by Lev Lafayette
En Garde! Review
Introduction and Physical Product
First published in 1975, with new editions in 1977, 1988, and 2005, En Garde!, certainly classifies as the earliest of the swashbuckling RPGs, and certainly the longest lasting. The 1977 edition, reviewed here, is pretty much the same as the 1975 edition but with errata from the first edition incorporated. It describes itself as "a semi-hisorical game/simulation representing many o fthe situations of an Errol Flynn movie set in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centures".
The game comes in a short 48 page A5 booklet with cardstock cover and saddle-stapled. It is typed in 9-point Century (as we are helpfully informed), a serif font, with justification. About a third of the book is tables. There is a good table of contents but at a mere 48 pages, it is unsurprising to discover that there is no index. One cannot complain about the art, because there isn't any - with the exception of an uncredited cover piece depicting the unfortunate results of a dueling bout among some rather foppish individuals.
It's a very dry and dense read and not very well structured by any stretch of the imagination, but with a surprising amount of humour built into the system dead-pan. The game is subtitled "Being in the Main a Game of the Life and Times of a Gentleman Adventurer and his Several Companions", there is rules for toadying with the introduction "Characters may gain status by being in the company of their better; these may likewise benefit by the cultivation of sycophants" & etc.
The first part of the game is dedicated to duelling. Three character abilities (Strength, Expertise, and Constitution) are determined by a 3d6 roll. A fourth, Endurance, is the determined by multiplying Strength and Constitution (giving the somewhat unusual range of 9 to 324 with an average of 110). Duels are carried out by secretly recording a sequence of twelve turns, with each turn consisting of a single action. A group of actions constitutes a routine. For example a lunge routine consists of a rest, a lunge, and a rest.
When the turns are revealed, one may substitute an "optional routine" (parry, block), replacing the previously recorded routine. Cross-reference the attack with the defenders action, and multiply the value listed with the attacker's strength, and weapon type, subtracting from the defender's Endurance. A successful parry may result in weapon breakage. Characters with advantage in Expertise can force their defender's to take additional 'rest' maneuevers per turn. Following the wounds received, character may recover 50% in the first week, then their Constitution score per week thereafter.
The second part of the book is entitled "The Character and His Environment", and despite being somewhat scattered in ordering, can be differentiated between the social life of characters and the military life. With regards to the former, chief among these is their birthright, randomly determined values for Class (Commoner, Gentleman, Noble), Sibling Rank, and Father's Position. The combination of these determines the starting Crowns for the charcters, their allowance, inheritance, and their starting social level.
Characters may engage in one social activity per week; there are (for game purposes) four weeks to a month, three months to a season, and four seasons to a year. A character's objective is to accumulate status points on a month by month basis, so they can raise their social level. However Status is expensive! Characters must pay Crowns equal to twice their Status per mont for support (clothes, servants etc), but could gain status points by additoinal expenditure (conspicious consumption). Joing a Club is a good way to gain status points, but carousing costs Crowns equal to the existing social level, and so forth. Having "some sort" of female companionship (whether by bawdy house or having a mistress) is also necessary to maintain status; "if desired, mistresses may also be given names". If the circumstances are right, characters may also declare a duel with other characters.
Social status is also required to enter one of a number of military regiments and, if they have sufficient wealth, purchase an officer's commission. Every summer season members of the regiment may go on a campaign. On other seasons, if a character is sufficiently brave and foolish, they may volunteer. Membership of a regiment and participation in conflicts can lead to a income, improved status, opportunities for advancement through heroic deeds, and the the chance to be killed. Such is the life of adventure.
Characters in the military have an additional ability, Military Ability, determined by a single die roll. The success of military conflicts is determined by this ability, but the colonel leading the campaign army may have their own MA modified if they have competent staff officers. There is both a battle outcome and a personal outcome, with the former based on the type of deployment that occurs and the latter determining whether the character is killed, mentioned in dispatches (which improves social status), received a promotion, and whether or not they acquired any plunder. There are notable modifications to the personal outcome table based on the action and regiment in question.
Some additional interesting options includes engaging in poltroonery (i.e., run away from a dangerous battle), an act of cowardice that may be noticed which can result in the character losing status points, or even being expelled from the regiment. Conversely, a character may decide to engage in reckless bravery instead, which whilst increasing the chance of being killed also improves the opportunities for being mentioned in dispatches, promotion, or plunder. Finally if the situation demands it a character may be assigned a brevet rank where a promotion occurs but the character still lacks sufficient status.
Conclusion and Evaluation
Deriving from the very early days of roleplaying games, the production qualities of En Garde! are not the greatest by any stretch of the imagination, whether one considers the actual physical product, the artistic input, the layout of the page and table of contents, organisation of the rules, and so forth. What it does gain a great deal of kudos for however is its uniqueness. In terms of the game system, well, it is primitive to say the least with a distinct lack of consistency in how particular cases are applied - but by the same token each rule itself is self-contained and believable in what it is trying to simulate. In terms of the game's setting, it covers a great range of activities albeit with a tight focus (the lack of female characters for example is obvious), and it does so typically with a minimum of fuss - the signal to content ration is high.
En Garde! also has an unusual feel insofar that it plans activities a month in advance as a schedule; the most obvious comparison that comes to mind is Superhero 2044, but En Garde! is a far superior application of such activity. Simply put, it plays well, very well in fact, and can easily accomodate large numbers of players. One can certainly see why it continued to be played onwards from 1975, an extraordinary success for what is a fairly marginal market.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .1 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .4 (readability) + .3 (product) = 3.2
Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + .8 (text) + .8 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .4 (system) = 4.2
Pirates and Plunder Review
Introduction and Physical Product
Pirates and Plunder is a historical roleplaying game of the age of piracy set in the 17th century and specifically for the Carribean, Central and South America. The boxed set comes with an attractive piece of cover art by Jerry Lee who also does the few examples of fine artwork in the first book; after that there is only functional sketches. There are three books with the helpful titles of The Basic Game (44 pages), The Advanced Game (52 pages), and The Adventures (40 pages). In addition there are eight pages of maps etc, a pad of character sheets (which includes both errors and a summary of character generation), and two small twenty-sided d10s. The three books have cardstock covers, saddle-stapled, and on some fairly good quality paper.
The text is provided in two-column justified throughout with a serif font with boxed sections, and with a clear markings of page numbers. However there are no chapters as such, just sections which are insufficiently distinct. The first book has a table of contents, and the second an index of the two books. Further, the text doesn't pay much attention to issues like tables that sometimes flow across two pages. The writing style is incredibly rambling and informal. The traditional opening of 'what is roleplaying' is more like an extensive essay of some ten pages. It contains some very good points, especially for the time, arguing that roleplaying is like a improvised script-writing of a mini-series, with players taking up roles a script-writers and actors, and with randomness providing some of the challenge and enjoyment of the experience. This is great content, even if the style and signal-to-bandwidth leaves a lot to be desired.
Character generation and an introductory scenario are interwoven. After two pages of reading aloud an introduction to the players, they get the opportunity to design their captured pirate (better than being a dead one). As an interesting element for the time, players can have one "star" character (who gets bonuses in generating abilities) and supporting characters (who also receive a smaller bonus). Generation consists of succession of 2d10 rolls, plus modifiers. Height and Weight are determined first with results cross-referenced to a table, with high weight providing a bonus to Strength, Stamina, and Drinking, as "you won't find many fat or poorly muscle-toned pirates" . Handedness is random, followed by "Lucky Break/Adrenaline" which allows between 0 to 8 rerolls per adventure. In addition to these there are Strength, Agility (which determines Movement), Vision and Hearing (which determine Senses), and Wounds. The last ability is used to calculate wound points for a rather hefty selection of body areas; Head/Neck, Shoulder/Upper Arm, Elbow, Forearm, Hand, Hip/Thigh, Knee, Calf, Foot, Chest, Abdomen, Groin.
In the basic rules several abilities are not calculted - these include Encumbrance Point, Constitution, and Stamina. In addition to these there are skill-like abilities, albeit a fairly modest selection. This includes musket, pistol, swordmanship, fist/dagger training, all determined by a 2d10 roll. These are combined with various other characteristics (e.g., Vision, Agility, Strength etc) to calculate 'to hit' numbers. For example, the 'Fist/Dagger' to hit number is based on the training times three, plus Strength and Agility, with the sum divided by five. Nationality is also randomly determined with most characters coming from various parts of England, but with a not-insignificant number of French, Dutch, Irish, and Scots. The 'special' results are ignored in the basic rules. Intelligence is then determined, providing a bonus on Read and Write, and Speak and understand foreign languages. All characters are able to speak English, regardless of nationality, and they also have a number of randomly determined language points which they can spend to develop a level of competence in the main European languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Franch), or - at half-value - more generic Indian languages (Yucatan, South American Indian, North Carribbean Indian, South Caribbean Indian). Finally, the character's religion (Catholic, Protestant, None, Pagan) is randomly determined which chances cross-referenced with nationality, along with their 'Religious Fervor' ability.
Following this basic character generation the text returns to the opening scenario, again with a couple of pages of colourful description, then leading to an in-jail fist-fight among the prisoners, with GMs encouraged to narrative descriptions rather than mechanical. Description of the fist/dagger combat system occurs here, with first strike based on Agility, and with results determined from a combat results table, with notable modifiers from difference between the two character's "to hit" numbers in the respective ability. Damage is differentiated into wounds and stun points, with the latter recovered within an hour, along with half of the former. After the fist-fight, there is a narrative break, and then the characters have an opportunity to experience swordfighting. The system is pretty much the same as fist-fights, with the key difference is that swords do wounds, whereas fists do stun and wound damage. After another narrative interlude, the characters are freed from their prison with a conditional rescue, which involves much bloodshed on the part of PCs and several amorous encounters. This give the opportunity to introduce some new derived abilities into the game, specifically Stealth, which receives a hefty two pages of description (including contests against Senses, movement rate, and silent kills).
