What Do I Know About Reviews? OAR3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)

 

If you tell me you want to address the history of roleplaying while creating a product that updates something from the past to the present, you are going to get my attention, if only to see what form that adaptation takes. Up to this point, I own all three of the Original Adventures Reincarnated (OAR) series published by Goodman Games in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, which at this point in time consists of Into the Borderlands, The Isle of Dread, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Into the Borderlands didn’t wow me, but I also know that The Keep on the Borderlands was one of the first adventures I tried to read and understand, and it never engaged my young DM brain. The Isle of Dread is an adventure I had always loved from the first time I read it, but not only did the update not address the problematic elements that first appeared in the 80s, it added even more problematic elements that weren’t present in the initial adventure, and the supplementary material mainly added more dungeon crawling to a wilderness adventure.

Because of both of those experiences, I wasn’t sure if I was going to pick up OAR3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Some of my regular readers indicated that they were interested in a review of the product, and that, in addition to the fact that I never owned Expedition to the Barrier Peaks when I was younger, as opposed to Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread, pushed me towards picking up a copy of the book.

The Expedition Arrives: This is just a weird little side note, but I saw Expedition to the Barrier Peaks at one of the FLGS in my area over a week before my pre-order arrived. I’m not mad, so much as just wondering what the delivery schedule is for pre-orders from Goodman Games.

Expedition Logs

OAR 3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is 400 pages long. Like the previous OAR series books, a lot of this page count comes from multiple reprints of the original adventure. The opening pages are a new Erol Otus image featuring adventurers fighting a Froghemoth, and the final two pages are the front and back cover of the original adventure.

There are three pages of ads for other Goodman Games products (Dungeon Crawl Classics and the original OGL 5e adventures that Goodman publishes). About 153 pages are dedicated to different reprinted versions of the original adventure, in part because, like the Tomb of Horrors, the art booklet that was included with the adventure was also reprinted for each version.

The rest of the book consists of various luminaries ruminating on their first encounters with the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an interview, a study of Erol Outus’ work on the original artwork, and an essay about the link between this adventure and the Metamorphosis Alpha game that TSR published (which Goodman recently republished).

The fifth edition conversion of the adventure is followed up with suggestions for alternate starting points, end points, additional encounters, including an extra level of the ship, and a side adventure that takes place in virtual reality. The artwork that appears in the booklets for the original edition is also reprinted again, this time keyed for the 5e conversion, with some additional pieces for the added encounters.

If you have seen the previous OAR publications, this one differs in that the spine isn’t rounded, but is flat, and the pages are all glossy (although most of the interior is still black and white, with the exception of reprints of the color sections of the original adventure, and the section highlighting Erol Otus’ work on the new art piece.

While the lettering and overall format looks the same, my brain immediately notices the difference in the spines on my shelf. I haven’t seen OAR 1 in any stores, but I have seen reprints of OAR 2 The Isle of Dread, and it appears the reprints are now using this new printing specification.

Chapter One: Introduction

Chapter one includes Michael Curtis’ introduction. Curtis is one of the authors of the conversion this time around, changing the team from Chris Doyle and Tim Wadzinski to Curtis and Wadzinski. There is also a recollection from Tony DiTerlizzi, a fantasy artist probably best known to RPG players as the person that defined the look of Planescape and Changeling.

Next is a four page spread showing the progress of Erol Otus’ original piece of art, depicting a fight against the froghemoth. There are eight color photos and some notes about Otus’ use of physical media to create the image.

James Maliszewski contributes a piece on the historical relevance of Expedition and the inclusion of science fiction elements in a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, and we wrap up with an interview with Diesel LaForce about the art department of TSR and the progress of the artwork used for the adventure, especially given the reliance on the art pieces to reinforce elements in the adventure.

Because I am drawn to these books in part because of the history aspect, I especially appreciate the interview with LaForce about the art department and the process used to create the original adventures. Probably one of the most fascinating bits in this interview is about the use of prefabricated items used for lettering and shapes at the time the book was originally published.


It is also compelling to hear about Curtis’ and DiTerlizzi’s love for the original adventure when they first started gaming, and it’s interesting to me how many times Star Wars is brought up as a touchstone between fantasy and science fiction in pop culture.

I’m going to segway into something I enjoyed about semi-similar products from another game system, and what I wish were present in these historical pieces. I loved the various Mutants and Masterminds “era” books like Golden Age and Silver Age, because not only do they have stats and tropes from those eras and advice on how to run games that utilize them, but they also have some deep discussion of why those tropes came about, and how those tropes evolved into the modern era, etc.

