Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Retrospective: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Based loosely on a tournament scenario from Origins II in 1976 that combined elements from Metamorphosis Alpha and a portion of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, 1980's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is presented as "an exciting insertion into your campaign and as a primer on how to combine 'science' into your fantasy roleplaying." Gamers have been arguing about it ever since. That's because the decision to include overt science fiction elements into what is ostensibly a fantasy adventure scenario is a contentious one. One of the fault lines that rumbles beneath the surface of the hobby is the lack of distinction between fantasy, horror, and science fiction, three now-separate genres that had, prior to the 70s (if not later), peacefully co-existed as part of an indistinguishable mass of literature. Early D&D arose in such an environment and is pretty comfortable with such "genre bending," because early gamers (mostly) saw it as part of a long tradition, going at least as far back as classics like 1933's "The Tower of the Elephant" by Robert E. Howard. Gamers who grew up later or who were never immersed in the world of early "fantasy" fandom tend to cavil at such easy mixing of elements, which they see as breaking with fantasy conventions.

I am certainly sympathetic to those who don't want chocolate in their peanut butter when it comes to fantasy gaming. I occupy a weird middle place in this dispute, because, while I had plenty of contact with the remnants of the old days of fantasy fandom, I wasn't part of it myself. Instinctively, I'm part of the camp that sees sci-fi and fantasy as two separate genres of imaginative fiction. I'm also hyper-rationalist and prefer that my settings "make sense," which is to say, that I can explain how and why everything works the way it does, even if my explanations resort to the fantastic to do so. Having spaceships and lasers in a setting with gods and magic takes some heavy lifting to explain; it can be done but it's often more work than I prefer to undertake, so I avoid it.

Nowadays, though, I have come round, perhaps not to a full bore appreciation of "gonzo" settings, but a better understanding of the hows and whys of what some might see as genre mixing. It's very hard, if you have any knowledge of the history of the RPG hobby and the fandoms from which it sprang, to get worked up about robots and aliens in Greyhawk. They've always been there, just as they've always been a part of weird fiction. The boxes we now use to categorize -- and market! -- our creative products are purely artificial, the result primarily of bean counters looking for ways to sell their wares more effectively. "Genre" nowadays is often more an exercise in brand building than literary theory and modules like S3 are throwbacks to the days before such a mindset was commonplace.

The module itself is effectively a dungeon crawl, but in a dungeon of steel and plastic rather than stone and mud. The crashed spaceship is large and filled with a wide variety of environments, making it a terrific set-up for encounters of many sorts. These encounters include many memorable new monsters, like the froghemoth and vegepygmies, and gives us hints into a possible interpretation of the illithids that I think works far better than anything we saw subsequently. The "magic items" of the module are technological artifacts whose use is potentially dangerous, thanks to a series of charts Gamma World fans should recognize. I'm also fond of the illustrations of these artifacts, very few of which look anything like you might expect, which gives them a genuinely alien and high-tech feel to them. Indeed, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may be one of the most lavishly illustrated modules ever, since it came with a booklet containing 63 separate pieces of artwork, many by Erol Otus, who, as an artist, was probably destined to contribute to a product like this.

Like most modules of the period, there's only the thinnest outline of a plot and little in the way of context or explanation about the spaceship and its origins. Referees are thus left to their own devices to provide these things. Back in the day, I never did so, but I think S3 could, if the referee is willing, be the catalyst for some very fascinating and potentially setting-changing events. Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign -- almost certainly an inspiration for this module -- provides one example of how this might proceed and Paizo's Golarion includes a country called Numeria that answers much-debated question of what might have happened if Conan or Kull had had access to lasers and robots. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may not be to everyone's tastes, especially nowadays, but it's nonetheless an excellent romp and a time capsule from an age before the demandsd of marketing narrowed our sense of what was and was not "fantasy." I re-read S3 every few months to remind myself of this; it's a practice I recommend highly if you're able to do so.


  1. I strongly suspect it had a direct influence on Paranoia, which sets me thinking about running it as a reverse dungeon...

