Review of Escape from Dino Island

The Powered by the Apocalypse game Escape from Dino Island is a not-so-subtle homage to stories like Jurassic Park and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, but also island mysteries like Lost or (naturally) The Island. It’s short, punchy, and sure to fulfill your gaming needs, as long as those needs include running screaming from a T-rex.

I believe this is my first review of a game from itch.io, which has been growing in leaps and bounds over the last few years. It’s full of so many games (and lots of fan supplements like I mentioned in another post) and I’m really just starting to delve in. Escape from Dino Island jumps out, however, as a fantastic game in a small package. Built with a group of 3-6 people for “a single, thrilling story over the course of 1-2 sessions lasting 3-4 hours each,” this is a short-fuse, big bang sort of game.

Maybe it’s because I’m looking for short games to run this summer, or because I just binged a few seasons of Camp Cretaceous (it’s great, watch the first two episodes and then be prepared for a roller coaster) but the idea of a PbtA story of surviving an island of Mesozoic animals is really amazing. This could cover a lot of scenarios for a lot of play groups and I’m excited to share it with you.

Here’s the Situation

A game of Escape from Dino Island begins with some collaborative worldbuilding. The big question is “You’ve come to the island together. Why?” and you get six prompts to jog your imagination (so you can also randomly roll) but plenty of room to just make up a scenario instead. Players choose their playbook (more on those below) and work on connecting their characters, then they get a rumor to keep to themselves and add some drama. There’s a table of these too at the end of the book with a number of excellent tools for the DM (the “Dino Master,” naturally).

To propel you quickly into the narrative, the first few steps in the familiar plot of Jurassic Park movies is handled in this stage as well. “The Arrival” walks you through the PCs meeting their first dinosaur and the twist where something goes wrong requiring the titular escape from the titular dino island.

Image © Sam Tung and Sam Roberts

That brings us to “Right Now.” After a very brief set up, the game actually starts when everything has gone off the rails and the characters are just realizing how badly. The group picks a location to start in, establishes a way to get off the island, decides on a problem with with getting there and a mystery that needs solving (collectively the “obstacles” of the game), and then the DM (presumably with a vicious grin) sets out a starting scene with danger and action to get things going.

I love this set up. In about 10-20 minutes (depending on how chatty your group is) you can have a cast of characters and an island full of detail while people are already starting to run and scream or scramble for a gate control button. All of what I’ve described so far is presented in a two-page spread but in those two pages is rocket fuel to propel your action forward with relentless momentum. As soon as I read this I was hooked on Escape from Dino Island.

Heroes and Playbooks

The process of creating characters in Escape from Dino Island is familiar to anyone who has played other games Powered by the Apocalypse. You pick a playbook that establishes an archetype and then flesh out details from there. No matter what playbook, the first step is to assign values to the game’s three stats: Fit, Clever, and Steady. To these you assign +2, +1, and -1 (or to make things more challenging you can use +0 instead of +1) and these are the numbers you’ll use for all your 2d6 rolls. Going back to your playbook, you add in your name and pronouns as well as some playbook-specific questions and prompts.

The core of any Powered by the Apocalypse game is the moves. Each move works the same (roll 2d6 and either succeed on 10 or higher, succeed with drawbacks on 7-9, or miss entirely on 6 or lower) and Escape from Dino Island differentiates between Peril Moves for “when you’re in trouble” and Safety Moves for “when you’ve got time to breathe.” You can take action together in both these categories and one player rolls for the group. However, for the Peril Moves that’s the character with the worst chance while for Safety Moves that’s the character with the best chance. Very excellent.

The seven Peril Moves, including exclamation points, are Run!, Hide!, and Fight! (all self-explanatory) as well as Just Do It! (doing something easy but under pressure), Hold On to Your Butt! (physically powering through a situation, also a great quote), and Look Over There! (distracting a dino to help a friend). The four Safety Moves are Lay of the Land (contributing to the island map), Instruct (guiding another Hero through something over a walkie, across a fence, etc), Scavenge (find something useful), and The Best-Laid Plans (you “take too long to discuss your course of action” and the DM does something instead).

Image © Sam Tung and Sam Roberts

A lot of these moves have the consequence of getting “injured.” You can get injured by messing up while running, holding onto your butt, and fighting and the type of injury is left to the narrative. You just mark an injury (like “broken rib,” “twisted ankle,” or “claw slash”) and you’re that much closer to getting munched. If you take an injury again then you use a secret twelfth move called Casualty. In a description dripping with drama you “tell someone your darkest secret or unfulfilled hope” and then choose to either do one last heroic act and die in a blaze of glory or by out of commission and unconscious but you might make it if the rest of the group can get you off the island. Either way, you make a new character to keep going.

So what are the playbooks out there? Escape from Dino Island has seven of those, all archetypes familiar to this sort of action movie. Each one comes with a special rule and three special moves when the group advances which happens when the story enters an endgame situation (more on that below). They also have stories to tell (part of some moves) and starting gear.

