X1: The Isle of Dread (1981)

The Isle of Dread, by Zeb Cook and Tom Moldvay, was my first module, thanks to its inclusion in the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules box set (I had the blue box, thus I favor the orange X1). A lot of my early fascination with D&D was reinforced by the blank map on the inside cover. A blank map is a powerful thing, maybe the perfect symbol of mystery and exploration, and the adventure that follows those things.

The module itself is interesting in its construction, in that it focuses on developing a large wilderness for players to explore as they wish, rather than being a linear dungeon. There are indigenous inhabitants, strange creatures and lots and lots of dinosaurs (King Kong and Harryhausen movies are a pretty obvious inspiration here). Conflict comes in the form of an ancient and hidden evil that harasses all the inhabitants of the island – as the players explore, they find more evidence of a nefarious force that needs to be stopped. It all comes together organically, with players taking the lead instead of the DM tugging their leashes.

There’s probably an argument that the modern open world approach to videogames traces some of its DNA back to the Isle of Dread, as well as Chaosium’s similarly structured Griffin Mountain, also published in 1981, for RuneQuest (the first Ultima game also came out in ’81 – big year for the open world!).

Bonus fact: The first printing of Isle of Dread included art by one Bill Willingham, who would go on to write the comic Fables, while the second printing was entirely illustrated by Tim Truman (dig that hydra!), who would later reimagine the comic book gunslinger Jonah Hex with Joe R. Lansdale and write a ton of Conan comics for Dark Horse.

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