Back in the early days of roleplaying games, the once-prominent company named Judges Guild put out at least one book of mapped imaginary islands for Dungeon Masters® to use. Although I never made use of it, because drawing maps is just plain fun for me, I readily saw that one could take various published adventures that featured “dungeons” (subterranean networks of caverns, rooms, and passages) or ruins, or both, plonk down one of them on each island, and quickly build a campaign.
So for DMs pressed for time, or who found themselves attracted to adventures that didn’t quite fit their existing imaginary lands in tone or details, they could string together islands in the “right” sequence to build progression and meaning into what would happen to the Player Characters, and enjoy ongoing play for quite some time—and if the island-hopping ever palled, the seagoing PCs would simply find the mainland (perhaps a new and markedly different continent, enabling a DM to leave past mistakes and power imbalances behind), and return to dry-land adventuring.
I’m no fan of railroading players (forcing them to put their players through adventures by taking away their choices to go elsewhere and do other things). Yet if the campaign began with the PCs aboard ship for other reasons, when they got caught up in a terrible storm and got blown far off course into uncharted waters, so they were lost and didn’t know the way back, they could readily be forced into such a mini-campaign. If that storm damaged their ship so they were taking on water and limping along on partial sails, with their mainmast broken (and perhaps their rudder, too), they would be forced to make landfall on at least the first island, and have to at least partially explore it to find the right trees to fell for replacement masts, and to stay until those masts were ready and fitted, and the leaks in the ship’s hull fixed. Meaning, of course, that they had to stick their necks into the noose of the first adventure, and stick around to face any monster or NPC villain responses to their forays.
A sadistic DM could bring on storm after storm, forcing repeats of the “damaged ship limping to landfall” on new islands, and enforced new adventures.
At the time, long before TSR started publishing the Realms and even before The Dragon printed my first article (“The Curst,” a Dragon’s Bestiary monster in issue #30), I was running a series of library campaigns—that is, weekly free programs offered for young adults (teenagers, for those who prefer to eschew library jargon), that frankly appealed to more bright young minds than “Proper Grooming & Hygiene” and “How To Be A Great Babysitter.” These programs were relatively short in duration (usually 12 or 13 weekly 3- or 4-hour sessions), and I settled into a pattern of pregenerated characters, a “Player Pack” of introductory Realmslore that Player Characters would know, and the kingdom of Cormyr as a setting, because I’d postulated that the Realm of the Purple Dragon only allowed adventuring within the realm’s borders with a Royal Charter that always included some conditions. The PCs would be chartered as a new adventuring company (such as the Company of the Unicorn, or the Company of the Manticore, or the Company of the Basilisk) with a “starter mission” laid on for them as one of the conditions of their Crown charter. The two exceptions to this pattern were an “accidental” thrown-together-by-chance adventuring band in Waterdeep—which devolved into backstabbing chaos—and the Anchorôme campaign, storms and all.
It’s been said that the name “Anchorôme” was a joke, derived from “Anchor On Me,” and some TSR staffer or other may well have thought so, and concluded that the island-hopping notion itself was a jest, or the basis for a wacky parody campaign. However, this fun little tale just isn’t true.
Anchorôme (pronounced “ANG-core-OWE-may”) was a semi-mythical archipelago first referenced in my second Mirt short story. The Isles of Anchorôme existed, all right, and some of the many islands in this distant chain of small uninhabited islets far across the Sea of Swords from the Sword Coast had very pure veins of copper ore visible on the surface of exposed rocks, not to mention bands of clay full of various raw gemstones—and almost all of the islands were covered with thick forests and teeming with life, thanks to abundant freshwater springs, with many ponds and almost no large predators.
The problem was, these islands were hard to find in the midst of a vast expanse of trackless ocean, and from the Sword Coast, they lay on the far side of a stretch of sea beset by sudden and violent storms that were hard indeed on ships (sound familiar?). So among merchants Mirt had dealings with, the Isles had become legendary, and to mention them was to allude to striking it rich, or enjoying the rarest, brightest good fortune, or to having unforeseen circumstances turn a small investment into a large windfall. “Heh, belike I’ll awaken on the Isles of Anchorôme!” was a teasing way of dismissing some offer or deriding a claim of sure profit. Rare lucky sailors returned alive from the Isles, often rich enough to retire ashore to new lives (and become the sort of investors Mirt liked to fleece), but to most traders and salts alike, they were little more than a focus for fanciful tales.
Yet they can still make for a dandy “potted campaign” for the DM who doesn’t want PCs to be able to travel in any direction or get heavily into politics. All you need are some maps of real-world islands (hint: choose tiny freshwater islands in a watery country like Canada, borrow their maps, flip or spin them, change the scale or cut bits off or even ram two islands together—in a software/drawing sense, of course), and the commercial adventures of your choice. Make all the changes you want to the adventures, locate them on your islands, string those islands together in a satisfying sequence (and decide if you want any recurring villains like pirates or amphibious monsters chasing the PCs from island to island), and let play begin!