Thursday, December 27, 2018

What Do I Know About Reviews? Original Adventures Reincarnated--The Isle of Dread

If you have been following me for any amount of time, you may have heard my story about how I ran a session of D&D for some of my classmates in Sunday school class, in front of the rest of the class and our instructors, during the Satanic Panic, to show what the game was really like. 

This is when we had just started out generic Sunday school VHS lesson on how D&D leads to the fires of Hell. Several of us in class either played D&D, or had older siblings that had, or both. We brought in several D&D books for our teachers to see, and I volunteered to run a game for a group of people in front of the class.

I created a pre-generated fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief. I didn’t have much time for the session, so they were shipwrecked in a certain bay, fought crocodiles, and ran into a group of lizardfolk that they had to either fight or negotiate with. In the end, my teachers determined that maybe D&D wasn’t so bad, but that we should be “careful” with the content that we used and interacted with.

You may recognize that the progression of encounters from the fourth printing of the Isle of Dread Adventure, included in the D&D Expert Set that came out in 1983 (although I was running it years later). Because of that Sunday morning, I have always had fond memories of the Isle of Dread, although it goes a little deeper than just that one short game session.

A Tale of Two Introductory Adventures

I had never been able to figure out what I was supposed to do with The Keep on the Borderlands. There were a bunch of locations and a bunch of hints, but I wasn’t really sure why the PCs would show up at the Keep, and what would happen if they never latched on to a rumor. Even with the rumors, it felt like a lot of “there may be some kind of payoff if you dive into this area filled with certain death, but no promises.”

On top of all of that, while I learned a lot from reading Gary Gygax, Gygax’s adventures have a certain feel to them. Even outside of the traps and puzzles that feel like they will punish you for not having the same mental processes and influences that Gary had, the way social encounter were explained felt like you had to understand Gygax’s notions of fantasy society. Act tough to these people or they won’t respect you, but don’t show these people proper deference, and they have no use for you. While it didn’t occur to me at the time, some of that came from D&D weird elemental components, where the PCs should be acting like Conan when adventuring, and like proper medieval gentlefolk when in civilization.

When I read the Isle of Dread, I understood it much better. Here is a treasure map—the island is dangerous but has loads of treasure on it, and not that many people know about it. The villagers have some quirks, but for the most part, it’s kind of assumed that if you treat them well, they’ll treat you well. You have encounters as you wander around the island, and more clues drop that drive you towards the “final” encounter area. It felt like there was just enough momentum for me to get what adventurer do in this adventure.

I compare my experiences with both of these because the Keep on the Borderland was the Basic Set introductory adventure in the 80s, and because the Isle of Dread was the Expert Set introductory adventure. I also compare them because Goodman Games Original Adventures Reincarnated line started with Into the Borderlands, a compilation that includes the Keep on the Borderlands, and just recently The Isle of Dread was released for this line as well. I will admit, I own both, but I had a harder time getting through Into the Borderlands for a review, but I recently finished up my read through of this version of the Isle of Dread.

The Reincarnated Tome

This review is based on the hardcover version of Original Adventures Reincarnated—The Isle of Dread. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there will not be a PDF version of any of the adventures in this line.
The book is 328 pages long, with a color cover and endpapers, and black and white interior. The endpapers depict the original front and back cover of the adventure, as well as the 4th printing cover, and the player map of the island with the interior blank hexes. There are four pages of ads for other Goodman Games products towards the back of the book.

The interior has different styles based on the section of the book. The sections that reprint the first printing mimic the formatting, fonts, and artwork from that version of the adventure, and the section that reprints the fourth printing likewise follows the formatting, fonts, and artworks from that timeframe. The updated version of the adventure for 5th edition has fairly large font and headers as well as specific tables for the expanded sections of the adventure, and new artwork.

Problematic Content

Normally, when problematic content comes up in a product that I’m reviewing, I’ll address it as it appears in the text, and summarize the content near the end of the adventure. I had a lot of notes on this one, and I wanted to address that content up front this time.

First, I’ll mention that this is a content warning for racially insensitive portrayals, cannibalism, and slavery.

Second, I just want to own the fact that this review is being written by a CIS white male, so there are times when my perspective is skewed and not as helpful or nuanced as the perspective of people affected by the issues that I bring up in this section. Let me know if I mess up, because I always want to learn and do better.

