X1 – The Isle of Dread

The Isle of Dread may be the best adventure module I’ve ever read.

Don’t get me wrong. I love, love, love The Village of Hommlet. Against the Cult of the Reptile God is a gem. The Tomb of Horrors and Ravenloft stand the test of time. And despite my penchant for old-school modules, I’m no edition snob. Merrick Blackmon’s The Witch of Underwillow is fantastic for 5e. And, of course, I’ve never met someone who didn’t love The Lost Mine of Phandelver from the 5e Starter Box.

Still, The Isle of Dread might be the best that I’ve read.

Imagination Fuel

The first thing that I love about this module is that there isn’t a clearly spelled-out plot. I’m still hungover from running 5e’s Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. It’s a great adventure. But if you run it fully, it’s like keeping up with a novel. Session prep started to feel like studying for a test. And nobody wants their gaming to feel like work!

Then, I read The Isle of Dread. For starters, I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire thing, cover to cover, in one sitting. And the openness of the setting was just pure imagination fuel for me. It’s a setting-agnostic island filled with kaiju-like monsters and wildness. There’s a big wall separating the natives from the creatures. There’s water between the island and the mainland. This is Jurassic Park! This is King Kong! This is Godzilla! This is LOST! But it’s all yours. You can make with it what you like.

And that to me is really, very exciting. I can port it into any campaign, any world, any system really. Thematically, it just got me really pumped. As my players will tell you, any time there’s a boat involved, I get very excited.

A sandbox hexcrawl heaven

I ran the module as an all-day adventure for my brother’s birthday. In order to do that, I had to come up with a basic plot with something of a railroad. But that’s not how the module is built. It’s an open-world hexcrawl that allows players to do whatever they want!

After reading the module, I realized that a campaign group could likely spend 10-15 sessions exploring the whole island. Granted, that would take some extra DM work if they’re dungeon lovers. There is functionally only one dungeon on the island. Otherwise, you have lots of mini-locations, neat encounters, and thoughtful terrain. There are sketches of NPC groups that invite DM elaboration. In short, they’ve given you all the pieces and parts for a really fun island/wilderness adventure.

Thirteen years ago, I would have thought I needed to chart out a storyline to help players engage that. Now, I prefer letting the players simply explore and generate their own storyline. If I was going to do a longer campaign in the Isle of Dread (which I might!), I would definitely be stealing dungeons from other modules. And as it went along, I’m sure a bigger story would grow out of it.

Charting a Path

In the end, I did have to move my players through the module in 3 three-hour sessions. So I picked the terrain areas, monsters, and locales that I definitely wanted to experience. At several points, I put a fork in the road story-wise, so that players had some agency. But ultimately, it would lead back to the main path toward the dungeon. I rarely do this kind of railroading, because I believe strongly in player choice affecting the world and the story. But for a nine-hour game, you’ve got to direct them a little more strongly.

All in all, I think the players enjoyed the process and are interested in returning to the island. I’d encourage you, if you’ve never played an open-world sandbox game–or if you’ve never run a hexcrawl before–check it out! It’s really an amazing module and, frankly, I can’t wait to return to The Isle of Dread.

Let me know in the comments below about your own excursions to the Isle!

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3 thoughts on “X1 – The Isle of Dread

  1. Alex says:

    The Isle Of Dread is indeed a classic. Been decades since I last played it. I look forward to re-reading it when I read Goodman Games OAR version (reprint + 5e re-write).

  2. I have wanted to run it, but never got a chance to. I also have thought for a long time it would benefit from having C1 (Tamoachan) and I1 (Dwellers in the Forbidden City) dropped into it, which are about the same level range.

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