By Donnie Garcia, Jacob Hurst, Evan Peterson, Patrick Stuart
The Swordfish Islands
This 200 page adventure is a jam-packed hex crawl on an island full of factions and weirdness. Close attention to both usability and imagination have resulted in a must-have product. Magnificent. And it would have been even more magnificent if they had put in fewer words justifying the lack of monster stats and had put in monster stats.
Sometimes products come along that are clearly exceptional. A strong creator vision combined with something new. On the Adventure side of thing, Wilderlands was an early example. We might also list Stonehell, Rappan Athuk, Maze of the Blue Medusa. Something new, leveraged to see a vision implemented. This is one of those.
There’s an island, with sixteen hexes making it up. Each hex has three encounters in it. Some of those are minor and some of those are multi-room dungeons. The first one hundred pages of the booklet deals with that. Two pages summarize each hex and encounter. Then each hex gets a more in-depth description, with all of the detail of each hex fitting on a single page. Then there’s an expanded section for each major encounter that describes each one in more detail, generally a page or two. Think of it as providing the map and encounter key for those little dungeons on the isle. This section is cross-referenced to all hell and back. Factions, NPC’s, other hexs … if something is referenced a page number is given.
There are great summaries of the island, the hexes, the factions. Wonderful examples of how to actually USE the book, and tables to help generate rando things, like names for NPC creatures. The travel system outlined is simple and easy to use. The maps are clear and easy to read. I am a hard art critic, not liking much, but I must say the two-page spread of “Hot SPrings City” is something I would have framed it it were larger. (Joining the cutaway of the Starship Warden that hangs in my living room. I note that they are both very busy pieces.)
The second half of the book describes the factions and the major players, as well as monsters and magic items and tables, the usual appendix stuff. But … the factions. Man. This fucking shit is deep. There’s a group of ogres on the island, fighting a rebellion. The ogres get a one page write up. Then one more about the high priests influence, whats going on right now, and a major subplot. Then there are eight different major NPC”s presented, each with a little history/write and bullet point list of what they want and what they don’t want, followed up a few subplo/traits. And they are not just things to hack! And that’s just for ONE of the six major factions. It’s nucking futz!
Th creativity is off the charts. Not exactly gonzo … more Isle of Dread with a bit more “ancient elven magic” mixed in. More Dread than Dread, I think also. The environment for creative play is there, and then …
AReas are lightly keyed. Generally this means a map, some brief descriptions of the map, a table to determine what the general 411 of the map is, and then en encounter chart with they are doing. The ide being you have a place (the map and keys) and then roll to see what’s going on. Simplified, let’s say “turf war!” And then you roll for each room to populate the room and what activity they are engaged in. And your mind naturally related everything to “Turf War.” The system works very well. If you are in to building it on the fly. I’m not sure I am.
Oh, and there’s no monster stats, which is why there is no level rating. And there are seriously enough NPC’s to choke a horse.
I am a jerk-faced jerk. I insist on usability at the table. That’s my definition of “adventure”, which is what I review. I don’t want to prep an adventure. If I have to prep its a toolkit and, while I might be fine with a toolkit, I want to make sure I understand that’s what I’m buying.
Didn’t someone redo the maps in DCO? This thing needs someone to stat the damn thing. And make a one-page/one-sheet NPC summary list. (Ahum, with page number cross-references.) And maybe a rando generator for the rando stuff. (Although, I could probably do that in about 30 minutes, by hand, for the whole book, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Remember, I’m also a hypocrite.) Didn’t I rip Gardens of Ynn for the same thing? It IS pretty easy in Hot Springs to do that, easier than I recall Ynn being. This is almost certainly a case of me being unreasonable and citing something for the sake of citing it. The generation takes about a minute per “major area”, which seems fine to me. I also kind of wish that the travel rules were condensed and on the map. That would be a great final nod to usability.
The intro nodes that the island is a powderkeg and the party is the spark. I like that analogy for a good adventure. If you’ve got a lot going on then you can dump in the party and watch the place explode. Lots going on, and lots of threads to follow and exploit. That’s D&D.
