When I was younger, I wasn’t that impressed with The Isle of Dread. I purchased it as part of my Expert D&D set, and although the idea of going to an island inhabited with dinosaurs sounded pretty fun, the actual presentation did not inspire me very much. I was very young at the time.
During the 3E era, I took a party of characters to the Isle, and we discovered that it was a very fun place to adventure. They went back again, and again: three times in all. And then it was the setting for the Savage Tide adventure path, so we went again – and abandoned it shortly thereafter because the AP had diverged markedly from what we considered fun. The Isle of Dread, first designed by David Cook and Tom Moldvay, had become an important part of our game. And now I’m considering sending my AD&D group there…
The origins of the Isle of Dread owe a lot to Skull Island of King Kong and its progenitor, The Lost World of Arthur Conan Doyle. Into that is sprinkled a smattering of elements from the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, and a lot of strange and unusual creatures that are either original or from sources of which I’m not aware.
The adventure begins with the party finding part of a ship’s log and map describing the location of the Isle of Dread and rumours of great treasure there, including a great black pearl at the heart of the island. From there, the module gives ideas as to how the group can reach the island, and then concentrates on what they find on the isle. There are 24 encounter areas on the main island, four on the central plateau, and then 22 in a dungeon on Taboo Island (a small island in a lake on the central plateau).
Apart from the general exploration of the island presumed by the introduction, the writers also gave six additional ideas for adventures set on the isle. It is a very reusable adventure setting, as we discovered during our 3E campaign.
The adventure was published in two different editions. The first was as a supplement for the Cook/Moldvay edition of Basic and Expert D&D. The formatting of the book looked similar to that in the core books, but the art was pretty poor. In particular, with the original picture of the Rakasta cat-people looks entirely ridiculous! A revised edition was printed with Mentzer’s revision of the Expert set, which improved the art and made the presentation poorer; indeed, one of the maps lost a detail that made the underchambers inaccessible as a result! Overall, I find I much prefer the original edition’s layout, despite occasional lapses in the art.
(In fact, there were plans to drop the Isle of Dread from the revised Expert set and replace it with an adventure by Gary Gygax, but such never eventuated. Gary Gygax would later write his own King Kong-themed adventure, Isle of the Ape, which I will review in due course).
One aspect of the adventure which is historically important is the inclusion of the first map of the “Known World”, which would become the default setting for the BECMI line of D&D. Much later on, TSR would call it “Mystara”, but that was quite few years away. The map doesn’t pay much attention to realism, but it does provide a lot of interesting locations which would later be expanded upon at great length in the Gazetteer series.
One of the very interesting aspects of the adventure is how it treats the exploration of the Isle: the characters given a mostly blank hexmap with only the outlines of the Isle drawn in. After landing at the native villages on the southern peninsula of the Isle (there is a lack of safe harbours elsewhere on the isle), and making their way past the great Wall, they move from hex to hex, mapping all the while and searching for things to encounter. I’d estimate there being something over 300 blank hexes to explore, of which only 28 have items of interest – although some can be encountered a small distance from the keyed area. Wandering monsters are likely to play a major part in the adventure, and there are four tables covering them; which table is used depends on where the characters are on the island.
The adventure presents 15 new monsters, 16 in the revision (the Giant Oyster having been added). A number of these are dinosaurs to add to those in the Expert rules, but of note are the four new intelligent races: the aranea, an intelligent giant spider race, the phanaton, something like a raccoon or monkey, the aforementioned rakasta, nomadic catpeople, and the kopru, an ancient race who see men as brutes to be used (and mind-controlled), but who are now in decline. The kopru are the ones I find the most interesting, and can be used somewhat like the final enemy in the adventure (as they live on Taboo Island and are the cause of the taboo), but I’ve never much warmed to the phanatons.
Very little is given in the way of motivations and personalities for these races. Indeed, it is very much a flaw of the module as a whole: it is mostly a lot of unconnected encounters, and it doesn’t make for very interesting reading.
The Isle of Dread works best when the DM and players use it as a basis for their own adventures. It provides an underlying structure for a Lost World scenario, but it needs work to make it truly special. As I discovered, it doesn’t take all that much work to make it a place the players want to return to again and again: the initial thrill of discovering the place can be developed through judicious addition of plots, NPCs and new adventure sites. The Isle of Dread won’t provide you with a great adventure by itself, but I’ve seen few adventures that have developed into such a great part of my campaigns.