Review: The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport

(Cross-posted to RPG.net and Emerald City Gamefest.)

The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is a systemless sourcebook for Green Ronin’s signature setting of horror and piratical fantasy. Freeport made its debut in Green Ronin’s very first D&D 3e adventure, Death in Freeport, one of only two d20 books to be released the same day as the new D&D Player’s Handbook in 2000. Since then, 11 books and a handful of PDF adventures and third-party products have been produced for Freeport.

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Freeport Review

My review of The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport was posted today on RPG.net. I did not rate it a 2/2 in retaliation for the BE wars on RPG.net and the critique wars on Story Games. ^_^

And also regarding reviews…

I mused recently over how reading and playing a game often bring quite different overall impressions of the game for me. I have said a few times that I intend to stick to writing reviews only when I’ve both read and played the game. I also saw a few threads recently where people asked whether “capsule reviews” (based only on reading the game) have their place or whether only playtest reviews matter.

I believe a good capsule review is very useful, and no, I don’t think you have to play an entire campaign — or even a single episode — of a game to be able to write a useful review. The main reason I want to stick to playtest reviews now is so I can wrap myself in righteousness, thank you very much. So I’m in a position to say, “Yes, fanboy, I do know what the hell I’m talking about.” I’m a very special breed of chicken.

Burning reviews, again!

Three days ago, Kurt Wiegel posted a Game Geeks review on Burning Empires (video review). Kurt is a very upbeat, positive guy who likes to say only good things in his game reviews. As far as anyone could remember, this was the first time one of his reviews was not really complimentary. Not that he was negative; he seemed more perplexed (and perhaps consternated by the prospect!) He kept saying “I just didn’t ‘get’ this game,” meaning, it’s not that it’s bad but that, as he also repeated, “it’s not for me.”

This ignited a long thread on RPG.net, still going on after 20 pages. That’s about the same result I got when I wrote a review of this game last summer. The BE fanboys just Will Not Quit. Apparently, this game is so finely crafted and inflexible that it is impossible to mess with its rules and setting, but the same people believe that gamers have infinite flexibility to adjust and conform to the game. If you don’t have fun with this game, it’s because you didn’t read it right; if you find it constricting and you can’t play anything but a narrow range of stories, it’s because you’re missing it’s brilliance. And saying “I don’t get it” and “it’s not for me” qualifies as a negative review.

Frankly, I think Kurt’s review was in fact a bit weak because he seemed to be holding back from explaining why this game was not his bag, as if he didn’t want to criticize. Trying to be conciliatory and handle the fanboys with kid gloves did not work at all, as can be readily seen from the on-going flack. I tell you, this sort of nonsense has me resolved to be more critical in my reviews, not less. The velvet gloves treatment does no one a favour; the reviewer still gets hammered by the fans, the fans are obviously not happy with less than perfect scores, and the reading public is just confused.

So to be clear, kids, we’re grading on the curve. If it’s average, it gets a 3; if it’s above average it gets a 4, if it’s a model for other games to strive for, it gets a 5. And if it’s below average, it gets a goddamn 2, end of discussion. I hope I don’t ever playtest anything deserving a 1!

ConQuest NW report

Summary: Successful convention, lots of gaming, left us very tired. Below, I give an overview plus quick reviews of Puppetland, kill puppies for satan, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Traveller 5, and Urchin.

Some Highlights:

