S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 8 – 12
The legendary S3. If the GD(Q) series can be seen as a roadmap for ‘normal’ high level adventures as T1 can be seen as a normal low-level adventure, the S series is where Gygax gets wacky and more experimental, and few things in the original catalogue are stronger and more experimental then Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Bryce’s favorite module, selected nr. #5 of the Best Modules of All Time, its list of accreditations stretches on and on like the waters of the Congo. A crossover between AD&D and Metamorphosis Alpha. Okay. But is it good? Yes. It is stunningly, overpoweringly, magnificently good.
S3 is probably a good illustration of a module where everything works together. The concept is a terrific genre bending romp: S&S heroes explore the ruins of a futuristic star-ship. The dungeon proper is ambitious and immense, 6 levels, filled with all manner of bizarre fauna, futuristic technology, technological hazards and strangeness. The individual encounters are great and at times tongue-in-cheek. The recommended number of characters is 10-15. Even today it feels refreshing and cool, in its heydey it must have been mind-blowing. A sense of exuberance and joy runs throughout the work and it is difficult not to get swept away by the whole.
The conceit behind S3 is simple: The Grand Duchy of Geoff has been plagued by strange monsters as of late and several towns have already been destroyed. You, the bravest heroes, are assembled and equipped by all the powers of the land, to find and quell this strange menace, and to become insanely rich while doing so! A body of men at arms guards your campsite for 4 days, giving you plenty of time to investigate. Little do you know the ‘ dungeon’ is actually a crashed colony vessel from another dimension, with its inhabitants having long died by plague, which is now inhabited by its robot crew, escaped alien fauna and sentient fungoid pygmies. Enter the PCs!
What follows is an immense, deadly, wondrous science-fantasy odyssey as the PCs are effectively trapped inside the vessel until they can recover a proper keycard so they can re-open the door. The technology is peak Star Trek or perhaps peak Jack Kirby’s New Gods: Ray guns, universal translators, blaster rifles, anti-gravity belts, power armor and force fields, infused with mystery by their unconventional shapes, terrible in their destructive power. The unique possibilities of a technological environment are exploited to their utmost; Instead of temples, barracks, tombs and ossuaries you will explore gymnasiums, arboretums, laboratories, maintenance shafts. Instead of conventional ‘ traps’ there is exposed electrical wiring, patches of radioactivity, rampant alien horticulture or damaged equipment.
The maps are a thing of beauty. Forget narrow tunnels (although it has those too). The first (two) levels are endless corridors and rooms, filled with entrances, many of them requiring one of six differently colored key cards to enter, breaking up the exploration as you scramble for keycards. Using an incorrect key cards will see it jammed in the lock and trigger the presence of a maintenance robot. Indeed, finding the right keycards makes one’s life a lot easier, and allows one to mostly bypass the potentially very dangerous Police Robots that patrol most of the ship. Illumination varies across areas. The structure alone could be examined for pages. Dropchutes, lifts and trapdoors allow the characters to explore the ship in virtually any order. There is terrific use of verticality also, a circular balcony overlooks a sprawling garden in the centre of the ship, complete with bodies of water, observation decks, and different types of terrain. Indeed the sheer density of information, the different methods of Keying that are required to convey the breadth of information with any amount of brevity and, moreso then in most modules, a thorough reading of the module is required to grasp the way it all fits together (that say, the obervation deck for the water pool is INSIDE the Island in its centre on and runs through 2 decks!).
This type of architectural richness is mixed with a high level of INTERACTIVITY coupled with a high information value. What do I mean by this: Much of the technology of the Ship becomes exponentially less dangerous and vastly more useful but you can only master it through a combination of experimentation and clever deducation. There are non-hostile androids still walking around but they speak in an unknown language. The robots can mostly be forestalled if the proper clearance card is displayed. The few remaining functional technological artifacts are lethal beyond most things in the DMG but figuring out how they work proceeds via complicated flow-charts and experimenting with them is not without risk. They have their own power supply. The point is that there is a rich and detailed landscape, with its own rules, that must be mastered if the PCs are to be succesfull in their exploration, which I consider to be a quality of Excellent, rather then merely Good, DnD. This interaction goes far, with PCs being able to gain access to the Central Computer and (possibly) open all locks, trigger alarms, disable all robots etc. Or being able to use the many deadly chemicals in the lab, or the highly flammable alcohol in the bar etc. etc. The entire module is like this. You must harness this potentially lethal environment to your benefit or you will die, and quickly!
In keeping with its high level range and party size recommendation (premades are properly placed in the back of the module thank you) this module is deadly, even for a Gygax module. The (mercifully rare) blaster technology strikes unerringly (save vs petrification for half), has a good chance of obliterating even magical armor (that provides some small protection) and readily deals 5-30 damage. Laser weapons also strike unerringly, allowing only partial saves, and have a small chance of permanently damaging a limb. Poison gas grenades and the terrifying Heat Ray setting of the Blaster Rifle can easily cause instant death. What about insane Android doctors? Beserk android fitness instructors that throw weights at you while they tell you to get in shape? What about the details within the encounter, how unfavorably comparing the Karate android’s art with the Boxing android locks them into a battle to the death?
