Monday, November 28, 2011

Isle of the Unknown - What Is It?

The book should be arriving soon, [Update: The printer tells me Isle and Carcosa will be delivered Monday December 5!].

So. Isle of the Unknown. What is it?

I was going to do some corny-ass hype, but I thought instead I should quote a few things from the emails Geoffrey and I exchanged after I received the draft of the book and we discussed what form the book should take.

Isle of the Unknown is a hard-core and pure old-school product. I write the sort of thing I wish other people would write and publish. I love, love, love the format of Judges Guild's Wilderlands products. This sort of thing moves my imagination, and it has (to my druthers) very little wasted space. It's 99% pure gold.

That's what I am aiming at with Isle of the Unknown. I want all the wonder of the old Wilderlands, with none of the "OK, I've seen that before." Orcs and shit were new back then, but not now. So I've done a Wilderlands[-style] product that is all fantastic and no nostalgia.

Of course I wanted more nuts and bolts detail about the island:

You've got several entries that are "in motion" such as: "2408 A 7th-level cleric in a red surcoat with a white cross is mounting his horse " with a situation then described. I think maybe the "in motion/situation" entries should be part of encounter tables with more permanent features (lairs, statues, settlements, etc) being part of definite hex descriptions.

I think the utility of a product like this is its ability to be used "out of the box" - and I think the "civilized" stuff, and encounter tables, is important to do that. Not saying to nail down names and things like that, but...

Keep on the Borderlands spent "equal time" on the Keep and the Caves of Chaos, for example, all without using names or defining interrelations between people and factions beyond the broadest of strokes, and I think this could benefit from the same approach.
This is what Geoffrey thought of these ideas:

The sort of additions you suggest have always seemed to me wasted space. Even the Keep was little used by us (in contrast to the heavily-used Caves of Chaos).

I remember that James Maliszewski regretted that you didn't give any D&D stats to the people of Pembrooktonshire, and he regretted that you didn't include more mundane stuff in Weird New World. What were you supposed to do? Give stat after stat that said "S 10, I 11, W 10, D 11, C 10, Ch 11"? The Pembrooktonshiretonians are all 0-level guys with 1-6 hp. They need stats about as much as do their chickens, goats, and pigs. It'd be wasted space. And Weird New World doesn't need stats for seals, penguins, and mundane Eskimos.

Similarly, virtually all the people on the Isle of the Unknown are 0-level nobodies with 1-6 hp and stats in the 9-12 range. It matters not whether they are priests, scholars, knights, peasants, bandits, or what-have-you. And do we really need or want a table giving a list of the types of nobodies that might be encountered wandering around the isle? Even their equipment is all common sense: priests don't have weapons or armor, knights have both, peasants are "armed" with pitchforks, etc. I would regard such information in a product as worthless or even kind of condescending.

Hamlets, thorps, dorfs, etc. are also a dime-a-dozen: "The hamlet of _______ consists of 102 people living in 12 thatched, single-room cottages. They are all subsistence farmers. They own nothing besides humble clothes, tableware, and pitchforks." And for the details of the larger villages, I think that's a job for Zak's Vornheim product.

I can't over-emphasize that each hex in Isle of the Unknown covers over 86 square miles of territory. That is HUGE. Thus any encounter table that was even remotely "accurate" as far as giving a realistic chance of encountering the fantastic spot within the hex would look something like:

01-10 It rains.
11-20 You seen some rabbits.
21-30 You meet a peasant digging for mushrooms.
31-40 You step in cowshit.
41-50 etc.
91-99 A dog barks at you.
00 You encounter the fantastic thing described in this product.

(Players would have a truly boring time of it!)

If, for example, I were to erect a man-sized statue in a forest of 86 square miles, it would take forever and a day for someone to find the damn thing. You could probably walk 100' away from it and still not notice it. And that's assuming you knew it was there and were looking for it. If you were ignorant of its existence, you could probably walk through that forest 100 times and never stumble across the statue.

