The year 2000 is significant in the gaming hobby because it marked the beginning of the ‘d20 Era’, a period of unparalleled creativity by publishers large and small—and tiny, as they used the d20 System to power game after game, scenario after scenario, supplement after supplement, genre after genre. Some new, some old, some simple reskins. And there are publishers twenty or so years later who are still writing using the d20 System. As much as publishers explored different worlds and settings using the d20 System and its System Reference Document, at its heart was one roleplaying game, launched in the year 2000—Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Just as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is the top roleplaying game today, Dungeons Dragons, Third Edition was the top roleplaying game of its day, and the advent of the d20 System let other publishers play in the Dungeons & Dragons sandpit, just as many had back in the early days of the hobby. The aim of this series of reviews is not to review Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition itself, for that would not necessarily make for an interesting review. Rather it is to look at some of the interesting titles which came out of the d20 System boom that started twenty years ago.
From the off, the d20 System allowed publishers to ride the wave of popularity that was Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and that started at Gen Con 2000 with adventures from publishers such as Atlas Games and Green Ronin Publishing. The former was an established publisher, best known for roleplaying games such as Over the Edge and Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying, would launch its Penumbra line of d20 System supplements with one of the first adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition—Three Days to Kill. The latter was new publisher with just Ork! The Roleplaying Game to its name, but with its own first for scenario for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, would not only launch its own line of d20 System supplements and scenarios, it would also launch the first setting for the d20 System and the first genres for the d20 System. The title from Green Ronin Publishing was, of course, Death in Freeport.
Death in Freeport is a short adventure for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, released on August 10th, 2000 at Gen Con, the same day the new Player’s Handbook. Designed to be played by four or so Player Characters of First to Third Level, it did exactly the same thing as The Wizard’s Amulet from Necromancer Games and Three Days to Kill from Atlas Games—also released at the same time, and that is provide some which a purchaser of the Player’s Handbook could run with a minimum of preparation. Death in Freeport did more though. It presented a setting in the form of Freeport, a pirate city with elements of Lovecraftian horror, which Green Ronin would revisit in numerous supplements over the next decade, not just for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but also for other game systems, such as the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, FATE, and Shadow of the Demon Lord. It also promised sequels and within a year, two sequels, Terror in Freeport and Madness in Freeport, would follow, which together withDeath in Freeport would form the Freeport Trilogy.
The setting for the trilogy and Death in Freeport is the Freeport of the title, a pirate city built around a safe harbour in the Serpent’s Teeth islands. Millennia ago, the islands were part of the continent ruled by the Serpent People Empire of Valossa. A religious schism between the worshippers of Yig, Father of Serpents, and the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign would fester until the Brotherhood summoned their own dark god, a Great Old One known as the Unspeakable One. This would shatter both the scientifically and magically advanced Empire of Valossa and the continent it stood—leaving only the islands of the Serpent’s Teeth. The survivors would be scattered, leaving room for the rise of humanity and other races. Today, Freeport is a ruled by a pirate captain known as the Sea Lord and become a powerful force rivalling many nations, but currently seems concerned more with its own affairs rather than of the continental powers.
The scenario itself opens with four protagonists—a Gnome Fighter, a Half-Elf Sorcerer, a Human Rogue, and a Dwarf Cleric—arrive on the docks in Freeport. They are quickly beset upon by a press gang looking to take them back to sea, but will be quickly driven by determined action upon the part of the Player Characters. Consequently, they are asked by Brother Egil, a cleric of the Brotherhood of Knowledge, to look for a colleague, Lucius, who has gone missing. Curiously, Lucius has form here, having suffered a personality change, begun asking strange questions, and then disappearing some six years previously. He reappeared two years ago, much like his old self, but Brother Egil fears that his friend has suffered another relapse.
As an investigative plot, Death in Freeport is quite straightforward. It will lead the Player Characters—or Investigators—from the docks to Lucius’ house to an all-Orc crewed ship whose captain has information about Lucius’ past, and then to the Temple of Knowledge and beyond. There are a number of confrontations along the way, effectively highlighting the lawless nature of Freeport, but ultimately the Player Characters will find themselves underneath the city in the headquarters of a secret eldritch cult where they will confront a number of Lovecraftian horrors. This is quite a tough confrontation, the scenario’s antagonist being several Levels higher than the Player Characters, so having more than the four pre-generated Player Characters is probably a good idea.
At its heart, Death in Freeport is a Call of Cthulhu scenario in a fantasy setting. It shows in the choice of antagonists and the power behind them—Serpent People and the Great Old One known as the Unspeakable One, and in the investigative style plot complete with its handout clues. As a Call of Cthulhu scenario in a fantasy setting, Death in Freeport is undeniably a fantastical, slightly pulpy combination. That said, for Call of Cthulhu veterans, it may not offer a strong investigative plot, but will provide for a more-action orientated adventure in the style of Dungeons & Dragons, even perhaps as a Dreamlands-set adventure…? Whereas, for Dungeons & Dragons players it offers an investigative style of play that may be new to them, and less of the dungeoneering style of play. Dungeons & Dragons players may also be disappointed by the relative lack of loot or treasure to be found throughout the scenario, but that seems fitting given that Death in Freeport is not a traditional Dungeons & Dragons scenario.
One issue with the scenario is its brevity. It is quite short, offering perhaps just a couple of session’s worth of play. However, this makes it quite easy to bring Death in Freeport to the table and with a minimum of preparation, the point being that it is designed to showcase what Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition can do and provide something that can be played straight after the Player’s Handbook has been purchased. The scenario is not only supported with the four pre-generated adventurers, but also a good history of Freeport, a short overview of the city, full stats for all of the NPCs, and a monster in the form of the Serpent People. The scenario has a couple of handouts and there is also a map of Freeport, which in combination with the short description is enough for the Dungeon Master to work with until the release of more background. The relative lack of information about Freeport also gives Death in Freeport plenty of flexibility when it comes to the Dungeon Master adding it to her own campaign world—as does not naming the gods and temples in Freeport, which are instead kept generic, like the Temple of Knowledge.
Physically, Death in Freeport is handily presented. If the front cover by Brom is not exactly relevant to the scenario, there is no denying its impact. The interior artwork is excellent though and nicely depicts the grim, sometimes eldritch feel to both plot and city. The maps are also decent.
Death in Freeport would go on to win the Origins Awards for Best Roleplaying Adventure in 2001 and the 2001 ENnie Award for ‘Best Adventure’. It was reviewed in Polyhedron 147 (Vol. 21, No, 2 July 2001) in The Polyhedron Review by Stephen Radney-MacFarland. He wrote, that a successful d20 product, “...[H]as to present enough fun to be contagious to as many imaginations as possible while giving enough slack to allow it to fit into almost everyone's vision of the ideal fantasy game setting.” before concluding that. “Almost no d20 adventure. thus far, has been able to do that as well as Death in Freeport.” He also awarded the scenario high scores for its accessibility, art, design, and value.
Death in Freeport is a Pulpy ‘B’ movie of a scenario, one which wears its influences on its sleeve, but it showcased the fact that Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition could do more than just generic fantasy and that fantasy could very much be fun. The simple plot and themes to Death in Freeport mean it is still easy to run the scenario thirty years on and just as easily adapt to the rules system of your choice. Better, more detailed, and more involving scenarios and settings would follow for the d20 System—including a great deal of support for Freeport—but Death in Freeport was there at the start with adventure that was both eldritch and exciting, and hinted at what was to come.