Isle of the Unknown (2011)
Geoffry McKinney (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
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 in such a fashion that this vision is difficult to realize in actual play. Carcosa had a great premise and fantastic imagery behind it but its rules were shit and the implementation could have been better (see also why Chris Roberts hex descriptions were better). Isle suffers from similar problems. There is something here, some creative vision driving 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, Greek Statues with odd abilities, wizards themed around astrological signs and clerics vaguely inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne stories. It is, as you can surmise, strange and unusual but also flawed. It is meant to give a sense of wonder by making every encounter something new, not described in the rulebook or prior supplement. Every spell, item, event and monster has to be totally unique and, in the very 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. I am not shitting you. All the monsters have 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. Truly well done.
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 only described in terms of population figures and usually a single rumour or quest hook. Any mundane encounter tables are meant to be created by the GM, which I guess is not wholly unreasonable since mundane encounter tables would take up valuable space and we get adventures for the creative shit. 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!), 19 of which are true and relate to the purposes of the mysterious statues that dot the Isle. The rest vary in quality and their truthfulness is entirely up to the GM and they make me sad that McKinney didn’t make more use of the hints outlined there in. Hints are provided that the Isle might be the mystical remnant of Atlantis, Deep in the forest is a plant empire with human slaves ruled over by a sentient flower (should have been a definite hook or a hex encounter), the Yellow King rules his underground domain where everything is coloured yellow etc. etc. The rumors are nice, but it is up to the GM to make them work, something I consider a lost opportunity.
On to the Isle itself. The Isle has (number) types of encounters with little or no deviation from this formula. I will describe each in detail.
* Clerics: These are holy men, sometimes loosely based on the clerics of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne’s stories. They 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. The cleric in hex 0413 for example, 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 conceivably generate gameplay. While their abilities are “unknown” the lack of impressive names or personality traits tends to make them rather generic.
* Settlements. Boring. Settlements are only described in terms of popultion figures and 1 single rumor or quest (i.e the villagers are preparing a hunt to slay the creature in hex 1105) or something along these lines.
* Wizards: Fucking frustrating. Mckinney populated the Isle with 12 wizards (and some throwaway other wizards like the Ice wizard) corresponding to each sign of the Zodiac and each with unique powers. These are not your grandfather’s bookish wizards that study all day. These are like your drama school wizard’s that have delved too deep and become part of what they have chosen to master. Each wizard has some sort of unique power, sometimes many, 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. So those powers are really nice. The frustration sets in when you don’t know what to do with them. They don’t have any agenda’s. Robbing them tends to be self-defeating (e.g your treasure will turn into smilodons). They are very powerful, sometimes to the point that no party of adventurers (e.g below 8th level) 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.
* Chimeras. An interesting idea. The island is populated by unique monsters that are each a combination of animal characteristics. Their abilities (while generated from the Random Esoteric Creature Generator) are similarly unique. The result is that encounters with monsters on the Isle are truly unpredictable. You cannot and do not know what the strength of these creatures is. Appearance 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. Some monsters are party killers (anything with a disintegration cone attack will be that). Many have unique abilities or vulnerabilities. How does one find these out?
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 indicator for 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 Chimera’s are essentially meant to attack on sight. That’s dull.
* Statues. Maybe the best section of the book?!? 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 there is a hint. 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. Arguably the best section in the book. A giant pile of random. Some weal, some woe, some duh?!? Tantalizing hints and references to classic mythology are given. 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.
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 re – freshing 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 cover about 90-95% of the Hex descriptions. All of which combine to make an Island of strange juxtapositions. Bizarre and wondrous remnants, incomprehensible, in the midst of mundanity. But what does it mean?!?
If Isle has one 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. 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 it gets kind of samey after a while.
A note on treasure: The treasure on the Isle is kind of neat. Actual treasure worth GP is fairly rare, and magic items are almost nonexistant (I think you can get a conch that gives your enemies -1 on saves if you blow it or something). Most of the rewards can be obtained by fucking around with statues. Sometimes that means increased ability scores, or a spell-like ability or something along those lines. However, fucking round with statues is dangerous and often cryptic, thus 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 the pillar, thus allowing you to reach the statue inside. That one is nice.
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, ancient Atlantis and Greek myth. I kind of dig it, but it is going to take a very dedicated GM to do a lot of heavy lifting. There is not even really a reason to go to the Isle, other then exploration. The GM will have to make it work. If you are okay with that, you are looking at something that is both Formulaic yet infinitely diverse. Familiar yet unknown. Hard to comprehend and perhaps without meaning or purpose. An Enigma.
Pros: Lives up to its promise. Unique monsters, encounters, treasure and inhabitants. Will suprise. 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 is interesting, and I admire the effort to be unfamiliar and surprising, which is of the utmost importance in a DnD game, but Isle lacks the power of works like Wilderlands to inspire entire adventures with but a single evocative sentence. For all its parlor tricks and wild ideas, it is too sterile for my taste. 5 out of 10.