Friday, 7 March 2014

Adventure Review: Wheel of Evil

Wheel of Evil might have been the first Old School Retrieval module I bought, in pdf form. It's for Labyrinth Lord, character levels 3-5, by Jeff Sparks and Joel Sparks, from the heady year 2010 -- when anything seemed possible. My core group of players finished it off in three languid sessions spaced over a year; I used it for a kind of "B list" activity when the full group couldn't play in the main campaign, with a separate bunch of 3rd level characters and a few guest players getting involved. Having finished it off recently, it's time for my belated, you might even call it nostalgic review. (And not a spoiler-free one, either, so beware.)

Photo: Vera Kratochvil

OSR modules can sometimes get into a "10 foot corridor, here a pit, there a secret door" rut, leaving adventurers to imagine themselves navigating between two walls of Xerox-proof blue. I really like when an adventure plays with a couple of vivid physical elements to break this pattern. The first adventure I came up with to run in my Old School GM career hinged on millstones being used to grind flour, but also bone meal fertilizer, with grisly possibilities ... Wheel of Evil draws another disturbing connection, between the cheese industry and the mold that is part of it, to very good effect.

It starts in a cheese ripening cave being plagued by kobolds, which is where the adventurers come in. Paid off with shares in the upcoming cheese market, they may eventually find that the kobolds have a gripe - they think that mold from the cheese caves is responsible for their own food supplies going bad. It turns out both humans and kobolds are under threat by an intelligent psychic mold who controls mold zombies, all the usual friends of Juiblex, and some far stranger things.

In this adventure, I never felt I needed to fill in. There is a lot of imaginative detail: a living mold valve that transports people and things through a long crack in the earth; a mold creature that hurls half-size black puddings at the party; some potential kobold allies who have distilled a mold-killing solvent from their own urine. Again, it's the physical concepts, the sheer yuck-factor of mold-things and kobold-whizz that makes the adventure stand out. There are also some useful handouts including copies of the cheese shares and a couple of maps that the characters might get handed in the course of play.

Here are some of the minuses:

  • The encounters are pretty linear, except for one chance to shortcut into the final area through the aforementioned mold valve. The "kobolds are good guys, cheese boss is the villain" twist is also straight out of a Scooby Doo Twilight Zone episode written by Fredric Brown. But hey, this is D&D (sorry, Labyrinth Lord), not David Foster Wallace here. My party had a good time all the same. The plot action is written in a fairly open way that avoids railroading, so they felt they had choices along the way, not in terms of which path they followed but how they dealt with the kobolds and the various cheese workers.
  • The party's payment in shares of the cheese production means they have a vested interest in keeping the cheeses safe, and there are even rules for how much the shares depreciate if various things happen to the cheeses in the caves. But I didn't see the action of the module putting the cheeses in danger in a way that would fully exploit that. I would have liked something like an early kobold invasion that the party is there to catch, so you have fighting in the caves and the tension of cheese being ruined through fire spells, fumbled blows and so on.
  • That climactic cave encounter is a killer, as the master mold is defended by mold zombies, invisible violet fungi, and the aforementioned black pudding hurler. I scaled that hurler down to chucking a mini-pudding every other round, and it still would have gone badly for the party of 5 level 3 characters plus henchmen plus kobold pals, had it not been for some spells specific to my system and one very creative guest player in the second session. After making friends with a kobold war party and finding out about their urine solvent, he had the idea to use some conjuration spells to create a 5' cube of non precious raw material (kobold urine concentrate ice) and to multiply that cube six times. The cubes were toxic to all molds, slimes and kindred things, and the party ended up pushing them as a bulwark right into the final cavern. I think that 3rd and 4th level characters in this adventure will have a tough time here unless they are very strategic or the DM (sorry, Labyrinth Lord) pulls some punches.