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.

With this new book combining, updating, and expanding the information from several of its predecessors, Green Ronin takes the bold new step of going systemless, offering companion books providing the “crunch” for a variety of systems. The companions for True20, D20 3.5 — Green Ronin’s last 3.5 product — Castle & Crusades, and Savage Worlds are out (former two) or in production (latter two). Another has been discussed for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but may come to naught; however, early notes have been posted on the official Freeport site.

Style

The book is a 257-pages hardback printed on semi-gloss paper. Although most of the book is printed in greyscale, there is a 28-page overview section, “The City of Adventure”, printed in full colours. The art varies from OK to excellent, mostly staying in the good range, and the cartography is very attractive. The colour section provides a re-print of the Wayne Reynolds covers for the Freeport line of products, in their full glory without inset text or labels. I would have preferred the chapter heads to use different illustrations, rather than all being a black-and-white repeat of the cover illustration, because it would make it easier to recognize various chapter at a glance.

The layouts are clear and clean, and despite the use of slightly textured backgrounds, quite legible. The fonts are well chosen and easy to read, and clearly identify the different parts of the text.

The editing is generally very good; a few typos made it through, but they are minor. The style varies slightly from section to section and you can tell that different people wrote portions of the book, but the differences are small and the effect is not particularly jarring. On occasion it means minor contradictions: “This is the most secure location in Freeport,” – “No, THIS is the most secure location in Freeport!”, but not really in any way that would create serious problems for a GM.

Each geographical area is covered in its own section in a consistent format that makes it easy to find the desired information. Each contains a brief overview of the area; a boxed summary of snapshot descriptions of the buildings, people, roads, and descriptive elements; a map of the area, enlarged from the overall maps provided on the endsheets; a detailed description of 5 to 11 locations of interest keyed to the map, each with its own history, physical description, law enforcement overview, key figures, and a couple of adventure hooks; and one-sentence descriptions for a dozen more locations keyed on the map.

Sidebars provide additional information on topics of interest, legends, recent events, particular customs, etc. In addition, the text is strewn with headlines from the Freeport newspaper, The Shipping News, reminescent of Unknown Armies‘ “What You Hear” bits that launched the long-running RPG.net “Unknown Armies plot-in-a-line thread.” In these as well as in some other parts of the text are hidden the occasional in-joke; my favourite to date remains the headline “Three Killed by ‘Magic Deer’ Cultist in Bizarre Street Rampage.”

There is a reasonably comprehensive 3-page index at the end, concentrating mainly on the character and location names, and the 2-page table of contents is well detailed. An appendix provides the printing history of the Freeport line of products, which is helpful to help readers decide whether they wish to pick up any of the other books in the line.

Overall, the book is attractive, well organized, pleasant to read, and easy to use. On occasion, some topics may not be as easy to find if you don’t recall what section they were discussed in, especially those that keep recurring throughout the book. I want to give this book a 4.5 for style; it’s not quite perfection but it’s very good.

Substance

The flavour of Freeport is fantasy pirates plus Lovecraftian horror. (Yes, that may remind you of Pirates of the Caribbean; nevertheless, Freeport first appeared in 2000, three years before the first PotC movie.) When using the setting, you can easily emphasize the pirates, the fantasy, or the horror as you prefer. The entire book is intended to be portable to different campaigns and systems.

Locations

This book provides over 100 locations, primarily located in Freeport itself and a few on the surrounding islands and the distant mainland. These form the bulk of the tome, about 160 pages out of 254.

Freeport Districts. Freeport was founded by pirates using its anchorage as a haven, but has since become a real city that attempts to elevate itself above its unsavoury origins; nonetheless, it remains a nest of corruption and illegal traffic (perfect for player characters!) The city is divided into nine districts, ranging from slums to decadently rich.

  • The Docks: The gateway to Freeport, the narrow streets at once provide access the rest of the city and serve to keep the worst of the riff-raff of sailors and pirates from the “better” areas of town.
  • Scurvytown: The tenement ghetto where the poorest in Freeport end up.
  • Bloodsalt: Recently cobbled together shantytown where hobgoblins, orcs, and other “savage races” are relegated.
  • The Eastern District: A middle class, working district of small businesses and residential neighbourhoods.
  • The Old City: The original core of Freeport, surrounded by a wall and defensive towers; now mostly home to the city’s administration.
  • Drac’s End: The working class neighborhood that houses much of the raw labor force that keeps the industry and trade infrastructure of the city working.
  • The Temple District: Most of Freeport’s temples, shrines, religions and cults are found there.
  • The Merchant District: The most opulent district in the city, where the richest live and shop.
  • The Warehouse District: Primarily non-residential district where goods are stored.

