This module clocks in at an epic 180 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page internet resources, leaving us with 174 pages of content. Now, it should be noted that the pdf is longer than the physical version – and the space is used VERY well: We get ALL combat statistics collated in the appendix; a spell-index, a magic item index; reference-resources…and, really cool: Both the overview map of the region and all the maps are collected in the back – and, in a really amazing offering, all top-down dungeon-maps can be rendered player-friendly, courtesy of the layered pdf – HUGE kudos there! Furthermore, we get player-handouts and a player-map of the region.
Now, at this point, I need to thank one of my friends/supporters, who did send me the physical copy of this module, moving it thus up my reviewing queue. This review was also requested by one of my patreons as a non-prioritized review, which made me move this up in my reviewing-queue. The physical copy has a full-color map on the inside of the front/back-cover – it’s basically a nice sleeve of the regional map. The module per se, is, apart from that, a saddle-stitched, pretty big booklet in A5 (6’’ by 9’’)-size.
“Gott mit Uns!” The battle-cry of Carolus Rex, Gustavus Adolphus, resounds through the Holy Roman Empire. It is the year of our Lord 1631 and the king whose tactics would influence the history of military campaigns, has claimed his famous victory at Breitenfeld. His armies march onwards, but the growing force of the Löwe aus Mitternacht no longer are merely professionals – and, as the annals tell, his days are numbered. Still, for now his host approaches Würzburg and the notoriously inefficient fortress (which pretty much withstood only a single battle…) there. I grew up around this place and, while nowadays, the area is less swampy than within the module, I have to applaud the commitment to plausibility. Additionally, it should be noted that the German names used throughout the book, from Inn-names to the names of forces, are actually correct – huge kudos for not butchering my native tongue.
The champion of Protestants and his overwhelming force is approaching the area around Würzburg – the book has a VERY strict, extremely challenging time-limit – the PCs have basically 5 days, RAW, which is not much, considering the difficulty of this module. Beyond potentially modifying this time-line, there is another aspect that allows for some control, particularly when using this as a start of a campaign or one-shot. It should be noted that this module is not for the faint of heart or for the novice player – this is brutal in its difficulty, but it is NOT necessarily unfair. There is also another aspect of this book you should be aware of: The book is billed as intended for ages 18+; if this was a movie, it would deserve a hard R-rating for some gory scenes.
This is also the point in time, where I should comment on the controversy that was sparked by this book. In my opinion, it’s ridiculous. I mean it. To give you an idea: One of the best means to gather information, is to venture into a brothel; the magic-using mistress of the place gets her kicks from exchanging information for demeaning tasks and sexual acts. Yeah well, so what? The respective tasks aren’t explicit, can be glossed over or replaced…and this module is billed as “For adults only.” Perhaps it’s my European upbringing, but frankly, while I consider her tasks to be often disgusting, the PCs are not required to engage in them. It’s a choice. You can say no. I really don’t get it. And she never stoops to the lows of De Sade etc. – you can actually see more explicit or extreme things in real life on the internet without ever trying. That, and the lady in question is actually part of the enemies of the PCs. Similarly, while some images depict really gory, messed up stuff – that’s what the BAD GUYS are doing. You know, the bastards the PCs are supposed to stop?
Is this dark? Yeah. Is this dark to the point where I’d consider it problematic? Nope. Not even close. And those other ridiculous claims you can find? Similarly unfounded. If you like dark fantasy, horror, etc., then chances are that you’ve seen much, much worse.
It should also be noted that this is a combination of basically a regional sourcebook and sandboxy mega-adventure rolled in one; if you expect railroads, you won’t find them herein.
Okay, this basic discussion out of the way, from here on out, I will discuss the module. As such, the following discussion contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only referees reading? Great!
So, Gustavus Adolphus is hell-bent on razing Würzburg to the ground, if he finds the rumors of occult practices to be well-founded. Unfortunately for all concerned, they are. Karlstadt, just before Würzburg, has been taken over by magic-users: Women ostracized by the hypocrisy of society, unified by a strange spell: Casting the ritualistic magic cost one of them her life, but granted their simple, unified wish of power: Now, all of them, hopelessly out of their depth, rule Karlstadt, courtesy of the powerful magics and the potent creatures gained from the casting of the spell.
