The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day this swell dame strolls into my office. Great set of gams, and a nice, skimpy outfit.
And a mohawk.
And four arms. Carrying a chainsaw, a blaster, a glowing black sword, and a book.
And covered with purple slop.
“Greetings from the Stygian darkness of the eldritch void beyond voids, meatsack. Got a review copy for ya.”
“Ooookay,” I says. “Um… What’s the gig?”
“The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence,” she says. “An old-school D&D-based hex crawl.”
“That explains the purple slop, I guess,” I says. “But D&D? Uh… Scotty the Dwarf usually drops off that sorta thing. What’s with the dark future get-up?”
“Islands has everything,” she says, wavin’ her arms and slinging purple slop everywhere. “Mutants. Dinosaurs. Aliens. Trans-dimensional freaks of every sort.”
“Gonzo?” I says.
“Gonzo,” she says.
“Gotcha,” I says. “I’ll give it the treatment. Meantime, you want a towel?”
“You got a little something on your… well, everything.”
The book isn’t just an adventure. It includes a series of rules options, only some of which are specific to the setting.
One general observation before we get into the meat of the thing: I wasn’t sure just by reading this adventure about what system it’s meant to use, nor could I determine the character levels for which it’s intended. The references to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos with Good and Evil led me to believe that it’s for Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, but the author tells me that he’s played it with Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and D&D 5e. He also tells me that it’s for character levels 1-7, although I can’t imagine low-level characters surviving for very long.
Oddly, the adventure includes its own simple task resolution system that the author refers to as VSD6. Basically, the player rolls 2d6 for an average task, adding or subtracting dice based upon the circumstances, including a bonus die for relevant experience and a bonus or penalty die for very low or high attributes. The player takes the highest die, with the number rolled indicating the degree of failure or success in a manner that puts me in mind of Powered by the Apocalypse. I like the way the system simply determines degree of success… The problem is that this is for a level-based game without any apparent effect of level on task resolution. I’m also not completely clear as to whether this is meant for use in combat or only non-combat skill applications.
Even Darker Secrets
For two attribute re-rolls at character creation, players can roll on the Darker Secrets table. Some of these secrets are really disturbing, however, including the PC being a serial killer, a rapist, or a child of incest. That’s way too squicky for me.
The section lists 20 situations that may be chosen or rolled, each an event that happened in the PC’s past. The GM reads the event, and the player relates how his character responded. I like the idea in theory, but I’m afraid some of the options would have too big of an impact on the character’s backstory. For example, one possibility has the character’s father insisting that his child train as a swordsman or leave home. If the character’s class isn’t that of a fighter, presumably he was forced to leave home.
Magic Use (Purple Spellcasting)
Magic is meant to be more powerful but also more random in this setting. Accordingly, the player rolls 1d6 with each spell cast. On a 6, the effect of the spell doubles. On a 1, the effect of the spell reverses. And on a 3, the player must roll 1d20 and reference a number of random spell side-effects. I think this approach fits the setting, but I’m concerned that most of the effects are so specific as to become ridiculous if repeated — the appearance of the same demon lord appearing to demand subservience comes to mind.
The section offers an alternative to a spell reversal on a roll of 1: The caster can instead choose to align with Chaos, warping body and mind in the process. This goes well with the nature of magic on the islands. I only wonder what happens to those already aligned with Chaos, and what happens if the option is taken more than once. I’d like to see the potential for progressive mutations.
Dimensional gateways apparently open all the time on the islands. The section provides a 1d20 table of locations where any given gateway might lead. Like the spell side-effects, these are fairly specific, but as a dimensional gateway’s appearance presumably won’t be as common as spell-casting, this doesn’t bother me as much.
Fighting for Your Life
Here the book introduces wound penalties of a sort, but with a twist: Combatants actually get a +2 bonus to hit and damage on their next attack after taking their first wound in combat. That’s a little different, but I can see the reasoning behind it. Conversely, a -2 penalty applies to hit and damage when combatants fall to 25% of their total hit points. Since the concept of D&D PCs being at 100% ability right up until death has always bugged me, I’m good with this as well. However, if the initial blow reduces the combatant to 25% of total hit points, he receives no bonus nor penalty for the remainder of the battle. I can’t quite make heads or tails of that.
