This module is 56 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving a total of 51 pages of content, so let's check this out!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players might wish to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right!
The PCs have been successful in multiple endeavors in and around Rybalka and thus, most other mercenary groups have moved to, quite literally, greener pastures. All but one - the black bears, heroes of the war against the Vikmordere and rather rough and tumble fellows and have aggravated more than one fellow. Ever since the PCs have arrived, though, this has changed - they actually seek to behave in order to not lose their income - to no avail. Thus, they try to instigate, quite successfully, to instigate a bar fight with the PCs and perhaps even manage to plant an item on them, trying to frame them for theft. I'd suggest using Raging Swan's "Barroom Brawls"-supplement to add some extra spice to this encounter, by the way! After the fight, the PCs will have to show up at the mayor's the next day and even have their autographs given to a serving lad - who unfortunately is on the payroll of the black bears. After the brawl, the PCs and Black Bears are called to the mayor and here, they will have to explain themselves, hopefully without incriminating themselves. In the end, the mayor will task them with finding a missing carpenter after sending the Black Bears off - as they planned!
Unfortunately for the PCs, the missing carpenter and the short investigation for him is a hoax - the guy is working with the Black Bears and was supposed to be "saved" by them last evening - now, the mercenary group has, of course, a massive edge over the PCs and gets back into the mayor's good books. Which leads to... weeks of boring unemployment and menial tasks for the PCs while the Black Bears get all the "morsels" - i.e. the better-paid jobs. Until a weird dwarf at the edge of the village hails them with a job offer: Steal a maul from the mayor! Depending on whether the PCs want to go with it, the situation might even devolve into a chase featuring traps and ogres - Ogres? Yes, for the dwarf is actually a disguised dvergr names Nalcu who also has hired the Black Bears. The rival adventurers have not been idle either, press-ganging a local rogue into committing the theft by kidnapping his granny. Unfortunately, said Granny is a wielder of the art of magic and willingly cooperates with the Black Bears, providing them with illusions for the job to come.
Here, the narrative starts to split somewhat - PCs wishing to warn the mayor are more or less stone-walled and told off - the Black Bears surely can handle the mayor's security. Meanwhile, less law-abiding parties will be contacted by a watchman who offers them a watch-rotation schedule for a cut in the profits. In fact, something is in the air - the PCs will find Black Bears making notes about them, people will act strangely or even offer some minor jobs and then, news of Granny's disappearance reach the PCs via Mouse and the mayor also seems to have a stake in the old lady's well-being - he hires the PCs to find and save the old lady. After they've been stumped in their investigations for yet another day, the PCs might plan their heist(or not). Anyways, after the theft is comitted by Mouse (who beats the PCs to their price), they are caught and put into jail - after all, the Black Bears and Mouse were covered in illusions resembling the PCs! Worse, Grandmother testifies against the PCs and claims they were the ones who abducted here and a local claims to have found a writ where they've signed a contract with a devil!
Bad news indeed and the PCs are quickly overwhelmed and put in jail - again. This time, though, they get company - Mouse has escaped the Black Bears and tried to talk to the mayor, who, in his rather bumbling, grand-standing incompetence, failed to grasp the whole impact of Mouse's confession.
After escaping from custody with Mouse's help, a lock pick and a secret door from the time of the Vikmordere-war, the PCs will have a new task - find the Black Bears, proof of their intrigues and subdue them in order to clear their names.
The secret forest hide-out of the Black Bears (a set of tunnels built into a forest hill) is fully detailed and features a neat, full-color map that depicts their base in awesome detail. The map is so beautiful, it is a double pity that no player-friendly version without the numbers and letters is provided. The assault on the Black Bear's hideout is rather interesting in that the place is secured by multiple traps and that the rival company has been subdued by Nalcu and his ogre henchmen - the PCs can, though, use the Black Bear's gear, which has been deposited beyond their reach and thus won't have to fight the beings bare-handed.
And then there's the problem of the bear that had been taken hostage by the dvergr and has to calmed down. The Black Bear's druid Raven would definitely thank the PCs for helping him. With the rival company in tow, the maul reclaimed and the dvergr defeated, the PCs return to Rybalka to have their names cleared and receive a rather cool reward - their very own house in Rybalka. (Though no map is provided.) The only loose ends would be said druid and his bear, who both manage to escape and thus evade trial and custody.
The adventure ends with stats for 3.5 and PFRPG for all the key players, which is nice and makes running the adventure easier than looking up stats.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect: I noticed multiple instances of read-aloud text that is not in boxes, even though the "real-aloud"-symbol is displayed. I also noticed some minor typos, but nothing too jarring. Layout adheres to adventureaweek.com's 2-column standard with its parchment-style background and features a special peculiarity: The adventure provides a "good" and an "evil" solution and multiple ways to branch off, though the latter is really rather the "chaotic, mercenary-style" solution/way through the module - text in green is for the rather law-abiding good guys, while red text indicates content for the less scrupulous. Unfortunately, this color-code is problematic when printing out the adventure in b/w - boxes with good/evil indicators would have helped here - everything else has its boxes and symbols, after all. It should also be noted, that the evil path is not truly evil, but rather mercenary-style - depending on your personal approach to alignments, the actions of the PCs will definitely be not considered evil and thus, reading for the xth time "Evilly-minded PCs..." will somewhat jar you. The b/w-artworks provided for the NPCs is neat and the cartography, as I've come to expect from adventureaweek.com, is awesome. Even though the bane of my existence, these thrice-darned letters and numbers will ensure that my players don't get to see the one for the dungeon. The pdf is extensively bookmarked. The adventure comes with herolab-support.
This is an interesting module to say the least - essentially, it stymies and stumps the players at all ends and tries to make them experience a systematic disassembling of their good reputation. The module succeeds admirably at portraying the rather smart plans of the antagonists and the way in which the PCs are set up. That being said, the module does require an experienced DM - stupefying the PCs at every angle requires some good DM-mojo if you don't want to make the players feel too frustrated by the quite obvious railroading and the lack of options the PCs have to prevent being railroaded towards the climax. You should also be aware that, while each of the component plans feature some form of minor contingency which may ensure that the plans work out as intended, the PCs can definitely feel railroaded by your constant thwarting of their efforts - especially when the support provided is rather flimsy. One thing in particular would have warranted some trouble-shooting advice - I know that my players would try to track the antagonists to their base and no advice is provided on how to handle this rather obvious tactic. And this is just ONE potential player-response - some advice on troubleshooting and NPC-reactions/additional contingencies would have made this module much, much better and less linear.
Another weak spot of the story is that the adventure somewhat hinges on the mayor being a bumbling, choleric idiot (whom even neutral PCs might want to kill, just to get him to shut his trap) and an NPC helping them. While everything makes sense within the story, especially the latter will feel like Deus-ex-machina to just about every but the most lenient of players - especially due to not having met said NPC before.
The end also feels a bit abrupt and a trial to clear their names, perhaps with some social skill checks and testimonies would have been nice: As written, there's no satisfying closure for the PCs - at least a trial by combat, if not by words or something similar would have been neat.
Don't get me wrong, though: Apart from these minor weak spots, the writing is generally rather good and adequately conveys the growing sense of frustration and alienation that the PCs have to endure. It is said frustrations that are integral to the plot, but the lack of generally useful things for the PCs to do (to even elicit minimal responses/progress) that really hurt this module - some trails of breadcrumbs or a more modular set-up would have gone a long way to better portray this kind of scenario. While the now rescaled price of $5 is ok, I still am not that blown away - my final verdict will thus be 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3 due to the (now) good bang-for-buck-ratio.
[3 of 5 Stars!]