The 7 (actually 6 – as mentioned, one died) are interesting characters in their own right: There would be a girl, who only wanted finery and power and now doesn’t now what to really do with it; there is a lady who always wanted to provide for others, who can now create food for others and help keep the masses from starving. There is aforementioned madam, now wholly entrenched in a web of debauchery of her own making; there is a twisted, bitter woman, who “teaches magic” – with the goal of reincranting herself into the baby of one of her students; there is a madwoman, convinced that she’s ferreting out the walking dead. All are pitifully weak casters…but they rule over Karlstadt and are, in some aspect or another, well-rounded characters. Gorgeous b/w-artworks also help making them more than just bad guys…and there’s a problem. For the most part, a sense of cosmic irony and cruelty pervades their magics: The Provider, Jutte Beckman, for example, does not really help sate the masses: Her magical food is filling and tastes nice…but actually doesn’t sustain anyone. It is wholly without calories, nutritients, etc. Similarly, the detect undead-like magic of one of the ladies actually has a 1 in 10 chance of delivering false positives. Yeah, fun. Each of the 7 sports sucha signature spell, just fyi.
There are two reasons the 7 remain in command beyond the authority granted by their ritual: Number one is the most interesting aspect: Basically, their ideas are hyper-progressive. The interim-society of refugees they have erected in Karlstadt is actually closer to our ideals than those of medieval Germany. It is, philosophy-wise, a well-meaning construct, suffering from incompetence and lack of interest in some cases, and power-trips in others. The second reason would be the creatures: Each of the 7 comes with her own guardian creature, horrific monsters (you can see one of them on the cover…), which all come with truly ORIGINAL rules. The lamest one of them just steals the best stats of those nearby; there is a monster that can switch ability scores, change XP and hit point totals; there even is an immortal, invulnerable thing that exists in another dimension – it causes tumors, and attacking these can be used to slay it. Not only are the illustrations cool and twisted, the monsters are extremely poachable – each can make for a challenging puzzle-boss on its own.
Why is this relevant? Well, if the PCs want to stop the destruction of the whole area, they need to take down the 7. With the lavishly detailed Karlstadt, their smart security and powerful guardian creatures, that’s easier said than done, though.
While Karlstadt is pretty much a hub for this module, the surrounding villages and wilderness do sport not only wandering monster-encounters (curiously focusing on insects…), they also sport instances of the spectrum of human suffering and desperation when faced with the impending doom. These are grim, yet flavorful, and add a big context and some well-hidden information to the massive sandbox that is this module. How do the PCs get into Karlstadt? How do they take down the 7? It all depends on the players and their actions.
Beyond these aspects, there is more – in fact, a lot more. The module contains 3 locations which most publishers would have used on their own as a free offering. All are only tangentially related to the plot at hand and may be used, providing a piece of the puzzle. None of them are strictly required, though. Number 1, and by far the worst part of the book, the only part I’d consider to be lame, would be the infinite tower. It is pretty much what you’d expect: An infinite tower with occupants and treasure..but also a chance to be lost for 1d6 x 10 years in the past or future. If you run that aspect RAW, chances are your PCs may miss the adventure. That being said, you could use this as a means to “save” the campaign: The PCs fail, travel back in time, level up, and retackle the module at a higher level. Just sayin’. The highlight here would be the isometric map: Big plus: In the layered pdf, you can remove the secret door!