Original Sin

The original adventure included some quickly drawn stereotypes that drew on Pacific island cultures as viewed through the lens of pulp adventure stories. Words like headhunters and taboo were thrown around in a few places, and there was even a side of Caribbean Island stereotypes thrown in with the tribal zombie masters. While all of that is insensitive, it is also somewhat brief. Because there isn’t much nuance added to the outer villages, the villages don’t come across inferior to whatever place the PCs come from. Even when trading with the villages, the only real limits are to two-handed weapons and heavy armor, which has much to do with terrain and climate as anything else.

There is an awkward mention later in the adventure of a vein of gold that could be mined, but that the natives won’t do it unless enslaved, and that the DM “might” want to discourage this. That an ugly contingency to plan for, and even adding it to the list of things adventurers might do says some ugly things about some of the source material.

Overall, however, for an adventure that was originally written in 1980, the natives are people the PCs are expected to get help from, to interact with positively, and receive missions from, with the exception of the islanders that have been corrupted by the Lovecraftian horrors. I could have been handled better, but 1980 offered worse as well.

What was a little troubling to me was that the updated 5th edition version of the Isle of Dread not only failed to add some more enlightened nuance, it actually introduced more problematic tropes, in 2018, than the original adventure had in 1980.

Increased Threat Range

A lot of what feels problematic in the expanded material falls under the category of people not taking the time to think about what kind of message was being conveyed by what was being said in the text.

Early on in the adventure text for the 5e conversion, a dryad encounter mentions that dryads defending the island from “pale-skinned” invaders. The problem is, that implies that visitors to the island, including the PCs, are pale skinned by default. Additionally, not much further into the adventure, the effects of an encounter mention that if an adventurer has to make a save “he” can attempt it again at a later interval to see if it still affects “him.” Later in the adventure, they use “she” as the pronoun for a potential DM for the adventure, but that doesn’t mitigate that within the first few pages of the adventure that the player characters are assumed, by default, to be white and male. Also, just use they. It’s really for the best.

The original adventure doesn’t really address what language is spoken on the island. The “fix” for this is to introduce the incredibly reductive “Tribal” as a language that people on the island speak. Given that the 5e material mentions that the DMG calls out the Isle of Dread as existing on the Elemental Plane of Water at various times, and shifting between prime material planes, the best solution for what the islander speak would probably have been Primordial.

There is also a section in the adventure that involves Neanderthals that live on the island. This is a trope that D&D has largely moved beyond, with “cavemen” showing up on various encounter tables. The biggest, and likely completely accidental association that comes up here is that this separate species of hominid is mentioned as using the same “Tribal” statblocks used for the islanders. So the “Tribal” statblocks are used for “unadvanced” humanoids that may not actually be fully human? I don’t think it was intentional, but the connection can clearly be made.

The terminology of “headhunters” is still used for the corrupted tribe serving the Kopru in the ancient ruins on the island, and it would have been very easy to emphasize that the creepy aberrations that control minds had used their powers to intimidate the islanders into serving them. Instead, we keep the implied Lovecraftian trope of “corrupted islanders” that just naturally start worshipping the aberrations.
On top of all of that, no matter how old school your adventure is, please don’t leave in those “gotcha” moments with children added into encounters to see of the PCs will slaughter them. Just don’t do it.

Speaking of things that got left in the adventure—remember that passage in the 1980 text about using slave labor to mine the vein of gold? It is still in the adventure, word for word. It is 2018. We should not be assuming that slavery is an acceptable means of resolving an encounter in D&D. That’s an embarrassment.

There is also an encounter added to the expanded dungeon section of the final temple that includes “degenerate humans.” Given that these are islanders that have been enslaved and tortured, and then escaped into lightless tunnels, this is horrible terminology to be using, especially when we aren’t talking about shipwrecked humans or pirates, but very specifically about the islanders in this instance. Given that the PCs aren’t meant to be automatically antagonistic to them, and there is an encounter where they can rescue a princess of these humans (yeah, I know), I’m not sure what’s gained by calling them degenerate or harping on how “primitive” they are.

In several places, they call out that the islanders should be similar to Pacific islanders, and even give out a chart of pacific islander names to use for NPCs. Then, in the material added, they add totem poles and totem golems. Because our level of Pacific island cultural awareness is set somewhere around a Gilligan’s Island episode.