  2. I distinctly remember playing this module in it's original form. I loved the interplay of of the fantasy and science.

    Its interesting that you mention Tower of the Elephant because it has always been one of my favorite REH stories. The scene with Yag-kosha touched on many issues like science, animal welfare and other moral issues.

    “I am neither god nor demon, but flesh and blood like yourself, though the substance differ in part, and the form be cast in a different mold.”

  3. This is my second favorite adventure (Isle of Dread is my first), and I think the reason I like Barrier Peaks is due to how much I love Blackmoor in all of its' many forms. Hell it was this adventure and Blackmoor that keep me interested in D&D.

  4. Though I'm generally a no chocolate in my peanut butter person, this was a fun module to DM. It had an excellent layout with a good sense of mystery and wonder. Plus vegepygmies and Aurumvoraxes were cool new monsters.

  5. FYI, S3 is largely based in concept on RJK's "Machine Level" from Castle Greyhawk, which is why (along other RJK elements that appear in the the garden level) Rob gets a special thanks from Gary.

    And, FWIW, it's likely that the original "Machine Level" will be available in a print edition by January :D


  6. S3 was a big influence on Carcosa.

    Kull and Conan types armed with laser pistols and robots? You'll find that in Carcosa. :)

  7. This was also one of my favorites - although I used it far less than Island of Dread. I actually think I only used it once - besides my precious regular game world, I would occasionally have players roll up high level characters to play around in Judges Guild and Arduin settings, and as far as Arduin it fit right in. I think I used it once for that game, and then as a reference for Metamporphosis Alpha gaming.

    I gotta dig it out. The piece of artwork I remember most is the robots casually tossing out a Bullete (a big one too) from the ship onto the forest floor. Old school at it's cheesy finest!

  8. Yeah! This was a fantastic module... I never ran it but I certainly played in it. I remember when it first came out, our DM purchased it and immediately wrapped the cover in a paper bag, so that we had absolutely no idea what we were adventuring in.

    I think what stood out most to me was the way that "alien" materials were described in the module, they did such a nice job with suspension of disbelief. (Heh, if there really was such a thing.)

    One of the coolest things about this though was that we were also playing Gamma World at the time and there was a wonderful sense that we had crossed through that thin veil.. I loved when recognizable elements from one genre or story popped up in another. Our DM used to toss in cameos from authors like Fritz Leiber (My character sat next to a drunken Mouser once.), Michael Moorcock, and R.E. Howard (Kane, not Conan.).

    Anyway, I'm rambling here, apologies. This module certainly stirs up the memories though. ;-)

  9. My earliest gaming experience after 1st ed. AD&D was with Rifts, which, although certainly not my favorite game, liberally mixed sci-fi and fantasy elements.

    I also remember playing Final Fantasy on the NES years ago, which also mixed genres without apparent conflict, so doing so hasn't ever been a problem for me.

    I think people who have a problem with mixing sci fi and fantasy elements don't have much of an argument against this practice (outside of personal preference) to make other than when a game or story does mix those elements that they should make sense within a respective setting's context.

    I think that the homogenization of fantasy and sci fi into set categories has far more to do with marketing departments' decisions at major book publishers than anything else. RPG publishers and video game companies (look at the early Ultima games, or Final Fantasy series as I mentioned, for example) have been much more willing to embrace sci fi/fantasy mixes as normal by comparison.

    This is the kind of module that I know I would have enjoyed, even with the bare bones plot, back when I was getting into gaming.

  10. I too liked the blend of sci fi and fantasy in FF7, and back then was inpired to incorporate similar stuff in my AD&D world. But I always chicken out. 120 years of character continuity, and the biggest advancements have been more use of gunpowder (more cannons these days) and the printing press, which I think will change things up a bit as far as books and scrolls though.

    But mixing in heavier elements, ray guns and such, are things that just scare me. I remember Arduin's techno class, cutting up dragons to find the flame thrower...

  11. The resistance in some quarters against mixing scifi and fantasy has always boggled me, although I know that my opinion isn't shared by everyone. Certainly I've had enough arguments over the years over whether or not psionics is "too scifi" to be used in D&D!

