Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Assault on the Feathered Plume

AKA Big Ass B/X Session Part 2

So for the Thursday night game I ran S2: White Plume Mountain.

Long time readers of this blog (or short-time readers pawing through the archives) will know that I am a big fan of White Plume Mountain (hence, part of the reason the blog is named as it is). I consider Schick’s module to be one of the best “dungeon” adventures ever published by TSR (or published period), with a good mix of tricks, traps, and monsters, some fantastic treasure, and a real DM-friendly format. I’ve run it many times over the years, and it’s always proven entertaining.

Now I had already decided to change up one or two aspects of the module, due to my presumption that players would already be familiar with the adventure…or would have at least had ready access to it. Turns out, such was not the case. Besides AB and Luke, no one appears to have even HEARD of White Plume Mountain, and only my brother had ever run through it (and that was more than 20 years ago; he says he remembers almost nothing about the adventure and I believe him).

Hell, I’ll have to pull out Tomb of Horrors next!

So I probably didn’t need to change anything for the adventure, but I let my changes stand (for a variety of reasons, which will be explained as they come up). However, other than these one or two changes (and the fact I’m using a B/X conversion of the module), the adventure is almost entirely as originally written.

I write this now so readers will know that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

I read the introduction and background text to the table and then started at the entrance cave. For those who are unfamiliar with the module, I’ll paraphrase the gist:

A couple thousand years ago, an evil wizard and his crazed gnomish henchmen (why are gnomes always portrayed as evil and insane unless they’re svirfneblin?) took up residence in White Plume Mountain, a semi-dormant volcano that gives off a constant cloud of steam from its top (thus the source of its name). The wizard hasn’t been heard from in centuries. Recently, three powerful magical weapons were stolen from their owners/collectors, and each of the burgled individuals received a riddling note, taunting them to try and find the weapons at the “mound of the feathered plume.” The notes were signed by the same wizard of legend (named Keraptis). Having identified WPM, the owners of the weapons have hired the adventurers to find and retrieve them. The weapons are named Wave, Whelm, and Blackrazor.

In addition, I gave the adventurers an ADDED task, not found in the original module. Turns out, the party is not the first group hired by the wealthy collectors, though the earlier adventuring party never returned from WPM. One of the missing adventures was none other than the doughty Halfling champion, Quentin Neff, adopted son and designated heir to the baron of the realm. Now, everyone knows that the barony will never accept a Halfling to ascend the throne, no matter how heroic, but it doesn’t change the fact that Quentin is a favorite of the baron and greatly desires the return of his “foster son.” If the party can bring back any news on Quentin (or even stage a rescue) they may claim a great boon from the barony’s ruler….

I also showed them this picture of Quentin (from a baronial portrait):

So, armed and ready, the PCs made their way to White Plume Mountain, hiding their horses and spare gear at Dead Gnoll’s Eye Socket, a nearby cave known to the locals. Now, we were ready to begin the adventure proper!

[I should note that character creation and running through the intro, took us all the way to 9:40 or possibly later (we hadn’t exactly started the game on time), and I had only planned on running things till 11ish (or whenever Gary’s decided to kick us out). However, even on such a limited time frame we made it through five or six encounters. I love B/X!]

The party marching order was: fighters up front, followed by the thief (ready to scout at a moment’s notice), dwarf in the rear (trying to keep up), and everyone else somewhere in the middle. Farnsworth lit the way with his flaming sword, but the cleric had a lantern and the elf had a dagger with continual light already cast on it. Another character may have had a torch, but I don’t recall.

After a couple days investigating the mountain itself, the party was able to locate the only apparent ingress: a natural cave near the base about 8’ x 8’ referred to in legends as “the Wizard’s Mouth,” due to the way it appeared to inhale and exhale steam like a living thing. Following the cave into its depths they found a thin fissure from which the scalding steam billowed forth at regular intervals, and the elf was the first to notice a man-made trap door near buried beneath the muck and mud that slicked the cave floor. Pulling it up with a *shlorp* noise, the party descended a rickety and rusted set of spiraling iron stairs into darkness….

The corridor at the bottom of the stairs was carved from the living rock to a near perfect 10’ x 10’ shape, however its fastidious appearance was marred by the foot or so of murky water filling the place. Brian the halfling immediately donned his ring of water walking and the party followed the corridor, curious (and wary) as to what they’d find.

They hadn’t been sludging through the murk for long before they encountered their first resident: a young, female sphinx stretching luxuriously upon a raised platform.

[there is no sphinx in the B/X game, but there IS in my B/X Companion. This particularly lovely creature was a young version of the same, having only 8 Hit Dice, though she had enough magical power to put a serious hurtin’ on the party]

She greeted them in the Common language stating she’d been waiting for the next intrepid group of adventurers to arrive. The party first considered “talking their way” past the creature, but then quickly realized the elf wasn’t quite the smooth talker they’d originally helped (the 7 charisma wasn’t helped by the player’s own crass comments). Fortunately for them, the Reaction roll stayed neutral, and she was willing to offer the characters their first real challenge…answer her riddle and pass; fail and be eaten.

