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Isle of the Ape Review - Heavy Spoilers

 
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Luz
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Joined: Jan 05, 2007
Posts: 203
Location: Vancouver

PostPosted: Mon Jun 03, 2013 8:00 pm    Post subject: Isle of the Ape Review - Heavy Spoilers Reply with quote

Moderator Note: This is more of a report than a review, as it gives away the ending and other things that a review does NOT do, so...


SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!


Isle of the Ape
By Gary Gygax
An AD&D adventure for character levels 18 and up.
Published by TSR copyright 1985

Module WG6 Isle of the Ape was conceived from the author's personal Greyhawk Castle campaign in 1972, during the early development of the game and two years before Dungeons & Dragons was introduced as a published hobby to the rest of the world. I find it ironic then, that one of Gary Gygax's earliest adventures would be the last published module he would write for TSR. It’s sad too that his last hurrah, while distinguished and enjoyable, is not of the celebrated caliber of his earlier work.

Obviously inspired from the film King Kong, the adventure takes place on a jungle-ridden demiplane akin to Skull Island, inhabited by an enormous gorilla named Oonga. Like other planar adventures from this era, the demiplane has built-in rules that prohibits certain spells from working (teleport, scrying, summoning, etc.) - an oft-criticised design tactic. While this is a perfectly valid complaint, I find that Gygax's decision to include these restrictions in this module makes sense. The demiplane was, after all, created by the mad archmage Zagyg as a testing ground for high-level characters and the prohibited spell list reflects that. Gygax has already proven he can design high-level modules without magic restrictions (Tomb of Horrors, Vault of the Drow); the prohibited spells in this adventure are not game breakers, they are put in place only to limit the party's resources. For my group, this did not drastically affect the outcome.

The first five pages provide notes for the DM, including the aforementioned prohibited spells, terrain rules, and environmental hazards. After this, the PCs are subjected to a long-winded, 2-page monologue from the legendary archmage Tenser before being sent on their way. During this introduction, Tenser does an obscene amount of obnoxious name-dropping and recites the long list of magic items that's up for grabs upon success of the quest. This, to me, is a counterproductive motivator for players, not to mention spoils any anticipation of Oonga's hoard.

Once the party arrives on the island, the adventure gets better. The first encounter with the savage Kawibusa tribe certainly lives up to the call for high-level characters and will test the party's mettle to the max. From there, its pure sandbox fun and the PCs are pitted against the island's monstrous inhabitants, which consist of every prehistoric predator imaginable. Although much of the setting is borrowed heavily from the various King Kong films, Gygax does an excellent job of breathing life and atmosphere into the adventure. The primal forces of nature take center stage here and tax the party's resources continuously. Besides the monsters of the isle, the slow creep of attrition, disease, and weather will also take its toll. In fact, I've run this module three times (twice with 1st edition and once with a 3.5 conversion) and found the natural hazards of the island deadlier than any of the monsters. A high-level druid is a must.

The name of the game here is action. The PCs must hack their way across the island in search of Oonga's lair, where they must obtain a powerful artifact called the Crook of Rao. I enjoyed the dynamic environment - the party may (and should) encounter Oonga several times before reaching his cave, as well as the variety of random land and airborne threats possibly lurking behind oversized foliage or craggy bluffs. The constant stimulation of a tropical jungle teeming with untamed life created a lot of tension in my players, who were forced to carefully ration their various protective scrolls, potions, and spells. There are a few areas that provide some interesting roleplaying opportunities (particularly if the party can ally with some of the rival tribes of the Kawibusas) that also serve as a much needed breather from the continual savagery of the island. Oonga is a deadly and terrible opponent to face and characters will die if he gets in close. However, his Achilles’ heel is distance and my groups discovered very quickly to keep him to ranged attacks. Therefore, I found Oonga was most effective using guerrilla tactics (pun intended) until the party reached his cave, where combat was in closer quarters.

