Tabletop Roleplaying Games have exploded in popularity in the past decade or so. The reasons for this resurgence can be chalked up to a number of different things. First and foremost, geek / nerd culture has become a lot more mainstream than it used to be. Gone are the days when jocks mocked nerds for their love of comic books, free spins, and video games.
The second reason probably has something to do with streaming groups like Critical Role, who made the game accessible to a wider audience by converting the game into what essentially amounts to a slow-form, interactive audio drama. Now, games like D&D are everywhere. Even Netflix’s beloved “Stranger Things” features its main cast playing the game.
But it turns out that actually running a game as complex as D&D- or, in my specific case, Pathfinder, is really hard; doubly so when you don’t have time to write up a campaign (and, yeah, I see the irony of a guy who writes for a living moaning that he doesn’t have time to write). Thankfully, there ARE people who have time to write, and those people distribute their work online for the rest of us to steal use! Thank you, internet strangers!
Yes, I’m talking about modules: Prewritten stories that can be dragged and dropped into an existing story or else be run on their own merits. Some really are written by internet strangers, like “The Egg of Estyr” by Redditor jmac (which I intend to run for my players in the near future). Others are written by the companies themselves, such as Wizard of the Coast’s beloved “Curse of Strahd” adventure. More relevantly, I want to look at Paizo’s adventure, “Hangman’s Noose”. I ran it for my players, and it was a blast!
Released in January 2008 and written by Nicolas Lague, “Hangman’s Noose” begins with the players waking up in a derelict and abandoned courthouse alongside several other people who cannot recall how they got there. As it turns out, everyone here was on the jury when an executioner named Jabrin Mord was, ironically, executed for murdering his family. His spirit has returned from the grave and will pick off the jurors one by one until they can work out who the REAL killer was, bring him to justice, and put Mord’s soul to rest.
First and foremost, this makes for a fantastic one-shot premise. It can easily be put into almost any campaign setting since the entire adventure takes place within a single building. You can run it with basically any kind of characters (my players were all goofy anthropomorphic animal parodies of popular characters, like Sherlock Bones: Werewolf detective).
The adventure is supposed to be run with four level one players who reach level three by the end of it, but I ran it with three players who started at level three (doing it that way helps the pacing immensely since a one-shot like this doesn’t have time for one break for leveling up, much less two).
I also love that this adventure is less of a “haunted house”, where you walk into rooms and spooky things jump out at the players. Yeah, there’s some of that, but the main focus is on the players racing against the clock to uncover the truth before Mord has killed everyone off. This emphasis on the narrative also encourages a lot of roleplay, as players are forced to interact with the cast of NPCs to figure out who-dun-it.
Also, I really enjoyed a lot of the horror elements. It gets pretty dark and gross at times, but not so much that I felt that I couldn’t run the session. I recently ran into that problem with Carnival of Tears (another Paizo adventure), where the gore gets almost comically absurd in the second act. This is more of a personal thing than a slight against the adventure because I personally think there’s a good balance to be struck in how gruesome I want my game to be.
And while I think that Hangman’s noose hit the balance perfectly, I still ended up toning it down a bit for the sake of one of my players (who is 9 years old). But the fact that I was able to do so easily without spoiling the mood of the adventure is a credit to the writing, in my hat!
If there is something bad that I have to say about this adventure, it’s that there are so many NPCs that you have to keep track of. There are eight separate jurors to manage, plus the judge and the barrister, later on, Mord himself, and the ghost of Gabe- Mord’s murdered son. It’s a lot of characters to juggle, especially if you are new or inexperienced with DMing. Eight NPCs immediately is a huge cast of characters to deal with, so be warned.
I think another point against the adventure is that the real villain of the module only turns up in the final act. On the one hand, I get it. This way, the players can’t, even accidentally, kill/out the villain before the final confrontation. It gives a lot of room for the players to move without throwing the entire story off-beat.
On the other hand, it means that players get very little time to interact with the final villain, and there are no “Aha! The clues were there all along!” moments. I don’t think this ruins the adventure in the slightest, but I think a lot could have been gained if the villain had somehow been able to be incorporated into events before the final showdown.
Overall, I had a blast with “Hangman’s Noose”. The circumstances of the story are a great motivation to get players invested in the plot. The mystery itself is neither overly convoluted nor stupefyingly simplistic. There is a good mix of combat, roleplay, and narrative that all build into a more or less satisfying showdown once the players have put all of the pieces together. I personally ran this one with a light tone, and it was great. If you’re looking to run a great one-shot adventure, I highly recommend “Hangman’s Noose”.