Saturday, September 6, 2014

Webs of Intrigue

A while back Zak noted that snakes are books (well duh what else would they be?). That and a chance remark on someone's Facebook profile made me realize something else, though.

Spiders Keep Secrets.
Jumping Spider
Photo by Opo Terser via

No, I know; you thought "web of intrigue" was just a neat catchphrase. But every time a secret is born, a spider emerges from the shadows. It bears the secret, holds on to it, nurtures it and draws strength from it.

When a spider is killed, the secret is lost. If it is destroyed in a single strike, someone, somewhere, gains the knowledge of the secret that it bore. If it is consumed, the being that consumed it will learn its secret. Portions of a dead spider's secret may be recovered and extracted from the pieces of spider that are not obliterated; a shoe striking a small house spider is likely to wipe out most of the secret - if one is lucky, the words "Fahd, the bak-" might be extracted from the legs that were not crushed. On the other hand, giant spiders slain by murderous rovers armed with pointed, and not crushing, weapons might be able to recover more details. And it is often said that the scope of the spider matches the scope of the secret...

The nature of the spider is rumored to have some relation to the type of secret that it bears. Jumping spiders bear secrets of individuals, while those that spin webs bear secrets that touch upon multiple parties. Sages have debated the significance of the number of strands or the size of the web, but no conclusions have been reached.
"Queen of the Demonweb Pits," Justin Gerard

This entire discussion has obvious relevance for some traditional D&D groups, particularly those that might, for instance, have societies based around spiders and place a high premium upon noble intrigues.

In such societies it is considered taboo to harm a spider. Rather than a piece of vanity on the part of a Spider Goddess, however, this is practical advice in the great game of the noble houses. Destroying a spider means that the secret is lost; seducing a spider means that you might be able to convince it to give up its secret. Of course, you'd have to give it a new one in exchange - namely, another spider for it to devour. Gifts of spiders between noble houses are not uncommon - in some cases, they are the secrets of others, traded back and forth, while in others they are secrets of one house being given as a sign of good faith.

Also, given both this post and Zak's post linked above, the Spider-tailed Adder, whose tail mimics the motion of a spider to attract prey, raises some tantalizing issues... (h/t to Jensen for this one)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Stories of the Body: Nomad Tattoos

Several nomad groups, including the Bani Juzayy, customarily tattoo female members of their tribes. To some degree, the practice is a beautification ritual, it can also bind magical forces into the very flesh and blood of these women. When Bani Juzayy are tattooed, the tattoos are generally applied by a wandering member of the Bani Juzayy, the adasiya, who is no longer a member of any one tribe of the Juzayy, but helps to tie the people together. Bani Juzayy tattoos are usually blue, tinted by kohl and special scrubland flowers.

Starting PCs can have tattoos if they have the Nomad background. When generating the character, roll a save vs. spell. If successful, the tattoos contain a magic power (detailed below. If unsuccessful, the tattoos are simply tattoos.

Amazigh woman, via fyeahnorthafricanwomen
1-2 Face
3-4 Hand
5 Arm
6 Leg

Type of Tattoo
1-2 Health and Fertility
3 Healing of Injuries
4 Increased Fortitude
5 Increased Strength
6 Warding against Jinn

Along with dots, lozenges, and teardrops, tattoos often incorporate one or more of the following symbols. Only one "special effect" can be present, though - any further supernatural effects from tattoos that might exist take place on a far lower level than is modeled in game rules.

Health and Fertility 
Examples: Tree (strength), star, gazelle
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she gains Advantage on efforts to resist disease, or attempts to create or design something. (The tattoo also has a positive effect on individual fertility, but including mechanics for that seems like a terrible idea so let's pass on that.)

Healing of Injuries
Examples: Snake (magic), Teardrop, Wheel
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she regains an extra hit point when resting.

The Free Man symbol. Via Essaouira.
Increased Fortitude
Examples: Burnus, The Free Man, Stirrups
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Constitution check on 4d6. If she passes, she gains immunity to environmental distress rolls.

Increased Strength
Examples: Chain, Light, Arrowhead (lightning, energy)
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Strength check on 5d6. If she passes, she gains Advantage on all Strength checks for the remainder of the month.