[at this point, AB’s Farnsworth with his glistening plate mail, rugged physique, and 14 Charisma was elected the nominal “face man” of the group. My brother immediately began affecting a hoity-toity accent with a lot of “milady’s” and such]

Farnsworth agreed to the terms, the sphinx spoke her riddle, and the players figured it out in about two minutes. Not that this chestnut was particularly hard (not even worth mentioning…I had meant to use the more difficult one found in the pages of Green Devil #4, but I forgot to bring it to the session!), but half of the ease had to do with sheer amount of brain power turned on the problem: three or four of the players hit on the answer near simultaneously while the others were still pondering, and then they all went over the riddle a second time to make sure their answer fit.

This brings up something GhostofMarx commented on an earlier post…that part of the strength of a large group of players is NOT necessarily having “more bodies to absorb hits,” but the collective strength of the players’ minds. Two heads are better than one…and seven heads appear to be a bit better than two as far as processing goes. This would prove to come in handy in later challenges as well.

Having guessed her riddle, the sphinx thanked the adventurers, explaining that she had been forced by Keraptis to guard the entrance to the tunnels until such time as someone answered correctly. She thing sprang over their heads, clearing the entire group before winging down the corridor back the way they came.

[for me, I felt it was important to set the tone of the adventure with the opening encounter, though I think the encounter does a good job itself. However, I had at least two opportunities to “start a fight” with the PCs…I could have had the sphinx react violently to their initial crass remarks OR I could have had her pull a double-cross when they answered her riddle. However, fighting the sphinx did not serve my purpose which was to show them that A) not every encounter requires a fight, and B) smart play will be rewarded. In this case, the “reward” was a free pass to the rest of the dungeon without having to expend additional resources through some fumbling combat. Plus, it would have been out of character for a noble sphinx to brawl in the mud with uncouth adventurers…especially when they’d already fulfilled the letter of their bargain!]

Faced with three possible directions, the party elected to take the left-hand passage. “Always go left,” is the mantra from Luke and Co., though I have no idea where this particular operating procedure originates. A movie? A video game? The player’s advice from 4th edition D&D?

Who knows…the party proceeded down the corridor, slipping and sloshing (except for Brian, of course), when suddenly Gustav and Farnsworth disappeared out of sight! Apparently, there was a bit of a drop-off (a 10’ deep pit, filling the corridor and hidden under the murky water). The dagger with the light spell was brought forth, as was the party’s 10’ pole, and with a little bit of effort (the water walking halfling directed the action), both plate-clad fighters were retrieved from the drink.

SIDE NOTE: Regarding “standard equipment.” B/X has a fairly limited amount of adventuring equipment on the list and when running adventures for higher level characters (3rd+) I have a fairly standard package of basic equipment I give to everyone. A backpack, a few sacks, rations and water skins, torches and tinder (or lantern and oil, their choice), rope…plus goodies that experienced (i.e. “rich”) adventurers would be expected to own: a silver dagger, some wolves bane, etc. (I also allow each character their choice of armor and two or three weapons). In addition, I have a list of “pick one of these” items…things that a party would probably only need to carry one or two of…for example, a 10’ pole or a crowbar.

In this particular case, one guy was carrying a 10’ pole, one guy had six iron spikes and a hammer, two guys carried crowbars, two guys had stakes and a mallet…and I forget was dude #7 picked (maybe a grappling iron?). Anyway…

With the aid of his magic ring and the 10’ pole, the Halfling was able to figure out where the pit began and ended; he was then able to pound in iron spikes and string a rope for all the characters to use in crossing the pit. While I found the party to be fairly ingenious (and quick) in circumventing the challenge, I found it interesting that they decided to pull their spikes before moving on (apparently, they weren’t worried they might need to make a quick retreat). Ah, well…this particular “trick/trap” was merely a warm-up of what was to come, and as it turned out they would need their limited supply of spikes later on….


  1. Something is nipping at the back of my mind and telling me that "always go left" is from Labyrinth, but my memory has tricked me before!

    I know it's common -- if not entirely useful -- advice to follow the left hand wall when in a maze, so maybe it's just that?

  2. Great post on a great blog! Kudos on how your handled the sphinx, BTW. I totally agree...when you let the players solve problems without drawing their weapons, it sets a great tone for the game, and it always reinforces the notion that there is more than one way to face a challenge.

  3. If any of your players are computer science guys, they will probably know about following the left wall, too. Its commonly taught as a standard solution to certain classes of 2d mazes when learning about algorithms. The way to thwart it, if you are feeling tricky, is passageways that travel above and below each other, or passages that form big loops with the goals concealed somewhere in the interior.

    Another nice trick for players is to always mark the left wall as you enter unexplored areas. That way, if you need to retreat and can't remember the way, you just keep your marks on the wall to your right and you'll know you are moving back the way you came.

  4. "Always go left" isn't from anything. I just say that because some dungeons may be designed from an "always go right" assumption, so you're more likely to take the road less traveled if you go left instead.

  5. Cool report. Looking forward to the rest! Games with new players are always interesting; they often make unusual choices compared to experienced players.

    I know that always sticking to either the right hand or left hand wall is a classic maze-navigation technique. But I have heard it expressed in multiple different gaming groups as the same declarative "Always go left!" that you heard. It's kind of funny. I think it's a real gaming meme (not the bullshit internet kind).

  6. "Name of the Rose"


    Not the scene I'm looking for, but right after this, Connery is, "Which one does one go in a labyrinth? Always to the left, no, the right..."

    Something like that anyway.

    Great movie to get mood down, btw.