This is an RPG campaign setting of about 110 pages with lots black and white illustrations (nearly one illustration per page, some full-page) and has roughly 20 lists and tables of various types used for character building, encounters, rumors and other rich setting material. There are 2 maps: a full color one and a black and white, numbered hex version for the GM. Also there are nearly 30 magic items, over a dozen new spells and about 120 different map encounters.
This book is, in essence, a sandbox setting, but there is much more to it. About half of the book is composed of notes, tips and additional rules to make the whole experience more immersive and unique for both the GM and for players.
There’s simply lots of material in this product:
Game master notes and advice
The Foreword paints a sympathetic portrait of the author’s mindset, expressing a view of the RPG hobby as a form of escapism from the traditional expectations of storytelling as well as from daily monotony. The tone starts off as light-hearted and conversational; the author sounds friendly and considerate.
The Introduction includes some short but good advice on how to manage the players’ expectations. There is a suggestion for GMs wanting to maintain the decent level of strangeness of the setting by striving to keep some baseline of realism. I believe that this is good advice in any campaign: if everything is always weird, fantastic, horrific or grim all of the time, then none of it is. An occasional dose of “mundane” reality in a game world helps to contrast other extremes. Good advice so far.
After there are descriptions of positive gaming techniques that can be used by both GMs and players. I’ve encountered similar advice in other books and gaming blogs under the moniker of “Yes, and…”. The author also emphasizes collaborative exchanges between GMs and players. I was pleasantly surprised to find this in an OSR product.
Altogether I was pleased by the author’s tips and tricks to bridge the gap between perceived new and old school gaming styles. This was pretty refreshing to me because I feel that gaming styles don’t have to be broken up into walled up factions or schools: there’s more overlap than we’d like to believe and that gamers are much more complex than we give them credit for. But I digress…
Within the campaign notes is a very nifty d6-based task resolution system called VSD6. This system could be applied to many different games (especially OSR ones without formal skill lists). I found it familiar with Apocalypse World-based systems: it includes the possibility of varying degrees of success and failure (of which I’m a fan of). The basic version is tidy and simple: if you’re familiar with similar concepts, like the ones in games like Dungeon World, then you’ll get it right away. Then the author provides an advanced version of the rules if the GM wishes to fully embrace it. Good stuff in here and very modular: however, be warned that I’m not very good at math, so I may have missed any issues with probability. I “feels” like a good and workable system and that is good enough for me.
Also included are some extra rules for things like combat and travel to better reinforce some of the core thematic elements of the setting.
Since this book claims that it is compatible “with virtually every fantasy paper & pencil tabletop roleplaying game”, I decided to use the latest (5th) edition of Dungeons and Dragons. There were two reasons for this: I find that it is just enough of a rules-light system that grants enough freedom to make rulings on the fly (which is suitable to OSR style games) and because it is the latest game that I had sold onto my players.
The drawback was that we’d miss out on a few features, such as the VSD6 system mentioned earlier, but I fully integrated the varying degrees of success of this mechanic into D&D’s Ability Checks. Since the many tools for character building and for generating encounters are rather system-agnostic, we didn’t have any issues. So I agree with the claim that this is a very system-agnostic or at least flexible module: your group could easily use this with your preferred OSR, D&D or D20 game of choice.
Character Building and Hooks
This book contains several lists of character-defining hooks and traits that can help to integrate player characters into the setting. I believe that this type of extra detail is hugely beneficial as it gets players more invested or interested in the game’s mood. Most of these list items consistently promote the weird, the mysterious, the fantastic and the horrifying. One could end up with a really twisted PC with a troubled past and/or very dark alterior motives.
The Darker Secrets section has a list that is meant to be used during character creation: specifically while rolling attribute scores. Basically, if a player requests a re-roll they roll on this list to gain a dark secret or character flaw. If you’re doing it the old fashioned way (3d6, in order), odds are that you’ll roll at least once or twice. These interesting traits are almost all sinister, horrifying or twisted background elements that could completely define a character. Some of them remind me of the weird, crazy stuff found in modules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
In the wrong person’s hands, these traits could be extremely disruptive without GM supervision or group buy-in. I know my players’ tastes and limits very well, but if I was playing with strangers, I might omit one or two of these items as they could rub some people the wrong way.
