OSR: 10 Additional Island-Based Reviews

This is the last set, I swear!

I wanted to build an archipelago of tropical OSR island hexcrawls, similar to Dan D's "Distant Lands of DIY" map.  I've reviewed 7 adventures here and 8 more here. I'm running out of islands to review.

I'm going to focus on the map and hex key and the random encounter table. The module might contain other stuff and the other stuff might be very good... but I've found these two sections are a good barometer for how useful I'll find a given product. 

Does the module contain the 3 most common tropes for island adventures: volcanoes, dinosaurs, and invisible walls that gate certain areas or otherwise limit player options?

And the final verdict:

Drop In: I don't need to edit this module to run it in a wavecrawl-type game. I might need to add things, but I don't need to rearrange or remove anything.
Mangle: I'd need to rewrite, copy-paste, edit, and substantially rework this module to make it meet my standards. The module isn't mangled as is; I'll need to mangle it to use it.
Pass: I won't be using it.

Again, I'm focusing on utility to my potential islandcrawl. It's a very narrow scope.

In this post, I hastily review:
1. Treasure Hunt

2. Drums on Fire Mountain
3. Isles on an Emerald Sea
4. Red Tide
5. Skull and Shackles - The Wormwood Mutiny
6. Skull and Shackles - Raiders on the Feve
7. Skull and Shackles - Tempest Rising
8. Skull and Shackles - Island of Empty Eyes
Skull and Shackles - The Price of Infamy
Skull and Shackles - From Hell's Heart

N4: Treasure Hunt

TSR, Aaron Allston, 1986
Volcano: No
Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Use: Drop-In

It's an origin adventure, and a fairly good one. The PCs are shipwrecked. They have nothing - no weapons, no tools, not even a character class. These days we'd call it a Funnel. Stab a bunch of people in the kidneys, become a Thief. Muck around with magical items, become a Magic-User. Good stuff.

Of course, this doesn't work in a standard tropical island hexcrawl mashup. Take away the initial premise and how does the adventure hold up?

Hex Map
It's on a grid. 150' squares. The island is about 1.5 miles tall and 1.2 miles wide. North, for some reason, is on the left side of the diagram. Locations are numbered and a key is provided next to the map, but it's not terribly easy to spot what's what. Elevations are also marked. All the locations are clustered on one corner of the island, so a zoomed-in map would have been nice, but it's not a huge issue.

Player handout maps of buildings are provided as charming little drawings on leaves. I like it.

Random Encounter Table
There isn't one. Since this is an introductory adventure, I'm perfectly fine with it. The island apparently has only goats, rats, and a lone hermit for wildlife. There's a convenient "all NPC" chart at the back of the module so the GM can track how many orcs, goblins, and giant rats have met their end at the hands of the PCs.

Final Notes
It's newly arrived orcs vs. newly arrived goblins in the ruins of an old town. Because of their piratical rules they aren't fighting. They're just... feuding a bit. It's very nice. I might have read too many of these modules, but I actually chuckled at the little jokes and dry humour in this one. It couldn't be the core of a campaign, but as a one-off location - or an emergency funnel after a TPK or shipwreck - it's very good. There's a bit of setting info on the archipelago but not enough to use more than this island.

X8: Drums on Fire Mountain

TSR, Phil Gallagher & TSR UK Design Team, 1984
Volcano: Yes
Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Use: Mangle With Caution
This module is infamous. Double infamous. Doesn't take more than a look at the cover to see why.
The green, native orcs – the kara-kara – borrow the language, art, technology, environment, music, and weapons of ancient Polynesia, but they are also presented in an entirely negative light, as brutal and fanatical savages. They are also under the sway of a (white) interloper who has tricked them into believing he is their god.

Here's how to mangle it into something less... heinous.

1. Get rid of the Orcs. Orcs have bad connotations. Sure, in a group fully versed in the weird gonzo world of OSR homebrew might not read it that way, but typical new players, having seen the Lord of the Rings films and not much else, won't take a nuanced view.

2. Make them people. Don't make them Polynesian people - unless you're willing to put in adequate research time, and let's be honest, you're not - but just people. They live on an island. They've got their own thing going on. They ride giant chameleons, hold dances, raise children, trade, make war, make peace, and do foolish things while drunk. Who doesn't? (except for the chameleon bit, that might be unique).