Like the beginning of the adventure, I found the ending falls a little flat. Once the party retrieves the crook and leaves the isle they must contend with a rather large and dangerous group of daemons sent by Iggwilv. The odds of surviving this encounter are slim and the PCs are faced with a choice: if they choose wrong then they must fight the daemons but if they choose right then a solar and a bunch of devas show up to save the day. Either way it’s a very one-sided battle where the party essentially become spectators.

As with most sandbox adventures, there are a lot of gaps left for the DM to fill. There are actually quite a few encounter areas in this module (approximately 40-50), but the isle is large enough for the party to get lost or spend several days trying to find Oonga’s cave. This runs the risk of turning the adventure into a long series of random encounters. Players will get tired of fighting dinosaurs and giant apes constantly – especially since many do not carry treasure or are very challenging for this level. The recommended level of 18 and up is a bit of an exaggeration – a party of 15th – 16th level is more appropriate. In fact, most of the pre-generated characters are below 18th level and proved very durable for this module. Also, thieves and assassins may want to sit this one out; backstabbing enemies will prove to be difficult (invisibility is useless against the creatures on the island) and there are no traps to find or locks to pick here. Although Isle of the Ape is set in the World of Greyhawk, besides the involvement of some noteworthy GH personalities there is not a lot of new canon. The most enticing piece, the Crook of Rao, is not given any description or history at all. I realize it serves only as a McGuffin for the players, but the absence of some tantalizing GH lore is a big disappointment for me.

The module’s presentation is decent and standard quality typical of that time. The cover colors and font are consistent with the World of Greyhawk product line, with average interior artwork and maps. The module’s best visual offering is the poster-sized player handout: a washed out, hand-drawn map of the island (complete with strange runes) on faded parchment. This really helps with the feel and flavor of the adventure and it should be on full display at the table.

Isle of the Ape has its share of flaws but I still really enjoyed it. Maybe it’s the GH geek in me or maybe it’s my childhood fondness for King Kong movies, but despite a lackluster start and a frustrating finish there is a lot of fun to be had on the island itself. Since that is most of the module, Isle of the Ape is a worthy adventure. I give it a 7 out of 10.


Last edited by Luz on Thu Jun 06, 2013 7:31 am; edited 1 time in total
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SirXaris
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Joined: Jul 26, 2010
Posts: 2420
Location: LG Dyvers

PostPosted: Mon Jun 03, 2013 8:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Luz, that's a great review! I found myself agreeing with every portion of your assessment. Smile

The only part that really disappointed me was the way the Solar and Devas showed up to save the party. Without them, the PCs don't stand a chance. With them, the PCs can sub out and drink water on the bench while their angelic allies destroy the demons alone. rolleyes

I ran it twice many years ago in 1st, then 2nd edition. I would love to try my hand at running a 3.5e/Pathfinder conversion of the adventure. Happy

SirXaris
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Luz
Journeyman Greytalker


Joined: Jan 05, 2007
Posts: 203
Location: Vancouver

PostPosted: Tue Jun 04, 2013 9:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

SirXaris wrote:
Luz, that's a great review! I found myself agreeing with every portion of your assessment. Smile

The only part that really disappointed me was the way the Solar and Devas showed up to save the party. Without them, the PCs don't stand a chance. With them, the PCs can sub out and drink water on the bench while their angelic allies destroy the demons alone. rolleyes

I ran it twice many years ago in 1st, then 2nd edition. I would love to try my hand at running a 3.5e/Pathfinder conversion of the adventure. Happy

SirXaris
Thanks for taking time to read my review, SirXaris, glad you liked it.

Yeah, I think by removing the solar and the devas and trimming the number of mezzodaemons in the last encounter, this could be a much better finale to the adventure. Tul-oc-luc is a great villain NPC and he should be used in a more legitimate battle.

You should give a 3.5/PF conversion a try, its still a great high level romp. There are some very good conversions of some of the major NPCs on the Epichawk boards here:

http://www.canonfire.com/cfhtml/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=1272

Check it out!
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