There are also some cool background flashbacks and a list of possible rumors that each character can know about the Islands (some false, some true). I felt that these were thoughtful and considerate additions. I appreciated all of this extra character-driven fluff: it’s one thing to present a hexcrawl, but to go an extra mile to provide motivations and goals to interact with the sandbox is very good design.
There’s a new Monk class included as a character option. I first I assumed that this was another version of the D&D trope of the Kung-Fu warrior (I first encountered the “Monk” with 3rd edition), but I was mistaken. This is an intriguing take on the concept of a sort-of Cleric mixed with traits of a cultist. Again, very appropriate to the setting.
When we did this section, I allowed players to re-roll their background traits and flashbacks if they were not happy or seemed uncomfortable with their results. Surprisingly, nearly all of my friends were cool with their results, although afterward I read out a few of the more disturbing ones to hear what they thought: some agreed that they didn’t really feel like dealing with the subject matter of one or two of the darker options. My instincts were correct upon initial review: if you don’t know your players, you may want to spend a bit of time reviewing these lists before using them. But otherwise they liked what they came up with: it all really helped to set the tone and they liked the pre-game character hooks. Some players really got into it, adding more fluff to the setting. It was rather awesome.
Most of my players were already familiar with the concept of setting tie-in hooks during character creation. They bought into it very positively. I had introduced it back in the day with Dungeon World and have been using that feature ever since. I still appreciated the fact that this module had these traits included because it saved me some work. It was a welcome feature and I wish that more pre-written adventures did the same.
This book also contains plenty of material to emphasize the setting’s mood and lore. These options are consistently imaginative, horrifying, disturbing and weird. A word of warning: some of these events could end the game rather quickly, so the GM better be familiar with these lists before the campaign starts.
There’s a brief, high-level chronological history of the Islands as well as ways to generate their “wants”: it appears that the Islands themselves have some kind of sentience. Players can be rewarded for behaving in certain ways if they match up with the “personality” of the setting itself. Really cool and creepy: it reminds me of Ravenloft.
There’s a random list/table that makes spell-casting crazy and unpredictable, reminding me of the Wild Magic table for the Sorcerer in D&D 5e and of the Psychic Backlash tables in Dark Heresy (which were always good for a chuckle and/or a groan).
The rest of this section covers more atmospheric and thematic elements of the Islands. There are expanded rules for making Magical Swords unique and cool (definitely a re-usable resource for a GM), as well as a short table reminiscent of the critical injury charts from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. There’s also lists of stuff that happens while the characters sleep, different and occasionally disturbing forms of island currency, dangerous alien weather and a few different explanations for the titular Purple Putrescence, one of which is a huge twist that was quite the surprise to me. The author suggests that this one in particular is purely optional, but I’m very much eager to use it. I’m very certain that it is an homage to something from film or t.v.,, but I can’t quite place it…
There’s some stuff about various Crystals that may be found: each type (or color) has various features and utilities. Many of them have weird or nasty side-effects such as attribute draining. I thought that these were neat but I can see some players not wanting to use them after their stats start dropping. The author includes some brief advice on how to incorporate these items to better suit the style of your campaign. Good stuff.
There’s a section covering the main factions of people living on the island, as well as tables to randomly generate NPC encounters. What I liked about this section is how each group of villagers that the characters encounter can differ greatly from each other depending on recent events, their relationship with other settlements and even their attitudes toward the PCs. So while each faction may have universal traits they are not monolithic in their behaviors and values (a trope that I’m bored to death with in traditional fantasy and sci-fi media). Kudos to the author for this. Those of my readers who are familiar with the books by Sine Nomine (ex Stars Without Number) will feel a familiarity with this section as a useful, quick tool to create NPCs and settlements.
Each faction (race) is pretty unique and interesting in terms of goals and motivations, although superficially most of them could appear as robed cultists to the players (with two obvious exceptions). But I’m always glad to get away from the usual token Tolkien-isms, though.
Finally there’s a Wandering Monster table full of surprises and unconventional beasties. There are some brief stat-blocks, but the main descriptors were sufficiently imaginative and useful. This table looks very easy to use with any d20 or OSR system.