Side Note: Most of the time - unless your setting is a mythical heroic battle between Allegorical Good and Evil - you should consider making everyone people. Even the damn goblins. Not to introduce some ethical conflict - the goblins probably still want to cut your throat and feast on your innards and you probably don't want them to - but to introduce more methods of solving problems.

3. Make them sensible. In the module, they're constantly, mindlessly hostile. If you're going to make them people, make them smart people on their home turf. Not nessesarily rational by our standards or the PCs, but they have reasons for doing the things they do. Possibly very good reasons. They're holding a ceremony and they don't want to be interrupted. Would you? If a bunch of Vikings started poking around your town during the annual Christmas concert you might very well be annoyed.

4. Adjust the backstory. There are all sorts of ancient ruins and strange locations. In the module, the backstory is... troubling. Have you read Terry Pratchett's Nation? Spoiler alert in the link. Anyway, read it immediately. You'll see what I'm getting at.

5. Describe, don't name. Nothing is labelled in D&D. Describe the monsters, weapons, and locations, don't name them as the module names them, unless the PCs are part of this culture. Show, don't tell.

6. Adjust the adventure hook. In the module,  you're hired to kill the new leader of the orcs because he's made them "troublesome". Yeah. Get rid of the hook. You can make it simple robbery, possible trading, a lost expedition, a shipwrecked friend. Anything with a bit more nuance.

7. Get rid of the mastermind and his goons. They're superfluous anyway. You can re-use some them as less scrupulous adventuring party if you have to.

8. This is just personal preference, but get rid of the elementals and replace them with creatures and ghosts, or at least make them as interesting as the Hot Springs Island elementals.

Hex Map
It's very good. Full colour, 1/2 mile hexes, keyed locations with labels.

Random Encounter Table
It's reasonably good. The entries include full stats. Night and day encounters are also keyed in the table.

Final Notes
The module's core - the maps, the island, the encounters - is worth adapting. Really, the island works perfectly well as a location instead of the adventure as written.

Isles on an Emerald Sea

Knockspell 1,2,4,6, Gabor Lux, 2009
Volcano: No
Dinosaurs: Yes (flying ones)
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Use:Mangle and Pass

Knockspell #1: Isle of Birds + the Isle of Arsinoi
Two little islands in a very funhouse arbitrary style; mimics, inscriptions, if->then curses, all that. Not to useful for my purposes.  

Knockspell #2: Isle of Barzon + The Isle of Armul Urthag
The Isle of Barzon isn't an island and the Isle of Armul Urthag doesn't have an island map. Anyway, the Isle of Baron is pretty good. The entire thing is written in a peculiar style. Rules mixed with descriptions, terms thrown out without definition, little incongruous hints.
The valleys of the island are blooming with strange flowers that bring uneasy dreams (-2 to saving throw when trying to avoid sleep while proceeding through), and are also populated by an abundance of wild sheep. The Flying Gods hunt them according to their Purpose.
Armul Urthag is too sci-fi for my purposes, but Barzon is useful and interesting enough to plonk onto a coastline somewhere as an emergency port.

Knockspell #4: The Isle of Molonei
A neat idea, but I just don't feel it's quite right. I might mine it for supplementary ideas for Misty Isles of Eld.

Knockspell #6: The Isle of the Ur-Stones
Again, a little too sci-fi, but the core idea is neat and it's very well written (except for the unfortunate title-swap in the print version).

Final Notes
The articles are worth mining for ideas, but unfortunately, I don't think they're quite suitable for the wavecrawl I'm building.

Red Tide

Sine Nomine, Kevin Crawford, 2011
Volcano: No
Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: Yes (red mists)
Use: Pass

Red Tide isn't a module. It's a setting and a sandbox toolkit. The toolkit is quite good; a big heap of tables and neat ideas. The setting is a bit confusing. I'm lumping the Red Tide book in with the Scarlet Heroes book for convenience.

It's not great for conceptual density. We're told dwarves are dour and stern and wear horned helmets and all the usual stuff. The setting includes a grab bag of standard fantasy races and numbers-filed-off cultures. If that's what you want, it does an exceptional job. Beautiful formatting, clean layout, useful indexing, answers to questions. It's very well designed.
Hex Map
Several illustrated maps with 25 mile hexes. The hexes aren't keyed and some of the maps don't have labels, which is a bit unfortunate. When would I need to know the terrain in 25 mile increments, but not where major cities and ports are located?

