The following memo was found on the corpse of a recently murdered agent of the company…

Notice to all COMPANY AGENTS: The following NEW list shall regulate your negotiations to ensure FORTHRIGHT and MAXIMUM profits for THE COMPANY this year. Always trade a SINGLE ITEM in question for a SINGLE ITEM listed above it.

Item…….Large Calico Panther Pelt
Item…….Gallon of Jaghio Honey

[portion of memo obscured by blood stain]

Item…….Square Foot of Levitacean Blubber
Item…….Set of Electric Megatherium Hooks
Item…….Bushel of Rambird Feathers
Item…….Cleaned Fallogator Skull
Item…….Complete Licking Toad Tongue
Item…….Large Octs Hide
Item…….Spool of King Gibbon Sinew
Item…….Pound of Thogibex Ivory
Item…….Gallon of Titanoviper Poison
Item…….Bushel of Tiny Bats

Back when creating the Mahjong Tile Dark Jungle Sandbox Generation System, I didn’t put much effort towards populating that setting with new monsters.  Most of the monsters there I had recycled from the Fire in the Jungle Supplement.  I was in a monster-makin’ mood this week, so decided to give the Dark Jungle setting its own roster of nasties and uglies. Here’s the Dark Jungle bestiary so far…

Licking Toad
These large amphibians are named for their preferred mode of ambush: hiding high in a tree and letting their unbelievably long tongue hang down over a path like a vine, waiting for a victim to brush past. Only highly skilled jungle travelers are able to spot their tongue among a tangle of vines covering a path, and the Licking Toad is known to snatch men, women, and children as snacks. Even outside of their usual ambush tactic their tongues are deadly ranged weapons, striking with great accuracy. Licking Toad skin is highly valued for its medicinal properties. The skin is poisonous if eaten raw, but can be dried, shredded, and smoked for a psychedelic and other effects. The tongues are a delicacy, often sliced and eaten raw with a ball of sticky rice.

This Licking Toad just ate a rat the size of a zebra.

This Titanoviper just ate that toad. The snake will be dead in less than a minute.

This is a massive jungle whale-thing that glides through the canopy, gobbling up birds and insects as if they were plankton. It’s blubber is very rot resistant and usually harvested as blocks. Often an incision is made into a block and items are inserted for storage and preservation. The blubber is also an excellent insulator, keeping contents warm or cold for long periods. Oil rendered from the blubber is of high quality and burns clean.

Electric Megatherium
This massive sloth will latch onto its prey with a hug, inserting its great hook claws into their body like jumper cables, then send a powerful current of electricity though the unfortunate victim. Then the sloth devours its meal in a gruesome display of creative destruction, cleanses itself meticulously in a river, and hibernates for a month or two until it gets hungry again. Shamen and wizards have been yet unable to unlock the secrets of the sloth’s electrifying attack, but it’s hook claws are highly valued as surgical instruments.

You can't see it. It's electric.

These large birds are entirely black, except for a bony and bald red crown.   They attack by first puffing their feathers to give the bird a spherical shape, then ramming their victims head-on from above. If the ramming itself doesn’t kill the target, the impacts releases a cloud of asbestos-like feather dust that causes deadly internal bleeding if the victim breaths in it. The meat is good-eating, like chicken, but what is most highly valued are the feathers, which is made into a variety of consumer products found in every home back in the empire’s cities.

This alligator climbs a tree and blends in perfectly due it’s uncanny resemblance to a log. Then it falls onto its victims with tremendous pile-driving force. It’s very startling to see this log open its mouth to reveal rows of flesh-ripping teeth. The hide of fallogators are highly valued due to a current fashion trend in parlor furniture. Their skull is always in demand and makes for a good urn, due to its unique shape and shock resistance. (The Fallogator was inspired by the illustration of Gygax’s Log to Lizard spell in Isle of the Ape, and also Justin’s “Crubber”.)

Illustration of Log to Lizard spell found in WG5 Isle of the Ape

This buffalo-like creature has a long body to accommodate its eight legs. Its spiked hooves enable it to crawl up and around trees like a caterpillar, grazing on the tastiest of foliage. Despite being a herbivore, Octs are ferocious fighters when cornered or injured and will eat their victims out of spite. They use their great size to deadly effect, thrashing their long body about and impaling attackers with their sharp horns. They are a major meat source for many humans and predators in the Dark Jungle. A single octs hide is sufficient to create an excellent canoe.

