Brief plot summary - A callow young swordswoman inherits the family business. She does all right as a bureaucrat, but she prefers adventure! So she hands temporary control over to her younger brother and goes to "negotiate a trade deal" by joining up with an adventuring party set to explore the ruins of Parlainth. The party gets in over its head and gets captured by the cult of the Mad Passion Vestrial. The brother hires you to find the sister. You retrace her steps and then, if you manage to get there in time, you discover the shocking twist - one of the company's investors decided he'd rather have the brother in charge, so he bribed a member of the adventuring party to assassinate the sister. But the bond of facing common foes was so strong that the assassin backed out and thus the traitor decides to cover his tracks by having a bunch of mercenaries ambush you after you complete the rescue (but before you get back to town).
Along the way, you navigate through the ruined city of Parlainth, fighting monsters and slavers, solving riddles and disarming traps, and seeing more than your fair share of carefully described furniture. There are also investigative bits in the frontier town of Haven, where you work over the locals to narrow your search, and those would be the parts most likely to feel like a railroad, but honestly, the adventure's plot is so simple that it's hard to imagine PCs even wanting to derail any of these scenes. The biggest risk here is them prematurely outing Belstraum as a traitor, but even then, he has so little presence as a character that it's unlikely the PCs will even notice him before the final twist.
I'd say it works to the story's detriment. The double-crosser isn't your employer, he doesn't come with you on the adventure, he isn't even the brother's main advisor. He just sort of hangs out with your employer's posse, biding his time until the end of the adventure. It's technically a dastardly betrayal when he hires those mercenaries, but it's probably going to come so far out of nowhere that it barely even registers.
The funny thing is that he's actually got a really weird an memorable motivation - he's not doing any of this out of greed or ambition, but rather because he's so bizarrely loyal to the company that he can't stand that the primary heir is less qualified (and interested) than the next person in line. His backstory states that he once ratted out his own father for "skimming a mere ten silver pieces off the profits from a deal that he had just closed."
That's the context you have to judge the assassination plot by. The brother isn't even in on it. In fact, he'd be horrified if he knew. There's just this creepy fanatic who decides to take matters into his own hands. If you really wanted to take this adventure to the next level, I think you'd have to find a way to make Belstraum more of a foil for the PCs in the investigative scenes. Maybe put him in charge of expenses or logistics, so that he's enough of a pain in the ass that the players start asking "what's up with this guy." Otherwise, I see no conceivable way the PCs are even going to care enough to find out the details of his backstory.
Don't get me wrong, the adventure works fine if you don't do this, but you're going to have to put in the work if you want it to be better than just "fine."
Two other weird things about this adventure. When you get to the temple of Vestrial, assuming you don't just kick down the door and barge right in, you can sneak around and get the drop on the cultists. To aid you in this, the book provides an hour-by-hour breakdown of the schedule of everyone in the temple. Right up to hour 20, when they decide to finally execute the sister, rendering your adventure pointless.
I'm not complaining. It actually gives the players a lot of agency in brainstorming their approach. But it's also 3 and a half pages of:
- Garron is in the Magic Experimentation Room, testing new illusions on slaves and being assisted by Perri.
- Mospatt is in the Torture Chamber, mixing poisons.
- Ichabod is moving between the storage rooms, taking inventory.
- Thule is in his room, sleeping.
- Naria is in her room, sleeping.
- Two Guard Zombies are outside of Thule's room.
- Two Guard Zombies are outside The Magic Experimentation Room.
- Seth is in the Writing Room, working on books.
I don't hate it, but it's a lot of work for a very narrow bit of utility ("we got to the dread temple where our employer's sister is being held captive . . . let's wait and see if a more opportune time to strike presents itself.")
The other weird thing about this adventure might actually count as a flaw, though. It's . . . excessively clever when it comes to poisoning the PCs. The easiest poison to avoid is near the beginning of the dungeon-delving segment. Just outside the walls of Haven there's a merchant that will sell you discount healing potions (approximately 20% off), but the potions are really poison! The poison is unlikely to kill you, but you'll also be taking it when you're already pretty desperate.
But, like I said, easy to avoid. Just look that particular gift horse right in the mouth. What's a bit tougher is a scene towards the end of the investigation sequence, when Mospatt (the cult's poisoner, as seen in the quoted schedule) decides to preemptively shut down your rescue by poisoning your wine glasses. Not the wine inside the glasses, mind you, but the glasses themselves, on the outside surfaces. Because when people cast detect poison spells, they usually target the food or drink. You get advance warning when the server collapses from handling too many doses in a short period of time (it's delayed action, but handling it 6 times in a row shortens the delay), but it's likely that this scene will largely be about getting the antidote in time.
I don't know if I could pull that off as a GM - "oh, no, you see, when you cast detect poison, you cast it at the liquid inside the glass and not the glass itself, and even though you didn't drink the wine, you did handle the glass before the server fell ill." But I will admit, it's a good trick for a fantasy murder mystery.
The poison makes a return when you raid the temple. You find Mospatt's stash of poisons, but you have to be careful, because the outside of the containers is poisoned in the exact same way. I figure that even the most argumentative PCs will agree that the second time is fair, though.
Overall, I liked this adventure. I generally like my games to be a little more high concept, but Path of Deception works. It's perfectly fine.
Ukss Contribution: Although, if you did want to go more high concept with it, you could do worse than Thule's specialty magic item - the Diorama of Shaping. It's a little model of the temple that he can play with to make large scale changes to the temple itself. Move a wall here, collapse a ceiling there. Its only weakness is that it takes a couple of minutes to work.
The Diorama of Shaping is a powerful and versatile artifact, because it can be moved and attuned to a new location, but I think I like it best as a fixed feature of magical architecture. It could be a real selling point for your next evil lair.