Review: Better Than Any Man (LotFP)

Before we start, here you’ll find a post listing my criteria for the review.  More Free RPG Day module reviews incoming, but this one I paid for. It’s also the one that, no two ways about it, made the most impact in my FLGS. There’s a more detailed breakdown after the jump, of course.

He's here for your bit- uh, witches

The BBEG.

Summary/ Overall impression: 8.5/10
As usual, it’s a B5 saddle-stitched booklet. In what’s rapidly becoming an LotFP tradition (one I like), the covers are detachable and have useful information inside. It clocks in at 96 pages of sandbox adventure, with very little space wasted. Within: Social upheaval, Swedes, Bad People (Note: Largely, not the Swedes!), good art, and very odd wizards/witches.
The crap you hear on the intertubes about how horrid it is? My ass. It just refuses to fade to shadows on the wall for a couple scenes. Unlike most adventures, you’re going to be forced to address the shit you do, and fight, much more intimately than some people are comfortable with. Also, confront the fact that people are dumb, panicky, violent and delusional animals who frequently refuse to act in their own interest.
I’d pay $25 for this (oh wait, I already did, and Jim threw in some more stuff!). That’s ~5 pounds of decent steak or indifferent bacon. With 10,000+ copies out there, it should be easy to find one if you want it.
Edit: The PDF is now available here. You should probably get it.

Out-of-the-box Utility: 9/10
The biggest knock I’ll give it here is that the maps have a couple issues. The inside cover map is hard to read the terrain from, and it’s pretty much duplicated within the booklet. I’d rather have had a more “period” map of the region that I could use as a player hand-out there, then the DM’s reference maps inside; as-is, I’m making one for mine. Don’t worry, you and /tg/ are both getting a copy. The dungeon maps, especially the BFMHQ and Cavern locations, have some illogical room numbering choices, but the maps are well-placed and easy to reference. If they were buried halfway across the book, I’d be pissed, but as is it’s a minor quibble.
The module was very clearly laid out for play, not necessarily reference (see Modularity, below). I like it that way. The prose is clear and unambiguous where it needs to be. Critical location information is clearly set off from the text in sidebars, arranged to catch the eye if you need to speed-flip through the book to grab something – a very subtle touch, but one of which I thoroughly approve.

Modularity: 10/10
There are multiple sub-locations. Each has its own flavor, of course, and threads linking it back to the main area, but they’re the work of a moment to jack for your own campaign. The intro blurb goes into the modularity the historical setting brings (something I agree with; there’s an unfinished draft post in my queue, called “I love the 1600’s”, on the topic). Cramming all of the necessary material to run a location into its section makes it even more portable.
The monsters, both two-legged and otherwise, are clearly-motivated and easy to port. Same goes for the spells, magic items, treasure.. it’s just excellent.

Flavor and Tone: 9/10
It’s a horror adventure. Unlike most I’ve seen, it has whorehouses with actual whores and cannibal monsters who actually eat people. In a very, very nasty way. There are witch-trials, mass hysteria, plague, famine, and all the other Bad Shit that comes with being in the path of an advancing army in the days of the Chevauchée. The dying years of the HRE were not an especially nice place, and the Medici/Hapsburg covert wars were in full swing. Is it wholly accurate? HA. Does it need to be? Honestly, 99% of people will never notice, nor will they give much of a fuck – let alone two.
As far as evocation.. there are parts of this thing that make me uncomfortable, as the GM, just to read. It sure as Hell evokes horror, and the panic and desperation of a country facing inevitable devastation. The motivations and actions of the non-player characters are clearly explained, and range from petty to grandiose. The Seven are clearly the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Vanity, Lust, Wrath, Sloth, Pride, and Gluttony), though who is whom isn’t necessarily obvious (Greed, in particular, looks like someone else at first).
On that note, the abilities of the creatures and wizards inside, let alone the magic items, are just plain Weird as fuck. The new spells are cool, and well-presented; not just to the GM, but to the characters as well. There are no generic magic items, nor any purely helpful ones. Even though one of the major enemy factions is almost completely generic in its motivations and execution, it’s played to the hilt, and they’re mere window dressing for something much more awful.

General Character Engagement: 6/10
Time pressure, lots of adventure hooks, and quite a bit of mystery. The players will cue into the central ones almost immediately, but where they go with that is up to them. Hell, they could probably side with the Swedes, given some of the encounters, as long as they’re relatively free of Witchcraft and Catholics. There’s a little bit of a problem hooking in immediately, which Jim lampshades in the intro, but it shouldn’t be hard to adapt hooks to your players (this is one of the reasons I also dinged Utility slightly).
On the other hand, you’ve got clear motivations pretty much as soon as you talk to anyone in a position of power or get hit with almost any of the random encounters. Whether the players follow them or not, each encounter pulls them deeper into the ongoing events. The only engagement problem is the constrained time-frame; by its very nature, the entire adventure self-destructs after a certain amount of play. There are only a couple of things that make it possible for the players to interact with the fun stuff in the region after that. Like, ever.

Puzzle and Trap Engagement: 10/10
Well, for starters a couple of the magic items are traps. Very obvious ones, if your characters have any common sense (harhar). Same with the majority of the traps. They range from disease and plague through to bandit ambushes and generic caving hazards. Then there’s the crazy Boner Twins… The traps are easily-circumvented, and stand as puzzles in their own right. Indeed, large sections of the adventure could be read as one giant puzzle/mystery, complete with red herrings.
Basically, cautious and clever players will live. Stupid, violent ones, or ones too-easily distracted by greed or other temptations, will die. Horribly. Which is as it should be.
Jim also likes making players do very, very unpleasant things to/with their characters for in-game advantages. It’s an interesting concept; I’ve seen players have lines ranging from “killing Humans in-game makes me feel dirty” all the way to “Cut my middle finger off and give it to that creepy old wizard as a personal diddle-wand? WOOO I GET A +1 SWORD!”. You can get a LOT of power in BTAM if you sell your soul – willingly or un.

Treasure Engagement: 7/10
A good mix of coins and other treasure, but a lot of the gems and jewelry are just thrown an SP value and ignored. Magic items are, as mentioned above, cool and flavorful. There’s also some pretty nice loot items (off of encounters/out of storerooms) to be had. Much of it requires initiative and likely a good bit of deception to maximize its value, adding to character engagement. There are also less-concrete treasures, like spells and alchemical lulz.

Aesthetics: 9/10
The font choices and layout were excellent, but there are a couple sour notes in the art; one of the Critters (arms) has an illo that just doesn’t fit in very well with the rest of the material. Fortunately, it’s one of the cooler things in the adventure on its own merits. The vast majority of the art is evocative (it has to be – many of the monsters were based on the art, not the other way around) and emotionally affecting. Various arthropods crawl all over the pages, including a beetle whose pinchers set off an interesting bit of text. The book itself is distinctive on the shelf, even with an unlabeled spine.

Overall summary above, but yes. I’d highly recommend downloading it, if you have any interest at all in freaky hobo wizards, a dungeon that WILL kill most of your party if they’re too stupid to listen, or just expanding the first-level spell selection in your game by a distressing amount.

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