Book Review(s): Hot Springs Island
|The Dark of Hot Springs Island
Cover by Gabriel Hernandez
©2017 Swordfish Islands
Hot springs island is a set of two books from Swordfish Islands and is written by a team that includes Jacob Hurst, Evan Peterson and Donnie Garcia. The first book, A Field Guide to Hot springs Island is a purely fiction book detailing the eponymous Hot Springs Island, one of a handful of islands in a chain called the Swordfish Islands. The second, The Dark of Hot springs Island, is a hex crawl module containing seventy-five locations, and twenty-six mapped dventure sites to be discovered. It also details seven factions with a network of alliances, rivalries, outright hostilities, and conflicting interests.
The total content in the book would easily make up an entire campaign, although, given the lethality of the setting and the power level of many of the enemies, it is probably a scenario that you would want to hold off on until your characters were mid-level (assuming a D&D-Based System.)
|The Tomb of Black Sand
Cover by Gabriel Hernandez
©2019 Swordfish Islands
The setting of the module is in a ruined jungle island covered in volcanic fissures, geysers, and, of course, hot springs. It is scattered with the ruins of a lost elvish civilization that has mastered a level of magic and attained wealth unknown anywhere else in the campaign world. The location is so lavish in gold and jewels, that they become effectively meaningless to the player characters after a time, unless of course, they live return to the mainland alive. In fact, the theme of the entire setting, if it were expressed in two words, they would be excess and decadence.
Everything about the setting is lavish, strange, and mysterious. While there are a few familiar Dungeons & Dragons style monsters, it has a bestiary of unique creatures to the island. And where it does use ogres, salamanders, imps, and dire animals, it significantly rethinks them and their role in the campaign setting. Nothing can be taken for granted, and players running on the expectations they might have from a Forgotten Realm or Greyhawk-styke setting will find themselves making deadly mistakes.
|A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island
Cover by Gabriel Hernandez
©2017 Swordfish Islands
This module is on my D&D bucket list. I would love to play it with a large group of mature players until they put one faction on the island into a position to do in its enemies.
It is also a module I highly emulate in my own work. It has a concise and effective way of presenting locations and environments that I have adapted to my own uses. I have not seen another way of presenting adventure material that is quite as concise and easy to read. Likewise, it has a method of presenting NPCs that is well worth pirating. I would describe Hot springs Island as a masterpiece of module design, and anyone interested in trying it out for themselves should get a copy of at least Toxic Elvish Smut, if not the complete Hot springs Island setting.
There is also a sizable free sample on the Swordfish Islands website.
You will not see me recommend a book more highly than these Hot Springs Island books. Consider this my gold standard review. And it has been a long time in coming, as I read Hot Springs Island over a year ago now, and having waiting to have the right readership and the right technique for review before I dare to attempt mpt this one.
As it is, I have heavily mined Hot Springs Island for magic items, monsters, plants, NPCs, and adventure sites. There is so much here, that you will constantly find new materials to borrow for other games. I have used a number of its encounter tables and locations independently of the main module. Running Hot Springs Island as written, however, is an ambition.
What I loved
Locations in Hot Springs Island are packed with dense information that makes a hex crawl really interesting. Each hex has a series of keywords and give you a sense of how to describe it, followed by a bullet point list of interesting features. Each one also has three locations per hex, but the first one being the one player characters will run into while wandering the location. The second two must be discovered through exploration.
|Hex HS-02 from The Dark of Hot Springs Island P. 21.
©2017 Swordfish Islands, art by Gabriel Hernandez
Finally, Hot Springs Island features an incredibly dense and sophisticated enounter table that covers both day and night encounters. And does so in a way that also can give you a sense of the motivations of the creatures encountered. These tie into a larger, more sophisticated master encounter table earlier in The Dark of Hot Springs Island. There is no guesswork required to construct a fairly complex encounter using the tools that Hot Springs Island provides.
Each location is presented with a tiny snapshot map that includes the hex being explored and enough surrounding ones too help you figure out which way the players are going next, and it usually gives you enough to grographical information to figure out where it is in relation to major landmarks on the island.
A similar pared-down description is used for chambers of the various adventure site scattered throughout the module.
I have borrowed this format heavily for my Index Card RPG module Harkins Slave Pit. And many of my upcoming modules use a similar style, where I am not trying to emulate one conventional to a specific role-playing game.