Tiny Bats
These amigos have a wingspan of no more than 2.54 centimeters, but they swarm around in the millions and there’s nothing you can do about them as they strip your flesh to the bone. When natives and jungle men are able to catch a basket full of these tiny bats, they cook up an excellent soup and there is much rejoicing. Keep boiling the soup and it becomes a high grade glue.

Only known image of a King Gibbon

King Gibbon
Watching this huge golden primate gracefully swing through the Dark Jungle sub-canopy is an experience of singular magnificence. Just don’t get too close, as the King Gibbon is capable of swift and stunning brutality. With its twenty foot long arms and legs, it can travel at very high speeds through the jungle and can be on you before you are able to decide: “Is that a huge monkey a mile away, or a small monkey just a few feet away?” Sinew made from its tendons and ligaments is very useful and spools of it trade at high prices.

More than just a cross between a warthog and an ibex, these angry antelopes are capable of legendary feats of agility and stubbornness. They can leap wide chasms and spaces between trees, deftly landing sideways, upside down, and occasionally right side up on high tree limbs. They can also wallow in deep mud and breath through their horns. They are incredibly immune to physical damage and perhaps the only way to kill them is decapitation. Even then, the headless body is dangerous in blind stampede and the ornately-horned head is able to bounce around and continue fighting for a minute or so. It’s antlers and ivory tusks are much sought after for the production of tea services.

Calico Panther
The fur color patterns on these massive cats is extremely effective in the Dark Jungle environment. Calico Panthers are always female and there are no known male panthers in the Dark Jungle. When not fulfilling their usual role as stoic and unmatched predators of the jungle, they like to purr and rub up against large trees and generally behave like mischievous house cats. Jungle men have an inordinate desire to collect their claws and wear them as a symbol of their masculinity. Huts of native jungle nomads are often constructed from a single Calico Panther pelt.

A Calico Panther watches the Dino Wars

“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Oerth.”

Last week’s post about Isle of the Ape asked the question: is the module a walk in the park?  Player ingenuity can trump adventure difficulty at any time, but Isle of the Ape is not a cakewalk.  Recall what Gygax say’s in the module’s introduction:

…if you DM this module according to the rules of the game, and its spirit, the best of players are going to be in real trouble before very long.   There are not many tricks, traps or clever devices here.  This is an adventure of attrition.  The place is literally infested with horrible monsters, and the sheer numbers of huge, man-eating creatures will soon take toll on the PCs.

That last sentence suggests that it’s the giant monsters that will run the characters off the island. That’s only half of the story. In a later section called “Island Conditions”, Gygax reveals the “rules of the game” that the DM should enforce to make life difficult for the characters:

  • Attrition.  I like this idea of establishing and reinforcing the theme of a harsh jungle by making the characters’ equipment (even magic items) susceptible to deterioration and rot.  It gives jungle exploration a new strategic dimension.  What I don’t like is the cumbersome rules that Gygax provides for determining the cumulative chance each day of each item becoming unusable.  I suspect that many DMs ignored these rules due to their tediousness, which changes the nature of the module’s overriding challenge.
  • Disease.  The disease rules that Gygax presents in this section are quite harsh (25% chance of affliction per day), but I do like the simple mechanics provided for tracking the cumulative debilitating effect of jungle disease:  …this will be reflected by the loss of 1 point from each characteristic per day.  When all stats are at 0, the character is dead.  Cure Disease will relieve all sickness, but lost points will take 1 day each to be restored. (Begin at the bottom and work up, i.e., Comeliness, Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence, and finally Strength.) What is lost in a single day of illness takes seven full days to recover!
  • Food.  Gygax states:  Eating the natural fare of the island doubles chances of disease.  Purify Food & Drink spells are sufficient to ensure that spoiled food is safely edible.  I like how these food and drink rules are directly linked to the Disease rules.  Bring as many iron rations as you can, but even those may rot before use.  Magic can be used to overcome these difficulties…at least until the magic items and spellbooks begin to rot.

