Better Than Any Man
by Jim Raggi
is this old school D&D sandbox for 1st level characters. It has a pretty interesting history, and I helped Jim a bit in putting the final product together, so I thought that people here might be interested in hearing about it a bit. It also happens to be the case that BTAM is currently the best existing sandbox product for the sort of hardcore D&D I play myself (with the possible exception of the first part of Anomalous Subterranean Environment
, assuming you consider that a sandbox module and not a megadungeon with ample dressings). Thirdly, as the topic states: Jim released the book yesterday in PDF form in pay-what-you-want format, so if what I'm about to discuss here is of interest, you can just check the thing for yourself. Finally, there's one more motive I have for talking about this, which I'll come to at the end.
The story of Better Than Any Man
begins several years ago, when Jim was just starting to think about publishing his D&D material for a wider audience. This was in 2007-ish or so, I think? At that time he playtested, wrote and started to produce a D&D adventure by the name of Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill
. As the name indicates, the adventure concerned a brutal tribe of goblins living under a hill dedicated to an inhuman god. I understand that in literary terms the material was what might be termed "ordinary D&D", albeit pretty dark as such: it was set in default fantasy setting, with goblins as the main antagonist, and so on.
(I'll tell Jim to come correct me if anything I write here is factually wrong. I'm writing this from memory, and I might have misunderstood something or other.)
However, as Jim started to publish his own stuff, his vision started to diverge pretty quickly towards the direction we've come to know from him; you can see this process in e.g. the two editions of the LotFP rules he published: old school D&D, yes, but set in more realistic, historical-like milieus, with monsters and magic being a matter of horror more than a romantic opportunity for heroics. My understanding is that the publication of the almost-finished Insect Shrine adventure was basically put on hold because Jim no longer felt satisfied with how far it went in re-envisioning old school D&D.
A few years later, and LotFP started experimenting with crowdfunding. This soon lead to this year's Free RPG Day Kickstarter
, where Jim promised to deliver an exciting old school adventure for Free RPG Day distribution. The idea was that he'd revise and publish the old Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill
material, which would be perfectly suited as an introduction to LotFP and old school gaming philosophy. Crowdfunding would make quality illustration and printing in large numbers affordable. I promised to do the layout on the adventure, as it seemed like a fine endeavour; you rarely see crowdfunding projects that are not primarily about preordering something or other, after all, and I think that it's a fine deed to bring old school D&D to wider recognition among hobbyists by giving them free samples of how it should be done.
The Kickstarter succeeded well, so the project started gearing up in the late winter. Jim revised his old material and added plenty of new stuff as well, to a pleasing degree of perfectionism. (I often see people go to far lesser lengths to do something like this!) I was personally quite pleased with the outcome, as it wasn't just an adventure, but actually a small, compact sandbox for 1st-4th level characters. There are not too many of these for old school D&D (or any sort, really, unless you count railroaded adventures); ready-made structures with wilderness, hooks and adventure locations all figured out; to my mind the strategic context is king in D&D (it's not only about what you face, but why), so I rather like this sort of thing, obviously. Jim's new vision of D&D flowers in the work beautifully, too: as people who've followed his work know, Jim's been moving towards a fully historical horror fantasy setting, which BTAM realizes with panache.
(Why am I so pleased? That's simple to answer: BTAM is perfect for when you need to run a one-session old school D&D adventure that might or might not pan out into a larger campaign. It's also perfect for resetting an existing campaign or for when the party moves to an entirely different part of the world - all such situations where old campaign developments are reset benefit from this sort of thing. The material is pleasingly suitable for all levels despite the recommended level range, which is also quite important for my preferences. All told, this is the sort of thing I didn't have in my toolbox before, but now I do.)