Review: Isle of the Unknown (By Geoff McKinney by way of LotFP)

This will inaugurate my review series. Since I have enough money to buy RPG products again, I suddenly have new books to read, and opinions on them…
On to the product.

Isle of the Unknown is a “highlights” campaign setting, leaving the majority of the work to the DM. I like doing the heavy lifting in my campaigns, but as I get older I get lazier: a quick flip in the store told me that this thing’s contents would be worth the read.

But the art comes first, because the cover kicks you in the dick and demands that you buy the book. The illustrations for the spellcasters and cover are fucking amazing – Rainville and Sheppard are in fine form, as usual. The monster drawings (one for each listing) are workmanlike, but expressive, and convey a good sense of scale – which is an impressive feat considering that only the monsters themselves are actually depicted.
Format is the usual and convenient A5, with a very well-made hardback cover, and Raggi’s apparently traditional useful endpapers contain the map. The map itself is, coincidentally, almost exactly the size of two Battletech mapsheets side-by-side (27×17; the btech sheets would be 30×17). The map art is quite nice, in line with the top 5% of /tg/‘s output. In the front cover is a bare-bones map: the back has most of the hexes keyed by contents. It makes for a useful quick reference, yet for some reason the magical springs/fonts and other miscellaneous wonders go unkeyed. I understand the desire to keep the key manageable. But with the number of magic pools and random weird shit about, these hexes (uninhabited at first blush) are harder to reference quickly.
In the rear, a decent index lists off the Isle’s statues, clerics, M-Us, and places of habitation.. but neglects the beasts and, again, pools/natural features of the Isle. 3 blank pages lurk at the end, so space clearly wasn’t the concern..
There’s also only one table, a d30 chart of rumors. While the rumors are acceptable in their own right, and provide a decent jumping-off point.. the rumored hexes are all located far from human habitation, and focus almost exclusively on statues. Yes, I know, getting realism in my fantasy, but it would make more sense to have the rumors that leak out be more directly related to the natural features of the island, or things the inhabitants know (a fearsome dragon lurks here, something about the several wizards who clearly have the means to live essentially forever). False (possibly) rumors are nice, but I would have traded them all in quite happily for another couple of tables.

Specifically, for the tables from which the monsters were very clearly generated.

For a book who’s mission is to provide a “sense of freshness and newness”, there are a LOT of repeated and clearly templated elements, especially in monster motivations and attack behaviors. Now, there’s definitely a general feel of the Weird about, and most monsters have reasonable (if perhaps hard-to-suss) weaknesses. The repeated (and often slightly silly) base forms and motivations hurt the sense of Faery that the rest provide: beasts with genuinely unique powers, like 0905, can transcend that weakness with a reskin.
There’s also a problem of lethality. Many beasts are quite tough, and I have no problem with that. But one particular group of beasts (as written) is specifically made immune to everything but 8th and 9th level spells. It’s a huge and glaring mechanical demand in an otherwise system and class-neutral book that demands a specific class and level of play. I suspect the intent was to make the critters effectively immune to magic while still vulnerable to a beatdown. But the HD and behavior of these creatures – which, by the way, can run down any PCs incapable of flight – puts the lie to that intent. It makes them (if conventional weapons can hurt them) either the biggest pushovers on the island or (if they can’t) poisonous deathrapists capable of wiping anything but an MU with transport spells prepared.
It’s entirely possible that the critters were generated through some other means I haven’t seen yet (still need to look at the Esoteric Creature Generator)[Edit: yeah, they were mostly from the RECG]. I honestly feel, however, that replacing the indices and rumor table with the monster-making tables would have improved the book’s utility past a simple hexcrawl, and into the demesne of Vornheim (if not its throne).

Tables for statues and roving magical meddlers would also have been nice, and I’m already preparing some such with extra entries for my own use. I particularly like the feel it presents of more literary magic-users who have powers and artifacts, rather than spells. [Edit: This would later be expanded upon in The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions (see link for review)] Much like the Summoning spell of LotFP itself it inspires visions of a very different type of magic-user, something that’s been struggling, groping to be free on the shadowed edge of my consciousness for years. If I’m not mistaken, it’s been the subject of much mental grappling among others, as well, but that’s as may be. There’s always the question, of course, of “how can I make it FUN”.. we shall see. I’ll have an extended period for writing and meditating coming up, a camping trip with the wife, and perhaps more inspiration will strike then.

In conclusion:
Isle of the Unknown has excellent production values, and is very much worth the price I paid (~$35, E22 online). It’s inspiring and well-visualized.
The internal references and tables, however, are inadequate, and leave me aching for Never-weres. Geoff McKinney’s choices as an author leave this book as either an under-realized shell of a campaign, or a glorious mine for plunder. Its only real sin, amusingly for such a Chaotic book, is stasis – a few encounters hang in space waiting for the characters, and there’s no method or means of “refreshing” an emptied hex once someone kills/commits arson on the wonders within. It’s no Vornheim, but that’s no great shame, and I’d still say buy it if you’ve got the chance.

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1 Comment

  1. I just bought this along with Carcosa from http://www.coolstuffinc.com. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing what it inspires me to do. Currently (with only a vague idea of what it contains, not having read any actual content), I’m thinking that the Isle should be the prison of Prometheus, where he lays tortured in exile as punishment for squandering the gifts of the gods on animal creations. That would explain the very random animal hybrids (Prometheus and Epimetheus made animals shoddily out of the human clay, and bestowed the gifts intended for man on them). I’ve heard that the Isle is also chock full of random wizard encounters, too. I plan on explaining this as the Isle being a place the gods have turned their backs on because of their disdain for Prometheus and his creations. This would give MUs an incentive to go there, because not only are there lots of odd creations to study, but their experimentation is free from the gods’ sight…

    All of this may change completely when I get my hands on and read the actual material, but I’m pretty excited for it.

    Reply

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