#3 of my Top Ten of 2015!
Holy Island is a massive pdf – 129 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with no less than 125 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
First of all – you should know that, obviously, not all of the pages herein are devoted to the module – instead, 4 Dollar Dungeons have a tradition of providing all required spells used in the module. A handy appendix collects them and prevents you from needing to constantly switch books. Beyond that, knowledge DCs and flavorful fluff information is provided for every creature encountered – consider these essentially fluff-upgrades; the type of information absent from most current bestiaries. Nice! Beyond that, it should be noted that all of the original artwork featured herein is contained in a look-see-art-appendix that can be used as handouts -I LOVE these appendices and wish more publications had such art-handouts-sections at least.
However, Holy Island also differs from other supplements published by 4 Dollar Dungeons in that it also utilizes the psionics-rules by Dreamscarred Press – and since you may not be familiar with how they work and/or not have Ultimate Psionics, the module also sports 10 pages of powers and basic information on how psionics work – so no, you do not need the psionic rules to run this, though it does help.
The pdf also comes with a massive array of 16 high-res jpgs of the maps featured in this book, with versions for both GMs and players being provided here – kudos for the player-friendly material!
All right, I have stalled long enough – so here we go: From here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. And yes, you don’t want to spoil this one for you.
All right, still here? So, we are all aware of the legend of the mace of St. Cuthbert, right? The artifact has made appearances in mythology over the years and in many a game. What you may not know is that the artifact has a kind of homebase where it rests between making its appearances – this would be the island of Serafina, which coincidentally was known as Lindisfarne in aeons long passed. Evil does what evil does, though, and so, it was only a matter of time before Serafina was invaded – though the forces of good were not unprepared: With a colossus, the holy men and women were able to repel the invading hordes, but at a terrible cost – a toll so high, the order decided to sequester the island in its own demiplane, shrouding the island in obscurity and bringing an end to the fabled mace’s appearances across the planes.
Why does the artifact not simply plane shift to another plane? Simple – it’s a responsible artifact. This rationale not only made sense to me, it also got a chuckle out of me and is a great example of the unobtrusive humor that suffuses the prose herein.
Ever since then, the colossus has kept the few straggling vessels that cross the planar boundaries from leaving, destroying ship upon ship and thus generating a population of shipwrecked inhabitants – until a group of psionic individuals happened upon the island and saw its leader trapped by the colossus. But more on those folks later. In the long time since, deities have placed minions on the island – for a reason: The wielder of the mace may well be one destined for greatness and a bit of advertisement for one’s faith doesn’t hurt, right? Anyways, all of this would probably not be a big issue, had the order not died out -well, apart from one being: As in many a group of a certain size, there was indeed an odd man out, a former librarian now turned lich. Yes, lich. Third level module. I can hear you gulp. 🙂
Now, this module does provide what these days many a module lacks – extensive, concise help for the GM to run this adventure. From trouble-shooting to drawing some attention to the particulars of certain tactics and intentional rule-decisions – with SR and swarms being featured among the challenges, for example, there is a mechanical propensity here for a certain type of play-style. Now before I go into the details of this module, I feel obliged to mention something – this module presents a big sandbox with multiple encounters with aforementioned divine servitors. It is also pretty much a roleplaying module.
What do I mean by this? Well, as the module observes, our current modules seem to have moved away from roleplaying modules in the truest sense. And, let’s be honest, there is some truth to that claim. Pathfinder behaves, essentially, like a combat-simulator in battle, making the rollplaying aspect of the game pretty awesome. At the same time, the roleplaying as such, though, is surprisingly often a neglected component – the module calls attention to the tendency towards puzzle-design; I.e. figuring out what to do next as opposed to a dynamic response. Mind you, this module does not judge these components as inferior or the like – there is no snobbery going on. However, at the same time, it observes that this constitutes a strange dearth in PFRPG. Conversely, one could argue that VtM has nothing but that going on for it and while I love it and CoC, the latter often falls into the puzzle-game niche – that’s not a bad thing per se, either. When the puzzle makes no sense, when one component falls by the wayside or when there’s just one solution, then we get the issues. And I *know* that every GM with some experience under the belt has ran face first into these issues as a story ground to a halt. We’ve all been there.
You might be wondering where this rant leads, right? Well, this module considers itself to be pretty much a roleplaying module, extending the sandboxy design-aesthetic not only to the overall structure of the plot presented and rendering it pretty modular (apart from the climax), it also tries to mirror this in the encounters with the deific servitors that inhabit the island. Now, bear this in mind, for it is a subtle nuance that may be lost on you when first reading the module as opposed to running it.
Now I mentioned a group of psionic travelers, right? These guys would be both a proxy for the GM as well as a story-catalyst: The Guardians of the Multiverse. They are a delightfully weird cast of characters, yes, and they actually can be considered an homage to the Guardians of the Galaxy or similar far-out comic-book heroes, with their leader Psi-Lord being an Elan who is currently trapped in the massive colossus. Yes, the tone here is radically different than in just about every 4$D-module I’ve read so far – again.
