Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: Better Than Any Man (pdf)

Writing a review is a difficult beast and I didn't give it an earnest try yet. For one, if I dislike what I see, I wouldn't be inclined to make much noise about it. Mostly because it is about someone else's work and effort and if it (which is very much likely in the internet) found some praise elsewhere then information is around other than me being nasty about it. So I leave it at that. Another point would be that I (for a number of different reasons) don't buy that much rpg products. Anyway, without further ado, a review.

You can pay whatever you want for a pdf version of Better Than Any Man (by Lamentations of the Flame Princess) over here (yes, you have to be at least 18 to purchase it). This review will contain minor spoilers, but nothing the players wouldn't find out in the beginning of the first session.

First Impressions

I really wanted to have this for the Free RPG Day in June 2013, but none of the shops in the immediate area knew anything about it (or the OSR, for that matter), so I got nothing. With the pdf version available, I was happy to take a look at my first LotFP product. Here are my first impressions:

  • It's huge. The page count is now 180 pages, full text or in double columns. When opening the pdf, it is pointed out that Adobe should be used to read it, because of the features used in the pdf. I'd suggest to follow that advise, because...
  • It's highly functional. Beautiful to see what a pdf can do. And I don't only mean the hyperlinks (although those are doing exactly what they should), but the little gimmicks, like the ability to use all the Random Tables in the book just by clicking at them. Very nice.
  • The layout is spacious and, again, very functional. If possible, you have all the information you might need right where it belongs (the crucial parts of the big maps with the descriptions and all that). Hyperlinks and easy navigation do the rest. Not visually fancy, but who cares.
  • The interior art is not intruding, so to say. It's either where it's needed or it's easy enough skipped.
I was impressed. A way more professional presentation than I expected, to be honest. Hard to believe it was free to begin with. Really a nice surprise and it made me curious about the rest.

Now I had to read it

I wasn't surprised by the tone, or the author's voice, if you will. If you've read one of Raggi's posts in the past, you know what to expect. It's not as dominant as this might suggest, but it is definitely there. At first I thought this could get annoying, but he makes it work for several reasons. One is the setting.

The Setting

It plays during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The Swedes are marching for W├╝rzburg. Upon hearing rumors about witchcraft in Karlstadt, they split forces, aiming to solve the problem for good. It's a story-heavy sandbox and the players are in the middle of it. There is not much time for soldiers of fortune to capitalize from the situation before the Swedes level the area.

That's a very strong adventure location, even without the additional horror elements. And it really gets enough room in the book. So much so, that the horror elements have a hard time to come abreast with it. It doesn't want to be historically accurate, but what it does, it does right. The region awaiting a war is as you'd expect it, the Random Encounters emphasize it and even the names are believable (and that means for my German ears, I liked that little touch).

The adventure never tries to give too much information about the region, but Raggi manages it to give a lot of hints and small bits of flavor to breathe life into the setting and keep the players busy. The structure helped a great deal achieving that.

The Structure

Another surprise. I never read those things from cover to cover. I did with this one. For me, the flow of a text is as important as it's functionality (at least with rpg books). Mostly that means the difficult balancing act between taking the reader by the hand and leaving enough room for the reader's creativity to roam in the writer's fictional realm. Functionality is for in-game use, but the inner structure of a text should help a reader getting full understanding of what the author intended to do, while also giving him the room to develop his own ideas about the content. The better an author is in achieving this, the more his ideas will find a place in a readers interpretation of the material. In that regard, structure becomes crucial.

He begins by giving a general overview of the situation and what will happen, if no one intervenes. This is, by necessity, a historical approach. The Swedes are coming, the region is at war. Raggi's next step is not to go further into the setting, but giving a focused description of the main players in the setting: the 7 witches that gained control over Karlstadt. This is a good idea. As a reader (and DM), you get the situation, the opposition, a glimpse of the possibilities and the outcome, if nothing else happens.

Next up are Random Encounters, with bits of story and weird mixed in for good measure. Some are one-shots, some may reoccur. From a DM's point of view, that's perfect. If the first part got you thinking about what could happen to players if they are in this setting, it's exactly what you'd want to read about right now.