There are a handful of traditional Dungeons & Dragons monsters scattered throughout the book, but each one is given its own unique twist. Nereids are plane traveling artists who are rebelling against enslavement by one of the other factions of the island. The Night Axe ogre clan have a complex religion and magical tradition that makes them far more and stupid strong brutes to fight. Salamanders are poorly motivated thugs working for the Fuegonauts, but are starting to doubt their master. Elementals are intelligent creatures with their own motivations and personalities, whose lives are bonded to magical jewels that keep them on the material plane called cores, which are very valuable.
|"Coppermane Prowler" from A Field Guide
To Hot Springs Island p92 ;illustration by
Gabriel Hernandez ; ©2017 Swordfish Islands
Many of these creatures have truly unique properties, like Coppermane Prowlers, gryphon-like creatures with copper plumage that can build up static charges and shock creatures that attack them. Or Birds who, thanks to the minerals they consumee, grow featherd of real gold.
The Unique Twist on Elves
Hot Springs Island is the site of a collapsed elvish civilization. It's one where the entire populace had become addicted to a magical drug that gave them superhuman abilities, but also made them violent, sexually aggressive, unmotivated, and that can be toxic if taken in the wrong doses. As you learn more about the elves by studying there ruins, you can see a civilization slowly losing their minds and their empathy. Different items from different periods in their history have very different feels, and, by the end, you get the impression that their cvilization had become monstrous.
Moreover, the elves in the setting are immortals, but not immune to harm. Which means you get quite a few interesting and tragic Tales emerging out of it. Including elves returned home after thousands of years to find nothing but ruins of their civilization, And malformed slimes that were once elves whose bodies collapsed under the weight of the toxins they put into their own bodies, insane, barely able to think, but desperately trying to reclaim form and thought. This is the first time I've seen Elven immortality made into something truly interesting and culturally significant.
|"Shadow Lily" from A Field Guide To
Hot Springs Island P. 60 ;illustration by
Gabriel Hernandez; ©2017 Swordfish Islands
Hot Springs Islands is host to a number of strange, magical, or dangerous plants. although a few of these might count as plant monsters in the traditional D&D sense, many work more like hazards, having features such as acidic sap, being easily combustible, or contact pouso. A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island contains beautiful illustrations and detailed descriptions that the GM can use to create both wondrous discoveries and terrifying non-combat encounters for player characters
Adding in unique plant life both gives the setting a real standout feel. It also allows you to create a language for communicating the environment. After a while player characters will come to associate things like Flint Moss with volcanic fissures and learn to be cautious. Curious player characters with skills and herbalism and alchemy can find a real payof,f, if they are willing to explore, which adds a whole new depth to the way the game can be played.
Presentation of NPCs
NPCs that play a major role in any given faction are given an absolutely lavish presentation. A half page portrait, a short backstory, and three bullet pointed sections describing what they want, what they don't want, and other important notes on their personality and drives.
This format makes it very easy to play the eighty-five potential villains, enemies, allies, and mentors scattered about Hot Springs Island. In the case of some of the significant faction leaders, it also can give you a clear sense as to how the whole faction will respond to certain PC actions.
|"Svarku" (Colorized vers.) Illustration by
Gabriel Hernandez; ©2017 Swordfish Islands
He's a villain who would rather work out and spend time relaxing in his seraglio than actually getting things done, and feels the crunch now that his laziness and mismanagement has come home to roost.
The Hot Springs Island setting is described in the manuals as a "powder keg," and that is a great way to put it. On its surface it looks like a sandbox hex crawl, however, the real magic of the setting is in the factions. There are so many rivalries, grudges, secrets etc, established in The Dark of Hot Springs Island that the whole balance of power is a house of cards.
The moment the PCs win the right fight or reveal the right secret, the whole thing is likely to explode. They could plunge the whole island into war, they could cause Svarku to lose control over the salamanders, precipitate a planar invasion, awaken an ancient and terrible monster of apocalyptic power, or call back the lost and powerful elves to reclaim the secrets of their homeland. None of which both particularly well for anyone caught in the middle.
And every faction has one or more reasons why they might need to recruit outsiders that could disturb the balance. This makes the PCS lit matches in a field of dry brush.
The Presentation of A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island
A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island is a collection of journal entries, sketches, and ramblings of several different adventurers and investigators working for the Martell Company to chart Hot Springs Island. It offers player characters details on many of the monsters and plants that neither the players nor their characters would definitely not otherwise be familiar with.
Much like The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren for Delve 2e, which I reviewed a year ago, this is meant to be a found text that can be handed to the players to let them learn about the island as they go. It would make an ideal treasure to find once they've had a couple of adventures and got themselves neck deep in trouble.
