John Marron asked me if I would share this write-up here, of my long-overdue first Freebooters session.

John Marron asked me if I would share this write-up here, of my long-overdue first Freebooters session.

John Marron asked me if I would share this write-up here, of my long-overdue first Freebooters session. Jason had some good suggestions in the comments, which we can probably repost if they don’t show up in this share.

Originally shared by J. Walton

Actual Play: Freebooters on the Frontier by Jason Lutes 

SESSION 1 of “The Cape of Chaos” (REALLY LONG)

Last night, Johnstone Metzger and I (having lost the rest of our players due to scheduling issues and real-life stuff) started playing the adventure I’m designing for FotF, based on a long-overdue Kickstarter stretch goal. This AP doesn’t really reveal any spoilers for that adventure (and it’s kinda hard to spoil a DW adventure anyway, since it’s so different for different groups), but is more a documentation of the game so that I can remember what stuff I need to include in the adventure and so Jason can see what I’m up to. Also, it’s nice to have a record of play.

First, this is one of the first really table-centric games I’ve played in a long time, since I’ve missed out on DCC and Kevin Crawford games so far. Gotta say: I love it. It’s definitely way less exhausting to GM than some other AW hacks where a lot of the creative burden for coming up with fictional content falls on the GM (though having the option to ask the players questions always helps in that regard). Just being able to roll on tables and have it generate totally awesome and appropriate content for the game was amazing (see also: Fiasco), and it also showed me how I need to consolidate, modify, and incorporate certain tables directly into the adventure, so the GM doesn’t have to keep flipping back and forth between FotF, Perilous Wilds, the adventure, and whatever other stuff they’re using.

In any event, we decided to start with Johnstone’s character and a couple of random followers (NPC retainers) shipwrecked on the so-called Cape of Chaos. Starting him with a couple followers was basically our way of making up for it being a solo game. Plus, if he perished early on, FotF has a move for graduating a follower to full PC status, so they’re kinda like extra lives in that way.

Johnstone randomly rolled up Alzabar the 1st-level male human wizard, with 2 HP, who had a skullcap and a disfigured face, some pretty mediocre stats, was chaotic but with a strong (twisted?) sense of justice, with the vices of merciless and lustful, a magical staff, healing potion, spell components (dried newts and salamanders), and the spells of “life aura” and “fearsome door” (the spells are also randomly generated in this game, which is AWESOME).

The first randomly rolled follower was Dawn the young female commoner and cartographer, who was meek from a lifetime of servitude/oppression, an addict, had a tendency to slack off, and whose cost (for her continued service) was lucre. We decided that Dawn was the daughter of the overbearing ship’s captain (now perished in the wreck), who served as the navigator for the ship but really wanted to earn enough money to run away from her father and do her own thing. But she was sick of serving under her asshole dad, leading to the laziness and alcoholism (both also just common vices on sailing vessels).

The second follower was Calden the young male sage/scholar/wizard who was warty, envious/covetous/greedy, and had an unremarkable background, a tendency to give into temptation, and whose cost (for his continued service) was affection. We decided that Calden was Alzabar’s apprentice, traveling with him to the Cape of Chaos to research ancient magics connected with the Navel of the World, the ancient wellspring from which the entire universe was formed, which is supposedly located within an abandoned citadel on the tip of the cape.

The random character tables seem pretty awesome on first use. Yeah, we did some work to have the characters make sense, but it wasn’t that difficult and we ended up with a pretty interesting crew, even for a semi-OSR-style game where character personalities sometimes don’t matter that much. Navigating the tables took a little practice, though I think we’d gain speed and fluency with greater familiarity.

To simulate starting with the shipwreck, rather than beginning with some starting gold and buying equipment, I quickly hacked together a table to generate random mundane items and had Alzabar roll three times (a throwing knife, lamp oil, and a lantern) and each follower roll once (a hearty meal for Dawn and a short bow, with no arrows, for Calden). For the real adventure, I’ll invent a better table to generate random starting loot you pulled from the shipwreck.

We also rolled randomly, after I wrote some numbers on different spots along the coast, to generate where the characters started out on the Cape. Hilariously, Johnstone rolled a starting location halfway between two of the terrain types I had marked on the map, a blank spot in between the Blood Lagoon and a series of inlets known as The Teeth. Consequently, I wasn’t quite sure how to use the tables that I’d pre-generated (since it wasn’t really within either of those locations), so I decided to use it as an opportunity to roll up a random region using the Perilous Wilds rules. This was actually great, as it gave me an opportunity to try them out in play.

