Hundreds of miles from the mainland, surrounded by dangerous waters, lies an island known only as the Isle of Dread. Dark jungles and treacherous swamps await those who are brave enough to travel inland in search of the lost plateau, where the ruins of a once mighty civilization hold many treasures - and many secrets!
Wiki has a good breakdown of the history of X1 Isle of Dread;"The Isle of Dread is an adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. The adventure, module code X1, was originally published in 1981. Written by David "Zeb" Cook and Tom Moldvay, it is among the most widely circulated of all Dungeons & Dragons adventures due to its inclusion as part of the D&D Expert Set."
I know what your thinking, "Oh no not another X1 Isle of Dread commentary, this one is angled to the Weird Tales aspects of X1 so bare with me as I take this classic module in a completely different & pulpy direction." The basic plot has the PC's with their backs against some of the classic adventure elements of X1;"""The characters somehow find a fragment from a ship's log, describing a mysterious island on which many treasures can be found, and set out to explore it. Typically, the characters will first make landfall near the more or less friendly village of Tanaroa and after possibly dealing with some troublesome factions in the village, set out to explore the interior of the island. In the course of their explorations, they may find a number of other villages of unfamiliar intelligent creatures, numerous hostile monsters and the treasures they guard, and a band of pirates. Many prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs, are prominently featured, especially in the original printing of the adventure. Near the center of the island is a hidden temple inhabited by monstrous, mind-bending creatures known as kopru; the characters may stumble across it or learn that it is a source of problems for the other inhabitants of the isle, and the climax of the adventure typically consists of the characters exploring this temple, battling its inhabitants, and uncovering its secrets"
There has always been a mystique around the X1 module, it is after all one of the most popular & recognizable adventures that was published during the classic or golden era of TSR. Yet today I spoke with several friends who have never once considered running the adventure as a part of A Gamma World or post apocalyptic campaign. Not only can this be done but it should be. The fact is that given the scope and diversity of the various OSR resources X1 is a prehistoric sand box of epic proportions. Because of the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master Guide contains all of the conversions necessary to bring your mutants, outlaws, and adventurers into an age undreamt of by man. On the rpgstackexchange.com there is a great thread called Can I run The Isle of Dread with AD&D? It has some great background & options for DMing the adventure. But what does X1 have to do with A. Merritt? Well if we look into his classic 1924 Appendix N pulp novella The Ship of Ishtar things become a lot clearer. The novella concerns a world out of time with two factions vying for control of their very existence similar to the factions of the Isle of Dread fighting for time out of eons survival. In fact one of the campaigns I played in had several of the priests of of Nergal and his minions on the Isle as NPC's along with a group of Ishtar priestesses and her female minions on the other side of the island. This is one of the beauties of X1, its flexibility as an OSR toolbox.
An epic version of the Island of Dread is available from the Vaults of Pandius here which might help to bridge the gap into a far more adventure where the PC's are interfering in the affairs of the divine.
A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar is available right over here as a free download
Alright let's get back into the time lost Bermuda Triangle aspect of X1 The Isle of Dread. Back in 1981 when X1 was published the Triangle, UFOs, Flying Saucers, ghosts, & space warps were still front page tabloid news. It was a part of the pop cultural zeitgeist & what goes around comes around. So if we look towards another Lovecraft circle writer then we get another adventure element and possible setting where the isle of dread might be touching another world or time. Clark Ashton Smith's Poseidonis cycle of novellas and stories draws heavily from Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky. The very forces that sank Atlantis might have ripped a hole in the space time continuum allowing the isle to appear not to far from the "the last isle of foundering Atlantis" Poseidonis. This strange extra dimensional quality of the isle of dread means that many classic AD&D or Gamma World elements might appear on its shores & beaches. In fact 'The Last Enchantment' By Clark Ashton Smith implies that many of the weird & sorcerous elements of the wizard Malygris might provide a perfect cross point for X1 as some artifact provides the necessary push to send adventurers to their doom in the realms of X1.
"Now Malygris was old, and all the baleful might of his enchantments, all the dreadful or curious demons under his control, all the fear that he had wrought in the hearts of kings and prelates, were no longer enough to assuage the black ennui of his days. In his chair that was fashioned from the ivory of mastodons, inset with terrible cryptic runes of red tourmalines and azure crystals, he stared moodily through the one lozenge-shaped window of fulvous glass. His white eyebrows were contracted to a single line on the umber parchment of his face, and beneath them his eyes were cold and green as the ice of ancient floes; his beard, half white, half of a black with glaucous gleams, fell nearly to his knees and hid many of the writhing serpentine characters inscribed in woven silver athwart the bosom of his violet robe. About him were scattered all the appurtenances of his art; the skulls of men and monsters; phials filled with black or amber liquids, whose sacrilegious use was known to none but himself"
Then there are the inhabitants of the isle of dread themselves who seem right at home as much on Gamma Terra as they do in Expert D&D not to mention the pirates and other factions of the isle. The pirates should not be taken lightly even by Mutant Future or Gamma World adventurers. They are as deadly as they come.
The real equalizer is of course the dinosaurs and other prehistoric horrors capable of eating adventurers, pirates and cat people in one gulp. Prehistoric life is one of the real adventure elements that can ruin the day of any player. These horrors are all too real in the adventure setting of X1 where they provide yet another challenge. Cook and Moldvay both frequently pushed another aesthetic: pulp adventure which fits the design and writing aesthetic of X1.
These pulp and prehistoric elements really push the envelop on the isle of dread giving the PC's yet another reason to look over their shoulders.
You can have magick, technology, gun powder, ray guns its not going to matter. The PC's are still going to die in a monster's belly or at the end of trap's spike or other deadly accoutrements. X1 has everything just waiting for PC's to blunder into its clutches. The weird alternate-world fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith gives the perfect excuse to introduce serpent men adventure elements & artifacts, such as the ones seen in CAS's Double Shadow another tale that comes from the Poseidonis cycle. The fact is that originally the isle and its surrounding environs might have been a part of some vast laboratory of the serpent men or as a part of the former monstrous, mind-bending creatures known as kopru empire. Races such as the as the racoon-like phanaton and the cat-like rakasta give X1 part of its "Lost World/Skull Island laboratory feel'
This is something that I've talked extensively about before and one of the ways that X1 might be slotted into an old school campaign or a post apocalyptic campaign setting.
The Kopru, dreaming the restoration of their lost Empire might have been one of the ancient enemies of the 'Elder Things' left behind after the destruction of their own empire.Could X1 in fact be a last alien battle field that the PC's in fact have stumbled into? I think so we almost but not quite we get a very 'events have passed here before us into history feel' as we do with the classic 1933 King Film.
X1 Isle of Dread remains a classic for a reason and one of those is the classic plasticity of the module. A great little example of old school design & classic old school adventure writing. Remains an old favorite of mine and probably will for decades to come.
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