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Sunday, 12 December 2021

1980: X1 The Isle of Dread

 1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

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In 1981, Basic Dungeons & Dragons moved out of the dungeon and up a Level. X1 The Isle of Dread was the first wilderness adventure for Basic Dungeons & Dragons, published the year before, and so focused on exploration across a wider geographical area—though not too wide—and discovering individual locations within that area. It was available separately, but was also packaged as the standard module for the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set, which in addition to being designed to cover character Levels between three and seven, also focused on rules for wilderness travel, exploration, and encounters. If, due to their inclusion in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands were a Dungeon Master and her players’ first experience of delving into dungeons and cave complexes, then X1 The Isle of Dread would be their first journey to a far off place in Dungeon & Dragons and their first taste of a world outside of the rock and stone walls underground…

X1 The Isle of Dread is designed for a large party of Player Characters, roughly between six and ten, who should be between Third and Sixth Level, averaging thirty Levels between them. The spur for their involvement in X1 The Isle of Dread will be the discovery of a sheaf of scrolls which are revealed to be letters and map describing an expedition by the pirate and explorer, Rory Barbarosa, to the Thanegioth Archipelago, a thousand-mile sea voyage south of the main continent. He relates how he and his crew reached one island with a small peninsula at its south western tip with access between the peninsula and the rest of the island to the north blacked by a massive stone wall. Standing before the wall is the village of Tanoroa, whose inhabitants stand guard on the wall against incursions and attacks from the creatures on what they call the ‘Isle of Dread’ to the north. Friendly and open to the possibility of trade, the inhabitants told Barbarosa that the wall was built by the gods who also built an ancient city in the Isle of Dread’s central highlands and that the inland city was rumoured to hold unimaginable treasures, including a great black pearl of ‘the gods’! Unfortunately storms and attacks by tribes of cannibals meant that Barbarosa was unable to explore the island fully and was planning an expedition when he died. Now of course, it is up to the Player Characters to hire a ship, set sail for the far islands, and explore them themselves, and perhaps make the discoveries that Rory Barbarosa was never able to!

Rather than leaving it there, X1 The Isle of Dread also includes several suggestions as to how the Player Characters might get involved rather than simply discovering Barbarosa’s letters and then get them to the island. These include being hired by a merchant to investigate and explore the island, purchasing an old ship and hoping that it can get them to the Thanegioth Archipelago, having a Player Character inherit a ship, or simply letting them borrow the money to purchase the ship. Whatever the option, the Player Characters set sail and make the week or more long journey south with the Dungeon Master rolling for encounters on the Ocean Sea Encounter Tables in the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set and rolling for weather.

Landing on the island, most likely at the village of Tanoroa, the Player Characters will find the inhabitants friendly and helpful. Their society is an interesting mix of the South Seas and the Caribbean, each village being led by a matriarch who is advised by a male war chief and a Zombie Master, who raises the ‘Walking Ancestors’ as labourers and sometimes warriors. Whilst the villagers are welcoming and open to trade, they will not join the Player Characters on any expedition north of the wall, which means that unless they have brought hirelings with them, the Player Characters are very much of their own. Overall, the village of Tanoroa has a slightly creepy feel to it, what with the zombie work force and the question of just what the giant wall is protecting the village from. However, unless the Player Characters commit some faux pas, Tanoroa should serve as a safe base of operations from which they can mount their expeditions.

Beyond the wall itself is the ‘Isle of Dread’, a mix of jungle, low lying coastal swamps and swampy lakes, marked by mountains and the occasional volcano. Some twenty-four locations on and around the island, including the village of Tanorora, are described. They include sharks basking off beautiful beaches, camps of pirates, a deranged ankylosaurus (!), a sea dragon, and more. There are caves infested with troglodytes, rock baboons, ogres, and even a green dragon. Notably, all of these cave encounters use either one of the two cave maps provided, though the Dungeon Master would be free to design her own. There are encounters with new monsters too, such as the nomadic Rakasta, anthropomorphic felines which ride sabre-tooth tigers; the Phanaton, monkey-raccoon-like creatures which dwell in tree villages and can glide from tree to tree; and the Aranea, a large, pony-sized species of intelligent spider, capable of using magic. Some of the marked encounters are not pre-written, but left up to the Dungeon Master to roll on the three Wilderness Wandering Monster tables included with the scenario, this in addition to rolls she will be making regularly on the tables as the Player Characters explore the island.

Eventually, the Player Characters will reach the ancient city where the black pearl can be found. This is on an island—Taboo Island—in the middle of a lake in the crater of a hopefully extinct volcano which stands at the centre of a thirty-mile-wide plateau, some three thousand feet high. The plateau is so high it has its own climate—temperate rather than tropical of the rest of the Isle of Dread—and thus its own wandering monster table, which includes mastodons, pterodactyls, sabre-tooth tigers, and occasional tremor. Having gotten atop the plateau, it will take an eight-hour climb to get over the lip of the volcano on and descend to its base. Here the Player Characters will eventually be welcomed by villagers who live on the lakeshore and who are being attacked by head-hunters. In fact, they will be so welcoming that in return, they will want the Player Characters to deal with the rogue tribespeople.