Maliszewski’s piece touches on some aspects of this kind of analysis, but it’s entirely backwards looking from the point of original publication, examining pulp inspirations of D&D and how that resulted in Expedition, but not looking forward to what Expedition and it’s influences might have added to D&D moving forward. I understand that Goodman Games is primarily looking at marketing to people interested in “old school” feel, but as someone that was there for AD&D 1stedition, and honestly wants the D&D 5e stats because I actively play the game, I would love a little bit more of a treatment that doesn’t skip from 1stedition to the present. That’s not a failing of Maliszewski’s piece, but more the scope of the project.

Chapter 2: Original Publication

There are two versions of the 1st edition AD&D adventures included in this section. The variations between printings are minimal, with a few areas of the map relabeled because of mistaken placements, and a few of the illustrations swapped out for different pictures. I understand the scope of the project, and the desire for completeness, but as this series goes on, I’m wondering how dramatic the differences between printings will need to be in order to justify inclusion in future volumes. Some adventures had dramatically reworked covers and artwork, and others replaced entire encounters, but this adventure is an example of one with few serious changes.

This was a different experience for me that the previous OAR products, because I didn’t have a previous impression of the adventure. Given that I’m not a big fan of large dungeons, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I actually really enjoyed reading this adventure for the first time.

Because this was a tournament adventure, the start is hard framed to explain why you are there, and what you are expected to do, and I appreciate that, compared with the vaguer approach in some other old school adventures. It does strike me reading through this that I think Gygax’s “killer DM” reputation isn’t so much wrong, as misrepresented in how it was implemented. Between the art book in this adventure, and Tomb of Horrors, I think Gygax, at least in tournament scenarios, wanted to be able to get everyone on the same page quickly. Where the “killer DM” aspect came in wasn’t in framing the danger of the scene, but in the unforgiving nature of what would happen as a consequence to misinterpreting or experimenting in that scene.

I was familiar with many of the monsters that first appeared in this adventure, like the froghemoth, and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. I wasn’t aware that a lot of other monsters that I knew from sources like the Monster Manual II, like the webbirds or vegypymies, were originally from this adventure as well. It’s also interesting to see that creatures like mind flayers, intellect devourers, and displacer beasts, which had already been established in D&D at this point, appear in this adventure, and it makes me wonder if these were all intended to be alien creatures, rather than supernatural, from the start (I know the displacer beast actually came from a science fiction story, originally, for example).

Michael Curtis mentions that this is a true “funhouse dungeon,” which usually means that weird, challenging stuff happens that doesn’t get much of an explanation. In this case, I think there may be a better explanation than in many dungeons.

In case you have never heard of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the plot goes something like this:

  • Weird things raid the nearby countryside

  • Adventurers get hired to investigate

  • The “dungeon” turns out to be a crashed spaceship

  • The PCs run in to a lot of aberrations, as well as robots

  • The PCs can find high tech gadgets which they can attempt to understand

The adventure included flow charts that directed the DM to different results when player characters attempted to use various technological items, leading to different results. There were pictures of various items that the DM was expected to show the PCs, so they could describe how they were approaching getting the item to work.

Because the PCs are modern humans that could guess at the function of some high tech items, a few of these items looked pretty weird, so that it was a challenge not just for the player characters, but also for the players.

A spaceship full of alien creatures and robots doesn’t lead to quite as much problematic content as adventures that revolve around exploration and/or conquest, but the original adventure still has some eye rolling content. Female androids in the med center are designated as nurses, and male androids in that area designated as doctors. In the stats for the androids, female androids are specifically called out as not being as strong as male androids.

Despite being an indeterminate humanoid species, the combat instructor robot is specifically a karate instructor, and not a martial arts instructor.

I’m also not completely comfortable with the continued use of Vegypygmy as a term in D&D. While pygmy isn’t directly seen as a slur, it is a reference to a specific group of people, and it’s a reference that is considered at least somewhat problematic as it makes a physical trait a primary means of reference. At the very least, vegypygmy feels like a throwback to an era when you could use terminology that referred to actual, real people, as if they were some fictional element of stories, and it feels very reductive. I’m not going to dig in to Goodman Games quite as much on this use of the term as I did some of the issues in The Isle of Dread, but I think it’s worth a discussion.

From a modern standpoint, I know it was done for “fairness,” but the bonkers nature of some of the tech illustrations feel like “gotcha” moves to preemptively assume the players weren’t going to “play fair” about what their characters would know about technology from a modern perspective. I also think that some of the illustrations could work against what could be a little bit creepier tone of exploring a weird spaceship full of aberrations, mainly because I can clearly recognize images inspired by Jack Kirby’s drawings of Sentinels and Inhumans characters.

One thing that jumped out at me from an organizational standpoint is that the adventure module attempted to be very efficient, potentially to the detriment of ease of use at the table. What I mean by this was that a lot of information about how rooms worked, what lighting was available, etc. was presented early on in the adventure, and referred to how the overall maps were shaded and keyed. This element of the descriptions wasn’t reprinted in the individual areas, which meant that it would be easy to forget some of the complicating factors that were true in a given area if you just read that description, but it did save on space.


