26th February 2007
When Hal Mangold contacted me to draft some maps for The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, I was hesitant. Cartography, like all of my rpg work, is my hobby, albeit one I get paid for; so I only accept jobs I really like. In Freeport’s case, my hesitancy was born of ignorance: I’d never read the setting before, so was unsure if I wanted to be involved.
So I popped over to Google and did a little rooting around the ‘net to see what the whole Freeport thing was all about. To say I liked what I read would understate my initial impression. Any setting that has reviewers claiming it successfully merges the best qualities of D&D, WFRP, and Call of Cthulhu with pirates and high adventure deserves attention and it certainly got mine. So I mailed Hal and gave my assent: I would do his maps.
Before I begin any new cartography project, the first thing I do is research the area to be mapped. In this case, the first thing I had to do was I read the new book, so I knew Freeport back to front. Once I devoured that, I then read all the previously published material so I could make sure the new map wouldn’t contradict older sources, and I could get a deeper understanding of the setting. As I’m sure you are aware, Green Ronin have been busy since Freeport: The City of Adventure was released in 2002, so there was a lot to read. But, read it I did, taking notes as I worked my way through it all. Finally, with this done, I reread my brief, and started to plan how I would organise the work.
Hal wanted two colour, two-page spreads. The first spread was to depict the city of Freeport itself. The second spread was to detail the Serpent’s Teeth and the Continent. So, I decided to do Freeport first.
What was clear from all the Freeport maps I’d seen was that previous depictions of the city hadn’t been entirely faithful to the textual descriptions. I intended to resolve this. So if the text said a district had many tight streets, I decided I would map many tight streets. If the text described a building 100-foot wide, I would map the building at exactly that size into the city. Of course, this caused many problems, as this level of accuracy hadn’t been employed with the cartography for Freeport in the past, but I was determined to make it work.
So, with the initial research done, I got started. First, I read over my notes and pored over previous maps of the city and the various locations found within it. Then I drew some sketches incorporating all that material. This done, I then reread the text and compared it to what I’d drawn, making adjustments where necessary. I then read all the old books again to check for contradictions (where this was important—after all, the city has been changed a great deal by fire, war, extreme weather, and the like). This took a long, long time, and I encountered many issues as I tried to make everything work. Fortunately, Rob Schwalb stepped up to support me here, and answered any questions I had regarding conflicting sources or potential problems. Soon, after a great deal of patience from Rob (as I said, I sent him a lot of questions), he had resolved all my concerns, and everything was in place on the map. All I needed to do now was draw it.
I chose an overhead plan for the map to make it easy to reference and use, and to mirror the previous maps of the city. To match the tone of the setting, I drew the map as if it were on faded parchment, and worked with a fairly muted palate. One of the largest issues of this colour choice was making the special locations stand out from the surrounding city. To resolve this, I decided to mark all the special locations in one colour, and to mark the other buildings in another. This really made the locations pop out, and also gave an accurate view of how big (or small) some of those locations were. Soon, all of the many hundreds of buildings were drawn, coloured, and shaded, and all that remained were the details and labels. So, I added these, drawing scrolls, trees, stones, roads, borders, or whatever was necessary to get it all in place, and finished off with the compass (an anchor covered in seaweed sporting a skull with an eye-patch – nice!).
One down, one to go.
The second spread had far less material to reference, so, in comparison to the first map, required little research. For the Serpent’s Teeth part of the map, I again went for a plan of the area mapped, which allowed me to show a miniaturised version of the Freeport city map (which was nice, as it really grounded the city into the surrounding area). This map was very easy to plan, as the text described the area very well, and previous maps gave a good indication of the shapes entailed. So I immediately set to work drawing the islands and surrounding coral reefs. There is not much to comment upon here, barring that it was really fun to draw (especially the dormant volcano of Mount A’Val, and the compass—a ship’s wheel with a serpent entwined through it).
The Continent was a completely different matter. The only reference map I had was a basic hand sketch from Chris Pramas, and it had few details, so he gave me a great deal of latitude to make the map work. So I got to work making the sketch map look pretty, adding rivers where they would naturally drain, and placing major locations and roads as hinted by the text. I kept in constant contact with Chris throughout this process, and requested extra details from him where I felt it was required (names of seas, rivers, forests, passes, and the like). Out of the three, this map was the fastest to draw, as I didn’t have to constantly double-check the references to ensure there were no contradictions (after all, this is the first time the Continent has ever been mapped). It was also the most fun, as I had a far freer hand.
Eventually, with both maps of the second spread completed, I added the scroll details at the bottom of each for the keys and inset maps, and I took care to ensure the scrolls followed the same format as the scrolls from the Freeport map, granting all three some shared elements. I then added a border similar to the Freeport map (but with ship’s wheels in the corners, not little skull and crossbones), further strengthening the ties between the maps. Lastly, I added important ship routes to the Continent map. These not only provided some extra, useful detail, they also helped the aesthetics of the double-page spread, allowing the Continent map to better balance the Serpent’s Teeth map.
