Along with Carcosa, last Thursday saw the release of Isle of the Unknown, a 125-page full-colour hardcover setting book. Like Carcosa, it is written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it is a sandbox setting.
The pages of Isle of the Unknown are liberally sprinkled with art, from small monster pieces by Amos Orion Sterns to the full-page magic user illustrations by Jason Rainville. It is laid out in a clear, readable fashion and is nice to look at. Unfortunately, the full-page pieces have printed out rather dark, which is clear when comparing them to the PDF version, which looks much nicer.
The PDF is not as nifty as Carcosa, in that there are no hyperlinks in the text or the map, but what it does do better than Carcosa is pagination. While Carcosa’s page numbers do not match up from page to PDF due to each page spread being counted as a single page, this has somehow been fixed in Isle of the Unknown. I have no comprehension of the wizardry required for such feats, but evidently it can be done. This is the one thing that Isle of the Unknown does better than Carcosa. Mind you, the lack of hyperlinks in Isle of the Unknown is not as bad a thing as it might be in another type of book, because the only thing you would want hyperlinked is the hex descriptions, all of which are easily accessible via bookmarks.
The two books are good examples of how PDF publishing should be done in general. You have all these interesting options to increase usability that the dead tree edition is lacking, so why not use them? I think the bare minimum should be an option to turn off background art so stuff can be printed without wasting any printer ink, a liquid that, by weight, is more expensive than human blood, crude oil, or gold. At least nobody is trying to peddle us files without bookmarks anymore, though I own a few examples like that as well.
Ruleswise, it’s old-school D&D and ought to be compatible with pretty much whatever version you want. Armour Class is expressed in terms like “as leather”, so you won’t even need to figure out whether it’s counting up or down or where the starting point is.
The Lay of the Land
Isle of the Unknown is a sandbox setting. We have an island, slightly under 35,000 square miles in size, divided up into 330 hexes, each of which covers the area of some 86 square miles. Each hex has something of interest. Broadly speaking, these can be divided up into monsters, magic-users, statues and towns. The latter are of the least interest, at least to the writer, and we’re only given population figures and perhaps a plot hook for each.
The book’s setting defaults to a sort of medieval Mediterranean. Architecture and statues are described as Greek or Roman, a few NPCs referred to as Turkish or Arabic and references to the real world are abundant. However, as the preface explains, everything can be changed easily, which is also why no proper names are given. Nearly all of the clerics on the island are described as wearing red surcoats with white crosses, which is how the Knight Hospitallers used to dress at one point in their history. Incidentally, the introduction also mentions that “the societies, flora, and fauna of this predominantly mountainous and wooded isle resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311,” where the Hospitallers controlled a grand priory. While I am not certain and there’s a woeful gap in my education here, I suspect that McKinney is trying to work in a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne. I wonder if reading the stories would give some sort of context to the isle and its weirdness.
Anyway, the three other things this island has in abundance. Weird monsters! I haven’t counted, but I think there are over a hundred different monsters on the isle. These range from giant parrots that are on fireand humanoid swans with human faces on their chests that shoot strength-draining feathers to a vaguely lizardlike creature that “looks like a slightly elongated raspberry”, and koalas with suction cups. All of them are illustrated, which is nice, since some of them (like the raspberry thing) would be really difficult to visualize otherwise. They don’t have much in the way of context or ecology or any sort of explanation. That’s all up to the GM. What matters is that they’re there, they’re weird, and most of them are hostile.
Then there are magic users. Here and there, scattered across the isle, are secluded magic users with strange and unique powers. They are mostly not hostile, and indeed, fighting them is almost certainly a losing proposition. Not all of them are illustrated, but thirteen of them are illustrated in a series of zodiac-themed, full-page art pieces that I like very much. They are also weird.
Finally, there are statues. Scattered across the isle are mysterious magical statues with strange properties. Some of them are hot to the touch, some of them grant blessings, some of them stand a good chance of killing you. The only illustrated statue is the one on the cover.
There isn’t much in the way of history or background to the isle and its high strangeness, just a list of legends that may or may not be true. The hexes do not exist in vacuums, though, and construct small implied stories of their own. For instance, the villagers in this hex consider the forest in that hex a taboo and may get cross if the PCs go there. Such detail is sparse, however.
In conclusion, Isle of the Unknown is a very good-looking book. It’s an interesting sandbox setting, though the weirdness wanders into the realm of absurd comedy a bit too often to remain effective. The cartoonish art style of the monsters does not exactly help. Still, a capable GM knows what to keep, what to drop and what to adjust, and though it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere, I get the feeling that the setting isn’t even meant to be used straight out of the book.
For a full disclosure, I received my copy from the publisher as thanks for helping him unload the pallets of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown, and am probably strongly biased.