Isle of the Ape: Gary Gygax is your Drill Instructor

March 27, 2012

“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?

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