Monday, September 14, 2009

Red Wine, Chocolate Cupcakes, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

I've been thinking a bit about what I wanted to say about S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks...truth be told, I couldn't think of a single profound thing (go figure...I told you folks I was a hack!).

Considering the fact that I've had it as long as any of my oldest modules, it is in fairly good condition...minimal creasing on the cover, no pencilled marks inside, the only rip being on the illustrated booklet. Part of the reason for the good condition is that this module was picked up new, along with several others in a four-pack set (I know that two of the other modules were S1: Tomb of Horrors and S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth), rather than from a used bookstore in Montana. I must have acquired it around 1985 or so.

However, a main part of the reason for its good condition is that I simply haven't used it much. I think I've run it all of twice, maybe three times (and that maybe is very iffy). Fact of the matter is, I never liked Expedition to the Barrier Peaks very much. Certainly not as a DM.

Now if my little spot poll means anything, that definitely puts me outside the norm...I'm the only one (so far) that's voted for "DM; eh, so-so." Considering 15 out of 19 who bothered to respond answered with the "loved it" answer, and the fact that it was named #5 on the greatest all-time list by Dungeon magazine (2004), I must be pretty silly. Even Stephen Colbert, whom I have immense respect for as a comedian, actor, and humanitarian considers it his favorite adventure module, at least according to wikipedia...high praise indeed!

So what's my beef?

Well, it's hard to say. I can list a number of things that bothered me as a kid. Never was it the problem with mixing players happily time-tripped to the 20th century, Boot Hill, even the Marvel Universe. Hell, we may have even had a stint in Gamma World but my memories of thos days are hazy. No it definitely was not the inclusion of space ships and lasers that bugged me. Let me see if I can put it into no particular order:

1) The front cover. I like Erol Otis art, though I appreciate it much more as an adult than I did as a kid. I liked the black cover (this was the only black covered module I owned...badass, in other words). But goddammit! You stick a picture of a dude shooting a laser pistol on the front and another guy wearing some sort of techno-helmet and you've given the whole game away! Any player with half a brain (and believe you me, my players had big ol' brains!) is going to know right away what they're in for when they see the cover.

[side note...I absolutely love the Roslov back cover, on the other hand....what is it about this guy? He totally "tickles my fantasy." I should research him some...]

2) The module is too easy/too hard. This is my memory from childhood, so may not stand up to the test of maturity, were I to run the module again as an adult. I ran this for characters of slightly higher level (if I remember correctly) and they breezed through pretty much every challenge...besides the froghemoth, of course. But for characters of slightly lesser level this (i.e. the recommended levels) it was too f'ing hard, especially considering that they would get trapped inside the dungeon upon entry. And certain encounters (especially one of my all-time favorite monsters: shambling mounds) proved especially deadly for any level party, seeing as how no group ever took a druid into an underground dungeon!

Now granted: in re-reading the module yesterday, I realized that adventure is meant to be played with a party of 15 characters. It is specifically designed for a large party, with the adjuration that players use two or even three PCs each! If I knew this as a kid, I'd since forgotten it, but I'm about 91% sure I missed this, and the parties that ran this module (admittedly not many) were fairly small (4-6 character parties).

3) The best stuff is hidden. I realize that part of the Old School dungeon design philosophy is to reward good play and thoroughness. Characters in my games tried hard and generally played pretty smart, but they were not always thorough...the chances of them finding a single grey security card and unlocking the locker with the power armor was pretty damn slim without DM fudging (I don't remember fudging by the way...I don't think anyone got the truly cool goodies).

Someone commented earlier that those locked doors drove him crazy as a kid/player. I think one party of youngsters (from when I was a youngster) couldn't figure out the doors at all until I gave them A LOT of hints (they just didn't get the whole door/security card concept, even with the illustrations and boxed descriptions). Jeez. I like the cool stuff to get found. That way players get to experience the cool stuff (though I realize it is the extreme of this attitude that leads to "story path" adventures and rail-roading).

