[pay what you want] I'll advertise Better Than Any Man, then

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.)


  • edited July 2013
    imageHere's the cover illustration of the adventure as it eventually happened.

    Laying out the book was something of a challenge, as Jim had both great amounts of material as well as a pretty tight printing budget, so he didn't want to make it too much over 64 pages. As it happened, I managed to make the book presentable (although pretty tight in typographic terms, sort of like TSR used to make D&D adventures) at 96 pages after much gritting of teeth. The initial reviews after Free RPG Day have been favourable, so apparently I did a good enough job overall. (Anybody has the book and wants to give feedback on the layout, I'm all ears.)

    After Free RPG Day Jim wanted to make the book available as a PDF for those who couldn't get it at Free RPG Day (I've gotten the impression from skimming reports of experiences that it's not too trivial to actually get a hand on this stuff even in the US, despite the bigger participants like Jim printing something like 10 000 copies of their give-aways), which I of course enthusiastically support: doesn't make much sense to have that much work just disappear, so some sort of arrangement should be made to maintain availability. Of course this meant that I needed to create a PDF version of the book, too.

    Because I'm somehow fucked up in the head, I couldn't let the book off my hands just like that before I'd redone the layout to work better in tablets and other such reading devices. Ultimately the PDF version of the book about doubled its page count from the paper version. I probably put in a bit too much work, frankly, but it's difficult to get a technically good pdf done otherwise: there are so many use cases for a pdf (various reading programs, different screen sizes, weak vs. powerful microprocessors, printing out pages either selectively or en mass), unlike a paper book, that covering each of them at least adequately takes some commitment. Perhaps this'll become easier in the future, as PDF either dies off or gets standardized a bit more as a book design paradigm.

    Jim also did something amusing as regards the publishing strategy for the PDF version of the book: he would put it up as a pay-what-you-want item, which nicely combines the hope for a bit of extra income with the perceived "freeness" of a product that's been available as a give-away at game stores. Furthermore, Jim did something quite nice for me, completely unrequested: he offered to share the profits 50/50 with me, despite it being quite clear that I was volunteering to work on the book out of cultural ambition. I was quite impressed by the honor, it was an act befitting a freeman. (They'd say "gentleman" in anglo languages, but I can't quite make myself use the aristocratic term.)

    Anyway, we finished up the PDF version of the book on Friday, and yesterday Jim made it available, so I encourage everybody interested in how to do an old school D&D sandbox to take a look at a masterwork (and give us filthy lucre, if you want - I quite enjoy following the score board, as this is the first time that I am getting royalties for anything, having always worked on either contractual basis or in self-publishing). I don't agree with everything in the work, obviously, but my complaints are minor and easy to fix - the biggest is probably that there are a couple of spells that have been assigned too low levels - so overall it has to be said that BTAM is one of my favourite OSR books ever. In fact, thinking about it, it's now my favourite Raggi adventure, finally bumping off Death Frost Doom ;)

    (For those interested in how pay-what-you-want is working here: it's too soon to tell, as this has only been up for a day, but I'm already up $100 myself, so I count that as a success. I expect that Jim will report back on the experiment in a few months, once we have a better idea of how much money people want to give us in total.)

    Also: if you download the pdf and experience technical usability issues with it, I'd like to hear about them - if they're serious and affect a wide swathe of the audience, I'll need to fix them, and in any case I've grown interested in the best practices of creating commercial pdfs - it's an immensely complex process, really, if you're seeking perfection, and I already know several things that I could've done better here had I but figured them out before starting on it.
  • The only correction I'll make is that as far as I remember (six months ago now!) is that the original conception for the adventure wasn't the old Insect Shrine stuff, but the Insect Shrine stuff was incorporated in fairly quickly because there was so much of it already written.

    (The original concept was "oh crap I've got this beautiful Cynthia Sheppard piece I've commissioned that I can't use for its intended purpose... so I guess I should use it for the cover of an adventure. So what kind of adventure can I make out of that cover?")
  • Oh yes, that's a pretty interesting detail, another bit you cribbed from another project: you basically commissioned that cover art for a new printing of your Magic book (the LotFP core book that has the spell lists D&D needs for magic-users), which is why it has one of your signature characters in it making friends with a tentacle monster. (Jim has this trio of female adventurers who pop up in the art regularly; sort of like 3rd edition D&D or Exalted.) As the Magic book was then bundled with the rules into a single volume, you were left with an expensive piece of art with no home. I have to say that the cover fits the adventure you wrote, though.
  • I got the print version in the mail about a week ago, having been one of the Kickstarter-backers. The product is so densely packed with awesomeness I've only barely begun digesting it, but Eeroo is right on the money that this is a very, very good adventure/module/sandbox. In fact, it just might be one of the best D&D/OSR products ever made, far beyond anything I'd expect from something that's offered as a free giveaway. Will check out the PDF now, thank you guys for making this.
  • I picked up the pdf a couple of days ago and am enjoying it - not normally my kind of thing, as I'm not really into the OSR but it's got a nice quirkiness to what I've read so far and the 30 Years War setting is what really pulled me in.
  • This is an awesome product, blah blah blah, it's all true, etc, but more to the point...

