Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Retrospective: The Isle of Dread

If the purpose of published modules is as much to provide a model for inexperienced referees as to provide a ready-made adventuring locale, then The Isle of Dread is certainly one of the most influential modules I've ever read. First published in 1981 as part of the Cook/Marsh Expert Set, module X1 is part of what I sometimes call the "Moldvay Pulp Fantasy Trilogy." Not a trilogy in the literal sense, these three modules -- B4, X1, and X2 -- all draw clear inspiration from a number of pulp fantasy authors and stories, X1 being an homage to Burroughs, Haggard, Doyle, and Merritt (not to mention King Kong). Being a huge fan of the "Lost World" genre of pulp fantasy even then, I absolutely adored The Isle of Dread and can't even begin to count how often I used it in my old campaign.

My love for X1 isn't based solely on its pulp fantasy roots. Indeed, one of the primary reasons I love it is because it's an archetypal location-based module, a format I prefer above all others. There's an exceedingly thin plot to The Isle of Dread: the PCs find a treasure map and, if they elect to pursue its instructions, find themselves on a far-off tropical island filled with all the Lost World staples -- primitive natives, monstrous wildlife (including dinosaurs!), inhospitable terrain, ancient evils, and wealth galore. It's a terrific set-up, both as a backdrop for adventure and as a tutorial on how to construct wilderness adventures. I remember absolutely adoring the players' map to the Isle, because it only showed the hexes immediately around the coast, with the interior being completely empty, awaiting the characters' own explorations. It reminded me of 19th century maps of Africa, which I suspect was no accident.

Like most modules of its time, The Isle of Dread is readily customizable. Even with all the encounters included in its pages, there are many, many areas that receive no attention whatsoever, allowing the referee plenty of room to incorporate his own ideas. I myself did this on numerous occasions, the most ambitious being my placement of the Forbidden City in the center of the Isle rather than the Kopru temple described in the module. To my young imagination, the Isle of Dread needed snake-men, so it only seemed natural to mash together modules X1 and I1. Given that David Cook was involved in both of them, it seemed to make even more sense. This is the origin of my still-percolating The Forbidden Isle project.

I wouldn't go so far as to call The Isle of Dread "perfect," because it's not, but it's nonetheless a very good module. Its greatest virtue is in being a mini-sandbox where some basic features have already been constructed as aids to the novice referee. Those features are sturdy enough to stand on their own merits but none is so impervious to modification as to prevent a referee from altering (or eliminating) them to his own satisfaction. That will always be the mark of a good module in my opinion and The Isle of Dread has it in spades. I'd love to see modules like this again.


  1. I always found the size of the island to be a little intimidating. At six miles a hex, that sucker is right on par with a Wilderlands map!

  2. While I don't go down to the individual dungeons I think you will like the upcoming Points of Light, Beyond the Sunrise Sea. In fact I didn't think of it at the time but there is a perfect space for I1 on one of the maps.

  3. My experience with the IoD is that it decimated two parties right quick. I was a player in one and running the other.

  4. Isle of Dread made it into Fourth Edition: the new Manual of Planes notes that the Isle, while native to the Feywild, periodically worldfalls into the World . . . where adventurers might find it!

  5. I would love to get my hands on this old friend of mine. Aside from B1/B2, this module fueled more of my imagination than anything else. I wrote stories centered on the Isle of Dread and I tried to run people through this module - but most of them were TPKs and we moved on to other things.

    I agree, the open-ended nature of this probably keeps it going far longer than other modules. Thank you for reminding me of this one.

  6. Hey James, nice retro-review...per usual.

    One thing, I think you meant B4, not B3 (as the 3rd part of the trilogy). I've read your previous post(s) on the Moldvay modules, and presume that's just a typo in this one. Certainly B3 is very cool too, but B4 - The Lost City is pure pulpy...great module.

    Those 3 mods are among my all-time faves. Modlvay absolutely rules!

    Anyway, keep up the great blogging. We all dig it...especially us old farts...ha!

  7. I was planning to write about this one soon - but bottom line is it is in my top 3 faves.

    It helps that one of my favorite fantasy locals was Skull Island from King Kong.

