Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Retrospective: White Plume Mountain

They don't make adventure modules like Lawrence Shick's White Plume Mountain anymore. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends greatly, I think, on what one views as the point of adventures in Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, it might more truly be said that if one expects adventures to have a point, then odds are good you won't think very well of modules like S2. The only "point" this thin 1979 release has is to provide a fun afternoon's diversion, testing your wits against those of its fiendish designer.

White Plume Mountain is what I call a "funhouse" adventure, which is to say an adventure where naturalistic concerns take a backseat to challenging the players, regardless of logic (or lack thereof). Consequently, one shouldn't think too much about the plausibility of, say, kayaking on a river suspended in mid-air by means of magic, because there's little to be gained by doing so. Certainly one's character is no more likely to survive White Plume Mountain's tricks and traps by cogitating on how the evil wizard Keraptis produced such a wonder, let alone why he did so in the first place.

The basic set-up of White Plume Mountain is well-known: the PCs are hired to recover three mighty magical weapons -- the warhammer Whelm, the trident Wave, and the sword Blackrazor -- from the dungeons of the aforementioned Keraptis, said dungeons being carved inside an active volcano. Each of the magical weapons is powerful and intelligent, but so too is Keraptis, who is so sure that no one will defeat the traps and monsters that guard these stolen prizes that he dares them to try -- and in verse, no less!

Looking back on it now, what stands out is how small the dungeon actually is. There are only 27 numbered rooms in the place, but most of them are so formidable, or at least baffling, that one is left with the impression of White Plume Mountain as more grandiose a complex than it actually is. In that respect, it's a bit like The Tomb of Horrors, except that I've never met anyone who, three decades later, is still cursing Lawrence Schick's name the way many do Gary Gygax's. Part of that is that White Plume Mountain, while very difficult, isn't mean. The adventure doesn't feel like it was designed solely as a poke in the eye of boastful players, but rather as a puzzle or brain teaser good-naturedly offered by one friend to another.

That probably explains why I still have such fond memories of White Plume Mountain, even though I am not, as a rule, a big fan of funhouse dungeons. Somehow -- and I'm still not certain how -- Schick managed to present a challenging collection of tricks and traps, many of which will result in the deaths of the unwise and the unwary, and make it fun. I wasn't joking about the fact that I've never met anyone still bitter about a bad run through White Plume Mountain, because I'm not. In fact, I'd wager that we all know someone who has a great story to tell about a character's spectacular death in this module. Heck, we may have one ourselves. That's a rare achievement and one that truly recalls what I liked best about the Old Days, back when one could lose a character (or multiple characters) in the corridors of a well-made dungeon and do so with pleasure. White Plume Mountain reminds me of what it was like when it was fun to die, if the death was "well earned."

Gamers could probably use more well earned deaths these days.

35 comments:

  1. Part of why White Plume is remembered fondly is because so many powergamers love getting their hands on Blackrazor. Blackrazor even made an appearance in a 3e supplement.

    It is interesting to compare this module with Castle Inverness. Inverness has only the thinnest veneer of naturalness, and is also a collection of self-contained puzzles. But there is a light-hearted sense of fun in White Plume that you don't find in Inverness.

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  2. I read an interview with Schick where he said (a) this was a sample-work to apply for a job at TSR, (b) it was basically all the best trick/traps he'd developed in years of campaign play, and (c) he was surprised when TSR went and published it as-is.

    Which makes a lot of sense, esp. part (b).

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  3. It is an awesome module. One of my favs to run. :)

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  4. Excellent post. Very nicely written.

    I have many fond memories of White Plume Mountain and it inspired some of my early and bloodthirsty attempts at tournamnet adventure creation.

    I ran across an article in an old zine about someones experience at Origins 1 going through Tomb of Horrors back in 1975. I didn't find the published module any less of a slaughter-fest updated for AD&D.

    White Plume Mountain stands out to me as one of the best adventure modules ever released.