Advanced Rules and Further Adventures
The Advanced Rules are meant to difference in the degree of player-character freedom offered, and with some modest hints to gamemasters on how to ad-lib situations that arise from these new freedoms. The content of the book however does not really reflect this. Whereas the first book alternated between narration, rules, and roleplay, the second book is almost entirely rules. Abilty checks are introduced (rather late in the piece I think) along with an "everything table" which correlates adjectival descriptions of a situation to mechanical modifiers. The "special nationalities" are introduced, Reading and Writing ability, Swimming, and some personality traits primarily for NPCs (Greed, Compassion, Morality, Courage), along with a Physical Appearance score. This is further elaboration on the Luck (reroll) and Adrenaline (1d10 add to ability) rules.
There is plenty of elaborations to the to the fighting rules to include parries and ripostes, clubbing weapons, and various brawling events. Armed versus unarmed combat rules are added, along with special rules for the use of the main gauche, boarding pikes and the like. Combat stances and maneuvers ("patterns") are added along targetting specific body locations. There is significant modification to missile weapons, including notable variation in damage, and spread rules for the blunderbuss. Thrown weapons, including grenades, are added as options. Grenades, which affect the target square and adjacent squares, may cause multiple wounds or none. Appropriately this is followed by armor effects, which is a modifier to attack rolls according to attack type - not to wound points. A notation system for different types of wounds in introduced (for scarring purposes!), along with the natural hazard of snakebites, which provides an opportunity to introduce the Constitution ability, and the recovery of wounds, especially with the advantage of a medical kit. An Encumbrance system is introduced with a carrying capacity of ten times Strength and per item values, which is roughly equal a half a pound in weight. For every 10 points over the capacity, a character suffers a -1 penalty to Strength, Agility, Swimming, and Stealth.
Several pages of a mass combat and advanced mass combat system are offered, with combat values derived as a multiple of the class of combatant, generating a strength value for the conflict, with some fairly hefty modifiers. Despite their relative basic inability, civilians double their ability when defending their homes, Indians are good at fighting in the jungle (pirates not so much) etc. Major characters can avoid the fate of randomly allocated victims in such an environment by making use of the Luck.
The Advanced rules conclude with a hodge-podge of various rules, such as the use of horses, wagons, and a rather amusing discussion of "quiet interludes in Port Royal" which has an extensive treatment of the payments and modifiers to the market price when sailors engage professional ladies for "polite social conversation over tea and crumpets", which is one of the more unusual euphemisms. There are also extensive rules for drinking contests, gambling, target shooting, arm wrestling, and slap fights. The drinking contests do not include the standard rations of a canteen of rum or equivalent per day, without which a sailor will have a negative to their 'Emotional Stability' ability. Just in case you're not learning from all this, the chapter finishes with the rules for the Teaching ability.
"Sailors are, and always have been, sailors. Immediately after reaching a port after a hard tour of sea duty most sailors will make a bee-line for the nearest Lady to engage in polite social conversation over a cup of tea and a plate of crumpets... Professional conversationalists, being professional, have certain specific qualities they look for in a potential customer who seeks to enjoy their company and spirited conversation. These qualities will influence not only the length and depth of the conversations but may indeed influence any monetary consideration. The adage that 'Talk is Cheap,' does not apply in Port Royal.
Sailors, for their part, greatly desire to indulge themselves in feminine company and most definitely in as much conversation and tea and crumpets as possible when in port. The reason for this being that tea and crumpets are not the usual shipboard fair [sic], and female conversation is most difficult to come by on a man of war. Failure to obtain sufficient tea, crumpets, and conversation can cause a deep, disturbing sense of frustration and loss on the part of the sailor often causing him to become somewhat sour of disposition and occasionally rash or aggressive toward those in his immediate neighborhood."
- Pirates & Plunder, Book II, p43-44
Not too much can be said about the third book, Further Adventures. There is a some verbose descriptions of a hacienda which the pirates can engage in some looting and pillaging, an extensive cross-country trek across some inhospitable land (from a pirate's point of view), and the takeover of some forts and a Spanish town, which means more looting and pillaging, including the local church as a prime target. There are "required encounters" in this linear progression, along with some random tables with a modicum of flavour in the text, along with various random encounters, keyed to particular region types. Eventually the story concludes with a journey to Port Royal to witness the marriage of Jake The Peg.
Whilst the physical product is quite fair and the art (what there was of it) quite good, the game lacks a great deal of cohesion in its presentation. The initial attempt of modularity is interesting, but when it was abandoned the general organisation of the text quickly went from bad to worse. The aforementioned writing style is just overly verbose, despite some amusing moments.
As for the game system, it is rather primitive to say the least. The degree of randomness in character generation is too high, with too much out of the player's hands. Lumping everything into "abilities" may work in some systems, but in Pirates & Plunder there is significant divergence in the scope of these abilities. There are far too few of the skill-like abilities, and those that do exist are too strongly biased towards core combat abilities, which are at times amazingly clunky and inconsistent. As a historical roleplaying game - which is makes some claims to - it is a terrible failure. There is almost nothing here that provides any background to the period. Given that the game is about pirates, the fact there is nothing relating to shipping is quite inexcusable.
But despite all this, every time I've run Pirates & Plunder, it has been fun. It certainly is very poorly suited to any sort of extensive campaign, and it really only works for "beer and pretzels" (or rum and bread) evenings. The game and especially the adventures, for all its flaws, does have style, and quite a lot of it. For that alone, Pirates and Plunder, whilst certainly a second-rate game, does carry a certain quirky charm from the earlier days of roleplaying.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .6 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .3 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.6
Substance: 1 + .5 (content) + .2 (text) + .7 (fun) + .2 (workmanship) + .2 (system) = 2.8
Flashing Blades Review
Introduction and Physical Product
Flashing Blades is one of those games that has entered legend and lore of the early days of roleplaying games, not the least being for the fact that the author was but sixteen when he wrote it. The game is historical fiction, set in 17th century France, an era of bland and dynamic Kings, scheming and evil Cardinals, the three musketeers, and "countless other swashbucklers, dandies, cavaliers, rogues, villains, highwaymen, and cutthroats".
Consisting of two books and a GMs screen in a box, the game is written in two-column justified sans-serif font (with hand-added accent marks), which is reasonably well-laid out, especially compared to many FGU games. There is a good table of contents in the main rulebook, especially considering that the game is a mere 49 pages, including references and title page! The black-and-white artwork (except for the colour box cover), by Bain Sidhe Studio, is typically contextually appropriate, evocative and shows quite good technique. The writing style is compact but also evocative. There are a couple of minor editing glitches and a couple of organizational issues (e.g. discovering modifications to abilities later in the book after they've been calculated). There are a number of boxed sections of text for examples.
Character generation is familiar to the era; Attributes are rolled on 3d6 in order for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Wit, Charm, and Luck. These are followed by 2d6 rolls to determine height (short, average, tall) and weight (thin, average, stocky). Some combinations of these provide further modifications to Strength and Dexterity. If the original rolls are below 54, the total can be increased to 54 according to the player's wishes. Hit Points and Encumbrance values both start off at a base of 10, but the former can be increased by Strength, Endurance, Luck, and Build and the latter by Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, and Build. Further in the rules there is the option of a character with base Attributes of 12 or more being a "Renaissance Man", which generates excellent bonuses to skill attempts etc - this is the "munchkin" option.
Character Background - effectively "class" - is from a selection of Rogue, Gentleman, Soldier, and Nobleman. Professions determine a relationship with skills. Characters begin with 10 skill points modified by Wits and Luck. Bonus skills which are only available to members of that profession at a much reduced 1 point cost (e.g., Captaincy for Soldiers, Etiquette for Nobles, Bargaining for Gentlemen, Stealth for Rogues), normal skills associated with the profession for 2 skill points, and skills from a different background cost 3 skill points. All skills have an associated attribute and basic skill use is on a d20 roll-under that attribute, with hand-waved modifiers, contested skills, and attribute rolls. Some 27 general skills are provided with a description of around one paragraph each. Multiple purchases of the Language skill are allowed providing an additional language per purchase. Whilst the range is good and appropriate, the skill descriptions are under-developed with no prescriptive in-game modifiers provided, for example.
In addition to the general skills, there are also martial skills with 7 provided, and the Duelling skill coming in five flavours that must be purchased separately according to style (Spanish, Italian, French, Cavalry, Old). Whilst two skills (Artillery and Gunner) function the same way as normal skills, the appropriate attribute is not defined - Wits has been presumed in both cases. Rather than being based on an Attribute martial skills have a base Expertise level (3 for untrained, 10 for duelling and archery skills, 8 for brawling, polearms, and firearms) modified Wit, Luck, Dexterity, and for melee weapons, Strength. Extra training may be undertaken or additional skill points spent to increase the expertise level. The actual martial skills acquired by starting characters is based on the character's Background, whether it was from a civilian martial training organization, fraternity, guild, or in the case of soldiers, a broader selection from the company they belonged to.
Adding a bit of character background flavour, characters may also choose an advantage and a secret from a short list. They also have the option of taking an advantage without a secret for 2 skill points, or just taking a secret for an additional 1 skill point. All characters begin with a randomly determined starting wealth and income, based on their background, with a modest equipment list provided. Soldiers will be pleased to discover that regimental arms and armour are provided. Finally, as appropriate, a character calculates their Social Rank, ranging form 1 to 20 (Rogues 2, Soldiers 3, Gentlemen 7, Noblemen 8).