Yes, the steady stream of encounters with large monsters are not to be overlooked, but the real PC killers on the Isle of the Ape are these entwined rules for Attrition, Disease, and Food.  The big dinos, large tribes, and apes are just the flashy bait.  Gygax has set a trap for high-level characters by introducing persistently harsh environmental conditions that the players likely hadn’t experienced previously and mess with their strategic calculus.

I still think it would be fun to try with 1st level characters equipped with machine guns.  And grenades. And C-rations.  And air support.

(My own Jungle Travel System incorporates some of these ideas of attrition, disease, and food having a gradual effect on jungle expeditions, but with reduced harshness and simplified execution.)

The module comes with a nice "treasure map" poster handout.

Other observations about this module:

It could have used another round or two of editing.  For example, in several cases the DM maps don’t match the description in the text.  Some things were downright confusing.  Maybe some of that is just Gygax’s style.  Maybe production of the module was rushed, a product of the changing tides at TSR in the mid-80s.

Tactical details of main encounter areas such as the tribal villages and the cave lair of Oonga, the big boss ape, are well described.  I get a kick out the the extended descriptions of  the big ape’s brutal attacks modes:

If he grasps and opponent, Oonga can apply squeezing damage equal to the maximum hand attack–24 points per round of crushing pressure.  Once grasped and squeezed, an opponent will be brought forth, raised to a height of 40 feet, and hurled down.  Damage from such attack is 22-72 points (10d6 + 12), and the victim will also suffer a stamping attack immediately during the same round

Gygax continues describing the attack and damage capabilities of the big apes for several more paragraphs here, then describes it all again in greater detail in the  “New Monsters” section in the back of the book.  I can imagine the disappointment of a DM who studied and memorized Oonga’s tactics and damage capability with glee, only to have the players pop the big guy with a Disintegrate spell in round 1.

I like how Gygax refers to the head tribal magic-users as the "Big Witch Doctor" (aka "BWD") and the "Shaman of Shamen" instead of assigning specific names

There are several elements in Isle of the Ape that remind the DM and players that this isn’t just a wild jungle island: it’s the sadistic testing grounds of Zagyg, Gygax’s alter-ego deity in the Greyhawk setting.  These have a “whoa, that’s fantastically bizarre and not what I expected to find on this island” quality to them, making the module more than just a jungle romp against pulp cliché:

The Rocky Islet is a magical rest zone that Zagyg provides to adventurers.  He’s not a total meanie after all. But there’s a catch and the characters must be true to their alignment to benefit from this oasis.

The Magic Pool and Spheres of Thought are an opportunity for the characters to get inside the mind of Zagyg and learn some of the island’s secrets and perhaps a powerful spell or two.  But at the risk of insanity or being held “at the service of the demi-god for 1d10 years.”

The Passageway and Crystal Prism constitute the module’s endgame, tying in the dimensional maneuverings of the powerful cosmic entities that inhabit the Greyhawk setting.  The Passageway is a nice little puzzle to complicate removal of a vast treasure hoard, but the Crystal Prism is too “out there” for me to ever consider using, especially because I’m not really interested in the Greyhawk cosmology.

Overall, I’d rate Isle of the Ape as the best jungle module of the TSR era.  I can see why it’s not universally loved, but remove the railroad introduction and Greyhawk connections and there’s enough good stuff remaining to serve as a nice jungle sandbox setting.  Or cannibalize parts of it into your own jungle island setting.

Dare pass through the "titanic gates" and into Oonga's jungle realm?

The adventurers halt under a giant of the primeval forest and nearby a family goes hunting…

…and The Reclining Goddess finds her resting place…

…while Phantom Soldiers fight for every inch…

…and Stragglers report for duty…

I’ve noted before that WG6 Isle of the Ape by Gary Gygax is one of only a handful of TSR-era modules specifically set in a jungle environment.  I’ve never considered running it before, mainly because it’s advertised as a very high-level module (levels 18+) and the opportunity has never presented itself.  Also, it doesn’t seem to be a highly regarded module, rarely showing up on lists of favorite Gygax or Greyhawk modules.

I’m taking a closer look at it.  I wonder if it could be played at reduced levels by removing the “stuck in an alternate dimension until the magic doohickey is found” railroady setup and just approach it as a place to explore for the glory and riches of it.  Also, it’s the last module that Gygax published with TSR, so maybe there’s some good “High Gygaxian” crazy talk to be found within.

