Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Isle of Dread: A New Campaign Frame After Much Death

(SPOILER WARNING: If you intend to play the Isle of Dread, you probably shouldn’t read any further!)

“If the PCs unknowingly venture into an area they’re not prepared to handle, they should suffer the consequences, including death.” — Justina’s Player

Here’s the score:

  1. Last I heard, you are chomping at the bit to go back into the ruins and try to find that giant pearl, because trudging back to the ship empty handed is too much for your pride. But some of you want to have all sorts of third level characters just magically appear in the village next to the dungeon. Sorry… that’s not happening. If you want a brand new, balanced party that starts at level three you can have it… but not there. If you want to go back into the ruins for loot, you’ll do it with your surviving 3rd level characters and the all-new complementary first level warriors from the village that I already promised to you. (Oh yeah, there’d also be that first level “shaman” that you wheedled out of me.)
  2. There is also the entire freaking Island to explore, of course. Also… the treasure map that… uh… someone (??) has indicates that there may be something potentially valuable to the northeast of your position. (This was not clear to Justina at one point so I am making it crystal clear now. He/she thought the ruins was where the X is on the map– not true!) Maybe you’d want to use this village as a base while you look for other potential adventures that you could have. Who knows what could be out there….
  3. Replacement ~3rd level characters are back at the ship if you insist on them… but of course it took y’all ~20 days or so to make it to the central plateau. No telling how many people will get eaten by dinosaurs on the way back. Heh.
  4. The above three options are the most obvious ones off the top of my head. If it doesn’t cross your minds to even consider what else you can dream up to do… then… well… you may not understand just how much autonomy your actually have– not to mention the lengths I would go to accommodate it. Not that you should feel guilty if you don’t go off on a random tangent– straight ahead old school treasure hunting is perfectly legitimate goal. But #1-3 outlines “the box.” I remind you that you’re free to think outside of it. But it’s also your responsibility. I’m not going to spell out every possible option or goal that you could set for yourself.

It is not my view of this island that characters can necessarily respawn there ad infinitum. Unless you come up with a different vision/goal, you are conquistadors. You’re here to pillage and loot and then GO HOME. That’s part of the reason why I was originally pushing that XP would only be awarded to the folks that make it back to Specularum. Two reasons for that: civilization is the only real home base… and this extreme lost world wilderness location does not provide the fame aspect of the leveling up process. (I have ruled that Justina, Han Yolo, and Steve Erwin will get XP before next session, though. I’m not going back on that agreement– mostly because I’m curious what you guys will do with access to the second level cleric spells.)

Now… there is some objection to the wimpy first level villagers that now make up the bulk of the party. There’s a few reasons why I think you should embrace this:

  • They may be what it takes to get your surviving party members back to the ship. In a conquistador scenario, they are a HUGE windfall. Not having them at all could mean that Justina and Han Yolo are effectively stranded to die of some random disease. If they made a run for it back to the ship by themselves, who knows what their chance of making it back alive would be? Probably not very good. Show some gratitude to an otherwise stingy dungeon master!
  • “But that’s no fair,” you say. “We didn’t know something bad would happen when we killed off most of our party and our new-found Rakasta buddies.” Well yeah, sorry if you didn’t see it coming… but death is already fickle and all-too-likely. You were going to lose characters no matter what. But face it… you lost more because you were careless and you took your matériel for granted. Okay, so you had no idea a dungeon master could be so cruel. The “No Fair Do Over” characters are back at the ship.
  • If any of the tribesmen survive to level two… that is a significantly cool accomplishment. I’d think it would be awesome if you actually did it. I don’t know what your exact odds of doing this comes out to, but it’s there. Adventure around the plateau and see if you can pull it off if you want. You’d risk losing your now-fourth level characters in the process, or else improve your chances of making it back to the ship. Who knows what the best course of action is– or if there even is one at this point.