    On a personal level, I think the key -- as far as combining scifi and fantastic elements in the game goes -- is to be moderate in all things. Of course, that can be easier said than done if you've got a real jones for a certain element ...

    Or maybe I'm just overenthusiastic for psionics. And alien illithids.

  12. I like my chocolate with peanut butter, and all sorts of other ingredients. Fantasy by itself is just too vanilla for my taste. I was raised on 80s cartoons, so I'm use to science fantasy. One I got over the fact that Gamma World was not a science fiction, I took to like peanut butter to jelly. A Princess of Mars, Heavy Metal the movie, Thundarr the Barbarian, and even Korgoth of Barbaria are some awesome examples of genre bending science fantasy.

    That Module is one of the most popular amongst Gamma World fans. There is an online Mutant Future game going on using the Barrier Peaks Module:
    (my character is Aka-Vasha)

  13. For what it's worth, robots are listed among the monsters in OD&D. I always wondered if that was somehow related to Expedition.

  14. Mixing is actually the rule these days (Star Wars coming to mind as a leader in popularization). If the resultant "sci fi" is judged "non-fantasy,"then it's on superficial grounds. There are deeper reasons to distinguish it from actual science fiction.

  15. I never was one for genre bending when playing the game in the '80s, but have gained an appreciation for it over time as I explore the roots of the hobby.

    I'm currently running Barrier Peaks as an online Mutant Future module; you can see the gameblog at:

  16. I won't lie to you, James, Barrier Peaks might be my favorite module of all time.

  17. And, FWIW, it's likely that the original "Machine Level" will be available in a print edition by January :D

    Here's hoping!

  18. For what it's worth, robots are listed among the monsters in OD&D. I always wondered if that was somehow related to Expedition.

    It's possible they are a reference to things on the "Machine Level" of Castle Greyhawk, which is one of the sources of Expedition, according to the all-knowing Allan Grohe.

  19. Mixing is actually the rule these days (Star Wars coming to mind as a leader in popularization).

    Interestingly, I think there's less resistance to science fiction that includes fantasy elements, like Star Wars, rather than fantasy that includes science fiction elements. It's a strange thing. For whatever reason, people are more accepting of, say, magic in a setting where people fly around in spaceships than one lasers and robots in a setting where there are elves and knights in shining armor.

  20. I think a lot of people who read DUNE during it's first couple of decades of being published, especially folk who didn't usually read sci fi, probably thought of all the spice induced "powers" as magical. I think that goes towards fantasy elements in SF being more acceptable.

    I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to just go "fuck it," this is too much - it must be magic. Or at least some serious high level psionics!

  21. Oh, and as far as Star Wars, I have to say - Lucas obviously tried to eliminate some of the fantasy (the major fantasy elements) of The Force by making it some kind biological energy. But that still doesn't explain how all those muppets came to life and started walking around.

  22. Hi James, love your blog. A late comment in regards to why people are usually more comfortable with a touch of fantasy in science fiction settings than with the other way around. I think it's because instinctively one locates fantasy in the past and sci fi in the future. So remnants of past civilization magic in the future sort of make more sense or at least is easier to imagine than hi tech devices in what is perceived as the past... Makes sense ?

  23. I have always loved Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I was too young to play D&D when it came out, but I would read my brother's books (as best I could), trying to puzzle it out. I was grateful to acquire all of his D&D books when he was done with them.

    Later, S3 became a part of my homebrew campaign, and a core part of it's ancient lore.

    Like you, I've always been intrigued by that Mind Flayer, and that too became part of my campaign.

    If I remember correctly, the mind flayer was sucked into Grayhawk at the same time as the spaceship was, coming from another dimension (or alternate reality) himself.

    The gear he's wearing isn't Mind Flayer gear, but simply the weapons and equipment that he was able to scavenge off of the wrecked spaceship (which tickles my simulationist heart).

    I've been intrigued by this sort of sci-fi mashup that brings both lasers and robots and Lovecraftian horror to the fantasy world of Grayhawk, and I integrated this vibe into my own homebrewed campaign that weaves old school modules together (with enhanced story elements and fleshed out NPCs, since most fo these modules were bare bones affairs).