I would be cautious about when I would give it to players on the basis that once they can recognize some of the plants and animals of the island they are far less likely to get themselves into the kind of danger that makes exploration campaigns great.
The book carefully doles out only the information that a particularly informed and observant person exploring the island for a few weeks could collect. There aren't too many hints on the secrets, nor information on the powerful magical effects on the island, nor the Planar factions that have an interest in Svarku's business. In most cades gives just enough to make the players curious and start looking for answers.
Stylish Magic Item Design
Just as there is unique plants and monsters designed to keep this from being a standard issue Dungeons & Dragons setting, there's also a huge array of unique magic items and relics to discover.
The treasures of Hot Springs Island are used to help build up the history of the cultures that created them. They become a signature for the particular factions that use them or created them.
The tragic Night Axe Ogres gain there magic items through a gift from a god of wrath. He granted them the power to shape obsidian into hard and razor sharp tools, and granted numerous powers to one of the only surviving female members of the clan. Her long silvery hair forms the basis for indestructible and self-repairing ropes armor, and nets.
The early treasures of the Elven civilization of the island to be elegant, floral and integrate living and inanimate matter together. For example, they have, created Crystal frogs are living, breathing, constructs that can heal and cleanse fear with their songs and that bond to living creatures. Much of the Early Elven magic is controlled by songs, and chime themed magic items are found everywhere.
|Barren Mother (Cursed Statuette) from The Dark
of Hot Springs Island p. 172; Illustrated by
Gabriel Hernandez ; ©2017 Swordfish Islands
The magic of the Nereid faction tends to involve clothing and implements made of seashells, pearls, seaweed, and delicate silken materials. Most of which influences elemental water.
Svarku's Fuegonauts have a strangely punk rock feel to their magic. It involves body piercings, butterfly knives, and flayed cured hides.
The magic items of Hot Springs Island more than power-ups for the player characters: They are means of telling a story, and building character into the factions of the island.
There are many incredible embellishments hidden in there. One of my favorite is that a huge amount of the wealth of the elves that allowed them to become a magical power and then a planer power comes from the ability to make a fabric found nowhere else in the multiverse, and then their creation of a drug that enhances natural abilities. Both the fabric and the plant that creates the drug are found everywhere in their art, and discovering their significance puts a whole new cast on the items the players are already carrying around.
The Art in these books by Gabriel Hernandez is absolutely stunning from beginning to end. It is detailed and evocative of the most elegant line art of 90s era TTRPGs. I simply cannot find enough excuses to share it.
While I hold Hot Springs Island up as the gold standard for creativity and design in Old School gaming material, I am definitely not without some complaints. Nothing is perfect, and I would be a poor reviewer if I didn't point out where it could be improved.
Being Thrown in the Deep End
Whike a huge portuon of the ideas, abilities, and high concept of the creatures magic items and plants in Hot springs Island are detailed for you, there is no appreciable guidance on how to use it with existing systems.
There is an expectation that the game master will put a some effort into adapting them to their system of choice. While the authors suggest using generic stat blocks such as "large predator" to fill in the gaps, abilities like hurling lightning, the armor from being covered in metallic feathers, or being literally indestructible demand at least a little (or a lot) more effort than their marketing suggests. Especially if you want to get the most out of the encounter.
Having a resource, even a simple online one that offers that blocks in B/X D&D, Pathfinder, and D&D5e would be very helpful in quickly mobilizing this setting as is.
I would not recommend it for new Game Masters looking to run it as a first or second campaign. You definitely have to have a strong handle on the rules of the system you are using.
I have been trying to figure out how one could go about doing this while maintaining system neutrality, and not giving the game away for free. And therein lies the problem. Unless the guys Swordfish Islands were willing to give away an awful lot of their material for free (They shouldn't,), the only other solution would be to go the way of Barrowmaze and publish multiple versions for different games. And that seems like a massive headache. Leaving it to the GM really is the sanest compromise.
With most system neutral modules, I wouldn't even complain about this. But given the sheer scope of the number of unique monsters in particular in Hot Springs Island, it can be quite a heavy task to make the module work for your game.. I suspect, however, the work is worth it for the results.
A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island Gives Away Too Much
A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island is a beautifully written journal, with lots of truly stunning art, and introduces some, but not all of the mysteries of Hot Springs Island. It gives players a great deal of leads to use as to jumping-off points for adventure.