Combat occurs in 12-second turns with two actions per turn, recorded prior to resolution. The movement turn is resolved in order of Dexterity but with the highest Dexterity character having the option to move last (reverse Dexterity may have been quicker to resolve). Attack actions are resolved in accordance to weapon type, with missile weapons first, then polearms, swords, daggers etc, and finally unarmed attacks. Within each weapon type attacks are resolved in Dexterity order. Defense actions apply to all attacks directed to a character in a turn, which include various types of footwork, dodging, and parries. A character may also take a counter action which allows a riposte if an attack directed against them misses.
A character's expertise is cross-referenced on a table to generate a base d20 roll-under value. This base is modified by the weapon being used, the type of attack (lunge, thrust, slash, strike) or the defense applied (dodge, duck, sidestep, step back), along with a small set of modifiers. Notable in the system is the inclusion of the foil, which is a little anachronistic, although perhaps one could get away with suggesting a swap between the rapier statistics with foil, and the replacement of the rapier statistics with the épée de cour, or smallsword. Missile weapons have a simple base chance modified by weapon, range, mechanism, and a similar set of modifiers (e.g., brace and aiming). Parries and blocks are carried out as if they were attacks, with weapon modifiers, French-style bonuses (e.g., having a 'parrying hat'!). Weapon breakages are included in the parrying rules (heavier weapons break lighter ones with some regularity) as are improvised blocks (which chairs etc). A noted limitation is that the game does not include unarmed defensive blocks against weapons.
Damage is based on a hit location roll and a base value according to weapon and attack type as a light wound, with bonus damage from high strength. If an attack lands from less than half the needed to hit roll a serious wound occurs with an extra d6 of damage. Armour protects against damage, however it is not clear how it works against grenades which are directed against general hit points. Hit locations have static and proportional hit point damage thresholds (e.g., 4 points to the chest stuns, 1/2 damage knocks out, more than 1/2 damage kills). The damage system would be better if it was more proportional and provided a greater range for unconsciousness. Finally there is a handy list of optional rules for Fatigue (a simple minus per threshold of Endurance, modified by encumbrance, wounds etc), fumbles according to weapon type, and a variety of dirty fighting ('vicious kick' - you can work than one out) and special attacks (e.g., entangle). Naturally enough there is also a system for recovery, but this can leave scars, broken bones and the like.
Position and Experience
Social rank has an enormous influence on play, not the least being access to power, connections, and a focus on position provides a campaign impetus. Across various professions, descriptions of rank and position are provided and the process by which one can acquire promotions, which is typically by either a bit of luck (roll for opening and promotion) or by buying oneself a promotion. Characters from different backgrounds can begin at variant professional positions (e.g., Soldiers start at the rank of Sargent, all others start at Trooper). Many of the professions have rivalry within their groups. For example, in the military (e.g., the Cardinal's Guards vs the King's Musketeers). Where appropriate each position is given a one paragraph description of requirements, role, remuneration, and responsibilities. The professions thus described include the military, the clergy, the royal bureaucracy, clubs and orders, banking, nobility, and fencing schools.
Most of these positions require several months dedication per annum, and various rules are offered to describe how these intrascenario events are played out. Thus there is a campaign timetable and mass combat system which, true to the best versions of such things for character RPGs, answers the important questions of "who won the battle?" and "what happened to the character?" (which comes with a superb example), along with financial investment rules for international and domestic commerce and property investments.
Naturally enough in a game system where there is an implicit suggestion that the campaigns run over many years, aging of characters is an issue. Characters begin to age at 40 with a gradual reduction in attributes and derived statistics which increase in chance. Eventually the character will, regardless of luck, will die. The system is designed so that oldest possible age is 110. Before that of course characters have the opportunity to improve in general skills, martial skills, attributes, and hit points. In an adventure characters may gain a check from extensive or difficult use, with the number of checks required for improvements increasing as the bonuses increase. Skills may be increased by +1 or +2 in base ability or expertise (Master and Master Superior levels). Characters may also gain experience check through practise as well.
Setting, Other Material, and Adventures
An compact yet extensive appendix provides a weapon glossary, life and culture of 17th century France, a map of Paris and the regions of France, religion, military and courts, a historical and political overview of Europe, a religious map of the same (which makes some rather erroneous suggestion of an Anglican Ireland and a conflation of all Orthodox faiths as Greek Orthodox etc, along with a timeline of events, and biographies of several major personalities, along with a selection of recommended reading. Based on the immediate review of the religious map there is probably some more errors in the detail, but its seems mostly right. The opportunity is taken here to also describe the cardstock GM material; it is a reprint of several of the major tables from the game, mainly the combat tables (as is the norm) along with a single-page character sheet.
Included with the set is a booklet of adventures, which consists of a generic tavern setting, Tavern Brevage Noir, which is covered in two pages, a five page but multi-session adventure, The Man Behind The Mask, and a slightly shorter adventure, Monsieur Le Droit's Secret. In addition there are a couple of pages of random encounter tables for urban and rural settings, along with random results from the requests for patronage. To give the briefest summary so not to give anything away, the tavern setting is rough with their speciality drink described as "one part rum, two parts brandy, and one part undrinkable". Rough tavern are provided for fencing loot, carousing, gambling, and brawling. The first adventure allows characters from a diverse background to meet and work together under a mysterious patron, an international journey, a number of physical conflicts, and an extraordinary artifact. The second adventure, in contrast, involves high society intrigue, secret societies, bureaucracy, and political intrigue. Both are rather enjoyable and capture the style of the setting very well.
Flashing Blades is, simply put, a great game. It is well-designed system, a little like a combination of early RuneQuest and The Fantasy Trip. It manages to provide a good, if overly abbreviated, skill system, an evocative and elaborate personal combat system, the opportunity to build an extensive character history, and all with sufficient background material, a detailed but limited setting, and several sessions set up ready to play - and all of this in a remarkable 65 pages. Unsurprisingly, it is looked upon with significant approval, and - most fortunate of all - the author is quite happy for others to contribute to its ongoing development.
"FGU already agrees that I own the rights to Flashing Blades. I'm even receiving (very small) royalties checks again, after a 20-some year hiatus. I think I mentioned this before, but again, all of you are free to write, publish, etc. whatever you want for FB without worrying about copyright. I'm happy that people are still enjoying the game."
Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .8 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .8 (readability) + .4 (product) = 4.2
Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + 1.0 (text) + .7 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.7
Twilight 2000: Pirates of the Vistula
Introduction and Product
Pirates of the Vistula is a forty page supplement, saddle-stapled with a cardstock cover. As with other supplements in the Twilight 2000 range it is formatted in a two-column justified page style with a sans-serif font with an ideal amount of white space on the borders. There is an excellent table of contents but only modest clarity in the text itself of where one is (page numbers, but no page section heading). The writing style is mostly formal, and quite dense, but interspersed with the occasional narrative vignette. The colour cover art is perhaps a little lacking in technique but is illustrative of a probable moment in the scenarios that follow. The internal greyscale and line drawings typically show good technique and are contextually appropriate.
There are four major sections to the text, so titled, plus rules for riverine combat, a chapter on the Wilsa Krolowa (the PCs vessel) and some scenario notes. The supplement is designed to be directly linked with the subsequent product “The Ruins of Warsaw” but also serves as an excellent follow-on form “The Free City of Krakow” and several proposal are made on why this should be the case. Aside from the major sections, detailed information about the River Vistula and river journey is provided, with encounters especially tailored as a result of the military conflict that have significantly altered what was once improved navigation. There are several pages in the centre of the book designed for easy removal, which includes an impressive double-page greyscale map of the Vistula River region, various combat tables for larger weapons, a hex map of a river section, and a deck plan of the PCs vessel.
The Wisla Krolowa
The Wisla Krolowa, which the PCs journey on, is a fifteen year old tug boat which is also given detailed specifications. It may not be spectacular from the perspective from players in other RPG settings, but in Twilight 2000 it's a great asset. The 1960s diesel engines have been converted to steam power and an impressive amount of detail is provided on the operation of such an engine, which any sensible referee will utilise not just to improve the sense of immersion but also as an opportunity for plot devices. Apart from the layout (provided in detail with the centre pull-out pages) and an itinerary, specifications also are provided for maximum speed of the vessel according to displacement, draft etc and the effects of damage. All in all, it's everything one could possibly want to know.
Information is also provided on the ship's barge, but more importantly on the crew of five, who are a genuinely rough and questionable bunch, with the exception of the old captain who obviously has a heart of gold. The characters are described with believable motivations given their circumstances and again there's plenty of plot opportunities provided for a referee to slot in at the time which will cause the most consternation to the PCs. The tug itself usually requires a crew of around ten, so it can be expected that, appropriately, the PCs will have to put a bit of work into it as well.
Four sections of the river are each provided their own chapter, covering the region from Krakow to Warsaw in total and, for each chapter (i) Nowy Hta to the Wislola River (ii) Wisloka to the San River (iii) San River to Deblin, and (iv) Deblin to Warsaw. Each section is described in terms of its total distance, the average width and depth of the river, towns and landmarks, a general description of the lay of the land, and rumours. This is followed with detailed encounter tables for each of the major locations, both human and environmental. These combine the best of purely random vagabonds trying to make their way through the desolate landscape, organised mauraders enforcing their will over a region, to some thoroughly organised set-pieces, and finally to driving and continuing components of the long narrative of the river adventure itself. Whilst only consisting of a few pages a piece it is easy to generate a few sessions of actual play out of each of these sections such is the level of detail and potential complexity in story development.
