Better then any Man (2013)
James Raggi IV (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels 1 – 4
How does one return from dalliances with nymphs on the edges of perdition? One does not. One goes ever onward. Also thank you to all the readers, old and new, for your kind words. Also this review is fucking long, fair warning.
Better then Any Man by James Raggi for character levels 1-4 is Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s contribution to freerpg day. Displaying his classic penchant for grandiosity and child-like John Hammond-esque sense of wonder, Raggi delivered a massive 169 page behemoth of an adventure combining elements of wilderland adventure, dungeoncrawling, investigation, intrigue, horror, diplomacy and a ticking clock. For free! Definetely check this one out if you can tolerate high prep time and the obligatory Loftp ofputting content (for free!).
The setting is The Holy Roman Empire, Lower Franconia, 1631. The Thirty Years War (one of the bloodiest conflicts in european history) is in full swing and King Gustavus Adolphus of the Swedes (allied to the protestant cause) marches upon Würzburg with a force of 30.000 to take vengeance upon the Catholics for the sacking of Magdeburg! Refugee-laden Karlstadt stands in its path and has been taken over by a coven of seven witches who seek to put an end to all war. The Swedish army has learned of this witchcraft and intends to burn the city to the ground and kill everyone inside. Can the players save tens of thousands of people before the army arrives in a week, or alternatively, can they get fucking rich? Fuck. Yes. Brilliant premise for weird historical adventure and good use of a very dark period in history ripe with potential.
The pcs stumble into the area, from a random direction if so desired, and the GM is invited to invent his own hook based on his knowledge of the players. Probably justified given the fact that this is not an adventure for beginners. This adventure is not a railroad, and the players are free to explore the area and ignore the swedish army and Karlstadt entirely and still have a not shit time. A short timeline is given to track the army’s movement into the region. The adventure makes an odd but probably justified choice by providing a backdrop in the form of the imminent arrival of the Swedish army but then implying this is not meant to be the main focus of the adventure, merely a backdrop, while providing several (very hard) ways of saving the inhabitants of Karlstadt (and even Würzburg). These are meant to be general guidelines of course, and by no means definitive. It is infinitely more likely that tens of thousands will be slaughtered by swedes however.
We are introduced to the Seven, a Coven of 1st level female magic users that have lost their families and husbands and have imposed their own law upon benighted Karlstadt in an effort to stop the war. They will fail. Each one is unique, has a unique 1st level spell and an extraplanar servant of horrific appearance and unique ability (i.e the Defiler’s creature can swallow anything whole and in its stomach one is forced to fight another Defiler’s creature which will swallow one whole etc. etc.) , as well as a motivation. In a nice twist, the Seven are not a uniform whole but have different goals (i.e the defiler hunts ghosts with an axe, the Rememberer has discovered a way to transfer her memories into the bodies of the newborn and the Mother is secretly the leader of an ancient cult that seeks to revive a slumbering insect god).
As a small tangent, I want to point out something neat. The situation with Karlstadt came to be when the 8th spellcaster, the Maker, cast her 1st level spell A Spell To Grant One’s Hearts Desire. It functions like a wish for anyone within 30 feet, but the caster must commit suicide and the wish must be a simple clear idea. That feels magical and faery-tale esque. Fuck 3e’s Greater Sonic Blast type of spells. This! This is what magic should feel like. Powerful. Dangerous. Wonderous.
Because this is a Raggi adventure, something disgusting needs to be in it. In this case, critical information about just about anything in the adventure may be gleaned from one of the spellcasters, a hedonist by the title of the Joy, in exchange for which the pcs must perform an astonishing variety of degrading sex acts. Oh James Raggi. In BtAM’s defence, some of the prices one must pay are likely to generate actual fun gameplay and the section does add to the overal fucked up atmosphere of the adventure.
Incidentally, this adventure is meant for characters of levels 1-4 but if one is to have any chance against the guardian creatures of the Seven, an average level of 3 seems advisable. 1 is suicide.
