become part of what they sought to master. Each wizard one or more unique power and attacking them tends to suck for everyone.
The Gemini wizard (actually 2 wizards) can create weapons and armour of quicksilver. The Aeres wizard has hawk’s vision, hawkchanging powers and stealing her jewelry will cause them to turn into giant eagles etc. etc. The powers are really awesome. The frustration sets in when you find you don’t know what to do with them. They don’t have any agendas or motivation or even personality. Robbing them tends to be self-defeating (e.g your treasure will just turn into smilodons). They are very powerful, sometimes to the point that no party of adventurers stands a snowball’s chance in hell of stopping them. They are here, now what do they do? WE DON’T KNOW. What is lacking is agency.  A goal. An objective. A reason. BUT PRINCE CAN’T THE GM DO THAT? I know McKinney has apparently hinted at a purpose behind these Zodiac wizards and Cryptic does not mean bad but as it stands this thing simply does not give us enough to work with. A lost opportunity.

* Chimeras. An interesting idea. The island is populated by unique monsters, each a combination of several animal characteristics. Their abilities (clearly generated from the Random Esoteric Creature Generator) are similarly unique. The result is that encounters with monsters on the Isle are unpredictable. You never know what to expect.  Even appearances can be deceiving. A flying 150 kg koala with suction cups on his joints has 14 HD, weapons stick to it, it can only be harmed by silver blunt weapons and it animates objects to join in its attacks. Conversely, all a hideous snake man creature really has is a bite attack and a handful of hd. Some monsters are party killers (anything with a disintegration cone attack deserves that title), some are pushovers. Many have unique abilities or vulnerabilities. Good luck discovering which is which.

While some of the monsters look goofy (furred platypus snake weeping blood from its orifices), the weird factor works to their advantage in the majority of cases. Some examples that I liked:

> A humanoid tiger, rhino, bull and elephant, each with a snake tail.
> An invisible ambulatory plant whose touch causes amnesia.
> A humanoid swan creature with three sleeping human faces on his torso.
> Hideously emanciated humanoid Panda, 8 metres tall, with poisoned stinger tall.
> Apatosaurus sized dove, 4 legged, flightless.

Some examples that I did not like:

> Axe handed rat monster
> 4 legged furred dodecahedron
> flea with antlers

Take note, how stupid a monster looks is a poor indication of its power, therein lies some of the genius of this section. However, I imagine after a while it would get kind of samey. McKinney noted in an interview elsewhere that all Chimeras are essentially meant to attack on sight. That’s very limiting

* Statues. Maybe the best section of the book?!? Clearly inspired by Wilderlands, Statues in the late decadent grecco/roman style dot the Isle. Fucking with them has some sort of effect. What kind of effect? It varies! How do you trigger that effect? It varies, but sometimes you can guess based on the appearance of the statue. Bloodying your finger on the tip of some War God statue gives you a bonus on your next fight. Trying to pry loose the gemstones in the bronze bare chested barbarian statue results in an asskicking. The statue of Mercury can be used to transmit a message to a single person etc. etc. This is arguably the best section of the book. A giant pile of random. Some weal, some woe, some whut?!? Tantalizing hints and references to classic mythology, which are appreciated. Since statues are relatively easy to avoid, it figures that anyone actually trying to tackle one in combat is probably in for an asskicking.

Some examples of the descriptions:

A life-sized statue of a smiling young man, hewn of a bright yellow stone, has two songbirds perched upon his outstretched hand . Those who touch the statue will understand the language of birds for the next fortnight . Any such who harms a bird within that fortnight will lose this magical ability and will be subject to frequent attack by birds of all types during the fortnight .

A statue of brown-green stone depicts a man in a traveling hat and cloak, and he holds a walking stick in his right hand . If anyone grasps the walking stick and utters a direction and a distance (i. e “50 miles north – west”), he will be so teleported .

An alabaster statue of an armored warrior woman holds a spear in her right hand, and an ivory owl (worth 100 g.p.) perches upon her left . The owl can easily be removed from the statue . A person will gain 1 point of wisdom if he does no more than gently touch the owl . This gift can be gained only once by any given person, and it will be granted no more than once every three months . If the owl is taken, three hours later the thief will lose both 1 point of wisdom and the owl, which magically reappears on the statue’s hand .

In short, statues are interesting, if dangerous, to fuck with.

* Random weird locations that are weird for the sake of weird and can have some minor sort of effect but often they won’t.

A complete cycle of the four seasons occurs every day in a small woodland of aspen and oak . In a matter of hours, a person can witness the trees bud with leaves, which grow large and green, then turn red and gold and fall to the ground, etc . Spring arrives at 3 a .m ., summer at 9 a .m. , fall at 3 p.m. , and winter at 9 p.m .

High above tree line in a flowery meadow stands a hydrangea that grows hundreds of literal snowballs instead of blossoms . They are unusually refreshing if eaten, and each one will heal 1d8+1 points of fire or heat damage .