It's possible that a very close reading will bring more nuance to the setting, but from my skim-through, it seems a bit... strange. The faux-European and Generic Fantasy cultures are mostly Good. The faux-Asian cultures - the ineffectual decadent Imperial state, the devil-worshiping Shogunate state, the torture happy Pulp Wizards - all seem somewhat Evil. The setting seems to be designed for pulp adventures, but from a quick skim, it's generic european fantasy heroes in a setting with a thin oriental veneer.

The Houses of the Lost and the Game Resources section are both excellent. Maybe that's the issue. The book is designed to be so easy to chew, so easy to implement, that the setting doesn't challenge any preconceptions. It's a song played in the key of C, white keys only, 4/4 time. If you know the style  you can hear a few bars and improvise the rest. That's excellent from a design standpoint. From a setting standpoint... I'm not so sure.

I guess that's the heart of it. Red Tide feels like a setting with heroes and villains. Yoon-Suin feels like a place with people.

Final Notes
I'll take some of the tables, but I don't think any of the locations are worth dropping onto the islandcrawl map. There's not enough detail to mangle them from one genre to another, and since I'm mostly looking for locations, I'll pass

Skull and Shackles Adventure Path

Paizo, 2012
"Adventure Path". Are there any more accursed words? I have caught a glimpse into the suffering Bryce Lynch must endure and I have recoiled in horror! No more reviews! Spare me!

Anyway, to round out this post, I have stared into the abyss. And what I found there was deeply confusing.

1. The Wormwood Mutiny: Part 3: Bonewrack Isle

Paizo, Richard Pett, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Use: Mangle
A small island with a shipwreck, ghoul-infested botflies, and actual ghouls above, grindylows (half octopus half goblins) below. The PCs are supposed to arrive and fight everything in sight, but it works as a location instead of a series of combats. 

Hex Map
No hexes, but a grid with 1/5th mile increments. The maps are genuinely lovely.

Random Encounter Table
There isn't one.

Final Notes
I had to stop and do a double take when, skimming the book for maps, I noticed that one building was marked "Whores’ Boudoir". Skimmed a bit more, found out it was full of ghouls, flipped back to find out where the ghouls came from.
The Chelish scouting vessel Infernus was carrying some unpleasant passengers when it ran aground on Bonewrack Isle—a small pack of ghouls used as shock troops by the captain. These ghouls escaped the wreck and subsequently infected the local botflies and mosquitoes with ghoul fever.... In addition, at night there is a 50% chance of encountering 1d3 of the ship’s whores from area C5 out on a hunt.
Ah, so "whores" were the shock-troop ghouls; a very nautical thing to call the captain's chained up undead monsters. All is well. Except a few paragraphs later...
When the ghouls aboard the Infernus escaped the wreck,the local botflies and mosquitoes quickly spread their affliction among the surviving crew. The three ship’s whores fell victim to ghoul fever first, transforming into ghouls and turning on the rest of the crew. The ghouls devoured the survivors one by one, but were unable to reach Arron Ivy, fearing the cliff paths leading to his stockade (area C8). The three whores now lair in their boudoir, the remnants of a considerable tent lashed around a great tree (see the map on page 42). Inside the tent are more rotting human remains, a huge pile of filthy clothes, and a vast bed of moldering cushions at the base of the tree. Cloud of flies dance above the decay. 
Creatures: Three ghouls, the rotting remains of the experienced harlots from the Infernus, occupy the tent during the day, dressed in decaying silks and vermin infested dresses. At night, the three whores go on the hunt, following paths across the isle looking for prey.

Ship’s Whores (3) CR 1
XP 400 each
Male or female ghouls (Pathfinder RPG Bestiary 146)
Wait, what?
     In 2012? 

          In a Pathfinder adventure?
               Localized entirely within the starting area?
Can I explain it?

Side Note: Maybe this could be some sort of New Yorker caption contest. Rewrite that part of the module in your favorite OSR style. LotFP: include more graphic sex acts with whore ghouls. Zzarchov Kowolski: the real monster is societal pressure. Etc.

There's no mention of male or female sex workers on the PC's ship. Maybe this is a local thing to whatever a "Chelish" is, and a setting-savvy reader would instantly recognize it? Does that make it more explicable or better? Not really.