Naturally, the locations discussed are primarily the type of location frequently encountered in game adventures. I could have wished for fewer bars, taverns, and similar entries among the locations, and more more of the infrastructure elements (schools beside the Freeport Institute, some shipping companies, or an Office of Public Works, for example) – that’s my bias as engineer showing, I expect.

The Serpent’s Teeth. In addition to the city-state of Freeport, the archipelago of the Serpent’s Teeth numbers a few locations of interest that allow a GM to create a true pirate-based campaign, one not solely taking place in the city of Freeport but including treasure caches, dangerous jungles, secret coves, and lonely islands.

The Continent. Although Freeport has always been offered as a setting that can be dropped in any fantasy campaign, this update of the City of Adventure provides one chapter to outline the rest of a “World of Freeport” for those who wish to run it as a standalone. “The Continent” is described as entirely optional, and takes a mere 14 pages. Its nations are generally what we think of as “standard” post-Tolkien fantasy, but with enough embellishments to give them some character and identity.

People

The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport provides thumbnails of over 200 characters. Each receives a rating (apprentice, journeyman, or master) indicating relative skill level. Quotes from key characters, strewn through the book and generally opening the section in which these characters are discussed, provide role-playing tips for the GM. There is an effort to provide a mix of typical or predictible characters and ones that have more depth or hold surprises. There are many important female characters, though they are still outnumbered by the males. Not all the characters are equally interesting but there is something for everyone.

Especially important characters are treated in a separate chapter according to a standard format: overview; background; appearance; personality; secrets, goals and plans; and adventure seeds.

Although in most cases the secret motivations of the Freeport personalities are only hinted at or are left unresolved, in some cases the details provided are downright spoilers. Those who want to enjoy Freeport as players and not as GM should either stay away from the character backgrounds, especially in Chapter 13 “Denizens of Freeport”, or be very consciencious about separating player knowledge and character knowledge.

Other Information

Sections of the book, particularly in Chapters 1, 2, 12, 14, and 17, give organized overviews of the city’s history, government, law and order, daily life, secrets, etc. These are very useful to get the feel of the setting and to tie together many related entries. For example, many entries throughout the book relate to two crime bosses (Finn and Mister Wednesday), to recent upheavals tied to earlier adventures published by Green Ronin (Sea Lord Milton Drac’s plans, the ensuing multi-sided struggle, and the Great Green Fire), to wicked cults (the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, for example), etc.. It is very helpful to read the overviews of these topics in order to make sense of the situation.

The sections on life in Freeport also make good introductory handouts for players.

Using Freeport

The book provides very useful GM advice on tailoring Freeport to their own campaign. Thanks to a deliberately customizable design, you have all the tools handy to adjust Freeport to an existing campaign. The original version of the setting, which was meant for use with D&D 3e, made the Freeport part of a generic fantasy world so the city-state could be placed in just about any campaign. This new systemless version goes further by helping GMs tinker with such elements as races, campaign tone and themes, the level and importance of magic, the technology level, etc.

The decision of going systemless was, quite obviously, linked WotC’s long-anticipated switch to a D&D 4e; but in the long run it may be to Green Ronin’s advantage to offer a product that is more flexible and will appeal to other players besides D&D fans. If you want to mix Freeport with 50 Fathoms, Call of Cthulhu, or Vampire: Dark Ages, it’s easier than ever.

Certain categories of details are left sketchy so that they can be overlayed with specifics at the GM’s discretion. For example, the gods worshipped in the city are simply referred to by their area of power: the God of Knowledge, the God of War, the God of the Sea, etc. It’s usually very easy for the GM to give names to these; for example, Athena, Ares, and Poseidon from the Greek pantheon; Wotan, Tyr, and Aegir from the Norse pantheon; or Boccop, Hextor, and Osprem from the D&D core pantheon. A monotheist campaign in a quasi-European setting might even substitute patron saints like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Michael, and St. Brendan, for example.

The GM advice on how to adjust Freeport to your campaign is very interesting reading. It will help you think about what you want the city to feel like in your game, what elements are crucial in order to get it right and which ones are window-dressing. I really appreciated that the authors were not prescribing a specific way to use the setting but rather thought of many aspects that can be tweaked. That said, if you do decide to tinker with the default parameters, you will naturally have a bit more work to do than if you just use the setting unaltered.

