||This is a Castles & Crusades adventure module, although it can be easily used with an pre-4E version of D&D.
My copy of A0 is a part of Umbrage Saga boxed set. Your milage may vary.
This is a solid introductory adventure for a group of beginning characters. It touches on all the important points: an interesting base, a wilderness adventure, a dungeon crawl, some unusual/weird elements, and an ancient evil. It does a decent job in all of those areas but does not excel in any.
Life is hard out on the borderlands. You think that in moving your family away the heart of the kingdom that you are getting away from the wars, strife, and land disputes that a part of everyday life. You find a nice patch of bottom land next to some other folks and lay in to the hard life of a farmer. Things are rough but looking up when ... a batch of monsters show up. Maybe life back in civilization wasn't so bad after all ...
A village on the borderlands is being threatened by some marauding humanoids. After a couple of raids they are now just outright extorting tribute from the villagers. The local rulers are too busy with their own troubles to send troops, so instead they offer a bounty on the humanoid bandit leaders head. That's where the party comes in.
The small village of Mallforten is the one having the trouble. It's a small village on the borderlands, primarily agrarian. There's really only two shops: a tavern and a supplies shop. A tinker comes through once a month, most trade is in barter and lend/lease. The local gaol has a hanging tree out back with a rotted rope attached and hangmans mushrooms that grow underneath on nights of the full moon. There are twelve figures of note described in the village. Some may be allied to the players cause, some neutral, and some opposed ... they are now spying for the raiders! The village description is a good one for a realistic portrayal of a small village on the borderlands. Townfolk gather at the tavern early in the morning after the cows are milked, and then the place clears out during the day while everyone works, filling up again in the evenings. That's the sort of realistic touch that I appreciate. The townfolk described are likewise interesting in that they each have different reactions to the current crisis. It gives the impression that these are real people responding the way real people do: hurt feelings, pride, cowardice, greed, and so on. The kind of apathy of action and lack of clarity that dominates everyday life for most people. There's a rumor table for the village and for the travelers on the road, as well as a short and uninteresting wandering monster table for getting to the village. There's also a touch of fantasy thrown in, such as the poison mushrooms that grow under the hanging tree on nights with a full moon. I really like that light touch of the fantastic, especially in this product. The real world for most people is boring but just beyond the edges is the fantastic. Even to the extent of the party being bounty hunters ... that's not usually a role I suspect that most people see themselves in when they adventure, but it's a realistic one and one that the villagers are going to appreciate, even if they are a bit apprehensive about armed strangers. Seven guys with Katanas walking in to town could spell trouble, even if they are there to 'help.' The major problem, and I use that term lightly, with the village is that it's focused on the adventure. The subplots and feelings and interactions of the villagers are not detailed outside of the current troubles. Life goes on, even in times of trouble, so a couple of love subplots, or other interesting facts outside of the adventure goal, could have catapulted the village from being single use to being a classic location, such as Hommlet or Pembrooktonshire.
There's a short wilderness journey, a few days, to get to the raiders. There's some generic wandering monster tables and six opportunities for fixed encounters. These fixed encounters are not located on a map, just described. Most, if not all, of them are going to be missed without some serious intervention from the DM. A nymph that only comes out during a full moon. A haunted ridge line in the wilderness that only occurs during a crescent moon. Secretive fairies. The civilized world needs to imply that the fantastic is just around the corner and the wilderness should be good place to encounter the fantastic. The encounters have a light, airy, fairy tale feel, which I throughly enjoy, it's just not clear that they are going to be enjoyed by anyone except the DM reading them. This usually means the DM needs to force them on the party, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. With some work the encounters could be re-rigged a bit so they occur near places the party might camp at night, or might travel past.
The raiders are hanging out at a ruined evil temple. A SENTIENT evil temple, which is trying to raise the last high priest. It just needs ONE more sacrifice and the EHP will be back in action. As such, the gnoll leader is mostly waiting in the sacrifice chamber for the party to show up, with the temple helping things around through the use of an illusion here or there to channel the party to the gnoll. The ruined temple has two dungeon levels. The entrance outside is realistic; multiple trails in the ruins all leading back to one point. The maps for the two levels are small, with just six of so keys for each levels. They are composed of a couple of large loops with some branching hallways. This isn't enough for true explorative play however it's ok for the 'lure the pcs to the center' type play. Most of the chambers are occupied by humanoid raiders, kobolds and goblins mostly, and a large number have 'something else' going on. A weak wall that can bashed through. A blood offering that should be made. A well, noisy dogs, and a scriptorium. Lots for the party to investigate, mess around with, get in to trouble with, and things that don't necessarily make sense from a rules standpoint. I love that sort of thing in my adventures. Screw your game mechanics! Weird & whimsical rule! The final fight should be fairly interesting, as the humanoids attempt to capture a pc and sacrifice them while the battle rages. The poor EHP adds a bit of flavor as well.
This is a solid little adventure. It doesn't really excel in any area, other than it touching on nearly element of classic game play. It would make a fine introductory adventure, but I don't see it as being a classic.
I don't give things ratings, so I'll give this a 3 out of 5.
Rating: [3 of 5 Stars!]