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This is the second article in my rather widely-separated series on three Lamentations of the Flame Princess products for GMs. The first was about Carcosa, a sci-fi/fantasy sandbox setting that would work equally well for D&D (and related games) or Call of Cthulhu; the third will be about Zak Smith’s Vornheim (which Phil reviewed last year). As with Carcosa, I received a free copy of Isle directly from LotFP.

Like my take on Carcosa, this isn’t a review — it’s a spotlight on Isle of the Unknown, which is a fascinating little animal. Written by Geoffrey McKinney, who also wrote Carcosa, it’s billed as “A setting designed to be placed in any fantasy campaign,” but if that’s all it was I wouldn’t be writing about it. It’s much weirder than that.

(By happy coincidence — I’ve been reading the book for some time — Isle of the Unknown is half price on the LotFP webstore and on DriveThruRPG through December 9, 2012.)

What is it?

In one sense, the isle really could be placed in any fantasy campaign: It’s an island, so all you need is a body of water where the PCs haven’t been and in it goes. More importantly, it also doesn’t make any assumptions about your campaign world — really. That’s one of the things that makes it such a unique book: the absence of stuff you need to change. It’s also not at all generic or flavorless, which you might expect from a setting you can drop into any campaign.

Here’s how Geoffrey puts it:

To aid the Referee, only the weird, fantastical, and magical is described herein. The mundane is left to the discretion of the campaign Referee, to be supplied according to the characteristics of his own conceptions or campaign world.

That’s not to say that it’s devoid of context, just that it’s devoid of much of the context you’d normally find in a setting book. The island is populated by 70,000 people, and their societies – as well as the flora, fauna, and geography of the isle itself – are based on 14th century Auvergne.

It’s also pretty substantial in size: 35,000 square miles. That breaks down to 330 land hexes, and the book presents one point of interest for each of them. One POI in 86 square miles means that whatever else is in the hex is up to you — maybe nothing, but most likely quite a bit of stuff. As a GM, that immediately suggests two ways to use the book, which I’ll circle back to in a moment.

(As an aside, Carcosa is defined in part by its controversial elements, and based on the comments on my Carcosa article many folks reading this will be curious if the same or similar disturbing elements are present in Isle of the Unknown. They’re not.)

What’s in the book?

What’s in Isle of the Unknown is a whole pile of weird stuff. Most of it probably isn’t what you’re expecting, and likewise won’t be what your players are expecting — which is why I like this book.

Isle of the Unknown offers up over a hundred new monsters, dozens of magical statues, a couple dozen magic-users and clerics, a dozen or so towns, and one city. The meat of the book is devoted to monsters and magical statues, the hallmarks of the isle. There are no cultural write-ups, no nations or borders, no encounter lists — nothing, in short, that’s usually in books like this.

Isle of the Unknown wasn’t designed to be “just another setting book,” but to be a setting book that surprises GM and players alike with the weird, peculiar, and even nonsensical. Nothing demonstrates that better than the monsters. Here are two of them:

That’s right, the POI for hex 0307 is a 5 HD weasel that can tunnel through solid stone, and which has four illusory vipers “growing” out of its back. And the POI for hex 0310 is a 600-lb. clam with the legs of a bird, emaciated hands, and the ability to crawl on walls and ceilings.

Here’s my favorite monster in the whole book:

That one (hex 1316) feeds on fear, attacks by throwing its d4-shaped body against foes, and regenerates. And they’re all like this — funky hybrid monstrosities in the vein of Doctor Moreau, weird mishmash creatures that don’t make sense, random-looking things with random-seeming powers, and the like. All beautifully illustrated by Amos Orion Sterns, all presented without names or — and this bit’s important — context.

And the statues are nearly as weird. Here’s the fellow from hex 0910:

A statue of wood-hued stone depicts a man holding a hammer and a needle, bending over an empty table. Any damaged mundane item placed upon the table will cause the statue to animate and repair the item as swiftly as could an expert craftsman of the most consummate skill.

Weird, right? And that’s the point, a point the book makes over and over by example: It’s the isle of the motherfucking unknown. There’s no context around all of these oddball one-off monsters, nor the magical statues, nor even most of the spellcasters; they’re just there, on the isle, waiting to make your players very nervous. Hence “It brings the weird, you add the why.”

