The open ocean is home to many dangers, and adventurers often find themselves desperately seeking refuge on land. But many islands hold their own mysterious hazards and secrets, and the party is now headed right for them.
Following on from our Ocean Encounters d20 Chart and the release of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, we are expanding the oceans and islands with a set of island encounters. Each encounter comes with a detailed explanation and setup, as well as basic instructions on how to craft and run them. They are individually designed to be unique, memorable, and to give you the freedom to change it while also being easy to plan.
1 – A tiny island sits in the ocean, decorated with only a trapdoor. Beneath the trapdoor is a network of tunnels and chambers, far larger than should be possible.
In the open ocean is a small island, with only a collection of palms and shrubs. A ship is anchored nearby and the rowboat indicates the presence of an unseen shore crew. The party follows the tracks from the boat, leading to a patch of underbrush covering a wooden trapdoor. Opening the hatch reveals a series of stone tunnels leading in a number of directions, linking various chambers. The walls below the trapdoor are covered in scrawled warnings and the adventurers can hear sounds of movement within.
To start off our island encounters, we have one with a high ceiling for creative freedom. Deciding the purpose of the area and why it exists is the first step. Perhaps it is the home to a hermit wizard, similar to our ocean tower encounter. Or maybe it’s a long lost temple of ocean monks, dedicated to worshipping their ancient god. Having the space be abandoned allows you to contain the encounter as a one-off ‘side-quest’. You can alternatively have it link into the larger story or lore of your world, with ancient murals and texts, or a living resident. The tunnels are a black canvas for whatever purpose you choose.
The tunnels can also be as expansive as you choose. They may only contain the necessary amenities if they are the hideout of a single person or group, but can also spread out into a full dungeon. An entire organization may have once called it home. Try to make the magic of the encounter obvious in its layout. By having the vertical levels form an inverted pyramid, your players should realize that the interior is larger than the island’s size should allow. This helps to organically inform them of its nature and also serves to build tension through mystery. It is also important to again explain why it is this way. Perhaps the dungeon exists in a demiplane, created as a prison for a sea monster whose children or worshippers now fill the halls. The binding wards in the lower levels are now failing, threatening to release the beast below.
Having a previous adventuring crew be there is entirely optional but helps with building the atmosphere of the encounter. You can have them alive and interacting with the possible hermit to help demonstrate his or her personality, which should be the heart of that encounter. They may, conversely, have fallen prey to traps or monsters. This works for either of our examples, as the hermit may have set traps in a paranoid frenzy or to protect their secrets. Finding the bodies allows players to get an idea of what may have killed the men, warning them of future traps or whatever might roam the halls. You might also choose to have some survive, providing the party with potential allies, information, or competition.
2 – Rocks and sand have formed an island on the back of an enormous creature. It is peaceful but is drifting closer toward a settlement that is known for poachers.
A gargantuan beast has lived in the oceans for centuries, gathering enough land on its back to form a wandering island. The party had heard word of it in various tales but now finds themselves alongside it. It swims peacefully and pays no mind to their presence, but does not realize that it is headed for danger. A notorious poaching town lies ahead of it, and the party knows that their paths crossing could spell disaster.
Different forms of living islands exist in numerous other fictions, and the backs of enormous sealife are perhaps the most common. You are more than welcome to simply have it be something for the party to observe as they travel, to inspire wonder in them. This wonder is what you can use to instill danger in the encounter, this time for the beast rather than the characters. The first step of this is to have them be aware of both sides. Encountering the beast should be accompanied by the realization of what it is headed for. This can be accomplished either by having them previously encounter poachers, or simply having crew point it out. Have the beast be distinctly peaceful, even friendly, to ensure that your players actually want to help it.
You need to be ready for whatever the party might plan or to provide them options in the case of them struggling. Sailing alongside its head and speaking to it is a simple answer, so you may wish to place an additional barrier to doing so. Its head might of course just be underwater, or the waves caused by its movement might make it too dangerous to take a boat near. The intelligence of the beast may require magical communication. It may likewise lack the intelligence for communication at all, thus requiring the party to force it onto a different course. Try to prepare for what your specific players might come up with while providing them with resources they may need. Above all, be ready to improvise.