There was an offhand reference in the 1983 reprint about additional adventures involving someone from the mainland hiring the PCs to bring back a live specimen of a dinosaur or even a giant ape. The Isle of Dread obviously is at least partially inspired by media like King Kong. In the 2018 revised adventure, there is literally an island of natives that worship a colossal ape, and the side mission would involve fighting the natives and stealing their god.

I think the additional item that made my jaw drop the most when reading through the text, however, was the added encounter with a rakasta outcast—who was outcast because he was born with black fur. I understand that the logic was probably “cat people + black cats being bad luck = cat people culture regarding black fur as unlucky,” but that’s ignoring the literal story being told, that a sentient species considers one of their own that is black to be evil because of their color. I’m really kind of shocked that nobody even looked at that one twice.

I understand that some of this is unfortunate, but still potentially harmful, association, such as what statblock to use to represent someone present in an encounter. But not taking out references to potential slavery by the PCs, the inclusion of “degenerate” and “primitive” humans, and adding a cultural bias against black members of that culture are things that we really should be more sensitive about in the modern era.

Better Examples?

WOTC isn’t perfect, and they still have some elements of D&D that could be addressed.

This article details some of the missed opportunities with Chult as presented in Tomb of Annihilation:

That said, when reprinting older adventures in Tales from the Yawning Portal, there were a few culturally insensitive or sexist encounters in classic adventures that were removed or reworked for the 5e re-release.

I will say, however, that since this is an official re-release of the adventure, approved by WOTC, it’s not just Goodman Games that let some of these modern issues reach publication. WOTC put their stamp of approval on this as well.

Introduction

The introduction includes some one or two-page pieces written by people involved in the production of the original Isle of Dread, as well as some of the regulars of Goodman Games, and culminates with an interview with Dave Cook, one of the original designers of the adventure.

There is some interesting insight into TSR at the time the adventure was published, the process of having two designers working on different sections of the island at the same time, as well as the inspirations for the adventure itself, ranging from pulp adventure, lost world stories, King Kong, and Lovecraft.

Because the adventure briefly introduces the setting eventually known as either the Known World or Mystara, there is also some insight into how that setting first came into existence.

Chapter Two—X1: The Isle of Dread Original Publication

The next section of the book includes a reprint of the original version of the Isle of Dread adventure, as well as the 1983 version included in the BECMI Expert Set. There is a discussion on the differences between publications, which are minor between the first, second, and third printing, but involve swapping out a few monsters and updated art and layout in the fourth printing.

Chapter Three—Overview of the Isle

This begins the conversion material for the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons version of the adventure. This section includes a section detailing native treasures and trinkets, a brief overview of the nations of the Known World reprinted almost exactly from the older editions of the adventure, alternate suggested starting points for the adventure, a discussion of language on the island, random weather charts, a reminder about 5e foraging rules, some stats for hazards on the island, rare plants and their worth and properties, and rumor tables.

The original adventures don’t really address what the islanders use for currency, just that they can buy and sell most of what’s available in the core rules, and have a hard limit to how much they can pay for trade goods brought to them (which is a not inconsiderable 5000 gp). This section adds the “logic” that the islanders have to have various art pieces and unworked bits of precious stones compiled on a table to use for their economy.

I like the special features of the island and having some general stats for overall common hazards, and I like that special properties and prices for island plants. I’m not as fond of the rumor tables, which weren’t an aspect of the original adventure. Essentially PCs have to invest time, skill checks, and gold to get rumors that may be true or false, which they can’t really verify until they check them out themselves. I really don’t like forcing PCs to spend resources on red herrings.

Additionally, the rumor table with rumors given out on the island, instead of the mainland, have some odd information that doesn’t feel like it is the kind of rumor a native of the island would give out. For example, why would a native give out false rumors about elves and orcs on the island if those species aren’t actually present?

Chapter Four—Wandering Dread

This section expands the encounter tables in the original adventure, including monsters from both the original adventure and the 1983 reprint. In addition to expanding the encounter chart, a paragraph of description is added for each of the monsters that can be encountered.

Creatures like dragons are given names and brief backstories. Some wandering NPCs are added into the chart, as are “Interesting Features,” which might be entrances to other encounters, rare plants, or even hidden treasure. One of my favorites is just the peaceful stone giant wandering the island that the PCs can encounter.

