Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: Isle of the Unknown

I find Geoffrey McKinney's 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.


  1. I agree with your review for the most part. That said, I'd rather have too much than not enough; it's less time-consuming for me to strip a few hexes bare than stock a bunch of empty hexes!

  2. Based on reading only, I came to the same conclusion as you did. I wonder if playtesting could change my opinion.

  3. Echoing Jack here, the somewhat simple solution to these complaints (which are very good to know) is to assign some % chance that any hex will actually contain the thing described in the book (or chance to find, whatever). If only 1/3 hexes were stocked, that would give you not only a most 'realistically' stocked island, but also allow you to play it over and over again, even with some of the same players. Think Settlers of Catan, the D&D supplement.

    1. Well, that's already assumed in the original rules that you roll an encounter once per turn (day), just like dungeon exploration.

  4. Nice review. It also agrees with other reviews I've seen.

  5. I like this approach of one oddity per hex very much. As many of this oddities propably won't come up the first time that hex is traversed. I will use it as is in my Pathfindercampaign, we'll see how that works, if my pcs ever venture there... and maybe with enough cautionary tales of all the strange things going on, and the possibility of fleeing the isle, the massive onslaught of weirdness, that in fact is this place even so, will become more bearable...
    What I really loved, though, was the descriptions of the magicians of the island (and the pictures)... this evoked Vance's Lyonesse for me. I will probably steal one or the other from it's rightfull hex, if I need a more mythical wizard...

  6. I think McKinney's design philosophy, and Raggi's by extension, is not to simply provide an overabundance of weirdness, but rather to devote each page to something new rather than the typical high fantasy. Given that each hex is 86 square miles, I don't find the number of encounters to be overly large, especially since many are humans (clerics, magic users, and all that). Depending on the referree and the players, a party won't necessarily even meet the monstrous denizens of each hex they pass through.

    That said, the setting is intentionally incomplete. I think McKinney fully expects you to have several mundane encounters determined by the referree for each encounter that's actually presented in the book. The philosophy is not that mundanity should be eliminated, simply that it ought to be left to the referree. And that's certainly not for everyone.

    Still a fair review though. I don't mean to be the McKinney defense force here, just thought I'd share my thoughts.

    I'm off to the Demi-Plane of Ducks.

  7. Isn't 86 square mile hexes rather large? Just as a real world comparison, if you made a similar map of Rhode Island there would only be 12 interesting things there. Of course, I've never been to Rhode Island, so I can't say if it actually has more or less than 12 interesting things there. On the other hand, I live in Orange County, California. It would be 11 hexes at such a scale. There are easily more than 11 interesting things to find in Orange county. Especially if you were exploring on foot.

    35,000 square miles is huge. Larger than Ireland huge. About the size of Indiana.

    I should not that I haven't read the book yet. It's on my list of things to splurge for after tax time. ;)

  8. Based on your review I'm considering buying this. Since I don't use supplements out-of-box, mundanity is useless to me. I can come up with mundane stuff myself, I want interesting and unusual ideas to pillage.

  9. What would be amusing is if you took a "normal" map, with farms, castles, towns, etc., and this map, and made people drop in and out of magic areas. Or had the magic hexes only appear at certain hours of the day or night, sort of like Brigadoon.

  10. A fairy-land map. That's a great idea, I'm stealing it.

  11. If approached as a smörgåsbord of ideas, it's probably quite useful.

    That's exactly how I intend to use it.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. James, You hit on a lot of points that occurred to me when I read through it. I got this in the mail as a review package (along with Carcosa) for an upcoming interview on Save or Die with Mr. McKinney and I was bowled over by both books. I did read about the 85 square-mile area per hex but that's easy for a first-time or casual reader to miss. The result is that it, as you said, is just too much. I can't see me using this as a whole in any game I run but, like you and others here, it's a great book to cherry-pick monsters, NPCs and Ideas from. And I'm all for that.

    All in all a great review and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on Carcosa.

    -GM Glen

  14. I don't quite understand the critique. If the hexes are 86 miles, it doesn't change player movement which is adjudicated as three 6 mile hexes per turn (day) according to underworld and wilderness adventures. Which means that all these bizzarre creatures really only appear once every 14 hexes using 0d&d.

    I think james has not thoight through the hex crawling implications enough.

    1. 86 square miles. Each hex, then, is about 10 miles across.

  15. Disclaimer: I did the layout of the book and I already made my money whether the books sells or not. These thoughts are my own and are in no way official.

    So far The Isle of the Unknown is very misunderstood in my opinion. Not everything below refers to James Maliszewski's review.

