The Island of Lost Spells (Final)
The Island of Lost Spells
The few years has seen something of a revival in classic gaming. Most notably Castles & Crusades and OSRIC trying to unofficially revive the 1st edition of AD&D, but some others, including a new version of Runequest, Paranoia, some supplements for Classic Traveller, and I think even a new-ish version of Tunnels and Trolls.
But this module (and the whole product line), The Island of Lost Spells from Dark City Games, flew under my radar completely. It's an unofficial revival of The Fantasy Trip and the old Microquest adventures from Metagaming, at least in spirit. It even comes in a ziplock bag!
If that doesn't make sense to you, some history: in the 70s and early 80s, there were a number of small games that were sold in very slim boxes or in ziplock bags. Basically they came with a small booklet, a sheet of counters (thus a bag or box was needed), and a map or two. Most of them were wargames, but some were roleplaying games as well, or hybrids of the two.
The Fantasy Trip from Metagaming was probably the most successful of these hybrids. It started off as a man level gladiatorial combat boardgame - "Melee" for hand to hand and "Wizard" for magical duels, but evolved into a role playing game with the addition of a supplement called "In the Labyrinth" and advanced versions of Melee & Wizard. And eventually there was a line of adventures for the system as well, called "Microquests". These were also notable because most (all?) of them were sort of like those Choose Your Own adventure books, suitable for solitaire play.
This product, "The Island of Lost Spells" (indeed all of Dark City Games products as near as I can tell), are meant to replicate those "Microquests", and it does a very good job of it.
What You Get...
It consists of a 32 page booklet (digest sized), a fold out hex map, a sheet of cardstock counters, and a 8 page rules booklet (again, digest sized, although only 6 1/2 pages are used). The hex map is marked with a number of generic rooms of various sizes, and with location indicators (like A, B, C, D)
The rules are pretty simple. Basically characters have 3 stats and possibly a few skills (not a big list, and each tied to an attribute), and to succeed in a task of some sort, they have to roll under the stat (or stat+skill) on 3 d6s (or 4 d6s in some cases). Armor is rated in points, and stops damage. Damage is applied to a character's Strength stat.
There's a small selection of spells, grouped by IQ Level. Casting spells causes fatigue to the caster, and in order to cast the spell successfully, the magic user has pass an IQ test. (Beats getting into Mensa).
Obviously, in 6 1/2 pages, you aren't getting the most detailed role-playing system ever, but it's surprisingly comprehensive, all things considered. There's about 30-35 skills, a handful of arms and armor, a couple dozen spells, and rules for improving characters
The Adventure Itself...
The adventure has the PCs exploring legendary ruins on an island, which in ancient times, was the home of a group of magicians. But first, they must putter around a village and equip themselves. And then charter a boat out to the island.
It's for one to six players, but it's "programmed" so to speak, essentially like a Choose Your Own Adventure book or Fighting Fantasy, but with less prose and more RPG. Basically you start at entry 001, then pick from a variety of options, and so go to entry x, y, z, etc. You will sometimes get a "Plot Word" while going though the adventure, these are sort of like flags in programming and depending on the location, will direct you to an entry not otherwise accessible.
For much of the adventure, play is pretty straightforward. But once you get into the actual ruins itself, it gets a little more complex. You need to use the included hex map you keep track of where you are in the room - most rooms have 4 different positions your character can be in. This can get to be a little tricky, especially if you have cats, who seem irresistibly drawn to maps with counters on them.
As you explore the ruins, you'll come across critters to fight, things to investigate (often requiring a successful skill check of some sort to reveal information), and occasionally an NPC. Obviously in something like this, interaction with NPCs is a bit limited, although if not running it solo you are generally given enough to improvise more conversation.
Initially there really isn't much purpose in your characters exploring the ruins besides looting it, but you'll likely discover a more noble one. You also find out the cause of the place becoming ruined. There are actually multiple ways to discover these things, so it's not hard to miss.
Although it's described as being for one to six players, the adventure itself is designed for 4 player characters. There is no advice given on how to scale the adventure for more or fewer characters, so if you have fewer than 5 players, you'd have to have them double up (or more) on characters (with one being the GM), or if you have six, I'd guess you'd have to have two GMs. Well, really, adding one character probably wouldn't break the adventure, but I would think having fewer would make it much more difficult.
The quality of the book is good. While it's fairly obviously done on a laser printer or P.O.D, the paper used is quite sturdy. Indeed, the cover is almost too sturdy, as it has a tendency to not close enough.
The layout is very professional looking, nice and clean and easy to read. There's a consistent use of bold, italics, and spacing.
The art is something of a mixed bag. The cover art, in color, is very nice. The interior art is all very small, and while none of it is bad, none will actually make you say "Wow, nice art" like the cover.
I would say that the adventure itself is well designed. Somewhat less linear than I expected, and a lot more complex in terms of gameplay. It's not dumbed down at all. And although the page count of the product is fairly smallish, because of the small font used, tiny margins, and rather concise writing, it's longer than I expected.
On the other hand, there was a lot of page flipping involved. And while I understand how the positioning can be important for combat, it's also somewhat unwieldy in practice.
Bottom line, it definitely does a good job of emulating the old adventures, and it was fun to play. Somewhat ironically, most of the problems I had with it were fixed in a more recent adventure from them (Void Station 57, which I will be reviewing soon), so this gets marked down a little in comparison to a B