Exactly what the animal is and what form the island takes is your other consideration. The obvious choice is a turtle, but other beasts such as sharks or other fish can also work. Just be sure to avoid player phobias, to prevent them from siding with the poachers. An interesting idea for taking some pressure off of the players is to put a settlement on the island. This does raise the stakes above the animal’s life, as the settlement would be destroyed with its death. However, the residents can also provide information or reward for helping them. But be sure to have an explanation for why they cannot direct the creature themselves. Perhaps their shaman has recently died without fully training his or her apprentice, and a ritual is required for speaking to the beast?
3 – An island of solid ice and stone sits in the ocean, housing an ancient ice temple. It houses an artifact that created the island to protect itself.
A collection of ice, formed in the shape of an island, floats impossibly in tropical waters. It chills the air for a mile around it and is loosely dotted with the ships of other, less successful explorers. The party finds a temple, formed of the same ice, toward the center of the island. An ancient artifact lies in its deepest halls, freezing the terrain around it and giving life to ice creatures as a defense mechanism. If the party does not find the source, someone much more dangerous might.
When designing an island encounter, or any other, you shouldn’t let yourself be restricted to what is normal for the setting. An extraordinary occurrence acts as an effective lure to draw players in. Its significance does, however, lend itself more to a directed encounter than random happenstance. Other people will have noticed, after all. The wrecked ships help signal this, while also acting as a warning for the party to tread carefully. You may wish to have this encounter come from some form of contract, given by an organization or treasure hunters looking for protection. Have people in the area speak about it as a legend; something that draws adventurers to the area, despite them all failing.
The layout of the temple should be informed by the artifact itself. It is obviously ice-themed but could take the form of a weapon, spell, or enchanted item. How powerful the item is should dictate the difficulty reaching it, meaning it may become a location your party must return to later, with a better plan. If you would rather it be a one-and-done encounter at a lower level, you can tone it down. Just make sure to give a reason for an entire island of protection. The item may be a part of something greater, such as a key. Ensure that your party is still rewarded for this encounter with other treasures, and lay clues that there is more to the item than is immediately clear. This can also help direct them to other encounters, such as the lava temple of encounter 7.
Giving the party competition, like in the first encounter, allows you to add another layer to the adventure. It can be as simple as other adventurers racing them to the treasure, or the aforementioned treasure-seekers hiring the players for muscle. Allies would be a helpful boon at the cost of some of the reward, but can they be trusted? Treasure hunters are renowned for being selfish and cutthroat, meaning the final fight in the bowels of the temple may instead be a Mexican standoff between former companions.
4 – A guild of affluent mages has enchanted an island to strip visitors of their resources and gear, which is teleported to a vault. The mages watch on, observing how adventurers react and survive.
The illusion of a lively, inviting tower covers the shore of a lone island. Stepping onto the sands triggers a magical trap, dispelling the illusion and teleporting the visitors’ worldly belongings to a vault in the island’s center. They are granted a map, explaining how to reclaim what they lost. A tower of rich, snobbish wizards sits atop the mountain peaks, hidden by a secondary illusion. Its current inhabitants watch the party, viewing and studying how they deal with the challenge.
It’s Survivor, set on Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. The premise is simple but provides a unique experience and test of player resourcefulness. Do they rely too much on magical items? Has it been entire levels since they needed to worry about foraging food? Strip it all away. They are still able to get it all back, of course, but bringing them back to basics can rejuvenate some of the intrinsic fun of D&D: roleplaying basic survival factors. Keep in mind your players’ abilities though, as casters will be stripped of their component pouches, focuses, and spellbooks. For warlocks or eldritch knights, consider placing the vault in an enchanted demiplane, if you don’t want them summoning their weapon back. It might seem cheap, so I would only advise it if the weapon might trivialize large portions of the encounter.
Your players will be required to improvise weapons and tools to survive whatever dangers you place. Without powerful spells, weapons, and armor, don’t have them face anything too monstrous. The premise of the encounter, unfortunately, means that a character death might feel undeserved, so it’s best to avoid it. Players will already be contending with general survival against the elements and natural hazards, so they will have plenty to think about and roll for. You can also add an extra layer by providing each character with their own map, captioned with a message: the first to reach the vault will receive a bonus reward.
