JN2: Monkey Isle, D&D adventure review

By J.D. Neal
Self Published
Levels 4-6

Rising out of the vast emptiness of the blue ocean is a lush green island filled with ancient beasts and scattered strange ruins waiting to be explored.

This 54 page hex-crawl adventure uses about thirty pages to clone the Isle of Dread, but without the kelpies/kelies/whatever-they-are-called. Instead you get monkey people. It’s from 2015 and it FEELS like an old OSR adventure, with generic encounters and long writing. 

It’s Dread. It’s a primitive island off the sea paths. There are some good villages and a bad village. Dinosaurs, etc. You wander around the island, I guess looking for loot? It’s a classic older hex crawl. By which I mean: not very good.

You need a couple of things for a hex crawl to work well. First, the players needs to be motivated to explore. Why are they crawling? Are there rumors? Are they trying to accomplish something, looking for something, etc? You need a purpose. This don’t have that. Basically, you sail around the island and the DM might tell you that you see a path, or mountains, or something. Maybe you will go explore. Maybe not, I guess. You can also trek overland, but, again, why? Rumors of gold. Rumors of temple (which usually have gold …) Rumors of Magic, Rumors of SOMETHING are needed to get the party moving. That’s not here. The most you get is is in the hook: you capture some pirates, they have old gold and said they got it from an old temple on the island. That’s not much to go on.

There’s also little in the way of hex crawling rules present. (My apologies if this is in the BFRPG book.) Travel speeds, noted on the map? No. How far can you see/what can you see, to draw the curious eye and lead the party to another place? Nope. And, even if they WERE in the BFRPG book, putting the tables on the mps here would help the DM run it , as a kind of reference sheet. Vision, especially, is important in a hex crawl. You want to lure the party, and give them motivations for moving and going places, by what they see in the distance, with the map set up to encourage some of that.

And then there’s the encounters. There’s a wanderer table that is essentially 100 entries from a monster manual. Just list about a hundred entries and put them on a table. Everything from intelligent humanoids to, of course, a heavy dino  population. They don’t do anything, so no help in running the encounters. AND they are pretty frequent; roll a d6 six times a day and encounter on a 1 … that’s gonna chew up an old style D&D-healing party with low HP. And the island encounters proper, about twenty of them, read more like decent wandering monster encounters. They go a little something like: “ANT MOUND: Rising out of the grass is a huge ant mound. The ants will appear 1d6 at a time if it is disturbed. Inside the mound are 1,500 gp in nuggets. Each nugget has been molded into the rough shape of a humanoid insect.” Pretty brief encounter, but with little to recommend it … unless it were a wandering monster encounter. And a decent portion of the normal encounters are just monsters attacking you. It’s weird. Again, more like real encounters than a hex crawl encounter. (Not the review of Isle of the Unknown for a more detailed analysis of what makes a good hex crawl encounter.)

Twenty island encounters, but about nine villages (a couple of evil ones) and ten or so ocean encounters and about seven temple complexes/lairs with about a dozen rooms each. And all described in a pretty basic way. There IS decent interactivity in the temples complexes, more than a just fighting, and there ARE some roleplay opportunities in the villages. Certainly, the villagers are generally better than the long drawn out Dread ones. These are shorter. Both products, though, could have used some village personalities and some intrigue to get things going a little better.

The island is PACKED with humanoids. Besides the human villages (8?) there are also intelligent ape villages, pygmy villages, lizardmen, trogs, cavemen, evil elves, orcs … and just about every other intelligent humanoid possible in a monster manual. And the island is relatively small. Where teh fuck do all these people hang out? Better, I think, to have more repetition in the humanoids and make the island feel less like a humanoid zoo.

It’s a very basic adventure, like the kind you might from the early days of the OSR. When encounters were generic and descriptions abstracted … and yet there was some knowledge of the interactive portions of the game. 

There’s still not a good Dread adventure, IMO.

The PDF is free at the BFRPG site. 

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10 Responses to JN2: Monkey Isle, D&D adventure review

  1. Anonymous says:

    I know BFRPG is pretty popular has anyone ran this? How did of go?

  2. The Middle Finger Of Vecna says:

    I truly don’t get why people basically re-write or re-theme existing TSR modules? Why not just play Isle of Dread? Instead of writing your own Tomb of Horrors or Keep on the Borderlands, why not just play those modules? Of course I also don’t get why people continue to make Egyptian themed pyramid adventures. Don’t we have more than enough of those at this point?

    • Sometimes homage, sometimes a desire to experimenting with tweaks that might solve supposed issues of the original, maybe a wish to make an old favorite look sort of new again with experience from age and such, trying to cash into the nostalgia of a bunch of people who remember the original fondly or curious younger gamers without access to the originals…. i’d say the reasons can be as varied there are re-writes.

      The real question probably should be “was it worth the effort? does the re-write have a spark of its own?”, i guess.

      From what Bryce is saying this one doesn’t, but then no Dread adventure ever did, according to him.

    • K Hettinger says:

      This module is part of a series that J.D. Neal did for the Basic Fantasy project, each of which is “evocative” of old TSR Modules: The Chaotic Caves, Monkey Isle, and Saga of Giants. They’re really not re-writes of the old material, but have a similar theme, format, and then things go in a different direction. I found Monkey Isle (and BFRPG along with it) because I was looking for an adventure to run with my Planet of the Apes-oriented campaign, not because I was looking for “another Isle of Dread but with a different name”. Monkey Isle worked really well for our game and I loved it, but I’m sure tthat’s partially because I was going into it with my own hook linked to the content of the adventure (there are various settlements of sentient apes). I agree with Bryce that the sample hooks provided might not be enough for the average party.
      When, many moons ago, I ran the original “Dread” adventure the hook was that the PCs would reap great rewards as explorers for the reapm, filling in all those blank spaces. Of course, in the course of the campaign there are just too many spaces to fill, but by then new objectives have arisen, most of the hirelings are dead, and that’s when the real fun/desperate mayhem begins.

    • Krebizfan says:

      The first release of Monkey Isle for BFRPG dates from 2009, several years before WotC started rereleasing old TSR modules. That seems to fit with an OSR concept, getting a similar game experience when the original is no longer available.Some modules taking inspiration were good; some were just dilute imitations.

      There are differences between the various revisions of Monkey Isle with the page count increasing over time. I prefer the earlier revisions with fewer encounters and a big lagoon in the center of the island encouraging short jaunts to various locations.

      • Anonymous says:

        I wonder if Bryce has become tougher over time? He liked JD Neals Giants adventure in an earlier review

        What does Monkey isle not do that JDs Giants module for BFRPG did?

  3. Dekkion, Celestial Knight says:

    Thank you for reviewing this. Basic Fantasy is a solid system, but I rarely seem to see reviews of the various BF adventures.

  4. Edgewise says:

    Pygmies are human…oids? What about gypsies?

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