A lot of people are probably running (or have recently run) the Isle of Dread adventure that comes with the last 5e playtest packet. The module encourages you to start in media res, cast away on the Isle with a few days of food, possibly after an encounter with pirates. As a DM, I can’t bear to defeat the PCs in an off-screen cutscene. I wrote an introductory mini-adventure to get the PCs to the island, with a slight chance of avoiding castaway status. In case it might be useful to you, here it is.
The module says that the PCs have found a notebook which led them to the island. However, it provides little information about the contents of the notebook. There are a few paragraphs of exposition about the fact that there is a friendly native village and dinosaurs. Furthermore, “this log can also contain rumors and details you need to give the players to influence the characters’ decision about how to explore the island.” I wrote out some journal excerpts and gave them to the players. (I decided that one of the PCs had inherited the journal from Marcus Silverhand, an Indiana Jones-like Fourth Edition character belonging to the same player.)
Here was the handout I provided:
You are a great great grandchild of Marcus Silverhand and the inheritor of Silverhand Manor. Among Marcus’s 100-year-old notebooks: one containing references to the legendary Isle of Dread. Marcus was shipwrecked on the way home from that expedition, and his journal is nearly ruined, but his sketch of the island’s coast is in good shape. The other thing Marcus saved was a giant egg, which hatched into Matthew, the loveable bronto which guarded Silverhand Manor for more than 100 years. It died when you were small.
Here are the legible passages from the notebook:
…May 3: Our ship is at Port Lily, outfitted with three months of provisions, and all crew is aboard. We set sail tomorrow!
May 4: As we left the shipping lanes behind us, we spotted a mysterious gray sail following us. Belloq again?
May 24: Land ho! The island is just where I knew it would be! We’ll follow the coastline and survey the coast.
May 27: The island is big – 200 miles long perhaps. We’ve reached the southern harbor. Sketch of the coastline: [map] There’s a friendly village by a ziggurat. They’re open to trade. We’ve traded our cargo for 5 giant emeralds. Each is engraved with a Supernal rune I’ve never seen before. The village is cut off from the island by a giant wall, 50 feet high. What’s it keeping out?
May 28: There are indeed Supernal runes on the ziggurat. First rune on the south side is “Stone”, I don’t recognize the other two. The natives tell me that there are many more on the ruins in the interior. Apparently the “City of the Gods” is at the center of the island and contains many treasures. However the villagers never travel very far beyond their great wall. They send their zombies…
…made camp at the ruined temple.
June 12: Awoke to find Belloq and his thugs smirking at us, swords …
five emeralds. The stones were worth 1000 GP each, but the loss …
Museum is incalculable. They headed west. I don’t know if they …
sheer cliffside, but we’ll follow…
…June 15: Bordag says that we’ve stumbled over a gold vein. If …
mining equipment we’d be able to make a fortune. No sign of…
…The natives say that a stranger swam to the taboo island. Belloq…
…June 25: Hold filled with treasure, and my new lightning whip on my belt. Set sail for home. Discovered Belloq’s ship in a cove. Unfortunately he and his gang were not aboard. We burned the ship to the waterline. He may still have the emeralds but I don’t know how he’ll get them home!
June 26: A dragon has been sighted over the island, heading for our ship. If it’s hungry, we’ll give it a fight.
Getting to the island
We had a pretty big D&D group, half of which came with already-made characters and half of which would be making their characters at the session. I decided to “reward” the more-prepared characters by giving them some logistics choices which would influence their chance of reaching the island with useful gear. I brought three constructible pirate ship minis from the Wizkids Pirates of the Spanish Main game. The players would be able to hire one of the ships. Here’s the handout I prepared:
You’ve put together a company to explore the island. You’ll share alike in its profit.
You’re at Port Lily, the southernmost port in the Misty Isles. You have enough money to hire and provision a merchant ship for three months (1000 GP). You could also get a better ship, but you’d have to take loans from the Bank of Tiamat (you’re pre-approved for up to 10,000 GP, 10% interest quarterly).
1,000 GP: A merchant cog, the Butter Churn. A pretty average merchant ship. Master Rudrick and 10 crew.
2,000 GP: A blockade-runner caravel, the Gull. Can outrun anything in the navies of the Free Coast. Captain Draco T. Farnsworth and 20 crew.
