What waits quivering beneath the crashing sea? Read The Isle, written by Luke Gearing and published by Spear Witch, to find out. No time to read this review? Jump to the Review at a Glance section or watch my short TikTok video.
Designed for The Vanilla Game RPG, a lightweight retroclone OSR-system, The Isle is a body horror dungeon crawl adventure that’s pretty playable in most fantasy RPG systems with minimal reworking. I could see someone running it with Mörk Borg without much issue. This review is of the physical book, but it also comes with a PDF and an EPUB (yay EPUB!).
Something draws your players to the isle, a mostly forgotten, small, and haunted piece of sea-locked land that 10 monks call home. The party is likely to either force or lie their way to the seal: a bone-porcelain disc hidden beneath the monastery floor. Once broken, adventure calls from below, where there awaits hundreds of years of horrors with lore and worldbuilding woven into the fabric of each room…
Each monk within the monastery comes with a brief yet vivid description. Even the graves of earlier islanders speak to the isolation and strained existence.
Carhal, 29. Resents the Church for sending him here. His previous monastery was dissolved for their lack of temperance—especially where the nearby convent was concerned.A monk’s description from The Isle
A thief, Muirgel. She prowled to the isle, seeking wealth, until the Abbot killed her with a dinner knife. Buried about a year ago. The grave contains all of her worldly possessions, as well as the knife: a poor short sword, 20 arrows, 50’ of silk rope, a grappling hook, 50 hs in mixed coinage, a set of ruby earrings (500 hs), and a charm of yew wood to grant strength in adversity.A grave description from The Isle
There are 5(ish) floors of around 10-20 rooms each in this adventure. But what about these floors is so evocative? The dungeon is a bit indescribable as a whole. Strange and violent creatures with alarming habits occupy this prison. Floor 1 is close to what you’d expect to find in a dungeon near the sea, but the domain grows more horrifying the farther down intruders go. One of the “floors” is actually the inside of a huge mysterious sea-thing where players navigate through organs.
The creatures are sublime. Beyond being just undead, they’re wonderfully described and horrifying. They’re not all dangerous, and some even promise power. Players might meet an amalgam of pony teeth that rolls around chewing air and stone, choose between helping two undead brothers permanently remove the other from this plane, assist a worm in its quest to ratatouille a giant sea-thing creature, or just die to one of the many interesting yet easy-to-deliver traps.
It’s a crawl that’s full of atmosphere and environmental storytelling, each set piece feeling as though it was handled carefully before being deliberately placed.
Two shelves hang on the southern wall, each filled with numerous statuettes. The lower shelf is blackened with soot and ash. Its statuettes are carved from wood or bone, depicting eight figurines. Each is about 8” tall.
A peek at some of the statuettes that hint at the creature within the final room.
- A one-eyed figure, beard and with a crown of antlers. They wear a dress.
- A nude, heavily pregnant figure in a cloak of birds.
- A shirtless figure, forcing their own jaw open with their hands. A grotesque tongue extends outward.
- A leering, hanging figure in a sackcloth robe.
- A crouched, emaciated figure with an iron collar. They hide a long, thin knife.
At the bottom of this dive, waits an incredible boss fight your players aren’t likely to survive. And they’re sure to never forget. A d8 table accompanies this fight and the game master is instructed to roll on it at the end of every round. These effects are visceral and dynamic, likely giving combat the extra tension and fireworks a final boss fight deserves.
The book doesn’t feature any art aside from the maps. That’s not an issue; many of the horrors within are better left to the imagination. The maps are fine too. To be honest, I’m probably spoiled by most modern maps. I would’ve had an easier time navigating the text if the maps offered more visual cues regarding what’s in each room…I think.
I’ve been frustrated in the past when maps are overly crowded. I tend to get fixated on describing every nook and cranny in play and players obsess with overturning every cobweb. The maps within The Isle are simple, so it’s harder to overlook the important bits. Additional icons and extra features would probably make it crowded. Further, a better map would likely increase the price (more on that later).
A crowded map makes for slow and often boring exploration. If playing with a VTT, beautiful maps can be a distraction*: “I search under this pile of clothes.” But I, as the Game Master, never described a pile of clothes. Now they’re canonized. A simple map avoids these distractions.
*Not always, my sweet cartographers. Certain use cases have their place. Do not fret.
You can always just have your players draw their own map. I believe that’s the best approach with VTT or in-person play when it comes to The Isle. Just hop onto a digital whiteboard or hand out a pencil and paper, and see what players draw.
I really love the way Gearing describes rooms. The circle-dot icon tells the GM what intruders know before entering the room. Next, there is usually a short block of graphic prose. Each paragraph feels meticulously curated: only a few choice sentences describe a room, but they do an incredible amount of lifting.
