Warning: BTAM serious game ruining spoilers ahead!
Caught in a desperate and bloody combat inside the main entrance to Goblin Hill, the Black Dogs are scrapping with half a dozen masked and unarmed cultist Burgerfriedensmiliz who stand between them and the huge iron doors that lead outside and to freedom. The alarm has been raised deeper inside the cultists lair and distant running feet and shouting can be heard behind them… not sure how much time they have before a horde of cultists capture (and maybe eat) them, they throw everything into the fight.
Hemming closed in on one of the cultists while the others kept their distance and tried to pick others off with missile weapons, Balock with a hastily picked up shortbow and Miklos with his crossbow. Once cultists started to fall Esmeralda threw herself into the fray, brutally cutting more down while Miklos relieved one of his head. As more cultists come tearing down the corridor the Black Dogs overpower the door guards just as Genevieve and Esmeralda push open the huge front doors and the cold night air floods in. Two guards await outside and are stunned to see the intruders pour out past the corpses of their dead companions.
With more heavily armed and no doubt competent cultists just behind, the adventurers take the sensible option and flee into the forest…
An effective escape was on the cards but Esmeralda lingered too long, attacking a cultist that was trying to kill Genevieve. Initiative can shaft you sometimes. As the rest of the Black Dogs ran into the darkness, the plucky rogue was grappled by one of the guards who was trying to pin her down until his fellow cultists arrived. Other cultists come streaming past chasing Miklos, Balock and Hemming and all looks lost for Esmeralda, a fate of torture, tenderisation and ending up on a cannibal’s dining plate await her. As a last minute thought (as he was focussed very much on his own survival) Hemming fires his final Magic Missile at the cultist wrestling her, and as his flesh is devoured by chomping skulls, Esmeralda is able to flee into the darkness as well.
Knowing the dangers of following the party into the woods, the cultists withdraw. It is a little while later that the Black Dogs meet up, take stock of their situation and head back to Thungen with a plan to head to Wurzburg, hand over the heads of T
he Defiler, The Joy, The Mother, The Provider and The Watcher in a bid to save Wurzburg (knowing Karlstadt is already lost).
Outside Thungen they encounter a Swedish patrol and discover they are already too late. Wurzburg has been raised to the ground, the garrison of the Marienburg Fortress wiped out and the citizens of the town slaughtered. It seems they were too late by only a day or two to save the thousands of innocents who perished… Maybe they can still claim a reward for the heads, but who would pay it?
A montage of scenes would show the Swedish army rampaging across the area; remains of the walls and buildings of Karlstadt, shattered and blackened by flame and cannon fire, ruined bodies lining the streets, hanging from gallows and impaled on sharpened stakes, amongst them The Defender and The Reminder. Their creatures are nowhere to be seen. A large contingent of the Swedish army are still camped outside, ensuring none escape Gustavus Adolphus’ vengeance.
Wurzburg has fared no better. The Prince-Bishop Franz Von Hatzfeld has long since fled with his entourage leaving the people to their terrible fate.
Swedish patrols scour the area cleaning up stragglers while witch hunters sentencing many poor women to the hangman’s noose (after all, if there were seven female sorcerers in Karlstadt, there could well be more). One patrol reaches Goblin Hill and before too long it is torn apart and all the cultists within, men, women and children are executed.
Did the Black Dogs prevent the Insect God from awakening and enslaving humankind? A foul and alien deity, the Insect God will slumber deep beneath the ground for now, probing, broadcasting it’s dreams until some other desperate and damaged soul can be manipulated to raise another cult to serve it…
Then there’s the characters themselves – they’ll be level 4 at least after this. What is next for them? Retirement, further adventures?
Balock, Specialist (top left) – the only character to maintain a shred of human decency, even at the end considerate and looking for the best in people; only dealing death to those who deserved it.
Hemming, Magic-User (bottom left) – like most who dabble in the arcane arts, he was aligned to chaos from the start and this only continued as the game progressed.
Miklos, Cleric (top centre) – a true man of God. Perhaps we saw the biggest change in him, in Wurzburg he was a big softie, by the time the hunt for The Seven was truly on, a demented Scimitar wielding death dealer, all too ready to remove a head or two.