    1. As others already pointed out, the map is huge! Having one interesting thing in each hex is hardly going to be too much! Also I don't think the book was meant to be read in one sitting, front to back. After all, no campaign plays like that. Start the game at some interesting point on the map and go from there. Just read the nearby hex descriptions as needed, this way it won't be so exhausting.
    2. Not all the hexes describe monsters, in fact many of the encounters do not have to be violent or lead to any monteray or XP rewards. There are even be a few (almost) mundane descriptions in there somewhere.
    3. If Geoffrey McKinney had made a lot of the hex descriptions mundane, I think many reviewers would have have been critical of that and called it filler. As it stands this book has no filler!
    4. "Weird" doesn't always have to be horror. To me this book has a Lovecraftian Dreamlands quality, it also made me think of the Dying Earth (in the way everything is so trippy and quirky). I don't know what Geoffrey had in mind when he wrote it, these are just my personal impressions.
    5. James Raggi should be commended for putting so much money and effort into something so different and original.
    6. That James Maliszewski gave it only 6 out of 10 for "creativity" and 5 out of 10 for "utility" makes me a sad emaciated panda...

    1. @Mattias -- I heartily agree with every one of your points.

      Furthermore, I submit that the correct numerical ratings of Isle of the Unknown are:

      Presentation: 10 out of 10
      Creativity: 9 out of 10
      Utility: 8 out of 10

    2. Furthermore, I submit that the correct numerical ratings of Isle of the Unknown are:

      "Correct?" What does that even mean in this context? I recognize that others liked the book far more than I did. That's fine. But suggesting that my opinion is "incorrect" strikes me as bizarre.

    3. If, by "opinion", you mean how you *FEEL* about something, then you're correct that your opinion can't be incorrect. It can be reactionary. It can be irrational. It can even be stupid. But it can't be incorrect.

      But if, by "opinion, you mean what you *THINK* about something, then, regardless of however bizarre it may seem to you, that can be incorrect.

      And, because I thought that your numerical ratings were based on what you think, not merely how you feel, I thought it was possible for them to be wrong.

      But, if I'm mistaken and your numerical ratings aren't rational assessments, merely quantifications of how you feel, then please correct my misunderstanding.

    4. But if, by "opinion, you mean what you *THINK* about something, then, regardless of however bizarre it may seem to you, that can be incorrect.

      This isn't an argument about facts, though. When I decide that the utility of something is a 5 rather than a 6, for example, I'm not doing so completely arbitrarily. At the same time, there's a degree of fuzziness and subjectivity that isn't easily falsifiable. I don't think it's possible to say my rating are "incorrect" except perhaps to the extent that they disagree with what I stated in my review.

    5. I haven't been able to figure out how it can be possible both for your numerical ratings not to be about facts and for them not to be completely arbitrary at the same time. How can that even be possible?

      When I made my original comment, I thought that your numerical ratings were fact-based assessments. I thought a rating of 10 indicated the best possible Presentation you could imagine, the most possible Creativity you could imagine, or the most possible Utility you could imagine. And I thought that ratings less than 10 indicated approximate fractions, in tenths, of those maximums.

      So, when I implied that your numerical ratings for Isle of the Unknown were incorrect, I meant that you'd either imagined impossibly high standards or underestimated how Isle of the Unknown compares to those standards or both.

      And, when I said that the correct numerical ratings of Isle of the Unknown are...

      Presentation: 10 out of 10
      Creativity: 9 out of 10
      Utility: 8 out of 10

      ...I meant that I think the Presentation of Isle of the Unknown is nearly the best possible Presentation of it that I can imagine, the Creativity represented by Isle of the Unknown is approximately 9/10 of the most possible Creativity that I can imagine, and the Utility of Isle of the Unknown is approximately 8/10 of the most possible Utility that I can imagine.

      And, while any of those numerical ratings could easily be off by 1 point just due to me misassessing or misestimating their values slightly, the only way I can see them being further off than that is if I'm not imagining possible maximums anywhere nearly as high as they actually could possibly be. But I don't think my imagination is that poor.

  16. Just to clarify - the hexes are 10 miles across according to the map. Which makes for 86 square miles (I'll take their word for it).

  17. Ok. So the argument then is that as players move 1-3 hexes per turn (day), the DM will roll a d6 and on a roll of one, perhaps the DM will use the unique monster described in that particular hex...and this is described as overkill?

    James, I think you put too much weight on Gygaxian naturalism and not enough on Arnesonian hex crawling. The difference between wilderness adventures in 0d&d where a hex might have an evil high priest with a castle guarded by white apes and wyverns and Gygax's 1st edition where a hex will only have a castle with a 9th level fighter with 60 men at arms is one where the loss of Arneson's imput into the game and gygax's fetishism for "realism" (and polearms) turned hex crawling into a boring affair.

    @Mattias, you comment about Dying Earth is a great one. Makes me think of Mazirian with his half animal-plant gardens and wierd and dangerous monsters behind every tree in a land with purple skys and six moons...

