Hollow Mountain lives up to its reputation as a hero devourer, which is perfect for my old-school sensibilies, but may bewilder crowds accustomed to steam rolling through the opposition. Some of the more tedious elements of the dungeon crawl could have ended up on the cutting room floor. Even so, it really picks up in the third act and builds to a satifying ending.
First, let me qualify this review. This is not a read-through review; our group has played this adventure and it’s not all that different from any of the other introductory modules of which we've played in nearly half of the APs Paizo has published over the past decade. It is quite serviceable and, as advertised, disposable pulp fantasy, complete with the requisite tropes. If you're looking for award-winning prose or groundbreaking character development, it is in short supply, but this seems to be standard and the norm for monthly canned modules like these. Even so, there's a lot for GMs to work with: a fleshed-out location with ample NPCs, a clear tie in to the next module, and enemies who, if played with nuance, skirt the line between ally and enemy. The encounters are appropriately difficult for a system that's now so bloated with exploits. Groups looking for cheap thrills and plenty of them will be satisfied as the module trends towards quick advancement and steady, generous treasure acquisition. Does it need some extra love from the GM, well yes – show me a module that does not. Does it live up to the previous installments in the Runelord franchise, I'd say, yes, close. We lack singing goblins in this one, but, memory has a funny way of making those past installments better than they actually were and it's challenging to go up against that type of nostalgia in a world increasingly suffused with critics.
Overall, “In Hell’s Bright Shadow” is a solid start to this adventure path. My players had a fine time with it! Given the tighter focus of this AP make certain your PCs are primed to rebel, which can be accomplished, of course, by constructing appropriate backstories in addition to the requisite AP traits. Otherwise, taking on the mantle of the Silver Ravens can feel quite artificial. This is not the AP to shoehorn in the wandering so-and-so PC with no motivation or genuine attachment to the city.
The mission focus in the first half of the adventure makes it excellent for shorter episodic sessions. The villains are easy to hate (a good thing in this case) and the NPCs are instrumental yet never run the risk of overshadowing the players. Pinning down a certain invisible saboteur by mere chance provided my table much celebration. For any on the fence regarding the rebellion mechanic, I can only advise you to give it a chance and it will provide an added level of cogency to the arc. Players were delighted to see their insurrection grow.
My only quibble rests with the RP aspect of the adventure. As a campaign focused on RP, I did expect a bit more non-combat interactions written into the module. Well-developed NPCs, which the adventure does provide, do not guarantee roleplaying. Novel situations and dilemmas in which well-developed NPC and PCs interact hits the spot, of which this opening adventure could benefit more. Even so, GMs who put in a bit of side work can provide that extra spark. Understandably, page count is always a constraint when determining the composition of an adventure. So, for perfection, drop in a few extra set pieces into Part 1 and 2 that require players to think and speak rather than roll initiative.