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The One Page Dungeon Contest will be over for this year by the time I finish writing this, and out of everything else I could be doing - WANT to be doing - instead of this, this feels the most immediate. The most urgent.
I want to talk about why The Isles of the Dead is better than my OPD entry and lobby for it as winner or finalist. I don't know that we're allowed to DO that but fuck off I'm gonna.
FIRST off let's talk about how the concept sums up what I love about a specific old school D&D mentality. There is a person who insists that older D&D sucks because their characters can die, because they have a narrative in their mind and that doesn't fit it. I don't like this. More importantly, though, is the fact that this perspective misses out on a huge default assumption of old school D&D that Vigo fucking nailed: Death is but a door. Time is but a window. Being digested by dragons in a dungeon is not the denouement!...
You want your kingdom in the hills, the power to grant wishes, a handsome orc bride? Fight the devil. If you won't then you were never going to have that happy ending anyway, and if you can't then guess what: FIGHT THE SUPERDEVIL. This is the use of old style rpg planes for me: death is as much a part of life as life, and like with Dr. Seuss, it's turtles all the way down. You'll keep failing downward until you fail upwards and if you aren't up to the task or choose oblivion instead that is your CHOICE. That is player agency. That is consequence intended and unintended. That's the game.
Grimdark murderhobo uberlethal D&D is a game ultimately of hope in this way.
The Isles of the Dead is this kind of game, which is the SECOND fantastic thing about it: it's a One Page Dungeon to have at the ready for every One Page Dungeon. It isn't just compatible with any of them in this way, but ALL of them, and makes them all bigger, stranger, crueler, and better.
The Map: Works. Great. Gets every point across clearly.
The Rules: No items because you can't take it with you, fucking of course. This is so obvious that I hate it because it makes me feel like an idiot for not just assuming it. Between the lines the biggest bastard in the group is at a disadvantage in Half-Hell because he's buried in disgrace. Fucking fantastic.
The Environment: There is a very new-vogue thing here that is secretly an old-ways thing and it's a method for giving kakked players something to do at the table other than roll up another guy. The skeletons and the claustrophobia of the stretching-on mystery are right up my alley but the crows are a very special thing. This is the kind of thing that I've seen first-hand get people into RPGs, and the exact moment I decided I wanted to run this adventure on Free RPG Day time permitting. Any spectator or late arrival can be a petty bitchy sarcastic envious bawdy dickweed crow. If you kill em just make them come back again! Huge piles of bursted birdflesh. I should hope the crow wriggles free from the mouth of your wounds. They will when I do it.
The Belltower: This is where I closed the dungeon in disgust and went to buy groceries because of every decision I agonized over in Dungeon As Image I never thought to map the dungeon's features not by geography but SENSATION in real time as the PCs experience it. There isn't a room description and list of contents and tricks here like a TSR module, the experience is the description and vice versa. It's a grounding sense of place and scale and you experience the Belltower before ever going there because you're aware of the chime BEFORE you are aware of your predicament or (fully) your own position in context. You know all of this BEFORE you know you are hanged and dead. You avoid a hundred mystique-pissing questions with this entry before the Gallows. It's super clever. The giants in the distance, moving with the speed and grace of trees, sounds beautiful in an Attenborough-meets-album-cover way.
The Gallows: With the crows overhead you are immediately immersed not only in the implications of where you are but also the consequences both of remaining here and of trying to leave. But getting free from the Gallows and getting out of this archipelago purgatory are the concerns thrust upon your party before they even have a chance to articulate these desires. It sets the stakes and pace and scope of the adventure pretty immediately and can drastically change how the party and each individual PC interacts with the rest of the map. It's not a fight, it's a decision, a fight with yourself and a fight with yourselves, which is what all fights in dungeons have as their bottom brick anyway when you get down to it.
C, E, F, K, J: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU. You are unlucky enough to be a part of this but guess what, things are tough all over. The people here struggling to come to terms with what they're experiencing, being broken by it, their grief taking different forms, not only make the dungeon more than just a Metroid run to the exit but each also offer a choice, and, in so, an OPPORTUNITY to change the game and change the rest of your (potential) life, if the DM wants to drop something in at these opportune moments. Some may be allies. Some may be distractions. Some may help just make your players feel afraid and miserable in a way that saying "There are lots of skeletons" cannot.
B and D both involve conveyance and both involve a price, the same price on the surface, a different price in actuality, but two prices each for sure. D and E offer your party its first opportunities to arm itself as well as the first thing approaching an enemy, unless you're a dick and broke Hans' neck. Arming yourself or considering the beings here your enemy is also a choice, or rather a series of them. It's deciding what kind of game you're playing which grossly affects your chances.
The Hilltop: You know my feelings on angels making you shit yourself and this is a suitably dire scenario. But it also isn't. If you've decided that getting to door A is the point of this adventure then doors B and C represent failure states. However if you've decided that getting OUT is the goal, or that getting somewhere SAFE is the goal, or that just seeing what cool stuff HAPPENS is the goal, then this is the best possible result. Where you end up doesn't matter to me because either potentially mean more content and new opportunities for the stated goal of the party (exit the afterlife) on new and exciting terms. Also, if you're someone who really gets into playing your guy or talking to NPCs holy crap is this encounter a gold mine for you. You get to have a little This Was Your Life episode with the angel. If you still have any spells left, you can perhaps even turn those tables on it? With its nigh immortal existence in judgment? The secrets you could observe, the power gained? Possibilities, man.
The Forest: Crows everywhere, are those black leaves on those trees no they're crows, it's all crows, and one streak of white in it all which should be the scariest thing you've seen so far. How much of an asshole this guy is is up to you, but I like to think that he's in with the Tower and keeping nuisance appointments and those unserious about penance out from mobbing the lobby. IF I have a complaint with this dungeon AT ALL it's that the riddle feels like a softball but that's on MY stupid scale of obtuse bullshit, and any riddle at all in this context allows you the possibility of the crows yelling down wrong answers, GOOD wrong answers even, like the audience on the Price is Right, confusing everyone.
The Tower: I love this kind of thing, "Oh you want a shortcut to enlightenment, ok walk around this whole mountain thirty times." You can't get into Heaven this way. You can get a better SHOT this way. Only. I hate +anything weapons but the other effects on this sword and even the name make me dig it big time and want to see it as a DM and use it as a player. If I was running this (WHEN I am running this) those waking up with this sword will wake up with it hilt-deep in their chest. Pulling it free will heal them of all wounds but leaving a mark on their chest in a nimbus of light, a mark in the pattern of the map at the top of this page.
The Wisp: Everything about this is good. You reap what you sow. Like killing everything and being a douche? Have fun with your bone run to the new island.
The Big Enemies: The demon and the giant are great, especially since you'll have glimpsed or heard of them many times before seeing them, which I like a lot.
The Aftermath: I dig these consequences big time. They aren't exactly game making superpowers but they are a sufficiently awesome merit badge for the ordeal everyone just went through. It also means that if this happens again there are more familiar faces in waiting for them.
I love everything about this dungeon give +Arnold K. Money Five Hundred for it.