It has been a long time since Wizards of the Coast actually published a dead-tree adventure (the last one that I could find came out just over a year ago, Marauders of the Dune Sea). Unlike past adventures, Madness at Gardmore Abbey comes in a box. A box that is kind of a pain in the ass to open, and contains four paper-back books similar to what we saw in the original line of adventures, a sheet of monster tokens and dungeon tiles, two double-sided poster maps, and an actual deck of many things that you did not have to print out from a Dragon article or proxy with a normal, non-magical/sentient deck of cards.
If you have been keeping up with the previews then you already know that the plot concerns some madness happening at Gardmore Abbey.
|That place. You can't see it, but there's madness going on.|
If you ever ran Expedition to Castle Ravenloft in 3rd Edition, then you probably recall how the adventure's duration depending on how quickly you wanted the group to face off against Strahd: it could last you a few months, or you could wrap it up in one night (skipping most of the content, however). The same thing goes here. If you just want to speed through the adventure, you can do just that, though there are quite a few optional side quests to keep the players occupied if you are running this as a continuation of an existing campaign, and/or intend to keep going once you are done with it.
I recall Wizards of the Coast stating in one of the previews that the adventure would contain encounters that could have explicit methods to resolve them without resorting to attack rolls, and they did not disappoint: there are encounters that the players can talk their way by, sneak past, and even one where the characters can simply trade character background information for hints. Some meet you halfway, giving you both social and sword interaction.
OKAY SPOILER! (highlight to read)
There is an ettin early on that is supposed to guard a door. At the start of the encounter the DM rolls to see which one--or both--heads are awake. It prompts for the answer to a riddle, but if only one head is awake it instead is willing to make a deal for something that varies by head. If they cannot answer the riddle and do not want to make a bargain, they can instead just attack it to get it over with.
The cards can manifest in the encounters, providing at-will and encounter powers that both the good and bad guys can use. There are also sections on what happens if the players kill certain monsters, which can create a power void or just upset the overall balance between different factions. This helps reinforce a living dungeon that is more than just a series of disconnected encounters of monsters waiting to be killed.
Also like Expedition, a couple parts of the adventure are randomly determined by a draw of the cards. The randomization is not as pervasive (and a fortune teller does not provide you with hints), and mostly serves to identify the hidden villain and a few story elements. The ending is also open, allowing the characters to ultimately decide what to do with the deck if they manage to reconstruct it. Also, if you have your own campaign it would be a simple process of simply dropping a ruined abbey somewhere around a village or town.
There is a nice mix of encounter types that will cater to a variety of players, especially those that purport to like an "even mix". Despite a focused goal of finding a super-powered artifact, there are plenty of NPCs that the characters might have interacted with before (well, if you ran Keep on the Shadowfell at least) that have their own agendas. This is the first printed adventure from WotC since Orcs of Stonefang Pass that I would like to run without having to modify it extensively., and I am hoping this is due to WotC hitting their stride as opposed to a George Lucas-ian random fluke.
As numerical ratings go I would probably go with an 8 out of 10, but my general opinion is to just pick it up, especially if your group is approaching the appropriate level range (6-10) and/or you don't have any definitive
plans for their immediate future.
I for some reason just forgot to interject these in with the actual review.