Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.
The Isle is seventy five page module for the Vanilla Game by Luke Gearing, a dungeon crawl beneath an isolated island monastery. The Isle is a beautiful piece of writing, both in terms of individual pieces of prose and of structure and incorporation of the dungeon as a way to add intrigue and interest to the writing and the adventure. Layout and art choices have been made with this in mind: Minimal, in order to draw attention to the writing as the main star.
The minimalist layout, I think, is successful. Smartly, the single column layout is not full page width, making it easy to read, and headings are consistent and clear. Italics have one use case, and they’re also indented in that use case. Things known before entering a room are marked with a symbol.
The minimalist mapping, in my opinion, is not so successful. A lot of page flipping is required even for the simple map of the island. The dungeon maps try to preserve space and distance, but without much success. The written entries seem to acknowledge this failure as they describe all exits and entries and where they lead to (this is what italics are used for). There are five maps, which might be a reason for the choice not to place them on the endpapers where references belong, but the minimalist nature of the maps means more flipping between pages and less clear information design. If a map exists, let it add value. These maps could remain minimalist and incorporate room names, exits and probably the brief information communicated by the symbol, and I wouldn’t mind having to find the maps so much. As is, I’m going to have to print off the maps and write on them to use them.
Luke Gearings writing in this hews traditional (“every 2d6 minutes, 1d6 sea-things appear”) in places, but more often hews poetic (“the trunk almost perpendicular to the ground, like a dog about to pounce”), or evocative (“the sound of wet, fleshy movement”) in a way that behooves the dungeon setting he’s writing for. It’s really inspiring stuff, both as a writer and a game master.
One writing choice that made me think deeply, was the overground location that I quoted earlier, an ancient thorny tree. The monks use this tree for fish hooks and needles, but aside from that this tree has no purpose, or as I often describe it, it is a passive site. I am curious the purpose of passive sites in modules such as the Isle. This is not a traditional dungeon in the style of Palace of the Silver Princess; empty rooms (or in this case empty above ground spaces) do not behoove progress through it. It is a narrative journey, and one theory of design of location is the red barrel theory, which dictates that locations, factions, people should all be prepared to explode. This Auld Tree, is not prepped to explode, its thorns are not essential for the progress of the story, it simply is. I am accepting of the beauty of stories existing in isolation, for those isolated stories bring a sense of place to the world. But this tree is a story in isolation from a people, and perhaps simply speaks to the inhospitability of the Isle. I’m on the fence regarding the value and purpose of such a location, and as such I think I’ll seek out further examples in other modules to flesh out my opinion on such.
The structure in this is novelistic, and I’ve never read a module quite like it. The writing foreshadows elegantly, draws you forward. It’s a module that wants to be read, as well as run. I find this quite inspiring, but I’ve thought about the structure here for some time, and realise that it’s leaning into the relative linearity of the dungeon to allow it to tell stories as part of the location keys and bestiary entries: There are places where you can sequence break here (one of the very first above surface locations is a sequence break), but it’s a dungeon and hence the assumption that there is a next in sequence gives rise to an opportunity to tell stories in a way that I haven’t seen in a module before. Can stories be told in this way in a non-linear sandbox? I suspect with less cohesiveness, yes. Or perhaps small stories could similarly be placed in separate locations around the sandbox, where progression might be more linear. A sandbox is an opportunity for a different type of story, but the one told here is elegant and impressive.
Interestingly, one elegant thing about the Isle is that it provides subtle, narrative on-and off-ramps within the location entry texts. Three reasons and ways to get onto the island, and a interesting consequences and outcomes to completing the adventure (my favourite “ — cities burn for months hence”). But while these exist, the primary lack of scaffolding here is why would we enter the dungeon? The dungeon isn’t known to exist, except by the monks (this is clear) and the monks don’t wish anyone to enter it (also clear) and while they are gullible, there appears to be no incentive to trick them presented in the world. The iron-claddedness of this flaw needs to be weakened when I run it.
The Isle is, to me, a groundbreaking dungeon crawl, largely because of Luke Gearing’s writing and attention to detail and structure. Some of the experiments with layout and mapping are less successful, but I don’t think that detracts from the value of running and reading this module. I strongly recommend it, if you’re partial to Luke’s historical faux-celtic oeuvre such as Wolves Upon the Coast which, to be honest, this would slip straight into.
16th May, 2023