As an interesting narrative arc built into the journey itself, as the PCs make their way further downriver towards Warsaw the greater the degree of threat. The region around Krakow has a few civilians and marauders, with the perhaps the most dangerous location being a former industrial city that had been hit by a nuclear device. Further downstream is self-sufficient townships, ruled by a group of former bandits some of which have ideas of grandeur which results into occasional conflicts between them; who the PCs choice in this tussle will be of importance, given their skill and vessel. Even further downstream is the first encounters of the namesake of the publication, the discovery that theirs is not the only river-borne vessel of note in the region, which sets up the scene for future encounters emphasised by a set-piece from the main NPC. In the final section, there is the encounter with a sympathetic village, their encounters with the pirates, the revelation of even greater powers ahead, all leading to a climatic riverine combat.
Twilight 2000 is a pretty complex and clunky game system at the best of times, but it does work with a push and a pinch. The temporal scale of riverine combat is longer (30 second rounds), the unit scale is abstracted (small boats under fifty tons, large boats over fifty tons), with aggregation applied (e.g., initiative determined by collective Coolness Under Fire). Various modifications for movement and spotting are provided, with the combat system itself a combination of aggregation and abstraction for small arms exchanges, but with a more detailed set of rules for indirect and large weapon fire against boats etc. Naturally enough, morale also comes into play. As a summary the system provided a surprisingly workable simulation of river combat, albeit with inconsistent resolution mechanics.
Overall, Pirates of the Vistula is a great product, combining the best of a sandbox and plotted adventure, even if the physical product itself is ever-so slightly on the flimsy side. As for the content however the amount of detail crammed in the pages is exemplary. It is easy to get a dozen sessions of actual play out of the forty pages and still have plenty of loose ends to deal with afterwards. Whilst it does appear to “run on rails” (or float down a river) to some extent, but this is an not the case, as there are plenty of opportunities and indeed often requirements, to venture inland. Despite having to work with the Twilight 2000 system which, in all honesty is not the best, this is a great supplement.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .8 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .5 (product) = 4.3
Substance: 1 + 1.0 (content) + 1.0 (text) + .9 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .6 (system) = 5.2
Campaign Classics : Pirates
Introduction and Product
For a period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Iron Crown Enterprises and Hero Games formed an distribution alliance which brought together two very different game systems, Rolemaster and Champions, (or strictly speaking the 'master and hero systems) into some publications. The fourth of these was 'Pirates', a 160 page softback book concentrating on the 17th century, but with a little bit of material for centuries on either side. The cover art, by Susan Hunter, is a little on the romantic side of representing pirates with a dashing young man but with good technique and a little dash of creativity in the washed background of ships. The internal art whilst having some evocative elements, is sometimes a little lazy in technique for the new pieces and sometimes very well detailed. The product makes good use of appropriate out-of-copyright material and whilst there is a fair bit of filler pieces (including repeats) there is many contextual pieces as well. The old maps are an absolute delight, for example.
The layout is pretty much two-column justified with serif text and sans-serif headings. There are fifteen chapters overall, split over three main areas, a Player's Section, the Setting, and a Gamemaster's Section. The writing style is overwhelmingly formal, emphasising content over style. There is however, atrociously, some parts of the Player's Section which are simply copy-and-pasted from the Rolemaster character generation section to the Fantasy Hero character generation section, which a single presentation would have done quite adequately with different system rules highlighted as necessary.
The Player's Section
As suggested the Player's Section begins with character generation rules for Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero, including some basic (i.e., combat-oriented) equipment. The author, influenced by movie logic, assigns power levels to whether characters are "The Leading Man", "The Supporting Cast", or "Extras". Rather oddly for the setting and genre, there is a requirement that "The Leading Man" will be a "goody-two-shoes". Expectations of character behaviour and participation are reduced according to power level. Power levels in Rolemaster are not defined by additional class levels but in terms of bonus skill ranks, whereas in Fantasy Hero they are defined by starting character points. Whilst a range of standard character classes and package deals appropriate to the setting, of particular interest is the difficult prospect of magic-using characters. Whilst these are sensibly reduced to witch, shaman, and animist professions and there are restrictions on magical spell lists (Rolemaster) and effects (Fantasy Hero) in most cases there are not increases in development point or character point cost.
A potted geography of the world of pirates is provided with a few paragraphs dedicated to the main setting locations (including the West Indies, Africa and the Indian Ocean) and history, with a few pages each covering the 16th and 17th century, especially in reference to the politics and religion of western Europe, and slipping a little in to the 18th century. Three general campaign periods are offered, the Elizabethan Campaign (1558-1603), the Buccaneer Campaign (1630-1670), and the Pirate Campaign (1670-1725). An entire chapter is dedicated under the heading "People of the 17th Century" which covers life in colonial areas, the social classes, normal life experiences of the buccaneer and pirates, letters of marque and pirate articles, money and trade, and even short sections on woman in the pirate world (including a couple of interesting historical examples) and religious life.
A chapter is also dedicated to 'Ships and Sailing', and 'Combat'. The ships chapter gives details of ship types with an emphasis on rigging and ship layout (with handy illustrations), informative sections on navigation, sailing issues, ship life, and maintenance, along with a poorly keyed travel table. Whilst the combat section begins with fencing and firearms rules for Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero and various swashbuckling maneuvers, there is a significant section on ship-to-ship combat with specific characteristics for the two game systems, movement and maneuvers, and boarding actions. As always the case with Rolemaster it's the "criticals" that kill you.
The Setting and The Gamemaster's Section
The section for The Setting is just under twenty-five pages and as such can be combined with The Gamemaster's section. It is mainly an potted description of the world of the period with very brief notes providing a general description, a background, the current ruler, any local customs, and additional notes. It concentrates on the regions of the campaign (The West Indies and the Spanish Main, Africa and the Indian Ocean), but also includes a chapter on The Rest of the World. Most of the descriptions are effectively only a couple of paragraphs with some exceptions running for a quarter of a page or more (e.g., Bahamas, Panama, Tortuga, Madagascar). The maps provided are visually appealing in an old style, but are frustratingly lacking with sufficient keyed information (e.g., the location of major locations mentioned in the text!), and the language maps are over-sized for the paucity of information provided. The Setting section concludes with at a timeline of major relevant events from the late 15th throuigh to the early 18th centuries. There is the sensible suggestions early in the chapter to be quite loose with the history after the campaign has started (so characters do not gain advantage from the players knowledge) along with the setting information in areas that are relatively undiscovered by Europeans.
The Gamemaster's Section begins with a description of flavoursome hints for running swashbuckling adventures, noting the usual flashy maneuvers, but also the importance of ransom and the propensity to spend money as fast as it is received. Several general adventures hooks are provided, which are pretty much as expected with elaboration into adventures styles (simple, episodic). Brief description is made for the inclusion of the supplement in other campaign settings and styles, such as the inclusion of magic, pirates in space, or with the ICE campaign setting, Shadow World.
A Game Statistics chapter defines standard character types (thugs, rogues, soldiers and sailors, merchants, gentleman/nobles. priest/scholar, Indian/African warrior) and statistics for Rolemaster/MERP and Fantasy Hero. The layout for the Fantasy Hero characters is quite poor, taking up multiple pages. Following this is a description and statistics for several well-known historical and fictional figures, including Henry Morgan, Francis L'Ollonois, Blackbeard, Long John Silver, with the same layout issues. A typical NPC crew is added, and a selection of normal creatures appropriate for the main settings; finally the layout issues are resolved with the FH statistics. The chapter concludes with a description of non-monetary treasures that can be found in a Pirates campaign which, with an incredibly limited imagination, basically means weapons. The book concludes with some twenty pages of scenarios, making up some six scenarios in total and in contrast with the chapter introduction which claims three.
The first scenario is really just designed to introduce characters to the setting and the ship-to-ship combat system as they pick off a straggler from a main fleet. The second really doesn't have much more in terms of a plot development - this time instead of a fleet's straggler, it's buccaneers taking on a fortified town. The third however is a combination of investigation and exploration for a fabled treasure which involves some colourful NPCs and some significant challenges. The fourth scenario is rather like the second but with an east African and Arabic take on the matter, the fifth a smuggling scenario with the usual challenges enhanced by intra-crew conflicts, and the sixth a sort of "lost worlds" setting as the characters find themselves trapped in the mythic Sargasso Sea. Ultimately all of these scenarios lack sufficient narrative hooks and work will be needed by any GM to flesh them out to be sufficiently entertaining. The book concludes with a reasonable bibliography.
Despite a lack of flourish, a lack of solid integration to the game systems it is designed for, and some poor layout decisions Pirates is actually a fairly useful resource. The location and timeline descriptions, although fairly brief for each specific component, do cover and enormous scope and interestingly evoke a global sea-faring sense to the reader. The shipping and ship-life descriptions are among the best available and in their own right valuable for any campaign of such a nature. One will probably find use in the standard NPC descriptions and the adventures, whilst pretty plain in their own right, can serve as useful setting seeds for further elaboration. Overall this is a handy supplement for any existing historical-based pirate campaign.
Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .7 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .6 (product) = 3.6
Substance: 1 + .9 (content) + .5 (text) + .4 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .4 (system) = 3.8
Introduction and Physical Product
At 128 pages and with a colourful cover by Don Maitz, the third edition of GURPS Swashbucklers has undergone revisions by no less than four individuals other than the attributed author. Nevertheless, it is still overwhelmingly the same book. The first edition was written for second edition GURPS, the second edition for third edition GURPS, and the third edition for third edition revised GURPS plus rules compendiums, plus extra martial arts. In practise, I have found that that the three editions are essentially the same in spirit is somewhat different in letter. This is important of course, because much of the swashbuckling genre, as the author points out, is pretty much a spirited affair.
