Isle of the Unknown (OSR)
This massive campaign setting/hexcrawl/toolkit clocks in at 134 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page blank, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 128 pages of content, though it should be noted that they are formatted for digest-size (6’’ by 9’’/A5); Printing the book may not be the best idea, though; I’ll get to why soon.
This review was made possible by one of my patreons, who donated the print copy of this book to me, to review at my leisure. My review is thus mostly based on the print version, though I have purchased the pdf-version as well to ascertain its properties.
Okay, so the first thing you notice when looking at this book is that it is GORGEOUS. I mean it, a wonderful hardcover, solid, great. See that cover? On the inside of front and back cover, we get the massive hexcrawl map of the Isle of the Unknown; the referee version sports icons that show the type of thing that can be found on a given hex, making use of the book relatively easy; this is also represented in the layout. You see, the pages don’t sport that much text and pretty broad borders. Why? Because hex-shaped frames highlight the artworks of the strange creatures to be found here, with the respective hex’s number below the image. Thus, if you’re flipping through the book and see something you fancy, you can immediately find the proper hex.
Better yet: The numbers denoting the respective hexes are color-coded by the general type of thing to be encountered in the hex. Speaking of organization: We get a monster-appendix that lists monsters by HD and hex (with small versions of their artworks) and separate lists of magic statues, magic-users and clerics by hex. We also get a list of settlements, by hex, though I need to comment on that later.
I mean, look at that cover; while the monster artworks are more comic-book-like, we do get a ton of artworks of this quality: You see, this isle is home to a vast array of truly unique magic-users and they come with gorgeous one-page artworks; if you’re a connoisseur of beautiful fantasy art, this book may be worth getting for that alone. In short: The artists Amos Orion Sterns, Jason Rainville and Cynthia Sheppard have done a stellar job capturing the wonder of this place.
Now, someone has read Carcosa. Oh. Wait. Sorry, scratch that. Someone has written Carcosa. This book is not simply an OSR-setting inspired by Carcosa, it was penned by the same man. HOWEVER, if you disliked Carcosa and its dark aspects, please read on – this is not a book that sports any kind of problematic or particularly dark content. Instead, the main focus would be non-Tolkienesque wonder.
What do I mean by this? Well, I enjoy Tolkienesque fantasy; there is a reason it resounds with so many people. But there is a downside to the cultural dominance of this particular type of fantasy. We not only fail to see the vast cosmos of mythologies our own cultures have produced, we also blind ourselves to our past, as the tropes of this type of fantasy subsume other, creative and unique ideas. One of the things I love about the OSR-movement is that many authors are pushing boundaries regarding the tales they tell, that there are plenty of deviations from the dwarf/elf/halfling-defaults. In this case, we take a look at a type of fantasy that, to my, is reminiscent of psychedelic, experimental cinema like “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs”, of dream-logic…and if I had to describe this Isle of the Unknown in one sentence, I’d call it: “A crusader’s psychedelic hallucination of the antique.” This book feels very much indebted to the cosmos of creatures hinted at in a variety of pre-Tolkien fantasy, for example the Prester John myth, though the creatures herein a thoroughly distinct.
The monsters I mentioned? Each of them is utterly WEIRD. To give you a couple of examples, I randomly flipped open the book and found “A 16’ tall aspen has four trunks rising from the ground to join into a larger trunk 6’ above the ground. One of the four lower trunks has the face of an ineffably sad human face.” Or “Seven crows can move only by levitating, and as such can never be more than 10’ from a solid surface. They have 4 legs, each terminating in a razor-sharp blade.” Or “Four limbless, serpentine beavers the size of wolves…” – yes, these weirdo creatures come with artworks.
The sense of antiquity is also enforced by the sheer number of magical statues dotting the isle, which, style-wise, are reminiscent of Latin Decadence – you know, like a humble person witnessing the splendor of fallen Rome and Greece for the first time while on route to the holy land. I couldn’t help but hear a somber “Frater, Ave Atque Vale” in the back of my mind while reading this book – the atmosphere of the whole is impressive indeed.