It would be pretty darn useful for continuity purposes if either Justina or Han Yolo actually did make it back to the ship. (And I know this has been a low-treasure high-death game… but do not underestimate the value of the exploration you’ve done and the intelligence you’ve gathered.) BUT… that’s my assumption. However… I haven’t heard anything to make me think that you guys think that would be awesome. In fact… maybe it is that you… dread… the onerous trek through the wilderness. Maybe the thought of taking a twenty day journey back the ship and then backtracking back to the plateau again– maybe that sounds just completely silly, dull, and pointless. If you genuinely feel that way… let me tell you. Maybe you don’t really want to play “The Isle of Dread.” If you want to do unlimited respawn with a town that is very close to a massive dungeon such that you would not ever have to play out very much in the way of hexcrawling… then what you actually want to do is play Stonehell Megadungeon. Just sayin’!

So… that last bit is the reductio ad adbsurdam that explains why I am so stingy with the concessions you’ve been asking for here and there. At some point, you can make so many modifications to the implied campaign structure of this adventure that you’re not really playing “The Isle of Dread” anymore. If you genuinely want to play a different type of game, that’s fine. There’s a reason why there is a big campaign setting map included with the module. I know I need to be flexible juggling the desires of the players and all that, but I’m not going to tinker with the parameters of this scenario until it is functionally identical to every other adventure you’ve played. The Isle of Dread is its own place. It has its own distinctive qualities and if we’re going to play it, I intend to preserve them.

Which leads us to option five: We could just rule that Justina and Han Yolo made it back to Specularum only to get killed in a bar brawl before they could get another expedition together. Your new party would have their log, so you’d know everything you already know and you can take another stab at the adventure with that information more-or-less intact, but out of date by a few years. This gets your balanced, full-strength party in place without violating my precious sense of narrative coherence. It would also preserve the island as being a remote, treacherous location that you cannot adventure on indefinitely. Option six would be the same as five except that you would do something else for a while on the mainland and then tackle the Isle once you think you have enough levels and magic-items to do it. If that is the case, then I can place both Stonehell and The Darkness Beneath on the campaign map and you can take your pick of those two megadungeons.

My chief concern in all of this has been to reasonably and impartially present this classic module to you as a change of pace from whatever else it is that you normally do. I am not necessarily trying to steer you one way or the other… but I do hope this explains why things have been done the way that they have been. It’s not my job to continuously throw resources at you which you then spend like drunken sailors until you manage to systematically clear out every stinking hex on the island. It’s your job to take the resources that you do have and then see what you can accomplish with them in the context of a situation that is rapidly evolving.

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5 responses to “The Isle of Dread: A New Campaign Frame After Much Death

  1. Chris Mata May 29, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    half the party wipes (say 6 players) night one of the campaign. What are your favorite ways to let the 3 guys who lost their PC’s ‘back in the game’?

    another shipwrecks crew?
    random wanderer on the island?

    I would like to hear your thoughts.

  2. Chris Mata May 29, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    I am on a tablet and was having trouble reading every bit, so if I missed that in your article, I do apologize.

  3. Chris Mata June 7, 2013 at 9:32 am

    The module lists 3 to 7 as the level spread for it. 3 I can see. At level 7 do you feel you need to get creative beyond what is printed or is it more of a final base of operations for an established group to research, train, plan, etc…..

    of course you can always tweak the number monsters in a given encounter but that isn’t always workable.

    Sadly, my copy is long since gone and I cannot remember it being suitable for much standard fare level 7 adventuring for most groups.

  4. jeffro June 7, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I started the characters at level three because of the module’s suggestion about total levels in the party. (I had nine characters in the first session. 9×3 = 27 total levels.) This is, for people that have not worked their way up from level one in module B2 or something, a bit on the low side given the amount of capricious death the adventure is likely to include.

  5. Chris Mata June 7, 2013 at 9:42 am

    We never had enough total levels when we were little. I remember an average of 3 PC’s, our DM NEVER allowed a player to run more than one, and maybe 1.5 hirelings per PC if we were lucky. He was a stingy old coot. Finding and keeping a +1 sword was a major affair.

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