OSR: 7 Island-Based Reviews

I wanted to build an archipelago of tropical OSR island hexcrawls, similar to Dan D's "Distant Lands of DIY" map.

Turns out, a lot of the adventures I found are... kind of bad.

In this post, I hastily review:

1. Isle of the Unknown

2. World of the Lost
3. Hot Springs Island
4. Isle of Dread
5. Tomb of Annihilation
6. Island of the Lizard God

7. Isle of the Ape

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.

If you've got any other island, nautical, piratical, aquatical, or tropical adventures you'd like me to review, feel free to add a comment.

Isle of the Unknown

LotFP, Geoffrey McKinney, 2011
Volcano: No

Dinosaurs: No
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No
Use: Pass
Hex Map

The map itself is OK. It's a big island with some mountains in the middle. Hexes use the numbernumber format for row-column (0101). It's not ideal, but it works. A fair bit of work was put into making the hex map easy to use. All the hexes are keyed. All the hex descriptions are colour coded (though you have to flip all the way to the back to find out what the colours mean). The categories might be odd, but it's definitely useful.

The prose is High Gygaxian in places. A merciless editor could excise 10% of the book.

Random Encounter Table
There isn't one. All these unique and interesting creatures and they aren't even tabulated. Such a shame.

Final Notes

As other reviewers have noted, it's just a list of random things. The island is huge but the hexes don't actually contain much of value. "A bench that teleports you." "A pool that teleports you", and "An octopus-chinchilla that breathes chow mein noodles" occupy 3 separate 6 mile hexes. The GM is expected to fill in the rest themselves and given no tools to do it.

Are there ideas worth stealing? Probably. Do I feel like looking for them? Not right now. It's like a neural network project. Some good, some bad, mostly chaff. Just because an idea is new doesn't mean it's good. How many creatures from the Fiend Folio are memorable?

World of the Lost

LotFP, Rafael Chandler, 2016
Volcano: No Yes Arguable. Some sort of blood-spraying mutating world-abscess.

Dinosaurs: Yes. Optional mutant ones too.
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: Yes
Use: Mangle

Hex Map
The map is one of the most frustrating things I've ever seen in a hexcrawl. There are gaps and an invisible wall.

This is the map provided
These are the hexes with descriptions.
There's no way of telling what's keyed and what's not from looking at the map. Here's how this works in play:
1. Players move to a new hex.
2. GM looks up hex (slower than expected because of the numbering system described below).
3. GM discovers hex is not keyed.
4. GM is disappointed.
5. GM rolls on random encounter table.
This will happen every single time! The core gameplay loop of running this module is being disappointed!

And the numbering system! Good lord, the numbering system. If you're going to use number-letter for column-row notation, don't skip "O"! It makes counting hard. I'm very much in favour of number-number for column-row. Avoids the whole 0=O issue! In any case, use the same format on the map as you do in the text. The map has "1B" but the text has "01-B". It's just... minor usability issues all over the place, adding up to the impression that the authors didn't really care. There's 2 pages with art for 10 local traditional weapons, but less than half the hexes have descriptions?
And also! There are different rates of travel and random encounters listed for each terrain type, but the hex descriptions don't tell you what the local terrain is.

I do like the "hex storylines" section that lists all linked hexes and there's a nice quick reference page at the start of the book, but the letter-number layout makes finding a hex in a hurry or getting a sense of place difficult.

Random Encounter Tables

This is no longer an acceptable format.
No page number references to help out the GM. No descriptive words. Nothing but a list of creatures. You can use the weather table and the hazard table to make it slightly more interesting, but not easily.

Final Notes
There's good stuff to nick from the book, but it could have been so much easier to use. Make the map smaller and denser. Write good encounter tables. Make it a little less interconnected and fiddly. Try to figure out which of your ideas are good ideas and which are just... things you thought up.

Hot Springs Island

The Swordfish Islands, Jacob Hurst and co., 2017
Volcano: Yes
Dinosaurs: Sort of.
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: Yes
Use: Drop-In

Hex Map

25 2-mile hexes. The island is sensibly tiny. You could drop the whole thing into the Isle of Dread's central plateau... three times over. There's  2-page quick reference hex sheet, which is absolutely amazing. The contents are great. Hexes have a "what you see" bit for the players and a "what you know" bit for the GM. Very handy.

My only complaint is the giant black boxes used as headers. It's a waste of ink if I need to photocopy one sheet.