Now, I mentioned the magic-users, right? Well, these ladies and gentlemen would by the true stars of the book: Not only are the artworks fantastic, the magic-users feel as though they could have populated the fancy of an enlightened (as far as possible) medieval person confronted with the wonders of the antique: There is a mistress of 50 goats; the goat milk provides magical effects; there is a man with a jar of aluminium and if water from any body of water is inserted, that body comes under his dominion. There is a huntress in a valley of blackthorn, hawthorn and macrocarpa, her eyesight so accurate she can read a book from a mile away. There is a philosopher pondering scales that contain beetles; interrupting him may see the PCs shrunk and placed in the scales, to fight against the titanic beetles. There is a valley where sheep with golden fleece graze and diamonds and amethysts litter the ground. My favorite image and entry here would be: “Laurel, acanthus, honeysuckle, white roses, and lilies surround the waters. Strangely-hued tortoises, crocodiles, armadillos, and especially crabs (all of a silvery blue or a smoky gray color) make their homes here. Not even the crocodiles are normally aggressive. The mistress of these domains is a 10th-level magic-user (Armor: as chain, HD 9+1, hp 24, Move 120′) garbed in a shimmering moon-white dress, a silver necklace set with white pearls (worth 1,000 g. p.) adorning her neck.”
You’ve probably realized it by now – when I started reading this book, I was blown away. Utterly and thoroughly. The entries are incredibly creative and interesting. You can flip open any page and find something wondrous in this book; as the author comments in the beginning, the mundane is left up to the referee’s discretion.
Mechanics-wise, armor is denoted “as leather/plate/etc., we get HD and Move values à la 60’ – I assume LotFP standard movement rates here, but I’m not 100% sure. More relevant and annoying would be that the aforementioned magic-users lack spells known – you have to crafted the lists yourself. At least a generator or something would have been appreciated there. It should also be noted that this has a Gp-standard, not LotFP’s usual Sp-standard.
If wonder is what you’re looking for, if you are looking for fantasy reminiscent of a utopian fever-dream, then get this right now.
Here is the thing, though: I can’t remember when a book started so strong…and then crashed to leave me disappointed at a high level.
You see, this is very much akin to Carcosa in one crucial aspect: It is only concerned with the big picture; it lists hexes and is only considered with the big; you won’t find information on details, quests, etc. Speaking of quests – that may be the one of the two biggest drawbacks of this pdf in comparison to Carcosa: Carcosa sported implicit questlines by virtue of the dark rites required to control, conjure, banish and stop the Great Old Ones: PCs had to travel across the country, unearth strange things. There is an implicit structure provided for the referee to develop. There also are names, nomenclature, etc. – all magic-users and monsters, all places in this book, have no names. Similarly, there is no such implicit questline structure to be found in the Isle of the Unknown. There are precious few connections between hexes and creatures; regular persons and how they would react to all these wonders, how societies would work…these concerns simply never enter the picture. Similarly, all these monsters and mighty magic-users seem to exist in a state of blissful ignorance; there is no agenda, just idle magical frolicking. In a way, this almost feels like the antithesis of grimdark, grimy medieval gameplay, like a vision of a magical utopian pastoral. While I like this general notion, I really dislike how static and isolated everything ultimately feels.
In short: Once you scratch the surface, the setting begins to come apart, at least to a degree. There is another problem that made reading the final pages of this as dissatisfying as the beginning was amazing: This is basically a 3-trick pony.
Trick 1) Magic statues with weird effects. Solution: Don’t mess with them. Usually not worth it.
Trick 2) Utterly weird, cool creature.
Trick 3) Magic-user/cleric with powerful, unique ability. Messing with them is usually a bad, bad idea. Greedy players beware.
All of these three tricks are executed really, really well time and again. But they become tiresome due to the frequency of their structural repetition. You see, we consider wondrous what we perceive as unfamiliar. Once you see the structure, the wondrous loses some of its splendor. The formulae employed by the book could have looked like something like that:
Take one or more creatures, fuse them together and/or add/subtract limbs. Add strange skin-condition, top off with magic effect.
Describe utopian domain of magic-user, add familiar creatures/elemental powers, potentially add means to penalize greedy, murderhobo-ing PCs.
The problem here is that there isn’t enough change of pace; where Carcosa had aliens, dinosaurs, scifi tech, Spawns of Shubby, Great Old Ones, weirdly-colored men…this has weird monsters and weird magic-users.