Warding Against Jinn
Examples: Comb (unity), Shears (reaving, separation), Khamsa, Fire
Effect: Bearer is immune to the effects of the Evil Eye. Upon encountering jinn, the bearer may make a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she has the effects of a protection from evil spell with regards to the jinn in question - not relating to any other beings. The effects of this protection only last until the end of the encounter with the jinn in question.

It is rumored that many of the traditional symbols used in tattooing represent components of a legend, prophecy, or other form of communication. Some Imperial commentators have suggested that the tattoos indicate crucial knowledge that a given tribe has sworn to preserve, while others have posited that the tattoos serve a function of preserving the stability and reality of the world around the tribes. The commentators have, however, failed to secure any definitive comments from those tattooed themselves.

Tattoos and Gender
Facial tattoos are generally linked with femininity among nomad groups that engage in the practice (which is why this post refers to the bearers as female). An individual's decision to avoid tattooing could be considered an indication of eschewing femininity or expressing some masculine identification, while the reverse might indicate eschewing masculinity or expressing some feminine identification. A few examples:
  • Titrit, the warrior, getting tattooed later in life as part of the process of indicating her correct gender, along with changing her name
  • Izem, the priest, removing the tattoos applied when he was younger, correcting his identification as well
  • Siman, the metal-worker, getting tattooed as an indication of their feminine spirit, but donning the veil as a recognition of their masculine spirit. (Several nomad tribes place their smiths and metal workers in "sacred trickster" roles outside of society, which can include going outside the traditional gender spectrum.)
The presence or absence of tattoos isn't a strict determinant - someone might avoid getting tattoos for any number of reasons without having it necessarily read as an indicator that she is less feminine.

References / Further Reading:
Apetroaie, Vladiana-Ioana. "Women's Social and Spiritual Body - Amazigh Facial Tattoos (draft)." Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2013. Available here.
Bendaas, Yasmin. "Between the Lines: Facial Tattoos and the Chaouia." Pullitzer Center, 2013. Available here.
Krutak, Lars. "Tattooing in North Africa, The Middle East, and the Balkans." Vanishing Tattoo, 2010. Available here.
Rasmussen, Susan. "Ritual Powers and Social Tensions as Moral Discourse Among The Tuareg." American Anthropologist 100(2): 458. 1998. Available here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Away for a Bit

Been a while since I posted - going to be even longer, really, since I'm swamped these days.

So a few recent and cool articles from other blogs!

Patrick over at False Machine has a nice interview on minis sculpting, and a funny film review by Derro. (Spoilers for Winter Soldier.) The minis sculpting interview is particularly good (as have been his prior discussions) because of the solid pictures, and because he takes a look at how aesthetics can be used to illustrate the unity of a culture. Very helpful for thinking on in terms of gaming - I know that Chris has used this to excellent effect in the Hill Cantons, as we've sorted through prior constructions and theorized about the nature of the facilities based on the cues that we've picked up from the architecture and our surroundings.

Jez at Giblet Blizzard has some great art, as usual.
The Eyes of Muad'Dib, Dune Encyclopedia

These orcs? These orcs are frickin' awesome and I will be adapting their horribleness.

Beedo has been posting some good thoughts on approaching dungeon design. This is a rough spot for me, so seeing how other people do it is very helpful, even if I don't wind up following those routes myself. Next time I try making a dungeon, I need to give myself a strict timer and just keep moving, busting out rooms and getting stuff down on paper. The improv can come in during play. That's all right.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blood, Words, and Money: Organizations and Factions (Santicore 2013)

Santicore 2013 continues its triumphal march of destruction. Volume 2 just came out (get it here, and Vol. 1 is available here). My own contribution is in Volume 2, so now I'm free to post it here as well.

Blood, Words, and Money: Organizations and Factions


Determine the size of your organization, to figure out how many subgroups it will possess. "Small" organizations will have 1d4+1 subgroups, medium organizations 1d6+1, and large organizations 1d8+1. These things will get byzantine quickly so be warned. I recommend something like five groups as a manageable yet intricate balance. (Hey, it works for Magic: the Gathering...)

Subgroups and Powers:

For each subgroup present in your organization, roll a d6 on this chart to see what sort of a role it plays. 