The Monk Character Class
For no obvious reason, the book introduces the author’s version of the monk. This version looks pretty close to the standard (A)D&D version at first, with no armor, simple weapons, and unarmed attacks. Then it kind of goes of on its own, adding a Captivate Audience ability that seems more appropriate for a bard and a brain-exploding ability straight out of the movie Scanners. The latter appears to be level-independent and save-free, meaning that a first-level monk could explode the brain of a high-level opponent just as easily as that of a low-level goon. That’s way too overpowered.
Fighting Men and Magic Swords
In keeping with the fairly brutal nature of the setting, the author here provides a table of increasingly nasty results of critical hits with magic swords numbered from 1-12. On a roll of 19 to hit, the player rolls 1d8 and consults the table; on a roll of 20 to hit, the player rolls 1d12 instead. Again, I have to emphasize that these results get really nasty, up to and including instant death via decapitation.
Ego of the Sword
On these islands, every magic sword is intelligent — even previously unintelligent magic swords that are brought there. I think that’s fairly clever.
The book removes the threat of a direct clash of egos between sword and wielder, however, requiring these to be roleplayed. Essentially, a sword must wear down its owner with constant pestering — something I feel takes away from the potential drama of using an intelligent weapon. It also seems a bit out of step with the rest of the harsh realities of life on the islands.
The section provides a table of possible personality traits and quirks of the sword, some of which are particularly strange, like snoring. Also, the table includes the ability to hack computers as a “quirk,” while none of the other quirks provide any benefit at all.
Origin of a Sword
Here we have eight possible enigmatic origin stories from intelligent swords. I guess this could come in handy if a GM is stumped for a response on the subject from a sword, but none of the responses are particularly informative.
That’s Going to Leave a Scar!
This section offers twenty possible lasting wounds for PCs who are reduced below zero hit points but survive. It’s a serviceable enough list, although I think the degree of penalty for wounds should be included. I’m not sure how much to penalize a PC for having a “trick elbow,” for example.
History of the Islands
The text presents a timeline of events on the islands going back 20,000 years and giving multiple reasons for the place being so freaking weird — among them, the creation of Land of the Lost-style pylons enabling spatial, temporal, and dimensional travel. Good stuff.
So it turns out that the islands are alive and have their own motivations, of which this section offers six possibilities. When characters act in accordance with these motivations, they can receive purple stones that can be traded in for 1d6 to be used as the characters like. When characters act against the islands’ desires, the stones are taken away. I really like this idea, although how the characters receive the stones and how they learn what they’re for isn’t at all clear.
Fun Things to do on the Islands
By default, this book offers a sandbox-style hex crawl. Here, however, the text presents ten possible overarching plots for the PCs to face. I think this is an excellent option, as not every group of gamers will be happy with simple exploration.
Personal Connection to the Islands
The islands seem to be a gonzo hellscape that nobody sane would want to visit. This section addresses that issue, providing twenty possible reasons for traveling there — an excellent inclusion.
Rumor Has It
Twenty rumors about the islands — some true, some false. I always liked such lists in old-school adventure modules, so I’m happy to see one here.
During the Night
Perhaps to drive home just how weird the islands are, the book offers a 1d100 table of strange overnight events to be referenced once per game week. Many of the possibilities are nicely freaky and surreal, but some of them would bring an adventure to a screeching halt — among them, the impending destruction of the entire world.
Coin of the Realm
The section is a misnomer insofar as islanders don’t use coins. Instead, it’s more like a barter economy… and among the most prized trade items are attractive females. If this is enough to turn you off of the book, I’ll understand. If not, be warned that this is a recurring theme throughout the adventure.
Here the book discusses the value of guides on the islands and the need to treat them well. The section only offers base chances for the guide’s knowledge of the immediate vicinity, the current island, and all three islands, without indicating how to determine if the sherpa knows any particular fact.
No Blasphemy, Please
Unsurprisingly, the Dark Gods are particularly active on the islands, and blaspheming them results in a 24-hour penalty to saving throws. If that doesn’t drive the point home, doing so in the presence of a head worshiper automatically results in a bolt from the blue striking the blasphemer down.
Nevertheless, other gods apparently keep tabs on activity on the islands as well. There’s a flat 13% chance — why 13%, I have no idea — that a god will answer a petitioner’s prayers.
That’s a lot of divine power being thrown around. Given the gonzo setting, I’m okay with that, although I’d prefer the chance of intervention to be based upon the faithfulness of the individual worshiper.