The wizards and their tower should be included as the party’s final goal. A previous ‘contestant’ may have left a message at the vault, exposing the truth of the island. The wizards are clearly the villains of the encounter, but that doesn’t mean you have to make them vindictive or evil. You can embrace the humor and references of the encounter by playing them as a reality TV audience, only with far too much gold and magic for their own good. Confronting them could be hilariously awkward, as they did not expect to be called out on their actions. The party would be in control of the conversation, despite the wizards’ apparent power. They can also be mad scientist-esque researchers drunk on power if you’d rather include more conflict or potential for a boss fight.
5 – The party finds themselves repeatedly coming across the same island, despite no issue with navigation. They do not realize that the island is following them.
A mysterious, seemingly uninhabited island appears on the horizon. It holds no points of interest, so the party passes it by without a second thought. It appears again the next day. And the next. The island begins to appear in front of them the moment it falls out of sight, following them for as long as they are in open waters. All navigation checks suggest they are still on course and moving. They have not yet discovered that the island is sentient and attempting to communicate.
This harmless, lighthearted sidetrack is our island encounter take on Doom Patrol’s Danny the Street. An enchanted, living island attempts to interact with the players by following their ship as it travels. It can form written words through plant formations or writing left behind on its beaches by small waves. Your players might initially assume that they are from a wizard or invisible force, so be prepared to with clues to nudge them toward the truth. This does require them to stop and interact, so perhaps have the island attempt to block their path once they avoid it enough times. It will likely not appear too close to civilization, as an act of self-preservation.
Your second port of call after initiating the encounter is to decide the island’s personality and goal. The source material grants us one option, by having the island (and possibly a town of residents) hunted by a shadowy organization. They may be seeking the source of the island’s animation or even one of the people living on it. ‘Danny the island’ would most likely be beneficent in this case, and the inclusion of residents allows you to better demonstrate the personality through them. Another option is to make it entirely uninhabited, and simply lonely. Change the encounter to be a conversation between the players and a land mass. They won’t soon forget that.
Looking for something wholly more sinister? Fill the land with an eclectic collection of people, but adjust the sanity of the island itself. This version may have lured people to its shores over centuries, imprisoning them in a timeless existence. The magic prevents them from leaving or aging, and now the party is being targeted. The island may be malicious, feeding on the energy or emotion of the residents. Alternatively, it may genuinely believe it is protecting them and consider them its friends. The party would then be tasked with finding the source of the magic before it drains their will. Succeeding allows them to leave and residents to die (happily), and perhaps poses them the question of whether to ‘kill’ the misguided sentience.
6 – Soldiers have been ambushed on a nearby beach, and are being cornered on shore. The party is nearby and may be their only hope.
A diminished squad of soldiers can be seen on the nearby shore as the party’s ship passes by. They are locked in combat, and the several bodies at their feet suggest they are losing. They have nowhere to run, and their opponents are pushing them against the coastal rocks. If the party does not intervene, the soldiers will die. But is it worth the risk?
Many of our island encounters are strictly defined in their progression, but this acts as a branching point for many different options. Your party’s actions will likely determine how extensive the encounter is, as it could be as short as them ignoring the scuffle. In the more likely case of them helping out, you will need to determine what it is that they were doing when they were ambushed. Their purpose will influence their opponent. It could range from simply being wild animals to an enemy faction attempting to stop them. The friendly faction can likewise differ from being soldiers. Adjust both sides to fit the story you want to tell.
Heroic, good-aligned characters will often lend further help to the survivors. You can add depth to the encounter by having a smaller number of named characters, each with personal depth. This helps make them appear more important, and increases the likelihood of them being remembered down the road. Their response to the party will depend on their objective, with the shortest path being a grateful parting of ways. The other options fall under two broad categories: them leaving with the party, and the party joining their cause. Having them sacrifice their goal for the time being and join the party, likely due to injuries, gives even more time for friendly interaction. Make them temporary residents of the ship, and let the players build a rapport.