The random encounters are all very well done, in a grittily realistic sort of way. They set the mood this adventure is going for. Hordes of abandoned children, women fleeing from accusations of witchcraft (chance to be actual witches), patrols of the agressively pacifist Burgerfriendensmiliz beseeching men to lay down their arms and take up the path of peace (secretly aligned to the cult of the insect god), an insane Swedish deserter that has taken over a farm after butchering its inhabitants and is now convinced the crops need blood to grow, angry mobs, looters, plague carriers, deserters, a victimised woman out for revenge and so on and so forth. The supernatural encounters are similarly well done. A screaming man plagued by invisible insects. A skinned man kept alive by botched healing magic. Giant Ants ravaging the countryside. Apocalyptic cultists beseeching dark gods for protection. Nailed it.
The map of the area proper is one of the weaker sections of the overall adventures. Most of the towns are given little more then 2 sentences of description with population figures and price multipliers (it is wartime buddy, deal with it!). The odd hook (every day at a certain time the sun is obscured by the shadow of a giant tower), curveball (village abandoned, giant mutant waterskippers, taken over by bandits) or oddity (circus in town, identical twins) does little. This section is not bad or useless, it is simply not as inspiring as the rest of the adventure and thus I remark upon it. It is probably for the best that the villages are rather sparsely described, as the focus should be at least partially on Karlstadt. There is one encounter that deserves special mention. Urspringen is abandoned and used as a makeshift infirmary by a young physician. He has gone mad from the strain and is now killing his patients, saving them from depredations at the hands of the coming Swedish army. I implore James Raggi to obtain whatever it was he was smoking when he wrote this and never switch back to oxygen. He hits all the right notes. Like that annoying kid at the end of Whiplash, you always knew the little shit could do it but he always falters at some point, except at the end. You did it Raggs. You did it and you won’t be able to replicate it.
As an aside, we finally find our fucking adventure hook a third of the way into the adventure when Wurzburg, the regional capital is described. Prince Bishop Franz-von-Hatzfeld has offered 1000 sp for each head of the Seven, 10000 sp for all of them. Start off the party in Wurzburg on the first day. Adventure more effective. Fuck your free-flowing random direction shit. The players can ignore the hook anyway. Freedom is great but focus is better.
Off to Karlstadt it is, where we are given a delicious rumour table to spur on that wonderful nonlinear sandboxy elfgame that I find the shit. As is tradition, some of the rumours are either not really usefull or laced with untruth or vagueness, keeping the wretched player on his toes. The section gives you enough information to create a vivid scene and to handle various ways for the players to enter Karlstadt (by breaking in, probably, given the fact vistors are not allowed to bring weapons and the Burgerfrindensmiliz is assisted by one of the Seven and her Detect Weapons Spell, but a lovely secret tunnel may be discovered as well) without going into encyclopedic detail. Certain events take place at certain times (good! this predictability gives the Pc’s time to plot death and murder) but a time table is lacking 😦 Nice locations add a lot to the atmosphere of a city under occupation. All the wells but one have been closed off to prevent intruders from entering. Commerce has ground to a halt and a square is constantly used by musicians! There is a black market where one may trade things. There is even an underground resistance movement that plots to overthrow the Seven! All these little nuggets are sparsely detailed so they will require some good old GM fiat to get going properly but the adage ‘Any GM worth his salt’ actually applies in this case. Sufficient information is provided to both give a means of discovering the information and to run the encounters. Go get them! But make a timeline and memorize the important information or at the very least make sure you know where it is.
The next section details an abandoned farmhouse containing not only bandits but also a hook for the true menace of the adventure, the hideous cult on Goblin Hill in the form of a classic map, as well as a tunnel so one may enter the city freely. Again, Raggi goes the extra mile by having the bandits exploit the legends of the place being haunted, setting up ways for intelligent players to notice the farmhouse is inhabited, approach it undetected etc. In similar fashion, the bandits are given intelligent tactics. As icing on the cake, the possibility for a hostage scenario is given to lead players to the farmhouse if need be (Yes, great!).
Is there more in this behemoth of an adventure! Yes! A fucked-up npc necromancer in an ancient insect shrine that may be bargained with (he is level 17 so fighting is ill-advised) for aid against the Insect Cult! If one can get over the taxidermied children. Oh Raggs! And there is Time Travel involved to the year 100.000 BC! But you must be on location to do so! If not a horrific lovecraftian Insect God will be awakened to cleanse the world of human life. Plot Twist Bitch!