The second red herring would be a sidequest you’ll usually gain from a wealthy-looking refugee waiting to gain entrance to Karlstadt: Gunther Moll and his rowdy band of bandits have kidnapped a child. Turns out, though, that, as far as bandits go, they’re not that bad: While they have taken up residence in an ostensibly cursed farmstead, they won’t harm a kid (They are not the insane farmer who cops up travelers and sticks their parts in his field…). The abandoned farmstead and its secret tunnels etc. are once again provided in a nice, isometric map – though here, the layered pdf does not provide for player-friendly customization. Anyways, unbeknown to the bandits, the former occupants were indeed evil – worshipers of the vile Insect God…and an undead is still lurking. Cue the potential for Mexican standoffs and strange alliances…
The third dungeon that isn’t really required would be the Mound – lair of the surprisingly powerful and thoroughly nasty Willibald Schwartz – a level 17 magic-user with garish clothes, who is not only a pervert, he also has a glass tiger as a kind of executioner golem to fetch new subjects. Alas, the tiger sucks at distinguishing proper from improper prey and sometimes brings kids instead of adults. Willibald likes making magical marionettes out of their bodies. Yeah, he is a thoroughly vile, disgusting bastard – and if the PCs are smart, they’ll listen to his offer: You see, he knows about the imminent rise of the Insect God – a threat to all mankind. And he has this spell, which is another means for the PCs to actually beat this module: Journey to the Past. It sends you chronologically back through time where you’re standing. Yep, this does require some serious referee fu, and when introduced, is most assuredly a spell (at level 1) that makes a one-shot use perhaps easier to handle. But it is a potent tool. You see, he knows that the Insect God needs a particular gem to rise – and where that gem was. Retrieving and handling the problem of the gem is a means to get rid of the cosmic horror lurking at the edges of this module…and a discreet note to the Swedes regarding Herr Schwartz can solve the problem of this vile bastard. Once again: He’s a BAD GUY. Just sayin’.
But what this module, beyond assassinating the 7, is truly about…well, like in any good investigation, that’s not readily apparent. You see, the 7 actually are compromised; they are, in fact, lams set up to be slaughtered. Their well-meaning creation of the Bürgerfriedensmiliz (Citizen’s freedom-militia) and their notes of ostensible pacifism may have been rooted in good intentions – but one of the 7 is actually a fervent devotee of the Insect God. Deep in the wilderness, there is the headquarters of the Bürgerfriedensmiliz, where the members are brainwashed into committing unspeakable atrocities (illustrated, btw.). The dungeon that contains the HQ is actually a complex: It houses the 4 levels: The caverns, the shrine of the Insect God and the headquarters…and it is one of the best dark fantasy dungeons I have ever had the pleasure to run.
In true LotFP-manner, it is a hellhole, difficulty-wise: There are dangerous, extremely deadly adversaries and hazards to be found; bone wearing madmen concealed in ossuary-caverns; the gateway to the Insect shrine, lavishly depicted, is nightmare fuel with its strange statues ringing it: As a hand-out, it should most certainly show the PCs that not all is well…and in the HQ, there is a powerful tinker and a powerful alchemist, both fully realized and sufficiently insane/complex characters, which can render the exploration even more interesting…though it should be noted that, while super deadly, characters can also find a super powerful artifact that can grant a character 1000 non-regenerating hit points. And yes, this actually remains balanced to a degree and provides a means to truly “win” this module, particularly if you’re using the time-travel angle of the tower mentioned before.
You see, while the unique madwomen within the HQ, their labs etc. are amazing and creative, the module constantly hints at the imminent rise of the Insect God – a chthonic evil of legendary proportions. The encounters, small tidbits , etc. all lead up to it.
That’s where level 4, the end of the complex, comes in. You see, upon exploring the dungeon, at one point, the PCs will find a particularly VILE place, an environment, where pure malevolence seems to seep through. They have to actually *DIG* there. Yes. They are warned. Everything OOZES “RUN, YOU FOOLS!” Heck, if clerics rest, an agent of their deity will tell them to get the hell outta dodge. It should be noted that the task of this module is fulfilled at this point; the PCs have NO REASON to dig down there, apart from curiosity, from wanting the whole picture. You know what we said about curiosity and cats, right? If the PCs dig down there, the module changes. Up until now, Better than Any Man is a brutal, but fair and challenging dark fantasy module. If they dig down there, they enter, physically, the realm of the Insect God.
At this point, the module becomes a horror-module. A balls to the wall, weird, Lovecraftian nightmare. Down there, they can find an insect borealis, the head of an extinct, regenerating giant (who is buried to his neck), the largest specimen of humanoids to ever life…now an idiot through constant insects gnawing through his brain. The Insect God thinks that this is mankind’s god…which is wrong, obviously – but woe to those that tell that to the Insect God. Here, every step shows new horrors and wonders…and can kill you. You can walk through the cavern, through which the haemolymph of all of the world’s insects runs, prior to reincarnation.
