RPG Review – Dark Deeds in Freeport
Dark Deeds in Freeport is a mega-adventure/anthology and clocks in at 82 pages of content, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2/3 of a page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 77 1/3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Disclaimer: I was a patron of this book. I was in no way associated with the production of this book, though.
Sometimes, books seem cursed – most often, surprisingly, when the feature Lovecraftian themes and this was no different: Long-delayed, the adventure finally arrived when I had all but forgotten about it. I read and ran it, but then…it fell between the virtual cracks of my own hard drive, languishing…until this day.
This is a Freeport-adventure, but it is somewhat uncommon as a module: Somewhere between being a mega-module and an anthology, this book works best if used in conjunction with other adventures. Basically, this module sports a metaplot that works best if it is allowed to gestate over a longer time-frame, with the respective small modules herein slowly building up the weirdness of this adventure’s plot, rendering this a rather interesting hybrid of mega-adventure and adventure-anthology.
This being a Freeport module, it obviously works best when used in the iconic city that can be found in quite a few worlds. Advice for integration in Midgard is btw. explicitly provided, hence my tag of this adventure as “Midgard”, even though other settings that contain Freeport like Purple Duck Games’ Porphyra can just as easily run this one. The adventure references the Freeport Companion a couple of times – alas, this does make the module a tad bit dated. The book simply wasn’t that good and for me, constituted one of the low points of Freeport history. That being said, since then, Owen K.C. Stephens has taken the Freeport-reins and I hear that the Freeport-book released since then has been much better – I couldn’t join the KS for it, though, so unfortunately, I don’t have a valid frame of reference here. Back to this module: Since it refers to some statblocks from the older book and since it is steeped in Freeport lore, I definitely recommend running this module in Freeport and not in some other pirate-y city.
All right, no more set-up and procrastination, let’s dive into this beast! From here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should definitely jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs left? This is the final warning…
So, the background story of this one is pretty unique in that its premise is based on an observation I share: Most humans can’t stand the truth- Lies and deceptions are an integral part of the social glue that holds our society together. If you think that’s cynical, let me tell you a little story: When I was a child, it took me quite a long time to grasp that people do not react kindly to universal truth. In fact, my refusal to lie about anything, whether it was the teacher’s new haircut or my assessment of fellow pupils got me into a lot of trouble and frustrated me to no end – didn’t these people know that lying was wrong? This thinking in absolutes coupled with my sense of justice resulted in some…let’s say, unpleasant experiences. What I learned from the ordeal of this time was that “truth” as a value held up by society was not a monolithic concept, but rather a malleable field with degrees of category membership – a truism that is even more true in a setting rife with deception and criminality like Freeport.
There is another component that makes truth dangerous – the subjectivity of one’s perceptions. Let’s take two cultures I’m intimately familiar with, the German and the American culture. American culture tends to view sexuality as a taboo subject, whereas German culture views violence as something taboo. Different things are censored and edgy. This phenomenon extends to the individual and the individual’s interactions with his or her surroundings. At the most basic line, it’s about the perception of the self versus how we are perceived – ever felt like crap and got this compliment that you just couldn’t believe? When you had this nasty pimple or bad hair day and someone just told you how beautiful/handsome you looked? The other person has not necessarily lied – their truth diverged from yours and voicing yours potentially would have superimposed your own temporary lack of confidence over that of the other person. On a less personal level, consider the topic of philanthropy: Most cynics will tell you that the basis of it lies in a sense of narcissism – but I’m not going there. Let’s run a hypothetic Freeport-y example: Pirate Lord Y donates a huge pile of gold to an orphanage. He doesn’t do this out of the kindness of his heart, but because he once burned one down and now is haunted by dreams of damnation. The result of his action is something positive, good – and we may well cheer him for his generosity. Were his motivation known, we’d smirk derisively, at best. Ignorance in this example, generates bliss – hope, even. Knowledge of his true motivation does neither. Truth as a monolithic concept can be a highly destructive force that needs to be tempered by a social conscience, by compassion.
Now the basic idea of this anthology is that Freeport becomes infected by a kind of truth-plague: People start babbling their deepest, darkest secrets to anyone – from being covert philanthropists to being crossdressers, cultists – you name the taboo subject and the massive tables provided for NPCs will have an entry for it. Ina city built on secrecy and deception, with as many grimy secrets lying below the surface, this, more so than in regular society, may tear asunder the very fabric of the city.
How did this begin? Well, in ages past, the Valossian empire was besieged by the dread agents of the Yellow Sign – and a cadre of secretive Yig-worshippers set about to create a remedy for the cancer of the cult – an artifact most dire, one that would cut right through the layers of deceptions, consume their souls and eternally bind them to guard the instrument of their undoing: This dread artifact of ancient times was a lantern known as the Eye of Yig. To guard this powerful artifact, a powerful qlippoth was enslaved and tied to it – but alas, the completion happened too late, the empire was already doomed and thus, the artifact and the complex were buried…until recently.