The Thing that Rots from the Sky
Here the book describes the islands’ eponymous Purple-Haunted Putrescence — a one mile long by two miles wide hovering glob of tentacles, mouths, and general dripping grossness. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the way it floats about, and when it’s overhead, there’s a 1 in 6 chance of it snagging people and swallowing them whole. At 1,000 hit points, it’s not meant to be fought. It’s just kind of there as a constant threat. It’s definitely creepy… I’m just not sure how I’d use it in a game. It does have worshipers on the island, however.
Beneath the Islands
Turns out mysterious high-tech controls for the islands await underground — an intriguing prospect. Unfortunately, while the book includes a map of the complex containing these controls, there are no details of this dungeon’s inhabitants.
The islands exist somewhere between the waking world and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Lands, which is yet another source of the place’s strangeness. The text explains that as a result, fear is intensified and opens portals to dark dimensions. This seems to overlap with the effects of the pylons, but that’s no big deal.
Even the rain is bad. The rain is both acidic and mutagenic, causing damage and possible mutations on anyone caught in it.
…Aaaaand once the rain stops, a living purple fog rises that can insta-kill those out and about. This is getting ridiculous.
The islands feature illusion-shrouded control panels that can allow telepathic communication, produce force fields, and interface with the islands’ master controls. What the latter entails, I’m not sure — the text doesn’t say what this can accomplish.
The previously-mentioned black pylons allow temporal, spatial, and dimensional travel, although they require a device called a channeler to select a specific destination. This provides a potential quest for PCs as well as a source for infinite possibilities of future adventures.
Crystals, Crystals, Crystals
Crystals are a big deal on the islands. Crystals of various colors offer a number of powers, although many of them cause daily attribute loss to those carrying them, and some only work when inside a black pylon. Touching crystals of different colors touched can produce still other powers. These are great motivators for adventures, although I’m not sure how willing PCs will be to deal with the side effects.
Roleplaying versus Kill, Kill, Kill
The book advises that GMs and players discuss before playing whether they prefer talking out issues over fighting. I prefer that such things happen naturally during play, but knowing player expectations isn’t a bad thing, really. I’m more dubious about the suggestion that PCs can subdue enemies rather than killing them by bringing them down to exactly one hit point. That’s a bit difficult to do using a system with random damage.
Six important groups of various sizes reside on the islands. This section keeps their status dynamic using two tables: One to select the faction and the other to determine what’s changed since they were last encountered. That’s pretty handy.
If the PCs spend an extended period of time with natives, this section provides a 1d12 table of possible events — again, very handy! My only quibble is that two of the options mandate PC actions — a big no-no for me.
Love Thy Neighbor
There’s not much to tell here — it’s just a table to randomly determine the current stance of one faction about another.
Here the book does a great job of describing the various factions on the island: their appearance, numbers, leadership, belief system, nature, agenda, tech level, currency, and anything else that makes the group stand out.
- Purple Putrescence Worshipers: What it says on the tin — degenerate worshipers of The Thing That Rots From The Sky.
- Overlords: The high-tech managers of the islands’ subterranean controls.
- Koshi: Primitive simian natives to the islands
- Children of Light: Devout, crusading monotheists.
- Snake-Men: The sorcerous serpentine former rulers of the planet.
- Disciples of Zygak-Xith: Worshipers of a Lucifer-like fallen god seeking to become gods in their own right.
Wandering Monster Table
A 1d20 table of random encounters. As is the case with the stationary encounters, these are unique to the islands. I commend the creativity at on display here, although I’m forced to wonder about the level range for which this book is intended. Some of these random results are extremely weak, while others are absolutely apocalyptic.
Monster and NPC Saving Throw Chart
For whatever reason, the book presents a unified, all-purpose saving throw table. The table is hardly necessary, as the text explains that it’s simply a matter of subtracting the being’s hit dice from 20.
It’s a Trap!
There’s a 2-in-3 chance that any given hex the PCs enter will contain a primitive, technological, magical, or early warning trap. That’s an awful lot of traps. I can see that quickly growing tiresome for the players.
Here we have the meat of the book. The setting is comprised of three islands on the world of Razira: Korus, Kelis, and Kravian. The book provides a hex map of the archipelago along with the associated encounters.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot I can say about the contents here without providing a list of spoilers. I can, however, speak about the topic in generalities.