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  5. I think I've mentioned it on this blog recently, but when I was in 5th grade, I'd listen in rapt attention as the 6th graders talked about their D&D campaigns on the bus-ride home.

    I distinctly remember a tale about how the group of 4-6 players spent a weekend going through White Plume Mountain multiple times, so that each character could get a Blackrazor all their own (whether they could use it or not).

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  6. This is one of those modules I regret never getting to play.

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  7. It's ironic given their stance on pdfs of older material, but Wizards have made White Plume Mountain available for download from their site. It's been converted to D&D3.5, but that shouldn't prove to be too much of a problem.

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  8. Love White Plume Mountain. The introduction of an 'homage' version of Stormbringer, among other things, like the dungeon itself, have proven fun numerous times.

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  9. White Plume Mountain is one of my all time favorites. What amazes me is that not just how small the dungeon is, but how small the adventure itself is. If memory serves the entire thing is only sixteen pages including the handout.

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  10. I actually think the best part of S2 was when Paul Kidd wrote White Plume Mountain, a quite enjoyable (at least to me) novel about it.

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  11. I have been running my kids though WPM for a bit now. They are younger so it takes longer, but it has been a blast. They have loved it and so have I. I have been running it under 3.x (and using something from every edition) plus these cool printable dungeon tiles. Read more here: Part 1a, Part 1b, Part 2, Part 3.

    It is a great module and certainly not the same kind of meat grinder that is Tomb of Horrors.

    Next up we are doing S4.

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  12. @Delta: Yes, you read that interview on this blog! (Or at least this blog contains an interview with Schick where he tells that story; it may not be the only such interview.)

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  13. "...4-6 players spent a weekend going through White Plume Mountain multiple times, so that each character could get a Blackrazor all their own..."--Justin S. Davis

    That's hilarious! They must've thought it would've been 'cheating' for a character to have a Blackrazor without having 'earned' it, but didn't see anything wrong with running their characters through the module multiple times with everything always being the same even though they'd already changed things and taken stuff. But, of course, that's just an extremely gamey way to play such an extremely gamey module. So it makes about as much sense as the module itself.

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  14. @kevingreen: Thanks for the link. The weapon of legacy rules for Blackrazor were really interesting and a very nice homage to Stormbringer.

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  15. White Plume Mountain - one of the first modules I ever owned. There were a LOT of things I liked and disliked about it. Accordingly, I heavily modified the dungeon to fit my campaign better.

    MODIFICATION - part 1 (THE ITEMS): I eliminated Wave, Whelm, Blackrazor. Yes, they are player favorites, but they are incredibly imbalancing items (they are practically artifact/relic level weapons). I ran a more conservative campaign and felt, for the level of the dungeon, that there were too many rewards. I would submit that perhaps ONE of the weapons would be reward for the entire dungeon - but not all three.

    And if you think the PCs will return them to their rightful owners - it never happens. Unless you run a campaign of Lawful Good paladins, clerics, etc... Plus, if there characters were to take the items for themselves, it would be unfair to non-fighter/cleric classes since they are all weapons and no miscellaneous magic items of comparable power.

    Accordingly, I replaced them with less powerful (but "unique") items that can also 'spread the wealth around'.

    Wave - substituted with Amulet of the Deep. A magic amulet that can be worn by any class. It automatically confers water breathing and free action to the possessor. When the wearer was completely submerged in water (ocean, lake, deep river, etc...), it also conferred +2 protection (like the ring). The Amulet was on a pedestal that once taken, magically created the 'force bubble' to protect the characters against the onslaught of boiling (and lethal) water - this, however, was a one-time effect and not a property of the actual amulet.

    Whelm - substituted with the Keraptis' Ring. A simple, tarnished bronze ring. It radiates a very weak enchantment and it's function is not revealed by an 'Identify' spell. However, when worn, the user gains all abilities/powers/modifiers as if +1 experience level higher (e.g. A 7th level thief gains all the abilities/skills/hit points as if an 8th level thief). The ring can be worn by any class.

