Disclaimer: These books were graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Design Mechanism
I was very excited about this book, as I love bestiaries. There are many reasons for this: they are filled with new creatures, new takes on old creatures, they help fill out a setting’s feel, and usually spark my imagination with many adventure ideas. Some of my favorite ones have actually changed the course of my planned game, as they have presented a better idea or foe than I originally thought of (I am thinking of you Anima: Those Who Walked Amongst Us).
So when Design Mechanism sent me three PDFs, reading this first was a no brainer. Man was I surprised. This is not a bestiary, at least not in the traditional sense. The RuneQuest team presented a complete adventure setting in this book. And after I got through it, I feel they made a great call.
As before, I will break down my review by chapters. So let’s dig into Monster Island and its companion.
Monster Island is based on the prototypical island in the mists. Isolated from the rest of the world, this place is filled with things that time has forgotten. Or wishes it could forget. As written this setting is a very large sandbox and is very entrenched in the sword and sorcery genre. The writers give you a couple of ideas of how to place the island into your campaign, whether you are running a Glorantha game, a home brewed world, or even a game set on Earth in any time period. As with the main rules, I feel this showcases the versatility of RQ6 and of the writers design principles. The chapters start wide in scope, giving you a broad view of the land, and progressively drill down through layers of detail. It unfolds at a nice pace that I feel is necessary when introducing you into a sandbox. But don’t worry; although large and filled with a lot of history and monsters, Monster Island is still an island. At nearly 300 pages, you are given just enough detail to provide you with many hours of play without overwhelming you.
The artwork appears with what feels like even less frequency than the main rule book, but again is poignant and evocative.
Chapter 1 – the Island
In chapter one, we are given a broad introduction to our new sandbox, starting with a geological tour of the island. Monster Island is formed from the bowls of a number of dormant volcanos, giving it a unique shape and providing a basis for a number of cultures and climates. We have everything from sandy beaches to glacier encrusted mountains. The writers give you information on the geology, topography, weather and ecology of your new island. It is a lot of information to ingest, and I would recommend having the map of the island and the elevation map out while you read the book. If you are like me, you will want to have this reference to see where everything that comes after falls on the island. This chapter helps set the stage for the sandbox nature of the setting. It gives the GM a physical place for the setting, and establishes the physical characteristics.
Chapter 2 – History and Cultures
As stated before in the RQ6 review, one of the things I think you do to really make the game work is tie the generic mechanics to narrative content. This chapter showcases how that can be done, and provides a ton of examples for you to use as is, or port to your own game.
Monster Island’s history is rife with plot ideas. We have fallen gods asleep in great bestial forms, lost sorcerer kingdoms, gates the bring new monsters to the island primitive spirit worshiping tribe, and a human colony attempting to establish a foothold in this madness.
The three main cultures (Colonists, High Folk Sorcerers, and Savages) are given detailed backgrounds as well as mechanics for playing a character from one of these cultures. It takes the basic RQ6 primitive and civilized cultures, and tweaks them for this setting. This includes a number of sample combat styles with weapons and traits already assembled. All the cultures explore how status is gained and lost, as well a wealth of detail on the individual cultures, both mechanically and fluff wise.
It should be noted that while the default race of the Savages and the High Folk in the book are lizard and snake men, the fluff and information is designed to allow these raced to be interchanged with others. Want savage elves instead of lizard men? I did not see anything that would preclude that.
All in all, this entire chapter sets up a lot of Monster Island story. But it is more of a framework, rather than the start of a metaplot. There is plenty of information in this chapter to spark an entire campaign.
Chapter 3 – Settlements
As the title suggests, this chapter zooms in on settlements on the island. But this is meant to be a guide for GMs, so it only covers three settlements, with the intention that these are to be used as models for others in on the isle. We see a Savage village, a High Folk city and the Colony itself. With the Colony being the made entrance for human folk to the island, the other two settlements were chosen for their importance, and proximity to the Colony itself.
As we dig into this chapter we are given places, locations and people important to each location. No stats are provided for the NPC’s in this chapter. Each settlement has minor mechanical information to help run the location while the players are there. The most flavorful one for me was the Avenue of Delights in the city of the High Folk. Walking in these garden unprotected forces a roll on a table to see what narcotic is affecting your PC.
We are given a map only of the Colony, and again I think this is due to the intent of the designers for the colony to be the human/PC home base for the game.
Chapter 4 – Places of Interest
Here we are given nearly 50 pages of unique locations to the island. Each is accompanied by a number of ways to use this location in your campaign, many of which could be turned into multi adventure stories. We do see more mechanics entering this section; NPC and monster statistics mainly.
There is a good mix of exploration, dungeon, combat, and other types of locations. Also as you read through this section, the feel of the setting is handed to you. I feel like I ‘got’ Monster Island better after this section than after the preceding ones. It is an ancient land, with rules your civilized PC’s won’t understand to begin with. It will seem random, chaotic, and deadly. But slowly an order, or at least a framework, emerges.