    OK, more than bottom line. When I went to the Loscon in LA as a teen, I ran this for some friends and a couple of our girlfriends in our suite probably a total of 15 hours over two nights, about 10 hours that first night! It is my single most (positive) memorable gaming experience.

    Had them on a boat to the islands, and ran the adventure as it was meant - that is, the characters go to the great wall village, travel down the ancient stone road through the jungles fighting dinos, going to the plateau and spending a night with the cat people (both a male and female player had their characters have sex with cat folk...those were sexy games back then), and finally into the temple dungeons to finish up that quest.

    Whew! That was great gaming. I don't think I ever used time mgmt skills so well in a game. All that, and I even managed to work out an attack by assassins on the boat who were sent to kill a character with a price on his head.

    I ran some other visits to the islands, but nothing beat that first adventure through it.

    Thanks for posting that James,I'm starting my work day with some great gaming memories.

  8. Yes, I did mean B4. My failing memory ...

  9. Amidst all the Moldvay love, I can't help but point out my recent review of his module M3, "Twilight Calling", one of the biggest stinkers of the whole BXCMI line, in my opinion:

  10. Hrm. Remind me to run this one.

    See, honestly, despite all the weird mechanical things about it, that's one thing I like about 4e, is it's filled to the brim with mythology nods.

  11. But The Isle of Dread isn't a 4e module ...

  12. While it isnt a 4e module it has already been given a nod in MotP and fits the 4e points of light idea really well.

    Isle of Dread is I think the first setting for the very first game of D&D I played. I remember being a level 1 MU and getting eaten by a dragon after it sank our boat.

    I was completely hooked and will certainly be stealing the pulp fantasy jungle setting for one segment of my current 4e game.

  13. I heard that in later editions of D&D, the turned the island basically into one huge temple of Demogorgon (I think there is a blog by that name too!). Is that true?

    Not that there is any problem with adding stuff to it. I remember in my second or third game sending characters there, I had extra stuff - including a giant statue that guarded a treasure (unless that was in the module, I don't remember). A fast running, high Constitution PC had it chase him across the jungle, leading into a large quicksand area. I've been wanting to have characters go there again to come across this half sunk giant stuck in the mud, reaching out to grab any living thing that gets too close.

    I made a mini-campaign out of a later game. The island is a great place to shipwreck characters, so I did. After a couple games clothing is getting torn, and armor damaged and starting to fall off. Very cool thing to do with Dread. In these games, the characters basically wandered wherever they wanted. True sandbox setting.

  14. I think I played a custom Neverwinter Nights Module based on this module. It was quite fun, from memory!

  15. X1 is my favorite adventure of all time. I have run this countless of times, and have transported to not only Warhammer FRP, but Ars Magica, and believe it or not, Colonial Gothic. Granted I have had to tweak things somewhat, but this adventure really is my favorite.

  16. Wow. I played this module through when I was probably twelve, had owned a few years before that. I'm saying this to make it clear that I've known this module cover my entire conscious life.

    I always thought that the big green beast had a tentacle arm that was pulling at the edge of the sail, but I just realized that the "tentacle" is its tail and it isn't anywhere near the sail at all. I guess not looking at the cover for ten years helps give one a chance to shuck the old visual assumptions.

  17. It would be interesting to see if sales for reviewed modules go up on DriveThru/RPGNow/ everytime James does a review and reminds us about all these great modules.

    (And by "interesting to see", I really mean "who else can join me in the act of buying copies...")

  18. It would be interesting to see if sales for reviewed modules go up on DriveThru/RPGNow/ everytime James does a review and reminds us about all these great modules.

    If I actually had such influence, I'd be amazed -- and a little disturbed.

  19. Well, so far, I've bought two modules from you poking my rusty memory banks to activity, this one being the latest.

    You did mention there were a lot of crazy people in this hobby...

  20. I actually *just* bought this module based on your review, 3 years after you wrote it. Though, in my case I saw the module in my local game store, thought it sounded familiar, found your review online, and it was so glowing I thought why not. (I wanted to get something there because I've been showing up  to play D&D encounters.)


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