Right off the bat, the introduction has this dire warning:

The place you are about to send your Player Characters is a very deadly one indeed.  … remember this: if you DM this module according to the rules of the game, and its spirit, the best of players are going to be in real trouble before very long. 

Groovy.  I appreciate the straight talk.  But this is no Tomb of Horrors.  Gygax continues…

There are not many tricks, traps or clever devices here.  This is an adventure of attrition.  The place is literally infested with horrible monsters, and the sheer numbers of huge, man-eating creatures will soon take toll on the PCs.  

The point of all this preamble is to exhort you to be tough.  That’s right, don’t allow any sympathy to interfere with the game as it is designed.  Too many players are marching around claiming that they have characters able to handle anything. Now is the time to let them demonstrate the mettle of these invincible characters they have.

It’s funny to read what Gygax says here, then read this Dragonsfoot thread were a DM tells the story of how his players immediately hopped on their Flying Carpet, cruised to the highest mountain on the island, and promptly took out King Kong with a gas grenade.  Other players simply zapped the big monkey with a disintegration spell, likely covering the island with an inch-thick layer of ash.

Despite encounters with hundreds of island natives, it seems as if it’s mostly just a bunch of singular huge monsters that make Isle of the Ape a high-level module.  Easy enough to run away from.  I should try this module with 1st level characters.  Maybe give them machine guns or something.

High level adventures can be hard to design if the focus is on straight up combat.  Further complicating things is the variety of powerful magic items that the PCs may have at their disposal.  Gygax conjures up a vision of PCs arriving on the Isle with a pack train loaded down with fireball wands and blasting horns…

The players can bring along a vast array of magical items, providing that they have the means to cart them along.  Remember what will function and what will not.  Also be sure that you keep track of where all items are stored.  If, for instance, they pack a magical bag or hole full of goodies, require them to go through the whole thing in order to retrieve something.  This will take lots of game time. 

I’m envisioning a distraught Klaus Kinski kicking mules and strangling capuchins after spending five minutes and still not finding that folding boat that he knew he packed somewhere in that bag of holding full of elvish boots and girdles of strength.

Gygax then offers an idea for recreating this physical comedy at the gaming table:

To illustrate this point to them, gather up some smallish, disparate items, and put them in to a pillow case or similar container.  Then, indicate a singular item (say a pen representing a wand) as one that is to be drawn out.  Count.  If the contents are dumped out, the item can be obtained with fair rapidity.  If an arm is thrown in to the container, it will take a long time to find, for you will have placed other objects of similar size and shape therein to simulate the difficulty of retrieving items from such a bag.  A portable hole will absolutely require emptying–or crawling into–for retrieval of items.  Meanwhile, adversaries will be attacking.

I actually might try that sometime.

I’m still reading through the module, so may post more about it in the future.  For now, I end this post with Gygax’s description of the jungle island…

From a distance, the Isle of the Ape appears to be a pile of jagged mountains sprinkles with smoking volcanoes.  At night these cones give the place a dim, hellish glow.  Of course, fog and clouds enshroud the place most of the time, so only portions of the island can usually be seen, and then only from relatively close proximity.

The central mass is a gradually sloping basic, a saucer, if you will, where the daily downpouring of rain collects to form a large lake and surrounding swamp.  This slowly drains because the water has managed to cut a bed that leads underground and empties via a 200-foot-long waterfall on the west coast of the island.  The whole place is very warm, and its is muggy and steaming hot in the central morass of swamp and jungle.

Jungle is a combination of rainforest, with attendant huge trees, and true jungle.  The entire place is a riot of huge mosses and great ferns, with every imaginable sort of palm and cycadeoid, vine and liana filling the spaces between the larger growths.  Where water fills low spots mighty rushes and towering reeds spring up.  Far overhead are many small lizards, snakes, and toothed birds–as well as pterodactyls of all sizes.  Lower down are somewhat larger reptiles and all sorts of flying and crawling insects.  At ground level the same is true.  Everywhere there are all forms of living things–insects, invertebrates, reptiles, and the ponderous herbivorous dinosaurs hunted by the swift carnivorous ones.

