Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Final Thoughts on White Plume Mountain

I have written more than once that S2:White Plume Mountain is one of my favorite adventure modules of all time, not to mention one of the best examples a “true” D&D adventure/dungeon. There’s almost no “plot” to the adventure, save what a DM might want to give it…really, it’s little more than an adventure scenario: go find some missing artifacts and bring ‘em back for a reward.

The small scale of adventure – 27 numbered encounters, a wandering monster table with 6 entries (and the dead ones stay dead), plus an optional “final encounter” – make it one that can be completed in a single looong weekend, or over just two to three evenings. Ours took longer (5 sessions) as we had many players that were new to the game (not to mention I was challenged to wrangle so many players). But a short adventure like this means a LOT less prep work for the DM.

At the same time, the players were plenty challenged by the encounters presented. The frictionless room, heat induction plates, ziggurat/aquarium, boiling bubble, and mud cavern all proved to be exceptional challenges for the players…not just their characters. And there were several encounters they missed completely…the floating river, the spinning corridor, and the riddle of the globes…all of which would have produced additional consternation I’m sure.

The “S” series of modules (Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth) carry the designation of S for “Special” and they certainly are…all four modules are filled with unusual challenges and non-standard monsters. S1 and S2 are two of the shortest modules ever published by TSR, and yet there is plenty in each to make even the most experienced players pause for a moment.

Not that experienced players don’t have a leg up…the eight guys sitting at my table had a fairly easy-breezy time with some challenges; for example, all the riddles got knocked down quickly. Several times, one player found him idea stymied by the module, but a second player would offer an alternate idea that worked just fine. There was a lot of “brain power” at the table, and that made it possible for the PCs to do quite well over-all (well, except for that final challenge).

If anything, the characters’ own ability scores got in the way of their ideas. My inclination…or crutch, really…is to use ability scores (strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.) as the equivalent of “skills” for adventurers. There’s no “grab the swinging chain” skill, so make a Dex roll. There’s no “underground direction sense” skill, so make an Int roll to see if you recognize this stretch of corridor.

Actually, I suppose I’m not THAT bad…generally, I allow any hare-brained scheme to work if it makes sense (the weird, rope pulley thing just took awhile for me to grasp). And anyway, the abilities are there to represent SOMEthing (the characters’ abilities…duh!).

However, players sometimes looked annoyed when I’d ask “what’s your strength” to try something and they only had an “8.” I suppose it’s tough to get in the mind of your Halfling character sometimes…especially when you yourself are 6’+ tall.

[interesting that I’ve also found the opposite to be true…my petite wife often had difficulty getting into the mindset of a hardy fighting man]

Regarding the challenges (and the monsters) in the adventure…I was constantly amazed at how different encounter strengths turned out to be the exact opposite of how I anticipated them. Partly this is probably due to memories of prior “runs” through White Plume Mountain. For example, I’ve always considered the Whelm section to be a pushover part of the dungeon, and here it resulted in a TPK (ok, technically there were “survivors,” but if we hadn’t been out of time the remaining three would never have made it past the mud room…).

But having no magical means of bypassing the mud cavern…no fly, levitate, dimension door/teleport, winged boots, etc…made the chamber a near-complete stumper for the party. The explosive geysers do a ton of damage (based on proximity) with no “to hit” roll or saving throw needed. There just weren’t enough resist fire spells to go around! In the past, parties have always circumvented this far easier than the frictionless room or the heat induction corridor.

And then Ctenmiir…wow! I have never seen him (or any vampire) kick so much ass. Of course, I’ve never seen any party stand toe-to-toe with him; in general, they would Turn the vampire, get the treasure, and leave. Our clerics both had the opportunity to Turn the creature, but neither tried (I’m not sure why…maybe they felt their chances weren’t good enough). Raise dead was actually an excellent spell to use, though looking back I’m sure Luke would have preferred to use Dispel Evil (it also destroys undead but singular targets receive a saving throw penalty). There was certainly some bad luck involved (Ctenmiir hitting Alster’s incredible armor class and dropping him to 5th level put a stop to the cleric as a threat, and his hypnotizing of Sexy Kevin sealed off any help from their “back-up cleric”). Without a cleric, vampires are dead-hard monsters in D&D…they WILL eventually hit you and that (ultra-fast in B/X) regeneration makes them a recurring nightmare.

[tell you what: I2:Tomb of the Lizard King looks a LOT harder than its “mid-level” range would indicate. If I were going to convert it to B/X play, I think I’d have to make it 14th or 15th level!]

Even fleeing immediately, the characters would never have made it across the mud cave before the flying, regenerated Ctenmiir arrived and cut their little rope line. Those guys were goners.

Anyway, contrast HIM with the giant crab. Sure, there was a timer-based “auto-kill” effect in play, but I figured the crab itself would kill at least one character (15 hit dice monsters tear through plate armor like tissue…and those claws averaged 10.5 damage each!). However, such was not the case…the monster didn’t hit all that much and didn’t do all that much damage (damn random rolls). I suppose in that situation the party had a little “good luck.”

