by Mike Shea on 18 March 2013
Originally written in 1981, the Isle of Dread is a classic and memorable open-ended adventure. Wizards of the Coast recently included an updated Isle of Dread adventure in their current D&D Next playtest. Unlike many adventures, the Isle of Dread is almost completely off the rails, giving DMs a focused and open setting PCs can fully explore. It's a great setting for the the Lazy Dungeon Master since its open design forces lazy DMs to worry less about preparing specific events and focus more on running an fun and open-ended game. Today we're going to look at some tips for building your own awesome version of the Isle of Dread.
Though designed for a more generic setting, there is no reason we can't place the Isle of Dread within a specific game world to add another layer of flavor. You can set the Isle of Dread off of the eastern coast of Khorvaire in Eberron, for example, and riddle the island with pockets of untouched caches of dragonshard crystals that every noble house would kill to acquire. You might set the Isle of Dread in the Feywild and build a mini-campaign focused on the struggles of the Fey in such an untamed land. You might even set the Isle of Dread in Dark Sun as an oasis in the middle of the Sea of Silt, hidden behind a mirage. Its location might be priceless to the sorcerer kings of Athas who seek it as a staging area for their conquests.
Whatever setting you place it into, The Isle of Dread is an adventure of the exotic. The isle represents a land cut off from the rest of the world for millennia. Creatures of dreams and nightmare walk the earth. Entire ecosystems exist here that do not exist anywhere else. As you run this adventure, ensure you reinforce this concept and idea with each description, each encounter, each scene, and each roleplaying opportunity. The PCs should feel like outsiders cut off from the rest of the world here. Things they take for granted should become difficult to acquire here. Every beast they battle should have a flavor unique to this world.
You have a lot of opportunity to reinforce these concepts in the starting village of Tanaroa. Though peaceful natives, the Tanaroan's strange rituals and connections to the dead can shake up the stereotypes most parties take for granted. The natives' relationship with what lies beyond their massive door further reinforces the isolated nature of the island.
As an open-ended adventure taking place across a large island, the Isle of Dread makes heavy use of random encounter lists. You can use these lists for more than simple battles, however. Instead of the stated way to roll for random encounters, try something different. Each time the PCs move into a new hex on the map, roll against the random monster list and note the monster that came up. Now roll 1d6 to determine if the monsters have come before, are there at the moment, or are on their way. On a 1 or 2, the PCs might discover tracks of the selected monster having passed by within the last four hours. On a 3 or 4, the monsters are currently there at the moment and an encounter takes place. On a 5 or 6, the PCs might sense the impending doom of a dangerous foe on the way. Using the monster charts for more than just encounters gives another layer of flavor into the exploration of the island.
The Isle of Dread adventure gives us a small yet open world for our PCs to explore. It gives enough flavor to help the lazy dungeon master run a rich thematic game without forcing the players down any one path. Each group that plays through it will have completely unique stories to tell. With these tips and those found in the the Lazy Dungeon Master, you and your group will have tales to share for the rest of your lives.
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