I've been meaning to write a review of this for quite a while but with Endzeitgeist setting the standard for such exhaustive and detailed reviews I felt daunted. Since no one else has written a review I will chime in with my 2cp but don't expect anything as comprehensive as an Endzeitgeist review!
This adventure hit a serious sweet-spot for me and my group. It has a perfect balance of mystery, exploration, role-playing and very challenging set piece combats. I inserted this module into my Rappan Athuk campaign as a diversion. It was a great change of pace from the open sandbox and mega-dungeon crawl of Rappan Athuk. The players were refreshed to have something a little more plot driven, even "railroad-y" (in a good way). For me this adventure has the best features of old-school and new-school adventure design. I know people will debate endlessly about what those terms mean, but I am using them here to mean that this adventure challenges the ability of the players themselves and the characters in equal measure, and interchangeably. That is to say, the challenges can be overcome by what is in the players head, or by what is on the character sheet, so a mix of players with different expectations of their RPG experience will all be entertained. Out of all the Necromancer Games & Frog God Games adventures I have run, this one delivered the promised experience the most effortlessly. I believe it cemented the interest of my group in the Rappan Athuk campaign we had begun, by giving them a taste up front of the promised old-school feel coexisting within the new school rules.
I have some more actual play report details in the comments section, so I will just keep this review short and sweet and spoiler free.
I ran the adventure unmodified for a group of four decently optimized 6th level PC's with a 20 point buy and standard wealth-by-level and it was challenging throughout but not impossible.
I think slightly more or less powerful parties will be able to enjoy this adventure as well with little adjustment, since many of the challenges can be handles more or less directly depending on the might of the party relative to the antagonists. A party that finds themselves outmatched in combat can use ingenuity to save the day instead of fighting everything by themselves.
We also enjoyed the ad hoc xp tables that encouraged role-playing and heroic action. The party made lasting allegiances in this short module that have recurring usefulness in our ongoing Rappan Athuk campaign.
I sincerely give this adventure 5 Stars. I buy a lot of adventures and only review my favorites, and I only wish there more offerings out there as strong as this one. I have no complaints at all. This was one of the few adventures I have bought that didn't require me to change anything.
My PC's are currently running through "Shadowed Keep", from Raging Swan, and I needed some detail for the village they were using as home base for their expeditions into the keep. Shadowed Keep is awesome but it takes several sessions to complete, and it starts to feel like a grind with no possibilities for side-quests and no flavorful descriptions of NPC's and shops in the town the PC's return to after clearing part of the keep. My players were starting to grumble that it was all hack and slash, and I was fumbling to answer their questions about where they could shop and stay in town. I was pressed for time and I didn't want to flesh out a village from scratch, so for $2.00 it was a no-brainer to try "The Forsaken Churchyard" from Alvena Publishing. It proved to be the perfect compliment to the adventure I was running, as it shared many of the design strengths I appreciate so much about Creighton Bradhurst's Raging Swan Press.
The name of the game with Alvena Adventures seems to be efficiency. Everything is hyperlinked to the PRD for those of us that run games from an iPad or laptop. NPC's are statted out and have at least one flavorful characteristic or mannerism that brings them to life by sparking DM creativity. The writing style is terse, evocative and eloquent. I was reminded of a column I read recently by Chris Perkins in which he recommended an essay on writing by Stephen King called "Imagery and the Minds Eye".
I read the 22 page PDF in about 15 minutes and felt ready to run the adventure the same night.
The players showed up, expecting to leave the faceless town and go back to the keep, like the last few sessions. Instead they found themselves bumping into stumbling drunks who tried to commit suicide-by-adventuring-party, finding out about missing children, smelling sweaty dwarf beards, choosing between an upscale brothel and an apparently run-down inn that surprised them with three fantastic meals a day including a rare steak dinner. Apparently generic encounters like a mugging in an ally surprised them by being very challenging and requiring skill checks, roll playing, and clever tactics to resolve without tragic results. A very memorable NPC was the cowardly half elf alchemist who seems to imbibe to freely of his own elixirs. He had a habit of talking in circles and repeating himself like Nicky Twotimes from goodfellas. This was uproariously funny at my table.
One of the strengths of this adventure was that it offered hooks for a side quest but could have served just as well as a scenic backdrop for the main adventure in progress if my players hadn't taken the bait. The minimal amount of prep needed meant nothing would have been wasted if my players hadn't chosen to save the children. I am always looking for ways to provide meaningful player choice, and "Forsaken Churchyard" delivered in spades.
The combat encounters are designed to be extremely challenging, without exceeding the CR budget for an appropriate encounter for APL. Enemies use their gear, tactics, and environment to devastating effect. In turn, resources are provided for clever PC's to leverage to regain equal footing with their foes. This resulted in better immersion then I have seen at my table in some time as captivated players realized they were not guaranteed success or even survival. In the end they prevailed, and walked away feeling challenged, but not unfairly so.
My only complaint with Alvena Adventures is that I can't find any more to download. I don't know of any other product on the market that can provide 2 long hearty sessions of gaming from a 22 page PDF with 15 minutes of prep time. I have seen many adventure products provide rules for scaling the challenge level to different size parties of different levels but it has never been implemented as well as it is here. You can literally drop this adventure into any campaign for 3-7 PC's of levels 1-4 with no additional prep time to make it fit. For $2.00 this is a product no DM should overlook.
The absence of maps and the low page count will put off some prospective buyers, but this only because we have been trained to have a particular set of expectations about RPG products. The condensed format of the material is decidedly a strength, not a weakness, and maps would without a doubt have been superfluous. Anyone who can't draw a ten by ten room on a chessex mat, or jot down some tombstones scattered around to provide cover, should not be playing D&D. These tasks are only slowed down when the DM has to keep checking to make sure his depiction of the area adheres to a pretty map in the PDF which is fairly arbitrary in its dimensions to begin with. For me, the absence of maps in this adventure gave me liscence to use terrain tiles and accessories that had been collecting dust.