Going more into the region is the next logical step. Again, bits of story and weird to get a feeling for the setting and it's settlements, with Karlstadt getting the most attention at the end and enough room left for a spinning mind to add own ideas. The further you get in reading, the more detailed get the descriptions of the localities. At that point the reader already knows how the specific adventure locations are connected (more or less).

The question that intuitively follows, is, what they are exactly about. This is also where the weird gets more and more prominent, closing with an ancient evil totally disconnected from the historical context. I believe this is how it should be done, if a strong historical background is used. Start with the horrors of the mundane, give history enough time to take a seat and descent into the weird for those looking closer. Nicely done. The rest is for the game and the players to handle.

The Difficulty

It says in the blurb that it's designed for characters with the levels 1-4. My first thought: hell of an introduction for starting players. I remember at least one Save or DIE and several encounters that will result in a characters death and/or deformation. Most of them cruel and brutal (but inventive, maybe even entertaining, so that's something, right?). The settings main premise and the possible solutions are also very difficult to achieve (by inexperienced players). It needs a lot of skill.

There is, on the other hand, so much to discover, experience and achieve, that it's hard to believe there wouldn't be fun in trying. Seeing it like that, I think Better Than Any Man could lead to a number of very rewarding and entertaining game sessions.

Taste

I won't say much about the countless controversies of several LotFP products. I'm not that squeamish about sex and gore in general and for me it's more about how this stuff is presented. If you're writing something for a mature audience, it comes with some responsibilities. Labeling products right is one of those and it is done for this product. If you're old enough to get it, you should be old enough to read it.

Taste is a different matter altogether. Given the reputation of James Edward Raggi IV and his product line, I thought this could get ugly. Judging from what I've been given to read, I really don't get what all the noise is about. He is very careful and sensible about his content. Sure, there is cruelty, madness, cannibalism, body horror, blood and some coitus, but there's also always a way out. For the reader, he emphasizes at what point it gets ugly, be it the pictures or something that is happening. For a DM there are, as far as I remember, always at least some notions how to ignore it in the game (if possible). In the end it's for the DM to decide how far he'll (or can) go with the suggestions given and this is how it should be. So instead of force-feeding his audience with unwelcome imagery (the Thirty Years War alone would provide more than enough opportunities to do so), he is very mature about the whole thing. I can appreciate that.

Compatibility

It is highly compatible with D&D (except maybe 4th Edition) and Clones. Story and background are strong in this one, so with a little tweaking, you could use a great deal of it in any system suited for the historical background.

A few words about Spells, Magic Items and some such. I saw nothing I wouldn't use in one way or another in my regular game to give it a dark twist. The little rules about what insects could do to characters, gunpowder in a D&D game, all the Random Tables and even the small bit of story driven mischief that could happen to characters, are, as well, easily portable, if you're not using the LotFP set of rules. A lot of good ideas and I like his take on how the system could be used.

Bottom Line

Better Than Any Man (pdf) is a disarmingly well made and professional product. Very well structured and highly functional as a pdf, with a strong little sandbox, a lot of good ideas and a, in my opinion, proper and mature presentation of the horror themes it uses. It's all a DM could wish for and then some more for good measure.

Considering that you can pay for it whatever you want is just the icing on the cake. I've seen others demanding more for far less. It wasn't my intention to write such a glaring review, but I have to say, Raggi has won me over with this. I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to purchasing and reading other adventures by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. If the gods are willing, I might even DM it some time.

Even if I had minor quibbles with it (a few minor typos, a map I didn't like that much, whatever), the price tag alone would leave more than enough room for excuses than is needed here. So this is an unreserved recommendation.

 Of course this review only expresses my opinion, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.

2 comments:

  1. I got a paper copy back on 'the day'. I agree fully with your review. I thought that the one witch (name escapes me and I'm not home to check), who asks that you do various naughty things was kind of silly, but other than that seemed solid to me.

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  2. Thanks! Glad you agree. I, too, think especially this encounter ("The Joy" is her nickname, that much I can remember without checking...) has the potential to turn out somewhat silly. but how it's played out is totally up to the DM. Could end up being silly, intriguing, disgusting, even scary, if done right. Some of Raggi's suggestions had the potential to be rather funny, too, I might add. All depends on a DM's presentation and what the players are able to stomach, not necessarily what the adventure presents as content.

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