This massive module clocks in at 163 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a damn impressive 157 pages of content - so let's take a look, shall we?
Okay, first of all, let me address something - this review took pretty long to get done and this pdf, while relatively easily converted to any campaign setting, has its own implicit world called Vaard - the supplemental material presented in the detailed appendices provides a new deity-write-up as well as information on the general locations in pretty extensive detail. Darkwood Town, provided with statblock, a nice full color map and even a sample card-game (!!!) reaches a quite impressive level of detail, including even prices for menus. Going above and beyond, we even receive read-aloud text for the respective points of interest. Yes, plus drinking game with really nasty moonshine. I just wished we also received a player-friendly version of the cartography of Darkwood and the circus-town Brighttown's beautiful maps. The level of detail provided goes even above Raging Swan Press' usual level, my benchmark for settlements and is further enhanced by random encounter-suggestions. This town would have made for a more than adequate own sourcebook - as an addition to a module, it is thoroughly impressive.
We also receive 4 sample PCs, with artwork, short stats in addition to full-blown char-sheet versions, extensive background history and information to properly play them - including support for the magic school/academia-rules in one case - which is pretty awesome!
Now flavor-wise, Darkwood Town can be beats pictured as a kind of boom town with a distinct Wild West meets fantasy vibe - a town held together by the striving for wealth in a progressive, but rough environment - beyond the first "Rough up the new guys"-encounter (which is surprisingly well set up), this feeling is enforced further by coalition rules - these represent the standing of the PCs with the respective factions in Darkwood and provide an easy guideline for DMs to portray the growing reputation of the PCs as well as an easy and rewarding way for players to watch their respective reputations grow. It should finally be noted that beyond all of the aforementioned new material, magic items, a template, a disease and a poisons and 6 stats of key NPCs are provided in the appendices as well, rendering this book essentially a dual module/full-blown regional source-book. While vibe-wise definitely inspired by pulp and the wild west, it should be noted that campaigns without blackpowder can easily use this module - the default assumption may be that gunslinging exists, but it is in no means omnipresent. That being said, it is this reviewer's opinion that the module would lose a bit of its uniqueness by such an omission.
But how is this module constructed, you may ask? Well, it's self-proclaimed goal is to combine event-based, location-based and sandbox-adventuring - and it pretty much works, that much I can say sans what follows now:
From here on, this adventure-review is suffused with SPOILERS. Potential players will want to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! So the module has essentially a 3-act structure, with Act 1 being devoted to setting up the town for the PCs to explore...and a job offer (including an alternate, rather mysterious counter-offer) - the goal here is for the PCs and players to familiarize themselves with the town before they venture forth to try to reclaim the Highcliff Mine - for whatever faction they choose. I hear you yawn - well, don't. First of all, this haunted mine manages to evoke an almost perfect sense of foreboding, desolation and dread - furthermore, the challenges provided are varied and range from haunts to smartly templated foes, while also hinting at the rather extensive metaplot and providing an expertly crafted sense of horror that complements, rather than contradicts the mood established in the town.
Now Act II goes full-blown sandbox - from dealing with bandits and ratfolk to bounty-hunting, all of these small sidetreks come with nice battle-mat-style full color maps in surprising detail, while also serving as a means to foreshadow the things to come, among other means with the nasty, mutating disease "The Flux", which proves to be a pretty important component of the meta-plot, one of almost Lovecraftian proportions, I might add. Some straight in your face body horror? Well, yes, please!
When the Night of Stars looms, the PCs are tasked with a delicate task - infiltrate Bright town during the monthly festivities and revels - in order to succeed in their task, the PCs will have to navigate the well-visited tent town, enjoy the festivities, avoid trouble with local bravos and conduct their investigation, hopefully realizing that *something* is indeed amiss with the Genetie family... but what? While the DM knows, I will not spoil this particular component of the rich tapestry of story-threads woven herein. And yes, the party at bright town is crashed - by massive, mutated trolls, hinted at earlier. At the end of the module stand a tantalizing array of options, a thoroughly compelling metaplot and high expectations for the future installments. And yes, I intentionally remained vague in this review - I want you to read this massive book yourself.
Editing and formatting is good, but not perfect - I noticed a couple of glitches, but no serious ones. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and with extensive internal hyperlinks that make navigating the story-threads/background information etc. easy on the DM. Layout adheres to a nice and easy to read 2-column full color standard that still is pretty printer-friendly. The full color cartography is VERY extensive and covers even a bunch of side-quests and generally on the high-end/quality-side of things, as are the hand-outs. My one gripe here would be the absence of player-friendly, number-less versions of the maps. The original and rather copious pieces of full color artwork may not adhere to a uniform style, but are iconic in their own right and yes, the artwork generally is nicer to look at than the cover, with especially the vista of highcliff mine deserving accolades.
Nick Johnson and Lars Lundberg's first Darkwood module is one thing: Exceedingly, dauntingly ambitious. For a novice publisher to kick off with a 150+ page module, part of a saga AND in full color etc., all without a kickstarter - well, this is one daring move. I did not expect it to pan out. At least in this mega-adventure, it did. This is very much a thinking man's complex module, not a mindless crawl and it lives and breathes atmosphere to an extent scarcely seen in any given publication. Indeed, its unique flavor and level of detail can perhaps best be compared to the Zeitgeist AP, though its focus is radically different: Rather than focusing purely on investigation, we receive an utterly unique blend of fantasy, horror, pulp and wild west-aesthetics for a true, innovative jamais-vu experience. Furthermore, while not a simple adventure, this is by far the most novice-DM-friendly sandbox I've ever seen - the sheer amount of read-aloud text that helps less experienced DMs portray the unique flair and setting provided is absolutely commendable.
I'd like to address something as well - usually, I cut novice publishers and authors at least some slack: If formatting, bonus types and the like are not perfect, I comment on it, but they do have some leeway. This mega-adventure did not need that. From the supplemental rules to the setting-sourcebook chapters up to the module itself, this is impressively professional for a 1st time publisher and exhibits extensive knowledge of sub-systems and how to use them, on what has been done before - and then doing something different, something absolutely awesome. This module is worth every cent of its asking price and has me utterly *stoked* for future installments - "The Deft and the Deadly" is a massive, awesome module full of memorable scenes and NPCs, with even sample PC backgrounds potentially tied into the narrative, should you choose to use them (though their backgrounds can easily be modified to suit your players). Have I mentioned that I *really* want to know how all of this goes on?
It takes a lot these days to impress me - I see a lot of good modules, excellent ones, even. The average quality of 3pp-modules for Pathfinder is VERY high. That being said, it is relatively rarely that a module captures me to this extent; indeed, its level of detail, interwoven narratives etc. are pretty close to how I conduct my own campaigns and to what I expect flavor-depth-wise from a supplement. And then, it goes beyond even that level of detail to provide a vibrant, iconic backdrop with a thoroughly unique atmosphere that authors out there should take a good luck at - that's how it's done. This is an all-killer, no-filler tome, with its tantalizing metaplot making me salivate for future installments to an extent I rarely do. My final verdict will, unsurprisingly, clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, omitting a status as a candidate for the top ten of 2014 only due to the lack of player-friendly maps.
After this and Mór Games' excellent Plight of the Tuatha, there is no more excuse for novice publishers to rest on freshman laurels - this level of quality is what we need. Here's to hoping that Saga RPG prospers!