November 12, 2010

I think this year I’ll start off NaClaMomo with a bang, by giving my humble take on a very unique Gygax classic: S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We’ll call it Expedition for short. The origins of this adventure harken back to Origins II and 1976(?) and the influence of James Ward's Metamorphosis Alpha, and TSR eventually published it in 1980.

Expedition tickles a special geek spot for me. As I mentioned in a different post, I’m not a huge fan of mixing genres. The result usually ends up—even well done, as in Rifts or TORG—as a chaotic jumble that tends to promote insane characters at the expense of defined atmosphere. Sometimes however, as in the case of Expedition or Talons of the Horned King, the author can present an RPG one-off that really works well. Gygax was no stranger to this, and he admitted to rare gunslinger or tech-equipped characters and penned two Alice in Wonderland-based adventures for good measure. Put simply, every campaign needs a little fresh air once in a while. Expedition provides fresh air in spades.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
I love sandbox modules. In
Expedition, there’s a whole spaceship to play in! Lots of unique encounters and areas that can test a player’s roleplaying ability, as well as the ability to resist meta-gaming. Sure, the player knows it a ray gun, but would the character?

2. Cool critters aplenty
The starship nodule contains a host of weirdies, from the webbirds to berserk androids to the vegepygmies, not to mention a whole alien zoo! The unique nature of the “dungeon” allows for a host of new creatures without that odd feeling that comes from a standard adventure packed with too many oddball monsters. Adventurers entering this place can’t know what to expect, and neither can the players. That makes for very memorable play.

3. There’s nothing like it.
As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, Expedition is a wonderful breath of fresh air for any campaign that’s grown a bit stale or predictable. The adventure is scaled for higher-level characters, so there’s a great chance that the running campaign has grown long in the tooth and the players need a change, if only for a single adventure.

4. The tech goodies have limits.
Almost all the rayguns and powersuits and such run on charges, so after a while they become useless. Indeed many of the tech weapons found may well see action before the characters even leave the ship, further decreasing the amount of advanced loot the characters retain. The upshot is that the players get a taste of some powerful (and often well-earned) items but there’s little chance they’ll be around for many adventures to come and bedevil the Dm at every turn. Instead, the players are forced to decide when is the best moment to use the really powerful but short-lasting items, which is (IMHO) how it should be.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
There isn’t much of a mission here. Oh, the characters can try to close the starship doors and prevent further spread of the alien beasts, but that’s a secondary goal at best. Exploration and the possible acquisition of high tech goodies in the main show here. For those that enjoy open exploration, it’s great, but players that require that “I’ve defeated the Big Bad Guy” plot element will be disappointed, unless defeating the froghemoth can somehow qualify.

2. It’s damned deadly
Characters that are unprepared are going to get their heads torn off, either by rampant police robots, or the aurumvorax, or perhaps the dreaded froghemoth. Plus there are several more traditional creatures, such as the psionic-powerful intellect devourer, can present steep challenges if played properly.

Gary Gygax wasn't known for writing forgiving modules, and he certainly doesn’t make Expedition a walk in the park. Oh yes, any party that doesn’t hole itself up and rest in a quiet abandoned living quarters somewhere will certainly pay the price sooner or later. Probably sooner.

3. It’s not for D&D purists
It’s obviously not for those that dislike science-fiction elements in their AD&D game, to be sure. Though one hopes that players, lovable fools that they are, will try anything once.

4. It’s more work than it looks.
Like the D-series (to be covered another day), this module requires some work. There aren’t whole cities to develop here, but certainly the endless empty or near-empty rooms common to earlier TSR adventures are well in evidence here. The top floor in particular can be a snooze fest of abandoned rooms and skeletons unless a creative DM fills in the proper details and atmosphere.

I believe
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a very special, one-of-a-kind module. Oft-imitated but never matched, everyone deserves to either run this once or, better yet, experience it as a player.

So what are you waiting for? Obtain this old-school wonder, dig out your ancient 1e DMG, and give it a spin. You’ll be glad you did, if only for the change of pace.

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