That being said, at the end of this dungeon lies a half-consumed cadaver of a gargantuan insect-thing, attended by the ghosts of literally countless insects (one of the most gorgeous b/w-artworks I’ve seen in any RPG-book, btw.) – and the dead Insect God speaks. It commands. The spectral insects attack in endless waves. The PCs will fall. One by one. Until only one remains. The unfortunate last person standing will be invaded by the insect legions, becoming one, bodily, with the crawling legions, a mind enslaved…this champion receives the living, vile blade of the Insect God…to go forth, and once again spread the gospel of insect superiority… Yeah, that can jumpstart a whole campaign of its own.
So yes, level 4 is NOT intended to be won; it is intended to be the horror-end to the module; it is intended to be a dark conclusion…or as a reason to really want to go back through time to stop the apocalyptic exploration of a place, where mortals were never supposed to tread.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on both a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes with a TON of truly amazing b/w-artworks AND cartography – Aeron Alfrey, Gennifer Bone, Ramsey Dow, Alyssa Faden, Andy Hepworth, Laura Jalo, Anna B. Meyer, Jason Rainville, Jennifer Rodgers, Amos Orion Sterns and Peitsa Veteli did an amazing job. The player-friendly maps in the pdf-version are pure amazing. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. I love the layered pdf…and guess what: Got a table to roll in the module? Click on it. It’ll roll for you. Oh, and the module is internally hyperlinked for your convenience as well. That’s one step beyond. Big kudos!
James Edward Raggi IV’s “Better than Any Man” is a masterpiece.
I said it.
Yes, you can misalign and misread it. If you have an issue with adult content and dark fantasy/horror, then this is obviously not for you. If you’re a newbie, this will SAVAGE you. This is a massive module for pros: Experienced players and referees. PCs will die. If your players think, they can walk in the module and kill everything/loot everything – they’ll all die. Like flies. This is a module that requires a good referee AND smart players.
That being said, this module is pure amazing: The 7 are interesting; the regional setting is glorious and surprisingly well-researched; the monsters are inspired – each could conceivably carry its own module. The finale is phenomenal. It takes a certain type of player to FIND the final level; it takes a hardcore, dedicated group to get out of the deadly level, much less kill the thing; the latter will take a campaign beyond the range of this book – it is possible, though! And the level, in all its lethality, is ALL about the player’s choice. Literally ALL aspects tell them “Death (or worse) that way ->” – if they follow, well, then they reap what they’ve sown.
This book’s finale is pure, glorious horror; the module is dark before the finale – it is not for happy-go-lucky-family-friendly gaming. If you expected that, it’d be like putting in a Friday the 13th movie and complaining about it not being Sesame Street. But neither is it even half as dark, explicit, etc. as some of the more negative reviews would make you believe; some claims I read are objectively, patently false, some outrage ridiculous. Apart from the thoroughly optional horror-finale, this module is actually pretty survivable; challenging and hard as hell, yes – but most experienced groups should have a solid chance winning here.
Oh, and this is FREE. It is offered for PWYW in its electronic version; print was Free RPG Day. And guess what? I would pay serious money for this. If you can get the print version for ~40 bucks, I’d honestly kinda consider it worth it. I am NOT kidding. The superb, comfortable PWYW-pdf is a thorough must-have offering if you even remotely like dark fantasy. The bang-for-buck-ratio of this book is absolutely RIDICULOUS. In a truly amazing way.
I am not engaging in hyperbole, when I’m saying that this is very much the best, most professional, amazing module I’ve ever seen for PWYW. This is a truly amazing offering. I love pretty much everything about this module; the freedom, the characters, the desperation, the high stakes and pressure, the difficult decisions. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my “Best of”-tag. If you even remotely like challenging, deadly, dark modules, then download this gem right now – and if you can find the print version for a fair price…well, totally worth it. This is a stunning, gorgeous book – to think that it had been released for Free RPG Day is mind-boggling.
You can get this masterpiece here on OBS for PWYW!