Last year I posted a system for generating a “Dark Jungle” map and sandbox setting using Mahjong tiles.  Included in the system is an unexplained list of NPCs.  Here’s more info about them, and suggestions of relationships between them.  I drew up a crude relationship map, but it was a mess so I decided to just type it out like this:

El Grande Loco (Giancarlo Montoya)
An explorer from an earlier age.  Made a deal with a dragon for immortality.  Worried that Pantherclaw Glin Topp knows where his treasure is located.  Claims to be a “cosmic brother” of Lung-Eatin’ Hayes.

Night Bird’ s Shadow
Accomplished warrior of the Bat tribe.  Seeks to kill Lung-Eatin’-Hayes.  Has a wager with Thed Zoltar.  Is arranging a business deal with Eberhard Dunwitty.  Annoyed by Singing Python and Taken By Dragons sometimes, but he tolerates their chumminess.

Lung-Eatin’ Hayes (Mossy Hayes)
Legendary jungle man, now rarely encountered in his wanderings.  Knows that Night Bird’s Shadow is after him, but unaware of Singing Python‘s bad heart against him.  Wishes El Grande Loco would just leave him alone.  Often trades panther claws to Pantherclaw Glin Topp.

Singing Python
Warrior of the Greyfoot tribe, daughter of Chief Broken Rain and sister of the slain Running Bird.   Seeks to kill Lung-Eatin’ Hayes for some reason.  Has Taken By Dragons under her spell, but she’s falling for Night Bird’s Shadow.  Sees Through Leaves knows something about her that nobody else does.

Pantherclaw Glin Topp
Elusive but gregarious jungle man who hunts panthers obsessively.  Claims to have smoked with El Grande Loco.  Best pal of Lung-Eatin’ Hayes.  Believes Thed Zoltar is an abrasive blowhard.  Had a fling with Sees Through Leaves in their younger days and the old man is trying to woo her again, but she’s having none of it.

Taken By Dragons
Outcast half-breed warrior of the Squarehead tribe.  Hates jungle men, even his father Thed Zoltar. His mother is Sees Through Leaves.  He is Singing Python‘s whipped lover.  Has an inferiority complex towards Night Bird’s Shadow.

Thed Zoltar
An old timer and considered by many to be the original “jungle man”.  First outsider to see the sulfur pits and steam geysers now called Zoltar’s Hell.  Believes Pantherclaw Glin Topp is a pompous ass.  Has a wager with Night Bird’s Shadow.  Father of Taken By Dragons.  Regrets past relationship with Sees Through Leaves.

Sees Through Leaves
Medicine trader of the Squarehead tribe.  Has a curious “Harold and Maude” relationship with Eberhard Dunwitty.  Best customer is Pantherclaw Glin Topp.  Knows a secret about Singing Python.  Mother of Taken By Dragons.  Regrets past relationship with Thed Zoltar.

Eberhard Dunwitty
A young and ambitious jungle man.  Plans to renege on a deal with Thed Zoltar.  Wants to build a trading fort deep in the jungle, in Bat territory, but doesn’t fully trust Night Bird’s Shadow.  Supplies Sees Through Leaves with trade goods from the Empire.

It’s the St. Patrick’s Day sale at Fire in the Jungle.  $2 off the digest edition until 11:59pm central time zone, Saturday March 17.   Order direct from me at the FitJ Supplement page.  I’ve got new shades of green card stock available…

Many of the low-grade Nam flicks that I’ve mentioned on this site only received official release on VHS.  Incredibly, some have had “official” release DVD, and this post lists the cheapest.  Video quality isn’t great on most of these, they appear to be sourced from VHS tapes, some with burned-in subtitles in foreign languages. Except for a couple non-jungle movies in the MERCS collection, these were all filmed in the Philippines.

Phantom Raiders (1988), directed by Dan Harvey.  Fantastically entertaining, but I don’t understand the economics of releasing a movie like this on it’s own DVD and not part of a collection. Starring Miles O’Keefe of Ator fame.  He puts in a decent “Clint Eastwood as a jungle ninja” performance.

Expendables 2: Zero Heroes is a collection of four low budget jungle action flicks on one DVD.  Couldn’t believe it when I saw this for sale at a local Best Buy. This was put out a couple years ago to cash in on the popularity of Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, but these movies have nothing to do with that movie.  Stallone’s The Expendables 2 is scheduled for release in August.

