Game: Black Sails Over Freeport
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 24th, April 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 3.00
Black Sails Over Freeport is a large pre-written adventure. The 256-paged book has three distinct Acts but it is one complete adventure. As the name suggests; this is a Freeport adventure. You don’t actually need any of the previous Freeport books, they could help a little but you won’t miss them if you’ve not read them. Overlaps occur mainly in reoccurring characters, references to past events and political situations which don’t have much of a baring on the plot in this adventure. This is how I like my books to overlap.
Black Sails Over Freeport is a very pretty book. It has Green Ronin’s professional touch to it. It’s exceptionally well laid out, the text size is spot on (small, but not unreadable), the illustrations are used generously but not to fill space and it is a pleasant book to flick through.
It’s a pretty book but that doesn’t swing it for me. I can’t but help sense that Green Ronin are still looking to push Freeport into the prestigious, memorable and oft talked about status that games like The Enemy Within have. And I think they’re nearly there, you’ve quality and near cult d20 products like Second World Sourcebook which use Freeport well. Black Sails Over Freeport doesn’t help push Freeport forward, but unlike some of the most recent Freeport products, it doesn’t threaten to drag it back either. Freeport seems to be finding it hard to find a balance in the High Fantasy and Pirate themes. Although the token gnome at the start of the book is annoying, Black Sails Over Freeport does manage to persuade the two themes to sail together.
Sling yer hook. If you’re worried about spoilers, then turn your boat around now and sail for the horizon. If you’re not worried about spoilers then there is clear sailing ahead.
The backdrop to Black Sails is all about gods. The book names the Pirate God Harrimast and his treacherous, demi-god, first mate Yarash. Harrimast deals with Yarash with powers you won’t find in any d20 supplement. *pause to smirk at gods with stats*
Here’s the overview. Yarash wants to unseat Harrimast. Yarash, through a back story twist or two, turns five Freeport pirate captains into undead minions. Yarash gets caught by Harrimast. Yarash has his body destroyed and his spirit trapped. Four of the five undead pirates and Yarash’s essence are stranded on islands behind Hell’s Triangle. Yeah; think Bermuda Triangle, but call it Hell’s Triangle. (Surely by now Freeport players must have dealt with several haunted triangles?) You’ve guessed it already, haven’t you? Yes. The players have to find a way through Hell’s Triangle, visit these islands, grab ancient artefacts and head back to Freeport with the loot.
There are some twists. Bringing the artefacts back to Freeport, putting them together for the first time in one and half decades; is a mistake. It gives Yarash a chance to escape. It also gives the Son of Yarash – a kraken – a chance to play. There’s also a war between barbarians and elves that the players have to care about. There is a problem with orcs in the city that the players have to care about too.
I’ve played in a Freeport game (just finished last month after years of play). I know what our characters got up to and given the chance of stopping a war, stopping Freeport from being dragging into a war or buggering off to check out some map, then I know what they’d pick. And no, it wouldn’t involve the map. As it happens the background rumblings of a possible war is kept fairly low in the first act. This might be to stop characters deciding it is more important than the map but I feel it is all too easy for the characters to ignore or fail to notice the political tensions entirely. This is unfortunate because the conflict explodes in act 2, while the characters are out of the city, and ambushes them with violence when they return in act 3.
The problem with pre-written adventures, especially long ones like this, is that everything which comes after hinges on everything that happened before. It’s very easy for the players to step off the expected track and screw up the rest of the pre-planned plot. There’s very little room for error in Black Sails Over Freeport too. Yarash’s island is only present in this realm for 24 hours and if the GM times this wrongly; letting the players see it and then having the players go off and do something else (collapse, for example) will result in ungraceful back peddling.
Unfortunately I think Black Sails Over Freeport gets off to an awful start. That’s twice as painful because that throws the rest of the plot into jeopardy. It’s not a plot point that makes me wince first, though, it’s narrative.
Here’s a quote from the /very first/ section to read to players.
“Next to your ship, a cargo vessel is offloading some of the oddest cargo you’ve ever seen: orcs. It unnerves you to see these creatures you’ve battled numerous times walking unhindered through throngs of ordinary people.”
Okay; let’s just assume orcs are the oddest cargo the players have ever seen and that PCs have battled orcs numerous times. Assumptions I can make but I can’t get over such a rookie error. A GM shouldn’t tell players how their characters feel (baring magical effects). Your tough dwarf? He’s scared right now! He is too! Your prim elf cleric? She’s horny right now. She’s got the hots for the tough, but scared, dwarf.
It’s a real shame if you can’t use the professionally written atmosphere pieces in a supplement. Thankfully this crime isn’t repeated extensively throughout the book.
In the first scene a gnome runs up to the players, he tells them he’s being chased, wants them to look after a map and then give it back to him later.
Much of the plot hinges on the characters doing just this.
To be fair on Black Sails the book does discuss the other things the characters might do; like hand the gnome over to whoever is chasing him, or kill him out right, but it’s not much help. We’re told it will make later scenes more difficult. No duh! Thanks a lot! I think, if I was one of the players, I’d probably hold the gnome, wait to see who was chasing him (he could be a thief trying to avoid the long arm of the law, after all) and then discuss the situation, ready to fight if needs be. In Black Sails’ favour this is unlikely to work. Naturally occurring events are likely to throw that plans into chaos and the gnome has every chance to leg it. However unless the GM is willing to automatically and unconditionally doom the characters’ attempts to secure the gnome and talk to the pirates chasing him (which seems to the encouraged option) then it’ll just be a few pages before the book can be set aside and the GM left to wing it. In that worse case scenario there are chances to “recover” and get back on the pre-written plot, the start of Act 2 being the most likely.
It’s handy if the players stick to the plot the author intended. In fact, it’s so handy that Black Sails Over Freeport seems to award experience points to players who support the authors preferred version. Encouraging the rest of the party to go do things; like solve the mystery of the map, earns experience points in one scene. Tight against the first scene with the gnome, for example, there’s a fight between some orcs and dock workers. Players who try and stop the fight get experience points. Why? Because Black Sails is written for good/law aligned parties? It doesn’t say so; it says it’s written for a group of four level 6 characters. You’ll struggle to play Black Sails with a less than heroic group and that’s not clear at all from the introduction. See; it’s worth reading reviews after all!
The finer art of plot points are less of a concern when the players reach the undead pirate islands. There they’ll entertain themselves with skull shaped floating castles (so much for Freeport’s gritty shtick) and islands of intelligent White Gorillas who control the local human population (ship wrecked sailors and their descendants). Um. I don’t have much to comment on here. Er. The monster stats look balanced. Combat scenes will have a Pirates of the Caribbean feel to them.
Black Sails Over Freeport doesn’t really do much for me. I can appreciate its attention to detail and I can see that it follows the rotes of pre-written adventures very well. If I was a fan of pre-written adventures then I’d probably like Black Sails more. Each of the islands behind the Hell’s Triangle can easily be used as an adventure in its own right and that’s ideal for those gamers who like to buy pre-written games for inspiration or cannibalisation.
If you’re buying all the Freeport books just to have the entire set then you’ll not object to Black Sails Over Freeport. If you like fairly lengthy pre-written scenarios then you’ll appreciate Black Sails. If you’d rather have a flexible, original, game then Black Sails probably isn’t for you.