Guest Writer: James Boney
Many decades ago, when I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, the third module I played was titled Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and it forever changed the way I saw the game. Here was the work that pulled me from the standard fantasy format and expanded the game into another level of imagination.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module set for player characters level 8-12 which takes the party deep into a mysterious structure hidden in the mountains of the Grand Duchy of Geoff in the World of Greyhawk. The module, among the finest penned by the late E. Gary Gygax, was a delve into the world of science fantasy role playing and set the standard for many works to come although it itself was inspired by an ongoing TSR project called Metamorphosis Alpha in 1976. It is primarily for this reason that it stands out from all the rest of the modules published in this time period.
The module itself is 30 pages long (though about 10 of those pages are used to explain many of the unique monsters, items, and situations contained therein), contains maps for six levels, and includes a separate booklet filled with black and white and color illustrations depicting some of the more complicated encounters found in the work. The art work from the booklet is in itself worth the price of the module (which, if memory serves, was around $8 in the early 1980s), and depicts some of the finest works by legendary artists such as Erol Otus (who seems dominant in this work), David S. LaForce, and Jeff Dee.
The story details are thus: the Duke of Geoff has been plagued by strange and unidentifiable creatures coming from the mountains and terrorizing the population. He has sent for the best of the best, meaning your PCs, and the call was answered with a stalwart adventuring party determined to investigate the strange metal structure lodged deep in the mountains. The creatures have been coming from an armored door that opens at random times. It is up to the party to enter the structure and stop the influx of bizarre creatures into the peaceful realm below.
The structure is, of course, a crashed space ship… part of a ship that suffered an incurable plague and was forced to segregate into parts for the sake of the crew and passengers. This particular section fell through a black hole and wound up in the World of Greyhawk where it was partially buried by a large earthquake.
Though the players will probably be quick to realize they are investigating a space ship, the characters themselves will know of no such thing and will have to explore the structure in ignorance while learning how to survive in this alien environment. There are rooms galore to explore, new creatures to battle, and technology to be mastered. The module contains special rules for learning to use the variety of gadgets and useful items discovered: space suits, powered armor, ray guns, healing canisters, and a sexy medical robot. Few of these items resemble what you would think they would look like… for example, the blaster rifle looks more like a complicated projector which sits above the user’s shoulder. The flow charts included for simple and complex items, both lethal and non-lethal, are modified by the investigator’s intelligence and previous experience; good die rolls result in successful mastery while bad die rolls may result in destruction of the item and even explosive damage to the user. Many robots still loose on deck are hostile to the party unless the player characters possess the correct color pass card (many of which which can be found through careful exploration). Indeed, the whole of this dungeon is filled with useful items which, once understood, can benefit the party’s further adventures… until the charges run out.
Many of the now standard AD&D monsters are suggested as originating from this strange place: the bullette, for example along with vegepygmies and the russet mold, are among the creatures depicted as cargo material being ejected by malfunctioning cargo robots into the wilds (and thus the story comes full circle).
Second to the illustration booklet, the six maps themselves are spectacular and are excellent examples of Gygax’s tendency toward sprawling dungeon levels filled with empty rooms punctuated by dynamic encounters. Level one depicts the logistical operations of the ship complete with police and medical robots, not to mention a horde of vegepygmies to confound the party. Level two is actually a “’tween decks” maintenance level and the machinery is arranged to spell out the initials “EGG.” Level three is sparse, with a long drop view of level four and some groovy lounges for the long dead passengers. Level four is a botanical garden gone savagely awry with new creatures and level five continues this theme with another “’tween decks” to serve the above level. Level six finalizes the adventure with a theater and athletic activity deck complete with androids designed to “get the PCs in shape even if it kills them.” Attached to this deck are the errant robots unloading their lethal cargo into the world and they will eject the party too if possible along with a bullette.
Expedition To The Barrier Peaks is a perfect example of how the best of Gygax’s work tended to be situated in the western parts of the Flaeness where civilization was still slowly progressing, and is also a good example of a Gygaxian dungeon… multi-leveled, complex, mostly empty with only the important encounters keyed and detailed, and finally filled with new and previously unknown monsters and items. As a higher level module, this work is strongly recommended for experienced Dungeon Masters and players alike for its originality, its toughness, and its innovative additions to the game. Even though science fantasy in RPGs has been done time and time again since the early 1980s, no one has managed to touch the weirdness and unique flavor of Expedition To The Barrier Peaks.