You can continue the encounter significantly by instead having the party join them. This lets you direct your players along a set path for a time, while also providing interesting companions for quiet moments. The direction you take is entirely open-ended and can be as long as you wish. Perhaps their goal is one of our other encounters, such as the Ice Temple of encounter 3? If you plan to roll randomly on our list, I find it interesting to have some encounters act as modifiers to others. The survivors’ goal might be chosen by the next encounter roll, providing the party with assistance in whatever they face next.
7 – The island volcano some miles off the coast has been dormant for centuries, but now stirs with tremors. An eruption threatens nearby settlements and a secret within could spell disaster for many more.
The city’s shores are rocked by tremors and black smoke billows from the old mountain’s caldera. The volcano has sat dormant for as long as anyone can remember, but history warns the leaders that an eruption could destroy them all. Whatever is causing the disruption must be investigated and stopped, and the players might be the only chance they have. Time is running out before the fire demon rises and history repeats.
This encounter lends itself well to a longer delve into a dangerous adventure, though it doesn’t have to. Your chosen cause for the eruption will determine the basis of the encounter. You are free to make it a natural occurrence, though providing an antagonist and secrets to discover helps keep players engaged. A fire cult, believed to have died out, could be reigniting the volcano or weakening wards that kept it dormant. Or perhaps they seek to raise their god, a fire giant trapped in the lava. Adding a human component also allows you to design a ruined dungeon, rather than the characters trekking through caves. Knowledge and history can be discovered, and conversation becomes a viable solution.
A volcano is a sizeable threat, and as such, you should plan for solutions. Running with the cultist concept allows a straightforward solution of either stopping the ritual or killing the result of it, but you are free to add even more layers. The giant’s rising may set off the eruption, requiring players to recast the wards or rush to evacuate the city if they fail. Your players may have already come across Encounter 3, and be in possession of a powerful ice artifact to combat it. If you don’t foresee them finding their own solution, have them receive pertinent information from the town’s leader or a group sent from the town to help. They could also find answers through broken murals within the ruin, though this does require having a player you know will check them.
Another option for an antagonist is one that I have run in my own micro-campaign: Kazarash, devil prince of the fire plane. Your description of him can change, or you can take aspects of my example for your own version. Kazarash was an opportunistic devil who had set up shop in a volcano overlooking a secluded town. His volcano, rather than holding lava, was filled with a rift between the material plane and the fire plane. He held back the monsters that may come through, in exchange for regular compensation from the town. He was an honorable businessman, but the cost of breaking the deal with him put the players in a sensitive position. His price for keeping them safe was ownership of the residents’ souls upon their deaths.
We have all the volcano and lava maps you could ever need…
8 – Pirates have constructed their hideout in an island cove. The party sails nearby, and catch sight of a rowboat taking prisoners into the cave.
The party sail past an enclosed bay, within which they spot rowboats disappearing into a cave. Further inspection reveals a camp above and clusters of bound hostages on the boats. The group remembers the sight of a damaged, largely abandoned merchant ship that they had passed earlier in the day. The cove is hidden enough that others are unlikely to find it, but the party has no idea what lies within. Will they choose to help?
Not every encounter has to have a trick or detailed gimmick. The purpose of this island encounter is to first give your players a moral decision and then to test their ability to plan. They have no guarantee of reward from helping, though they might assume that pirates would have something of value. If they decide to help, the unknown of the cave provides the next challenge. Not knowing what is inside means they will need to be careful and may favor infiltration. You can help facilitate this by occupying the small campsite with as many pirates as there are party members. This provides them with disguises and gives them an idea of the faction they are up against, as well as someone to interrogate. Perhaps the lookouts know of a secret entrance.
The design of the hideout from that point can be as simple or complex as you wish. Try to incorporate the necessary rooms and chambers, such as sleeping quarters, a space to cook and eat, and of course wherever they keep prisoners. Add some flavor with a room for the captain, a treasury, and even a shrine to their chosen ocean god. The only characters you need to worry about fleshing out are the captain and perhaps a lieutenant or two. Give them some distinct traits and quirks, such as storm magic or Genasi heritage. You are otherwise free to improvise other details and characters as they are needed.
There are many ways you can add an extra layer to the encounter if you wish. The players might stumble upon a potential ally who is also preparing to sneak in but whose plan conflicts with the party’s. Reaching the prisoners might reveal that they are actually spies, hiding as hostages in order to learn about the pirate organization. The party’s assistance may have jeopardized their plan. The pirates themselves may only be one outpost and fall under a greater Pirate King. The possibilities are endless, but don’t feel like you need to use one. Simplicity can work just as well.