  • We increased the number of scheduled role-playing games (excluding any games cancelled due to GM or player no-shows) by 50%.
  • We had the first ever Story Games Lounge, and it was such a success that we already have confirmation that there will be another one next year. One game of “In A Wicked Age” ran non-stop from 9:30 AM to about 10PM on Saturday, covering at least six chapters!
  • The “Four Days of Freeport” event was a veritable buffet of ways to serve up Green Ronin’s Freeport setting with different systems. I got to play or watch all of them.
  • The live-action role-playing (LARP) team from Oregon, 5th Wall Gaming, was absolutely great. I tip my hat to them for persevering and managing to draw in a bunch of frightened gamers — and making them have fun, or else. I look forward to gaming with them again.
  • Fantastic miniatures games display, with particular affection for a couple of “Hordes of the Things” games featuring war elephants in one, and penguins versus UFOs in the other!
  • The dealer booth that sold Legos was utterly nifty.
  • A ton of gaming — I played in eight games: Puppetland, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (both in the original setting and in Freeport), kill puppies for satan, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Traveller 5th ed., Urchin, and a Paranoia LARP(!); and I ran two games of Cat. We need to try some of these at Monday night games, they were so much fun.
  • It was a bit scary but very flattering that so many people wanted to play in my scheduled Cat game. I had to turn people away, and Edmund even gave his spot to someone else. Last year’s players wanted to be in it again, I even had one who showed up with a cat-themed shirt. I had cat miniatures which were very popular; they were strewn all over the table and someone commented that this was “walking in formation” for cats. Edmund and two friends later asked me to run a second game on Monday. We even had spectators!
  • We had some really, really good GMs that gave their players a great time. I didn’t get a chance to game with all of them, and I need to find a chance to at the next opportunity.
  • Although I can’t give too much details until contract details are finalized, we got to see next year’s setup at the staff debrief when we visited what will probably be the new location. It’s much, much nicer and it will be just plain awesome for a game convention.

Mini-Reviews

and I played in five new RPGs: Puppetland, kill puppies for satan, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Traveller 5th ed., and Urchin. Here are quick impressions.

Puppetland

This game has been on our shelves since it was first published in 1999. Edmund tried to put it on the program for some of our fill-in games, but it just never worked out somehow. He finally had a chance to run a short game on Friday night, and I really liked it. I would definitely play a continuing series; it makes for the perfect one- or two-hour filler game.

The premise: Mr Punch has killed the kindly old Maker (making a mask out of the Maker’s skin!) and usurped control of the puppet land with his vile henchman and their wooden thugs, the Nutcrackers. But Judy, Punch’s former lover, is determined to rid Puppetland of his evil. It’s a twisted, dark setting; you can look at the free version on author John Tynes’ site.

How it works: everyone makes a puppet — finger puppet, hand puppet, shadow puppet, or marionette. Each comes with basic descriptors for what they are, what they can do, and what they cannot do; and players are asked to add a few additional descriptors of each type. For example, I made a finger puppet, Eleanor the Elephant. As a finger puppet, Eleanor is: short and small, light, quick, and weak. She can: move quickly, dodge things thrown at her even if she only sees them coming at the last moment, and move very quietly. She cannot: kick things, throw things or grab things because she has no legs or arms. I also added that she is very brave, she can trumpet loudly, and she cannot hold her own against mice. (We only added one descriptor of each type rather than three as in the basic rules, as this was a very short game.)

Players can only only have their characters act by speaking out dialogue; for example: “I think I shall take this rock and use it to strike the naughty Nutcracker! Take that, Nutcracker!” And the GM is required to speak as if reading the story from a book, in the past tense; for example: “Pollux picked up the rock and struck at the Nutcracker. But the fiend struck back with a powerful blow!”

How we fared: The game was a lot of fun. I think the dialogue requirements, once everyone got used to them, helped set the tone. The only drawback we met was that one player was clearly in a goofy mood and wanted the game to be more humour-based, while the rest of us were along for a darker, more dramatic game. In truth, I think (and I said at the time) that the GM should have killed his ass. :-} But Edmund didn’t want to start the con by harshing somebody else’s mellow, and took it easy on the player. The lesson: next time, let’s make sure everyone is on board for the same kind of game. I hope we can play this again at one of the Monday night events.

kill puppies for satan

We missed Peter’s late-night kpfs game last year both at ConQuest and at Dragonflight. This time we managed to stay up on Saturday night, but everyone at the table was quite tired — including Peter himself.

The premise: The main characters are a bunch of losers who work for Satan. They don’t get to tempt anyone, that’s demons’ business; and Satan doesn’t want them to kill good people (because they go to heaven) or even bad people (because then they stop making everyone miserable on Earth.) All they can do is torment people in ways that make them say “Why, God, why?” — not “Please God, help me.” So they do this by killing beloved family pets in sordid ways, the more fucked up, the better.