Okay, this book is really weird. What do I do with it?

I would do one of two things with Isle of the Unknown: flesh it out by adding not only the “why” but also more towns, factions, NPCs, and other details as befits my game, changing nothing that’s already there; or use it precisely as-is, without adding a thing.

That first approach is probably the one that makes the book most useful. The most important thing to decide is the answer to this question: Why is the isle so goddamn weird?

It reminds me of my Decamer campaign concept, which is based on the idea that you grab the 10 stupidest D&D monsters and are forced to make them the centerpiece of your campaign. Which isn’t to say that the monsters in Isle are stupid, they’re just weird, random (so much so that many look like they could have been created using Lamentations of the Flame Princess owner James Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator), and unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes — much like the 10 D&D monsters I’d personally choose for that concept.

I think this is a good thing. Not only because different strokes and all that, but also because once your players bump into their second monster on the isle they’re going to be going “What the fuck is going on with this place?” And they’re not going to know what a single damn monster on the isle can do, either. None of them have been used elsewhere, their abilities often have no connection to what they look like, and the most threatening in appearance aren’t necessarily the most threatening in game terms.

The second approach I recommend — adding nothing to the isle — puts that aspect of the setting front and center. With no additions, the isle is a weird and unsettling and largely empty place. Your players will likely need a good reason to go there and stay there for a while, but given that I strongly suspect they’ll find it exactly as odd a place as it’s supposed to be.

Isle of the Unknown is a truly unique and unusual book. Without a bit of digging, it might even seem a bit dumb; I’d argue that the very stuff that could convey that impression is what makes it so interesting to me. It’s bizarre, it doesn’t explain itself, and it will surprise the pants right off your players.

If you’d like to find out more about Isle and its author, Geoffrey McKinney, the Gamerati YouTube channel hosts a number of video interviews with him. If you have questions about the book, I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



10 Responses to Isle of the Unknown: It Brings the Weird, You Add the Why

  1. A neat way to handle the island’s natives would be to have them see their island as the model for normality, since for them it is normal. Twin Peaks comes to mind. The inhabitants see the PCs as a little off, or slow even, because they are so ignorant of everyday things like the handyman statue.

  2. Just grabbed all three products on sale at DrivethruRPG. Great stuff. Thanks to all at Gnome Stew for their great work on this site.

  3. But people wig out (with some justification) all the time over the stupid creatures in D&D. Why would they suddenly feel they are a good thing? Do you feel that the setting is so alien that it will turn off Knee-Jerk Owlbear Hating Syndrome?

    • No, I don’t think it solves any of those problems — nor does it set out to. It presents weird-ass creatures in a way that demands that the GM provide some context (or, more risky, NOT provide that context) and implies “Now let’s see what they do.”

      “Now let’s see what they [the players] do” is one of my favorite things about old school products in particular and gaming in general.

  4. I bought this on the strength of the review and would like to add the following that wasn’t obvious or apparent from the article or comments:

    The book is an “explorer’s edition” format, approximately half the frontal footprint of a Pathfinder/D&D hardback.

    The maps in the endpapers of mine are of darker tones than in the picture here. That combined with the size makes hex identification difficult to my age-withered sight without the aid of a decent magnifier.

    The map on the rear endpaper is keyed for the major type of encounter (the one described in the matching entry) to be had there.

    The book is obviously intended primarily for the D&D/Pathfinder GM as entries are described in terms of hit dice and level. This would be a minor hassle to correct for other systems, but it needs to be said.

    The printed material in the book is sparse, as might be expected. The cost of ownership may or may not be worth it depending on your viewpoint – the production is high-value but some people do not value that; anyone who lived through the Judges Guild era of El Cheapo Game Clutter will probably like what they see and be in a position to pay for it whereas anyone still outgrowing the “Everything Should Be Free” thing probably won’t. The material is certainly unique and a campaign could easily be sited here and run for months with a little work by the GM.

    The book and it’s monsters has a “White Box” era feel to me, where every monster is new and there are no preconceptions nor Monster Manual Entries to spoil the fun.

    Finally, it would certainly be very possible to play this as a Gamma World setting as one respondent suggests. I think that idea is great and may prevent me selling off an otherwise useless Gamma World boxed set.

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