9 – Long ago, a necromantic ritual went horribly wrong. The island it was cast on has become cursed with death, which now spreads into the ocean around it.
An unassuming island was once home to a sect of necromancers. The location granted them secrecy in experimenting and performing their rituals, which left a permanent scar on the land. Necromantic energy now engulfs the island and is spreading outwards. Surrounding ocean life is rotting but is maintained in a vicious undeath. The only way to stop the corruption from growing endlessly is to reach the source and put an end to it.
This encounter is simpler than many of our others and doesn’t require a specific antagonist. You are giving the players a basic objective and letting them figure out how to accomplish it. This shifts the focus from planning a character or group to the environment itself. It should show the effects of who the necromancers were. What does an island of necromantic experiments look like a hundred years later? Provide landmarks for the players to find, such as ritual sites, laboratories, or even camps of undying test subjects. The choice for how empty the island is is up to you, though enough should be included to explain why the corruption exists and spreads.
As with many of our island encounters, the greatest hurdle is having your players not simply avoid it. An island sitting in the middle of the ocean, killing everything around it, is far from inviting. Providing allies for the party to help or characters to hire them is an option we have mentioned in other encounters. This works well if the players plan to stop in a settlement being threatened. It cannot be overstated that you should not overuse this. Your players will notice. An alternative, in this case, is placing something the players need for another task on the island. You could also have them hailed down by one of the undead who still retains their humanity. After centuries, they just want to be free.
Designing a solution to this encounter is relatively simple. Finding clues and notes on their journey toward the center could slowly explain what it is and how to stop it. It could also be as straightforward as breaking a ritual circle. Incorporating character abilities, especially for paladins or clerics, gives them a moment to shine in roleplay. You can always add a necromancer or lich at the final location if you’d prefer combat or the barbarian is getting bored. But remember that the journey to that point can be the focus while still having it be satisfying.
10 – An arrogant explorer has shipwrecked on an island he believes holds a forgotten temple. He calls for help from the shore but seems much more interested in hiring the party to help.
Lord Bernard Islington-Wellerby is a man of distinction and renown. It is unfortunate that their ship was lost, but he remains singularly focused on his goal. He must reach the temple and uncover its riches. Fortunately, his men spotted a ship from their shore camp and managed to call for help. The adventurers that responded will be perfect for navigating the temple, and their ship is an ideal carriage back to civilization.
The structure of this encounter allows the use of a cliche setting to focus on character interaction. The temple and surrounding jungle should be littered with traps and trials to keep the party on their toes. Have fun with the design and use every trope you can think of from Indiana Jones, Uncharted, etc. The party has a simple goal and we intentionally avoid the tricks and layers of our other island encounters. The purpose of the temple here is to provide opportunities for rolls, puzzles, and occasional combat. It also allows you to easily reward the party in the form of gold and artifacts.
The real quality of the encounter comes from Bernard and his men. This is also where you get to have the most fun. Bernard should be played as the most arrogant, self-righteous nobleman you can imagine. He can do no wrong in his own eyes, and everyone else is far less capable and knowledgeable despite any evidence to the contrary. And his men should be the people that have had to put up with him for months for the sake of a payday. Just don’t clutter the scene with too many of them. It’s better to have several distinct characters than a colony of nameless faces. Bernard may have also hired local guides despite a glaring language barrier. This option works best for a party with access to Comprehend Languages or any similar utility.
Bernard paying the party is the final note. He will haggle and argue to lower the cost, shifting blame and quoting compensation for any loss he has suffered. His deal will also involve only paying them upon being delivered to safety on their ship, to avoid awkward conversations. Ultimately, he will do everything he can to receive sole recognition of discovering the temple.
That’s all for the first half of our island encounters. Make sure to also have a look at Part 2 and our d20 Chart. We would love to hear any comments or opinions you have. Be sure to share any stories if you use them in your own campaigns!
Until then, why not come ashore and take a look at the other maps and assets we have to offer, or have a look at our previous d20 Chart for Ocean Encounters.