If this is boring to you or if your players get distracted easily, Raggs also provides another dungeon as an alternative. The Infinite Tower. More of a side-dish but still conceivably fun for a session or so. The concept is very simple and it takes up nary a few pages. It is completely unconnected to the rest of the goings on in the region, and god bless it for that. The concept is simple. The tower is an infinitely repeating set of floors with inhabitants that increase in might as you progress up, or alternatively, down. There is, of course, a possiblity to become lost in time and space, severely fucking everything up and prompting either more wandering within the tower proper to get back (since one can go both back and forward in time). Nice little side-trip, nothing special, but diverting enough.
It is time for the main banquet! Goblin Hill, where lairs the vicious Insect Cult, allied with one of the Seven, seeking to awaken the dreaded Insect God and restore insectkind’s dominion over man. The Burgerfrindensmilliz is actually a front for a cannibalistic insect-worshipping cult, complete with a mountain lair, giant bugs and more! Also this adventure is clearly inspired by the adventure Revenge of the Ant God from Pegasus magazine #10. Thought you could slip that one past me ey Raggs? Not on my watch! T’is not a ripoff so we are good.
The Hill may be subdivided into several sections, ranging from the very functional Millizionaire headquarters to the creepy and unearthly Insect God shrine, the giant insect tunnels, the temple of the Arachnid God, the Insect Shrine (different from the god shrine) and so on. There are some very impressive (and mostly fair) encounters in this thing, with the battle with an unknown creature for domination over a sphere of liquid darkness being one of the many highlights. Other examples? One insect statue is actually a hibernating giant stone-skin roach (3 HD, MV 60 but AC 25 and 15 HD worth of hp). Giant Zombie praying mantis in priests tomb. A room where shadows come to life to strange their owners and distance from light sources becomes important. This thing is also nearly impossible for 1st level characters to handle on their own, and only if they are particularly efficient and lucky will they be able to make much progress given the imposed time limit and the strength of the random encounters. Nice nonlinear map too. My only complaint is that there is too much shit to handle in such a short time period. A tunnel complex with 140 giant ants that keep fattened humans with their arms and legs cut off as cows to grow fungus in! You just lost sanity bitch!
Treasure? Expect shitloads of precious insect-shaped shit. Cursed insect-shaped shit! Ant-shaped ruby that is hard to transport guarded by ancient ant-lion worshipped as living avatar of the insect god? Damn straight! An amulet that alows you to detect secret doors but has a small chance to make them dissapear for your use only after you pass them! Did you forget about the time-travel? In the past the cult is made up of evil halflings! Fuck. Yes!
To offset the weird magical shit, I’m actually amazed at the restraint Raggs shows in describing the headquarters of the cult proper. Intelligent preparations. Murder holes. And npc cultists that are not all evil wizards! An evil tinkerer, complete with clockwork armour! A 0th level charlatan/alchemist posing as the voice of the insect god in a ridiculous insect costume. And one of the Seven. Excellent.
And then there is the optional, hard to find, certain to amaze and doom in equal measure Realm of the Insect God. Raggs attempted to do the same shit with Monolith. He failed then. He succeeds today. One is pushed to find out more. To dig too deep. Here your God cannot help you, and divination reveals only the souls of men being devoured by phantasmal insects. Here lies the God. Bitchin! It is fucking clear to everyone that this place is obviously lethal and shit, yet you want to keep going if you have the adventuring blood damnit. Many death traps await you. Hideous cockroach men will claim one of your number if not all. One last ominous warning, the immortal severed giant head, rendered imbicilic, gnawed upon for aeons by giant insects. Dare ye go beyond and meet the Insect God itself?
Bow. Slow Clap. Applause. Thunderous Applause. Shouts of approval. Thrown silken napkins and underclothes. Curtain Closes.
Pros: Staggering length. Good premise. Great atmosphere. Chock full of fun/excellent encounters. Probably the best module I have seen for Loftp.
Cons: High prep. Difficulty likely to be high for even experienced players. Copious note taking encouraged. Horrific elements might be off-putting to the faint of heart. Probably takes a lot of sessions to complete.
Final Verdict: If ever there was a thing that made me shout and say, the OSR is alive and well without becoming the perview of wretched (albeit talented) artsy-fartsykin this one does it for me. Depth. Variety. Weirdness. Horror. A laugh. A scream. Wonder and Horror. Step forth and witness the amazing Better Then Any Man. 9 out of 10.