This terrifying display of technological terror is compounded by a not inconsiderable array of lethal xenoforms. Six different versions of lethal flora. Gasbats, Web-birds and other extratelurrian terrors. Favorites of the monstrous manual are used well. Phase spiders, Lukers above, the Auromvorax and the Mind Flayer are re-imagined as Alien creatures that can easily do terrible damage. Ropers, a fantastic encounter with Dopplegangers in a Sauna, getting stalked by the dreaded Intellect Devourer in the maintenance ways between levels, and of course, the unstoppable power of the Dreaded Froghemoth. Two tribes of Vegypegmy’s and their fungoid dogs, their treasure some gathered supertech. An Eye of the Deep in the Swimming Pool! I can pick them all apart like this and its all fantastic stuff. Jesus I just read another great one. A lump of clay in the Art room that is actually a grey ooze. Or a three armed gorilla, pig hybrid monster that attempts to grapple/bite you to death. Monkeyoids that pelt the PCs with alien fruit whose sap causes nausea. Or what of the Nightmarish WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING that could only work if the Random encounter table was dotted with innocuous fauna, as indeed it is?. Death hides behind a guise of beauty in the arboretum!
Again, I always want to point this out when I see it because it illustrates how rich D&D can be and how often its forgotten nowadays. Interaction is great too. There are methods of coercing or befriending the robots, not all androids are murderous, a pair of Shedu that if helped immediately and shown the exit (notice time clause), will grant the PCs their found treasures or assist against the wretched mind flayer, probably the most formidable opponent on the Ship. A similar event with 4 Coatl in stasis cages. It’s not faction play, but it does mean the PCs do more then obliterate everything they come across with with laser beams. Another great example, a very scary and venomous looking plant is actually friendly and can communicate telepathically with the characters.
Treasure is probably spectacular? The mundane treasure is usually just jewelry of unusal make or the strange technological treasures of the future. But what about the scintillating scales of venomous alien fish in the arboretum? Or the myriad technological wonders of the Nth century? Hidden between debris or locked behind impregnable steel, which can only be lasered through. Did I tell you you can find a suit of fully functional power armor? A king’s hoard worth of alien jewelry and lethal super-science is here for the taking, and best of all, it won’t unbalance your campaign as there is no means of replenishing the power sources all of these weapons rely upon. Granted, if they find all of the power disks the PCs can likely run amok over the armies of the civilized world and set themselves up as super science lords but only until the charges run out, like the faerie magicks of another realm. Do I mention the viewscreen, which shows stars, perhaps tricking the PCs into believing they have been spirited away to the interorbular ether? It is all handled rather well.
Do I go into the unusual pattern of exploration? Where the maintenance levels are mostly empty (as one would expect them to be), and the bulk of the treasure is located on Level I, yet the nature of its many locked doors is likely to have the PCs branching out across the myriad levels, only to return and win big once they have obtained the requisite card keys? Do I remark on the technological toys like the diving jetpack or the anti-gravity carriage, which are included for the sheer exuberent joy of discovery more for their immense use during the adventure? Do I applaud the inclusion of cryonic firefighting gear and atmospheric scanners alongside the blasters, antigravity belts and laser weapons? Do I perhaps remark on the spectacular encounter in the cargo hold which serves as the ‘ end’ of the encounter, which can get the PCs ejected from the ship, alongside an angry bullette by an overwhelming number of robots?
S3 is, and feels like, a delightful detour from the regular routine of D&D, transporting the characters into a world that is not their own, with possibilities beyond even those offered by the magical world of dungeons and dragons. It is almost like a dream. For a while they find artifacts with power beyond their reckoning, must grapple with alien peril, and must master the alien logic of this world that this very different from their own if they want to survive. It is very easy to get shut out of S3 and this is all the more appropriate, because it takes place in a world that is fundamentally different from the sword & sorcery world of Greyhawk. Allowing the PCs to linger overlong in this strange world would diminish the wonder of the experience greatly, one thinks.
A note on the art. The thought occurs; The art is fantastic, peak Jeff Dee , but also more useful then current standards. Older modules had the Illustrations in the back of the booklet that could be shown to players so they do not only illuminate the work for the GM but their effect on the players is not lost either. I see this used in a few modules today like Barrowmaze, but mostly the art lies inert in the document, to attract potential buyers and then to expire. Let us return to the days of yore, say I. Nothing provokes wonder like a fucking illustration booklet.
Every other technological dungeon, even for technological systems, that I have seen borrows, to some degree, from S3. In this it is Platonic. It showcases the power, the wonder, the exhuberance of science fantasy with an inventiveness and energy that is breathtaking. The elegant subsystems that allow the PCs to figure out how to master the super-scientific artifacts add to their mystery. The encounter placement and use is peak Gygax.
This is a delight and it belongs in everyone’s collection. If you get sick at the thought of laser pistols in your fantasy, I urge you not to knock this one until you have tried it.
 I have been reliably informed that Erol Otus may or may not have contributed a stray piece or so, it is what it is.