Personally, I figured that Quentin and Blackrazor would be the real “party killer” of the three guardians, but he really wasn’t “all that.” Perhaps, if I had NOT allowed the scarab of protection to save Sweet Tito’s soul (and thus added the elf’s hit points and level to Quentin)…or perhaps if I’d allowed the extra levels to mean multiple attacks for Halfling (as they would have meant to an AD&D fighter)…maybe then the Halfling would have finished off the entire party. But that sure would have cut the adventure short! As it was, I was quite pleased with how that particular encounter resolved itself.

Boy, those halflings sure did prove to be resilient little cusses, huh? Like cockroaches…fairly impossible to stomp. The combination of good armor class and good hit points made them Tiny Tanks…and unlike the big fighters, they were far less often targeted in combat. The elves and clerics often suffered from a lack of hit points…there’s no minimum Constitution requirement for these classes (unlike Halflings) and several of those PCs were scarce in the HP total because of it.

And the thieves…whoa, poor little guys. Once again proving that they are NOT lightly-clad fighters. They are THIEVES…and hand-to-hand melee was a very bad idea for these chaps. Magic-users would have been even worse, of course…but none of the players played a magic-user so it’s hard to tell how THEY would have fared.

All in all, I have to say I was quite pleased with the over-all adventure, and quite happy that I had a chance to run it again with a new set of players. Even considering it a “fun house” adventure I think the module has a nice set of teeth, and certainly provided the group with mucho entertainment value. I don’t know the next time (if ever) that I’ll get a chance to run White Plume Mountain again…perhaps for my own children someday. But this was a lot of fun for a “one-off” adventure, and it sparked a ton of ideas…on the use of monsters, challenges, and intelligent artifact weapons…that I’m sure I can adapt to later adventures.

Hell, some of the stuff found in White Plume Mountain – Wave, Blackrazor, Ctenmiir, “Quentin” – would be entertaining things to have “pop-up” in other campaigns. Certainly, I could build an entire campaign setting around ANY one of the three magic weapons…if I’d had the chance, I think I would have given Whelm a cranky, dwarven personality.

Hmmm…many ideas to consider.
; )


  1. I didn't turn the vampire because I only had one shot and figured a killer spell would have a better chance of working. If Keraptis put anti-turning medallions on some ghouls, I figured he certainly would on the vampire. After I got level drained (first round), I had no chance of turning at all.

    I used Raise Dead rather than Dispel Evil because Raise just kills the guy. Dispel Evil has tricky "when undead comes in range" adjudication and stationary/concentration/range requirements. Him making the save on Raise is better than Dispel Evil because he stays in the lit hallway.

    I had a great time overall though I didn't feel like my character (Alster the cleric) was that useful outside of some minor healing (mostly from a Staff of Curing, not cleric spells).

    Hold Person failed on Quentin. Quest failed on Quentin. Finger of Death failed on the crab. Raise Dead failed on the vampire. Ghoul turning was a DM gimmee. Cure Disease worked on the green slime but it didn't get a saving throw. :)

    Pretty useless in melee with a normal mace and an 8 str. I had a decent AC but the monsters didn't want to attack me very often.

  2. I2:Tomb of the Lizard King looks a LOT harder than its “mid-level” range would indicate.

    I2 is a total bloodbath.

  3. JB - thanks for sharing these recaps. S2 is one of my favorite modules. I have an original copy framed by my desk! Here's a pic http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1629419/IMG00161-20101116-2101.jpg

  4. @ Scott: Any game that starts with a black dragon strafing attack ranks high on my list of adventures!
    ; )

    @ Fumers: Wow, man...when you list off all the misses, it sounds, so...why did you want to play a cleric again?

    In all seriousness, didn't I ixnay the turn-proof amulets? I truly though Ctenmiir would be an easy "pass" for you guys!

  5. @ Jim: Hey, that's pretty cool! AND I have the same phone!
    : )

  6. Fumers, I know those misses were frustrating, but you definitely earned the respect of the players and the DM for trying to use spells and abilities in clever ways. Crappy die rolls,though, for sure.

    I wish I had known ahead of time that we wouldn't have any elves or MUs this last session. Talk about ineffective, Dampwick didn't offer much at all to the party except as a torch bearer. Mediocre ability scores, low hit points, no spells, and no useful magic items (rolled randomly for speeds sake). Especially frustrating in an encounter where ability checks were required for success, then being unable to hurt just about any of the monsters we met. Dampwick survived only because he was too blah to do anything but hang back and run away. (I think maybe it was my idea to grapple the charmed Sexy Kevin, which may have bought us a round or two; my sole contribution.)

    Like Luke said, it was still really fun, and I wouldn't have missed it, but like JB said, it was none of our finest moments.

  7. @JB, I ended up as the cleric because I rolled a 16 wis and a low str, dex.

    I probably had more fun than if I had a fighter but being the cleric is sometimes like being a designated driver.

  8. For what it's worth, that vampire missed about 6 times in a row once he started attacking Farnsworth (the fighter). If he had hit earlier, we would have been even more screwed than we were. I doubt we would have put him down even once...

  9. I'm a Moldvay Basic fan - which may be part of the reason why I'm not a fan of "ability checks". They seem to be more in the Mentzer/Rules Cyclopedia/AD&D mindset. (I love the RC for what it is, but I don't like the inclusion of skills and weapon mastery).

    When I DM B/X I typically require a d6 roll for any 'skill use', decide upon what's needed for a success, and if it feels appropriate let the player use their attribute +/- as a modifier. To me, it just feels more Moldsvaysian. ;)