Personally, however, I would have liked it more if it had only given sketches and a couple of sentences about certain monsters with surprising abilities. Or if it did not mention some of the special properties of things like elemental cores. As it is, the herbal and bestiary sections of the manual can you give players too much information about what to expect and take some of the surprise out of encounters with the unique monsters on the island. Likewise, it warns them of some of the more terrifying plants and hazards, allowing them to go around encounters that would have been far more interesting to leave as a surprise.
It is sometimes confusing to understand why some information is offered. The 'guide hints at the extinction of the elves, and it refuses to mention the drug Sipopa in a meaningful way, which are both great omissions to preserve mystery. On the other hand, it gives the players way too much idea of what monsters or treasures they might find in the ruins, tells them in principle how to operate the chimes, warns them about things like the weeping trees, It introduces them to faction leaders who would better be left mysterious.
As it is, as my players love to unravel complicated mysteries handing them A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island too early might give them a little too much to work with, and reduce their enjoyment of the island somewhat.
Hot Springs Island Gives me Book Envy
When the first lockdowns begin a year ago, a number of OSR creators put their products on sale or made them free for the duration. Ben Milton at Questing Beast was good enough to curate a database of giveaways for us. One particularly stunning bundle was offered by Swordfish Island's, which included the total of Hot Springs Island, Super Blood Harvest 1-3 by Dirk!, and Silent Titans by Jacob Hurst. All of them absolutely stunningly beautiful, innovative, and inspiring work.
Of all of them, however, Hot Springs Island is by far the one that I have spent hours carefully and meticulously flipping through for inspiration multiple times.
It is very affordable as a set of pdfs, but the digital medium does not do them justice. Often, you are only seeing part of an image, and have to do a lot of scrolling to read maps. The physical books, on the other hand are premium products designed quite specifically to accentuate the lavishness of Hot Springs Island. The Dark of Hot Springs Island is designed as a premium product, bound in faux leather with a gold leaf cover image, wirtb a stitched binding, and carefully pages meant to make the most of the artwork.
A Field guide to Hot Springs Island is designed to feel like an adventurer's journal: a rugged cloth-covered notebook. Combined, they come to roughly $100 American. After the shipping it would cost me to get it to Canada, and the current conversion rate, plus taxes, and customs fees if I get dinged at the border, (which is essentially random in this country,) I could end up paying anywhere from $150 to $180 to own them. Much like the Old School Essentials box set, I sometimes just have to settle for browsing my PDFs with a sense of melancholy.
We Could Use a Sense of Context
The notebook form of A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island, the presence of butterfly knives and poker games, the medievalesque standard equipment of role-playing game adventurers, etc., give a strangely confused feel to Hot Springs Island . It is full of tiny anachronisms. He seem to have 19th century naturalism, 20th century blades, 19th century musical aesthetics, and 15th century player characters working for an 17th century mercantile interest that associates heavily with 18th century pirates. in some ways these anachronisms work for Hot Springs Island. In others they make it confusing and a little frustrating.
I would like to know more about the world beyond the Swordfish Islands. Certainly, the reference is to black powder suggest that campaign as imagined sits something closer to a 17th rather than 14th century level of technology, as is usually customary with D&D.
A Better Look at Consequences
It's very easy to see how quickly the situation on Hot Springs Island could go wrong in some places For example if the revolutionary Srok were to supplant the Night Axe leader Glavrok, the Night Axes will become far more aggressive, possibly suicidally so in their attacks on the Fuegonauts.
Likewise, if either Svarku's possession of an ancient and destructive artifact, or the diminishing returns on his crystal mining where to be revealed, the Ash Lords, an extraplanar cartel to whom he owes both his allegiance and a lot of money, they'd probably come down on him like a hammer. The spells concealing the island, if broken would have a similar effect: planar invasion.
It is a little harder, however, to see how the destruction of the gambling den at the Old Slave Quarters or freeing the Nereid leader Meltalia might immediately change things. What would have been very handy in many of the adventure sites would be to give us a short list of probable outcome to the players making the major choices that land in front of them as they explore.
The Lizard-Man Factions are Disconnected
Hot Springs Island occasionally experiences incursions from three different lizardfolk tribes who call neighboring Islands their homes. These factions are highly detailed, and have some interesting character to them. However, they don't have the same rivalries or interconnections as the other factions. Aside from possibly serving as mercenaries or unexpected allies, the lizard folk factions seem to be designed more to serve as a foil for the PCS than to be an extra pressure on the powder keg.
