So, RPG Superstar voting closes in less than one hour. I've made my choice: Monica Marlowe's Down the Blighted Path. I admit, I only read two entries. Monica Marlowe and Christopher Wasko both really impressed me when they were interviewed on Know Direction. Their demeanors made me want one of them to win and, when they turned out to be in the Final Four with the best reviews from the judges, I just gave the other two a pass. So, it came down to a contest between Marlowe's Down the Blighted Path and Wasko's The Hollowheart Conquest.
What ultimately tipped the scales? Let's discuss...
Monica's adventure felt more personal. Even though both villains were targeting NPCs, the action in Down the Blighted Path felt more targeted towards the PCs once they took the reins in the adventure. Monica also gave options that would help the PCs align their characters with Delbera, the NPC quest-giver. Monica did a much better job of maintaining the PCs' agency. That seems especially strange since her adventure outline is pretty classically a railroad while Wasko's is a sandbox. She also writes in a lot of rewards that aren't combat-based but which the PCs can take advantage of. I like when my PCs spend the extra time investigating or planning and her adventure gives the PCs a payoff for doing just that.
The magic item in The Hollowheart Conquest easily beats the pants off the one in Down the Blighted Path. But, Blighted Path weaves the magic item into the story far more effectively. It may be a fairly basic item, but it has story effects that both the good guys and the bad guys are able to take advantage of. The Shaitan Sceptre feels cooler, but the connections to the Plane of Elemental Earth feel too strapped on as an afterthought or an attempt to create a reason to include it. Cool item, but wrong adventure for it.
There's lots of potential for derailing in Down the Blighted Path. I worry about it most when the PCs have encounters on the Long Road. Again, despite being billed as a sandbox, the Hollowheart Conquest continues to feel railroad-y. That avoids derailing issues, but at the expense of player agency. There's a fine line to be walked here and Down the Blighted Path feels like it creates ques the PCs can latch on to (or not) while the Hollowheart Conquest shoves quests down their throats.
Both new monsters were pretty cool. I'm not a monster slut, so I won't wax poetic. Both were neat. I'd be equally excited fighting them or running them as a GM.
Monica does use some interesting new mechanics as well. When was the last time that a party of 5th level PCs had aerial combat. That's cool--but it's in the middle of a very large chasm. If a PC fails a necessary handle animal or fly check, they have a long way to fall without any opportunity to make it back into the story. A single failed roll and that PC is out.
The Hollowheart Conquest does some interesting things--you know a lot is going to happen because a dwarven captain is going to invade the Darklands in a preemptive strike! (A dwarven George W. Bush?) I like that Klemholt is first an enemy stronghold and then a base of operations, but there's no explanation of exactly how the PCs and their dwarven allies keep an entire city of duegar pacified without a full-scale campaign of terror. Add in that the duegar can all cast enlarge person on themselves pretty much at will and I start to have trouble believing this portion of the story. But, if the duegar all flee Klemholt, that can be taken care of (except perhaps pacifying some final resistance). Also, I really like how options for using kingdom-building rules were incorporated.
Ultimately, the Hollowheart Conquest just got too complex and too long. I don't feel like it could be made into an adventure very easily--and, if so, it would work better as part of a longer arc in an Adventure Path. As a GM that likes to make my NPCs memorable, I'm reeling at the idea of trying to play all the necessary parts for the war council. The final area of concern with the Hollowheart Conquest is in the encounter with the PCs' NPC quest-giver's lost son. I'd so lost track of who he was or how he was connected to the PCs by the end that I had to re-read.
Both adventure proposals had their strengths, but ultimately Down the Blighted Path takes the cake. In fact, I'm sorely tempted to keep my 5th level fighter Pathfinder Society character on ice for a year just so that he can travel Down the Blighted Path when Monica Marlowe's adventure is hopefully published as an official Pathfinder Module!