As a starting point for new players of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, this module is nothing short of brilliant. In my experience, beginner modules tend towards superficiality, focusing purely on combat mechanics as a way of introducing new players to roleplaying. Cordell Mearls take a far more balanced approach, blending a story with all of the iconic elements of good fantasy with a varied plot requiring the PCs to think, fight and talk their way to through the adventure. There are hidden cults, a range of helpful NPCs (including the retired sage, the gruff but hilarious blacksmith, and the quisling), the discovery of knowledge once forgotten and a tale of redemption woven into this story – which will leave parties (new and old alike) feeling as though they have firmly experienced a fantasy roleplaying game.
The material is presented in a logical format that flows well and provides the novice DM with enough charts, quick-start rules and stat blocks to make this as non-threatening an experience as possible. For the players, you’ll find pre-generated characters and a streamlined set of 4e rules. The last 46 pages of the book are devoted to all of the encounter maps, which aren’t strictly required and are rendered so well that they could simply be used to set the scene for encounters.
Overall, the production values are high, the story is sound and provides ample opportunities for customisation (you could simply change the names of gods, etc and place it into your favourite campaign world), and there are plenty of avenues to expand this adventure. The town of Winterhaven captures the border-town feel extremely well, and is generic enough that the principles could be applied to any town in any campaign setting.
If Wizards of the Coast were seeking a 4e product to showcase the line (given that this is free), then they have chosen wisely. As an AD&D player, this has given me the final push to buy a 4e ‘Players Handbook’ and find out what all the fuss is about.