  • The Doctor is obviously a healer for the group and is the only one who can remove injuries from characters which can be a big advantage.
  • The Engineer is a mechanical character who can cobble together solutions with duct tape and gumption. Good for when the power’s out.
  • The Hunter is the character you want for staying a step ahead of the dinosaurs out in the jungle, with a tracking ability that can read signs left by the creatures.
  • The Kid is probably along for a fun trip that goes horribly wrong. They’re pretty much a liability, although their endgame special moves can help teamwork.
  • The Paleontologist knows all about dinosaurs and their Dinosaur Expert move can be very helpful, although sometimes science’s best guess is way off.
  • The Soldier is there for security (or to steal samples for a rival company or government) and they are the best fighters by far.
  • The Survivor is someone who’s been stuck on the island for a while (in the case of groups returning to a failed park or some Lost World) and they know the lay of the island well.

The Dino Master

Image © Sam Tung and Sam Roberts

The DM’s three agendas are as follows: make the island mysterious and full of dinos, challenge the Heroes to “become their true selves,” and see if the group makes it off the island. I do like the wording here and it’s worth calling out: the DM isn’t trying to “kill the Heroes” or “stop the Heroes,” they’re in it to see if they make it just like the other players. To that end there is a list of principles that are really excellent and helpful. It’s a long list but it includes “be a fan of the characters” (my gamemastering mantra), make sure the dinosaurs are animals and not monsters, make the island dangerous, and create choices between saving yourself and helping others. It’s a small thing but this list is so well written that I think might be the best part of a great game.

The DM has moves just like the players, usable when players miss (roll 6 or under) on a move, when they take too long, or when action dips and they need a kick in the pants. These moves include showing a dinosaur nearby, introducing an NPC, killing off an NPC, disorienting the group, or telling the players something they’ll need to give them an impetus. There are also dinosaur moves (general things like “trample” or “slash with claws”) and location moves which are tied to specific places. There are many different locations listed that can be placed on the island from the Lab and the Mainframe to the Cave and the Jungle. You can easily make up your own as well such as if you want a roller coaster or a five star restaurant as part of your island.

The first stage of the game centers on Mysteries of the Island which are prompts to set a tone for the start of things. Ideas for the origin of the dinosaurs (genetically engineered, leftovers trapped in time somehow, sophisticated robots, etc) and the purpose of the island complex (theme park, utopian colony, research lab, etc). There are clues provided for all of these and also for what went wrong to propel the plot along. These are all things the DM can figure out while players figure out their playbooks and then you can hit the ground running.

Eventually you’ll reach a point that feels like a climax at which point you start The Extinction Event where things get serious. Heroes advance (pick a new special move) and something horrible happens like a volcano exploding or a monsoon hitting. As long as the Heroes can make it through this (no mean feat) they can complete A Daring Escape and head for a finale. This should be epic and could involve a terrifying dinosaur returning one last time or some huge fissure erupting in the group. After this is the Denoument where Heroes either escape and reflect on their experience (with a move called Safe at Last) or, alive or dead, they’re left on the island and the player reflects on the positive impact they had on the world (with a move called Never to Return).

Image © Sam Tung and Sam Roberts

The Dino Master also has some creatures for the game including aquatic creatures (marine reptiles and carnivorous fish), ankylosaurids, ceratopsids, dromaeosaurids, hadrosaurids, ornithomimids, pachycephalosaurids, pterosaurs, sauropods, small theropods (like coelophysis and microraptor), stegosaurids, spinosaurids, therizinosaurs, theropods (bigger things like t-rex and allosaurus), and mysterious xenosaurs from strange scientific experiments. Honestly, there’s not a lot of information here and I wouldn’t expect someone to be able to run an island full of dinosaurs from this without extra research or a lot of skimping. That’s easy to fill in, though, so I guess it’s understandable that the game is focused elsewhere. There are some “dino gimmicks” that are cool to randomize things a little bit and get across how little we know about dinosaurs and also the effects of genetic manipulation or isolation. If brachiosaurus had bright colors, a deafening shriek, or was extremely territorial then fossils might not capture it and even an expert paleontologist could be caught off-guard.

Conclusion

This game is a perfect example of a focused RPG. It’s designed to have games that take place on an island full of dinosaurs right after something terrible happens. The story follows a group of humans trying to escape said island. There’s definite leeway within that framework but Escape from Dino Island isn’t written for other sorts of games. If you want the island to be filled with other stuff, or you want the dinos to be somewhere other than an island, or you want some players to play dinosaurs instead of humans… All of that is going to require some major rewriting.

And that’s absolutely fine. For those dino-fleeing island stories, Escape from Dino Island is phenomenal. It’s sleek and powerful with lots of rules to create stories in the style of Jurassic Park and not much external to worry about getting in the way. There are lots of games that you could use to tell a story in this genre (I had a system roundtable about it a while ago) and you could tell an excellent story that captures the feel of an island full of dinosaurs and disaster. With Escape from Dino Island you’d have to try hard not to tell this sort of story and have it be totally epic. It’s the perfect game for this sort of adventure and I highly recommend it to anyone out there looking for an action packed few sessions.

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