Ingrid, Fighter (RIP) (right, standing with peg leg)- an experienced Black Dog who had one job in mind. Kill The Mother and stop the Insect God cult. She lost her life to see the job through.
Genevieve, Magic-User (right, sitting) – a newer addition to the Ingrid’s Black Dog gang, nevertheless she was happy to throw around magic and wield a sword in battle.
Esmeralda, Specialist (right, standing with arquebus) – tricksy, sneaky and handy with a bow, Esmeralda is an accomplished all around monster slayer.
Maldron, Fighter (RIP) (bottom centre) – a fearsome warrior from the beginning, happy to wade in with his terrifying greatsword. None would have thought he would be the first to go, yet he was undone by The Defiler’s creature and it’s infinite stomach dimensions…
Shylock, Specialist (RIP) (not shown) – a guide from the Karlstadt Conspiracy to overthrow The Seven, he showed great potential until he was ripped in half by The Defender’s creature.
If nothing else, those who survived deserve a well earned rest.
The player with the most dead characters award goes to Tony for his outstanding contribution to making me feel like a proper OSR GM.
I’m happy and sad.
Happy because we completed Better Than Any Man – it’s the first adventure of this scale, effectively a mini-campaign, that I have ran and completed in a long time. And while it had some troughs, I thought it had many more peaks. The players (regulars @Benelio, @Lintillaz, @OrlanthR, @TonyLayter and an early appearance by @kinnygraham) were excellent, throwing themselves into their characters and every grim and outrageous situation I threw at them (well not me really, James Raggi the author), and really engaging with the setting and adventure. It was a demanding game as well, a time sink, particularly in the earlier parts… it’s a sandbox adventure that presents some unique challenges to the GM. It’s a bundle of stuff with a glorious historical backdrop, a load of locations, some ideas, crazy NPC’s, encounters and a few dungeons and the GM has to pull it all together to make it sing.
Sad because it’s all over. I really enjoyed learning about the 30 years war (I must confess to some ignorance before I started planning this; RPG’s are educational, yay!), planning how to start the adventure (I used A Stranger Storm as a lead in), throwing in some adhoc stuff and watching the players squirm was all great fun. Their morale compases were put to the test and changed direction many times. And using LotFP – damn, I love that system. It’s pure, refined OSR gold to me, as masterful B/X D&D variant – it just works perfectly (well saying that I added a few house rules).
There were a load of locations the party didn’t get anywhere near; the Farmhouse, the Mound, the Infinite Tower and the Realm of the Insect God. Part of that was my fault, I threw in a few distracting side quests, and then when the time pressure was on (with the Swedish Army heading into the area) they because really focussed on getting the heads of the Seven, ignoring the teasers to these other locations I put in their way (a child kidnapped from the refugee camp and a glass tiger prowling the hills nearby; I wasn’t keen on the Infinite Tower and had already decided to skip that). Having a sandbox adventure and a tight timeline is not an ideal mix (in my opinion) and it’s unlikely they could be separated in this case as the Swedish Army’s presence is crucial to the whole adventure.
What would I do differently if I was running it again? Early on I made the choice that this would be entirely human centric, no dwarves, elves or halflings; I still feel that was a good decision. I’d start with A Stranger Storm again for sure, that is a cracking paranoia inducing adventure, setting the tone and player expectations of what was to come. I would have them approach from a different direction – coming to Wurzburg first tied them up quite a bit. If they had come from the northwest they could have encountered the Farmhouse and the Mound before hitting Karlstadt or Wurzburg. Travel was quite slow, so I’d make sure they had easy access to horses, and most likely try to start the adventure a couple of days earlier, so if they are sidetracked they still have a chance of getting to Wurzburg to pick up the ‘Heads of the Seven’ quest and perhaps succeeding in it. Plus there would be a greater opportunity to have more of the excellent and disturbing random encounters.
Would I recommend running it? Hell yeah! It’s fantastic and well worth the time investment – there are dozens of hours of great gaming in this, and considering it is PWYW on DrivethruRPG there is no reason not to take a look.