today I'm going to take a closer look at one particular pdf that upped the ante quality-wise of what to expect from 3pp adventures: Fire Mountain Games'
Way of the Wicked Book I - Knot of Thorns
This pdf is 100 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 95 pages of content, so let's check out Fire Mountain Games' AP!
The nation of Talingarde is a shining beacon of goodness on a hill, a bastion of faith to the Mitran faith and an example of purity and goodness. Evil has been conquered and mostly rooted out in this land, the goblinoids driven beyond the grand wall - and righteous, lawful Talingarde will burn! For in this AP, the players are the villains!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. Seriously, you don't want to spoil this one!
Still here? After generating villains (sample violations of laws/reasons have been included), the action kicks in with the Pcs being brought to Branderscar Prison - to hang or face whatever sentence (most likely death or a life of forced labor) will await them. Unfortunately for the nation of do-gooders, complacency and incompetence have taken a hold of the nations once most tightly-run prison and so a mysterious, beautiful woman charms her way in, delivers a veil and exits - the veil containing a variety of tools the Pcs can use for the task she set them - escape from the prison and rendez-vous with a mysterious benefactor. The escape from prison being their first task, the PCs will have quite an interesting time - acquiring a spellbook and freeing an intelligent ogre from confinement and multiple ways to sneak past guards/overwhelm them included.
After a trek through a dangerous marsh, the mysterious benefactor awaits the PCs in his mansion - Adrastus Thorn, chosen of Asmodeus is on an (un-)holy crusade and has woven a dread web of plans and intrigues to bring the nation to its heels. While he has his own reasons to do so, he offers the PCs a chance for revenge - all they have to do is prove their worth in his own training ground (including hellish wisdoms in every room of the mini-dungeon) and sign a contract in blood. It is also this contract that will counteract the problem of evil campaigns in which PCs in the end try to kill one another. Furthermore, potential rivals of the PCs will be foreshadowed here.
Adrastus' first task is to accompany a weapon's smuggler behind the grand wall to deliver weapons to a horde of goblinoids under the command of an Asmodeus-sworn bugbear champion - and then tie up the loose end, the smuggler. The trip proves to be dangerous, patrols scouring the waters and barbarians offering trade. The goblinoid horde awaiting them proves to be dangerous as well and a demonstration of strength might be in order. Once the deal is completed, the bugbear-chieftain turns out to be another of Adrastus' agents and tasks the PCs with a seemingly impossible task - bring down Balentyne, fortress at the wall, the gate to Talingarde and open the fortress to the horde. This opens the final part of the adventure, a sandbox-style section where the PCs have a vast variety of options to use social entanglements, cunning, poison, infiltration, dark magics and overall smart strategies to decimate the people stationed in the fortress. Which is challenging - the fortress is well-guarded, frontal attacks/lack of subtlety is not an option, the enemies are smart, numerous, superior to the PCs and the section is incredibly detailed - reactions to the wide variety of options presented are given and there are a lot of options open for the PCs to follow - from using a tryst to their advantage, killing and impersonating actors, poisoning food etc., all kinds of dastardly activities are included in the options and a constant and steep count for victory points makes sure that the PCs won't have an easy time opening the bastion for the goblinoid horde. Their level of success will have repercussions in future adventures and the attention to stunning detail, from Branderscar to the end, makes sure that awareness, being smart etc. are rewarded.
The pdf also includes a gazetteer of Talingarde, advice for the DM on how to run a villainous campaign, help for the players to generate villains and a plot-synopsis of the whole AP.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn't notice any glitches. Not one. Excellent job! Layout adheres to an easy-to-read, full-color two-column standard and is STUNNING. Beautiful. Awesome. The artwork (and there's a lot of it) is also full-color and features portraits of all major players in the adventure as well as e.g. a certain magical item in the beginning. And they are Paizo-level. I mean it. These pieces of artwork are STELLAR. The pdf comes with full bookmarks and a printer-friendly alternate version. The maps are full color as well and just as stunning - from the maps of Talingarde to the location maps, the only gripe I can muster is that we don't get extra player's maps sans keys that DMs could print out, cut up and hand to them as they explore. Content-wise the adventure is a great mix of railroady sections and the coolest sandboxy infiltration I've read in quite a while. In fact, the overall writing is stellar and up to the highest standards you could want. The finale is epic, smart, cool and offers so many ways to achieve victory it's almost frightening - without being easy, mind you! Fire Mountain Games have come from the nowhere, put out this little pdf and blown me out of the water - neither content, nor production values or bang-to-buck-ratio leave anything to be desired from this stellar, brilliant opening of their villainous AP. The novelty of an evil campaign and its challenges are addressed and solved admirably, the scenes feel new and give credence to the overall conspiracy and just about every aspect of this book can be considered a PEAK PERFORMANCE.
Oh yeah, this is the work of 2 people. Author Gary McBride and artist Michael Clarke have, with this opening, definitely upped the ante of the quality one can expect from 3pps, rivaling Paizo's APs in style, artwork and writing. I have nothing to complain. Nothing. I'm VERY impressed and, would it be possible, I'd rate this 6 stars. Seriously. If playing evil only remotely intrigued you, if you ever wondered how nations like Cheliax came to be or how grand nations came down - stop wondering. Do it yourself. For once not save them, but condemn them to hellfire! My final verdict will be 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval.
All right, that's it for now, as always: Thanks for reading my ramblings!