How it works: Characters have 11 points to distribute between four stats: Mean, Fucked Up, Cold, and Relentless. (You can cheat, too.) You also get a starting Evil score of -1 to 3, and roll randomly for how many people hate you (1 to 3). The roll mechanic is simple: roll a six-sided die (d6) and add the appropriate stat. Anything over 7 is a success. You can accumulate Evil and use it to do evil miracles.

How we fared: Although people at the table were funny as all hell, and the game text is pretty damn funny to read too, the game as a whole felt flat. The role-playing and ideas were awesome, but the objectives were so limited that we eventually lost steam. Games like HoL, Low Life or Urchin (see below) are shocking and tasteless, but incredibly fun to play, largely because they allow you to do a lot of things you can barely imagine. Here, there is really just one objective. Sure, you could extrapolate other funny and fucked-up things to do in game, but it seems easier to use another system. Or maybe we were just too tired.

Monsters and Other Childish Things

As part of the “Four Days of Freeport” event, our friend Jayson ran a game called “Little Lost Yog-Sothoth” using the M&OCT system and the Freeport setting on Sunday afternoon.

The premise: Very similar to Pokéthulhu. Players take the roles of ordinary kids whose best friends are slavering monstrosities from beyond time and space — and that’s already enough to get them in all kinds of trouble with parents, friends, and adults in general.

How it works: Based on the One-Roll Engine (ORE). Roll a number of ten-sided dice (d10) equal to your skill or ability rating, and look for sets of identical numbers. The lowest success you can have is a pair of 1s. How high the roll is (the number shown on the dice) is the finesse or excellence of the roll, and the width of the roll (how many identical dice face your rolled) indicates how fast you succeeded, and how resilient to counter-actions you are in contested rolls. Or something like that.

How we fared: Jayson used a bunch of pre-generated children and monster character sheets. The monsters were scavenged from the 12 Monsters of Christmas; I picked Robbie the Infinite Serpent. The kid characters were adapted to the setting, so they had relationships to Freeport characters and ties to specific locations, which was good. The story was that somehow, monsters were disappearing and the kids were losing their friends; we had to find who was preying on our monsters and stop them.

Once again, it was a great group of people and I had a fun time with the role-playing. The system itself doesn’t do much for me (the odds of success are generally pretty discouraging), but the premise of kids + monsters was fun. I would play this again.

Traveller 5th Ed.

I first played Traveller when there was no such thing as “editions”; since then, I’ve also played Mega-Traveller and Traveller New Era. I have fond memories, but not because of the system. It’s a common joke (but entirely true) that characters occasionally died during character creation in the old edition. Current publisher Mongoose has been preparing a 5th edition that was supposed to be released months ago, but instead is still in progress. To make up for the delays and keep the fans interested, Mongoose has released beta system elements — but not setting — free online.

The premise: This used the old setting, with a standard star-spanning Imperium.

How it works: players randomly roll attribute scores using 2d6, then pick a career path based on what their attributes would allow. There are additional random rolls to determine whether you get additional paths or muster out. Skill rolls are made by adding 2d6 and the skill score, plus any modifiers, and comparing to a target number.

How we fared: The GM for our game, Russ, had registered his game months in advance, expecting that the new release would be hot off the press by the time of the convention; instead, he had to cobble an adventure based on material from previous editions. We played a group of characters who wake up from cryogenic sleep in Low-Berth chambers, their memories muddled by crash reanimation. At this point, the GM had us make a bunch of rolls which determined our attribute scores, and whether we could get out of the containers, etc. We wandered around a damaged ship, finding several sections open to hard vacuum by impacts as the ship floated in an asteroid field. Eventually, everyone figured out who they were (the GM took us individually through choices of career paths) and we had to salvage the ship and save ourselves.