The softback back is substandard in its binding and glue but may hold up with careful use. Like many other GURPS supplements it comes in one- to two-column text, typically one for main material and one for extensive sidebars, along with highlighted text boxes, all in a serif justified text. The book is packed when it comes to text and art content, but still with clear page and chapter titles on the bottom of each page. The internal art, whilst showing some creativity, is often lacking in detail and is rarely contextual. There is a solid single page table of contents and likewise for the index. The writing style is classic Steffan O'Sullivan, managing to provide a whimsical presentation with substantive content. The seven chapters are Characters, Combat, The Paris Campaign, The Pirate Campaign, Background, Sailing Ship, and Adventures.
Characters and Combat
The characters chapter outlines several character types, short descriptive paragraphs to spur the playe and GM's imagination, including system integration suggestions. This is followed by the application of particular advantages, disadvantages, and skills which are especially relevant to the setting, along with an appropriate job table. It concludes with interesting and flavoursome discussion on commodity money systems in use at the time, even if ultimately the use of default abstract dollar is probably going to be used. All in all, it's a handy chapter, but hardly earth-shattering.
The combat chapter is pretty meaty, starting off with maneuvers, both realistic and cinematic, twenty five in total. Most of these default to existing weapon skills in GURPS but allow for increased specialisation for the swashbuckling era. For example, a character may be fairly good with the rapier, but has an absolutely devastating feint. Over the years my opinion on maneuvers in GURPS has changed; initially my opinion was quite negative viewing them as adding additional complexity. However, I was wrong - the complexity is actually largely unchanged, what is different is the additional detail and, importantly, options in the cut-and-thrust of dramatic and tactical instances. Complementing the maneuevers are packages representing various taught styles with character point cost for realistic and cinematic games.
Entertainingly, other genere-typed maneuvers are also considered, such as yanking carpets, flipping tables, swinging on chandeliers or ship's rigging, social skills during combat etc. These start of being consistent with the core game rules and are then extended. The chapter concludes with a few pages of weapons and equipment from the era which are somewhat better in accuracy than many other RPGs (with the cinematic sword-rapier noted as such), although it perhaps getting a little excessive to list five different types of rapier.
Paris, Pirates, and Background
The three setting detail chapters make up 58 pages of the 128 page book, and are roughly equal in size. The Paris campaign begins with emphasising the cultural and political centrality of Paris in the 17th century, along with a sidebar pointing out that the city design is realistically very much in the medieval design. The chapter assumes a musketteers-styled campaign, so begins with a summary of Dumas' famous novel, an interestingly equal treatment of King's musketeer or Cardinal's guard paths, and character summaries and game statistics for several of the major figures, both historical and fictional. This is also the location of the more charming sidebars in roleplaying, "How to be French", along the useful suggestion of PCs as a Commedia Dell'Arte band. Concluding the chapter is extensive notes on the duelling code and mechanisms and notes for mass combat rules which require Compendium II.
The chapter for the pirate campaign takes a longer view in terms of time and a wider view in terms of space. Emphasis is placed on the Caribbean but with notes also on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The distinction between pirates, privateers, and buccaneers is noted, along the semi-democratic structure of the latter, along with sample articles of agreement, compensation schemes and so forth. Port Royal and St. Mary's Madagascar are discussed in some detail as pirate centres, along with material on Libertatia, the alleged anarcho-socialist pirate commune. Summaries and game statistics are provided for a small number of historical and fictional figures, concluding with ship travel times between major locations.
The background chapter covers the rest of Europe for the period 1559 to 1815, which in its own right is a pretty brave effort for less than twenty pages, provided in four eras and with notes for each major country. This invariably equates with England, France, Holland (and the Netherlands), Spain for each period with an additional mention of "the Celtic lands" for the latter period and a sidebar for the Thirty Year's War, Poland, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, and Russia. The narrowing of the Celtic lands to Scotland and Ireland because there wasn't any national movements in Breton or Wales is historically inaccurate (a surprising failure for a GURPS book), and the minimal sidebar for the Thirty Years War is utterly insufficient. The chapter concludes with a description of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, various fashion and everyday life experience of the era, and an extensive timeline.
Ships and Adventures
The Sailing Ships chapter is a mainly descriptive chapter and thankfully doesn't attempt to replicate GURPS Vehicles, although there are very brief notes on such conversions. Ships in the age of sail are primarily defined by the number of masts they have; the more masts the bigger the ship, with the bigger the ship typically the great aggregate of draft and freeboard, and slower and more expensive they are. Although specific ships are not described there are abstract categories (sloop, brig, ship) which suffice. The onboard life section is useful and colourful as well. There is also an abstract naval combat system which true the GURPS style is mainly interested in 'who won the battle' and 'what happened to the PCs?', but with lots of ship-based special effects and elaborations, such a boarding, and ship-specific critical charts. To finish the book there is a woefully short four pages on Adventures which offers a few adventure seeds and a little bit in the sidebars concerning campaign crossovers. More useful in the bibliography that follows.
Conclusion and Evaluation
GURPS Swashbucklers is a somewhat mixed product. Whilst mostly well-written and very well-presented, the physical product is quite poor. The content, whilst providing extensive material of the period and absolutely excellent and essential game system rules cannot help but give the impression that it was trying far too hard at times and yet still only managing to have a fairly average density. One simply do a GURPS campaign set in the era of pirates and and swashbucklers without it; and yet it often doesn't quite make it to what is a very good product overall.
Style: 1 + .8 (layout) + .6 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .3 (product) = 4.0
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .5 (text) + .8 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 4.5
7th Sea : Player's Guide and Game Master's Guide
Product, Art, and Layout
With very attractive covers of renaissance action by William O'Connor, the 7th Sea core Guides are well-produced hardbacks, although a little heavy on the fairly light binding. A title page give a little bit of flavour, suggesting a film rather than an RPG. The black and white line drawings within are quite impressive in technique, although usually without context, and the colour plates in the Player's Guide by Terese Nielsen, of the rulers and their lands, are positively inspirational. Both the Player's Guide and the Gamemaster's Guide come a pretty solid table of contents and an impoverished index.
The text is universally two-column justified with serif font, with a great "old style" font for headings. The writing style is often very informal, and not at all appropriate to the style of the game as a whole. It is also very verbose, and could have easily been half the length with the same core information. Chapter titles and page numbers are clearly marked on each page. For chapters, the Player's Book includes an extensive Primer, Theah as a setting chapter, a Hero chapter for character generation, a Drama chapter for the game system, a Player chapter, and a set of Appendices. The Appendices include a weather table, an index, and a character sheet.
Europe's Distant Sister
The Player's Guide opens with a hefty chapter, Primer, which provides a very solid, if verbose, introduction to the setting and rules. It begins with a a few pages of story that's not worth reading, with the game's introduction providing more flavour. "It is a game of swashbuckling and sorcery, piracy and adventure, diplomacy and intrigue, archaeology and exploration. It's a world of musketeers, buccaneers and privateers, ancient sorcery and lost civilizations, secrets that hide in the shadows and monsters that hide in plain sight", which in itself has to be considered a pretty damn fine setting.
The setting of 7th Sea is described as a place which has "cultural and historical similarities to particular European nations on Earth", which is certainly true. Indeed, many people express annoyance that 7th Sea's setting is sufficiently close to the real Europe the designers may have well simply used the period and added magic to the equation. Certainly that would have led to a map that would have made a great deal more sense (indeed it is possibly the worst map I have seen in any roleplaying game), not only for the continent of Theah, but also with new world continents that would provide purpose for the emphasis on seaborne adventures.
As writ, 7th Sea's setting is best for land adventures, even if many of the scenarios and supplementary material assumes waterborne adventures. Nevertheless, the title of the game comes from a description of six seas, and reference to a magical "seventh sea" "where the sun and the moon shine in the same sky, where the stars go backward and the waters turn to silver". There is plenty of material for example on sailor character types and crew organisation, seaborne weaponry, culture and superstitions, and of course, various pirate groups.
There is a gnostic Vaticine Church, which has just finished a Thirty Years War against the Objectionists in Eisen and has a group of agents known as the Inquisition. Plus there is an Orthodox church in the east. Several pages is spent on the general geography and culture of each of the core nationalities in the Player's Book. Eisen is pretty much Germany, Avalon is the British Isles, Castille is Spain and Portugal, Montaigne is France, Ussara is Russia, Vendel and Vestenmannavnjar is the Netherlands and Scandanavian countries combined into a group of islands, Vodacce is Italy, and isolated with physical barriers is Cathay (China) and The Empire of the Crescent Moon (Arabic states).
Add to all this a handful of secret societies and swordsmen's and other guilds, precursor archeological artifacts and noble families with nationality-based sorcery. The history tells of an Old Republic, the appearance of the First Prophet, and the beginning of the Anno Veritas (AV) dating system, the formation of an Eastern and Western Empire, the emperor's Coratine and Carleman, and the Rise of the Crusades, the spread of a devastating White Plague and so forth.
Chargen and Game System
The game system is a variant on the Roll-and-Keep method used in Legend of the Five Rings. Character generation is a point-buy system. Beginning with 100 points characters can be assigned sorcery (a hefty 40 points for "full-blooded" or 20 points for "half-blooded", with expected limitations. Joining a swordsman's school costs 25 points for a native school or 35 for a foreign school; these provide a package deal of knacks and other benefits. Traits Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache which are ranked from 1 to 5, and cost 8 points each. These represent pretty much what they say on the tin, except Panache, described as "that 'something special' that sets your Hero apart from Joe Average; i.e., je ne sais quoi. When experience is received The cost of buying a new skill, advancing a knack, joining a school is significantly more than character generation.
