Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Islands in the Sea of Dread

After last week’s missive about how modules B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and X1 The Isle of Dread served as models for a “sandbox” adventuring environment, I looked for an old folder with some of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons material I created way back in my high school days, during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” (otherwise known as the early and mid-1980s).

I’d previously mentioned how X1’s two-page spread map of the Known World (later known as Mystara) served our gaming group well. Characters hired a ship and crew and spent after-school hours sailing the Sea of Dread, fighting off wandering sea creatures and exploring the disparate islands scattered between the Thanegioth Archipelago and the civilized kingdoms in the north. To this end I chose several small islands on that map and “detailed” them with denizens relevant to the players’ interests...at this stage of our gaming development that amounted to killing things and taking their stuff. Some featured a map – I loved drawing maps at the time, especially using all the wonderful symbols included in official TSR maps of the time – and a brief one- or two-page overview of what heroes might find there.

Goodness, these were terrible. Brief descriptions with no character elements, plot, motivation, or depth. Lots of future tense, something I’ve come to avoid in adventure text as a writer and editor. Many, many spelling errors (I was in junior high at the time). Slavish reliance on the encounter and monster styles of the time (percentages that creatures would inhabit certain locations, numbers of monsters presented as male, female, and children, notes on valuable loot). And, of course, few encounters made any sense or contributed to any greater story arc other than the heroes exploring, killing, and looting.

The islands certainly offered adventure for those seeking it. One held a coastal pirate stronghold with an interior inhabited by prehistoric beasts. Two adjacent islands hosted identical facilities – a port city, castle with village, small navy, one random monster lair – though one maintained a friendly disposition toward outsiders (and thus the characters) and the other remained hostile. Two islands served as sanctuaries for mythical creatures – one for pegasi and another for unicorns – at least until the heroes showed up to capture and tame the pegasi or hunt the unicorns for profit on the mainland. Perhaps the most detailed island hosted settlements of centaurs and cyclops divided by a high mountain chain; the centaurs spent their day in their village or playing in the hills while, ironically enough, the cyclops herded sheep and cultivated vineyards for wine, with occasional raids against the terribly unproductive centaurs. Much of this fare – indeed of most of my D&D creations at the time – was clearly inspiredby Ray Harryhausen films.

These islands, maps, and encounters served to pass several afternoons after school with the neighborhood kids with whom we frequently ran D&D adventures. Their escapades were little more than a continual quest to amass wealth for some future plans on the Known World: constructing fleets of battle galleys, conquering some small islands for their own dominion, or even just building an island fortress where they could gather retainers to pursue their new, grander goals.

The “Isle of the Centaurs,” as it was rather inaccurately called, perhaps provides the only interesting kernel of an adventuring setting worth revising. So, just for fun – and to try my hand at creating a non-linear “sandbox” environment, as I discussed last week – I went ahead and quickly drafted a small setting salvaged from that truly awful material I created more than 30 years ago....

Isle of Vintares

A System-Neutral Setting for Medieval Fantasy Roleplaying Games

This remote island hosts a small settlement of wine-making centaurs, a roving band of herd-keeping cyclops, and several other solitary denizens who prefer the distant seclusion from civilization. Seafarers who navigate the treacherous shoals surrounding the island can land on sandy beaches along the northern shores; the southern reaches offer daunting cliff faces and almost-certain doom to ships.

A community of centaurs inhabits the northern portions of the island, tending the vineyards growing in the uplands in the central region and fermenting wine to consume during occasional, frenzied ceremonies honoring their equine god of prosperity. Five cyclopes range the rugged hills and mountainous valleys covering the island’s southern portion, collectively managing unruly herds of sheep and goats. Both factions occasionally clash, the cyclopes raiding the settlement for sport and wine and the centaurs guarding against attacks and the incursion of herds which devastate vineyards in their constant quest for food.

Heroes might arrive on the island from several routes pursuing a number of motives. They might discover it during the course of a voyage elsewhere, or could wash up on shore after a storm or monster destroys their vessel at sea. Rumors could motivate them to seek out and explore the island, perhaps to establish export of a rich wine supposedly made there or investigate rumors of a long-lost temple of chaos hidden somewhere on the island. The centaurs naturally remain suspicious of any outsiders, but might befriend them if heroes prove they can benefit the centaurs through trade or a strategic alliance against the cyclopes.

Chance Encounters

Characters have a 1 in 6 chance of happening upon a random encounter when traveling overland across the island.

1D8     Roll Chance Encounter
1–2      An errant herd of sheep and goats wanders aimlessly; a worried cyclops searching
            for them arrives shortly.
3–4      A colony of giant rats brought ashore by a shipwreck aggressively protects its newly
            established warren.
5–6     A skirmish between an intrusive cyclops and a small centaur patrol.
7         A carnivorous vine bush tempts with blood-red berries but lashes out to tear at
           anyone coming too close.
8         The heroes startle a skinny, wild-bearded man with crazy eyes gathering food;
           upon spotting strangers he cries out and scurries off into the impenetrable underbrush.


