24 October 2012

Review of X1: The Isle of Dread

TSR's blue-covered adventure module X1, the Isle of Dread, came with every box of the 1981's D&D Expert Set. Later, a reformatted orange-covered edition would be packaged with the Mentzer Expert Rules. Both editions are credited to David Cook (author of the 1981 Expert Rules) and Tom Moldvay (author of the 1981 Basic rules). This powerful authorial team should have produced a drop-dead awesome module, but somehow this module feels a little flat to me, even all these years later.

In its defense, X1 has a lot to do. It is meant to help novice DMs manage wilderness adventures (which is a mode of play that I have not yet engaged with as much as I would like). X1 also introduces some more details to the known world in the form of a short atlas of the classic Mystaran continental principalities. There is also a small "fiend folio" of new monsters introduced for the first time in this module. Finally, there is the small matter of detailing three adventure areas on the island.

I am sure I could not do as good a job as Cook and Moldvay with so long a task list and so short a page count (30-32 pages, depending on the edition).

If X1 comes across as a bit scattered, it can be forgiven. In just two years, TSR would introduce the Gazetteer format that focused more on settings than detailed adventures. Even now, X1 can be very easily thought of as a sort of proto-gazetteer of Thanegioth Archipelago.

X1 does lean a bit too heavily on some racial tropes as a kind of shorthand for the various native people the PCs encounter. Modern DMs will, I trust, do the good people of Tanaroa and Mantru right.

Let's have a brief word about the Kopru and the Phanatons. The Kopru are scheming, alien amphibians looking to remove the human riff-raff from their ancestral home. The phanatons are discount ewoks, but not as lovable [n.b. no one loves ewoks]. Seriously. Look at the graphic at the top of this entry. Makes you want to find a racoon to punch, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, I cannot talk very directly about the core adventure of X1, because I am not sure there is one. There are lots of interesting locations to explore, should the PCs wish to. There are sharks, dinosaurs, pirates, treants...

OK, we need to talk about Treants being on a tropical island.

If your Treants are informed by Tolkien as mine are, then Treants on Dread don't match up very well. But then neither do the hippogriffs, gargoles, or the green dragon. Oh well, this is a fantasy romp after all.

What isn't a fantasy romp are the layout changes between the two editions. Everyone loves tables. Let's have a table!

Blue versus Orange: BIG BATTEL!
Issue Blue Orange Winner
Font Souvenir Garamond BLUE!
Columns per page 2 3 BLUE!
Illustrators Dee, Otis, DSL Truman BLUE!
Cartograph Monochromatic 4 color ORANGE!
Section Iconography None Six ORANGE!

It looks like both editions are pretty evenly matched, but I am going to declare BLUE the winner because the 3 column layout is unreadable.

Whatever its faults, X1 is an important module. It introduces a much larger world to both DMs and players than B2: The Keep on the Borderland. It is certainly the prototype of wilderness adventures in general and seafaring hyjinx in particular for many aging D&D players.

To get the most bang out of this module, watch the 1930s version of King Kong followed by a reading of The Call of Cthulhu. That should nicely set the mood.