The Perilous Secrets of Wilford Manor is a PDF-only adventure from Neuroglyph Games for 1st—3rd level Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition characters. It begins when a well-liked noble asks the PCs to find his son, which the adventure suggests should be an old friend of the PCs, whether they also know each other or not. The trail leads to a small town, then on to an old manor, where they come in contact with an obscure sect, and beyond.
This is fundamental D&D – aside, perhaps, from the oblique inclusion of the Shadowfell, renamed the Shadowmoor here for licensing purposes – which is a good thing in an introductory adventure, I think, and the first installment of an adventure path. The requirement that the PCs be friends of the missing noble will chafe some players, but it does serve to tie the PCs together without being complete cliché, which is a boon to novice DMs and players alike.
Like most published adventures, Wilford Manor is almost linear, and there are a couple instances of blatant railroading. This is the way of published adventures, and all my wishing will do little to change them, but I always consider the linearity a bit of a shame. You should grit your teeth and let the players know, up front, what the deal is to minimize frustration and confusion.
The combat encounters are solidly designed. In the early going, they are straightforward brawls, with some possibility of ambush or the party being attacked from two sides, but no terrain features more complex than difficult terrain. As the adventure continues, terrain features become more important and more interesting, and a couple of fights even offer terrain that result in optional, secondary objectives that change the state of the battlefield. Less appealingly, several encounters include soldiers and elites – but, thankfully, no elite soldiers – that are two or three levels above the party’s level. That loud popping sound? Yeah, that’s ChattyDM‘s head exploding. I would strongly suggest that DMs modify these fights to decrease the likelihood of grind. I’d rather the encounters changed gears faster, but on the whole Wilford Manor provides a good introduction to 4e combat. Experienced groups will likely find the early fights rather boring and repetitive, though.
Level aside, I do like the design of the original opponents in Wilford Manor. The major faction features a thematic power that is tactically interesting and encourages movement during play (although I believe I have seen it used before). The elites have enough powers to remain fresh for a long time (one has a statblock nearly a page long), and their damage is kept at the low end of the scale for their level, so they shouldn’t mop the floor with the PCs in a hurry. A couple of original artillery seem rather controller-like to me, but that’s a minor quibble.
I mention original designs because, unlike Goodman Games’ 4e modules, for example, Wilford Manor does not try to reinvent the wheel: a couple encounters refer to statblocks in the Monster Manual. One fight does call on creatures from two locations in the MM, unfortunately (although they are only a few pages apart), so a DM will have to do some scanning and printing or some flipping back and forth during play for this fight.
All three of the included skill challenges suit the situation where they are presented, are interesting conceptually and work well with a variety of skills (although defenders may end up as furniture once or twice). Sure, skill challenges should be run with a focus on actions, not skills, but it’s hard to hand-hold new DMs through that in text. I would be even more effusive about the skill challenges than the combat encounters if it wasn’t for one fatal flaw.
Sadly, not a single skill challenge result matters one whit if you follow the text of the module. Only the colour will varies between success and failure, and that only marginally. The one, minor exception is the very first skill challenge, where failure forces them to take on a second skill challenge (bonus XPs!) which, in turn, could cost a few healing surges. The second skill challenge is immediately followed by an opportunity for an extended rest – which also comes directly after the first skill challenge if the party succeeds – though, neutralizing that consequence. The final skill challenge, which is near the end of the module, adds a little interstitial scene if the PCs succeed, but nothing of consequence changes. Perhaps there will be consequences later in the adventure path, but there is no indication of that here and it’s unimportant if this module is run independent of the rest of the path.
This PDF-only product’s layout is in landscape format so it is easy to run directly from a laptop. It also works well when printed out, since the layout, with a couple notable exceptions, is clean and printer-friendly. This is only spoiled by headers and sidebars that have a faux-parchment (or sandstone?) background texture and a similar texture on the borders of the page in the encounter layouts (Wilford Manor follows the WotC precedent of placing encounters at the end of the adventure, with each encounter receiving its own a one- or two-page spread). While the encounter layout is much more printer-friendly than WotC’s, it’s still enough to be a pain in the wallet.
For me, the most annoying thing about this product is an apparent lack of external proofreading. I don’t think there is a single page that is typo-free, and many pages are marred by two or three typos. There is even a case of identical read-aloud text in back-to-back encounters. I didn’t go through the statblocks with a fine-toothed comb, but I doubt they got away scott-free. While a few typos here and there are (lamentably) par for the course in RPG products, The Perilous Secrets of Wilford Manor far exceeds even this level, and the typos are a major nuisance. Competent proofreading, even for free, is easy to find, and this is inexcusable.
The bottom line on The Perilous Secrets of Wilford Manor is hard to draw. A couple of its flaws are hard for a new DM to work around, especially with the skill challenges, but the content is the sort of solid, fundamental stuff a new DM should try to learn from. An experienced DM who can handle the bumps in the road is liable to think, “I could have come up with this.” I think, at the end of the day, I can only recommend it to experienced DMs that are looking for an adventure path that (it looks like) will focus on play in the Shadowmoor/fell and Feyweald/wild and DMs who are pressed for time, but feel comfortable making a handful of necessary tweaks. At a minimum, Wilford Manor is an impressive enough effort that I will be keeping an eye on future Neuroglyph Games adventures.