A New Take on an Old Classic: Isle of Dread

(Originally this was going to be up at Dice Monkey, but Mark has taken the month off, and I felt that this post tied into yesterday’s far too well to not get it up as a followup. It’s a few weeks old, so I don’t delve as deeply into Savage vs. Civilized themes as I might have if I’d written it today, but we can leave all of that for the comments section, yes?)

There are few modules out there more highly regarded than Isle of Dread. Heroes from the mainland sail in search of treasure and monster and the chance to open a new trade route to lands unknown.

The fighter comes as conquistador, the cleric as missionary, the thief as treasure hunter, the mage as researcher, the elf as… well, an elf. The heroes of the Setting Formerly Known as The Known World may have all sorts of motivations and goals as they invade and explore this alien wilderness.

But what about natives? Typical runs of the Isle of Dread treat the natives in a handful of ways: they are the hired manpower of the explorers. They act as guides before the jungle gets too thick and dangerous. And, in dire situations, once the supply of mooks back on the ships get exhausted, may be used in the pool of bodies to reroll dead characters from. I’ve read of some parties that explored the Isle of Dread and by the end of the campaign, maybe one of the original party was left, leading a band of characters rolled up from natives because everyone else was dead. But what is the motivation for that? And why continue once the last of the original heroes has been killed? That pretty much spells the end of the exploratory expedition.

So, here’s my idea for a new take on Isle of Dread. Now, I’m sure this has been done before lots of times, just it doesn’t get blogged about a lot.

All player characters are drawn from the natives. Classes are restricted to those available in the villages, namely fighter and cleric. I know that multi-classing is a no-no in b/x, but I think I might allow it for magic users; I’ll go into that later.

Rather than run it at “Expert” levels, all characters start at level 1. The scene is set by the arrival of mysterious strangers on the island. They come bringing all sorts of wonders and treasures. All of these new arrivals will be low to mid level except for their leader, who should be level 5-8, perhaps depending upon his or her class.

The first major variable in this campaign will be the expedition leader’s class. This will shape some of his goals and attitudes regarding the isle of dread. A fighter will likely be more interested in exploration, treasure, or colonization, a cleric in prosyletizing and establishing missions, a thief in getting as much loot as possible with less interest in long-term position, and magic user probably in studying the lost civilization. These are just some ideas: these expedition leaders can have any number of motivations, all of which will shape the direction of the campaign.

As the mysterious strangers appear in the village, they ask for the help of villagers. They’re looking for volunteers, but are willing to hire people on.

As a native of the Isle of Dread, your equipment may be limited by your culture and your resources. This means you’re primarily going to be restricted to very light or no armor and the wooden and leather shields of your people. At some point, you may grow used to the foreign weapons and armor of these strange newcomers, but for some time would suffer severe disadvantages until you became accustomed to them. Being a native warrior might even be treated as a separate class as a traditional fighter, complete with weapon and armor restrictions, though using fighter’s level tables. Native weapons would include spears, both thrown and melee, bows, and other weapons described in the module as being used by the islanders.

Native clerics would likely be more like witch doctors than the traditional healer/tank. They would only wear the armor and equipment of their culture. They also might often clash with any clerics who have arrived on their shores. There is any number or reasons why a native acolyte would go adventuring, though. Collecting items for medicine bags, observing the ways of the newcomers, proving ones’ worth to the gods through a rite of passage into the heart of the island, so on and so forth.

I’m also inclined to include magic users, but in a very different way, more akin to something from AD&D than B/X. If there is a magic user among the foreign explorers, particularly if the leader is a magic user, that magic user might be willing to do some teaching were his life saved by a heroic native with a propensity for learning. First, you might want to decide whether or not the inhabitants of the Isle of Dread are literate. I’m assuming they’re not. A native interested in becoming a magic user would need to be taught how to read and write. This may be accomplished by a series of intelligence checks over time. Once the individual learns to read, he or she may also be taught “read magic”. A native cleric or fighter who is taught magic in this way drops their old class (though they keep their saves and to hit, at least until the new magic user class advancement catches up) and begins to advance as though they were a level 1 magic user. A cleric who becomes a magic user in this way is considered to have abandoned the old ways, and may be shunned by other native clerics. He or she will also lose any cleric abilities.

Here’s a thought: to abrogate the need for spellbooks, natives magic users begin to tatoo their spells all over their bodies, and possibly the bodies of their fellows!

You can’t work a campaign by simply having the natives tag along with the explorers. At some point, the leader isn’t going to be there, and the natives may be on their own deep in the jungles of the Isle. But finding motivation for natives to go exploring their own island shouldn’t be hard. It will depend on the motives of the explorers, which will be up to you as the DM, but the Isle of Dread is written to have endless possibilities.

2 responses to “A New Take on an Old Classic: Isle of Dread

  1. This sounds like the basis for a wholly original campaign setting. I like the idea of the natives and the explorers working together, as opposed to the alternative of blah-blah invading boring conquerors blah. 😉


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