Instead of flowing down, a waterfall flows up out of a stream-fed pool to empty into another pool 30′ above . The waterfall will sweep anyone touching it into the higher pool .

I’d say these 4 categories cover about 90-95% of the Hex descriptions. All of which combine to make an Island of strange juxtapositions. Bizarre and wondrous remnants of something majestic, now incomprehensible, in the midst of bland mundanity. But what does it mean?!?

If Isle has one central flaw, other then being obtuse or as some men will likely say, random, it is a lack of potential action. A stasis. The descriptions from something like Wilderlands or the Second row of Carcosa descriptions were brimming with hooks. NPCs had goals. Towns had problems. Monsters were doing something. While Isle has a few of these features, most of its content is static. Inert. Ephemeral. Cryptic. There is little interaction. Sometimes an NPC will have some sort of goal, but more often then not we are only given abilities. Nothing else. The random/unpredictable monster idea is okay but there is nothing to give it context.

A note on treasure: The treasure on the Isle is neat. Actual treasure worth GP is fairly rare, and magic items are virtually nonexistent (I think you can get a conch that gives your enemies -1 on saves if you blow it or something). Most of the rewards on the Isle are obtained by fucking around with statues. Sometimes that means increased ability scores, a spell-like ability or something along those lines. However, fucking around with statues is dangerous and the outcome is often uncertain, fulfilling the risk/reward/exploration mechanic by forcing players to visit towns or even god help them some sort of weird coven of philosophers with an odd fascination for Sirius. By far the best is an enchanted fountain shrouded in a pillar of fire. You can figure out via statues and rumors that wearing red will protect you from flames, thus allowing you to reach the statue inside. Well done.

I could go on but I feel I have covered enough. While Averoigne is noted as one of the inspirations, I would describe it as a secondary or even tertiary influence. The resemblance is superficial only. Most of the inspiration seems to come from a bizarre mixture of Astrology texts and the myths of Atlantis and Greece. I kind of dig it but it is going to take a very dedicated GM to make it come to life. There is not even really a reason to go to the Isle, other then exploration or its own sake. The GM will have to make all of it work. If you are okay with all of that, you are looking at something that is both Formulaic yet Unpredictable. Familiar yet unknown. An Enigma for players to unravel.

Pros: Lives up to its promise. Unique monsters, encounters, treasure and inhabitants. Will surprise. Gorgeous art.

Cons: Repetitive. Not enough hooks and potential. NPCs lack motivation/goal and personality. Cryptic. What is the purpose? What is happening?

Final Verdict: Much as it pains me, despite having some interesting things to offer, I cannot in good conscience recommend Isle of the Unknown over better, more Known (dur hur hur) Sandboxes. Cryptic stuff can be interesting and I admire the effort to be unfamiliar and surprising in the spirit of the OSR but Isle lacks the evocative power of works like Wilderlands. For all its parlor tricks and promises of wonders unseen it is too sterile for my taste. 5 out of 10.

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4 thoughts on “PrinceofNothingReviews: Isle of the Unknown (Lotfp); Creative but frustrating

  1. “They are here, now what do they do? WE DON’T KNOW. What is lacking is agency. A goal. An objective. A reason. BUT PRINCE CAN’T THE GM DO THAT? I know Mckinney has apparently hinted at a purpose behind these Zodiac wizards and Cryptic does not mean bad but as it stands this thing simply does not give us enough to work with.”

    All is as I have said in the comment on the next post. Again, there is this idea that vague hints were good enough for the best of imagineering psychonauts THEN and therefore are enough for the jaded and undernourished brains of the modern NOW. If the GM is making up motivations and purposes for their wizards they have already moved beyond the level where a module is of use as anything but a source of “oh yeah I didn’t think of that”.

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    1. Aye. Theoretically I can see something like a campaign setting or a toolbox being used as a springboard for further adventure but I am a big proponent of the Go-hard or Go-home school of supplement design. Either you show us, the filth-spattered, creatively malnourished proletariat, how a proper ELF GAME is made by you, THE DESIGNER AND ARTIST, or you take off the dress, sell your easel and shave off your mohawk and join the rest of us in the trenches.

      I think it is not so much undernourished as it is just lazy. Why would you use a half-complete supplement if the free market offers three hundred fully fleshed out alternatives. I guess one can argue that fleshing out your own campaign setting makes you more invested but see the above comment. You don’t need someone’s half-assed sandbox to do that. If you are looking for something that will fire up your imagination there are books and video games and whatnot to get you going.

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  2. The biggest problem with IotU is that McKinney is too damn coy. In order to make some sense out of the thing, one has to read this comment thread and then seek out the astrology texts and von Dänikenisch 70s nonsense that he was inspired by. Thanks, but no. I would judge this to be ‘crippleware’. Spell it out, Geoffrey, if I pay you good simoleons, I don’t want all the interesting details of your product to be on the cutting-room floor.

    The island is populated by unique monsters that are each a combination of animal characteristics.

    It had a chicken head with duck feet with a woman’s face too.

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