I fucking hate Tolkien. More concisely, I fucking hate the role-playing game legacy of Tolkien. I have no use for grandiose magic hurling wizards, polymath elves, and stand-offish rangers with roguish gruffness covering hearts of gold. That so much of the RPG community spends their precious imaginations and time retracing the ponderous path towards Mt. Doom breaks my heart.
What I want from a fantasy setting is the exact opposite of the Hobbit. I want a world that Dio would sing about. Give me demons who fly about on leathery wings and towering giants who stomp whole villages to dust on a whim. This is my desire, my dream, my wish. Too much of the D&D community is stuck with gnomes and anime scale swords. Spare me.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess have thus far proven to be reliable purveyors of fantasy that lives outside the elves and longsword +1 paradigm. The Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a witty, strange take on the 70’s style D&D I grew up on and it has quickly become my favorite system. Carcosa topped the Grindhouse edition of LOTFP with a setting that can only be called bracing. Wind-swept, chaotic, and blasphemous, Carcosa is a world apart from Forgotten Realms dreck I have grown to loathe. Then came Isle of the Unknown.
As with every other LOTFP product, the cover is eye-catching. Ghostly colored, with an eerie glow, the cover painting is quite unlike any I have ever seen. Cynthia Shephard really out did herself with this piece, as it is evocative without being as blatant as most RPG book covers. The blue figure playing the harp may only be a statue, but it gives the impression that on the Isle of the Unknown, even this can be a startling encounter. It becomes very clear from the outset that this is not a bunch of happy companions striding to the Shire.
The front and back cover interiors are festooned with hex maps of the Isle. What really makes the Isle of the Unknown come to life is the interior art. There are over 100 monsters and each of them is given a full color illustration. This is a far cry from the days of the Monster Manual, when only a percentage of the monsters where drawn and all the art was black and white. There are several full page paintings, as well, and each is as good as the cover. The colors are often lavish and bright, which some might not care for, but I find the saturation refreshingly different.
It might go without saying, this being a Lamentations of the Flame Princess book and all, but the binding, paper, and production values are amazing. The paper has a nice heavy feel and the spine is well sewn. This is a book that is made to last. It is the same size as Carcosa, though it is a much slimmer volume. This is the third product of theirs I have reviewed and each has been made with extreme care. In an era when RPG products are increasingly either digital downloads or made for short edition cycles, it is a pleasure to encounter books that are built to last.
The actual gaming content of Isle of the Unknown is quite different from anything you may have encountered prior. Each and every one of the hex panels on the map is described, some with a couple sentences, others warranting fairly long paragraphs. The encounters each hex contains are beyond varied, drifting from brutal combats with fairly normal opposition to Dadaist situations that play like a D&D version of a Dali painting. There is no over-arching meta plot to be explored in the next book, no sensitive portrayals of the life cycle of orcs. This is old school encounter style gaming.
Much will be made of the more madcap monsters within the book. Yes, there is a pyramid shaped eagle monster that resembles a bird that swallowed a four sided die. Why wouldn’t there be? This is the Isle of the Unknown, after all. If fighting a 24′ tall deer monster isn’t what you want, go play Greyhawk or something.
Gaming use for the Isle of the Unknown is an interesting conundrum. There is enough weirdness and verve to fill a whole campaign, but I have a hard time imagining someone using the Isle of the Unknown as a full time setting. In my humble, and largely irrelevant, opinion, the best use for Isle of the Unknown is as a setting for a handful of adventures, be it a one off or a short story arc. By reducing player exposure to the Isle, the otherness of the monsters and setting is maintained.
Ultimately, the value of Isle of the Unknown is as a source of inspiration. This is a work of fantasy in the vein of my high school notebook, a genre I quite enjoy. This is 128 pages of madness and fun with no peer. For the enterprising and creative DM, this is a rich resource that can be mined for years. If you want something off the shelf to drop into a campaign whole cloth, this Isle might be a bit too Unknown for you. Every time I turned the page, I expected to see Dorito dust fingerprints on the page. Few OSR products truly evoke the spirit of 70’s D&D, but Isle of the Unknown is as close as I have come to those halcyon days.