The isle of the unknown’s wonder becomes, paradoxically, common and mundane due to its concentrated accumulation, and, to a degree, boring even. At least when used as written. There isn’t enough to contrast the strange with; there isn’t enough detail to create a believable illusion of this place, a problem particularly evident when it comes to the settlements and general lack of things to do for the PCs. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect a hexcrawl to provide epic storylines – but you can seed adventures easily by means of items, feuds, etc. This book, at least in my opinion, fails at that task. Now granted- this book tries to just provide a wondrous sketch for the referee to develop…but said sketch remains very superficial; there is no depth-structure, no rhyme or reason to ANY of the proceedings, no occult significance to unearth regarding statues, the powers of the magic-users…anything. This is just weirdness for the sake of weirdness.
Behind the coating of wonder this book presents, there lies a gaping hole of missing structures and global dynamics that needs to be filled…and frankly, I don’t have the time or inclination to do that. It’s puzzling, really – I never realized how important that aspect is before, and I’ve run a ton of hexcrawls. I always took that aspect for granted.
Editing and formatting are very good; while I did not enjoy the deviations from LotFP-rules, at least this time, there are no ill-conceived rules that take up valuable real-estate. There are a few minor hiccups, but not enough to detract from the professional look of the book. Layout adheres to a one-column full-color standard and, as mentioned, is gorgeous and easy to use…however, it also sports pretty broad borders. The artworks are phenomenal and frankly, what sells this book – the fantastic artwork is superb; particularly the renditions of the magic-users are fantastic and cover-worthy. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked and with extra-pages of printable maps (kudos). Big plus: The pdf is layered in details, allowing you to control the content, icons on the maps, etc. – extra kudos there. I’d still recommend getting the print version, provided you can afford it.
Why? Well, here’s the thing: If you’re like me and prefer reading a book from cover to cover, then this may well frustrate you. As noted, the 3 tricks this book has become stale with repetition. Fast. Having a print version makes flipping up the book spontaneously, easier.
This book absolutely excels at its brand of wonder: Plants, utopian vistas, powerful magic-users and strange creatures that…just exist. The best use for this book is to simply use it as a weird infusion. Once you’ve been crawling through too much vanilla fantasy, flip this open, insert a hex’s critters/magic-users, there you go. When used (and read) in small doses, this is phenomenal. However, if you want to use the book in its entirety, you will run afoul of a lot of the issues I noted and I’d honestly be surprised if you could run this as written without at least trying to add some sort of mystic rules, some sort of meta-structure and sense underlying the proceedings. Without it, the coat of weirdness peels off quickly, making the per se cool prose feel random, the whole isle static. There are a couple of monuments that tie in with other creatures. How? Why? No idea. These few and far in-between instances feel almost like afterthoughts, excuses made up by the referee while running the game. Smashing a gem will banish a certain critter. Okay, why? No idea.
I began reading Geoffrey McKinney’s book and felt like my mind had been blown – more so than even Carcosa, I absolutely loved it, I actually dreamed of the isle and its wondrous places…and then, unlike Carcosa, that love turned somewhat sour. I only realized that when a gaunt, gigantic panda with a poisonous stinger elicited but a shrug from me; at that point, I had read about 80 pages of this brand of weirdness and had become numb to it. What this book needed, desperately, was more tricks, different kinds of strange, structure – anything to ground the amazing concepts. As written, I crashed harder from loving the book to being disillusioned by it than in any comparable book I’ve read.
How to rate this, then? Well, when I began reading this book, I was blown away and wanted to bestow my highest accolades upon it; having finished the book, I honestly can’t see me ever picking it back up, short of throwing some weirdness at my PCs when I didn’t have the time to prepare something. This is not a bad book, quite the opposite; its gorgeous artworks may make it worth for you…but in the end, I couldn’t help but feel like the lavish production values are here to help conceal the lack of depth that represents the main shortcoming of this book. If you’re looking for a book as a scavenging ground of the strange and wondrous, then this is very much worth getting; for other uses…well, not so much. Ultimately, I consider this book a mixed bag, slightly on the positive side. However, try as I might, I can’t bring myself to round up from my final verdict of 3.5 stars – I’m frankly too disenfranchised with what could have been a book for the ages.
You can get the pdf here on OBS!
You can get the print version here on LotFP’s store!