The author notes that all of this material is optional. One could pick and choose which parts to use to better suit their own gaming style. While I’ve seen some of these ideas here and there in other RPGs, it is very handy to have them all in one place along with the campaign.
Regardless of how much you’d use I believe that all of these colorful options will make any campaign set on the Islands feel unique and memorable. This isn’t just a sandbox setting with things to find, fight and loot, it’s an experience. All of it embraces the weird and fantastic.
When I informed my players of the existence of the critical hit charts, the ones who’d played WFRP cheered and grimaced at the same time, which was awesome. We only had one magic backlash occur and it was just bizarre and kind of hilarious (my players were also kind of relieved: in other games that sort of thing usually meant that someone’s face melted off or that a demon popped into reality).
I included a few crystals, but the players became hesitant to use them after they started to lose Constitution and another one got a gruesome skin fungus. I was a bit saddened by that turn of events because I love the crazy devil’s bargain that these items offer.
I decided to have fun with the party and had them encounter a settlement of Snake-men but gave them a troubled condition that made them almost sympathetic. All of that got derailed when the players started telling “snake-talk” jokes (how many s-words can you string together at once for laughs?). They got so carried away with this that I asked them if one of their characters actually said those things. The player nodded with a smirk and so the Snake-men instantly became indignant and tried to capture them as slaves. I was hoping that they’d make unconventional allies but oh well; better luck next time with the ape-men (or not…).
As for the other factions, the players were just skeptical of all these “cultists”, never sure if their intentions were good or ill. Using the faction tables really shuffled my expectations on how the players perceived most NPCs. The weirdness of the setting put everyone on edge a little. After all, a robed cultist usually means “bad things will happen”. One player decided to feign devotion to whichever cause the NPC followed- one time to awkward results when the seemingly benign, white robed missionaries turned out to be planning a genocide of their neighbours. The character’s attempts to graciously back down from participating were pretty hilarious. The last game ended with some tension between the party and those people.
Combined with everything else in the setting, the Wandering Monster table was fun and easy to use with D&D 5e. I had no trouble incorporating whatever the dice created, although it helps that the mood and theme of the Islands is pretty wacky and bizarre. Just about anything goes, to be honest and nothing felt out of place.
Hex map encounters
Things get very interesting in this setting. Up to this point, I was expecting standard weird fantasy but I forgot that this often includes a heavy dose of science fiction. There are encounters with advanced technology, space ships and beings from other worlds or dimensions (unrelated to magical planes). Again, this makes sense because Lovecraftian tropes often include alien futurism intermixed with the arcane. Still, I wasn’t expecting that at all prior to reading the hex descriptions.
There are lots of interesting encounters here. Not all trigger combat: there are lots of things to explore and discover that don’t include any immediate peril or conflict. There are also lots of NPCs and creatures that aren’t hostile by default, but may be depending on the party’s motives and behavior. Some locations have more than one encounter in them, depending on distance, population density or if the party decides to explore some mini-dungeons.
There are plenty of pop culture and cult film references, sometimes quite anachronistic or bizarre. Some are really obvious, others clever enough to be missed by more casual fans of certain media. Possibly my favorite was [SPOILER] Amazing Larry, a nod to one of my favorite Tim Burton movies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. If you’re a person who can catch this reference, I consider you to be a soul mate.
The monster stats were usable right out of the book with the game system we were using (D&D 5th edition), and seemed to be easily compatible with typical OSR games (Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess). The stat blocks are brief and self-contained unless they’re magic users in which case the GM will have to reference their spell list of choice. It’s all easily adaptable.
That all said, there are some nasty, deadly encounters too. Some of which are Save or Die with very little advanced warning. Old School GMs will probably like these “Gotcha!” traps. They’re not my style, but again, the exact mechanics were easily altered without changing the encounter too much (I used D&D 5e’s Death Save mechanics which at least give the party a chance).
A couple of the encounters had subject matter that might not be a good fit with certain groups of players. Frazetta-inspired damsels in distress, plenty of slave girls and scenes out of horror/sci-fi movies and comics with sexualized peril. Luckily none of those details are hugely integral to each encounter and a GM could easily change or omit them. Basically, even if a reader actively dislikes to include those things, they could remove them without too much effort and still get a lot out of this material.
