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by Geoffrey McKinney
Published by Lamentations of the Flame Princesss, 2011
Isle of the Unknown is a Lamentations of the Flame Princess/early D&D-compatible island setting.
Basically, the book presents you with an island mapped out in hexes. Each hex has one interesting encounter in it, which is detailed just enough. Stats for monsters, descriptions for statues, stats and motivations for wizards, and so on.
That's equally where the book falls down, though. By this approach, there really is only one interesting thing per hex. Interesting things are spread equally across the island. The GM can, of course, add more, but the need to add to change the density of encounters means more work.
On top of that, it's only the interesting things. This means it's not ready to play. You will need to have mundane encounters, or at least a system for quickly generating them, ready to go. You'll need to fill in everything that ties the weird stuff to your game world. That's on purpose, since it's clearly labeled as a drop-in for any fantasy campaign. But it means you're paying for a lot of interesting ideas but not all the grunt work of tying them into a larger world.
Basically, it takes the fun of making up your own interesting things out of the process of getting ready for a sandbox game, but leaves you the mundane. It's more of a framework for a sandbox. It's the frame, but you have to fill in the details. If that's what you want, this is useful. If you're the one brimming with good ideas but need a place to put them, this isn't so useful.
The book has "over 100 new monsters and dozens of spellcasters with unique abilities." And statues. Lots of statues. The monsters are "unique" in the sense that they only ever appear in one given hex, and they're wholly made up. They aren't always singular - some are groups or swarms. They feel randomly rolled up. Some have very interesting appearances and powers. Others are just . . . weird for the sake of being weird. A lizard that has the appearance of being a giant raspberry (or is it a lizard-like raspberry?) A number of parti-colored monsters with blades or spears or tentacles for hands or arms that feel like Ultraman enemies. A lot of monsters dripping . . . something - slime, water, acid, etc. They just feel random rather than interesting. Admittedly, real-life mythical creatures feel that way, but that doesn't make those mythical creatures less silly, either. These just lack of the weight of knowing that somewhere, someone seriously thought it existed or made sense.
There are a number of NPCs and weird treasures, too. Generally, the NPCs are dangerous to interact with, and their treasure cursed, dangerous, or both. The weird treasures are the same. Statues feel about the same - you'll need to build a serious clue system or have PCs with divination magic for them to be more than just things to avoid or attack pre-emptively. It just doesn't feel to me like a place that, as a player, I'd want to go and explore. I need to have that feeling myself before I can really sell a place to my players.
Some of the "helpful" text really isn't. For example, "The societies, flora, and fauna [. . . ] resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311." Okay, time to go look up the societies, flora, and fauna of Auvergne. And Auvergne. Combined with the predominantly Roman-ish Greek-ish ruins on the island, and the Roman-ish and Greek-ish theme of the NPCs (mostly wizards, mostly dangerous) and statues, is potentially an issue. I think they'd go together well, except that the core material presented is the old stuff, for a very mythic feel, but you have to find a way to tie it to the mundane you'll add.
The presentation is beautiful, though. It's A5 sized, has a clear and readable typeface, excellent art, and a readable and attractive map. There are two copies of the full-color map, one inside each cover. The first has terrain and hex numbers. The second has color coded dots to tell you the type of encounter in the hex. The monsters are all illustrated on the page where their stats appear. There is also an appendix with the monsters ranked by HD, with their pictures and hex location. Appendixes listing all of the other things - statues, wizards, etc. - make for great ease checking the surrounding hexes or finding something again after a read-through. The organization and appearance of this book is outstanding.
All in all, I wanted to be impressed, but mostly, I was not. I was impressed by the production quality. But the contents were odd for the sake of being odd, and that really detracts from its utility. I'm glad I got to read it, but I can't see getting much use out if it. I'm more of the type that needs well-developed mundane I can add weirdness to, not random-feeling weirdness to add the mundane to.