I thought I was on the bullet point side of the debate. The RPG prose versus bullet point discourse pierces my bubble now and then: what’s the better way to deliver adventure or setting information to the reader? I look at adventures as guidebooks, which means I desire more of a manual-like structure. I like facts and details to be scannable and quick to assess. I’ve never been convinced prose is a better vehicle for delivery… Until The Isle. Let’s just say Gearing’s approach to writing might be my one exception. Unless an adventure’s writing is as impactful–and dare I say as poetic?–as Gearing’s, I believe I’ll still find myself preferring adventures that use bullets or a mix of bullets and prose.
That said, I wish there was a little more intentional graphic design or text treatment. It would’ve been nice if names were bolded within paragraphs or if some of the margin space was used to draw attention to important rooms. As I mentioned, I prefer text that’s scannable, and since the rooms are only labeled with a number, that’s not exactly the case here. It’s nice that there’s so much space to write and that the paper is uncoated: you can make notes with a pencil or pen. But I think a little more attention to detail could have made navigation simpler.
There also isn’t a table of contents or an index. To be fair, the text is only 73 pages and all the headings are set in a larger font with plenty of white space. BUT when I read something in one section, I’d remember it was referenced in an earlier section. If I couldn’t remember the section, I found myself doing a lot of flipping back and forth. It wouldn’t take long to find what I was seeking, but it was a minor frustration. Proper prep with highlights and personal notes could address this, but I feel like it wouldn’t hurt to hold the hands of readers a little.
But what did I mean about better maps likely increasing the price? The Isle is only $25 for the physical edition and $15 digitally–a totally reasonable price for this full dungeon! Commissioning 5 floors of maps would likely be costly, and if I were the price setter, I’d raise the price to $40 or more if I paid for maps. And the more I thought about it, I couldn’t figure out what exactly what I wanted in more stylized maps. In their current state, they’re easy to print since they don’t require a ton of ink, and there is plenty of white space to add my own notes where I foresee needing extra reminders.
There are errors in the first printing of the book. At first, I assumed I was misunderstanding the maps or text, but a quick look at the Itch page revealed several directional and map issues. This brings me to another minor complaint: I wish each room said specifically which room it led to. I spent a silly amount of time matching entryway descriptions. I can just write the number each door goes to myself, but there’s plenty of space for the text to already have it. The mistakes will be fixed in future printings, but just in case you need them, here they are:
- Room 12 key should have East instead of West.
- Room 15 is referring to the upper and lower exits both to the West (this one from a last-minute map change that didn’t get reflected in the text).
- Floor 2 Room 22 should be deleted.
- Floor 3 Room 12 should read West instead of East.
- The Sea Thing Growth map should have a connection between 8 and 12.
- Also the exits from Room 6 of the Sea Thing Growth are a little unclear: North and East are referring to the connections to 11 and 12 respectively.
As far as discoveries, there are a lot of opportunities to find money and a couple of really intriguing items and NPCs. Value is assigned to nearly everything. Unless explorers are heavily motivated by treasure-hunting, glory, or a life-altering quest, it’s hard to imagine they’d progress through the dungeon after encountering a few of the terrors on the lower floors: “Well, I have enough hacksliver’s worth of goods to feed a village for years. Time to head out.”
There aren’t any included quest hooks to draw explorers deeper, but they can be as simple as defeat the being at the bottom of this dungeon to…
- Never worry about money again.
- Avenge your clan.
- Impress the king and win his ear.
- Honor the favor of a god.
- Remove a curse on a loved one.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading through the Isle as a standalone text. Adventures often aren’t the most exciting thing to read through if you’re not prepping for a game, but the prose is illustrative while being easy to digest and entertaining. The narrative voice is detached while still harboring an ominous, foreboding tone. It draws you in and shows you the fresh blood, the whispering corpses, the beating heart…
It’s an adventure that hands the reigns to the players. Most of it isn’t linear, and it’s full of meaningful choices that shape the contents of the rooms within. No two playthroughs will be the same. To run The Isle effectively, you’ll need to read the entire book through at least once. I promise this is a treat and not an assignment.
There is no light in this dungeon, but my read through felt bright, the words breathing a firestorm of excitement as I imagined sending my players through these dripping halls.
Review at a Glance
|Content||A lightweight horror-themed dungeon crawl packed with delightfully creepy surprises. You get 75 pages that feature 5 floors of grotesque, body-horror themed rooms.|
|Rules difficulty||While some contraptions are a bit fiddly, they feel intuitive. The rules are not complex.|
|Accessibility||The text very readable on white paper and at a pleasant font size. It also comes with searchable digital editions, including an EPUB and PDF.|
|Time commitment||You’ll be playing this for several sessions.|
|Price||$15 for a digital edition|
$25 for a physical edition that comes with the digital editions
|Final thoughts||Hell yeah|
If you run it, please tell me about your adventure! I also made a TikTok about this book!
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