5,000 GP: A warship, the Lily Queen. A galley rowed by devils and crewed by the men who captured them from hell. Captain Jill Smith, 30 fighters, 30 hellish rowers.
Each ship has room for 20 extra people. Besides yourselves, the following are available for hire:
Each extra crewman, and their supplies for 3 months, take 1 slot of room.
-Each 2-person ballista crew: counts as 5 people. Costs 125.
-Each 3-person mining crew: counts as 4 people. Costs 100.
-Each soldier: counts as 1. Costs 25.
-6 months of stores for 1 person – counts as 1. Costs 25.
The PCs mulled over that for a while and ended up taking a small loan, hiring the Gull, and equipping it with extra provisions and soldiers. Then they headed to the island. Here’s what I prepared for the journey:
The journey to the island
Whichever ship you take, the journey to the island will trigger 2 random encounter checks.
RANDOM ENCOUNTER CHECK 1 (after 2 weeks)
Have the players roll a d6, telling them not to roll a 6. On a 1-5, nothing happens. On a 6, roll again on the following table:
1 green dragon: from area 22 in the adventure, demanding either 5000 silver pieces or 1000 GP (it prefers SP for some reason) or it will attack the ship.
2 pirate attack: only a danger to the Butter Churn: the Gull can outrun it and the Lily will signal it to leave.
3 storm: the captain will give the PCs 3 tasks to help out (DC 10 for Lily and Gull, 15 for Butter Churn): climb up and cut a sail free (Dex), hold the wheel steady (Str), and pump water to keep the ship from sinking (Con). Each character can lead a task, and each leader can get aid from one other character. 1 failure: the ship will be delayed for 1 week. 2+ failures: the ship is destroyed, the PCs and 1d6 sailors escape on a raft with 10 days of food. They land on the island in 5 days.
4 wreck: at night, the ship runs aground on a hidden shoal. It takes 6 hours to launch boats and build rafts before it sinks. If the ship is the Lily: Jill and the crew will get in the lifeboats. The players will not be allowed on without a fight. The PCs must build rafts (1 per hour) and the tiefling rowers will be allowed to drown unless the PCs rescue them.
5 bull whales: Aggressive horned whales (stolen from Titan: the Fighting Fantasy World) who can be heard bellowing before they attack. Unless the PCs can kill the charging whales in one turn, the ships have a 50% chance to escape (25% on the Butter Churn). Failure: The ship is wrecked, as 4 above.
6 sirens: Enticed by the beautiful music, the crew jumps overboard, and the PCs must make saving throws to avoid doing the same. If all the PCs fail, they’ll be enslaved by the sirens for an adventure or two. Otherwise, the PCs must figure out how to sail the empty vessel (lots of skill checks, and a good chance to get lost or run aground on the way to the Isle of Dread).
RANDOM ENCOUNTER CHECK 2 (1 day before landing)
In the second encounter, the ship is sure to be greeted by either the pirates or the island’s green dragon, both of which are patrolling the seas. The results of encounters are different for the three ships. Roll 1d6:
1-3: attacked by pirates, who easily board the ship
4-6: attacked by dragon, who demands tribute as above
1-3: pursued by pirates (the Gull can outrun them easily unless they have been joined by the Lily Queen)
4-6: attacked by dragon, as above. Cannot be outrun.
1-3: no encounter (pirates will not bother the Lily Queen).
4-6: Green dragon will shake down the PCs as above. Jill has an understanding with the dragon and will insist the PCs pay but she knows that she and her ship are safe from the dragon. If the PCs fight, the crew will attack the PCs nonlethally “to save the ship.” In any case, if the PCs have discovered that the rowers are tieflings, Jill will have the PCs marooned on a random part of the Isle of Fear in a boat with 5 days of food, to preserve her secret. “I promised to see you to the island safely so I won’t kill you now.”
My players, who hired the Gull, had no trouble getting to the Island of Fear. They met the green dragon and sent it fleeing back to the island after a few rounds of missile fire and a critical hit with the Gull’s ballista. Now they’re ranging over the island looking to finish the job.
My players got to the Isle of Fear with an intact ship, so they have more supplies than the adventure expects them to, but I think that’s a fair reward for good play and good luck. You can steal this adventure intro if you want to give your players the same chance.