I like the brief descriptions for the random encounters, and several of the encounters have some nice potential for non-violent resolution. I enjoyed the interesting features on the chart as well. I’m not sure that reprinting the encounter building charts from 5e was strictly needed in this chapter, and it’s a minor annoyance to me that the encounter frequency is given on d6s, not because I hate old school encounter probability, but because most 5e encounter probability that I’ve seen expresses the range on a d20, and I like shared conventions, especially in an “official” conversion.

Chapter Five—The Isle of Dread

This is largely similar to the section detailing the outer island present in the original adventures. Right at the beginning, however, there is a section on hiring guides, but not much detail on the benefits of those guides, and lots of limitations on what those guides are willing to do. It almost feels like adding in the hirelings that appeared in The Keep on the Borderlands to this adventure, where they weren’t present.

While many of the encounters are similar to the original publication, in a few places, like the Phanaton settlement, there are some notes on how the inhabitants will react to PCs, and under what circumstances they might ask for help, thus generating a new quest for the PCs. I do like those sidebars and the addition of those explicitly stated quests, although I wish more of the communities on the island had them. In fact, if some of the lairs, such as the lizardfolk or the ogres, had conditions for becoming friendly and quests, it might have made for some more thought-provoking adventuring.

Chapter Six—More Dread

This section includes encounters completely new to this version of the adventure. Some of NPCs that are introduced, others are new villages, and some include some context for the other creatures on the island, or create some additional underwater encounters.

At least one of the NPCs exists to drop hints at the expanded follow up adventures detailed later, and I like the idea of Mika a minor magical merchant and sage, but as written, I’m not sure why she is portrayed as being as difficult as she is.

There is a new dungeon complex that explains what the rakasta are looking for on the island, which is a relatively short set of encounters. The inclusion of the ixitxachitl city made me a little sad that some of the Demogorgon lore introduced in the Savage Tide adventure path in the 3rd edition era wasn’t included.

Chapter Seven—The Central Plateau

This area represents the PCs getting closer to the somewhat assumed “end” of the island's story, and there are a few added encounter zones not present in the original adventures. Most of this plays out similarly, but there is an added mysterious obelisk, a mastodon graveyard, and the aforementioned out of place totem golems.

I liked the mysterious wreck of a ship far from the sea, as well as the mastodon graveyard. I really wish they had cut the text about slave labor in this section. There is an added geoglyph that hints at the upcoming “lurking evil” in the final part of the adventure, but I think I would have rather just had the villagers of Mantru better able to drop hints about the looming threat, instead of using the trope of “we can’t tell you, it’s taboo.”

The game mechanics for getting into the central plateau are given a 5e difficulty class, but it feels like using something more efficient, like a group climbing check, would have been better in line with something like spending considerable time climbing up a rock face. The check, as written, mentions critical failure, which isn’t a thing for skill checks in 5th edition D&D.

Chapter Eight—Taboo Island

Either out of boredom or being asked by the Mantru to help out, the PCs end up in the temple complex on this island, and face off against the antagonistic islanders. If they travel deep enough into the temple complex, they find out ancient aberrations known as the kopru have awakened, and the PCs can fight them, or maybe get absorbed into their net of operatives, since the kopru have mind control abilities.

I really wish they had rewritten some of this to highlight that some of the “evil” islanders might be dominated by the kopru, both to avoid some negative tropes and to foreshadow the upcoming villains of this section of the adventure. I also really wish they had written out the children in any of the encounters where they come up.

Chapter Nine—Below Taboo Island

This chapter adds more optional dungeon chambers to the original temple complex. An additional aberration villain, an Eye of the Deep, is added, as well as the narrative of the escaped “degenerate” humans. There is a familiar sequence with a missing crystal skull, and the potential to unleash a particularly powerful demon that the PCs may not be able to handle.

There is also an additional dragon’s lair (with a dragon) and a corrupted temple complex that houses potentially more dangerous kopru that could awaken.

While I like a few of the additional encounters, overall, it feels like a lot of dungeon complex was added to a fairly succinct climax to the adventure. It almost feels like the assumption is that a longer dungeon complex with a few rooms that don’t contribute to the narrative is better than something shorter that completes the unfolding story.

Appendix A—Further Adventures on the Isle of Dread

Many of the proposed expanded adventures are similar to the suggested adventures given in the older versions of the adventures. A few reference the added encounters in the 5e conversions, such as bringing information back about the mysterious landlocked ship or finding out information about the rakasta shrine.

The most in-depth (so to speak) expanded adventure involves closing the elemental gates that allow the Isle of Dread to shift from the material plane to the elemental planes, thus locking it to one specific world (at least for now).