1. Centaur Village. The main centaur settlement consists of simple houses built of wood, stone, and thatch with nearby vegetable gardens. A few artisans provide basic goods for the village; the potter and woodcarver create household items, the cooper specializes in barrels and other wine-making apparatus, and a blacksmith forges simple metal implements and repairs old and salvaged materials, including weapons. About 75 adult centaurs live here with about 20 children. All work to ensure the settlement survives, toiling in the vineyards or the winery, tending gardens, patrolling against the cyclopes incursions, and tending to household life. The blacksmith, Kallack, serves as the unofficial chief, though he shares governing duties with Varta, who oversees the winery. Kallack keeps an open mind regarding outsiders who find their way to the island; they can bring new goods and ideas that can benefit the centaur settlement.

2. Vineyards. The uplands leading to the island’s mountainous region contain meandering streams and vineyards of wild grapes. Carefully tended by the centaurs for generations, they yield fine red grapes they crush and ferment into a heady wine. During the day small teams of centaurs roam the vineyards tending vines and, in season, gathering grapes.

3. Winery & Caves. A cluster of shelters, presses, workshops, and huts stands near the center of the vineyards, the hub of the centaur wine-making efforts. Here they gather grapes, crush them, filter the juice, and ferment them in barrels built in the village stored in a cool, dry cave covered by the main winery building. A well-used path winds from here to the village, worn by centaurs hauling carts with empty and full wine casks. An elder centaur named Varta supervises the workers in the vineyards and the winery, usually about 20 centaurs, but more during the harvest time. Varta remains vocal in his suspicion of outsiders visiting the island; in his eyes they can only bring misfortune and ruin.

4. Temple Glade. A dell ringed by tall trees forms a natural amphitheater centered on a small yet ancient temple. A charred patch of dirt in front of the worn temple steps shows where the centaurs burn a great bonfire during their occasional, wine-fueled celebrations to Ekinus, their horse god of nomadic prosperity. Such ceremonies occur twice a year, once upon completion of the grape harvest and again in the spring when the new wine is ready. The centaurs do not permit outsiders on the island to witness the raucous music, dancing, singing, and drinking central to these festivities. The temple itself bears no writing or imagery linking it to the worship or Ekinus or any other deity; no oracle lives here and no priest presides over ceremonies, yet something from distant times might still lurk beneath the worn flagstones and old foundations.

5. Cyclops Pastures. The southern mountainous region, with many grassy valleys and cool streams, remains the domain of five cyclopes and their roaming, ravenous herds of sheep and goats, which provide their primary sustenance. The cyclopes generally avoid each other given their contentious nature, but sometimes join forces to raid the centaur winery or round up errant herds. The area contains many caves the beasts use for shelter; each contains a pile of old fleeces used for bedding, a fire pits near the entrance, and secret niche, pit, or shelf where the creatures stash any treasure (usually a sack or two of gold pieces, jewelry, and other odd valuables collected from shipwreck victims and worth from 100-800 gold coins).

6. Castaway Hideout. The lone survivor of a shipwreck has made his home in a series of cliff-side caves that offer access to both the churning surf and – through several secret entrances – the island’s hilly region. The crazy castaway spends most of his days foraging for food, pilfering grapes, snatching wayward goats, and babbling quietly to his long-departed crew members. Though he’s generally harmless, he’s paranoid of people infiltrating his caves, protected by some elaborate booby traps. On the rare days when the seas are extremely calm he ventures out to the remains of his old ship to salvage wood or other items using a crudely built raft.

7. Eagle Aerie. A giant eagle keeps an aerie near the top of the highest mountain peak. The enormous bird takes little interest in the island’s inhabitants – other than occasionally making off with a large sheep for its dinner – but aggressively defends the area against any intrusive flying creatures seeking temporary sanctuary or permanent home. The cyclopes resent it for hunting their sheep but cannot climb to the aerie or effectively attack the soaring eagle.

Adventure Hooks

Trade Guild Mission: A prominent trading guild hires the characters and provides them with a ship and crew to sail the seas in search of a legendary island with the most succulent wine-making grapes in the world. Supplied with trading goods, the heroes must find the island and establish a trade agreement for vine cuttings, grapes, or wine to satisfy the trading guild’s growing appetite for new wealth.

Missing Mage: Following rumors of a crazy castaway on a distant island, the characters seek to claim a reward posted by a regal family seeking the return of a long-lost relative, a famous mage who once set sail across the seas but never returned. Is the madman stranded on the Isle of Vintares the missing mage or simply an insane common sailor?

Temple of Xillagyges: A secretive enclave of priests provide the heroes with a map to the lost island temple to their god and a small fortune to outfit a ship. They promise greater wealth and a share in a profitable religion if they find the ruins and retrieve significant relics. The characters might find a hidden entrance to the underground sanctuary in the centaur’s temple glade, hidden at the back of a cyclops cave, or carved from the sheer coastal cliffs. Ravenous undead and mindless vermin inhabit the abandoned temple to Xillagyges – an ancient god of slaughter – guarding a treasury of powerful artifacts that could enable the covert cultists to revive the violent deity’s religion.


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