RetroReview: X1 – The Isle of Dread
All of this talk of DnDNext incorporating elements from older editions has me looking at the older pieces of my collection. I have several products written for older editions that are deserving of a review and that is what I will present in this series. Behold the first entry in the RetroReview series: The Isle of Dread!
The Isle of Dread was first released as the official adventure module included in the 1981 D&D Expert Set. It is a 32 page module designed for a party with characters from level 3-7, and is one of my favorite modules of all time.
If you have never played/read this module before and you may do that in the future, this review contains SPOILERS!! Read at your own risk.
While on another adventure, the party finds a bundle of parchment sheets. While none of them are magical, there does appear to be some value in one of the old parchments – it contains an old ship’s log entry detailing an island filled with treasure along with a rough/incomplete map. This hook is the basis for the party investigating the island and the captain who wrote the entry.
The Isle of Dread is a pulpy, lost-world style island adventure complete with dinosaurs and native tribes. This module was meant to be the introduction to open-wilderness style adventure for new DMs. It is the quintessential location based module that offers enough information to make several sessions worth of great adventure. Much like The Keep on the Borderlands, this module is a teaching module and there are lots of good tips and advice found throughout.
The module is split into 5 parts, each with several pages of information and maps.
Part I: Introduction
Part I contains introductory information for the DM. This includes an overview of the island, a key to the continental map (including a pronunciation key!), and weather and climate information for the archipelago. The advice strung through this part of the adventure includes some of the best advice I have seen in any module.
The introduction gives the following tip to the new DM: “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.” This paragraph highlights the level of danger on the Isle of Dread and is very important advice for a new DM running an ‘explore the wilderness’ type campaign for the first time, especially such a dangerous one.
Much of the advice found herein is applicable to any published module no matter the edition being played. For example, this section advises DMs that they should change the encounter maps, or create entirely new ones, if the provided maps do not meet the needs of their particular game. Tips are given for treasure allotment, including pointing out that what a tribesman might consider treasure may not be in the form of gold, and therefore may not match the PC’s idea of loot. One final piece of advice provided is particularly good: “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!”
This section continues with a key to the continental map of Mystara, or The Known World, as it is still referred to herein. The included map details quite a large swath of the continent and the module spends a paragraph on each major region of the map. It also includes a pronunciation guide! The section ends with a guide to the weather and climate in the region.
Part II: The Isle of Dread
This section details the background and ship’s log information, wilderness wandering monster tables (random encounters on the isle), and details the specific locations found on the DM’s map of the isle.
I especially like the emphasis on the sandbox nature of the adventure in this section. For example, the players have to acquire a ship to travel from Specularum to the Isle of Dread and the module gives 4 good suggestions for how the DM may allow that to happen and how the DM should handle player’s ideas about the matter.
Another great piece of advice is found in the suggestions for using the wandering monster tables: “The DM should use logic when rolling wandering monsters. … If the monster is either much too strong or much too weak for the party, the DM may change the number appearing or the monster’s hit points to provide a suitable challenge for the party.”
Part III: The Central Plateau
This section details the central part of the island, which has its own set of random encounters and several environmentally interesting features. These include a vein of gold, a forest of treants, volcanic tremors, and a native village with an interesting problem. It is in this village that the party learns of Taboo Island, which contains an even greater threat than what lives on the main island. This section is written like the others, in an open way that invites changes to the module by the DM.
Part IV: Taboo Island
Taboo Island is home to a large temple ruin that is carved into the cliffs on the western shore of the island. This section of the module details each level of the temple in some great detail. This detail often includes more information than the PCs could possible know, but that is a benefit to the new DM for whom these descriptions may inspire new ideas about future adventures and give insight into the culture of an ancient tribe.
Along with the temple description, the end of this section provides 6 ideas for future adventures on the isle. If the players and DM enjoy the Isle of Dread, this allows them to spend many more sessions exploring and experiencing it. It also gives the DM a chance to practice adventure design by expanding on the ideas presented.
Part V: New Monsters
This is a straight-forward catalog of the new creatures introduced in the module.
There are lots of things this module does right, and here are some of my favorites.
1) The tribes are Matriarchies! And they aren’t matriarchies as in a big breasted tall Amazonian women stereotype – they are true matriarchies where the tribal lineage is traced via the mother. This is a pretty cool thing to read coming from a male-dominated hobby book in 1981.
2) Sandboxy Goodness! I love the open ended style of this module. It gives enough guidance and has enough hooks to keep a party adventuring for a long time. At the same time it allows the DM to take enough control to run the type of adventure he/she wants to run, which always makes for a better game.
3) Hello Rakasta! I like the Rakasta race and I believe this is the first introduction of them into the D&D world – giving them a place in Mystara that gets expanded later. Plus, they are Cats that ride Sabre-Tooth Tigers into battle – what could be cooler than that?
4) Mystara Continental Map! Speaking of Mystara, this module gives a nice short overview to the main areas of Mystara found on the continent map in the middle of the book. I know I said it above, but it include pronunciations – as something of a language geek, I appreciate that sort of detail, and it is something not usually seen in modern adventures.
5) OMG MAPS!!! I am a map junky. I admit it. I should go to Maps Anonymous. This module is so packed with maps that I can’t help but experience pure joy when I look at them. Not all of them are of exceptional quality, but the fact that there are many good ones makes up for the couple of bad ones.
6) Treants! Oh my! If you walk into the forest and you feel like you are being watched, do not stick your axe in the nearest tree.
7) Zombie Laborers! This island has a rather unconventional view of zombies. There are zombie masters that preside over ceremonies that cause the ‘walking ancestors’ to rise. The masters control the zombies and, rather than running around eating brains all the time, the zombies are either put to work as laborers or used as spare warriors. As a bonus, given the open-ended nature of the adventure, if the DM doesn’t want to deal with zombies, this fact can be skipped completely because it is not written as an integral part of the adventure
8) Advices! I can’t stress enough that this module is chock full of great tips about how to run a relatively open ended adventure. Its good advice, even for modern gamers. Funny how something written 30 years ago is still so applicable to the game today.
Is There Anything Wrong?
With all of the gushing I just did about how wonderful the Isle of Dread is, you may be asking yourself if I found anything wrong with it. And the answer is: not really. At least, not for myself. but it does have one major flaw – if you do not feel comfortable with an open ended adventure, you probably won’t feel like this module saved you any prep time at all. And you would be right – this module doesn’t lay out everything for a DM, instead it provides ample information about a location and lets the DM have fun filling in further details.
This is the type of module that requires a little work on the DMs part. To make it the adventure you and your players want it may take a lot of work. If you are the type of DM that can run a “by the seat of your pants” module, then it is probably okay to run with little to no prep.
Hopefully this review gives you a reason to dig out your old RPG gaming materials and take a look at this classic adventure module… or, perhaps, look on ebay and get this one on the cheap and read it for the first time!
Until next time, I wish you good gaming.