    Blackrazor - Kept the name and appearance (which I thought was very cool). However, it was 'merely' a +3 broadsword that could cast the following spells (at 13th level ability) 1/day: Darkness, Silence, Haste, Blink, Mirror Image. When held, it also allowed the wielder to see perfectly in darkness - both natural and magical.

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  17. WoTC did indeed update White Plume to 3.5. I have copies of both and compared them. They are essentially very similar.

    At the end of 3.5 remake there is a small section that lets the new authors explain some of the changes they made from the original. Andy Collins choose to move the ziggurat door that lead to Blackrazor from the bottom level to the top. I have no idea why. In an attempt the force 3.5 players to fight every level of creatures instead of just drowning them, he also added features to the ziggurat to keep the non-aquatic levels dry even if PCs managed to shatter the walls. Oddly, however, moving the door from the bottom to the top makes it even easier for PCs to access Blackrazors location. So I don't get the point of the change. Gwendolyn Kestral spoke only of removing the "anachronistic turnstile" which apparently was "universally despised for its arbitrariness" and adjusting the golem encounter. I don't remember anyone despising the turnstile, I wonder what universe they were referring to in which it was despised. James Wyatt describes adjusting some encounters and then goes on to lament the wordy 3.5 stat blocks for one of the NPCs. In the 3.5 edition of the module Burkets stats take up almost a half page in the original it was one line.

    I did also notice some interesting changes in prose:
    1E: "Oriental rugs" 3.5e:"fine woven rugs"
    1E: "erotic tapestries" 3.5e:"lush tapestries"
    1E: "burning the idiot who made the hole" 3.5e:"a character is foolish enough to puncture the membrane"

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  19. MODIFICATION - part 3 (Aftermath): Naturally, should the PCs survive, escape, and take the 3 items with them (Blackrazor, Keraptis' Ring, Amulet of the Deep), the "Former owners" will naturally demand their property back (after all, they provided reward, equipment, hirelings, etc...) to assists the PCs in their quest.

    If the PCs refuse to return, the respective owners will seek retribution. This can create an entirely new set of adventures.

    In my main campaign - the PCs (a motley bunch of primarily chaotic neutrals) literally 'took the money and ran'. The owners were rightfully pissed-off, banded together, and sent bounty hunters and assassins after them.

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  20. "Plus, if there characters were to take the items for themselves, it would be unfair to non-fighter/cleric classes since they are all weapons and no miscellaneous magic items of comparable power"

    That's a different take on it. Wizard and clerics, especially at the 7th-9th levelish, tended to already start dominating game play. In my own campaigns, these were quick items to give dwarves and ye old two-handed sword users a solid boost. I almost never saw Wave get kept.

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  21. I have a great fondness for this module as well, but discovered a few kinks that needed to be ironed out when I re-played it somewhat recently.

    Others have mentioned the problems that can arise in a campaign if the PCs actually can get their hands on all three super-weapons... of course they keep them.

    I also was surprised to discover that a wizard in the party with access to the Fly spell can really make short work of the majority of tricks and traps in that dungeon.

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  22. This module was my gateway into the OSR--I ran my 3.5 players through for a change of pace from the dull time we were having in the Underdark. It thought it was ridiculous at first--and I still do, but now ridiculous is what I strive for at all times.

    So all I want to say is that I love White Plume Mountain above all other modules.

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  23. Well, as a matter of fact, my group just go through running through the Hackmaster re-write, White Doom Mountain. There are no owners to give the Three back to. We use them to cement alliances with different factions that we wanted. Gave the Blackrazor analog to a king, for instance. They just didn't fit anybody. :)

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  24. Our party suffered several "well earned deaths" (and some arguably less so) when we took on White Plume Mountain back in the day. We were three players, with two PCs each and a bunch of henchmen, but we still took a right royal kicking. Partly due to ineptitude, and partly because of bad luck, we were down to two men (my brother's badly wounded paladin and my magic-user with no spells and a single hit point remaining) and attempting to exit the dungeon when we encountered Nix, Nox, Box and Cox, who despatched us without breaking sweat. (Do efreet sweat?) Only later, reading the module myself, did I discover that Box and Cox are "optional" extras. The phrase "Four efreet!" has since entered our D&D lexicon to denote unsportingly heavy-handed DMing.