Intelligence - Gathers information for the organization in some capacity. Magical scrying? Wiretaps? Are they looking at communications, individuals, social context, or even just basic facts? They're likely to have the most on-the-ground contacts, familiarity with locations - and the most information about what other parties are doing.
Resources - This can either be equipment - something like James Bond's Q Branch, putting together gadgets - or it can be finances, false identities, forged documents, and the like. Their focus is eliminating sources of friction and allowing other groups to complete their objectives; throw enough money at Resources and problems melt away. 
Administration - Avoid making this an executive group, and skew towards administrative, managerial and human resources issues. Personnel, staffing, and coordination. Sounds bland, but they've got their fingers in everything. There's a reason Stalin made sure to secure the personnel and assignment apparatus in his rise to power - personnel assignments mean that they've got control over who works where, and also who has access to what.
Operations - This group takes active steps to implement things. Generally filling the "field agent" category, and the most likely group to be authorized for use of force. They'll have personnel with the most field experience.
Internal Affairs - This group watches the watchers, and quite possibly sticks them underneath a bright light and asks them a bunch of terrifying questions. They have investigative authority over the other groups, even at very high levels - but nobody trusts them for obvious reasons. 
Roll again twice and combine both rolls.* 

*If this result comes up on the reroll, do not merge two groups, but create a "Communications” subgroup instead. Communications groups are responsible for the security of information transmission - which means that they have access to all of it. (It's a rarer group to encounter than the rest, but once in a while it will pop up.)

Depending on the independence of each sub-group, you're likely to have some elements of each role present in each subgroup. For example, it's reasonable for an Action group to create its own dead drops, caches, and the like, to ensure that there's less chance of the resources getting compromised. Of course, these grey areas are the subject of wrangling and infighting.

Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness. The scalphunters were the exception to his own rule. They weren't gradual, and they weren't gentle either. 
- John le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Once you've created your subgroups, figure out how specialized they are at their given task on a scale of 1-20 (1 being not at all, 20 being hyper-specialized; these scores should be in the 13-20 range, since each group is inherently specialized). When a subgroup takes a significant action relating to its specialty (a field operation for Operations, an investigation for Internal Affairs, a major R&D project for Resources, etc) they need to roll underneath their specialization score. When a subgroup takes a significant action outside of its specialty (Intelligence running an investigation into Internal Affairs because they think that IA is compromised) they need to roll over their specialization score.

If a roll fails, roll a d6 to figure out why:

Misfortune: Bad luck, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time - it was all going smoothly, but unforeseeable events resulted in failure.
Hostile Intervention: Everything your organization did was fine, but an unexpected intervention (another subgroup? A hostile organization?) wound up interfering with your plans.
Incompetence: Worse than a crime, it was a blunder. Someone in the subgroup messed things up, whether in planning, execution, or somewhere in between. 
Managerial Intervention: DAMMIT! Meddling and micromanagement, whether from the subgroup's leader or from the head of the organization, has caused this action to fail. 

If needed, use the margin of the failed d20 roll to figure out how visible the failure is. On a margin of 1 or 2, it's a failure, but nobody knows about it and the damage is contained. On a margin of 3 or 4, the subgroup needs to choose between losing resources (cutting agents loose, massive bribes, etc.) or having a failure become public knowledge. If the margin's 5 or greater, you lose the resources and the failure is public. 


Arrange the subgroups within the organization in a circle. Adjacent nodes interact often; opposing nodes are rivals, compete for resources and budgets, or otherwise antagonistic towards each other.

Paranoia is just having the right information. 
- William S. Burroughs

Subgroup Goals:

Roll a d6:

 Expand: Grow larger, acquire more resources. Use as a default behavior for organizations if you don’t want subgroup goals.
Replace / Eclipse: Supplant another subgroup within the organization.
Suborn: Gain control of another subgroup.
Crown: Promote head of this subgroup to head of the organization.
Realign: Swap places with another subgroup (re: alliances/conflict above).
Defect: Leave the organization, either to an opposing organization or to become independent.

“Management is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt they don't have enough to do," she murmured back. "So they've invented a new acronym.” 
- Connie Willis, Bellwether

Representative NPC:

Need to have an encounter with someone from this group? Roll on this chart! (Nomenclature format cribbed from Echo Bazaar: ). 
Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister

Bored Bureaucrat
Unlikely Academic
Passive-Aggressive Clerk
Jovial Amateur
Bluff Professional
Ambitious Underling
Powerhungry Boss
Burned-out Workaholic
Rebellious Naysayer
Recalled Veteran
Disinterested Middle Management
Charismatic Leader
Evangelist “Team Player”
Jaded Outcast
Foreign Contractor
Detestable Visionary
Giggly Social Climber
Shameless Brown-noser
Punctilious Charmer
Useless Wanker

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sane employee in possession of his wits must be in want of a good manager.” 
- Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum

Subgroup Quirks:

Roll twice. The first roll is what the group’s friends think of them; the second is what their enemies or opposition think (or suspect).