Characters also have advantages, and skills (read: professions) at a cost 2 points which provide a set of knacks (read: skills), both basic and advanced. Knacks are also rated, typically from 0 to 5; basic knacks cost 1 point to increase at character generation, and advanced knacks 3. Typically players roll their Trait plus Knack as xd10 (with 10s "exploding"), keep the results of the Trait, and add the total against a target number. Target numbers may be raised for bonus effects and "Drama Dice" may be spent to enhance the possibility of success. Character generation is completed with the addition of a backgrounds (a negative, e.g., amnesia, obligation etc), reputation (positive or negative), wealth, and "arcana" a driving personality force (positive or negative) for the character as a plot devices. The equipment list provided is more extensive than most RPGs, providing at least as much for clothes as it does for weapons and armour - such is the style of the game. Several sample characters provide the opportunity for rapid play, templates, or NPCs.
Tactical time is carried out in rounds with initiative determined by a non-exploding Panache trait roll which determines the phases a character acts in. Attacks are based on a skill roll against a target number derived from a defender's knack times five (trait plays no effect). Damage is also based on a roll-and-keep mechanism, with the Brawn trait adding to the rolled dice pool for melee weapons. With the exception of "dragon iron", there is no other armour in use. Some martial knacks, distinguished from civil knacks, also have special effects. When wounded a player character or major NPC rolls a Brawn test against the wounds taken; if they fail they suffer a Dramatic Wound, if not they have an accumulated level of Flesh Wounds. A major character is knocked out if they suffer double Resolve in Dramatic Wounds, NPC Henchmen are knocked out at their Resolve in Dramatic Wounds, and Brutes get knocked out on each hit; it's a mook rule. There is also a combat system, of sorts, for repartee, based around "charm, intimidate, and taunt" as maneuvers.
Swords, Sorcery, and Ships
A substantial portion of the Player's Book is spent on the Swordsman schools, ship design, and the magical traditions. As mentioned, swordsmen schools and sorcery are bound by nationality. For the swordsmen, a general rule is that all swordsmen receive the skills listed, a free rank in the four swordsmen knacks, and membership to the swordsman guild (usually 3 points). For 25 or 35 points this seems incredibly expensive; the school typcially provides a couple of skills or knacks in some cases, and four specialist knacks. Each do have a special ability however that can turn a fight, determined by the skill level (apprentice, journeyman, master), such as bonus unkept initiative dice, extra damage etc.
Ships are designed like characters with points and the same basic Traits, with Resolve being used for Draft and Cargo, and with flaws and modifications. The system is in many ways too; Resolve determines Draft and Cargo in ships, but what does this translate to in real-world terms? The total point value also determines the maximum trait values a ship can have, along with maximum flaws and modifications - the bigger the ship, the bigger its "personality". Modifications have difficulty levels, which generates the target number of the shipwright making the design. Several examples are provided based on point value, ranging from the modest pirate sloops to the Man o' War.
Théah and Villain
After an obligatory "this is the GM's book, and you are free to cheat" introduction, the substance begins with an elaboration of the gameworld Théah and spoilers follow, you have been warned. It starts with the useful medical advances that the Théaheans have over Terrans, along with a humanistic-romantic worldview within the courts. This is explicitly stated as "In Théah, it means that heroes are back in style." This follows with further elaboration (and replication from The Player's Book) on the nations and various societies of Théah, which in part include national-scale plot hooks which PCs may eventually partake in, major NPCs, and various regional secrets which could be easily converted into plot hooks. However more than three-quarters of the material is both obvious through minimal PC experience and even rumour. It is good, sometimes even great information, but there is little purpose of it being in the GM's book.
The Villain chapter includes a wide-range of rules elaborations, specifically aimed at the GM, making it probably the best signal-to-noise chapter in any of the books. It includes optional character creation rules (e.g., ensemble party lump-sum character points, bonus character points as a indication of player interests), elaborations of skills and knacks, land management rules, options for the Faith advantage, Arcana for villains, suggestions on how to turn Hero advantages into plot hooks, and a Bestiary of some eighteen mundane and supernatural creatures. The latter does illustrate some of the quirks of the game system when applied to non-human entities; for example the brute-henchman-villian continuum is applied to the creature's overall strength rather than narrative importance, and fast creatures are given a high Panache rating.
The Drama chapter is very much rules intensive. As the books says: "We’ve got rules for falling, burning, drowning, ship-to-ship combat, battles, poisons, Brute Squads, chases, explosions and just about anything else you can think of." There is actually more than that - as these rules elaborations are presented in alphabetical order, the first are aging rules (trait modifiers according to skill category, death at 65 + one exploding die). The brute squad rules is simple and effective, using the number as the rolled die and the threat rating as the kept die. Chases are conducted as contested skills according to enviroment with initial head start raises equal to the number of head-start phases with narrative-biased random encounters.
The Drama dice mechanics are more game justifications than actual rules as such, but they make sense. Drowning is Resolve-based tests, a rather impoverished mechanic and equally poorly implemented is Explosions, a simple damage rating, an equivalent TN to outrun them, and a half-damage blast radius. Falling is based on distance modified by the surface (soft, firm, hard); soft surfaces (including another person) negate all damage and objects dropped from any height but weigh less than a person also do no damage - you can be hit from a bowling ball dropped from 200 feet and no damage would result.
Fear is simple Resolve checks resulting in lost unkept dice, mass combat is resolved by determing the Heroes level of engagement, the tide of a battle determined by a contested skill roll between competing generals. These two factors are resolved in a chart that provides flesh wounds, reputation points, and heroic opportunties - this is not a system that addresses the relative strength of competing sides. It contrasts significantly with the naval battles rules which do, applying (as mentioned in the Player's Book) character traits to ships.
Lockpicking is simply a test, modified by equipment, with a target number based on difficulty. Poisons are deliberately weakened according to the setting and thematic requirements (presumably no wolfsbane in this setting), but based around effect, onset period, and effect time. Some have interesting narrative effects (e.g., Yellow Lotus both damages and increases sorcery abilities). In a similar format, Traps are descibed in terms of their TN to spot, the disarm process, avoidance TN and ability, effect, and salvage value. There is good description on designing traps in terms of the trigger and delivery systems. An elaboration of Raises and Reputation is provided, especially the latter's knightly code of chivalry. There is also an extensive, far too extensive, description of the various flavours of sorcery, although little of this is rules-based. Finally, there is a narrative-based discussion of weather with a modicum of effect implementations, and a probability chart.
The Game Master chapter makes the fairly typical comment that above all rules, the game is meant to be fun. It suggests three hats the GM must wear (surely a tricorn would be better?), i.e., author, storyteller, referee; which sort of fits with the simulationist, narrativist, and gamist creative agendas. An interesting challenge comes out with noting that the rules shouldn't be used to slow down the dynamic narrative, but of course, as writ, the Roll-and-Keep approach can lead to such situations. A distinction is also drawn between a "dice GM" (where die rolls are never fudged) and a "story GM" which die results are often ignored. This is perhaps a little unfair to some "dice GM" who is able to reflect on results and create a plausible and entertaining narrative without fudging results.
There is an overly lengthy discussion on group dynamics with sensibly seeks to combine group harmony with solo limelight. The "three hats" (why not a tricorn?) are explored, starting with the "author hat" and distinguishing between scope and story modes, and presents a surprisingly almost accurate description of theme (I am personally so tired of this being completely wrong in both gaming and computing that I'll give credit to one that is almost right). A good variety of dramatic situations are presented as plot hooks with examples, described in basic question with important thematic questions (e.g., 'Ambition', Richard III). What we once called scenarios are properly broken up into their components of scene, act, story, and epic (again almost right), and with plot a little too simply described in terms of beginning, middle, and climax.
The "referee hat" makes the recommendation of being "firm, fair, and friendly", including the frankly inappropriate advice of "stand by every decision you make, even if it's wrong". Nor does the description of the "three Fs" provide much advice on what to do when they contradict each other. The recommendation of follow up consequences to Hero action's is a good one, as is the discussion of character death (work it through with the player), as is the elaborations on punishments and failures, and of improvisation in action scenes. The main complaint is a stylistic one - all of this takes far too much in the word count and could be explained a lot quicker and easier. Finally there is the "storyteller hat", which starts with some fairly basic ideas of NPC motives and the use of mimetic rather than diegetic expression (i.e., "Show, Don’t Tell."), and the use of voice to convey personality and setting; but that's about it, a hat that is woefully underdeveloped.
The final section of the chapter is giving out experience points (unspent Drama dice plus a difficulty value), plus story-based advances, and seeking player feedback with the interesting suggestion of avoiding "yes-no" answers, and the use of retroactive continuity. Thrown right at the end of the chapter is a variety of "advanced storyteller" techniques including dream sequences, symbolic language (i.e., motif), parallel plotlines, flashbacks, and some 'dirty tricks' (e.g., cheating). None of this is particularly illuminating.
Summary and Evaluation
With regards to the system the Roll-and-Keep method is good in principle, but needs to emphasise the different application of characteristics in physical versus intellectual tests. It is also time-consuming in actual play, requiring a handful of dice and their addition, even with some of the recommendations in the GM's book for speeding up the process. The distinction between basic and advanced knacks is likewise good in principle, like skill prerequisites in other systems, but has not been well-implemented with some rather odd combinations due to the combined skill groups (e.g., Dancing is required for Sincerity, Knotwork for Cartography, Stealth for Interrogation etc). In other words, the core system is fairly good but the implementation is very much below par.