    Eero, that auto-roller you put in the tables is fucking genius. How did you do that?
  • It's Javascript, simply. (Anybody needs to do something similar, you can read the code directly from the file; it should be pretty obvious.) The red boxes are ordinary annotations (comments) that can be created, moved and destroyed by Javascript within Adobe readers. Unfortunately I don't think any other pdf readers support it (and some of the other things I did there); I can't say that I'm too happy with supporting the closed-source pdf reader, but Adobe simply has too much of a lead in terms of the feature set.

    (Also, if you're going to do something similar: Adobe Reader is intentionally crippled in a number of ways, including in its capability for creating annotations. I found this out only after I'd written the code in Acrobat, so I opted to work around the limitation in a pretty annoying way instead of doing the code in the way it apparently should be done. Next time I'll find out in advance whether any of my planned features are actually supported by Reader.)

    Before I started making the pdf, I wrote a little memo to myself about the features that an old school D&D adventure module pdf actually needs, that specifically aren't part of the normal thinking. (I wanted to improve on the state of the art, ambitious as I am.) The two most important bits were alinear referencing of the dungeon key (you can see how I implemented that), and interactive DMing tools that make routine duties quicker. Regarding the latter it proved that after learning the Acrobat Javascript API I didn't have the time to develop all the tools that would be logical for the use case (a DM using a laptop as a DM screen), so I had to limit myself to just doing the dice rollers. Fortunately codebase accumulates, so perhaps I'll make a combat interface the next time I'm making a commercial OSR pdf.
  • Hmm. Well, I don't know coding at all, so I dunno if I'll be able to use that trick myself.

    Clicking back and forth between dungeon map and description page is really good. I seem to remember at some point when I was using the Carcosa pdf thinking "there is no back button! aargh!" but you solved that in this instance. I at least know how to make links in a pdf, so I can probably do this as well.

    What's the rest of the list? I'm starting to make adventures myself and I want the pdfs to be more than just the files used to create the print version.
  • Javascript isn't that difficult; I recommend that any graphic designer should know it, simply because it's useful to know how to automate batch jobs with scripting in e.g. InDesign or Acrobat. It's like knowing HTML, really; even a small bit will help a lot.

    As for back buttons, it's weird, isn't it? How come Adobe Reader doesn't have a back button? Seems sort of obvious, so much so that I'm not at all enthusiastic about putting one into the layout itself. (Now that I've learned Acrobat Javascript I know that it can do some stuff with the user interface of the reader itself; I'll need to find out whether one might simply add a back button.) Apparently Adobe prefers it if we mostly use Bookmarks for navigation instead of the hyperlink model.

    Hmm, let's see... here's the useful things I recognized as mostly lacking in OSR pdfs (those I've seen - if you've done even a few of these, then that's excellent):
    - Big type (= not too much text per page) to enable reading on smaller devices without excessive zooming. Support for both single-page and spread viewing logic to make both small portable screens and ordinary computer screens useful reading devices. Support printing by generating reference sheets that duplicate central information; abandon the "what if the user wants to print out the entire book" use case - people doing that are fools, they should get the print version of the book.
    - Avoid page turning in favour of hyperlinking and bookmarks to reduce delays when a weak mobile processor renders pages.
    - Create a logical Bookmark tree, and note that it does not need to follow the linear structure of the book where ease of navigation demands otherwise.
    - Compose logical reference sections on a per page and per spread basis, so as to further reduce page turning while using the reference. The goal is to make turning the page a once per scene occurrence, instead of a constant event.
    - Create ink-conserving versions of everything that people might want to print out for reference (e.g. maps). Use layers to negotiate separate print and screen views.
    - Include implied tools: randomization for random tables, attack rolls and hp tracking for monster stat blocks, all according to utility in real use cases.
    - Generate reference data that reflects the use cases of the work, and thus further reduces page turning by e.g. enabling condensed reference sheets that may be used alongside the pdf book. A general index is usually not useful for a D&D adventure, while e.g. a monster index could be.

    (There are probably other important things as well; that's just the list I made for myself when starting to adapt BTAM into pdf format.)

    My own primary portable device is a Bookeen Odyssey electronic book, so I'm fully aware of the difficulties involved in using a pdf reference with a black and white 6 inch screen, with relatively slow page turning. I haven't tried the book in the Odyssey yet, but it is distantly possible that if Jim doesn't send me a paper version of the book, I'll have to try running it off the e-ink device at some point :D
  • I think there is still sometimes a case for printing pdfs, given that shipping is only likely to continue to increase.
  • I suppose it's possible. Ideally one would deal with that by having the book printed by a POD printer from print-intended PDFs, though. My point on the matter is mainly that as things currently stand, a screen-readable PDF has diverged sufficiently from print concerns that it's not feasible to attempt to make the same file usable for both purposes.
  • It's not really the main point here, but there's also the common(?) case where people have access to free printing at work or school or whatever. It's not really a matter of foolishness.