The book offers somewhere around 250 plot seeds; many are suitable to provide a scene, a plot complication or a red herring in your story, but can be pumped to full-blown adventures if a GM is willing to spend the effort to flesh them out. In a pinch, if you’re stumped for what to do with your players this episode, grab a plausible location and use one of the provided adventure hooks to get things rolling.

I feel that Freeport earns a solid 4 or even 4.5. It provides lots of very good material to work from and the means to tailor it to your preferences.

Actual Play

Last summer I read on Nicole Lindroos’ blog that the Green Ronin folks were publishing an updated compendium of their signature setting Freeport, called The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. I sighed that I was tempted, despite the fact that I don’t play D&D or d20. She triumphantly informed me that I had no more excuses for not getting the book, as it was going systemless.

I confess, I’m a sucker for swashbuckling, which usually includes pirate games. As soon as the print version of the book was out in September, I got myself a copy as a picker-upper on a somewhat crappy week. And I was not disappointed! I loved the book. In fact, I loved it so much that when I got to work with some friends, organising the role-playing section for the February 2008 edition of ConQuest NW, I suggested we plan a special event called “Four Days of Freeport” where different systems would be used to run games in the Freeport setting.

We received enthusiastic interest from the potential GMs we approached. Soon we had enough people interested, with a cross-section of systems, that it looked like the event was a good possibility. I contacted Green Ronin and explained our proposed event, then asked whether Green Ronin was interested in sponsoring the event by offering prizes and letting us use their trademarks and images for promotion. They graciously agreed, and provided our GMs with PDF copies of the book, as well as one copy of the Dark Wings Over Freeport adventure per game to award to lucky players.

We ended up with the following games and systems:

  1. “All Freeport Must Be Eaten – All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE)
  2. “The Buccaneers of the Skies” – Savage Worlds
  3. “CSI: Freeport” – Castle Falkenstein
  4. “Freeport Squad” – mashup of Dungeon Squad and Pirate Squad
  5. “Little Lost Yog Sothoth” – Monsters and Other Childish Things/One-Roll Engine (ORE)
  6. “Sing a Sarah Shanty” – Savage Worlds
  7. “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Milk” – Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S) beta (PDQ-based, in its playtest phase)

I played in four of these or in the playtest versions prior to the convention: #3, 4, 5, and 7; and I watched the others being played. I also read the book cover-to-cover. What I unfortunately have not had to date is a chance to play or run an extended campaign in Freeport; however, I believe it is even more suited to long-term play than short adventures since the prolonged exposure will give a group the time to absorb more of the background and plots waiting to be used.

We had an interesting cross-section of flavours offered, from straight-up horror, to light-hearted horror parody, to swashbuckling airship tales, to criminal investigation.

In the games I played or observed, the ready-made setting information was very handy when players asked questions not covered in the GMs’ notes: “Is there a shop we can go to?”, “I need to talk to a scholar who knows about blood magic,” etc. When the questions were geographically organized (e.g., “Is there a tavern in this area?”), reference was easy. It was more difficult when asking for locations or characters that were not obviously tied to a specific area (e.g., “I want to speak to a fellow halfling that has lots of contacts in the community.”) A second index cross-referenced by topic would have been helpful (though a lot of work to create, I imagine).

Another use the GMs made of the setting was to create relationships for pre-generated player characters, by assigning them ties to ready-made NPCs, groups and locations provided in the book. This made it easier for players to draw upon contacts and resources, and get anchored into the setting. This gave a good sense of place, and the more it was used by a GM, the more I generally enjoyed the game.

I felt that as a setting reference, the book provided enough detail to get a good solid background to build upon, without being long enough to become unwieldy.

Summary

This is a good book for, you guessed it, GMs who want run a fantasy pirate campaign with horror overtones. Those who want to take advantage od a ready-made setting with lots of built-in characters, plots, organizations, locations, and relationships will be happy with it. And people who like a sandbox approach will probably be delighted.

Those who use systems for which no Freeport Companion is planned and do not want to write their own stats for characters will probably decide this is too much work. People looking for a realistic take on piracy or verisimilitude in the city’s workings may not be satisfied with Freeport’s fantasy setting.

For my part, I loved the book and was happy to recommend it to many people.

Follow the discussion on RPG.net.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s