Saturday, September 19, 2020

REVIEW: Hot Springs Island

I'm cheating a little by reviewing two books at a time, but only a little, as A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island (AFG), and The Dark of Hot Springs Island (TD) are meant to be used together. AFG is the player's book, while TD is intended for use by the referee. Together, they detail a mysterious tropical island – the eponymous Hot Springs Island – as a system-neutral hexcrawl setting. Authors Jacob Hurst, Evan Peterson, and Donnie Garcia memorably call Hot Springs Island "a sandbox of black powder," by which he means that these two books provide a collection of locations, monsters, random encounters, NPCs, and factions awaiting a spark – the player characters – to create an "explosion of consequences." That's a very good way to describe Hot Springs Island, both as a setting and as a product.

Before getting into the content of the books themselves, I have to comment on their physical quality. Fond as I am of the do-it-yourself esthetic, I also really appreciate well-made books and the two Hot Springs Island books are seriously well-made. I'm especially pleased with the binding, which is equal to that of the best RPG books published over the last few years. The books are also sturdy hardcovers, and look like they could stand up to being carted around and used, a trait that is far too rare in game books these days. It's worth noting, too, that The Dark of Hot Springs Island, lays flat, which is especially useful, as you'll see .

AFG is a 240-page, digest-sized book. It's presented as an in-setting document, namely a guide provided by the Martel Company to individuals recruited to explore the island.  The guide consists of several distinct sections, each written as if it were the notes of someone who'd previously been to the place. The inside front cover, for example, presents a color hex map of the island, along with a partially filled-in key, representing those places explored by previous expeditions. There are also many pages of journal entries and recollections by earlier explorers. Naturally, this information is only partially complete (and occasionally misleading), but it does a good job of presenting the broad outlines of conditions on Hot Springs Island to the player characters.

The bulk of AFG is made up of descriptions of the living things that dwell on the island, including its flora. This is noteworthy in my opinion, not only because it's unusual – most RPG books don't spend many words on describing plants – but also because it's delightfully evocative. Reading through the entries on Ambermoss and Quickweed and Sleeping Ivy, I was reminded of naturalists' journals from the 19th century, which goes a long way toward setting the scene. Furthermore, these entries aren't just filled with local color; many of the island's plants possess useful (or dangerous) qualities that make them of interest not only to the PCs but also to their employers and other factions. 

Hot Springs Island is, of course, home to many unusual beasts – about three dozen, I think – and they are described in a similar way to the plants. Again, there's a naturalist's sensibility on display here, with details about not only habitat and diet, but useful parts that can be harvested and used. Several factions of intelligent beings receive attention, describing their activities and goals, in addition to typical members of the faction. Worth mentioning is a handy chart at the back of the book cross-referencing the useful parts harvested from local wildlife, their sources, and which factions would be interested in them. It's a small thing, but illustrative of the care the authors took to make these books easy to use at the table.

TD is 192-page, standard-size book. Unlike AFG, it's written for the referee and, as such, provides more specific details about the island, its locations, and inhabitants. All 25 hexes of the island, for example, have three points of interest within them, some of which have their own maps associated with them (like Glavrok Village above, home to the Night Axe ogres, and the Ashfire Mine). Scattered throughout are numerous random tables to aid the referee in further fleshing out hexes and the locales within them. Helpfully, the authors provide some examples of how to combine all of these elements. I found this quite useful, since there are a lot of moving parts in TD and it would be easy to lose track of them all. The layout of the book (and its ability to lay flat) also contributed to making it easier to use.

Factions get a similar level of detail, with expanded entries on them and their members. In each case, the referee is given lots of options and ideas to work with. The emphasis here, as elsewhere, is on utility, and flexibility. TD is clearly intended to make the referee's job as easy as possible, helping him to use Hot Springs Island in play. There is no plot or adventure path here, only lots of tools for the referee to use in constructing his own, whether in advance or by allowing events to unfold through play. These books are designed with the notion that the PCs will serve as the spark that ignites the entire island into that "explosion of consequences" mentioned earlier. 

Taken together, the two books are a remarkable achievement, both in terms of content and presentation. Because Hot Springs Island is a far-off tropical locale, it's easily dropped into almost any setting without much effort. My only real complaint is that its system neutrality means the referee will have to come up with his own stats for the denizens of the island (and the many unique treasures described in an appendix). That's not necessarily an issue, especially for old school referees used to winging it, but it is another bit of preparation, on top of everything else. 

All in all, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, and The Dark of Hot Springs Island, are a terrific pair of books, full of great ideas, attractively illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez. They're available in print or digital formats from the Swordfish Islands site. I highly recommend them.