Well Paizo has finally done it. Curse of the Crimson Throne has long been my favorite Adventure Path mainly on the strength of the first three (mainly the first two) adventures. It has all the components of what I think makes a great Adventure Path.
Let's go over those:
1. A simple but deep story. This one is hard to pull off. The players should get a sense of the story early on and it should stay consistent through the AP. It is nice if the BBEG or Organization is revealed fairly early so the PCs get a sense of who they are up against. Each part of the AP should be moving forward the PCs goals against their antagonist.
2. A solid cast of recurring NPCs. This is an area that I always struggle with. It is great if the DM can really bring the NPCs to life. The PCs should form relationships with them, liking some and not others but most importantly remembering who they are, using them as resources later on.
3. A big variety of encounter types. I'm not a fan of long dungeons. If the dungeons or encounter location doesn't fit on a standard play mat it is probably too big. That's not to say I don't ever like exceptions but that is my rule. The occasional big dungeon is a nice change of pace but I prefer seeing only one or so per AP.
It is not a secret that Paizo staff read the message board and I'm sure they spend extra time carefully reading the threads about what AP are people's favorites and why. Kingmaker, Runelords and Crimson Throne are almost always the top choices. I can see elements of Runelords in other APs, but they have not really tried to do another Kingmaker style Adventure Path. With Crimson throne the major critique was that people didn't like the McGuffin hunt in parts 4 and 5 and would have prefered to stay in the city. Taking this to heart, with the release of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game they launched Council of Thieves Adventure Path at the same time. This AP takes part entirely within or nearby the City of Westcrown.
The problem is that Council of Thieves is a mess and largely fails miserably to capture the magic of CotCT. With CoT we made the mistake of playing the AP as it was being released. There were huge production delays and so our DM was left scrambling to fill in two months of content while we waited for the next book. Never again.
Even without the delays, CoT breaks lots of my rules. The story line is a mess. We never really understood why were were doing things and simply followed the obvious plot points to move on to the next location. The villain(s) are not at all obvious until the very end and even then we were hoping for some big reveal and didn't get it. The recurring NPCs get ignored after the first lackluster chapter and the only part that really stands out as cool and interesting is the Opera in Book 2.
With Hell's Rebel's, Paizo has taken a good look at their previous attempts to make the ultimate in Urban adventures and learned from their errors.
1. It is pretty obvious from even the players guide what this adventure path is all about. Barzillai Thrune is the new Mayor of Kintargo, and is a Tyrant who must be removed. Most of the things the PCs do in this book are dedicated towards the ultimate goal of freeing the city from Thrune's grasp. Even the side quests often progress the main plot or provide plot hooks for later adventures. The whole thing fits together nicely and feels like 6 pieces of a whole instead of a series of 6 loosely connected adventures.
2. NPCs are introduced slowly over the course of the AP and most do a pretty good job of being memorable. Later volumes give the DM ideas about how to incorporate early NPCs into later adventures.
3. Hell's Rebel's has some really memorable encounters. There lots of battles. These are as varied and interesting as any other AP in lots of different environments - underwater, in sewers, dwarven castles, plus lots of cityscapes. It is also the wide variety of non combat encounters that really stand out. There is a cool negotiation scene, a dinner party, a grande ball and encounters where stealth/deception are the best way to go.
Part 6 is especially notable. Too often part sixes are the weakest chapter of the AP. They are hard to write and balance around high level PCs that can just about anything. This part six limits what the PCs can do, but does so in a way that fits the storyline to such a degree that no one will care. Part 6s should have an epic feel to them and this one pulls it off in spades.
I only have 2 beefs with this AP. The first is its over reliance on point systems. In every volume there is some sort of point system that needs to be tracked. Rebellion points, Notoriety points, Vote points, Concession points. Ugh. I understand why the different systems are there but they just all seem so gamey. The second is that the end of part four is such a climax to the plot that part five feels a bit slow as the tension starts to build again to the surprisingly awesome Part 6.
Overall this AP just blew me away. It has been a long time since I've seen an Adventure Path that I've loved so much. The last few years Paizo has been putting out APs that are decent but nothing really outstanding. I can understand why people would like them but none of them stood out for me. Hell's Rebels hits everything on my checklist and I hope to play it or DM it at some point.