If you’re still on the fence then you might also red my review of the Lapis Observatory. It is ONE of the locations on Hot Springs Island.
Yeah, the physical thing is pricy. But … really? For the amount of play you’re going to get out of this the price is trivial. Most price pressure, I think, revolves around the fear of getting ripped off. I don’t have a problem paying if I know it’s good … and this is one of those stake-in-the-ground products. You’re a fool for not having this.
This is $20 at DriveThru. There’s a 20-page sample available at the publishers site. It goes through how to use the book, and then page nine shows you main hex summary descriptions, with a few samples of the locations to be populated and the NPC faction data. It’s a great preview of the writing.
I like books. If Drivethru is handling the fulfillment, why wouldn’t the authors want to offer a POD?
Thanks for your reviews Bryce, you’ve helped me find some gems 🙂
I’m glad you got around to reviewing this one. I requested it months ago because I have pretty much the same opinion as you: it’s dazzling stuff.
If I was to nit-pick anything, it wouldn’t be anything in this book…it’s the existence of the companion volume, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island. It’s a nice concept; a book containing diary entries, lore, rumors and a pair of short stories about HSI. In practice, it’s a mess. This book gives the players way too much information, with no easy way to regulate it without copying the whole book and chopping out excerpts. Also, the short stories and such make references to all sorts of things in a broader setting that might not exist in the campaign you have transplanted HSI into. Does you world have a banking system and universities? It does now. It also has a few countries with specific names. Great stuff for the GM but terrible to put into the hands of players.
I made some Stats for HSI here! https://technicalgrimoire.com/files/HotSpringsReference.pdf
That’s an awesome resource David. Thank you. The product mentions a “digital” map which you can simply pick a hex on to auto generate the ransoms. Any ideas on where I can find this? Thank you
Alas, he is still working on it. Progress here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+JacobHurst/posts/KiHZKnTrMM2
Just picked it up, and I am blown away by the professionalism and quality of this product. So much thought and energy put towards helping the DM run this—I’d love to hear some real-world experiences/reviews of how well most folks can pull it off “at the table” to borrow a Bryce-ism.
I just love the idea of trying to make a micro-world come alive with and without the PCs. It’s been elusive as a product since the earliest days of D&D (e.g. the Greyhawk campaign never could materialize a proper product). So much is dependent on the DM’s own creativity. This product is a valiant attempt to mechanize away some of that burden and product a spark. Bravo!
Bryce: Thank you again for your prodigious and intelligent guidance in a saturated marketplace.
@David: Thanks for the (much needed) stats handout!
Thinking about this some more: the product could/should come with a few different stat-expansion booklets for some of the more-popular systems. Since everything else has be worked out for the DM to a “T”, it’s a bit of a shame one of the most basic necessities for running it are missing.
Picked this up. Haven’t had time to delve into it yet…saving it for vacation time next week. Thank God for vacations!! But I picked it up cause of the review but also because I like art!! Art can set a tone and sometimes give a way better description than a bunch of words. I liked the art I saw in the preview so far and also of importance, the layout. Organization and layout of an adventure is important and sometimes hard to nail down…I liked what I saw so far, so looking forward to seeing if its as good as I thought once I delve into it.
You can use the free, fanmade digital encounter roller at https://chartopia.d12dev.com/en/collection/14/ for all locations mentioned in the book. Works great on mobile too. Rolls an entire dungeon at once, or just a single random encounter in the jungle . Save yourself 30 minutes!
I use this, and it’s a life-saver!
Do you need to use Chartopia if you use Davids? I am a David fan, go go David.
Also did anyone come up with this bit?
“one-page/one-sheet NPC summary list. (Ahum, with page number cross-references.)”
Ha! This is David Schirduan of Technical Grimoire.
After playing HSI for a few weeks I made my own generators and tables.
So yes, I do use David’s tools, but this comment was from before I made them, lol.
wwal! I am playing in Bone Marshes now! The Queen kept trying to give orders then crying. Also silver birb 😛
You have any leads on the NPC ref and page numbers for HSI?
I fricking love this book. Picked up a physical copy at Gen Con last year, and it’s magnificent. Almost TOO good for my regular D&D players.