With that done, I was finished, and sent the maps to Hal, Rob, and Chris to have a look over; fortunately, they loved them.
Soon, you will get to see the maps, too (or, perhaps, you already have). I think they represent some of my best published work to date, and I feel they really help bring the Freeport setting to life. Indeed, having completed them, I’m preparing my first campaign in Freeport already.
I should know by now when I say something is going to be a snap, a breeze, a walk through the park so to speak, I should immediately punch myself in the face. I’ve been down this road a few times already (e.g. Black Company, Thieves’ World, and other big, scary projects), but for some reason, when Chris and I were in the early stages about what do with Freeport, I was confident we could kick this book out the door with no trouble. “We’re just collecting information and revising, right?” Oh how wrong I was.
Several years ago, right after Chris hired me to become the new d20 line developer, he mentioned “the Freeport Question,” and we discussed a bit about what we should do with the setting. At that point, we had the original trilogy, Black Sails, Tales, and Denizens, plus a slew of articles on the website, and we had snuck in references to Freeport in a slew of books, ranging from Dezzavold to Mutants and Masterminds. It had even made an impression with other d20 publishers, showing up in Human Head’s Redhurst, Paradigm Concept’s Arcanis, and several other places as well. There was even an adventure in POLYHEDRON magazine. Creatures of Freeport was on the way to print, but there was this big looming question about what we should do next? Should Freeport lay fallow, become swallowed up by the seas as we at Green Ronin charted new courses with new products, or should we go back to those mean streets of one of the d20 system’s most well-known cities, dust off the tables, and pull out the booze? And then there was the question of the Succession Crisis. As big and as sexy and fun as Black Sails was, it didn’t answer the question we were looking for: who was going to be the next Sea Lord? Well, we tossed around some ideas, and we finally settled on shelving it for a while—Chris had WFRP, I had Black Company (and then Thieves’ World, and then WFRP), and that lovely City of Adventure just had to wait.
A year or so later, having gotten our ducks in a row (unruly ducks, stay in your rows!), we revisited the Freeport question. We sat down and put our heads together. Having just about wrapped up Thieves’ World, and comfortable with the model we used for that series, we thought running with the same approach for Freeport would be the best direction. We’d start off with the “Freeport Player’s Manual,” followed by the City book, “Fury in Freeport” (an adventure to relaunch the setting), and finally, the “World of Freeport” to expand the city into a fully realized campaign setting, expanding on the world presented in Mindshadows and Hamunaptra. But before we could kick off this new series, we still needed to deal with the Succession Crisis.
The tension of the Succession Crisis had became something of an albatross for Freeport. It offered GMs a good hook for building a campaign inside the city, making sure the City of Adventure a dynamic place full of intrigue and adventure, but really, Freeport would eventually get a Sea Lord. It had to happen. And until it did, none of us felt like the setting could move forward. The question was who? And so, the idea for Crisis in Freeport was born. The adventure took the darker Freeport elements and ran with them, forming the foundation for the work we would do in the new series.
This is where things got sticky.
I know, I know, you’ve heard a thousand times about how the d20 bubble burst, imploded, and innocent wombats were maimed in the collapse, so I won’t go on about the shrinking (strangulation, more likely) of the d20 market. Given the state of d20, making Freeport a d20 book simply wasn’t viable, and though it pained me to say farewell to the four book arc we had planned, we really didn’t have a choice. So, we were all in Seattle (drawn from our various corners of the country) for our yearly summit, where we gather to make plans, eat, drink, and if possible, squeeze in a bit of gaming, bowling, and making fun of Hal. We had discussed making Freeport a straight True20 setting, but some felt Freeport was primarily a setting for the d20 system and if we went the route of True20, it wouldn’t be as useful for those folks who use Freeport in their d20 games. And really, they were the ones who supported Freeport from the start, right?
Conversation shifted and we started thinking about Freeport’s utility and appeal. Aside from its general awesomeness, Freeport’s biggest feature was that it could plug into any d20 setting, from Greyhawk to Midnight, from Arcanis to Goodman Game’s Known World, from Mystara to even (with a bit of a stretch) to Gamma World. With a few adjustments, Freeport could even work as an alternate reality in the World of Freedom (ok, that’s probably pushing it, or is it?)… it could go anywhere.
One of us asked why are we limiting this to just d20/OGL settings? Couldn’t we present Freeport so it could work with any game system? Wouldn’t it be fun to run Freeport with Rolemaster? Or, how about WFRP? Or Savage Tales? Or Runequest? Or d6? Or Powers & Perils? There was no reason why Freeport couldn’t work with any system at all… even with the old brown box set of yore. Excitement bubbled and the conversation grew more animated as we kicked around the idea of how to handle the nuts and bolts and the rest was (well, really, it will be) history.
