Where our heroes end up on a crashed spaceship. Probably. Or maybe an abandoned moonbase? Who knows man, this is all kinds of crazy. What happens when late 70s sci-fi collides with 70s high fantasy? Find out as Jon takes us on the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks!
If this is your first time checking out our little D&D Adventure Blog, you might want to check out this post that explains the setup and format of the game. You can check out all “Big Fish” content on this nifty landing page.
Keith (me, Jim Clocks) is this week, and it’s going to be a little fast and loose. I’ll be in black, Jon (our DM) is in blue. Because blue is his favorite color. If you’re enjoying these, tell your nerdy friends!
If you’re not familiar with “Barrier Peaks” I’ll try to keep the history lesson brief. In 1975 there was science-fiction RPG called “Metamorphosis Alpha”, created by James M. Ward for TSR. This would ultimately evolve into what we know (and love) as Gamma World today. In 1980, in an effort to bring Metamorphosis Alpha to more players, Gary Gygax created an entry into TSR’s “S-Series” of gaming modules called “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” which was essentially Metamorphosis Alpha but intended to be played by Dungeons & Dragons players.
So what does that mean? That means Wizards and Fighters will explore an irradiated crashed spaceship for no real reason! Thanks Gary!
Monsters are plaguing the Grand Duchy of Geoff: go figure it out. That was the plot. I really wanted to have someone named “Jeff” send you on the quest but that was an obvious Elise moment.
Maybe it could have been her cousin? “Hey guys, this is my cousin Jeff, he’s got a mission.”
One of the neat things about modules in the “S-Series” is that TSR included a special booklet of illustrations for the DM to show to the players. It’s a cool little thing that certainly helps immerse players. Especially considering these modules were from an era before a DM could just image search a visual reference.
We played the Tomb of Horrors (the first and most famous “S Series” campaign) a few years back and after wrapping it up we kind of talked about running Barrier Peaks because it seemed completely bonkers.
Those visual references are a real treat. Mostly amateur art but whoever was drawing them was obviously having a lot of fun with it. There are like 90 in the book which is a pretty significant investment in page count for a module.
Most of these were apparently done by Erol Otus (who brought us the amazing cover of “Deities and Demigods”. But we can also thank Jeff Dee, Greg K. Fleming, David S. LaForce, Jim Roslof and David C. Sutherland III for these hokey-ass illustrations.
The module doesn’t have a list of artists and I’m so very happy you found it.
The non-sequential, episodic nature of Big Fish allows Jono to throw us into random adventures and 5e allows a pretty easy transition of old modules (like The Terrible Trouble in Tragidore). So it seemed like a good chance to toss our adventurers into what is probably one of the most unique “official” D&D campaigns ever made.
At its core, Barrier Peaks is just a sprawling dungeon crawl. Much more wide open and nonlinear than the Tomb of Horrors from what we’ve experienced. Except the dungeon is a crashed spaceship. Because spaceships were what was missing from the Forgotten Realms (or Greyhawk, which was the original setting).
Jono presented us with a loose little framing device (the realm’s heroes have convened to investigate the Kingdom of Ice, and you guys drew the short straw) and gave us a few chances to buff our inventory a little bit. Jono had also given the cleric a heads up to prepare against poison. Why? Because there are rooms that are randomly irradiated and can kill you a few hours later.
Is this by the book? Or did you just figure that magical poison reduction would transfer to radiation?
The way he wrote it, you walk into a room and I ask you to make poison saves. Then a few hours later (dice) you start permanently losing strength until you die. If you don’t make the save you’re dead if you don’t find “anti-radiation serum.” There’s no indication that the radiation is there, only that you feel sick 20-50 minutes after being exposed.. Maybe the intent is that you get sicker and sicker and so the dungeon gets harder and harder?
I gave you warnings because that’s bullshit and not fun. I let detect poison catch it because things you can’t avoid are not fun. There’s plenty of danger in the Barrier Peaks without this sort of nonsense.
Then our new patrons sent us to a mysterious mountain where the locals had been complaining about strange wand wielding golems.