Except for the "OMG, Carcosa has children getting raped!" thing, perhaps the most common complaint I heard was that it was too world-specific. I want Isle of the Unknown to be able to be dropped into any campaign with little or no fuss.

... and then a few nights later I got this email from Geoffrey:

As I was falling asleep last night (in that half-awake half-asleep state) the following idea occurred to me. Then at 4:30 this morning I woke-up and couldn't fall back to sleep because of this idea. As I type this sentence it's 5:09 in the morning.

More than anything else, art in an RPG product needs to be useful. I think back to my early RPG days, and what "sold" me on a product more than anything else? Monster Manual-style art. The day I bought my Holmes Basic set, I also purchased the Monster Manual. It was a no-brainer purchase rather than the PHB or the DMG. Why? Because of the multitude of monster illustrations.

Some months thereafter I went to the store, money in hand, to buy the PHB. Ha! The Deities & Demigods book was sitting there, brand new on the shelf. One look at it (with its MM-style art) and there was no debate: I bought the DDG instead. I could sit for hours looking at the pictures in the MM and the DDG (and, in the next year, the Fiend Folio). The PHB and the DMG? Not so much. Sure, drawings of adventurers are cool, but how can they compare to the compendia of drawings of monsters in the MM, DDG, and FF?

Consider two monsters from the MM that nobody ever uses: the masher and the slithering tracker. (Hell, I literally never even noticed the very existence of the masher for about 20 years!) Why does nobody ever use them? What do they have in common?

No picture.

What if the interior art of Isle of the Unknown is devoted solely to Monster Manual-style (by that I mean relatively small drawings of just the monster itself) drawings of the 108 or so monsters in the book? That's a lot of drawings, but they'd be relatively small. The drawings would make the monsters come alive, unlike the poor masher and slithering tracker.

Plus, the drawings overall would be cooler than the drawings in MM, DDG, or FF. After all, how cool can a drawing of an orc or a brownie be? In contrast, all the monsters in Isle of the Unknown are weird and relatively hard to picture.
How am I going to argue with that?

... so suddenly we had a big art book project and at the same time a balls-to-the-wall hardcore old school Judges Guild-style adventure/setting.

And it's almost here.

Previews from the actual book and looks at the limited edition extras in the days to come.


  1. Will Isle and Carcosa go on sale at the same time? I'm wondering because I want to get whatever bonus stuff you give away with early orders, but I also want to order them both at the same time so I can save a little money by having them shipped together.

  2. I fully expect them to arrive from the printer and go on sale at the same time.

  3. Looking forward to this one. The proofs I saw certainly wetted the appetite.

  4. Orcs may be "old hat", but weird merely for the sake of weird can be tiresome as well.

  5. "...weird merely for the sake of weird can be tiresome..."

    Only if it seems nonsensical. If it seems like it makes some sort of at least self-consistent sense, then each additional weirdness comes across as a clue to a mystery. Though, I suppose, some people might find even that tiresome if they don't like mysteries.

  6. Any idea what sort of price we're looking at for both bundled together, or just Isle?

  7. I know I'm a little strange here but I'd enjoy a setting like this:
    "01-10 It rains.
    11-20 You seen some rabbits.
    21-30 You meet a peasant digging for mushrooms.
    31-40 You step in cowshit.
    41-50 etc.
    91-99 A dog barks at you.
    00 You encounter the fantastic thing described in this product."

    the weird stuff is made much weirder by the non-weird stuff. One must also ask "what's that peasant doing gathering mushrooms in the same isolated wood that is occupied by the Gnawing-Jaws of Babblewrack"?

    A 1% chance of ruin or doom for a normal man out for a walk seems pretty extreme. Now if someone sets out to find the Gnawing-Jaws of Babblewrack the odds of an encounter should exceed simple stumbling chance.

    All that said The Isle of the Unknown has certainly interested me and I'm looking forward for the opportunity to give it a read and ref a party exploring it.

  8. >Any idea what sort of price we're looking at for both bundled together, or just Isle?