    The hobby needs more Arneson and less gygax imo.

  18. I think this book makes more sense if you consider that its essence is a bestiary, not a setting. It just happens to have a hexcrawl included for free! Think about how fun it would be to have something like that for the original Monster Manual. (At least, I think it would be fun.) It's true that this mostly throws out any naturalism, but as long as you are not put off by that, I think it is a very interesting product.

    I haven't read my copy closely yet (been busy with Carcosa and some other stuff), but what little I have seen of it so far, I have liked.

    My only real criticism (which you shouldn't take too seriously yet, since I haven't really read it yet) is that too many of the monsters seem to be grab-bag (head of one thing and arms of another) type of monsters. I feel like those are easy enough to create myself (with help from something like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator if I'm feeling like I need some inspiration).

  19. JMal marks it down for creativity because it doesn't have enough mundanity...

    As has been stated Jmal has misunderstood travel across the hexes & how often one would interact with one of these weirdlings.

  20. with help from something like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator if I'm feeling like I need some inspiration

    The preview made me think that McKinney just used the RECG for every monster and slapped them in a book. The serpentine platypuses that secret blood and create new ones when they kill someone were the worst offenders.

    1. If this is true, this is what I wanted the review to focus more on.
      A hex map with one super weird thing per hex can still be turned down to how mundane you like it with some other encounter tables appropriate to your own setting.
      E.g. 1-2: you meet orc! 6: you meet kangaroo-eating flying snake thing.

      But whether or not there are issues with the quality of the monsters themselves, such as many of them are RECG-generated and not very much tweaked, if that’s true, is a bigger issue.

      Some commenters have said: this is a bestiary, it just has its own hexcrawl, too. Well, then, how good is that bestiary?
      (Note that, not having read the book, I’m just curious, I’m not knocking it.)

  21. I have only read the free preview of the book offered on Lamentation's website.

    On the one hand, I am delighted by the cornucopia of interesting monsters and objects. I have always preferred the enchanted forest kind of adventure, wherein knights errant stumble across mysteries, horrors and marvels in a wilderness.

    However, I do wish that there were "plot hooks" attached to each marvel. I like to give the players and the monster an interesting and compelling reason to interact. My writing skill and imagination is not usually up to that sort of narrative. This is a grievous lack for my part.

    (I remember the opposite problem with a Harn supplement all about plot hooks. It was wonderfully detailled and usually gave good reasons for everyone to start and finish the conflict or investigation. But the encounters were all too prosaic. Furthermore I cannot see how I could match the mundane but compelling plot hooks of Harn with the wondrous but skeletal framework of "Isle of the Unknown.")

  22. I thought your early reviews were a bit toothless, in the sense that to find out if you didn't like something I felt like I really had to watch for when you were "damning with faint praise", you know? This review is crystal clear (without being mean-spirited or anything), so that's awesome.

  23. Thanks for the detailed review James. I trust your taste in these matters, so though I had thought of buying the book, I think I will give this a pass.


  24. Geoffrey anticipated this and has even provided a skeletal "mundane encounter" table for those looking to bring "well-drawn mundanity" to the game:

    01-10 It rains.
    11-20 You seen [sic] some rabbits.
    21-30 You meet a peasant digging for mushrooms.
    31-40 You step in cowshit.
    91-99 A dog barks at you.
    00 You encounter the fantastic thing described in this product.

  25. Thanks for the review, James. If I may, let me offer a small clarification to your statement here:

    "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."

    There are 330 land hexes, and each one has a description of something in it. Each of the 109 new monsters is illustrated by Amos Orion Sterns. 13 of the 27 unique magic-users are illustrated by Jason Rainville. 1 of the 83 magical statues is illustrated on the cover by Cynthia Sheppard. The other 207 hexes are not illustrated.

    Out of 330 hexes, there are:

    109 monsters
    83 magical statues
    80 weird things of various sorts (vegetation, tarns, rock formations, etc.)
    27 magic-users
    15 clerics
    15 towns
    1 city

    A Marvel No-Prize to the first person to discern the primary inspiration for the magical statues.

    Another Marvel No-Prize to the first person to explain in detail the significance of the 13 illustrated mages.

  26. The 13 mages seem to represent the 12 signs of the Zodiac to me (with Gemini represented as 2 mages).

  27. You're pointing in the right direction. :)

  28. Looking forward to the promised Carcosa review. :)

  29. As a long after the fact follow up, I'm planning on integrating this into my "riff" off of Secret of Bone Hill, putting Restenford into the area (and Yggsburgh to the north). The whole southern France/Greco-Roman ruin will also dove-tail in quite nicely with the sandwich layers of a dark Celtic-ish past and the ruins of a cruel elven civilization. I figure I have room to work with here.