Chapters 3-6 (The Spaceship, Adventure Alternatives and Expansions, The Crash Site Environs, Expanded Encounters for the Spaceship)
 

Chapter three largely does what you would expect it to do—it converts the adventure to 5e rules, while maintaining the same overall structure and progression of the AD&D adventure. This has been true of all of the OAR adventures, but I wanted to call it out here; the double column presentation, fonts, and font sized used are very easy to read. It’s not just better than the old school adventure, it’s easier to read than the official D&D 5e adventures.

One new addition that was added was a sidebar explaining that the ship has a lot of empty space, and it discusses how sensibilities have changed from earlier adventure design. It encourages the DM to quickly signal what areas are empty so that the PCs don’t waste a lot of time exploring areas of the ship that don’t have anything to be found.

The level maps are presented again in the conversion, but they have been recreated with clearer, corrected labels, and the maps include keys that reference some of the supplemental material, but are marked in a way that makes it easy to ignore them if you aren’t using that material.

A lot of the conversion works for 5e, but doesn’t quite feel like how 5e would handle similar situations. Encounters still use d12 + d6 for tables, and d12s for d6s or random encounters, and the ability to break various objects is expressed in d6s, with bonuses for using magic items to break them, rather than giving a straight DC or a number of object hit points. This gave me some flashbacks to some of the more awkward conversions in The Isle of Dread book (but stay tuned).

There are a few “gotcha” moments that are resolved by single rolls instead of engaging the full rules, like where an ambush might be resolved by making a save against the ambusher’s attack to avoid being incapacitated. There are also a few awkward issues like lasers doing +4 extra damage to some creatures instead of that creature having a vulnerability to the damage type.

I greatly appreciate that while the androids encountered are still male or female presenting, as indicated in the original adventure, there isn’t a specific designation of androids being maids, nurses, or doctors, with connections to various genders, and the android stat blocks don’t vary based on gender presentation.

I also noticed that the encounter with the mind flayer that originally explains that the creature is using various gadgets to attack the party because it is low on psionic power points, in the 5e version of the adventure doesn’t bother to try and explain why the mind flayer would want to throw grenades and shoot lasers before hitting them with mind blasts. It just does.

Adventure Alternatives and Expansions

This is an alternate section that doesn’t assume that you start playing the adventure from the same starting point as the original adventure. It builds out a little more history of the raids from the “mysterious metal cave,” decouples the adventure from Greyhawk a little, and even sets expectations for a more campaign focused ending where the PCs aren’t just trying to explore the cave, but also stopping the raids from the ship.

There is also a sidebar that addresses (lightly) what the various factions in the Forgotten Realms would be doing to enjoin adventurers to engaged the threat in a Faerun based campaign.

The Crash Site Environs

This section adds a mini-hex crawl-ish section to the adventure, where the PCs can run into various monsters and raiders from the ship before making it to the local castle to get hired to look into the crashed ship in the mountains.

Given that some of these encounters throw in stone giants and dragons, I was worried a bit about a drift in focus. After all, I felt like adding more dungeon levels to the resolution of The Isle of Dread missed the point of that adventure a bit. On the other hand, after reading the encounters, most of them appear to be padding this out for insertion into a campaign, rather than altering a key factor of the adventure itself.

The raiders from the ship are given more of a purpose, as the ship’s terraforming protocols have been activated, and robots and vat grown lifeforms are moving into the area to colonize. The giants and dragons in the area have had run ins with the interlopers from the ship, and the encounters are written to express that the creatures might be hostile, but are willing to discuss recent events if the PCs don’t go in wands blazing.

Expanded Encounters for the Spaceship
 

This adds a few new encounter areas in the regular map, as well as adding a whole new level to the adventure to help facilitate a more traditional ending. In the original adventure, everything just kind of ends once the PCs finished exploring. The new level allows them to shut down the colonization routines that were activated on the computer, which caused the ship to send out androids and vat creatures into the wilds.

What I like about a lot of these additional encounters is that they don’t just seem to be filler, they serve some story and practical purpose. For example, there are a few encounters where you learn the fate of another group of adventurers that have also attempted to explore the ship, which allows the PCs to find some magical gear, in case they aren’t comfortable engaging in experimentation to get the ship’s tech working for them.

Some standard monsters appear with new abilities, like the grell with a recharge electrical ability, that give you the opportunity to vary expectations on monsters the PCs may be familiar with. There are also a lot more aberrations added to various locations on the ship, like chuuls.

The encounter with the flumph is expressly called out as allowing PCs to get a friendly telepath on their side that might help them communicate with some of the living creatures they otherwise couldn’t.