The game does cover a lot of ground, but does so quite poorly. It is difficult to find what one needs in actual play (odd positioning of the index), it is poorly written and delivers too little content per page. The setting irks many, and for good reason. It never feels quite like a seafaring not-Europe when the geography is just plain wrong, and the nationalities sound like the more ridiculous European stereotypes. Where the game does shine is a fairly good physical product, some excellent artwork, and of course, a great concept. Plus, there is just enough in the game system that makes the game fun to play within the particular setting. A careful GM can make all this work, but a thorough consideration of the setting and system is required.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + 1.0 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .3 (readability) + .7 (product) = 4.3
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .3 (text) + .6 (fun) + .4 (workmanship) + .5 (system) = 3.6
Introduction and Product
RuneQuest Pirates is a 96 page hardbound book featuring a deck-bound battle on the cover by Pascal Quidault, which is fairly good in terms of technique and creativity. The internal art, from several authors, is varied in quality, but occasionally is in context as well. As with other Mongoose RuneQuest books far too space is dedicated to the margins and margin-art (this time being seafaring themed), however page numbers and chapter titles are clearly marked on each page. Often the paragraph breaks and white space seem quite excessive. The use of a skull-and-crossbones as dot points is cute.
There is a very short table of contents, but a much longer and more comprehensive index, along with some crew and ship sheets at the back. The introduction specifies that the book will be about a more narrow and specific period that is often assigned to the age of piracy; 1680 to 1720, rather than broader historical definitions (e.g., non-European piracy, the buccaneer era etc).
Characters and Personal Equipment
Character generation is meant to follow the standard RuneQuest rules with two major additions. Firstly, there are a few tantalising hints for initial concept, which could have been elaborated further, and secondly, there are new skills, specifically Pistols and Long Arms. Annoyingly there is an error in the general description of such weapons which claims their starting skill is DEX*2, then immediately following both are described in their specific sections as 10+DEX. I cannot fathom how an editor overlooked this (and I am a terrible editor). Each of the advanced skills receives a couple of paragraphs of description; a notable absence is a discussion on languages.
The list of professions is, as prior Mongoose RuneQuest books, heavy on the space with tabulated information. A hefty thirty professions are given game data (profession, cultural background, basic skill bonuses, advanced skill options, trappings) all of which seem to be well-balanced with each other. The random equipment table, meant to represent the oddities found in a life of roaming, is a cute touch, however the "pet albino rat" is quite anachronistic!
The Reputation system is slightly changed, with starting positive levels coming from CHA and certain higher-level skills, and with increases and losses from piratical activity as the campaign progresses. A high reputation reduces one's Disguise skill, and also increases the reward for capture. There is around a dozen Legendary Abilities with a pirate flavour, although "Always Something To Swing From" will require some pretty special narrative interventions at times. There is also a recursive Vice ability. Starting characters have 2 points of Vice, around a score of major personality pirate-styled personality characteristics (avarice, blasphemy, cruelty, drink etc). Characters who indulge their Vice gain Hero Points, Hero Points can be used to purchase another Vice, which then can be used... The effect is that legendary characters having larger than life personalities.
The equipment chapter includes a fair variety of personal weapons, armour, a passing mention of clothes, and absolutely nothing else. What is provided is mostly fine, although the inclusion of the hira-shuriken is quite unexpected.
Crew, Ships, and Plunder
Pirate crews are primarily defined by their skill levels (from Landlubbers 15% to Devils Straight from Hell 150%) in an unspecified selection, although we are informed that "Shiphandling, Boating, Gunnery or throat-cutting are of more use to a pirate crew than being able to dance or speak prettily". A selection (10%) are better or worse than the standard, so "choice men" can be picked for special missions. Officers provide a bonus to crew skill checks equal to 1/10th of the officer's skill. Crew morale is also related to base skill level, and modified by various office and crew skills (e.g., musicians and cooks add a bonus), which also adds an additional bonus to skill checks - which makes the base skill level offered at the beginning of the chapter wrong. To be fair, morale can vary by circumstance, but the assumption of tying base skill to base morale is perhaps not the wisest decision. There are rules on the division of spoils (a little overly generous, historically, to the senior officers), recompense for injuries, and a somewhat drawn out system for elections.
To go with the crew, a variety of ships are offered with game and descriptive statistics (length, draft, capacity, speed, seaworthiness, structure points, weapons, crew, and skill bonuses), with a brief sidebar for cost. Imperial measurements is used for style reasons rather than metric. Some 17 vessel-types are given statistics, ranging from the canoe to the warship, with the opportunity for some custom configurations (e.g., bulwarks, aft guns etc). Optionally they have quirks as well, both positive and negative. Movement speed and maneuverability is affected by weather and sail configuration. As can be expected there are rules for damage (to structure points and seaworthiness modifiers) and repairs, along with various natural dangers that occur both from on-board life (e.g., disease) and natural hazards to the ship.
Although ten pages dedicated to the "Piracy and Plunder" chapter, these are nearly all tables; random weather, encounters at sea, events on board, strangers on shore, random vessel (and subtables), and a variety of plunder tables with base determination from the ship type. Of preferential detail, the chapter on "Combat on the High Seas" starts off with ship-board duels, with an emphasis on gaining Advantage, which can be derived from successful hits etc, but then compounds as Advantage gives skill bonuses. A more abstract system is used for crew vs crew combat, which tracks general wounded states that can then be applied on a per-character basis if desired. Player characters also have the opportunity to take up "Heroic Actions" in mass combat which can inspire and give bonuses to a crew. Ship-to-ship combat is likewise abstract with a contest to either flee or catch an opponent, an exchange of fire (with a critical hits chart), and potential boarding.
Ports are typed as pirate, minor trade, major trade, or fortressed. The reception of pirates in port of course varies, and the main purpose from the book's point of view, is the opportunity to sell one's plunder. The very short chapter on ports is followed up by a range of campaign ideas, which starts with descriptive text on historical piracy, which includes a section on the era of bucanneers and privateers. There is also a descriptive text for cinematic piracy, for which much of the book seems to be have written in mind. The section on supernatural piracy is quite quirky, with a historical tie-in of ships of unintergrated runes crossing the Atlantic serving as pirate-bait, with other ideas including pirates and ghosts, pirates and voodoo, and the rediscovery of Greek clockwork for an alternative setting. A very notable absence is the use of the supplement in the Glorantha setting. Finally, statistics for eight sample NPCs are offered.
RuneQuest Pirates has some excellent additions and elaborations to the core RuneQuest ruleset, and certainl is a necessary supplement for those who wish to play a campaign with the narrow focus that it has set itself. Whilst many of the rule elaborations are designed towards the appropriate stylistics of a pirate setting, a number are stylish and cinematic, which does come across a little at odds to a game that historically has a reputation for realism. Indeed, the supplement is best used for such games, although with a bit of tweaking the volume can be turned down a level. Whilst a solidly produced book, and having a fairly good signal-to-noise ratio overall, there is an overuse of tables when more general descriptions could have been used instead.
Overall this book is mainly useful as a handbook for actual play, with somewhat minimal background and setting information. There is a great deal of material that can be used, but it should be reviewed so it accords with the expectations of the group on the realism-cinematic scale. Certainly it is recommended, but recommended with the aforementioned warnings.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .5 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.9
Substance: 1 + .5 (content) + .6 (text) + .7 (fun) + .5 (workmanship) + .6 (system) = 3.9
The Pirates Guide to Freeport
Introduction and Product
With a violently attractive cover, the Pirates Guide of Freeport illustrates what the subtitle suggests - a fantasy setting for a pirate styled game, but as one reads the text various horror elements are also introduced (given the superstitions of pirate cultures this is very appropriate). The 256p hardback book is nicely bound with gloss paper to the usual standard expected by Green Ronin and whilst written to be systemless it has also been ported to True20, D20, FATE, Savage Worlds etc., as Companions, a bit of an indication of its popularity and as a follow-on to the original sourcebook Freeport:City of Adventure and subsequent supplements (Death in Freeport winning Origins Award and ENnie Awards was particularly notable).
The text is mostly printed in a two-column justified serif font with headings in stylised semi-written font, along with highlighted excerpts with a parchment-styled border. There is a delightfully extensive table of contents, and equally impressive index. The writing style is informal with humour of varying quality thrown in for good measure ("Three Killed My 'Magic Deer' Cultist" is a personal favourite, a hat-tip to Green Ronin's game, Blue Rose), but with a good sense of narrative flow and overall readability. The interior art is mostly greyscale with some full-colour pieces and of varying quality, both in technique and creativity, and are sometimes contextually appropriate. Some of the qualitative choices of what belonged in colour and what belonged in greyscale are a little unexpected.
Beginning with a rather uninteresting narrative, the Introduction dives right into what this product is all about; systemless, a small chain of islands that can easily dropped into an existing world, Gods named by portfolio rather than title, a compilation, consolidation, and update of material from existing Freeport books and assuming events from the original adventures.
Freeport, The Setting
A chapter is dedicated to the history of Freeport, the city itself being "a few hundred years old", but originally inhabited or at least recorded as such since the time of a mysterious past of evil sorcerers of the Serpent Empire - and it is here that the influence of Lovecraftian horror becomes most evident with references to the worship of Yig (so much for setting-free unnamed deities), the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, and so forth. A "Great Old One" destroy the Serpent Empire and tears apart what was a large island into a chain, one part having a "natural" harbour and thus eventually becoming "the most notorious pirate haven in the world". As organised navies challenged Freeport, it responded in kind with the resulting war and civil war eventually led to Freeport becoming recognised as a sovereign city-state. It has its challenges, most notably the attempt of a Thieves Guild to engage in slave trading, and a major war with the distant slaver-city of Mazin, but none as great as an attempt by the city's Sea Lord to spread madness throughout the word with a magical ritual and a wonderous lighthouse. It was this latter challenge that serves as the stories for the original Freeport trilogy. A crisis following these events unfolded (including an invasion, a hurricane, and a major fire), but eventually settled down with a new Sea Lord rebuilding the city.