    (I feel like that's pretty common since it's described my situation since 1991 except for the year and a half that I took off work.)
  • Well, "free" printing. That's not exactly an use case I'd care to plan for; somebody's paying for it, and they'd probably rather just buy the POD book for you instead of emptying the ink cartridges for it, had they the choice.

    But yes, I suppose there are some people out there who'd prefer a print-ready PDF for some quirky reason or other. From their viewpoint most things I've done to make the file more usable on screen are actually steps backwards. Seems to me that the only way to get out of that would be to develop two separate files, one for home printing and one for screen use. I'd need to see some data on how common home printing of entire books is, but off the top of my hat it seems to me that it's an uncommon fringe phenomenon in between just buying the book and primarily digital use. If I'm mistaken, perhaps it'd be worthwhile to plan for that use case.
  • That's a pretty good list, Eero. For Dungeon Planet, someone complained that I set the initial view to 2-page full-page fit. When I sent him a new pdf with 1-page scrolling initial view, he replied that it was now much easier to read on whatever tablet thing he had, which is what made me start thinking about this stuff beyond just bookmarks and links.
    - Create a logical Bookmark tree, and note that it does not need to follow the linear structure of the book where ease of navigation demands otherwise.
    That's interesting. I'm mostly putting stuff in the order it appears in. Do you mean adding bookmark links to out-of-order pages in sections where they are referenced, that kind of thing?
    - Create ink-conserving versions of everything that people might want to print out for reference (e.g. maps). Use layers to negotiate separate print and screen views.
    Heh. I think I did this one ass-backwards with the stuff I just finished!
  • - Create a logical Bookmark tree, and note that it does not need to follow the linear structure of the book where ease of navigation demands otherwise.
    That's interesting. I'm mostly putting stuff in the order it appears in. Do you mean adding bookmark links to out-of-order pages in sections where they are referenced, that kind of thing?
    Bookmarks are usually used for finding things in PDF books - at least that's my understanding. While the order of the chapters in the book is a somewhat pertinent thing for this (a reader knowing what they're looking for might have a sense for whether it's e.g. early or late in the book), a logical structure is probably even easier. Also, remember that you can have multiple bookmarks for the same things, so nothing prevents you from having say a separate bookmark tree for all the maps in the book, while also having bookmarks for the same maps as part of the logical flow.

    A mere page reference is probably not enough reason to put a bookmark into a strange place, but various conceptual reasons might be. To pick an arbitrary example, it might be useful for a game like Dungeon World to have a separate bookmark tree for all the moves in the book, alphabetized; it's sort of like an index, except that it resides in the bookmark pane. It's an index that is arrayed by topic (Moves) and alphabetized, because it'd presumably be used to find the description of a given single move. Not having this could be a problem for a book where Moves are scattered all through the book in racial and class descriptions, but having it at the end of the book as a traditional index wouldn't be ideal either, as then the user would have to click themselves to the index page just so they could jump back to whatever page it was they were looking; better to put that data in the Bookmarks panel and thus skip the prospective index page altogether.

    A less radical example is that in BTAM there were a few chapters where the room key actually starts a page or two before the map, or I'd moved the map out of the chapter itself altogether. This does not affect the way I set up the Bookmarks panel: each chapter has the link to the map and the room key in the exact same order in the bookmarks, regardless of where the physical pages are. This is superior because this way the user doesn't need to know or care how the layout is specifically arranged.
  • I've printed out quite a few adventure modules. Most of the time this was because the said adventure is currently out of print which is a thing that occurs more often than one would hope. Others have been pdf only publications.

    The thing with BTAM especially is that unless you already got one from Free RPG Day or as a Kickstarter perk or find one second hand or something, the only way to get a paper version is to print it yourself. It's essentially a pdf only product from now on.
  • I'm pretty old fashioned with computers at times, and don't have that much patience with some of the nuances of software, so it's a bit so-so for me... I miss having a right hand scroll bar and it took a bit of fiddling around until I could get a comfortable way to view the document - I ended up using the page toolbar, clicking each page, scrolling down as I read, then clicking the next page, etc. etc. Other ways of viewing seemed to miss paragraphs here and there when I moved to a new page, which was pretty annoying.

    I'm also in the apparent minority who like to print pdfs. I usually buy them over POD as international shipping is a killer these days. For whatever reason I absorb information much better from a physical book than via a computer screen.

    I suspect it's a case of not being able to please everybody all of the time, but generally I prefer pdfs as simple and uncomplicated as possible.
  • For whatever reason I absorb information much better from a physical book than via a computer screen.
    Yeah, this is me too. I like to be able to use my whole field of vision, I like flipping pages. When I proofread one of my own books, I have to actually get a proof in order to do it.
  • >>The thing with BTAM especially is that unless you already got one from Free RPG Day or as a Kickstarter perk or find one second hand or something, the only way to get a paper version is to print it yourself. It's essentially a pdf only product from now on.

    9500 of the things were printed. Is it that rare already just one month since release?

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