I was always a weird kid. I preferred the villains to the heroes, rooted for Skeletor, not He-Man and always had a fascination with the macabre - Horror-stories in particular. When other kids enjoyed children's storybooks, I was all in my parent's ears to explain how exactly a pendulum works. You get the idea. Now what I'm trying to say is that as long something is not too creepy and keeps violence down, children may definitely enjoy creepy modules. Here's one!
The latest adventure in AaW's series for the beginner's version of Pathfinder and direct sequel to "A Learning Time" is 28 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page featuring 12 cut-out full-color pawns/paper tokens of the adversaries/iconics, leaving us with 24 pages of content, so let's check this out!
The pdf begins with a drop-dead gorgeous artwork and the foreword by author Kevin Mickelson, who explains what a sandboxy adventure is and how to run it.
After that, we're right off into the module, so from here on, the SPOILERS reign. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! After braving the gauntlet in "A Learning Time", our brave fledgling heroes are sent out into the world on a field trip - to be precise, to Hazelthorp, a nearby village (fully mapped in gorgeous detail in both a player and DM-version, btw.!) - Johan Proutt, mayor of the town of Hazelthorp scents trouble brewing - a local elf called Ladrid Howl has threatened to tear down the village for their lumbering efforts and the PCs are sent to the village to ensure that the harvest festival goes well. Of course, the players are fitted out by the academy with some neat tools to chose from.
Once the PCs carrv a Hazelthorp, they are greeted by good folk cheering them on and are free to explore the town - though they should definitely check out the Happy Pie Inn and taste the pumpkin-hazelnut pies for which the town is famous. Now the catch is that the regular townsfolk know nothing about the threat and the mayor would prefer it to keep it that way. The town's sheriff and deputy are fully statted, as is the town's priestess and the gardener: An uncommonly kind and gentle ogre who has managed to grow a pumpkin of over 50 pounds inhis patch, almost guaranteed to win a ribbon in the festival. Said Ogre also has a nice clue - perceptive PCs may notice the stings and, when prompted, the ogre shows them the corpses of the bees that stung him: Purplish-reddish insects touched by the lower planes!
In the evening, strange tings stat to happen - the PCs are called outside, just to see a man clutching a carved pumpkin on his stumble a few feet, turn rigid and then making a frantic dash away from the crowd - turns out that this is the first attack of a Curcubiter, a devious plant create by aforementioned infernal bees. Armed with a rather devastating charge attack, a hypnotic gaze, attacks with vines and bites as well as the ability to dominate bodies, these creepy creatures are no pushovers! Worse for the next hours, they keep coming for 1d4 in-game minutes, 1d4 of them per minute. Defending the villagers, organizing them, etc. should be quite a task - especially since burning the pumpkin-patch from which they originate would spell economic doom for the village and result in famine etc. Oh, and if the PCs gather all vilagers in one place, the cucubiters will do the same and gather for a massive 20-creature push vs. them! total of 37 of the creatures are in the patch, with 17 coming in small groups and 20 attacking as mentioned en masse. Now keeping the townsfolk safe and defending them in diffent locales is rather complex, for each building can only hold so many and has defensive pros and cons to be weighed - very cool and ot something one sees often in modules. The only way this would have been better would be with maps of all the buildings, but that is budget-wise not viable and from the descriptions, a DM an (and should) draw some sketches.
As an additional edge, the PCs can create barriers via hazelnut-branches soaked in holy water vs. the botanic monstrosities. Speaking of a true botanic monstrosity - hopefully, the PCs have Barnaby the ogre with them - his huge prized pumpkin turns out to be the master of the lot, a vast deadly Cucubiter Max, supportable onyl by a body of the ogre's size. With or without ogrish body, once the master and its smaller brethren have been vanquished, the town seems safe. Depending on whether they managed to hold up the bluff that they knew nothing about impending danger and depending on how many people the cucubiters manage to "steal"/kill, the PCs will get a final grade and on the way back, one final obstacle - the elf is none too plesed about the town's survival and has it in for the PCs, staging an ambush (fully mapped, again with player and GM-maps) and making for the final foe to subdue or kill.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect: I noticed a couple of punctuation glitches and similar smaller orthographic issues, though nothing too severe. Layout adheres to AaW's two-column parchment-background standard and as almost always in AaW-modules, the cartography is stellar. I'm not sure who among the artists is responsible for the artwork on the foreword-page, but it's glorious - kudos! The pdf comes with full herolab-support and an additional, more printer-friendly, backgoundless version.
To say that I looked forward to reviewing this module would have been a lie - while I can see the appeal of the "Adventurer's School"-background for a younger audience, personally, I loathe it. And I love horror. I honestly dreaded how this would develop into cheese. Well, surprisingly...it doesn't! While the artworks for the primary antagonists are wonky and not something I'd show to my players, this module is actually very well-crafted. The "Hold the town"/"Protect the Innocents"-sandbox angle is expertly developed so that the DM has an easy time crafting the details on his/her particular version of the module's progression. And what's even better: With an absolute minimum of effort any DM worth his salt can eliminate the school-angle and replace it with his own...and potentially make this a very mature module.
The enemies per se are so alien that they can be played for laughs or for deadly seriousness or both - And if you really want to make this gory, just make the domination a more..permanent replacement. Oh, and make the final enemy perhaps a living host to the instigators o the whole going on. Et voilà - you have a really neat horror yarn that should have your players talking for quite a while!
That doesn't mean that the module has to be used thusly - it just means that apart from its intended primary audience, it is iconic and versatile enough to be made a truly neat experience for adult players as well - and sparking the imagination, a versatility in uses, that's one of the hallmarks of a great module. The only reason I am omitting my seal of approval for this great module is the fact that it unfortunately sports more editing glitches than usual for AaW and that I feel they could have been caught with another pass at editing. Nevertheless, congratulations to author Kevin Mickelson for a final verdict of 5 stars.