Random Encounter Tables

I like that HSI tries to explain its tables from the very start. I don't like their format. It's mathematically neat but... it's just silly. The examples aren't great either.
These tables use 3d6, and they are nested (p. 16). If the party is in an area of Heavy Jungle, you roll 3d6 on the Heavy Jungle table. All of its results (Elemental, Intelligent, Beast) point to the next table. A result of “Beast,” for example, sends you to roll 3d6 on the Heavy Jungle Beast table, and then another 3d6 for the motivation of the creature indicated... We elect to set up the characters’ first encounter, resulting in three boar with a motivation of "dying" (roll: 12, 10, 13, 4).
Maybe it's  just me, but I didn't "get" this method for several minutes. EDIT: and even then, I had to go back and edit it. Bloody tables...

1. The first 3d6 roll (12) for the first column. The result is "Beast". 
2. We now go to the "Beast" table for that section (Heavy Jungle) and roll 3d6 again (10). That's "Boar".
3. Roll 3d6 again in that numbered column (the one with 1,2, d4, d4+1) in it for the number of boars appearing. We get (13). Result is "1d4+1", and we get a 3 (it's in the text, not the roll list, but Ok).

4. Roll 3d6 for behavior. We get (4), Dying.

See? That makes a lot more sense. But for goodness sake, that's a lot of rolling just to get a stuck pig! All the encounter tables fit on 2 pages, it's true, and I'm sure the probabilities of certain things happening is really quite interesting and well weighted, but... it feels like it's too clever. It's almost too slick to be practical. I just want an encounter. I need to spend all my GM energy describing, running, and organizing the game! Why make the getting encounter so complex? Surely there's a better way to show off the natural realism of HSI. How often are these tables going to be rolled on that the probabilities will bell curve nicely anyway?

Don't get me wrong, it's leagues ahead of most modules.

Final Notes
It's good. You can use it out of the box. It's full of useful innovations and helpful tools.

X1: Isle of Dread

TSR, David Cook and Tom Moldvay, 1981
Volcano: Yes

Dinosaurs: Yes
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No

Hex Map

The island is fairly large. It's bigger than Jamaica. Wisconsin scaling, I suppose. The hexes aren't keyed. The numbers are tricky to see sometimes, but it's an old module. There are modern maps available.

Stripping out the intro and maps, the module is just 19 pages long. It's got a few key locations and factions, some nice set pieces, and, amazingly, a feeling of real exploration. The "fill in the blanks" map is a fun idea. 

Random Encounters
A list of monsters, fairly standard for the era. At least it has "number appearing" conveniently in the table.

Final Notes
It's a product of its time, but for all that, the Isle of Dread is still excellent. It has no plot to speak of. It's just a location, some people, and some monsters. All you really need to do to run it as-is is print a new map, work on a better encounter table, and link the setting to the rest of the world.

Tomb of Annihilation

Wizards of the Coast, Wizards of the Coast, 2017
Yes, many
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: Maybe? Too many words to check. Didn't find anything for "force field" or "barrier"
Use: Mangle

Hex Map
The hexcrawl itself is 1/4 of the book. Rather than keyed hexes, it lists a few vital locations (and several boring ones). The core loop is:
1. Set off from a location.

2. Roll several random encounters based on the terrain type.
3. Get to new location.
It's a sort of distributed pointcrawl.

Everything is spread out. All the factions and locations look interesting... but if they are separated by 50 or more miles, they'll never interact. It's a series of safe, predictable set pieces.

Random Encounter Table

It's one of those classic distributed tables.
It's not particularly easy to use and it's even worse than the one in World of the Lost, which is saying something. No page references for the monsters,  no chance of multiple encounters at the same time, no terrain type table, no complications table...

But there is hope! Each encounter here doesn't refer to a Monster Manual entry. Instead, most (possibly all; didn't check) refer to a more detailed description on the subsequent pages. And those include terrain and utility notes and adjectives; the stuff I like to pay for. Some of them are really good too! Witches pretending to be stranded travelers. Notes on what animals can be trained. It's like someone actually thought about what questions a GM might need to answer.

Doesn't help that the exploration part will just be a long series of location->fight->fight->fight->location loops, but so it goes.

Final Notes
So many words! Gah

Soldiers' Tents
Each tent is intended to house four people in reasonable comfort. They have log floors to keep the occupants above the mud, and reed-filled cloth mattresses for sleeping on. None of the material, however, is suitable for long-term use in Chult. The canvas is riddled with mildew and fungus, dampness quickly seeps up through the floors, and vermin of every imaginable variety thrives in the mattresses.

Anywhere but Chult, these latrines would be excellent. Here, daily rain floods the pits and flushes their contents through the camp. As if that’s not bad enough, the wooden structures are sinking into the soft ground around the pits, threatening at any moment to collapse utterly. Most soldiers in the camp avoid the latrines and instead relieve themselves in the jungle (if they can volunteer for outside work details) or over the top of the palisade wall. Either option is safer and more sanitary than using the latrines.
Typing minion! I need 100 words on the latrines, stat! 