Use secret signals extensively
Are older than they seem
Are suspected of brainwashing their members
Will accept anyone
Are behind on their taxes
Were acquired in a hostile takeover
Have distinctive facial tattoos
Have friendly ties with (Table A)
Are well-known about town
Rob from the (Table B), give to the (Table B)
Operate by night
Use exotic animals as messengers
Swallow up real estate
Use offensive tactics (PETA offensive? Kneecapping offensive? Up to you)
Have ferocious, almost inhuman, discipline
Are fiscally irresponsible
Have a naïve mission or motivations
Have a highly placed deep cover asset within (Table A)
Have horrendous uniforms
Focus on long-term strategy 

Number Six, The Prisoner

Table A

Another subgroup within the organization
Local government
A faction within another organization
Organized crime
Revolutionaries / Dissidents

Table B


Major Influences:

Paranoia – Allen Varney, 2005, RPG
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carre, 1974, novel
The Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross, 2004, novel

Thanks to Mikah McCabe ( ) for her assistance and feedback and love of ridiculous lists. 

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin." The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern. 
- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (preface)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Worms upon a Piece of Wood" - Arabian Nights Seas, Joesky Credit #3

When the Muslims took possession of Egypt, 'Umar b. al-Khattab wrote to 'Amr b. al-As and asked him to describe the sea to him. 'Amr replied: 'The sea is a great creature upon which weak creatures ride - like worms upon a piece of wood.'

-Ibn Khaldun, the MuqaddimahTrans. Franz Rosenthal, Ed. N.J. Dawood. Princeton Classic Edition, 2005, p. 209.

Anthony, blogging over at Straits of Anian, asked me way back when for some saltbox components: ocean encounters and a weird island generator. Here's what we got.

Note: As I've written before, I normally try to eschew Arabian Nights influence, but Sindbad's voyages are so crucial and fundamental to my visions of a saltbox in this context that I can't get away from them. (Wait, does that make Sindbad the Old Man of the Sea? Damn you, mixed metaphors!) The bulk of these entries are a lot more gonzo and fairy-tale than the stuff I'm running, and most wouldn't fit into my conception of Legacy of the Bieth. I'm going to need to figure out what oceanic, corsair-like, and piratical components are in LotB itself. I know that there are totally corsairs, and the sea vast terrible and terrifying, but not too much beyond that. 

Ocean Encounters

Deep Dweller: roll a d6. 1-2 idling along minding its own business; 3-4 hunting your ship; 5-6 fleeing something else (reroll on this table)