Anyway, ignore that bit (which seems a bit tacked on anyway; where did the shock troop ghouls go?), and make the Grindylows a faction instead of an enemy, and it's an interesting location. This is, after all, their island. Other people just keep crashing into it.

2. Raiders on the Fever Sea: Part 2: Lady of the Rock + Part 3: Treasure of Mancatcher Cove

Paizo, Greg A. Vaughan, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Sex Worker Mentions: None
Use: Pass
Island maps are small and vague, dungeon layouts are linear sequences of fights, enemies don't seem particularly useful.

3. Tempest Rising: Part 3: Port Peril

Paizo, Matthew Goodall, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Sex Worker Mentions: PCs visit a combination temple and brothel
Use: Pass
It's a pirate city. The map is numbered. There's a key listing the names of the sections, but the sections aren't numbered in the text, so the map and they key are both fairly useless.

4. Island of Empty Eyes

Paizo, Neil Spicer, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Sex Worker Mentions: Brothel in the fort, now abandoned.
Use: Mangle
In the adventure path, the PCs are given this island for some reason or another. It's 2 miles wide. There are harpies, cyclops statues, a fort, and pinup art galore.

Did I mention the pinup art? I should probably mention the pinup art. There's a lot of it. Even the goddamn zombies have perfect cleavage and enormous breasts. Three books in and my rapid flip-throughs are starting to resemble subliminal programming. Whenever I close my eyes I see melons. Send help, Bryce Lynch! Free me from this prison of my own devising!

Anyway, it seems salvageable. There are factions (if you give them sensible motivations), a fortress that could be rebuilt, some magical gubbins. If you just replace combat with possible alliances, the entire thing feels a lot richer.

5. The Price of Infamy

Paizo, Tim Hitchcock, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Sex Worker Mentions: None
Use: Pass
Tiny island maps, linear combat. Possibly a few good ideas but since these reviews are all about locations, I'm content to give it a pass.

6. From Hell's Heart

Paizo, Jason Nelson, 2012
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Sex Worker Mentions: Brothel-prison(?) the PCs can visit
Use: Pass
Everything seems to be dungeon exploration or ship combat, so I'll give it a pass.

Final Notes

It's pirates 24-7. Not interesting ones, as far as I can tell, but lots of them. It's an adventure path. Badass things will happen in this sequence or by god nobody will have any fun!

In Conclusion

I need a drink. Several drinks.
Light blue hexes are 100 miles. Dark blue hexes are the open ocean and represent a considerably larger distance.


  1. These are all super useful, thanks a lot for the summaries. I've been running a Pirate game lately, and i too delved into the Pathfinder Skulls and Shackles stuff. There is just so much guff to wade through to find anything of value in their supplements its absurd! Even once you find something good, it can be impossible to even find it again.

    A non-osr supplement I came across that was legitimately useful was Savage Worlds - 50 Fathoms. I don't much like the setting, but the book contains lists upon lists of good, sometimes interconnecting adventure seeds, as well as a few locations that would be fun to adapt.

    I think one thing you have very clearly shown here that's important for sea faring adventures is the ability to drop them in with ease. Something very few actually allow you do do easily!

  2. I've been working on building a hex map for "Skeleton Island" so that I have an excuse to use the random skeleton list as an encounter table.

    These reviews have been super helpful in giving me a sense of how to and how not to structure things.

  3. Time to check out the Tortle Package at DMs Guild, a modern Official DnD island setting. Some great stuff, no overslarching plot.

    1. Bah, more islands! Will my suffering never end?

  4. I'm not at all sure that it's what you're after, but maybe you could nick something from Wilderlands of the Magic Realm? (In particular the myriad tiny islands in Ghinor and Isles of the Blest.)

    It's later Wilderlands stuff so the quality is a bit mixed, but it's probably the closest I've seen a published setting get to wavecrawling.

    However, the maps probably won't help all that much - most of the islands are barely more than a vague little circle somewhere in a 5-mile hex. Some of them don't even have any white showing in the middle, with how thick the pen was.
    There's hundreds of them, though, each with a few lines of description. If you want proper maps I guess you could co-opt Judges Guild's Island Book, but I suspect that you wouldn't need that.

  5. Thanks for looking at Gabor Lux's stuff.