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Subject: A little science-fiction in my fantasy? rss

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Merric Blackman
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Dungeon Module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a particularly unusual AD&D adventure: in it, your group of adventurers explore a crashed alien space-ship.

The space-ship is quite similar to the Starship Warden, the setting of the original science-fiction role-playing game, Metamorphosis Alpha. This is not a coincidence, as the original tournament adventure was played at Origins II in 1976 as Metamorphosis Alpha made its debut. Gary Gygax wrote the adventure as a companion piece for MA.

Four years later, Gygax extensively revised the adventure, in particular updating it to the AD&D rules from the original D&D rules of 1976, and it was released as the third adventure in the "Special" line.

The adventure is an exploration/dungeon crawl adventure. The PCs are sent by the Duke of Geoff to discover the source of the weird and dangerous monsters that have been seen in the nearby monsters, and to destroy that source if possible. The original tournament adventure had 15 characters participating - I presume that many players as well - and stats for those characters are given in the adventure.

There's no description of the wilderness outside the dungeon, as the adventure immediately starts with the party entering the spaceship. From there, the fun begins!

Including science-fiction elements in D&D has been a controversial element for many years. It didn't bother the original designers very much - Dave Arneson's chief antagonist in Temple of the Frog was an alien space-traveller, and Gary Gygax had sent his son on a trip to the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as adventuring in the Machine Level of Castle Greyhawk designed by Robert J. Kuntz. However, published D&D adventures with science-fiction elements are few and far between. In general, the thrust of D&D - and especially AD&D - has been for a more consistent fantasy setting eschewing science-fiction elements.

(Temple of the Frog was the first scenario published for D&D, as part of the Blackmoor supplement in 1975.)

So, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks might sit badly with a group from the beginning. For those who do enjoy such cross-fertilization of their game, the adventure is a fascinating one. There is very little in the way of villains or plots here. Instead, the adventure has an environment to explore where alien monsters, robots and malfunctioning equipment provide the bulk of the problems. Although there are intelligent monsters, they're uniformly hostile towards the PCs; often with alien intelligences that function in ways beyond comprehension.

The adventure has a large assortment of new monsters. This is explained by the ship's original purpose: as an exploration ship which had collected a number of specimens. In the disaster that caused the ship to crash, many of them have been set free; this then explains why so many odd creatures wander the ship.

My favourite monster of the adventure.

Most of the new monsters do not get full write-ups - most would later appear a few years later in Monster Manual II (1983) - but there's certainly enough information to use them. The important monsters are nicely illustrated in the accompanying 32-page illustration book, which also includes four full-colour illustrations of various areas. Robots, Russet Mold and Vegepygmies are the three types of new monsters to get proper Monster Manual-style descriptions.

One of the very interesting elements of the adventure are the large number of technological artefacts: from things as 'mundane' as power packs, all the way up to power armour and blaster rifles! Slightly more than seven pages of description are given to these devices, including four charts detailing the process by which a fantasy character can gain the expertise to use one. Basically, the player may make one d10 roll per round, adjusted for various factors, and depending on the result might have to try again, waste a charge of the device, destroy it entirely, have it malfunction, or - if they're very lucky in the case of complex items - get it to work. Once a character gets it to work, they can use it from then on.

Due to the use of power discs (containing charges) in almost all of the items, there is a limited time they can be used by the party. Just as well!

The illustrations for the equipment make it seem very strange: there aren't standard blasters from Star Wars here! A player is unlikely to divine the way of using the equipment (or even what it does) from most of the pictures. This is an additional technique for making the adventure seem alien and strange.

The maps for this adventure deserve special mention: they're exceptionally large - over 600 feet across - and there are six of them. A double cover allows all the maps to be presented. In addition, the walls in one section are arranged in the initials "E.G.G."; Gary Gygax signing the maps!

Ernest Gary Gygax's Initials - original is upside-down

This is a rather special adventure designed to challenge the wits of the players and the abilities of their characters. There is a lot of territory to explore, and although only about 20 pages of the adventure are devoted to detailing the various areas of the ship, it provides the DM with a lot of material.

I believe the adventure is much better played than read; the players interacting with the strange environment will likely prove very entertaining. It is an exceptional example of Gary Gygax's imagination; he was very good at providing strange environments for an D&D group to adventure in. The adventure's tournament origins can be seen through the hostility of almost all of its inhabitants. With fifteen characters, you don't have much opportunity to do more than fight and explore!

The adventure is challenging to run, as the technology of the ship requires special procedures to explain and use. Gygax doesn't stint on descriptive text for the various areas, but with so much area to cover, the individual DM will be called upon to expand the material as his players explore the spacecraft.

All-in-all, it is an exceptional adventure. It would be interesting to see if it could be adapted for later editions of the game, but it is a fascinating look at what can happen when a designer creates a D&D adventure set in a very unusual environment.
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Bryce Lynch
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Awwww ... what a cute little bunnyoid!


This may be one of the only megadungeon-like modules published by the game wizards. It's probably in my top 3 or so.
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Brian Leet
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I love this module - in theory. I have to admit to only one quickly ended attempt to play it that I can recall.
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DMSamuel
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I always liked the idea of it much more than the execution. Of course, we were very young when we tried to play this and my older brother was the DM. As the younger brother I got treated pretty harshly, so that is probably coloring my idea of the execution of the module. Now you are making me want to run this.

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Merric Blackman
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A large part of the execution of Expedition will lie in the hands of the DM. It's not a plot-based game at all; it's all about the exploration, but - if your group is that way inclined - exploration is really, really fun. We're finding that in our current AD&D campaign.

I wouldn't want to run everything like Expedition, but it really is one of those modules that can have your players going, "What the hell was that?" again and again. And that can be really fun.

Cheers,
Merric
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Ed Browne
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My cleric used Create Water inside a robot to throw a curve at the DM! Fun module from back when D&D didn't take itself so seriously. They used many of the same ideas in (the original) Gamma World.
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