Game: Denizens of Freeport
Publisher: Green Ronin
Reviewer: Caliban’s Toybox
Review Dated: 18th, March 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Another day, another collection of generic NPCs…
In the far-off days of my youth, I was proud and cocksure and reflecting on it with the kind of scathing, soul flaying honesty that always earns a man plaudits in reviews like this (as well as on the trashier daytime chat shows) a royal pain in the posterior.
I’d lurk in alleyways, twin copies of first edition Vampire concealed in my trench coat, ready to spring out at the drop of a hat, pin, or any combination thereof to loudly explain to anything unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity exactly why roleplaying was a revolutionary new form of collective group interaction that would not only influence but actually redefine from first principles all narrative media, forms, and structures thereafter.
Back in those days, before a group of friends got together to give me the few concerned words of advice and sound beating that helped me see the error of my ways and put me in traction, I’d rather have supped from the very bladder of Satan than come within six miles of a book like “Denizens of Freeport.”
This sort of thing was for people who lacked the commitment, the imagination, the flair, the sheer panache to be called real roleplayers (as opposed, presumably, to all those wannabe roleplayers we’re always hearing about in the society columns). Someone else writing NPCs, adventure hooks, and stats with the intention that they be used in one’s own game? Heresy! Blasphemy! Defenestration! (I’ve often had the sneaking suspicion, judging by the muffled sniggers of my audience, that this word doesn’t actually mean what I think that it means. Tragically, I also suffer from a crippling phobia of dictionaries.)
Now, I’m older and far away from the person I was then. I have a job and videogaming addiction that leaves me precious little time to devote to doing all the little fiddly bits that game preparation necessitates. Books like this have become essential in freeing me to work on the exciting and important bits, and simply customising, reworking and refining the smaller details they supply.
How does “Denizens in Freeport” do in the time-freeing-up department? For those cursed with a short attention span or an aversion to meandering, “Ain’t It Cool News” style introductions, the answer is “okay-ish.” The rest of you can find out in more detail below.
96 perfect bound pages, three of which are taken up with credits, introduction/OGL, and a so-so street scene featuring a few of the book’s NPCs (including the second biggest pair of orc lips I’ve ever seen).
It’s a good thing I’ve taken the old saw about never judging a book by it’s cover to heart, because the cover of “Denizens in Freeport” looks exactly like the sort of cheesy waxwork tableau described within the first few pages of the seminal “World’s Cheesiest Waxwork Tableaux.”
75 or so NPCs, including art, appropriate and accurate stats, personality/background notes, physical descriptions, and adventure hooks for each. I’ll talk about these in just a moment, after I highlight the most glaring of Denizen’s otherwise dim and shady flaws which I’ll do shortly after lauding one of it’s most shiny triumphs the layout.
The NPCs are neatly organised in single, double or triple page spreads with large headers at the top of each page giving the name and profession of the NPC dealt with therein, which doesn’t sound like much but actually
turns out to be incredibly useful in play particularly in moments of desperate page-flipping to find a particular NPC. Coupled with the careful use of headers and sectioning, it’s both useful and easy on the eyes.
It cannot, unfortunately, quite compensate for the lack of anything even faintly resembling an index. HELLO, GREEN RONIN! Here are seventy-odd NPCs and associated goons, new items, and new spells, in a book which you know
is going to see most use in the middle of game session which it gets picked up and leafed through by GMs desperate to find Wossername the Thingummy in a hurry. Perhaps a nice single page listing of where to find same would have been idea?
(If you tell me, “We only wanted to spare you from the kind of PAGE XX fiasco found in competitor’s products, because we at Green Ronin respect you too much to pull that kind of stunt!” then we’ll forget the whole thing. Oh, I’ll still know you’re making it up, but I’m a sucker for being sweet-talked by the imaginary collective voice of anthropomorphised games companies.)
The personality and background sections of each NPCs are well, all of them are at least competently written, although few go beyond that. There’s a certain sense that these are somewhat over-concise briefings rather than fuller and more descriptive pieces. Perhaps that’s a problem with the format of the beast rather than the authors, however; a question of necessity, both (I assume) for reasons of space as well as to allow the scope for customisation required by the individual GM.
The physical descriptions are passable, and eerily reminiscent of alt-character MUSH descriptions. Few evoke particularly striking or memorable images, a flaw which is somewhat circumvented by noting that almost all of them seem to include what the old FASA Dr Who RPG called “recognition handles” unique props or signifiers associated with each character that serve to fix them in the mind of the players.
In general, the background sections are much longer than the personalities, which in turn tend to be fuller than the physical descriptions.
The adventure hooks are presented as a series of bullet points but resist the inherent temptation to skimp on thought and detail for the sake of quantity (and there are usually quite a few eight or nine in many cases). They suggest ways in which the NPCs might be deployed in your game and ways in which some of the things mentioned in backgrounds and personalities might come to affect both the city and your players.
Some are actually quite thought-provoking, and almost all of them make excellent kernels for custom adventuring though obviously, they lack development or suggestions on resolutions or pay-offs. A few of them do seem to make particular assumptions about the ways in which races (orcs, dwarves, and elves in particular) act and react in the gameworld which may need some careful reworking before they and their NPCs can be used.
“Surprisingly variable” is the phrase that springs to mind: from bizarrely cartoonish to moodily effective to genuinely terrifying (though not, I’d wager, intentionally) monstrosities like the Amazing No-Necked Dwarf on page 38. I shouldn’t complain too much about ol’ No-Neck, however, as I’ve made a tidy sum selling photocopies of this veiny-armed beastie to farmers needing a quick and effective way to scare off unwanted predators.
In all fairness, the art is of a generally high standard, quirky stylistic preferences aside, but any chance at an overall mood or theme is almost entirely lost thanks to the patchwork approach to the NPC portraits.
For a book that wants to save me time, Denizens of Freeport is going to eat up a little more than I’m entirely happy with, particularly in fleshing out some of the occasionally skimpy personalities and descriptions. The hooks and backgrounds too are going to need some thought before being used again, since some of the assumptions they make about the game world aren’t the ones my game world makes.
On the other hand, if you’re buying this book then it’s likely you’ve already accepted the assumptions (or at least worked out fresh ones to replace them) made in the Freeport setting itself in previous supplements, and will find this easy to overcome.
The lack of an index, however, you may not.
Overall, then, Denizens of Freeport does exactly what it says on the imaginary tin it doesn’t come in: a solid, competent collection of NPCs, items, and spells that’s not quite as generic as it hints at being.
6/10, scoring an extra point for “Mungo and His Amazing Monkeys” and “Thirsty Knob, Bizarre Cleric” which conjure up a whole world of possibilities with their names alone.