The artifact was unleashed and with it, its erstwhile guardian. The unique, nightmarish qlippoth has been changed by ages spent in the shine of the lantern – with an ideology changed to blend the nasty universal hatred of its kind, a brilliant mind and a new commitment to the concept of truth, its sets out to change the world. And this adversary ranks quite frankly among the best parts of the whole module – from utterly disturbing visuals evoked to smart strategies and a disturbing component of body horror and espionage/paranoia, this foe ranks among the best, most compelling antagonists I’ve seen in quite a while. Complicating the Byzantine scheme of this mastermind would be a new cult sprung from this devotion to truth…and an extraplanar sect in service to insectoid collectives, the Authority of the Amalgamation
So, let’s begin with the first task for the PCs, in which Mike Franke challenges 9th level PCs and begins with a task from notorious crimelord Finn – his operations are being compromised and the PCs are supposed to find out how. After a rather rudimentary investigation (which I urge GMs to expand, though thankfully magic is accounted for), the trail leads them to the Dead Docks where undead and a nasty man called Bartholomew Burek hold the Book of Buried Secrets, in which truly volatile secrets are written down…but how did those get out?
Phil Minchin and Christina Stiles provide another clue in the 10th level follow-up: Hired by the Shipping news (taking into account that some characters here may or may not have died during a Freeport campaign), the PCs make the acquaintance of Aletha Dorch, self-proclaimed con-woman turned full-blown oracle of the new Truth Speaker cult that has been gaining traction in the city – her uncontrolled ramblings point towards the ship of an intelligent, gentleman-minotaur captain – who has been smuggling rather interesting items into the city: Thoughtwipes. These are magical handkerchiefs that can soak up memories of secrets one wants kept…alas, unbeknownst to the clientele, they still contain the secrets they assimilated. While I love the concept, the item has massive implications on the logic of how certain things like espionage etc. work – GMs are encouraged to be careful with these. Whether just via stealth or by force of weapons, the PCs have a true scoop for the shipping news…
Mike Franke’s next module, also for 10th level characters, is more straightforward and pits the adventurers against the oracle of the infamous dreaming street – a former prostitute now turned dangerous issue for the city. Infiltrating the Torchlight Academy provides a mixture of infiltration and dungeon-crawl, as the mistress proves to be something way worse than the PCs will anticipate…and the other adversaries here are just as lethal…
Christina Stiles proves at 11th level that she can write nasty, in-your-face horror: Chambers Asylum is on lockdown. The madness spread via the excessive, addictive truth that undermines the city has sent many a person to the asylum, where they now await less than friendly experimentation at the hands of the scrupulous doctors there – alas, these unfortunates, which include Aletha Dorch, torn by the lack of thoughtwipes, have become anchors for primordial chaos – wailing, deadly, infectious bearers of primal forces. The PCs are sent into a place of deadly insanity and chaos. Thing become even more complicated due to the Amalgamation sending in an extermination squad, hell-bent on annihilating everyone that may be compromised by chaos. In the hands of a capable GM, this one is a true joy to run and highly disturbing. Beyond that, this module also provides the leads to the furious finale of this anthology.
Intended for 12th level characters, the pieces all fall into place – and the PCs can finally make their way below the surface, into the ancient Valossian ruins, where dread undead Serpentfolk, a broken dimensional vehicle and the disturbing mastermind with his servitors await for the final showdown in one final eruption of deadly sword & sorcery-ish goodness that exemplifies the virtues of Freeport and provides several intriguing means of continuing the story-line…or ending it with a climactic bang.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no grievous glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful full-color two-column standard in the electronic version. The pdf sports numerous gorgeous b/w-artworks and the print version, alas, is b/w – pity it isn’t full color – the gorgeous layout looks better in color. The pdf is fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, while the print version sports matte, nice paper. One more thing: The cover’s is the least compelling artwork herein, so expect to see better art inside. The adventure sports many maps…but no player-friendly versions, which, even when this was released first, kind of were already industry-standard, so that’s a bit of a downside.
Miek Franke, Christina Stiles, Phil Minchin, Ryan Costello Jr., Mike Furlanetto, Robert Hahn, Spike Y Jones, Carlos Ovalle, Rory Toma -ladies and gentlemen, you have created the most intelligent Freeport adventure out there – with philosophical themes and a brilliant adversary, Dark Deeds in Freeport pretty much has one of the most awesome metaplots I’ve seen in a while. The set-up and everything…is smart, cool and even disturbing. This can be really horrific, psychological horror, if you choose to run it like that. Concept-wise, this stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Kobold Press mega-adventures…and you all know how much I love them!
Alas, at the same time, this book feels, to me, like it trips over its own format. As awesome as the set-up and metaplot are, the set-pieces and individual modules, barring the last two, fell short of the potential of this whole set-up. The series of modules, ultimately, does not manage to go the step where everything gets personal and this is somewhat system-immanent in the episodic format chosen. While reading this book, I never lost the notion that ultimately, this would have worked even better as a massive sandboxy investigation, with the set-pieces as highlights.
With a couple of free-form encounters and a timeline of random events to witness and the like, this could have been the singular best Freeport module ever released. As provided, this still is a great metaplot with some truly inspired set-pieces/chapters and a glorious villain, but it does not reach the apex level of awesomeness its potential definitely has. A good GM with some Freeport-Fu can make this extremely memorable. In the hands of a less experienced GM, the beginning and connections between the chapters may feel a bit thin, though. It is only due to this and the lack of player-friendly maps that I’m settling on a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4.
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