I’d already suggested that the area might be a coastline of red-colored rocky cliffs and crags, since it lay between the Blood Lagoon (colored red by algae or the local earth) and the rocky inlets of The Teeth. And, of all the possibilities, the region I rolled was called Devil + Red + Uplands or, as we decided to call them, the Red Devil Hills. I described the storm-tossed characters as waking up amidst some wreckage at the base of a set of towered red cliffs that rose in weird Badlands-style formations high above them. They weren’t easy to climb up, so Alzabar led the group down the beach to try to find a way up.

One of the coolest things about the FotF/Perilous Wilds rules is that it’s actually totally viable to just wander and see what you encounter, because the game guarantees, through it’s Discovery Tables, that whatever you encounter will be something cool that changes the fictional situation that you’re working with. In this case, I rolled that the group discovered a hovel/hut, so I described a dwelling made mostly of dirftwood and flotsom that was dug into the face of the cliff itself. I randomly rolled its occupant as Nyle (though his name never came up in play), a criminal dealer/fence with an overbite who was frugal and lewd. I interpreted this as someone who collected wreckage and storm-tossed goods from the beach and then sold them to passersby and tradesmen, but who would be stingy and unlikely to offer any help for free.

The group met Nyle outside his hut, as he was dragging wreckage from their ship up the beach and sorting it into piles. Alzabar confronted Nyle about “stealing” items from their ship, but Nyle didn’t seem bothered about that. When asked about a way up the cliffs, Nyle mentioned that he had very laboriously dug a tunnel through his dwelling up to the top of the cliffs, but that he expected something in return for allowing passage. Specifically he asked for Alzabar’s lamp oil (after a Negotiation roll of 7-9), which the wizard was reluctant to give up. Johnstone decided that Alzabar grew frustrated with this exchange and invoked his merciless trait as a reason to cast “fearsome door” on Nyle instead.

Earlier we had discussed “fearsome door” as maybe opening a portal to a terrible other place, but to a place that was unknown to Alzabar, who had definitely never tried going through the portal himself. So basically Alzabar was intending for the door to swallow Nyle and send him to some hellish place. The spell worked on a 7-9, so I had Johnstone roll a magical mishap, which ended up being the spell being more powerful than intended. I interpreted this as the doorway being larger than intended, so I asked Johnstone which of the followers would also be swallowed by the door (though maybe we should have randomly rolled, since that’s more the style of the game?). Johnstone chose for Calden to be swallowed, so I described the fearsome door opening on the ground beneath both Nyle and Calden, Calden falling in Boba Fett-style, grasping at the edges, and then the door sealing behind them both to leave one of Calden’s severed hands and a molten glassy patch of red sand behind.

Alzabar, being a wizard, pocketed his apprentice’s severed hand without too much agonizing (though, to be fair, we didn’t really build up his relationship with Calden at all, so it was hard to put too much emphasis on his demise) and Dawn freaked out, running into Nyle’s hovel and kind of barricading herself in against Alzabar and whatever the heck just happened on the beach. However, Alzabar eventually managed to talk her down, specifically by promising that he would relearn the spell (he’d forgotten it as a result of the misfire) and would open the portal tomorrow to bring Calden back and reattach his hand, because that’s the kind of thing you can do as a wizard. Dawn believed him, with some skepticism, and together they searched the hovel for anything useful, finding a two-handed warhammer marked with religious symbols that neither of them recognized (I had them roll on the random shipwreck items for this, and also roll randomly to see if the item was 10+ without complications, 7-9, with complications, or 6- not sure what move I would have made on a failure). This was a 7-9 item, with the complications being the unknown religious ties. Of course, after I invented the warhammer, I then found the random loot table in Perilous Wilds (p. 43), which I had somehow failed to find earlier. Oh well.

They then made it through the tunnel and out into the top of the Red Devil Hills, looking out over the cliffs at the ocean far below. Thanks to Dawn’s cartographic background, they were pretty sure that there was a village to the south of them, in among the inlets of The Teeth, so they set off in that direction, making the Perilous Journey move. Despite her still being a bit terrified from the magic portal, Alzabar ordered Dawn to scout ahead, rolling a 7-9 on the follower more, so I had her never stray too far ahead and thus had the journey take way longer than it otherwise would. Eventually, though, they rolled another Discovery, so I described them stumbling upon an ancient abandoned village built into the cliffs themselves (a bit like Mesa Verde, but built at ground-level, into a number of Badlands-style spires and red rock formations). I said there were several dried-out bodies of expired adventurers in some of the empty rooms of the village (thinking about the bodies of perished climbers on Everest), who had camped there or been left there by their companions. And there were a few odds and ends, but everything of value seemed to have long-ago been taken.

