Often in my actual, virtual or imaginative travels to places real or invented, I find myself wanting to return. Playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on my PC I would often pause a few minutes to admire the carefully rendered trees or watch a river flow beneath a bridge. In a roleplaying campaign mixing magic and Ancient Rome, I was so engaged by my character, the NPCs, and the world, that I would ask additional details about the cities, towns, and dungeons we’d visit. (Wolfgang Baur‘s Midgard hits me much the same from Open Design in that I’m entranced by the places revealed thus far and looking forward to each new installment.)
And now I’ve found an island I’d like to visit. No, it’s not The Island of Dr. Moreau, the island from LOST, or Atlantis (though I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to check out a fictional Atlantis at some point). It’s Isle of the Unknown from Geoffrey McKinney and the folks at Lamentation of the Flame Princess. Unlike the dark realm of Carcosa, IotU exists in the sunshine and open air, with a bit of levity in spots in addition to some very unique vacation spots.
Beyond the word “unique,” this book also has to be one of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently – up to par with projects like the Book of Drakes from Open Design or the RPG Creatures – Bestiary 1 by Nicholas Cloister and Cloister Publications. Artists Cynthia Sheppard, Amos Orion Sterns, and Jason Rainville provided some simply stunning images – almost cut scenes in some cases – that really draw you into the world and help you picture it in your mind in full color. All of the art in the book is full color and vibrant, even if some monsters scare the crud out of you!
The book starts with an introduction from McKinney to set the stage. In two pages he lays out the scheme for the book. Each of the 330 different hexes describes an 86 square mile area with one unique feature described as “weird, fantastical, and magical.” If it’s mundane, you won’t find it in here. Instead, you get a resource that could serve as the setting for a new fantasy campaign or as a source of inspiration when you need a spark to fill an otherwise dreary encounter. Those mundane bits, McKinney envisions the world resembling “the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311.” With 35,000 square miles to explore, that’s a lot of mundane to go with the extra-ordinary and GMs should be able to change it as they’d like.
After that, there’s a section about some of the legends of the island. Included are 30 different ideas, some of which relate to particular hexes and others are open to interpretation and use in myriad ways. Imagine what fun you could have with seeds like “Deep in the forest, an evil sentient flower rules an empire of plants served by human slaves.” Or what about “Diabolists have made an unholy pact with the giant sea worms that squirm in the depths.” Or even “Buried treasure and secret pirate havens dot the coasts of the island.” Any of these could be used to attract visitors searching for adventure…
For the next 108 pages, you get hex description after hex description. Areas are characterized by the type of feature described – Cleric, Magic-User, Monster, Magical Statue, Town, or City. If you are looking for monster hexes to peruse, you can dive into the Monsters table and surf to one of the related hex descriptions. Clerics or Magic-Users? Do the same. And so on…
Now I just dove in head first into the descriptions and coasted description to description. I can definitely see where an enterprising GM might simply mine the book for ideas. Some of the hex descriptions are short. Some are long. But each offers the seed for an idea that could easily be explored more fully by expanding the idea or scene into an encounter, adventure, or even an entire campaign.
What I really appreciate about the book is that every hex is really unique. Sure, they fall into some broad categories, but have you ever seen a 300 lb. skunk-like snake? How about a 600 lb. clam with bird-like legs and humanoid arms with claws? These are but two of the 100+ creatures in the book. Not all are deadly, but many should definitely be avoided. Personally, I’d stay away from the killer 200 lb. white rabbit in hex 0806. (Just remember what Tim the Enchanter said in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide; it’s a killer!”)
By the way, every monster has a full-color image depicting it in all its weirdness. Plus there are 13 gorgeous, full-page, full-color images for 13 of the 26 magic-users described in the book, each with an astrological leaning. Those pages are the “cut-scenes” (to take a term from console and computer gaming) for IotU and make it much richer to explore.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, then there’s the map. The first version of the map (just inside the front cover) is without any additional detail beyond the compass rose and the numbered hexes drawn across it. It’s perfect for players. And then at the end of the book you get the same map with the markers indicating monsters, towns, spellcasters, and so on.
Ultimately if you’re looking for a book to inspire your next fantasy campaign and give your players some monsters they’ve never seen before, Isle of the Unknown offers some truly unique options in that arena. The creatures (monsters, magic-users, and so on) are statted out for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess system but could easily be adapted to any OSR or D&D-inspired system. So why not drop your PCs in the middle of the island and start your very own season of Survivor! (Something tells me Jeff Probst might not appreciate all the surprises in store for his contestants, but it would be entertaining!)