How the PCs act and explore, ultimately, is up to them, but per default, Psi-lord’s Astral Caravan power is the intended way out of the island’s demi-plane. So let’s cover the possible first steps, right? Going on a salvage operation at their own stranded vessel? Covered. Finding a local village? Covered. Perceptive PCs may have noted Psi-Lord being trapped in a portcullis’d section of the colossus, though, and potentially try to save the elan. This would be generally easy since the colossus is not hostile towards the PCs and not constantly on the move. Would be. Were it not for one fun fact: The colossus sports a massive anti-magic/psionic field that annihilates every magic in the vicinity. All but the terrain-controlling and trolling spells the servant of the god of magic stationed here – which are tailor-made to prevent PCs from scaling the colossus. If your game is like mine, you’ll have a field day annoying the PCs here and the joy upon defeating (or bypassing the creature) will be vast indeed.
Now Psi-Lord is helpful and willing to get the PCs off the island, but first, there s the question of his fellow guardians being missing -and indeed, they have ran afoul of some of the less than pleasant divine agents featured herein, often in a somewhat ironic manner. So, reassembling the guardians and/or finding out on what strange place they have stranded makes up the bulk of the module, as the odd divine agents make up for strange encounters. This is further punctuated by the selection regarding the random encounters, wilderness survival and terrain features provided. It should also be noted that the module does several unique things herein, with each encounter sporting some component that renders it memorable beyond the basic adversary fought.
Ultimately, in the end, the whole gambit is all about finding out that there’s a lich present, seeking out and destroying the rather incompetent undead’s phylactery and then finding a way to defeat the lich while still being vastly outclassed, even with the support of the guardians. And yes, actually using logical thinking and coming up with a sensible idea here is pretty much the awesome linchpin of the module and was one of the high points of the modules for my group -being the obvious and yet clever central puzzle of the module. And no, your PCs won’t be wielding the artifact for long – unless you wish them to. I should also mention a certain, fully-mapped pagoda and a general penchant for some investigation to be had here, but going into the details would ultimately spoil some of the components I’d rather leave for you to discover.
Now granted, all of this, while a wide open sandbox, it looks on paper like it somewhat falls short of what you’d expect from 4 Dollar Dungeons – until you play it. You see, this module is actually a kind of alignment Myer-Briggs-test for the characters in disguise. What do I mean by this? There are ample ways to handle the issues the divine agents present – from signing a contract with an infernal Eve to defeating her to several other options, ultimately, though not explicitly spelled out in the module, the encounters faced within act as a test that can be used to determine the respective interpretations of a group’s alignment: After all, we all know how many discussions that topic tends to spawn.
So yes, this module can be considered a huge exercise in in-game ethics, which works exceedingly well when probing the depths and moral fiber of characters and yes, potentially, depending on the competence of your players in abstracting themselves from their characters, them as well. Now this never devolves into a simple good/evil/neutral-option – instead, you get a set-up. How the PCs deal with it ultimately is up to them. Now that being said, even if you do not care for this type of gimmicky subtext, the encounters themselves are complex and interesting, sporting a multitude of cool options – and yes, the very final questions posed by a divine agent may very be uncomfortable to answer – so yeah, this psychological dimension is mirrored in the climax as well.
Editing and formatting are weaker than in previous 4 Dollar Dungeon-installments, with a tad bit more typos and glitches and, rather glaringly, all plusses missing from the statblocks herein – a peculiarity, which, while cosmetic MAY annoy some of you. The latter is a pretty serious annoyance, at least to me. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The artworks include nice, old-school full-color and b/w-pieces and the module comes, as mentioned before, with high-res jpgs of the maps, which btw. have a higher quality than those we’ve seen in the series so far. Finally, the pdf comes in two versions – one intended for the US-market in letterpack and one optimized for the European A4-paper standard to ensure that both can be printed in maximum efficiency. The pdfs come fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Richard Develyn is an artist if there ever was one among adventure authors and, hands-down, he is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Moreover, he is a thematic chameleon, switching up his styles in every module, again and again. That being said, Holy Island will probably elicit more than one “WTF?” from its readers. Let me go on a slight tangent here: My mother once worked for the US here in Germany and hence, I not only grew up with an early exposure to multiple languages, English in particular. I also could read English soon after I could read German, at the tender age of 5. This can be attributed to a clever trick: My mom had amassed this huge collection of comic books, some even from the Silver Age. Alas, they were in English and she tired pretty fast of the tedious task of translating comic books, instead setting about and teaching me to read them myself. Granted, many of the peculiar connotations of meanings were lost on me back then, but I could finally read this huge pile of glorious superhero knowledge – and be a wiseass to my friends about it. Yeah, some things never change, do they? ;P
Tangent aside, this module did evoke flashbacks to this era in tone – at one side, we have over the top, whimsical elements, at the other, we have real threats and a mood than can be described by an anything-goes ID run rampant, one that is kept in check by the necessity for narrative cohesion that later was to become the guiding principle that made worlds consistent, as far as that was still possible. Holy Island is essentially that – it is also a test of ethics and a subtle, satirical roundhouse kick in the face of several mythologies, though not a mean-spirited one. By combining elements from real life and game mythology, a subtle tapestry is woven that can provide a discerning reader with yet another layer of meaning that would not be readily apparent, nor is such a reading enforced or shoved down one’s throat – so no, if you are religious, your sensibilities, if you are halfway mature and have at least a tiny speck of a funny bone in your body, will not be offended. This is not disrespectful and the winking breaking of the fourth wall for the GM in the footnotes further enforces this.
