Ask Dr. Evil

He's not a real Doctor. He's got a Master's Degree. In Evil!

Dear Dr. Evil,
How can I incorporate Freeport content into a Skull & Bones campaign without having it seem too "fantastical?" I really like the swashbuckling setting and rules of the Skull & Bones supplement, but I also like to use published adventures in my campaigns. The Freeport setting seems to have a lot of piratey content, but much of it (such as orcs and magic) wouldn't fit into the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean.

Hi Jim!

This is an interesting question. Like you, I'm a big fan of the Skull & Bones campaign setting, and while there are some resources out there for spinning out adventures for the Golden Age of Piracy, you can exhaust them quickly. You hit the nail on the head with Freeport though, since the city is a pirate city gone legit. And you could probably run an interesting campaign using the Skull & Bones rules. But, as you mentioned, Freeport, despite its Lovecraftian tones and dark gritty fantasy flavor, is a "fantasy" setting and as such, it relies on the standard elements found in the PHB. Walking the streets of this city, you'll find orcs, elves, magic and magic items, none of which fit the tone of authenticity evoked by Skull & Bones. However, with a little work, I think you can take advantage of the published adventures while retaining the integrity of your preferred setting.

Getting Started... or, How much is too much fantasy...

It's easy to add stronger fantasy elements to Skull & Bones than it is to take them out of most fantasy adventures. It would be a lot easier to add orcs, magic, and all the other fantasy things to Skull & Bones than to take them out of a standard d20 adventure. For you see, if the adventure centered on a flying ship, or a dragon, or some spheroid creature with eyestalks, by removing the fantastical monsters, you neuter the adventure. But, with Freeport, such fantasy concepts are minimized. Sure, there are sea devils and merfolk, but by and large, the majority of the people encountered in the city are plain old humans and most of the adventures (at least in the Freeport Trilogy) feature human agents plotting some awful doom for the city.

Occasionally, there are NPCs with other races. Captain Scarbelly, while not absolutely integral to the events in Freeport, is a big part of the city's feel and atmosphere, and removing him, easy as it is to do (Lucius could have been on another pirate ship for instance), takes away something vital to the setting.

As a compromise, you should keep these characters the same, but change their race and class to meet the needs of the Skull & Bones setting. Just remove the race, remove its traits, and if the race offered any ability modifiers, reverse them and you're ready to add back in extra skill points and pick a bonus feat. If the NPCs hook is tied to his race, you'll need to emphasize other aspects of the character or perhaps introduce traits that may represent certain stereotyped elements. So an orc pirate might be a brute, and an elf pirate could be sophisticated. If you want to keep halflings and gnomes wee, just make 'em children ala Oliver Twist.

Classes can provide a few more headaches as well. Sorcerers, wizards, clerics, paladins, and to some extent bards are all unsuited to the setting since traditional d20 spellcasting doesn't exist. What's worse, d20 adventure design takes advantage of the particular edges and ability combinations to make the encounter interesting, exciting, and challenging. By removing the spellcasting, and magic item component, encounters and plot explanations become meaningless, and either give the opponents or the PCs too much of an advantage for the indicated Encounter Level.

You could remove or replace these encounters with other more suitable ones, but generating them can be challenging, especially for GMs pressed for time. Another solution is gunpowder. Characters who begin play with proficiency in crossbows instead gain proficiency with simple gunpowder weapons. This could make some difference if you arm opponents with these better weapons. (Heck, for a tough wizard, give him three or four loaded pistols.) Alternatively, for divine spellcasters, try arming one with a relic to allow them to cast up to 3rd-level spells.

Magic items, on the other hand, should simply be removed. If a character relies on pigment of disguise or something similar, have the character make a Disguise check instead and apply circumstance modifiers as needed. But for +1 longswords and the like, ditch 'em altogether. The ELs of the encounter shouldn't be affected too greatly since neither side has access to this special equipment.

As for dealing with any of the big spell effects found in Freeport, the one involving the Lighthouse in particular, I'd probably hand wave that away as a super-complex ritual, a one time event of which no one will ever see the likes again... or well, until Tales of Freeport.

Plot & Madness

Making these simple changes goes a long way to transforming Freeport from its standard d20 roots to Skull & Bones. But a major component remains. Those familiar with the Freeport Trilogy know it incorporates a number of Lovecraftian elements that may or may not gel with your vision of the Golden Age of Piracy. Degenerate Serpent People, the Unspeakable One, and a terrible plot involving the Milton's Folly can derail your Skull & Bones game faster than you can blink. But, if you're looking to blend Freeport with Skull & Bones, you probably know this already. So, I'd bet your comfortable with adding such cosmic horror elements to your games (much as I am with Testament).

To reconcile the larger darker plot of the Freeport Trilogy, I'd add a sanity component. Now this said, there's probably a half dozen sanity systems floating out there, from that presented in Unearthed Arcana and The Black Company Campaign Setting, to a variety of PDF releases found on RPGNow, so you don't have to spin one out whole cloth. Sanity and madness allow you to incorporate mind-shattering horror elements that don't marry well to Skull & Bones in normal play. When the characters square off against the degenerate serpent people, or the shadow serpents (shudder), such encounters tax the minds of alcohol-sodden pirates and cutthroats. The existence of such creatures is beyond the bounds of ordinary adventure and encountering these creatures should have lasting repercussions on the player characters.