This was the first of many instances where the players all giggled amongst themselves because we knew these were robots shooting lasers, but how could our characters have possibly even conceived of that?
Without wasting much time, Jon hustled the characters into the spaceship and the expedition began in earnest.
I’m not sure where you can talk about your process for converting not just the rules but also the encounter. Correct me if I’m wrong but “by the book” rules just has players randomly opening doors and then sometimes things happen?
The conversions that I’ve seen online have all been essentially one for one translations of a huge dungeon map with numbered encounters. The individual rooms don’t have narrative description prepared, just descriptions of what’s in there mingled with Gary’s commentary, so actually running the session you need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of what is coming up. Worse still, there’s no indication really how the players are intended to progress, either indicated to the players in game or even for the DM in the book.
The PCs wander aimlessly and you just have to keep up.
I sat down and imagined running a hallway. Players open door. Empty room. Next door. Empty room. Next door. Radiation poisoning in a few hours but the characters have no idea. Next door empty room.
There’s over 100 empty rooms on the first floor.
More or less the opposite of fun. So what I did is translate the areas into somewhat ambiguous zones: “the living spaces west of the entry” “the central area” “the eastern grav tube” etc, and then I figured how many interesting spots connect to each zone, and how the zones connect to each other. I describe the zones in game, and when we combat I can draw out the precise area you’re in.
It was an enormous amount of work to do this for all of the floors. Especially, especially, THE floor. Which you will know when you see it.
There isn’t much of a “story” to tell in Barrier Peaks. Basically, you’re heroes who stumble into an enormous derelict spacecraft. You end up kind of randomly encountering a variety of creatures, robots and generally weird sci fi elements as you go.
There isn’t much to do other than just to pick a direction and start exploring. The only real mission seemed to be “let’s get out of here” and there isn’t much in the way of a driving plot (at least that we’ve discovered). So in lieu of narrating everything that happened to our party, I’ll just share the sweet spots.
Jon’s Choice of Words
So one of the things that happened pretty early on was the Warlock cast “Comprehend Language” to decipher the strange alien language that popped up all over the place. Tip of the hat to our DM for going out of his way to add a little bit of flavour to the comprehension.
I’m guessing that the module called for things like “Police Station” or “Med Bay” but through use of the spell the party understood them to be “Militia Base” or “Infirmary”.
Was this at Gary’s suggestion or was this Pure Jono? And if it was not at Gary’s suggestion might I add “what the hell Gary?” What would fantasy characters do with a sign that says “Police Station”? I think it was a fun interpretation of the spell. It is not a translation spell, it’s a comprehension spell.
Oh no, that was me. It’s the little details.
With their weird monkey-ass hooting and just running around all over town (at least on the upper floor, which is all we got to explore) these guys were my favorites. Thanks for breathing life into these bad boys Erol.
The hooting was me too. Hoot hoot hoot.
We just generally gave them a wide berth and the one time we did actually run into them the Cleric cast a big ole’ gust of wind and just knocked a bunch of them over.
I’m pretty sure the rogue killed one or two outright.
The hilarious part about these dudes (I mean aside from that hilarious looking Veggie Dog) is that I think they are an entirely new race.
Does Barrier Peaks do a lot of that? We also ran into Displacer Beasts, who are from D&D lore. But are there a lot of just completely new random game elements that got tossed in (and never returned)?
Well, if you guys had explored the environs outside the structure you had chances to run into a strange menagerie of encounters. I didn’t want to spend any time screwing around outside. The meat is in the thing and we’re on a timer. Perhaps all will be explained in time?
Oh, and also in one encounter there was a “Shrieker” which was a mushroom that if we disturbed it, would alert a squad of Veggie Pygmies. For some reason (despite the fact that a group of like 10 of them was bested earlier with a single gust of wind) the party decided to proceed with extreme caution.
Vegetables are scary.
So this thing kept happening where someone would cast “Detect Poison” and then they would detect an absurd amount of poison behind a door. The entire party would take a cautionary step backwards and then the Bard (with Protection from Poison and a Death Ward on him) would open the door, only to reveal an entirely unspectacular room.