An overall summary of the city is provided initially in short paragraphs to provide a lay of the land. The layout of the city is appropriately described for haphazard design, and the common lack of streetnames and streetsigns reminds me of cities in developing nations, along with the use of rickshaws as a mode of transport and the offers of guides - something that is missing is the grim detail of deeply subcontracted services. The city is a bustling, noisy, crowded, mainly human, but with a sizable population of D&D-style 'races'. Social status is determined by wealth more the lineage, a common hand-to-mouth existence among many sailors, the presence of a sailor's creole and slang, a merchant and service economy, the surprising existence of a functioning university and an inventor subculture with a controlled Wizard's Guild. The people are superstitious (primarily following a God of Pirates, a God of the Sea, a God of Knowledge, and a God of War, plus some unsavoury cults), and are prone to 'entertainment', primarily drink, narcotics, and gambling, although the usual sailor's practise is not mentioned as a topic in its own right.
There is a government of sorts, a non-hereditary Sea Lord and a Captain's Council, the latter having some veto powers and - despite its name - mainly from influential city guild leaders and merchants. There are several houses in the city with major influence. Whilst one may reasonably assume that they are "old money" the short descriptions, whilst often interesting, don't really provide much information in most cases on the source of their wealth and income. The executive branch of the government is partially fulfilled by the somewhat anarchronistic Sea Lord's Guard and more commonly by the often-absent Watch. For external threats, and to threat externally, there is an impressive formal navy and informal privateer network. Description is provided of criminal investigation (such as it is), the trial process, and a rather lenient (for the setting) punishment regimen according to crime. There is an underworld of course, and quite a significant one, mainly into drugs and protection rackets, but avoiding slavery.
Districts and Denizens
Each of the main districts of the supplement receives its own chapter, which really is a stunning degree of detail (indeed, perhaps more of the culture and background would have been more appropriate). In order, the districts so described are The Docks, Scurvytown, Bloodsalt, Eastern District, Old City, Drac's End, Temple District, Merchant District, Warehouse District, and The Underside. With a population described as reaching ten thousand during the busiest times of year, a roughly even distribution would see about 1,000 people per chapter and district. So it is not just sheer page count but an impressive, almost excessive, level of detail that is provided. Each district is provided with a map - indicating far too many buildings for the population size and density supposed - and adventure seeds for each location which ties in with the major personalities, typically interesting and very underdeveloped. The descriptions that follow are not the order they are given in the book, but rather one by association.
The Docks region is designed for trade and visitors, a tolerant and cosmopolitan district. Major features include the seaside market, various bars, a rather unusual Society of Lobster Men, the city's main newspaper, and as a surprising and acceptable anachronism, a very effective Longshoreman's Union. Next to the Docks region is the warehouse district, a place which strangely has the best organisation of buildings on the map. Apart from expected activities, it also has very secure holdings for valuables, an auction house, the office of public records, and the Pilot's Guild. Beyond the Warehouse District is the Merchant District, where the wealthy live and where - for a change - population density does match the map. This is home to the Merchant's Guild, and the more exclusive clubs, not to mention an Opera House.
In rather stark contrast, 'Scurvytown' (an unofficial nickname) is subject to a "decrepit condition, lawless population, and grinding poverty". Appropriately it is downhill from the more salubrious Old City and the Eastern District. Again it has far too many buildings for the population. Of particular note in this region is a neighbourhood dedicated to vice in a myriad of forms, an rather unusual rodent infestation (unusual even for Scurvytown), appropriately a fish market, and most inappropriately, the equivalent of a casino. A step further down the social scale is Bloodsalt, a new community primarily inhabited by orcs and their kin, established following recruitment for the Reclamation Project. It is a disparate shanty town with only a few buildings having any semblance of permancy. The area is rough, very rough, but there is a certain victimised pride among the Orcish peoples who have been persecuted by a racist human population. Sadly, this district is somewhat underdeveloped, both in the descriptive sense, and in the sense of developing interesting narratives, with the most interest location and resident being a goblin wizard.
Surrounded by impoverishment and disorganised crime, the insecure middle-calss of the Eastern District have themselves turned to the Syndicate a criminal organisation run by a halfling. Locations of note include the city's asylum, a fraternal organisation, and a political meethouse. Of a similar class status and above, but inhabited by old money, the Old City district is surrounded by the original city walls and, unsurprisingly, has the appropriate structures such as the Sea Lord's Palace, the legal and military administration, and the Wizard's Guild. Wedged between the Old City and the Merchant District is a Temple District, with its spacious roads and impressive buildings and amusingly, a "Fool's Market" where those of a newfound religion may preach their revelations.
On the outskirts, like a suburb beyond the Old City, the Drac's End district is where the city becomes farmland and eventually jungle. It is a place where the recent great fire in the city has left a deep impression, illustrated by the large number of temporary shelters. As juxtaposition, Drac's End is the location of the city's centre for higher education, The Freeport Institute, along with a martial arts institute. Finally, there's the Underside, a world in itself of the sewer network and hidden or forgotten tunnels. This is, obviously, not a heavily populated area, home only to the "misfits, the mad, the sick, and the dead (and the undead)", but also (and this is not giving too much away) the Serpent People.
Around twenty pages is spent on describing the major NPCs of Freeport in the Denizens chapter, with lengthy descriptions given to some fourteen major characters and around a paragraph to about another twenty. For the major characters, extensive background and plans are provided along with adventure seeds involving the personage. As can be expected, the major characters have complex personalities, dramatic backgrounds, and quite often there is a lot more to them than what meets the eye.
Region and Elaboration
The final chapters of the book expands Freeport into a larger region, describing in greater detail the geographical context. As part of a small group of islands, surrounded by coral reefs, with a semi-tropical climate, and mainly calm seas, Freeport is in a rather blessed environment. There are a couple of smaller settlements nearby in the small archipelago, and an impressive volcano. However, all is not entirely well, as the great fire damaged much of the jungle and the people of Freeport are beginning to realise how much they depended on those lands - especially given that plant life stubbornly refuses to grow on the damaged areas. Increasingly Freeport finds itself dependent on the nearby farming village of Cabbage Crack, and faces a challenge in the utterly improbable lawless town of Libertyville. Finally, there is one of the wonders of the world, the Freeport Lighthouse, still in operation but thankfully removed from the unfortunate incident of a few years prior.
Going a step beyond this is a description of the wider world, starting with a cosmology that witnesses the "unconsciously guided creation" that lead to the Primal Gods, and especially Yig and the formation of the island Valossa, which forms a sort of axis mundi by which other lands are attracted to it. It's destruction, leaving The Serpent Teeth and The Continent nearby. The history of that region is the usual rise and fall of empires, surprisingly powerful ones actually, when the size of the region is considered. Still, as things fall apart, the Continent is now competed space between several kingdoms and tribal lands of various power, all of which are described in some detail, about a page each, some of which have at least a modicum of interesting history and potential dynamic. A map is offered as well, and sadly it must be one of the worst maps in terms of plausible geography to be dumped on the world of roleplaying. Mountain ranges are in the wrong place, rivers traverse over such ranges, there is little sense of prevailing winds, ocean currents, or a plausible distribution of flora.
The final chapter, using Freeport, provides some pretty obvious about on how to use Freeport in a world of one's choosing, most of which should be self-evident from reading the product. Somewhat more usefully is listing of the potential character types that could find themselves in Freeport, and even better still is the few pages dedicated to living in Freeport, and nautical experiences. A even better component is the 'sidebar' discussion of thematic considerations for Freeport games; action, intrigue, horror, and humour. The proposals for altering ("fine-tuning") Freeport are a useful additions and some of them probably make more sense that the default setting. A series of "campaign threads", detailed narrative trajectories, are offered to add additional flavour to a GM's overall campaign as consistent side-plots. The product ends with a publication of history of the Freeport setting, starting from Death in Freeport (2000) all the way to Crisis in Freeport (2006).
Stylistically, Freeport is an impressive product with above average art (albeit of varying quality) and layout, a very impressive setting and combination of horror and pirate genres, although oddly the latter never quite seems to ring true. It's more about a rough port city-state, rather than a pirate campaign and indeed the dearth of information dedicated to piracy on the high seas is very surprising and frankly, inappropriate. However, given this it is an enjoyable read, and of course, physically, a delight to hold.
In terms of substance, it covers a lot of ground in impressive detail, especially in terms of locations, people, and plot seeds. However, given the amount of space that is offered to these concerns, what was overlooked (flora and fauna, weather patterns, demographics) was somewhat surprising as the aforementioned disparity between alleged population and density. What is offered is done with insufficient attention of signal-to-fluff, with just a little too much on the latter, and with too much repetition of various features.
With numerous adventure seeds and the impressive threads to choose from, and with a decent combination of genre-elements, Freeport is a very much a fun place to play an adventure campaign, that largely shows a great deal of internal consistency, despite several quirky anachronisms. Finally, one cannot fault the basic system that is offered in terms of integration of abstract levels in character descriptions, although this could have, and should have, been elaborated for other challenges as well.
Overall impressions are thus somewhat mixed. This is a good product, indeed, a very good product, even accounting for its flaws and verbosity. A little more care, a little more elaboration, a savage editor and a mean art critic could have made it a great product.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .6 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .8 (readability) + .8 (product) = 4.5
Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + .4 (text) + .9 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .4 (system) = 3.9