We also are given more information on the MacGuffin of the island, the Smoking Mirrors. These ancient, unfathomable objects are what keep the island’s flora and fauna stocked and ready for PC interaction.
Chapter 5 – Campaigns
This is a great chapter. It begins by defining what the writers mean by sandbox campaign. Mainly: no over arcing plot, not everything can be killed, no game balance, the need for consequences for actions, and why there is a lot of blank space on the map. In each of these sections, there is a good explanation on why this is important, and more importantly how it ties into Monster Island.
Next we find an overview of the sword and sorcery genre. Seeing as this is an older/lesser known genre when compared to say High Fantasy; this is a good include in this section. It covers the major themes and preconceptions of the genre. Not that you couldn’t throw all of that to the wind and run a spell-slinging High Fantasy game, but it helps explain the genre to the uninitiated.
The chapter finishes up with some great adventure seeds and for those of us who like them, encounter tables.
Chapter 6 – Magic
Only three of the five magic systems shown in RQ6 make it into Monster Island. I feel like this was a good choice. You have three cultures, so each culture gets magic systems fleshed out for its specific use. Savages receive spirit controlling animism, the High Folk cling to sorcery, and the Colonists brought their gods with them to the Island. This section details the rules used for magic in this setting, the various spells and miracles that are associated with each type of magic, some new and variant spells, and the cults at teach these skills.
It is a great example of what can be done with the RQ6 magic system. The mechanical choices flavor the setting, while the broad strokes of the cults flavor the way the PC’s will interact with the magic. This whole book does a great job of being an example for GM’s on how to use the RQ6 rules in their game.
Chapter 7 – Items and Substances
This chapter covers the setting specific equipment for the cultures. We receive some information on the pricing of various goods, before we get into poisons and diseases.
Which are nasty. The poisons are horrid and the diseases are even more brutal. We have diseases that turn the victim into an undead, or cause him to spontaneously combust. From what I have read about European colonists arriving in the South Pacific, this level of horror at strange and new diseases seems appropriate, but of course with a magical twist.
Finally we are given some magical artifacts, again by culture. We see Animistic Fetishes, Sorcery Matrices and Holy Talismans. And true to the sword and sorcery genre, a lot of these are not items your PC’s will want to have or have thrown at them.
Chapter 8 – Flora and Fauna
One hundred and Eighty-nine pages into Monster Island and we get to the monsters! I was very excited, especially seeing that there are about one hundred pages left in the book. The writers crammed a lot of setting in those first pages, but I was excited to see the creatures this island of terror held.
And I was not disappointed. I am not going to cover all the monsters, but they are true to the setting, genre and feel of the island. It starts off with a couple of new abilities, which are always great in a system where you are encouraged to develop your own monsters. We have carnivorous plants, wasps whose sting turns the victim into an undead drone and incubator for its young, and a plethora of dinosaurs.
One of the creatures that I loved the best was the Cob Hobbler. It is an infestation that turns a person into a spider hybrid. Horrific and great stuff! Even though it amounts to less than half of the book, this section is a great bestiary.
Appendices & Companion
Here we find some stats on the Lizard Folk and Serpent People, with a variety of NPC statistics. But more importantly we find the lore and stats on the God Who Walk. These are the gods that took bestial shape and sleep on, in and under the island. The savages keep them asleep for when they wake they are basically a mobile cataclysm.
I am putting my review of the companion here as opposed to in a separate review, because that is where I feel this information belongs. I recognize that Design Mechanism was probably hitting their page count sweet spot, and either had to cut this information or left it out completely from the get go, but the companion is filled with things that I feel should be covered in the main book, or was already covered.
NPC statistics for all of the major NPC’s listed in the Settlement chapters are found in this book. And we have a reprint of all the encounter charts from the Campaign section here as well, although in a nice format in one location.
However the map really makes this PDF worthwhile. It is a full color map of the island, with hex and location overlays. But each layer is able to be manipulated and hidden. So you can customize the map’s information for your players. It is a nice touch. And it is only a $5.00 purchase currently, and is only available in PDF form.
I enjoyed Monster Island. Perhaps more than I would have enjoyed a straight bestiary. It took me a while to get to this thought, as I was expecting three hundred pages of monsters. But, as I have said, it is a great example on how to apply RQ6 to a setting concept. What level of detail I would need to flesh out, and where the mechanics really need to interact with the setting.
The book is a great buy even just as a bestiary, but you get so much more than that.
Content: 5/5 – A good showcase and sandbox campaign
System: 3/5 – Not a whole lot of new system here, but a great application of what was established earlier.
Aesthetic: 4/5 – Like RQ6, the layout is clean and the art, while light, is thematic and evocative.
Now as for the Companion, I would say hold off on this one till you are running your Monster Island game. It has very useful stats that would be a great aid to the GM, but unless you are running this setting most of the information, even the map, is not a must have.
Hopefully, I will be through Book of Quests next week, so stay tuned for another RQ6 review then!
*RuneQuest 6 products are available in soft cover through your FLGS or in PDF through driverthrurpg.com. Both versions are available through the publisher at thedesignmechanism.com