In my A Game Per Year project, my goal has been to read one roleplaying game corebook for every year they’ve been published. However, I soon started to feel that it was hard to decipher how the games were really meant to be played. For this reason, I decided to start a parallel project, An Adventure Per Year, to read one roleplaying adventure for each year they’ve been published.
The Isle of Dead is a classic D&D adventure, not least because it was packaged into the D&D Expert Set published in 1983. This is also how I first encountered the adventure, when I was a child reading the Expert Set in Finnish translation.
When I first encountered D&D, I fell in love immediately. However, I was quite young and never really grasped how to run an outdoors adventure like The Isle of Dread. Dungeons were pretty much the only thing within my abilities at that point.
Because of this, The Isle of Dread had an aura of mystery to it, appropriate considering the subject matter: A mysterious island the player characters come to explore.
The version I read now is the 2018 Goodman Games reissue for D&D 5th edition. It’s a sumptuous package with a deep sense of history. The adventure is repeated three times, twice as facsimiles of old editions and finally as an expanded 5th edition redesign. It’s clearly meant for a reader who cares about the history of D&D adventures which makes it wonderful for the purposes of my reading project.
The Expert Set expanded D&D adventures to outdoor environments. Because of this, it makes sense to include an adventure that’s all about wilderness encounters. Yet at the same time, it’s also good to limit the scope somewhat, to avoid the infinite expandability of outdoors adventure.
Following this logic, a dangerous island is an obvious choice. The Isle of Dread is a foundational design in the category of hexcrawl, adventures where the characters explore territory one map hex at a time. In the beginning, the characters are provided with the outlines of the island and as they adventure within, they slowly fill the map until the entire area has been surveyed.
In terms of style and content, The Isle of Dread is a little musty. The obvious inspirations are things like King Kong and Tarzan, and there are giant apes, natives in loincloths, zombie masters, dinosaurs and evil temples. Indeed, it deviates from the standard fantasy style of D&D into something like the pulp territory of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
At the heart of the island there’s a plateau underneath which the ancient evil of the mind-controlling kopru dwell. The closer the characters get to the center, the more difficult things become.
As a clear expression of a design idea, The Isle of Dread is extremely interesting. It demonstrates basic ideas like random encounter tables and non-linear adventure design very well, perhaps because it was originally designed to introduce new players to these concepts.
There’s an interesting stylistic discrepancy between the material in the original adventure and the new elements in the expanded 5th edition version. The original is true to it’s pulp roots: Horror, ickiness, doom. Especially in the temple at the plateau, the new material is essentially explanatory. It seeks to make the kopru into something more tangible by providing worldbuilding elements such as a glassworks for building devices they need to conquer land areas.
This kind of thing is always a double-edged sword. The more you explain, the lesser the horror. The original is built on suggestion and in the expansion the genre shifts from pulp horror to standard fantasy as those intimations are revealed.