    Carcosa: 32,11€, Isle: 22,94€, plus 9% VAT if you're in the EU or plus shipping if you're not in the EU.

    Each will have a bundle of extras (cloth map + full color A3-size double-sided poster) available for +5€, limited to 250 each.

  9. >>I know I'm a little strange here but I'd enjoy a setting like this:

    Geoffrey can correct me if I'm talking out my ass here, but I take it that the Isle's goal was not to be a fully fleshed out setting, but more of a setting overlay. "This island can go in ANY fantasy campaign, and when they go to the island there's all this neat stuff there in addition to why the PCs went there to begin with."

    The more mundane detail you add, the less convenient it is to use in ANY fantasy campaign.

  10. we had EXACTLY this "assume the mundane is mundane and skip it" conversation about Wilderlands last night on G+.

    and this:
    "I write the sort of thing I wish other people would write and publish. "

    it will all depend on the quality of the pictures, i suppose...

  11. "Orcs may be 'old hat' ..."

    Coping with a horde of orcs or other stock monsters is mainly a mechanical exercise. World of Warcraft or other computer-based games portray that far better than some guy at the head of a table with some funny looking dice.

    The strengths of the Some-Guy-With-Dice (SGWD) platform lie in its natural language interface and its stimulation of end-user's emotional, reasoning, and visualization subsystems; the low-tech random number generation and resource management features exist merely to support its natural language processing facility. To maximize the SGWD platform's advantages and end-user enjoyment, scenario designers should concentrate on creating a mood, producing descriptive content (within the platform's capacity), and making full use of the SGWD's improvisation and characterization capabilities.

    (Maybe someone should write "Game Masters: the Missing Manual".)

  12. Hitchcock once said that story to him was life with all the dull moments stripped out. Obviously games are not stories per se, but it's not a bad rule of thumb.

    Vornheim works because it doesn't get bogged down in describing each tanner shop and the like. I am glad to see the same approach here, guess we will see if it works as a whole product later in December.

    No one has really said it so far, but I appreciate you, James, putting aside the marketing and presenting the thought train behind the Isle instead. I am probably a quirky audience, but the "why" behind a product has become the most important factor in whether or not I put my money on the table for it.

  13. I like what Zak wrote here, which also applies to Isle of the Unknown (except that it's an island rather than a city):

    Is Vornheim really that weird?

    I mean, the only real difference I can see between it and other city supplements like it is they go:

    "This neighborhood has the fish market. The fish market has fish. Boats with fish on them sail in and out of this neighborhood. In the words of Granar Blazonhelm 'I smell fish, I must be in Fishinghood'. There are many adventures to be had in this place--you might not realize it, but boats can be exciting! Sometimes there are things on boats in addition to fish! Like cargo! Cargo comes into this fishing neighborhood from all over Worldimadeuppia, from as far as Vaguelysketchedoutjapanequivalentium. NPCs you might meet in this neighborhood include people who sell fish, people who buy fish, people who pilot boats, people who are riding on boats and people who fix boats. Here's a picture of a boat."

    And I don't.


  14. I didn't include mundane details in Isle of the Unknown for several reasons:

    1. It's boring to write and boring to read.

    2. What if you wanted to drop the Isle of the Unknown in a Polynesian-like archipelago, but I had included all sorts of details of a mundane society rather like 14th-century France? Then suddenly the majority of the book would be useless to you. Instead, I included only magical and weird stuff that can be included as-is in ANY type of society.

    3. Lack of chutzpah: I would feel silly asking for people's money in return for me writing page after page of stuff and stats like: "Guillome the guard is a 0-level human (AC 5, MV 90', hp 4, #AT 1, D by weapon) armored with chainmail and bearing a long sword, a short bow (with a quiver with 20 arrows), and a spear." That sort of thing can be made-up in one's sleep, and/or generated from the tables included in many free resources such as OSRIC.