Putting it Together

Part of me would love to build conversion guidelines for Death in Freeport for Skull & Bones, but that wouldn't leave anything fun for you to do. But, since I'm Dr. Evil, let's convert Captain Scarbelly and the crew of the Bloody Vengeance to Skull & Bones to eliminate some of the grunt work. You're welcome.

Scarbelly, for those not in the know, is an orc pirate. This is immediately problematic since orcs don't exist. Furthermore, his equipment is inappropriate, so we need to rebuild him pretty much from the ground up. For sanity, I'm using The Black Company Campaign Setting rules that derived from Unearthed Arcana. For more information, check out either sourcebook.

Note each entry lists Sanity. The number outside of the parentheses is current sanity. Inside the parentheses, first comes starting sanity followed by maximum sanity. Maximum sanity is reduced by the Forbidden Lore skill. Each rank gained reduces maximum sanity by 1. Don't bother tracking sanity scores for cannon fodder; make them go crazy whenever you like.

Captain Scarbelly (CR 3)
Male human buccaneer 3
CE Medium humanoid
Init +5; Senses Spot +4 (+5 in the Caribbean), Listen +3 (+4 in the Caribbean)
Languages English, Spanish

AC 16, touch 11, flat-footed 15
hp 16 (3 HD)
Sanity 38 (45/99)
Fort +4 (+6 to remain conscious), Ref +2, Will +2

Spd 30 ft. (6 squares)
Melee mwk boarding axe +7 (1d8+4/x3)
Ranged blunderbuss pistol +4 (1d12/x3)
Base Atk +3; Grp +6
Atk Options Power Attack

Abilities Str 16, Dex 13, Con 13, Int 14, Wis 9, Cha 13
Feats Cleave, Improved Initiative, Iron Will B, Power Attack B
Skills Appraise +4, Balance +4, Climb +8 (+10 rigging), Escape Artist +0 (+2 rope bindings), Intimidate +6, Knowledge (navigation) +10, Knowledge (sea lore) +10, Listen +3 (+4 in the Caribbean), Spot +4 (+5 in the Caribbean), Swim +7 (+9 in the Caribbean), Survival +4 (+5 in the Caribbean), Use Rope +7
Possessions masterwork breastplate, masterwork boarding axe, blunderbuss pistol, dozen powder and shot, five rings (worth 50 dbl), pouch with 15 dbl and 20 rl, Bloody Vengeance and contents

Pirates of the Bloody Vengeance (CR 1)
Male human sea dog 1
CE Medium humanoid
Init +1; Senses Spot +5, Listen +5
Languages Spanish

AC 13, touch 11, flat-footed 12; Dodge
hp 6 (1 HD)
Fort +3, Ref +3, Will 1 (3 against spells and spell-like effects)

Spd 30 ft. (6 squares)
Melee cutlass +4 (1d6+2/18-20)
Ranged pistol +2 (2d4/x3)
Base Atk +1; Grp +3

Abilities Str 15, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 10, Wis 9, Cha 8
SQ close quarters +1, superstitious
Feats Alertness, Dodge B, Weapon Focus (cutlass) B
Skills Jump +6, Listen +5, Spot +5, Swim +6
Possessions buff coat, cutlass, pistol, dozen powder and shot, 7 rl

Close Quarters (Ex): When fighting with a cutlass or hand axe below decks on any ship, the Pirates of the Bloody Vengeance gain a +1 bonus to all damage rolls.

Superstitious: All beneficial spells that target the Pirates of the Bloody Vengeance take effect if they were empowered.

Aggro (CR 2)
Male human buccaneer 1, sea dog 1
CE Medium humanoid
Init +1; Senses Spot +4 (+5 in the Caribbean), Listen +2 (+3 in the Caribbean)
Languages Spanish

AC 13, touch 11, flat-footed 12; Dodge
hp 12 (2 HD)
Sanity 50 (55/99)
Fort +5, Ref +3, Will +0

Spd 30 ft. (6 squares)
Melee mwk cutlass +5 (1d6+2/18-20)
Ranged pistol +3 (2d4/x3)
Base Atk +2; Grp +4
Atk Options Improved Bull Rush, Power Attack

Abilities Str 15, Dex 12, Con 13, Int 11, Wis 11, Cha 11
SQ close quarters +1, superstitious
Feats Alertness B, Dodge B, Improved Bull Rush, Power Attack B
Skills Appraise +1, Balance +5, Climb +6 (+8 rigging), Escape Artist +1 (+3 ropes), Intimidate +5, Knowledge (navigation) +4, Knowledge (sea lore) +4, Listen +2, Spot +4, Survival +0 (+1 in the Caribbean), Swim +6 (+7 in the Caribbean), Use Rope +6
Possessions buff coat, masterwork cutlass, pistol, dozen powder and shot, wooden amulet, pouch with 1 dbl and 18 rl.