    Despite all, we had a blast. You're right, James, that I don't feel bitter in the slightest about the annihilation of our party. I'm sure we were even roaring with laughter at some of the more grotesque PC deaths. S2 is a funhouse in the best sense.

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  25. cibet: Really nice analysis of the changes in 3.5, thanks for that.

    John H.P.: That probably would've been my first guess, thanks for that. :)

    One other aside: Schick said that the beloved Blackrazor was the one thing he'd like to take out of the module, being embarassed at what a Stormbringer ripoff it was (not initially expecting to have it published, as it were).

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  26. I remember playing this afterschool in 8th grade with a group of kids, including one who later robbed me (during a pot deal) at knifepoint.

    and you say D&D isn't corrupting....

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  27. White Plume Mountain is my favorite one-shot adventure, but it's even more fun to drop into an ongoing campaign.

    As others have noted, when power-mad PCs break faith with their employers and try to keep the weapons, logical consequences ensue: thieves, bounty hunters, assassins, invisible stalkers, etc.

    If the DM properly imposes each weapon's goals, preferred environments and drawbacks, then it forces the PCs to choose between party unity and personal power. That makes for some rich roleplaying.

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  28. My kids have been too scared to keep the weapons, thinking they are cursed. Of course, they need to get back home first.

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  29. "I remember playing this afterschool in 8th grade with a group of kids, including one who later robbed me (during a pot deal) at knifepoint."--Nilonim

    Sounds like you hadn't learned one of the most important lessons D&D can teach:

    If you consort with people who are neither good nor even lawful, you do so at your own peril.

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  30. As it happens, I'll be running White Plume Mountain at DexCon this year in Morristown, NJ in July.

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  31. I always wanted to run or play in this module; maybe I will one day.

    Talking about funhouse dungeons and S1 - I was looking at Tomb of Horrors the other day, which I've always thought of as being entirely Gary Gygax's work, and I noticed the byline actually says: "Gary Gygax, based on ideas by Alan Lucien." Does anyone know anything about Alan Lucien and how much of "Tomb" was his work?

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  32. I'm probably unduly fascinated by the notion of a "funhouse" genre of adventures/modules. I note that we are 30+ comments deep into this post and no one else seems to have taken a special interest in the idea. Have you previously elaborated on it elsewhere, James, or does it seem too obvious/self-evident to warrant discussion?

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  33. ED DOVE WROTE: "I remember playing this afterschool in 8th grade with a group of kids, including one who later robbed me (during a pot deal) at knifepoint."--Nilonim

    Sounds like you hadn't learned one of the most important lessons D&D can teach:

    If you consort with people who are neither good nor even lawful, you do so at your own peril.

    Ed, that is one of the best comments I've read on any RPG blog.

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  34. Traumleben,

    I have talked about funhouse dungeons previously but not at any great length, I don't think. It's a topic that probably does deserve greater scrutiny, though, and I'll try to do that in the nearish future.

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  35. I think White Plume Mountain's attraction was it channeled the basic desire of gamers to get stuff and defeat powerful foes without worrying about the consequences. Earlier modules were largely convention games in which the backstory is immediately supplied...

    The map in WPM indicates that: "There be Dragons" in the form of the Dragonlich and suggested that it was part of a larger saga (which sadly was never told). It does bear the first pangs or kicks of the infant Hicksman Revolution that you talk about. Yet, retain enough of the Old School goodness. It became part of Gamers lore much like Tomb of Horrors for being a killer dungeon - here was a tame but challenging dungeon. Not a Gygaxian open field but a contained story (beginning, middle and end?).

    And, lastly, I think it is also popular because of the Open Ended conclusion...just when players think it is over - it is merely just the beginning of their demise.

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