First and foremost, this is a collection of encounters. That might seem obvious, but I mean that it’s not a series of encounters. By default, there’s no overarching story going on here. It’s simply a bunch of things that can be discovered through pure exploration. I’m not an expert on OSR, but I did play a lot of AD&D 1e back in the day, so this approach definitely takes me back. If that’s the point of OSR, then this is spot-on.
These encounters are… different. The author takes full advantage of the inherent weirdness of the islands by presenting potential adversaries from all across space, time, and the dimensions. I can safely say that players will have no idea what to expect from this setting, which is a good thing. Other than a small handful of elves, there are no D&D standards here. There are cyborgs, aliens, cultists, mutant freaks, and eldritch horrors of all descriptions, however.
If there’s any drawback to all this weirdness, it’s that the book isn’t clear what the rest of the world of Razira is like. Is all of this multi-genre craziness just a product of the islands, or is the whole world like that? If not, is Razira a standard D&D fantasy world? Could the PCs start out with, say, a laser gun? I have no idea. It’s an important question, because by all indications, the PCs will not be from the islands themselves.
The book gets a bit too blasé about the weirdness in places. For example, one hex is simply described as featuring a “crashed starship”. No map. No mention of planet of origin. No monsters. No sci-fi loot. Just a “crashed starship”.
And speaking of maps, the author himself confesses that he didn’t stock the dungeon-like areas of the islands, preferring to focus on the wilderness areas. That means a bit of extra work for GMs.
The book is rife with sci-fi and horror Easter eggs, among them A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planet of the Apes, and Heavy Metal. All of these make it difficult to take the adventure too seriously, but I suspect that was the intent.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the “mature content” about which the cover warns prospective readers. There’s nothing truly graphic here. Instead, the “mature content” is, in truth, the sort of juvenile naughtiness that early-teen geeks might envision: A rape plant, a dimension-tossed porn star (complete with casting couch), and loot including used condoms all come immediately to mind. I found none of this particularly shocking so much as, frankly, dumb. I suppose it’s like comedy, though — it’s an individual thing.
This section presents a selection of new second-, third-, and fourth-level spells that may be known by natives to the islands. Several of them seem overpowered to me.
This Night I Shall Purple Your Soul, for example, is a second-level spell that forces the target to become obsessed with sacrificing himself to the Purple-Haunted Putrescence on a failed save. So, the spell essentially incapacitates the target and possibly kills him.
Then there’s Dreamscape, a fourth-level which allows the caster to enter an enemy’s dream and assassinate him. So, it’s essentially an instant death spell.
New Magic Items
Here the book offers up 28 new magical artifacts. Some, like the Staff of Pervasive Death, with its 50′ cone draining 2d6 constitution from everyone (1d6 on a save) and its ability to automatically kill a humanoid once per day unless a save is made, are extremely powerful. Others, like the Canteen of Ventriloquism, which lets an individual throw his voice while drinking from it, are just extremely silly. Some, like the Eye of Arzra Kain, which is an amulet containing a living eye that looks around and can creep people out, are mostly useless. And some, like the Necklace of Ears, which supposedly bestows heightened hearing and intimidation, lack any system stats whatsoever.
The black-and-white art in this book is fairly good and puts me in mind of something between the art early D&D early Call of Cthulhu. The cover, though, with its big, shiny, g-strung butt in the foreground, makes me wince.
The writing gets its point across and somewhat amusingly plays even the most ridiculous elements purely straight. I did notice several typos, and run-on sentences are much in evidence, but it’s nothing too terrible.
The layout, like so much else about this book, hearkens back to old-school products. As such, I’d have to say that it’s not so much “attractive” as it is “appropriate”.
Boy oh boy, how to wrap this one up…
Well, first off, I can safely say that I’m not in the target market for this product. I’m not an OSR guy, and even if I were, I still don’t think the author’s wacky fun-house approach would appeal to me now as it might have in the old days. And the “mature content” is a net negative for me.
But I suppose that’s the point: I’m sure there are old-school gamers who would eat this up, juvenile “mature content” and all. For them, I suspect that this book will be a gonzo gold mine that just needs a bit of spit and polish to get it into full working order.
Oh, let’s be honest, here: I’m purely speculating at this point. I don’t personally know anyone who would like this book, but I can think of friends from my roleplaying youth who would have loved it. Maybe some nostalgic part of me hopes that there are still folks out there eager for their elf rangers to face off against nubile half-naked mohawked mutants from the future. If you’re one of those retro-freaky people, come and get it, my friend.
Just mind the slop.