So what was so hard, you ask? What deserved the punch in the mouth? Well, I think the biggest hurdle was getting started. We needed the right time, the right window, and then we needed to hammer out the plan. We had big plans, shelved them, pulled them back out, chopped them into little pieces and glued them back together again, and in the end, we picked the right path. When I think back on it though, it wasn’t that hard to do all this. We were just spit-balling. No, the hard part was pulling it all together and getting the ball rolling, but that, I guess, I’ll leave for next time…
We have added a PDF-format version of Creatures of Freeport to our Green Ronin Online Store. This bestiary was originally released in print format in 2004 (still available), and is fully compatible with version 3.5 of the d20 System rules. This indispensable PDF of creatures great and small comes fully-bookmarked. From the deceptively familiar malkin to the nightmarish deadwood tree, Creatures of Freeport has what you need to keep your campaign fresh and challenging!
"What did I want? Danger, pleasure, the chance to simply look and sniff and imagine. Port towns have a pungent density of smells and sights; yet they are open, too, one whole wall removed and exposed to the sea, a place of comings and goings, dreams hatched and dreams dashed."
The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea
This spring Green Ronin is releasing the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, a new beginning for the famous "City of Adventure." Over the following weeks we’re going to be telling you a lot about the book and our other plans for Freeport. Before I get into all the whys and wherefores, however, I’d like to start by giving you a basic overview of the book.
The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is a 256-page hardback book that fully details a city that can be used in any campaign setting and with any fantasy roleplaying game. Freeport takes classic fantasy elements and mixes them with pirates and Lovecraftian horror to create a unique city with a dangerous flavor. Unlike most game books, the Pirate’s Guide is not tied to a particular game system. Every page of the book is dedicated to describing the city and giving you ideas on how to use as the backdrop of your campaign. Its features include:
- An overview of the city, including its customs, politics, and laws.
- A 16-page color section that includes beautiful paintings by renowned fantasy artist Wayne Reynolds.
- A complete history and timeline of Freeport.
- Over 100 fully detailed locations, from taverns and beer halls to prisons and asylums.
- Details on Freeport’s many gangs, organizations, and cults.
- A district by district breakdown of the city.
- Over 200 characters, from pirates and priests to minstrels and mercenaries.
- Details on the Serpent’s Teeth, the island group where Freeport is situated.
- Beyond Freeport, an optional chapter that turns Freeport into a full campaign setting and offers details on “the Continent” for the very first time.
- End papers with fantastic full color maps of the city, the Serpent’s Teeth, and the Continent by cartographer Andy Law.
- Plenty of campaign advice, so GMs can make the most of Freeport.
- Hundreds of adventure hooks that make all this material as easy to use as possible.
Some people have described Freeport as a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu but that’s not quite right. If D&D and CoC went on a date and conceived an unholy progeny while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, THAT would be Freeport. Sound like fun yet?
With the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, the City of Adventure enters a major new phase, so it’s only natural that we have plenty of support lined up. This consists of three major types of products: rules companions, setting books, and adventures.
Let me start with the rules companions first. Originally, Freeport was tied to one game system exclusively, but we decided to take a different approach this time around. While the Pirate’s Guide details the setting, a series of companion books will tackle the rules. Each companion book will provide all the rules support you need for a specific system. The first of these is the True20 Freeport Companion and it will be followed this summer by the d20 Freeport Companion. Each one is tailored for the system it supports. The d20 adaptation will have new core and prestige classes, for example, but such things are not required in the True20 version. Every companion will include a short adventure that can be used to kick off a new campaign, as well as stats for important NPCs. We are planning Freeport companions for other rules systems as well, some in print and some in PDF format. Watch for future announcements to see what systems we’ll be supporting.
The second type of support we have planned is setting books. These will be similar in format to the Pirate’s Guide but focusing in on a single topic. At the moment two of these are in design. The first is Cults of Freeport, which will detail many of the city’s vilest organizations (including the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign). The second is Buccaneers of Freeport, which provides a pack of vicious pirates for use in your games and includes full details on their crews and ships. Rules support for these books will appear either in the companions or as free PDF downloads from greenronin.com.
The last type of support is adventures. These take a more traditional approach and include game stats for a single system. Support for other systems will be available as free downloads. Right now Green Ronin’s major adventure line, the Bleeding Edge series, is designed for the d20 System but there are True20 conversions on true20.com. The Bleeding Edge adventures take place on “the Continent,” the major land mass nearest to Freeport. Bleeding Edge #7 will take place in Freeport itself. You may also see some Freeport adventures in PDF form.
Stay tuned for more of my design diaries, as well as those of my co-designers on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, Robert J. Schwalb and Patrick O’Duffy. We’ll be talking about the design decisions of the book, how new and old elements were blended together, and just how the whole thing came together. We’ll also be putting some art previews and doing a special installment on the new, jaw-droppingly beautiful maps.
Welcome to the City of Adventure, mates. This is the just the beginning.