Jon would then make him roll a few Constitution saving throws and that would be that.
I’m guessing this was some kind of a homebrew of the infamous “get radiation poisoning and die horribly, but only later” rules of the original module?
Well, in original DnD you didn’t make saves based on your stats, you made saves based on your saves. Every class had a chart so fighters got good saves vs poison and wizards got bad saves vs poison. In the book it says: save vs poison or start dying of radiation.
Anyways, in the year 1980 Gary Gygax thought it would be really funny to randomly kill off characters because they got exposed to radiation.
So from what we were able to gather, the entire location seemed to be some sort of living space for some sort of creatures. Possibly humanoid. Through liberal use of “Comprehend Language” we found what seemed to be a crew member/inhabitant’s journal indicating that something got loose and something went horribly wrong.
And then I guess everyone died. There are a lot of descriptions of rooms, in various stages of decay, just lousy with skeletons. If this were normal D&D you’d better believe those skeletons would pop up and fight you but no, this is Sci-fi and Dragons (or SAD for short, or maybe Sci-FAD). So those skellies are just skellies.
That said, if there’s one thing this place has in spades it’s Veggie Pygmies. If there’s a second things, it’s robots.
We found this guy, and promptly stole “gems” from its guts (and also tore its arms off):
The robots are made of diamonds.
We found these dudes, who told us to stay the hell out away from the restricted “Police Station” or else:
We found this nice lady who introduced us to the wonders of a paralysis ray before the rogue stabbed a big hole into her robot chest:
I kind of like the whole “robots have gone kind of crazy as they toil through their programming for all eternity” thing. Really smacks of old school science fiction.
THE floor is also jam packed with insane sci-fi 70s bullshit I can’t fucking wait.
Generous Amounts of Loot
Jon is typically a very stingy DM. I feel like he’s that dad who really enjoyed Dark Souls and now thinks that all games should be more like Dark Souls and we’re the kids forced to play Dark Souls. It’s not a perfect analogy.
However, for all of his insanity, instant-kills and irradiation, Papa Gygax had a generous hand.
On this little adventure along we picked up a Universal Translator, an honest to goodness Ray Gun and nearly 5000 GP worth of loot.
Maybe that’s why these old modules were so insane? If you’re picking up thousands upon thousands of GP every adventure your party is going to be crazy stacked with the most badass gear (in addition to their class powers).
There’s a story that Gary started the “S Series” in response to the fact that his personal gaming party consisted of “heretofore invincible characters”. So he created Tomb of Horrors to just instantly kill them. For the challenge. Or something. Maybe that’s because Gary was just showering them in tens of thousands of gold each campaign?
I read somewhere that people would hassle Gary at conventions being like “MY wizard is UNKILLABLE he’s THE BEST” and the whole players vs. DM thing was a bigger deal back then. In response he made the super dungeon with the intent of slaughtering all of these cocky convention DnD nerds. Having met a few such nerds (and also having been one) I am sympathetic to this desire. Tomb of Horrors was born.
Barrier Peaks isn’t as spurious as Tomb of Horrors, thankfully.
I always thought this was absurd. I just imagine a player protesting some insane instant kill and Gary being like “I think you will find it is quite explicit within the rules.” But like, you wrote the rules Gary! It would be like a hockey player saying he was really good and then the NHL suddenly gives goalies machine guns to defend the net. Then when players start dying the NHL is just like “within the sport of hockey you will find that goalies are allowed to defend their nets with machine guns, get better at hockey.” I don’t know.
The clock ticked down to 10:30 pm (real time) and by normal “Big Fish” standards it would end there.
However, Jono revealed that he was willing to run The Expedition to Barrier Peaks as kind of a “push your luck” scenario. Which, if the party voted in favour of it, would mean that we will return to the peaks for more expediting… expeditioning.
Well guess what suckers?
Remember the grail knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?
That’s going to be us! Endless toiling in an impossible labyrinth! Hurray!
We decided to keep going.
Tune in in two weeks when we continue “The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”.
All Images from “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”, copyright Wizards of the Coast probably.
Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.
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