Taboo Island turns out not to be so much an island, as a temple complex partially occupied by the head-hunters with the lower levels. This actually the nearest that X1 The Isle of Dread comes to including an actual dungeon. The highly detailed complex has three quite detailed and very different levels. The temple itself is ruin, occupied by the cannibals, whilst the second level is partially flooded and infested with traps, and the third consists of a cavern filled with steam and super-hot mud pools and the true villains of the scenario, the Kopru, evil amphibious, fluke-tailed humanoids with the ability to charm others into serving them. This is their first appearance in Dungeons & Dragons, as well as in X1 The Isle of Dread, and the Player Characters’ encounter with them is going to be made all the more challenging by the hot, hot steamy environment and the ability to charm of the Kopru top charm the Player Characters into doing their bidding.

Rounding out X1 The Isle of Dread is half a dozen suggestions for further play on the Isle of Dread, including destroying a Zombie Master in Tanaroa after the village has been attacked by undead creatures, mapping the island, hunting for dinosaurs and harvesting their parts, exterminating the pirates, capturing animals and creatures to bring them back to the mainland, and searching for sunken treasure. These are all fun ideas and could easily be developed by the Dungeon Master. Lastly, there are stats for typical NPCs and write-ups of all of the new monsters given in X1 The Isle of Dread of which there are a lot.

In terms of advice for the Dungeon Master, as a training scenario for running a wilderness scenario, X1 The Isle of Dread is perhaps underwhelming, especially in comparison to the earlier, B1 In Search of the Unknown, which was specifically designed to help the novice Dungeon Master populate and design her first dungeon. Nevertheless, despite being short, the advice is to the point that, “The DM should be careful to give the player characters a reasonable chance for survival. The emphasis is on ‘reasonable.’ Try to be impartial and fair, but give the party the benefit of the doubt in conditions of extreme danger. However, sometimes the players insist on taking unreasonable risks; charging a tyrannosaur bare-handed, for example. If bravery turns to foolhardiness, the DM should make it clear that the characters will die unless the players act more intelligently.” What this makes clear to the Dungeon Master is that the environment of the Isle of the Dread is dangerous, potentially deadly to the Player Characters, especially given that some of the creatures—particularly the dinosaurs—they will encounter will have a high number of Hit Dice and lots of Hit Points. This is further emphasised with, “When describing monster encounters, the DM should rely not only on sight – there are four other senses – smell, sound, taste, and feelings of hot, cold, wet and so forth!” Further, the Dungeon Master should use this as, “…[A] good way to “signal” a party that an encounter may be too difficult for them to handle.” and lastly, “The DM should also try to avoid letting unplanned wandering monsters disrupt the balance of the adventure.”

Further, in addition to X1 The Isle of Dread being the first wilderness adventure for Basic Dungeons & Dragons and subsequently Expert Dungeons & Dragons, the module is interesting because it introduced the lands of the ‘Known World’, what would become Mystara, with a large map of an area identified as the ‘Continent’. Smaller maps of Karameikos and its wider environs would later be included in the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set, but here there is a full and large-scale map of the Continent accompanied by thumbnail descriptions of its sixteen or so countries and regions and a pronunciation guide for each of their names. Many of these go on to be more fully detailed with a series of setting supplements for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, but even here the descriptions capture the odd mix of cultures and geographies mashed together. Many of the cultures are based on Earth cultures, including Huns, Mongols, Icelanders, medieval Italy, Byzantium, and more, all alongside the fantasy elements of Dwarven and Elven kingdoms, magocracies, and Halfling shires. Further, these are all mixed and pushed together, so famously, the Vikings of the Nordic Soderfjord Jarls sit immediately to the north of the Arabic Emirate of Ylarum, a giant desert. Of course, it feels unrealistic, even nonsensical, but perhaps taken in the context of the Pulp sensibilities of X1 The Isle of Dread, that lack of realism will not be so much of an issue and can even be a feature.

Physically, X1 The Isle of Dread is really very well presented. The maps are excellent, whether wilderness or other location—and there are a lot of them. The map of Continent and its relationship to the Thanegioth Archipelago, as well as that of the Isle of Dread itself, are fantastic. The module is also well written and solidly supported with the new monsters, a rather plain handout of Barbarosa’s letter, and the outline of the Isle of Dread he mapped before he died.