If we were to see another module set in a different part of the Swordfish Islands, I would hope that the lizardfolk factions would have a bigger role to play, and their tensions would be better explored.
The Martell Company Could Use a Bigger Role, as They are the Hook
We know that the Martell Company is a sleazy and money hungry organization much like the East India Trading Company, and that they have ties to a pirate citadel on a nearby Island. The long-term motives of the Martell Company, how much they know, and their relationship with the pirates are not well explored. After all, it is likely that the PCs start off working for them. It is strange that we don't know anything more about them.
And it is a shame, because the pirates and the Martell company are compelling elements. I would have liked to see them a little more thoroughly explored. If nothing else, it would have been nice to have a home base for the players could turn some of the treasure they have accrued on Hot Springs Island into fresh supplies.
At the end of the day, I honestly hope that we will see another swordfish Island supplement dealing with another part of the island chain where the lizardfolk, the Martell Company, and the pirates are giving more depth.
Lack of a Home Base
To expand on a previous point, a hex crawl works best when there's a home base for players to work from. A location where their treasure can be turned into training, equipment, and where things they have lost can be replaced.
Hot Springs Island does not offer such a thing. At least not at first. Theoretically, the player characters could get in good with the Night Axe ogres for the Fuegonauts, or perhaps learn of the gambling den in the Old Slave Quarters. But, the only way they gave access to these things is by getting to discover them, meet the factions, and decide to make an alliance.
On some levels I like this. it does mean that the player characters either have to plan to save resources, or make decisions and alliances with very limited knowledge. It prevents them from being too cautious once they get desperate for supplies.
On the other hand, it means that until the players have had a fair amount of time on the island, their resource going to dwindle rapidly. And they may have to beat a retreat long before they've gotten deep enough into the island and it's politics.
Some sort of temporary camp for trading post for the Martell Company as a starting point would be a very welcome option. Perhaps that is also incumbent on the Dungeon Master to add to the game.
Decidedly Not for Kids
This is not so much a growth pointe as it is a reminder, as people have been asking me when I review games to talk about what audiences it would be appropriate to.
Hot Springs Island can be very dark, especially on matters of sexuality.
- The Night Axe ogres kidnap women and to keep as slaves so that they can reproduce.
- There are themes of cannibalism, especially in the form of the albino ogre.
- There is implied sexual violence and overt sexual imagery throughout the elvish ruins.
- Savarku keeps sex slaves, and will pay to capture new ones.
- Almost the entire Nereid faction are escaped concubines.
- There's also trade in the elemental cores of imps and other elementals that has both overtones of slavery and genocide wrapped into it.
- Drug addiction and abuse are repeated themes.
These are not things you likely want in the kid's game. And I would state that Hot Springs Island is most definitely meant for a more mature gaming crowd.
Hot Springs Island is a beautiful fusion of the traditional and the innovative.
It takes the classic hex crawl structure, and embellishes it with locations that have sophisticated histories told in plants, magic items, and the descriptions of the ruins as much as they are told with NPCs.
It adds on to that hex crawl and innovative way of presenting random encounters and populating a hex that makes environment seem vibrant, mysterious, and keeps the location from ever feeling stale or repetitive.
It also throws up much of the traditional design of modules in favor of presenting the information in its own unique, streamlined way that makes the book stunningly easy to read.
It takes the notion of factions, and the rivalries between them and adds in a level of tension and danger that makes them come alive. There are no good guys or simple a alliances to make. Everyone you might affiliate yourself with has deep flaws, potentially dangerous desires, and will close the door to other groups.
Likewise, it uses a very simple format for presenting NPCs that makes them vibrant, challenging to deal with, and three-dimensional in a way that one rarely sees in a traditionally constructed module.
It offers a book for players to prime them on the setting in a manner that is elegant. It offers tantalizing glimpses but rarely gives away secrets. it is a resource that the player characters can use to great effect, or ignore at their peril. In any case, it stands to vastly increase the immersiveness of the setting as a handout.
It takes traditional D&D monsters and turns them on their head, changing their context, their motives, and adding new dimensions to them that make them feel fresh. It also adds in its own strange, often terrifying creatures to the mix.
And with it excessive, decadent feeling, it turns the economics of the game on its head. Without a home base on the island, the player characters are either have to make a devil's bargain, or the piles of gold that they might have started greedily stuffing into sacks will seem worthless compared to one more flask of lantern oil.
I have not seen a module quite like it. I would recommend it to any GM looking to up their game, whether that's by playing it, stealing from it, or just learning how to plan by emulating some of its more useful presentation features.