Review: Isle of the Unknown
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 21, 2013
Isle of the Unknown is another campaign setting book written by Geoffrey McKinney, of Carcosa fame, published by Lamentation of the Flame Princes. Both books are similar in how they present the game world to the player: short descriptions of the regions in a wilderness map that has been sun-divided into hexes. The similarities really end there. The art and general tone of the two books is quite different. They also seem to serve contrasting purposes: Carcosa is a complete—Hah!—setting in and of itself, while Isle of the Unknown is meant to be placed within a campaign setting. It is purposefully light on details that would suggest what the larger world of the island is like. It is up to the dungeon master to decide this for themselves. The hex descriptions in Isle of the Unknown are broken down into the following categories: cities & villages, statues, magic users & clerics, monsters, and “the weird”.
0410 A rumour is spreading through this town (population 1,500) that a detachment of men-at-arms is several days late in returning. The town’s lord had sent out men to slay the horrid dragon (see hex 0409) that has plagued the town. Unfortunately, the men entered the cave in hex 0411.
The city and village descriptions are the most pedestrian. Rumour or events that have transpired in the settlement usually direct players to other (more interesting) hexes. Each description includes the population so you have a rough sense of how big the town might be. Beyond that there is little said about these villages.
0505 Each of eight 75 lb. porcupines (Armor: as leather, HD 9, Hp 32, 37, 31, 51, 41, 42, 22, 49, move 130’ [swimming only], 1d6/bite) has four poisonous asps growing from its body instead of legs. Each round a porcupine itself bites, as does one of its asps (10 points of damage, save avoids). The gaze of a porcupine drains 1 point of strength (which returns at the rate of 1 point/ hour). They can also shape-shift into swordfish, which doubles their movement rate
The monsters on the Isle of the Unknown are supposed to be evocative of the sorts of creatures found in Greek mythology: the chimera, the sphinxes, that sort of thing. To my modern eyes they feel like something silly out of Pokemon. It seems like they could have all been replaced with a series of random tables for generating chimeric creatures. (And I think if you tried you could reverse engineer such a table easily enough.) The monster illustrations are nice, but also what lend the monsters their air of Pokemon: they are bright, colourful, and cartoony. One thing very impressive about the book is that every single monster is illustrated in full colour.
1209 In the midst of a 100’ diameter circle of strangely-colored nature (bright orange stones, purple and yellow grass, red foliage, etc) stands a life-sized statue of a nude woman made of an unknown, sky blue stone. She holds a rainbow-colored harp. Anyone plucking the strings will notice that random objects (including himself) within 50’ turn other colors for nearly a minute before returning to their previous color. …
The book could be used solely as a giant random statue table. There are so many scattered about the island. Most of statues will try and kill you if you mess with them. Some provide interesting benefits, depending on your alignment or class. Other are just strange things to confound your players. Most of these statues would be right at home inside a dungeon.
1803 A perpetual spring blesses a forest of ash, cypress, fig, apple, and pear trees. The sweet perfumes of roses, columbines, daisies, and violets mingle with the odor of cinnamon and cloves. A herd of 49 milk-white cattle is kept by a young woman in a dress of pastel blue, pink, and green She is a 6th-level magic-user (Armor: none, HD 6, Hp 22, move 120’) armed with bronze spear, long sword, and dagger. If accosted, the seven bulls (Armor: as leather, HD 4, Hp 17, 7, 23, 15, 17, 24, 14, move 150’, 2d8/gore) of the herd will protect her. On the other hand, if treated with courtesy, she will magically create green moss agates (worth 10 gp each) and bestow one upon each courteous person.
The magic-user and clerics of the Isle of the Unknown all have atypical powers. They often have some small amount of treasure on their person. It is generally not a good idea to fight them. The magic-user described above would probably be friendly to the player characters, but many of the descriptions of the clerics and magic-users aren’t quite so clear. The descriptions are terse: there is a lot of leeway in how they could be used. There are full-page paintings of several of the magic-users by Jason Rainville. If there is one thing LotFP does well it’s art. There are some beautiful pieces in this book.
2405 An opulently furnished mansion overlooking the sea is the erstwhile home of a powerful enchanter. Therein stand the immobilized bodies of fifty young woman of surpassing grace and loveliness, their youth unnaturally made perpetual by the magical arts of their captor.
Finally we have some straight up weird encounters. Some, like the one above, could be fleshed out in to a whole adventure. Others are small strange situations that provide some colour. For the most part none of them really jumped out at me as zany-crazy-awesome—unlike Carcosa.
At the back of the book are a great set of indices that categorize hexes in to the types of encounters found on the island. It would have been nice for similar work to have been done for Carcosa. Being able to quickly look at where all the towns in the world is very handy. The monsters are organized by hit dice and include a smaller version of their illustration. This makes the book useful as a mini-monster manual.
As a physical book the Isle of the Unknown is incredible. Lamentations of the Flame Princess hit their stride with the release of this book and Carcosa. They have few equals when it comes to producing books. (And I am including the big publishers Wizards of the Coast and Paizo here.) There is a neurotic attention to detail in their books that I love.
Should you pick up this book? I’m not so sure. There is less that appeals to me here than in Carcosa. For a weird island of wonder the Isle of the Unknown often feels quite muted. I think that’s where it really falls down. In an attempt to make a supplement that would function in any campaign world, McKinney has produced something that often feels quite flat. It’s a much less cohesive body of work than Carcosa.
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