The oddest thing about this module, though, is that it plays completely different than it reads. Perhaps it’s my playstyle and group, but when I read this, I thought things would get whacky and over the top, somewhat akin to certain Planescape modules of old, when in game, the whole module did turn out to be pretty atmospheric, with some light-hearted relief in between. Yes, this module can be funny. But it does not need to be. Analyzing *why* has been none too easy, but I have already touched upon the reason for this – namely the fact that the quoted mythology and inspirations evident in the text render the whole experience laden with a sense of unearthly gravitas, a sense of the mythological. Much like “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” and similar arthouse movies utilize symbols and semiotics to generate implicit meaning, so does this module combine these connotations and ties them together with the respective divine agents and the inherent psychology of the conundrums presented unobtrusively herein.
Mythology resonates with the experiences of the conditio humana and thus, it should come as no surprise that the central experiences of mankind, some very powerful concepts of psychology, find the very root of their nomenclature in mythology. It is perhaps this fact, the application of the blending of the two and transference of this conglomerate to the mythology provided within the context of a game’s codified deities, which makes this module actually work, which makes the players sooner or later realize that killing everything may not be in their best interest.
Or not. You can disregard all of my ramblings and analysis and play this as an oddball hack-n-slash. But you’d miss out.
I’m trying to say the following here: What should, for all intents and purposes, be a complete, utter, total, unprecedented thematic mess of tones and ideas, something disjointed, boring, reductive, somehow, by some quirk of strange fate and talent, actually works. The weird blending of themes reads a bit jarring, the encounters sound a bit disjointed, but in play, all works – even better than I anticipated. So yes, my rational consciousness considers this to be one of the most impressive feats in establishing a thoroughly unique theme I’ve seen in ages.
My emotional response, as much as I love the sheer smarts of the module, how it plays etc., still considers this somewhat inferior to Richard Develyn’s best works. Mind you, that does not say much – Richard’s modules have continuously scored my highest possible accolades and even made the number 1 spot of my Top Ten of a given year; I’m complaining here at a level that most authors cannot dream to reach.
Why? Well, while I do not require a breath-taking story-line, it remains a huge plus and this one, with its subtext being so layered, has the main story suffer a bit; if you do not care for semiotics and symbolism, you’ll miss out on some of the module’s appeal, since the basic plot is pretty simple. Secondly, the subtext and diversified theme of the module ultimately render the encounters themselves hazy, dreamlike – a good GM can make them feature in a manner that will remind you of the logic of dreams, hence also my reference to “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” before. (If you require a less pretentious allusion: Picture a symbolism akin to the one of the original “Death Bed, the Bed that Eats,” only less convoluted, game-themed and skippable via “I attack it.” and similar methods.)
Ultimately, Holy Island is, much like its predecessors, an adventure that can be considered art. However, it is an art that may be less accessible in its entirety than previous modules. The non-analyzing way to play this beast, obviously grounded in Silver Age comic-book aesthetics, is something, alas, utterly and completely lost on me, for while I recall my enjoyment regarding that time of my life, I unfortunately completely lack the psychological capability to access this memory through the haze of nostalgia goggles due to my excellent memory.
One could say that the regular way, the standard running and reading experience of this module is just as lost to me as my overblown analysis of the subtext above may be lost on some of you out there. What ultimately makes me still consider this a superb module, in spite of its glitches, is the fact that it can be read, run and enjoyed as nostalgia-driven pop-corn cinema or as an intellectual exercise – or as anything in-between. This module is odd, but I am exceedingly glad it exists.
So if you do check this out, run it before shaking your head and walking off – you may just be surprised in more than one way. My final verdict will, pretty much exclusively due to the quality of the writing here, still clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, in spite of an alarming rate of minor glitch-increases. I’ve been thinking quite a bit on whether to make this a candidate for my top ten of 2015 – but in the end, I will do so; not necessarily due to me particularly liking the plot or set-up, but due to the achievement in generating a unique feeling, mood and theme that I can sincerely call a jamais-vu-experience. Check it out – it’s only 4 dollars, after all, and I’m confident you won’t find a module this strange and unique at this price-point.
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