Isle of the Unknown an extremely frustrating book. Published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess and available either as a 128 page full-color hardcover book or as a PDF of the same, it's without a doubt one of the most nicely made RPG books I've seen in quite some time, old school or otherwise. By "nicely made," I mean both in terms of its purely physical qualities -- a sturdy cover and excellent binding -- as well as its appearance and organization. At the same time, I think Isle of the Unknown overuses color to the point of garishness at times. The book is so colorful and vibrant that, at first, one can't help but be awed by it. After a while, though, one's initial visual euphoria dissipates, and one begins to wonder how much of one's positive feelings for it are elicited by its substance and how much by its style.
I say that with some regret as this is a book I very much wanted to like without qualification. While nowhere in the text is Clark Ashton Smith's name mentioned, I recall that Isle of the Unknown began as an attempt by Geoffrey McKinney to produce a supplement that evoked Smith's weird tales, particularly those of Averoigne. CAS is a favorite author of mine, as I never tire of mentioning on this blog, and his Averoigne stories have long exercised a powerful hold over my imagination. Consequently, I was very keen to see an old school RPG book that drew on those pulp fantasies. Now, I knew from past experience with Carcosa (whose revised and expanded edition I'll be reviewing later this week) that McKinney's take on Smith would undoubtedly differ from my own, so I expected there to be parts of Isle of the Unknown that didn't sit well with me.
However, that's not quite what happened. Isle of the Unknown still clearly draws some inspiration from the Averoigne tales. The fact that its titular locale is described as having "societies, flora, and fauna ... [that] resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311" is a dead giveaway. Beyond that, though, the CAS influence is thin in my opinion. For that reason, Isle of the Unknown simply comes across as weird, with nearly every one of its over 300 86-square mile hexes home to some oddity or monstrosity, almost all of which are lavishly illustrated in full color by Amos Orion Stearns or Jason Rainville. Of course, that's what you'd probably expect from a book like this. Isle of the Unknown is a gazetteer of 35,000-square mile island that can be dropped into any campaign and, if it didn't provide material of this sort, most readers would be disappointed. That every hex on the island is given an entry -- many of them quite extensive -- is a credit to McKinney and his imagination.
In books of this kind, the problem is most often that the hex descriptions are boringly mundane. Isle of the Unknown has the opposite problem: nearly every hex description includes a magical statue, a quirky spellcaster, or a teratological monster. This is by design, as the introduction to the referee states that "only the weird, fantastical, and magical is described herein." This decision is presented as a boon to the referee, who can thus more easily describe the mundane world based on the realities of his own campaign, but I find this an inadequate justification. It's on par with refraining from describing the "empty" rooms in a dungeon, because all that really matters are the rooms with monsters and treasure in them. Moreover, by describing only the weird, fantastical, and magical, Isle of the Unknown gives the impression of overusing them all. Rather than being spices to improve the flavor of the dish, they become the meal itself.
I find this most troubling with regards to the many monsters described in Isle of the Unknown. Forget Gygaxian naturalism, this is an island populated by over 100 unique monsters: a 14' tall bipedal pearlscale angelfish, limbless serpentine beavers, a 300 lb. koala with suction cups on its limbs, a four-legged pigeon the size of an apatosaurus, and more. Any one of these creatures would be strange enough and might well inspire curiosity but the effect is lost after pages upon pages of them -- and that's without commenting on the frankly ludicrous nature of some of these beasties. Yes, I know there are people who've managed to make good use of "silly" monsters and I also recognize that many hallowed mythological monsters, when looked at with fresh eyes, are pretty ridiculous themselves. But if D&D or Greco-Roman myth consisted only of 22' tall emaciated pandas or four-legged flying kangaroos, I think many of us would be forced to admit that something odd was going on.
Granted, "something odd" going on may be one of the points of Isle of the Unknown. I don't think it's a coincidence that Lamentations of the Flame Princess chose to publish this particular product, as it rather powerfully evinces Jim Raggi's longstanding dislike of "standard" monsters and monster races. There's certainly merit to Raggi's complaint; it's often useful to shake things up a bit by introducing totally bizarre and unexpected monsters from time to time. However, like color or spices, these, too, can be overused. In fact, I only think such monsters work against a backdrop of familiarity and even mundanity, two things that Isle of the Unknown eschews in its presentation, leaving us only with a passel of freaks devoid of any context to give them heft. Instead, they feel, well, random and not always in a good way.
Despite this, I still like Isle of the Unknown. If approached as a smörgåsbord of ideas, it's probably quite useful. I simply cannot imagine using it as a single setting, but I might drop a statue or a monster or an NPC from the book into another locale or adventure in order to introduce a note of inexplicable weirdness into it. What I would not do, though, is use the entirety of the Isle itself; it's simply too much. My feeling remains that fantasy, especially weird fantasy, works best when it can play off well-drawn mundanity and that it's just as much a failure of the imagination not to present that mundanity as it is to stick to haggard fantasy races and monsters without any thought. Frankly, that's what anything drawing inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith ought to do: present us first with a believably grounded "real world" and then, by bits, turn the expectations of that real world upside down. Isle of the Unknown only gives us half of that equation, which is why I find it a frustrating book.
Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking for a collection of ideas to loot for your own adventures or you like really weird fantasy.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your setting supplements a bit more "ready to use" or prefer your fantasy a bit more on the staid side of things.