The system was every bit as bad as if it had not seen the light since I played it in 1983. First, there is the death spiral: if you roll poorly on your attribute ratings, your choice of careers is very limited and you get crappy skills. At least, it would have been helpful to be allowed to assign the rolls to the characteristics of our choice. Second, why roll in the first place? Why can’t you have a point allocation, so you could get into the careers that interest you? As it was, I rolled abysmally. I had Endurance at 8, and everything else as 3, 4 or 5. I had very few careers I could get into; the only one offered was Army, which doesn’t interest me and was already amply covered by another character in our group. (Actually, now that I’m reading the free download notes, it seems I would have been eligible for Marines.)

When we got to the new career paths, I qualified for one other career: Drifter. I thought, Hey, what the heck, let’s look at the new stuff. From there, I had a choice between Barbarian, Wanderer, or Scavenger. I hate “space barbarians” as a stupid concept, so I picked Wanderer, hoping to get a niche skill set. I then rolled poorly for advancement and found myself with a bunch of skills at 0. Woo-hoo! I called my character David Lister. Out of six characters, we had four with a single tour of duty, one with two tours, and one with 3, so all our skills sucked. The GM was quite nice, but it was a fairly uninspiring game.

Urchin

Edmund ran this game on Sunday night. This was the best new game of the weekend for me, and I think for the whole group (Puppetland was second best, Monsters and Other Childish Things was third, and Traveller 5 and kill puppies for satan were busts.)

The premise: Players are cast as the citizens of Scum City, a homeless camp deep under the bustling streets of New York City. Players struggle to keep their characters out of the gutter while they quest for Agharta, a mythical paradise realm. The language is foul.

How it works: You have two stats, Meat and Mind, determined by rolling 2d6 and taking the highest value (do this for each). You also have a few skills and may acquire equipment. When doing something, roll a number of d6 equal to the appropriate stat plus the applicable equipment and skill scores. Anything rolling a 6 is a success; anything rolling a 1 is Rot and removes dice from your pool. You can always push by rerolling the dice left and risking more Rot. Sometimes you can gain a variety of forms of insanity, and someone always has to be able to pay to keep the Lights On (or bad things happen.) Players take turn setting (“kicking”) or reacting to (“grabbing”) a scene, going in order around the table. Characters face madness and rot with every roll of the dice. The game can be played longer, but is primarily designed as a rough-and-tumble one-off event.

How we fared: Edmund began with a dramatic reading of the salient portions of the rules, and made us use pieces of trash pulled from the garbage can to write our characters, just like it says in the rules. Role-playing was fuckin’ awesome, turns were quick and lively, and we were always under pressure. I really want to play this again at the club one of these weeks. After only one game it’s hard to be sure, but some tweaks in the rules might be useful to favour “setting” scenes more than “grabbing”, since i think this makes for more interesting stories, but I’ll report on that when we’ve had a chance to play a few more games.

Game reviews: The difference between reading and playing

Recently I’ve been thinking about how different my impression of a (role-playing) game is between reading the book and playing the game. There are, I guess, three main ways of comparing the two:

(1) Read the book first, then play it.

(2) Get the book as a campaign begins, read along as you learn to play.

(3) Get into a game and learn it from the GM and other players, then read it later.

Over the past 25 years, I have tried a lot of different games. Very often games I disliked when I first read them turned out to be much more fun in play than I expected; conversely, books I loved reading revealed flaws in play. When I first got interested in RPGs, I couldn’t quite visualize how the game would unfold just from reading the book. No one in my circle knew anything about RPGs either; I had to wait until I could learn from people who already knew the game. But in the last decade or so, I’ve grown into the habit of reading RPGs for the pure pleasure of it, and I sometimes forget how different the reading and playing experiences can be.

When I wrote my first review on RPG.net, it was what they call a “capsule” review — based on reading the book, not playing it. It was a review of the 3rd edition of Legends of the Five Rings and I gave it a rating higher than what I would now give after playing this version of the game for a while. I thought my knowledge of earlier editions of the game, combined with reading the new edition, were sufficient to form an opinion. Playing the actual rules, and having to thumb through the book to find the necessary information, gave me a different appreciation. Conversely, many is the game I disliked on first reading (Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Truth & Justice, etc.) which turned out to be a great deal of fun in play.