There are locations given for the gates, and magic items that can be found throughout the adventure that can be used to destroy the gates. Each gate is given a location and guardians are described for each.

I’ll be honest, rather than all of the extra rooms added to the “Below Taboo Island” section, I would have rather had shorter, more detailed dungeons for each of the elemental gates described in this section.

Appendix B—New Monsters

Like the original adventure, there are a lot of new monsters in here. A few have seen stats in official 5e products, but the majority are old D&D monsters that have yet to see 5e stats, or brand new creatures. There are over 80 new monsters, although in a few cases, there are multiple stat blocks for the same monster with different roles (like the general phanaton, phanaton chief, and phanaton bodyguards).

Appendix C—New Items & Magic

This includes new armor and weapons, like wicker armor or the cutlass or war claws. It also contains a few 5e versions of classic magic items, a few new items, and the magic items that were detailed specifically to interact with the elemental gates.

There are also a few new spells, some of which are old spells seeing 5e for the first time, and a few new, quirky items. These include Logs to Lizards, Serpent Missile, Snake Charm, Sticks to Snakes, and Wall of Water.

Appendix D—Characters

There are six pre-generated characters in this section, including a barbarian, ranger/rogue, wizard, bard, cleric, and fighter. They are presented in a column format rather than one character to a page, so they need to be recopied to use them, especially since they are spread out across multiple pages.

In previous versions of the adventure, a few of the tribal chiefs and war leaders were given names and brief descriptions. Here they are given full stat blocks, along with the stats for the newly introduced shadow dragon, and the new NPCs that can be found in the expanded encounters on the island.

There is also some information on guides. While the initial information at the beginning of the adventure only mentioned guides from the starting village and how far they would go, these guides are presented as characters more willing to travel around the Isle of Dread as the PCs adventure, and include one of the islanders, some phanatons, and a shipwreck survivor.

Appendix E—Player Handouts

This section includes the initial letter from Rory Barbarosa promising treasure on the island, the blank Isle of Dread Map for the PCs to fill in while hexcrawling, various handouts about the dinosaur natives of the island, and a picture of the massive kopru geoglyph.

Appendix F—Maps

This includes the updated continental maps, the DM’s map of the Isle of Dread, village and lair maps, including the expanded encounter areas added to the 5e conversion and some of the optional new encounter areas.

X Marks the Spot

Some of the expanded encounter areas do a lot for making the Isle of Dread an interesting ongoing adventure area in a campaign. The added sections on befriending some of the communities and the conditions under which they ask for help are great additions. There are a ton of new monsters in this book that can be broadly useful to a D&D 5e game. It is interesting getting some insight into how the adventure was made and the changes between printings.

Shipwreck

There was a lot of content that was insensitive and tone deaf. It is also amazing how much of this material wasn’t present in the original but was actually added to this version of the adventure. Intentional or not, that is the kind of material that keeps the hobby from growing and being as inclusive as it should be. There was an opportunity to take the core pulp tropes already present, cut out what doesn’t work, and retain the core of what was classic, but that opportunity was missed.

There are several sections where the 5th edition rules are referenced, but there is a clunky expression in a few places, like having someone make a perception check and then an opposed wisdom check for surprise, or referencing critical failure in skill checks.

Some of the added content feels like it assumes that there are things that are good for “old school in general” rather than taking into context the original Isle of Dread adventure. Longer, more detailed dungeon complexes aren’t really what that adventure is about. It’s the exemplar of wilderness adventures, so it’s about crossing the wilderness and many smaller dungeons, rather than finding one bigger one.

Not Recommended--There isn’t much in this product that convinces me to tell others to pick it up.

This was a really hard one for me. I almost never bother to write a full review for a product if I’m going to give it a “Not Recommended,” but this product calls for it, because of the context for why I’m giving it that rating.

A lot of work went into this product. A lot of good, solid work went into parts of this adventure conversion. I don’t want to ignore that work, or to make it seem as if that work isn’t evident. But it is also evident that sensitivity wasn’t a priority on the product.

Even without the problematic content that I mentioned, there were some issues with how well the 5e rules were utilized, and with how well some of the content meshed with the strengths of the original adventure. But the overall product would have been a much stronger one.

As it stands, if you are feeling nostalgic, there is always the PDF of the original printing of the Isle of Dread:

X1--The Isle of Dread

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