Gary Gygax’s Isle of the Ape is a walk in the park?

March 19, 2012

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.

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One Response to “Gary Gygax’s Isle of the Ape is a walk in the park?”

  1. […] 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: […]

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