These days, I’ve been looking at an example of playing vs. reading that is a little different. Last fall, Tony Dowler ran a Nine Worlds game at the club (Edmund missed it, he was playing Torg). I really, really enjoyed the game. I thumbed through the book, and found it to be attractive. I already owned Dust Devils (“Revenged” edition) from the same author, which I had enjoyed reading, so I put Nine Worlds on my Christmas list, and Edmund got me a copy. I’ve been reading it on and off, when I have a few minutes. Here’s the thing: if I had read the book first, I would probably not have formed a good opinion of it.

On the plus side, it’s a pretty, well presented book with good layout, good fonts, and art that varies from technically good but not very flavourful, to very good and very inspiring. On the minus side, the writing is not very tight, it’s wordy, it has way, way too much setting chronology (about 25 Edit: 28! pages on the war between the Titans and the Eternals — I just don’t bloody care, give me the final score!), the system is “weird”, and it uses a lot of jargon. In play, none of this was a problem: the newbie players got used pretty easily to the jargon because we only needed a small portion of it, the system actually worked well despite being unusual, and the GM boiled down the metaplot to a handy-dandy relationship map. I had fun, and the game felt completely different from the impression mere reading provides me.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just not all that good at extrapolating from the game text. But with almost every game I play, I have to revise the impressions formed from reading — sometimes up, sometimes down. This has me firmly decided to write nothing but “actual play” reviews, as I have for the past year or so.

And they say romance is dead…

Somewhere between profoundly tacky and shockingly depressing, the MMORPG City of Heroes/City of Villains offers a Valentines Day event to its players. As those who play MMORPGs (or, like me, hang out with online gamers) know, these games periodically offer special events during which players can earn something extra for their characters which you can’t get outside this event: special gear, badges, costumes, etc. (I believe last weekend was “double experience points.”) Well, I made a joke about people staying home on Valentines Day to earn the special costume.

Turns out I wasn’t kidding.

CoH/CoV really IS offering special costumes (for a mere $9.99) as well as the chance to attend the wedding of two of the stock characters (the walking scenery) of their setting. Wow (or should I say WoW?)

I swear, if I was still single and had nothing to do on Valentines Day but play computer games where I attend the wedding of non-player characters, I would be so fucking depressed.

The small things in life

A word about the little things I love in the morning and rarely think to mention to anyone.

  • makes breakfast and walks me to the bus stop. And he kisses me before we part.
  • As of this week, the sun rises early enough and the clouds have parted enough that it’s light when I leave.
  • Sometimes I catch a beautiful view of the Cascades to the east, or the Olympics to the west along the way.
  • Just about every morning, the university crew boat teams are crossing under the University Bridge into Portage Bay when the bus crosses over the Ship Canal.
  • When I walk from the bus stop to the office, there are smells of coffee and cooking along the way, and I say hello to my friend the leaning tree.
  • On Monday mornings, I stop at the florist to get something for my office. Nothing big, I only have a minuscule vase, usually it’s just one flower and some greenery.
  • When I reach the office, we have a sweeping view of Elliott Bay and, when the weather is clear, the Olympics.

Candidates say the darnedest things!

Quote of the week:

“I know the pundits, and I know what they say: The math doesn’t work out,” Mike Huckabee said Saturday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “Well, I didn’t major in math; I majored in miracles. And I still believe in those, too.”

(Yeah, I assume everybody already read that one a few days ago. But — WTF???)

Another weekend update

We had a mostly decent weekend, which included the Scion game on Friday (alas, was not feeling well, but we had a new player who seemed quite fun), a re-match game of Warmachine on Saturday where I won this time (despite rolling abysmally), an Emerald City Gamefest meeting on Sunday morning to take the work for ConQuest NW 2008 in its home stretch, and a game of Legends of the Five Rings on Sunday night (my badger spirit is about to get stabbed by an evil wench!) Also, my review of vs. Outlaws was posted on RPG.net last Friday.

I’m feeling reasonably chipper because I’ve done some good work both at the office and for the convention. 🙂