Ship of the Marids
"Flaming Scimitar" from Dreadfleet
Painted by Centerpiece Miniatures
1   Kraken - Deep Dweller.
2   Blade of the Sea Queen - roll a d20, you're dealing with one of these vicious ladies.
3   Dendan - a giant fish capable of swallowing ships in a single convulsive gulp. Deep Dweller.
4   Ship of the Marids - Overly ornate and florid pleasure vessel being propelled by air elementals or djinn blowing at the sails. Will likely have a utterly decadent prince(ss) of the Marid on board, leisurely sailing along, willing to gamble with mortals (or demand that they suffer to provide entertainment).
5   Black Mountain  - this ominous peak off in the distance inexorably drags ships towards it. As they approach, the iron fittings and nails of the ship begin to tear out of the wood (along with anything else that might be on board, like most weapons) and surge towards the mountain, while the ships break apart and sink. Legend has it that a brass man on a brass horse sits atop the peak of the mountain, and about his neck hangs the tablet which causes the mountain to continue its reign of destruction.
6   Ship in Distress - Unexpected rocks, treacherous seas, attacks from below...something nasty has hit this ship. Roll 1d4 to see who's in trouble: 1 Local islanders, 2 Merchant vessel 3 Foreign dignitary 4 Corsair
7   Local Islanders - trade, supplies, local news. If you feel like, roll on the Weird Island Generator below to see whether these guys are coming from someplace weird.
8   Foreign Voyager - Some folks from way the hell elsewhere. Visiting dignitary? Crazy random traveler? 
9   Corsairs - Yeaaah they probably want your stuff. Deep Dwellers, reroll 1s.
10 Spinning Djinn Whirlpool - This djinn is spinning in place, generating a giant whirlpool about himself (or herself). Why? Any way to reason with them?
11 Uncanny Storm - Maybe it's a giant roiling thundercloud in an otherwise-clear sky. Maybe it's crackling fluorescent pink lightning striking down and turning the water to ice. Maybe it's just some St. Elmo's Fire that's bobbing throughout the ship and making friends with the crew.
Skeletal Serpent
From here
12 Skeletal Serpent - A giant sea serpent comes slithering out on the waves - skeletal, possessed of a horrible intelligence, red gleam in its eyes - offers awful bargains and knowledge from the black realms of the sea.
13 Shoal of Talking Fish - Deep Dweller, but 3-4 they're hunting your ship to ask the PCs a favor. Maybe they're spellcasters.
14 Barge of the Necropharaoah - Oh god it's forces of the Necropharaoah from Zak's game fuuuuck. This giant ancient Egyptian-style barge is crewed by robed figures; some shuffle about, while others move in quick jerky motions. This deep-draft vessel bears a large obelisk on the upper deck. May be accompanied by 1d4 light galleys, pulled by giant scarabs. (Give this result priority if Migellito or Noisms are playing in your campaign. Not that I'm...bitter or anything.)
15 Cloud of Hate - As per Fritz Leiber. This deep white fog possesses those with an overwhelming capacity for hate and turns them into ravenous killing machines. In dire straits, it will form tentacles and a giant eye and strike out directly at those who oppose it, taking up the weapons of its former ravenous killing machines.  It is an avatar of HATE, and a lucky strike that severs its connection to its worshipers will prevent it from forming again for a year and a day.
16 Ghost Ship - a ghostly apparition of a ship that sails just above the waves. No visible crew, no recognized markings.  roll a d6. 1-2) ignores nearby ships, 3-4 )moves to "ram" nearest target, 5-6) targets nearest ship and attempts to superimpose itself on the unfortunate vessel.
Dreugh Concept Art
17 Dreugh Swarm - a swarm of these half-octopi, half-humanoid awful creatures. Deep Dwellers. Can survive outside of the water, so may in fact clamber onto your ship and try to drown your crew.
18 Roc - roll 1d6; 1-3 has prey already, 4-6 is looking for something new, big, and tasty.
19 Wereshark - roll a d6: 1 seeking a particular target; 2 seeking to feed; 3 trying to raid the PCs' ship; 4 spying on the PCs; 5 ; 6 Vietnamese-New Hampshire elven wereshark.
20 Tortoise Island - It's got some snazzy resource on its shell (diamonds! Rare woods! Fresh water...?), but the tortoise is about to dive, or is likely to dive if you start picking up the resources.

Weird Island Generator

First, roll 1d4 to see what's weird about this island. 