  15. Two considerations led me to exclude any "standard" monsters in Isle of the Unknown:

    1. Remember playing D&D for the first time? Every time a monster was encountered, we'd wonder, "What is that? What can it do?" Then we'd be freaked-out when we found out in the middle of combat what it could do. Unfortunately, familiarity blunts all that:

    DM: You see 3 tall, thin humanoids with noses as long as carrots and...

    Players: Oh, more trolls. Magic-user, cast fireball. Thief, have the flasks of acid ready in case some of the trolls make their saving throws.


    How many standard, "Oh, I know what that is" monsters did Conan encounter? Or appear in Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean tales? Etc. I think a monster should be frightening and mysterious rather than a known and cataloged factor.

    2. Does anyone really need me to write hex descriptions such as this? "Hex 2207: Twenty orcs armed with spears lurk here. Each carries 2-8 gp." Nah. Instead, each and every of the 330 described hexes (whether with a monster or now) gives you something that you might not have thought of on your own.

    Monsters do seem weirder when seen against a mundane background. The assumed mundane background of the Isle of the Unknown is composed of 0-level humans and wild animals, rather than mundane, standard monsters.

    Of course, putting orcs and such in the island would be a snap. Just plop them in or roll on an encounter table in one of your books (OSRIC, AD&D, D&D, Hackmaster, or whatever).

  16. @semiprometheus

    Coping with a horde of orcs or other stock monsters is mainly a mechanical exercise.

    Seriously? Could World of Warcraft ever do anything like Tucker's Kobolds? WoW monsters do zero planning, have poor tactics, no strategy, and no memory.

    And they never retreat intelligently.

  17. Zak wrote: "it will all depend on the quality of the pictures, i suppose..."

    In my opinion, Isle of the Unknown is the single best-looking book to ever come out of the OSR. I say that based on the PDF I have of the final product. I can hardly wait to hold the actual book in my hands.

  18. Remember playing D&D for the first time? Every time a monster was encountered, we'd wonder, "What is that? What can it do?" Then we'd be freaked-out when we found out in the middle of combat what it could do.

    I think modules like this are a wonderful way to introduce RECG-style monsters.

    Think about how cool the Fiend Folio would have been if it had been a hexmap with each of the monsters presented in context. If that's what Isle is like, I will be very pleased.

    Does anyone really need me to write hex descriptions such as this? "Hex 2207: Twenty orcs armed with spears lurk here. Each carries 2-8 gp."

    That being said, I recently finished reading L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, and that above quote pretty much describes what Bone Hill is. And it's awesome, because of how everything is interrelated. I think there's a place for both styles.

  19. Well, I guess I don't have to budget for a copy of Isle of the Unknown, then. Unless there's a cheaper version coming out with just the map and the illustrations? I've been really excited about this for months but somehow missed that the Geoffrey who was writing the text was the same Geoffrey that wrote Carcosa. Gutted.

  20. "If you thought Carcosa was for baby-rapists wait until you get your baby raping hands on ISLE OF THE UNKNOWN..."

  21. It is always fascinating to read designer commentary like this. I am more of a middle ground person - weird in the context of the "mundane" and mostly logical fantasy world - but can see where a purely fantastic approach can work.

    And I am contemplating running an Averoigne / Hyperborea-style CAS-inspired campaign, so this may come in handy for it...

    @Blair: James should really make this the official tagline.

    James, I know you want to do it. .)

  22. Isle of the Unknown is family-friendly, not family-a-little-bit-too-friendly.

  23. To clarify two points:

    1. Whereas the world of Carcosa is weird through-and-through, the Isle of the Unknown (as I imagine it, anyway) is mostly mundane, which serves as a contrast to the points of weirdness on the isle. But I didn't waste any space in Isle describing the mundane. Only the fantastic is described.

    2. Isle of the Unknown doesn't have any of the sort of "controversial" content found in Carcosa. That said, I'm waiting for someone to complain about all the nude statues on the isle. ;)

  24. "Isle of the Unknown contains fifteen hundred new spells for the Paedophagist class..."