There is also a room that lets the PCs get a clue about what areas of the ship are irradiated. While we’re on the topic, radiation does strength damage, and there are a few medical gadgets that can help treat it, but I was a little surprised that the fatigue mechanics weren’t used for some aspect of this.

One section of the adventure allows the PCs to play in a virtual reality game, using other pregens, in a science fantasy scenario that plays up various video game tropes (like fading corpses, and hearts that appear and grant hit points when touched). The tone feels pretty cheesy, but it reminded me a bit of Paris’ pulp adventures in the holodeck on Voyager. That said, even this addition seems to have some utility other than novelty, because getting a glimpse at the code in the VR simulation gives the PCs advantage to learn how to manipulate the computers on the ship.

Rather than the additional dungeon levels, which felt out of place in The Isle of Dread conversion, I think all of these additions work pretty well to transition Expedition from a timed tournament scenario, to an adventure that can be worked into the overall progression of an ongoing campaign.

Appendix A-F

This section of the adventure presents the alternate short adventure that is triggered by the VR console mentioned in the previous section, has stats for new monsters, contains information on technological items, includes pregenerated characters both for the adventure and for the VR scenario, and has handouts and maps for the conversion section of the book.

Compared to the previous OAR series adventures, there isn’t quite as much variety of new monsters in this section. Many of the monsters are androids, robots, or biological constructs from the ship, although if you don’t have Volo’s Guide to Monsters or Tomb of Annihilation you will find a few old favorites in this section, like the Froghemoth. I was particularly happy to have Aurumvorax stats, and I’ve always liked the gold eating little beasts. Because this is an official 5e product made under license from WOTC, creatures that have appeared in other 5e sources have the same stats as in those sources.

The process for determining how to use the technological items doesn’t directly adapt the flow chart approach from the AD&D version of the adventure, but uses the process detailed in the DMG under the optional rules for encountering high tech objects. Instead of using that exact version of the rules, however, there is a little more granularity added, with an added “bad” option, and an added “good” option when making a check to engage with the technology, but still resembling the overall process. The additional randomizer makes it a little bit more likely you could shoot yourself with a laser or spray yourself with defoliant, but I think we all expected that in this adventure, right?

The original pregenerated characters were really sparse statblocks in the AD&D adventure, and assumed a really wide level range, with up to 15 participants for the tournament scenario, in part because different classes didn’t level up at the same rate in AD&D. The pregenerated characters in this adventure still vary in level range, but they are more fully expressed. If you aren’t using the pregenerated characters, and you have the upper range of 12th level characters, its recommended you only have about five characters in the party. There are also the VR avatars expressed as PCs for that scenario in this section.

Appendix G: Metamorphosis Alpha and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

The final section of this adventure is an essay originally written for the Metamorphosis Alpha RPG release that Goodman Games published, exploring the origins of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as an adventure that was meant to highlight the more science fiction oriented game line that Metamorphosis Alpha was intended to represent.

As with Maliszewski’s essay, there is a discussion on how genre was less defined in the early days of D&D, and there were natural areas where science fiction and fantasy combined. I’ve seen this assertion, and I understand it. In that timeframe, a lot of the pulp inspiration for D&D did draw on planetary exploration and weird science as well as magic and horror. But I also feel like the idea that fantasy and science fiction had a porous border is really a reflection of pulp storytelling more than overall literary trends. Fewer people had the access to the literary terms to express the boundaries and shape of genres, but its also pretty clear that laser pistols would be out of place in Middle-earth. D&D was an entity that was casting a wide net for inspiration, which was also drawing on other sources that also cast a wide net.

Blast Off

I got a nice surprise with this purchase, not just for how much I liked a bit of gaming history I had never been exposed to before, but with how much I enjoyed the conversion. I think the additional material is a great way to mainstream a tournament module into an ongoing campaign, and add additional support for a broader story. The TSR anecdotes were also an interesting window into a type of publishing that it is easy to take for granted in today’s desktop environment.

Warp Core Breach

While the additional material feels much more like it understands 5e, and tailors it to evoke the original feel of the adventure, the conversion itself feels a little more perfunctory. I also wish that these OAR products had just a little bit more range in presenting the historical context of the adventures being converted, beyond looking at the time they were published, and creating a modern interpretation. Many of them have left fingerprints across settings and into design conceits that were picked up by later editions of the game that might make for a fascinating study.

Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

I feel way better about recommending this product compared to The Isle of Dread conversion, and it’s more exciting than Into the Borderlands, but for someone that is primarily looking for a 5e conversion of the adventure, it may provide a bit more than they actually want, and for someone that wants more historical context, they may want a bit more substance.

That said, it is a solid conversion of a fun adventure, and provides some genuinely interesting insight into the process that went into the creation of adventures in a time after RPGs gained momentum, but well before the modern era of publishing.

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