1 Inhabitants
2 Environment
3 Monsters
4 Reroll twice, ignore 4.

1 Island is populated by giant talking versions of a regular animal (birds, horses, etc). Ruled over by a monarch of that species (a phoenix or simurgh for the birds, a Houyhnhnm for horses, etc.) who is able to speak, arch, sneering and dismissive of humanity. Cut a careful line between the fairy-tale nature and the physical, animal nature of the ruler; emphasize its physicality and power. 
2 Culture has one of the Seven Deadly Sins (plus bonus) as a core virtue. Roll 1d8: 
by Fredrik Rahmqvist
1. Sloth: Megacephalic petty sorcerers carried about on litters by lobotomized slaves.
2. Pride: Societal status determined by individualized duels of some sort; visitors are of course at bottom of hierarchy until they duel.
3. Avarice: Corsairs who loot and pillage from the neighboring islands. They do not sow. You have only what you can take, and you're always in a race to keep taking. 
4. Wrath: Curious and horrendous custom of torturing all who come to their island.
5. Lust: The island has some strange feature inhibiting traffic, and the inhabitants of the island are all desperate to leave (terminal boredom? despotic or murderous overlord?), and will do anything to put together an escape plan; this "anything" is likely to sabotage the PCs. Think an island full of amoral versions of Number Six (McGoohan, not Helfer). 
6. Vanity: Solipsistic and dubious about the idea that anything could exist outside their island. 
7. Envy: The islanders will latch on to all facets of the PCs and try to mimic their mannerisms and culture. They won't want to let the PCs leave, because they're starved for new ideas.
8. Gluttony: Population is ludicrously obese. I'm not talking anything that's within the realm of normal human weights.* I'm talking Fatties obese, Jabba the Hutt obese. Possibly using mass as a measure of social ranking. Possibly being fattened up as food / incubators / survival mechanism for something weird that happens on the island. 
3 Inhabitants are very welcoming to outsiders, but have strange customs which wind up causing pain. Sinbad encountered this with the islanders who insisted he marry one of them, but then revealed that if one spouse dies, the other is buried alive with them. Some other examples might be ritual sacrifice 
4 Inhabitants are laboring under a major curse. Roll 1d6: 1) During the days their lower halves turn to blocks of marble 2) They forget the events of the previous day at the stroke of midnight 3) They are all vertically bisected (but still able to live and function and speak, just really sad and awkward and hopping around on one leg) 4) All inhabitants of the island have been turned into some small animals, which can speak and lament their fate. 5) The oracular talking bird that guides them continually lies, sending them further into misrule. 6) The inhabitants are obsessing over a zahir that is trapping their thoughts and gradually erasing the island from reality itself. 
5 The ruler of these islanders is a decapitated head, placed in a bowl containing vital essences to keep the head alive. The ruler seeks to acquire a new body by some means fair or foul. 
6 They're cannibals. To be expected, since frickin' half the Arabian Nights stories mentioning sea voyages have this come up - to say nothing of Odysseus's voyages, and Polyphemus. 

Edmund Dulac
1 Perfectly symmetrical island. When structures are built on one side facsimiles will appear on the other. Same for the remains of any sapient being. Every day that a facsimile is separated from the island, roll a d6; on a 3+ the facsimile disappears. 
2 Island suspended in the middle of a whirlpool by vast pillars of rock, making transit to and from the island incredibly perilous. 
3 Sunken, inverted step pyramid filled with water in the center of the island. There are paths of open air mimicking the passages within a normal pyramid, and it is possible to explore the pyramid, walking on the strangely high-surface-tension water; however, treading too heavily, bearing too much weight, or piercing the surface of the water may cause the passages to start leaking and filling up. (The corridors will will unflood and the surface tension reform within 24 hours if broken.)
4 Island is a biome that does not normally appear in the climate (tundra, perhaps?). Optionally, the island is actually a gate to another location; if you lose sight of the shoreline or objects there, you wind up shifting fully to the location being gated to. (Lose sight of the shoreline in Madagascar, and you wind up in Siberia...)
5 One cave has historically been used for dark necromancies. As it is approached, people take on the nature of an undead equal to their HD/level (so a level 1 wizard will have the benefits and penalties of being a skeleton and a wizard; a 5 HD cyclops will become a wraith-cyclops, etc.). Have some undead stats handy, and try to have some unusual undead available so that transformations aren't all the standard platitudes. As affected individuals leave the area, they return to normal. 
6 The underground palace of a djinn princess (or prince) is located on the island, and is said to contain a pathway to the City of Brass itself. But no sign of movement has come from the palace in quite some time...

1 Coven of necromancers with giant undead servitors
2 Flock of monstrous avians (harpies, perytons, etc.)
3 Demon-possessed large animals (think the Lions of Tsavo but worse and all demonic) committed to terrorizing the locals. No interest in rulership or gross consumption, but to cause pervasive terror. Or they're waiting for something, killers even more horrendous than the animal that they now ride... 
4 Colony of ghuls - erudite, urbane, eaters of the dead, and running out of consumable corpses. 
5 Sorcerer keeping the populace in thrall through use of charm spells to set up a secret police. No, everything's fine here in this little island village, how are you
6 Conclave of giants being held at the center of the island. Think a cross between Tolkien's Entmoot and a high-value drug deal, only with forty or fifty participants, all of whom are ready to resort to violence. 

* Don't be a dick and mock actual fat people if this entry comes up.

Influences: Clark Ashton Smith, esp. Island of the Torturers and Quest of the Gazolba
Jorge Luis Borges.
The Thousand and One Nights.