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X1 The Isle of Dread was reviewed in The Space Gamer Number 38 (April 1981) by Aaron Allston. He laid out the groundwork for his capsule review with, “An introductory scenario must, first and foremost, be an enjoyable adventure. It must also provide a “working model,” so that beginning DMs can see how to construct and organize an adventure. And it must be easily read, that the novice referee not become lost and confused with travelling from Crypt 1 to Village 3.” He made clear that, “This adventure goes a long way towards accomplishing those goals. The scenario itself, set on an island whose simple human culture bears tinges of Polynesian and Amerind societies, is relatively tame, but provides some tense moments. Enough variable situations are presented to keep the whole thing from becoming static. More important, in this instance, is the module’s organization as a prototype. It does well here, too; almost all the maps can be removed and the appropriate text descriptions are clearly keyed to the proper maps. This scenario cannot be played cold, which is also a necessary experience for a novice DM; it must first by read through and assessed.” However, he was not wholly positive, adding, “No real problems evidence themselves. As noted, this adventure will not appeal to experienced players; there is a certain lack of color or sweep to the whole thing.” before concluding that the module was, “Recommended to beginners only – but it says so on the cover.”

Anders Swenson reviewed X1 The Isle of Dread in Different Worlds Issue 12 (July 1981). He liked the, “…[C]oncept, design, and execution of this dungeon module. There have been only a few campaign/adventure books among the scores of products published for the hobby, but this is one of the best yet available. The map is flexible in that many sorts of adventures could be worked into the terrain as it is shown. There are many different types and patterns of landforms depicted. Many of the encounters specified for the Isle of Dread could be dropped intact onto other parts of the map.”

More recently, X1 The Isle of Dread was included in ‘The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ in the ‘Dungeon Design Panel’ in Dungeon #116 (November 2004). The founder of GREYtalk, the World of GREYHAWK discussion list, Gary Holian, described it as, “The first true module to introduce players to a ‘wider world’ beyond the castle, forest, and cave, Dread tore them from their medieval moorings and sent them careening across the waves to collide with a prehistoric lost world.” Mike Mearls, Co-Lead Designer for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, asked, “Who doesn’t like hopping on a longship and sailing for days across the open sea to battle dinosaurs, pirates, cannibals, and the horrid kopru? It’s hard to believe that all that material is crammed into 32 pages.”

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X1 The Isle of Dread is a great set of tools to run a hex crawl wilderness campaign. With its new monsters and distance from the civilisations of the Continent, the Dungeon Master has the scope to just not run a very different kind of adventure, but also scope to develop areas of her own. After all, there are whole other islands in the Thanegioth Archipelago which are left devoid of detail in the module. Plus with its mix of Zombie Masters, dinosaurs, pirates, and strange mind-controlling amphibians, it has a lush, Pulp sensibility, taking in King Kong, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, and H.P. Lovecraft. And yet…

In so many places, X1 The Isle of Dread feels flat. To start with, whilst the hook of great treasure is enough to get the Player Characters to the Thanegioth Archipelago, it does not feel enough to quite keep them going. For example, there are no hooks or NPCs with motivations to be found at the village of Tanoroa, although the suggestions for further adventures on the Isle of Dread do suggest one. In addition, although there is a great wall across the narrow isthmus connecting the peninsula to the Isle of Dread, there is no mention of quite what the wall is guarding against. Given the Pulp sensibilities of the adventure and the wall’s obvious nod to King Kong, its very existence is begging for a night-time attack against it to be staged by some great beast. Then there is Taboo Island, barely described bar the old temple, which as dungeon complex is open to expansion, but incredibly difficult to traverse from one level to the next such that the Player Characters may never discover the true secrets of the island. The fact that the Player Characters may never discover the true secrets of the island is the ultimate problem with X1 The Isle of Dread.

X1 The Isle of Dread does not really explain what the true secrets of the Isle of Dread are until two thirds of the way through the module. This is that the Kopru once controlled a great empire which spanned the whole of the Thanegioth Archipelago, thriving in the islands’ hot geysers and mud springs and enslaving native human population with their mind-controlling powers. The temple on Taboo Island was where they were worshipped as gods, but eventually they were overthrown. This is why the villagers on the peninsula fear the Isle of Dread, but cannot say why. Yet there is no sign of the Kopru on the Isle of Dread or any of the encounters on the island, until the Player Characters descend into the temple on Taboo Island—no ruins or hints, or even indications that Koru have charmed anyone on the island and so might be in their service. Literally, the Kopru are simply locked away until the Player Characters arrive and that is a huge, missed opportunity in terms of storytelling to the point where even if the Player Characters do encounter them, they may not realise the true nature of the Kopru and their secrets.

Ultimately, X1 The Isle of Dread needs the Dungeon Master to really work at it to drop some hints and develop some hooks which will draw her players and their characters into wanting to explore more, and it fails to really help the Dungeon Master do that when it really should. However, as a first wilderness module, X1 The Isle of Dread is a fantastically pulpy, fun hex-crawl, rife with potential for some great adventures and stories.

1 comment:

  1. Great overview of this classic module!

    We played it and loved it, back in the day. The 8 mile/hex scale is just right for a hex crawl (less than that, and the adventuring days drag; more than that, and they're too short).

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