The Expendables (1988), directed by Cirio Santiago
Wild Team (1985), directed by Umberto Lenzi
Cobra Mission, aka Operation Nam (1986), directed by Fabrizio De Angelis
Cobra Mission 2 (1989), directed by Camillo Teti

The main reason to get this collection is for Cirio’s The Expendables.  Cobra Mission is a decent movie too, but the print used here is completely unwatchable.  Fortunately, a better print is included in the next collection…

Grindhouse Experience Presents: MERCS.  Ten movies on three discs, listed in rough order of my least to most favorite…

The Last Mercenary (aka Rolf) (1984), directed by Mario Siciliano
Soldiers of Fortune (1990), directed by Pierluigi Ciriaci
These two aren’t much it a jungle at all, more of an arid desert setting, so I didn’t really watch them closely at all. That shows how serious my jungle pretentiousness is.

Fireback (1983), directed by Teddy Page (“famous” for Phantom Soldiers).  Starts off looking like a “big gun in the jungle” movie, but then the big gun and the jungle are never seen again and it becomes a ho-hum revenge flick.  Mike Monty has the quote of the movie when he says, “He can make an ordinary soft drink straw into a weapon.”

Mannigan’s Force (1988), directed by John Ryan Grace.  Opens with an explosive raid that may or may not have been in a jungle, but the rest of the movie doesn’t have much to offer.  The main reason to watch this is to laugh at Mike Monty wearing a beard and dictator/general costume.

Death Raiders (1984), directed by Segundo Ramos.  I’m having a hard time constructing a complete sentence to describe this movie, so here’s some keywords:  Jungle, Cave, Drunken Kung Fu, Twice-baked Dialog, Awkward Machismo.

Operation Nam (aka Cobra Mission).  Better video quality than in the Expendables 2 collection. Watchable at least.  Plenty of nice greenery, but it’s mostly of the “coconut plantation” variety, not jungle.  Memorable scene:  After blasting up a village, the commando gets frustrated by the fasteners on a damsel’s shirt and growls…”All these buttons!” So she turns her back to him, all demure and such, to undo the buttons. Turns back around to reveal her bosom completely covered in scars. Then she says “American napalm”, lifts a pistol and shoots him dead through the chest.

A couple movies in this collection have been previously mentioned on this site: Tiger Joe and Strike Commando.

War Bus (1986), directed by Ferdinando Baldi. An irresistible premise: escaping from North Vietnamese-controlled territory in a big yellow school bus.  Neat thing about this one is that it felt a little like a Spaghetti Western or Post-Apocalypse movie at times. Trailers are better in German…

Raiders of the Magic Ivory, aka Predators of the Magic Stone (1988), directed by Tonino Ricci.  Borderline candidate for inclusion on the Big List of 1980s Fantasy Movies. Like an Indiana Jones movie set in Vietnam, but over-the-top ridiculous.

Best in the MERCs collection?  Tough choice between Strike Commando, War Bus, and Raiders of the Magic Ivory. All three are top trash contenders, but Raiders gets my vote for a couple of reasons…

From the Wikipedia page:

“In June 1966, the Army Vietnam Combat Artists Program was established as part of the United States Army Art Program, utilizing teams of soldier-artists to make pictorial records of U.S. Army activities in the course of the Vietnam War for the annals of military history. The concept of the Vietnam Combat Art Program had its roots in WW II when the U.S. Congress authorized the Army to use soldier-artists to record military operations in 1944.

Nine Combat Artist Teams (CATs) operated in Vietnam. Typically, each team consisted of five soldier artists who spent 60 days of temporary duty (TDY) in Vietnam gathering information and making preliminary sketches of U.S. Army related activities. The teams then transferred to Hawaii for an additional 75 days to finish their work. Artists were given artistic freedom and encouraged to depict subjects in their own individual styles.”

At that page there are dozens of examples of the work of the CATs, but these are the most relevant to the themes of Fire in the Jungle:

Attack at Twilight

Swamp Patrol

Second Platoon Assault

Night Operation

Big and Little Firepower

Looking Down the Trail

Mortar Attack Counterfire