4) It's too big. I understand that this is a persona preference, but as I've mentioned before, I was a self-taught Dungeon Master who cut his teeth on B/X. The "mega-dungeon" was not my experience or the norm. The Keep on the Borderlands would have been too big without the Keep to use as a sanctuary. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain...these were the size of dungeon I was used to. When I wrote my own dungeons, 95% of the time they were a single level (albeit a tough level, geared to high level PCs). Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is six full levels. For a young DM, as I was then (or a lazy DM as I am now) that is a ton of material with which you need to familiarize yourself.

This is, of course, not even taking into account the plethora of extra rules regarding new technological items, new monsters, new systems for determining how to figure out those techie items, and the numerous un-numbered encounters.

You know, over at the Revolution, Odyssey has been blogging about the role-playing that's been going on in-between the monster hunter...that is to say, the character development of PCs with NPCs when not busy with the normal "business" of adventuring. In my old campaigns, this kind of RPG action was par for the course, as we had long-running campaigns with long-established characters (with fairly strong personalities and detailed histories)...having to worry (as a DM) about a bunch of extra, module-specific material got in the way of "the juice" of the campaign. Trust me...if you HAVE high level characters (10-12 or high) that have been advanced over many months of play, there will be party dynamics greater than "okay the fighter's going to tank while the cleric heals him and the wizard lays down the heavy support fire." At least if you're bothering to play an Old School game where character gets developed outside of an intricate stat block. S3 as a tournament module with high-level pre-gens may be fun...S3 with developed characters can be a tedious nightmare.

5) Psionics. A bit of a delicate subject perhaps. Many of the most potent monsters in the various monster manuals (including all the high level challenges, like demon princes and arch-devils) have psionics to some degree or another. And yet few PCs (1% or better depending on stats) will have ANY psionic powers at all. In all of my old campaigns, there was a total of two, possibly 3 if I remember correctly...and only one of those characters had "traditional" psionics as per the Player's Handbook (the other that I remember for sure had a type of home-brewed pyrokinetics....remind me to blog about Dark Flame one of these days).

I never had a major problem with psionics (the one PC with "traditional" psionics? Mine), but I didn't like running a module with major antagonists being mind-fuckers and no one else having the stuff to go up against 'em...or having mind-killers that could not use their best abilities because of a lack of party psionicists.

6) No big finale. Tomb of Horrors has a showdown (albeit, one-sided) with Acerack. White Plume Mountain has several possible climactic scenes (my favorite? Being blown out the top of the volcano?). Even Lost Tomb of Tsojcanth (which I think suffered in several regards), had a final showdown with the baddest vampire ever (yes, Vlad is a pansy compared to Igwilvv's daughter). What's the end result of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks? get thrown out the cargo hatch by a couple robots. Oh...and then you fight a sleepy bulette. A bit anti-climactic after the froghemoth and shambling mounds, if you ask me. Certainly not what I'd call especially heroic or "Special" (isn't the S series the Special series of modules?). I said, I have some complaints, and they aren't in any particular order, but they include some pitfalls I'd like to avoid as I design my own, new module. I emailed my buddy some of my ideas this afternoon and I'm waiting to get his feedback, so the jury is still out as to whether or not we'll be collaborating (I'm keeping my fingers crossed). I wish I could have the balls to call my module "S5" or something (kind of like Carcosa's "new" OD&D "supplement") but I fully intend the module to be for B/X play, not A&D...and I'm a stickler for tradition.

Whoops! The beagles are up to no good in the other room; gotta' go folks! Prost!


  1. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was another module with a cover that totally spoiled one of the mysteries in the adventure.

  2. The cover is to sell the module. The players shouldn't see it. If I bought waht I thought was a regular D&D module and it turned out to be something like Expedition, I would be even more annoyed.

    The back cover illo in Tsojcanth is the one that taught me that the players should never see the cover of the module (or even know they are in a "module" instead of a home-brew).

    The lack of a climax is one of the things I love about the adventure. It is about adventuring and exploring more than working your way to a finale. Getting kicked out with the Bullette was just the way the *first* expedition ended. A few passwall spells and we were back inside hunting for more stuff.

    I agree that it is too big. It really can play out as a megadungeon if you want to explore the whole thing.