Strangely, some of the most interesting entries are the briefest and most vague. There are several hex locations which are basically just “water” or “crashed spaceship”. I felt that it was a bit of wasted opportunity: the book could’ve included a handful of encounter and location generators for these places. I may write up some and share them on my blog at some point.
While not as chaotic and disjointed as other sandbox offerings I’ve read, I did feel that some of these encounters were a little too “random”. While they were all consistent in terms of mood, the overall setting became almost surrealist. It was like feverish crazy dream world. While that is fine in itself, I strongly recommend using all of the setting material and character hooks in the rest of the book (especially the “Fun things to do” Scenario Seeds table) to give some structure or “meaning” to everything.
Knowing my players, I changed a few NPCs by simply using the books’ NPC Faction generating lists and tables. So instead of a “voluptuous, red-haired maiden” for one encounter, I rolled up an ape-like Koshi, one of the natives. The tables dictated that he was an escaped prisoner from his tribe (and I grabbed the option that he was royalty). Instantly, I had created a really cool and interesting NPC ally for the party. The players gave him a name and everything: one wanted to call him George and the other Jenkins. It was pretty awesome.
Notes on the art and Design
The Artwork is pretty good but varies in technical skill. Overall the art matches the established themes of the product: weird fantasy horror with touches of sword and sorcery and Lovecraftian overtones. The quality seems to be standard with other OSR materials that I’ve encountered: the best work is on the cover and on the occasional full-page illustration, while the rest is decent and only occasionally kind of amateurish. I liked it, having a fondness for hand-drawn black and white artwork lately, which may be partially due to nostalgia. While digital art can be beautiful I feel that it lacks a certain warmth, so I appreciated the art style of this book.
I can see that some readers would find some of the illustrations problematic. The cover is obvious cheesecake, as are some of the other works by the same artist (Faustie). The vast majority of the artwork inside doesn’t share that tone. However I’m guessing that a person who doesn’t like that style of art in their RPG products won’t likely look into this book after seeing the cover.
I showed my players the cover image. The reactions: laughter, a few eye rolls and a few acknowledgments of Heavy Metal magazine. I communicated to them what the campaign style was (I believe my exact terms included “kind of old school gonzo fantasy horror”), so they were not wholly surprised. Still, two of my friends were not crazy about it, but that didn’t stop them from giving the campaign a try.
The Fiction is well written and relevant, adding some context, mystique and lore to the setting. Typically my eyes glaze over when I encounter fiction in RPG books and so I usually skip it all. However my intrigue about this weird setting, and my enthusiasm from what I’d read so far, got me invested in reading it.
The first entry that I read began as standard fantasy fare, name-dropping a lot of familiar tropes but gradually becoming a bit more interesting. At one point it tapped right into good old sword and sorcery style, harkening to Howard and Burroughs and so my attention was kept. There’s some neat stuff going on in the Islands… The Fiction drops a few hints at what is to come.
One complaint that I have is that the first half (the non-hex descriptions) felt a bit disorganized. I would have liked some traditional section headings or chapters to group similar material together. For example, the section on the crystals is separated from a very useful bit on how to adapt their use in different campaign types. I’m not sure why these sections were separated. Similarly, all of the background info and character hooks are here and there: I would’ve liked them all in one chapter, in one place. As one reads this material, though, it all made “sense” because each topic flowed into the next. But during character creation I had to do some page flipping back and forth and I don’t like to do that.
I was very impressed by this product: it was far more than I originally envisioned. There’s plenty of material in this campaign that can make each visit to the Islands very different and unique. A GM can get a lot of re-use of this material. There’s lots of good advice and optional rules that can be used outside of this specific campaign, so that’s a big bonus.
That being said, the “weird fantasy” genre isn’t for everyone. While there’s plenty of comedic and tongue-in-cheek humor, there are some darker elements and some cheesecake that might not be appropriate for some. The cover art might be some hint to this to any potential buyers. But if one can look past that, there’s plenty of cool material in there that I could see as being useful even if you never run the campaign as-is and just use the goldmine of idea generators.