Since they weren’t going to make it much further today, they decided to Make Camp for the night. They didn’t really set up a watch, so I had them roll the watch move but then basically have no warning for whatever happened. They rolled a result where I got to pick a Danger, so I randomly rolled something pretty bizarre: a horde of 21 half-elves silently ambushing them. We’d already mentioned that there was a massive forest to the east, so (not being able to come with anyone else it could be) I decided that the very long-lived part-elf people who long ago built this village had for some reason decided to leave the forest and return to the village during the night, which is why they moved in such a large group. Consequently, Alzabar and Dawn woke up to find themselves tied up in a previously unknown cellar beneath one of the rooms of the village, with voices speaking in an unfamiliar dialect of elvish above them. And that’s where we stopped.

Wow. So it was pretty fun and also bizarre so far, though in kind of the best way. The random tables and high-degree of random fictional input into the game actually works really well, which is partially a tribute to how good Jason’s tables are in generating content that’s appropriate for this kind of game/setting. Even in this event, when I needed to generate stuff for a region where it didn’t feel right to use my own tables, the basic stuff in Perilous Wilds seemed to do just fine. Next time, though, I’m going to try to break out the more specialized regional tables and make sure they work too.

Also, for my money, playing FotF seems way more fun than just playing old school D&D, because the kinds of questions and moves that it invokes are more fictionally interesting to me. Plus, I actually care about the characters enough to be interested in what happens to them and the relationships between them. That said, it still feels a lot like an old-school game, despite being a DW hack.

The only thing that might be missing is a search/scrounge move that doesn’t generate food (as the existing move does) but allows you to search an area for loot or random items that might or might not be useful. It could honestly just be a sub-move within scrounge, maybe? Otherwise, it seems like it’s up to the GM’s discretion if you’re in a place where you can roll for random loot and just get it, rather than making a move to look for it. But you can imagine a search move that lets you discover loot, traps, random clues, items, information, etc. but often with complications (like setting off a trap or finding trouble instead, etc.). But it’s possible that there’s a good reason for this move not to exist or that you’re supposed to do things a different way (like Defy Danger with WIS or DEX). There’s actually a lot of moves in FotF, helpfully categorized by when you’re likely to use them, but it’ll take a while to become fully fluent in them, I think.

Anyway, that’s all until next time.

4 thoughts on “John Marron asked me if I would share this write-up here, of my long-overdue first Freebooters session.”

  1. Excellent write-up, and thanks for sharing it! I’ll come back later and post a longer response, but it sounds like the stuff you enjoyed about the game is very similar to the stuff that keeps us coming back to it. In fact, I’m starting a new Freebooters game this Friday!

  2. Awesome write-up. It’s interesting how the FotF/PW experience is similar to but also quite different in some ways from a standard DW game. In that… In DW, a lot of stuff is left to the GM to come up with, or in collaboration with the players. In F/W a lot of stuff is left to the tables. This is very interesting to me and I like the randomness of it. Since I’m not great at improv and don’t have much prep time, this is ideal for me.

  3. Reading back over this post, I don’t know that I have a lot to add J. Walton. I think you had a great insight in that the random tables in Freebooters/PW take a lot of the burden off the GM to produce new fictional content. When I GMed my fairly long-running Freebooters sandbox game, I used the tables in PW (as well as a couple of OSR books, the Wilderness and Dungeon Alphabets) and pre-generated a ton of discoveries and dangers that I printed out. As the game progressed and I had a better handle on the setting (that we developed a lot in play), I could tweak the random results more to match our particular game, but having the printed out lists made my life super easy. I just crossed things off as they encountered them (thus adding to the setting lore), and between every few session I spent about an hour generating more discoveries/dangers.

    I also like what you said about the differences between Freebooters and an actual OSR game. When I ran Freebooters, it definitely felt like the games we used to play back in the day (I started playing in 1976), but the PbtA moves provide a little more structure and a little less need for GM fiat than true OSR systems I think. They also generate a lot more interesting fictional situations and content as an actual product of engaging with the rules.

    Speaking of moves, I like the Freebooters versions of common moves better than the original DW versions in every case.

    Thanks again for posting this. It’s very cool to hear about other people’s experiences with the game. Did you guys return to it ever?

  4. Totally agree, though I started playing RPGs with Robotech, so the old school stuff I’ve done has all been retro-gaming.

    This was our first session, just this past Monday! We’re hopefully going to keep playing! It’s the actual campaign that was way late in happening, not the post itself.

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