Island of the Lizard God

Self-published, Will Doyle, 2014. It's a one-page hexcrawl. Get it here.
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: No.
Use: Drop In
Hex Map

Hexes aren't numbered... but there are only 17 hexes and they're drawn in a cute art style, so it's forgivable. All hexes can be described in relation to one of the island's main features.
8 of the hexes are described (as much as you can on a single page) and they're all excellent.

Random Encounter Table
There isn't one. There is a very nice weather table.

Final Notes

It's short, it's got 2 dungeons in it, and it's full of interesting little details. Including it in a list of longer, more lavish modules feels like cheating, but it succeeds at being an excellent one-page adventure.

EDIT: There's an official faction list here. It might help.

Isle of the Ape

TSR, Gary Gygax, 1985
Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier: Yes, in the form of demi-plane rules that make a whole host of spells useless. No summoning, no teleporting, no augry, no illusions, no invisibility, no psionics, no divine intervention. Flying carpets still work though. Shouldn've banned those too, Gygax.
Use: Pass

Hex Map

Finally, 1 mile hexes instead of 6 miles. It's still 43 miles long, but that's not too bad. It's about 1/3rd of the size of the Isle of Dread. Once again, no hex key, just vital numbered locations.

Random Encounter Table
A classic distributed table (see Tomb of Annihilation), but the next page contains the Combien Monster Statistics page! Glory glory hallelujah! Sure, it's  not very evocative or interesting, but at last you can get the stats without flipping for ages. It's something.

Final Notes
This module is legendarily tough. Most classes should be 14th level and up. Assassins, bards, cavaliers, illusionists, and monks should straight-up stay home. If you strip out the AD&D-specific cruft, the NPC cards, the boxed intro, and the maps, the module is just 25 pages long. But there is a lot of boxed text. It's all terrible. Completely useless, ridiculously overwrought, and utterly bizarre in many places.

It's the Isle of Dread again, but with bigger monsters and a giant ape. King Kong callouts everywhere. It feels like a modern Hollywood sequel to a classic. What does it really add, other than artificial difficulty and more pulp references? Is it worth picking apart? Probably not.

In Conclusion

Hex Descriptions
If you've got a hex map, either describe every hex in a full hex key, or describe only a few points of interest. Don't mix and match.

Use the key format "column-row" as "number-number". Eg. 01-01. Use the same format in the text. Start at 01.

If you have more than 1 page of hex descriptions, each page should include, at a minimum.
Title: ##-## - Name - Terrain
Description of hex: (what the PCs see)
[Line break or separate section]
GM notes: (what's really going on)

You can design your map based on travel time, not miles. It's OK. It's 2018. Sure, give an overall scale or an estimated size of a hex, but it's honestly more useful to hear, "hexes are 6 hours across at a normal travel pace." Everything else - light, food, magic - is measured in hours. It also means you can do interesting things with the map. A tiny canyon might take up a whole hex; it'll take 6 hours to cross. It's a very handy abstraction.

If you're worried about visible landmarks, include them in the hex description. You probably should do that anyway. GMs tend to forget to check what can be seen from a given hex.

Encounter Tables

If you don't want to fiddle around with HSI's format, I'd recommend the following:

# - Omen - Description of Encounter (creature name in bold) - page reference


1d20 Omen Encounter Page Ref.
13 Shuffling, rustling. Occasional pained snort. 1 boar, dying from stab wounds. 2d6 villagers follow it at a distance. HSI pg. 22

Players traveling slowly or cautiously get the Omen. Otherwise, they blunder into the encounter. Try to figure out how often you'll need to roll on the table and add content accordingly. Once per session? Once per module? You don't need twenty entries if you don't think a group will use it more than twice.

I also recommend a "Where They Find You" table with interesting places the encounter could occur.  Feel free to 3d6 weight it or something; outer edges are dangerous, centre of the bell curve is nice and sensible. "On the edge of a waterfall" vs. "a grassy meadow".


  1. Great entry! Especially I appreciate mentioning "Island of the Lizard God" - I ran this scenario twice and I think it's one of the best.

    1. In the One Page Dungeon Contest 2016 Nick Daly did Island of the Lizard God Factions.

  2. I've been looking at Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park) lately as a replacement for Isle of the Dread. It would require quite a bit of work, but it does include volcanoes, dinosaurs, and (if you count electrical fences poorly designed to keep dinosaurs out) one or more "Magical GM-Conveniencing Energy Barrier(s)." I'd also point out fun dungeons like the pterosaur dome, and "miles of underground concrete maintenance tunnels."

    1. Absolutely! Are there any good maps/artbooks/modules for Jurassic Park specifically?

  3. This will probably not work for what you intended and is not really a complete package/module, definitely a Mangle at best, Kyle Marquis' first "Hex a Day" setting Sea of Vipers may still be of interest: https://www.kylemarquis.net/hex-a-day.html