[Review] S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (AD&D); Beyond

S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 8 – 12

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks Dungeon Module S3 (AD& D Adventure for  Character Levels 8-12): Gygax, Gary: 9780935696141: Amazon.com: Books

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 [1], 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.


[1] I have been reliably informed that Erol Otus may or may not have contributed a stray piece or so, it is what it is.

34 thoughts on “[Review] S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (AD&D); Beyond

  1. A good and thoughtful review, as per usual.

    I’ve owned this module since the mid-80s (circa 1985). I’ve run it…maybe twice? Maybe three times. MAYBE. Every time has ended in abortive failure, the last attempt probably being prior to 1990. I have long been, well, rather down on this module.

    But I think my issue stems from getting hold of it as a child. There is much to this adventure that appeals to the youthful, immature DM: the lasers, the robots, the “gotcha'” surprise monsters (some really big/deadly/tough ones). And the adventure needs to be run by a thoughtful, mature Dungeon Master. There is a LOT of adventure here and much of it is VERY different from “standard” D&D. Any DM with a couple years under his/her belt can run a three level Hall of the Giants with very little difficulty…blending the heavy combat, NPC interaction, and environmental shenanigans into a seamless work of powerful, archetypal D&D.

    S3 ain’t like that…at all. As you point out in your review: here you have to go down to go up (find key cards below to open treasure troves above) inverting the dungeon archetype (bigger monsters/treasures the deeper you delve). Here a detect magic doesn’t reveal the power (or danger) of a black ray gun or gas grenade, only the tech-deciphering subsystems. Here the monsters are less magical, more psionic (with intellect devourers and mind flayers). This is no simple dungeon to be explored at leisure from a nearby town or camp site…it is a mad, mad world that the party is forced to live within before being dumped unceremoniously like so much garbage (hopefully…if they’re lucky enough to survive).

    I think this is pretty tough, CONCEPTUALLY, for young players/DMs especially ones unfamiliar with the various pulp stories that easily mix scifi and S&S into a heady schlock of adventure. I would think its doubly or triply difficult for the “modern” D&D player who’s grown up on LotR films and Harry Potter insanity, and the preconceived trope that divorces fantasy from the futuristic with a permanent restraining order. But even more than that: there is no room for heroic grandeur in this adventure. There’s no Big Bad Antagonist, no climactic ending, no plot arc to follow.

    Instead you have D&D at its finest. Pure exploration and wonder and the pressing imperative to play clever (and cooperative) or else DIE with no handy resurrection temple in arm’s reach.

    S3 is rightly in the S series because it is a very “special” adventure. However, of the four S modules it is by far the most ADVANCED, most challenging module for a DM to run. I can run S1 and S2 in my sleep without a hitch. S4 is a tricky, frustrating adventure for PLAYERS, but hardly rougher. S3, though, is damn daunting: it’s sat on my shelf, gathering dust for 30 years precisely because of the difficulties I experienced trying to run it in my teens.

    Probably deserves a second look. I think you’re right to award it 5*. It’s pretty damn masterful design.


    1. You make the key point: the lack of a conventional Big Bad Evil Guy in the final chamber makes this a very different experience from regular modules.


    2. The LOTR books have plenty of opposition between magic and technology, or at least the concept of fantasy and such. It’s a pretty common theme in fantasy works, often made explicit where one cancels the other out. This isn’t a new characterization of things that has crept up on people. Nor do I think people growing up in what is arguably a pretty cyberpunk experience will struggle with the idea of something not being heroic fantasy.

      Also, thanks to video games, the modern roleplayer has spent more time exploring starships individually than the entire D&D playing community of the 1980s put together. I’ve been colour-matching keycards since I was 12 or so. I don’t think this is going to be the surprising experience it would have been in the 1980s.


  2. Read this module as a kid….hated it. Had no desire to DM it. Loved the art though–and totally agree on the illustration booklets (but that can get expensive to produce). Probably deserves another read (although I sold it about 6 months ago). I recall a bunch of empty rooms, which as a kid, didn’t make me happy as I was a lazy DM back then. Currently, I have a bit more appreciation for sci-fi mixed with fantasy after brainstorming with Grutzi on his Shell of Tevlon adventure. The ‘hook’ for Expedition seems a bit weak, but tried and true I suppose. I remember Ian on Dragonsfoot forums did a writeup of his campaign, taking a bunch of kids through the adventure and it sounded like a blast…so perhaps don’t knock it until you try it may ring true.


  3. This was written and originally run at Origins II in 1976, and therefore predates all of the other Gygax modules except for S1 (which was run at Origins I in 1975). Something I didn’t notice at the time I first read and ran this in the 80s but realized later is that – setting aside the gimmick of the high-tech elements – it’s a really great (and arguably the fullest and most mature) example of the original Greyhawk Castle OD&D “big dungeon” paradigm before Gary abandoned that in favor of smaller dungeons as seen in the G series, S4, and T1. It’s got the space-filling maps with tons of winding corridors and small rooms, it’s got a substantial (and not necessarily linear) vertical element, it’s got lots of empty rooms separating mini-lair “zones” of monster habitation, it’s got shorthand and repeated keys for more mundane areas combined with more detailed special set-piece areas, and so on. The exploration element is very strong and there are opportunities for genuine discoveries (and also for missing big set-pieces that in the later paradigm would have been mandatory). Even the gigantic recommended party size goes with the classic big-dungeon paradigm.

    This is the way D&D was mostly played for the first 3 or so years, but because there aren’t many published examples from this era it got pretty much erased from memory until people started looking back in the 21st century. The high-tech artifacts and monsters are what everyone remembers about this one, but if you look deeper it’s also a really great practical example of classical big-dungeon design principles and probably the closest thing we ever got to a snapshot of what the dungeons of Greyhawk Castle were like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a really interesting insight, IMO. Thank you for it. 🙂

      Also, I think the blog spam filter thinks the above is fake, so I’m padding this out so it knows it isn’t.


    1. I trust you will forgive my friend. The reviews were too various (and included 2nd edition). It was neither the quality (except Dungeon magazine) nor the quantity that was at fault; it was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the very root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.


  4. Very good review, and several interesting comments. A couple of observations:
    (i) A party of 15 is enormous, and play reports would be interesting. (I have never refereed this one.) The pre-generated characters have wildly differing alignments, and I wonder if it all ended up with internecine strife. (Some pregens have been far from lucky with hit point rolls: a 10th level cleric with 34 high points, 10th level thief with 27.)

    (ii) Whenever the game strays into science fiction territory, player knowledge tends to outstrip character knowledge. In this case there was a wise decision to make guns unfamiliar, and I think the flow charts for attempting to use technology are a fine feature. As Prince notes, the limited supply of power discs stops this being a campaign wrecker.


  5. I had never considered looking at this, and am doing so now that you’ve suggested it’s good points.

    I can’t say I’m impressed by one aspect of it, though. Gygax says “everything is worthless” when describing the contents of various rooms. He also says how all the furnishings are either plastic or metal. In a world where goods are produced by hand, I’m pretty sure a plastic and metal ANYTHING is extremely valuable. Especially when it’s retrieved from an arcane and insane dungeon by powerful adventurers. Also, wiring’s usually copper or some other precious metal. In a world where people actually loot copper wire for real, I am horrified that this was overlooked (I know it wasn’t as big a thing when the module was written). I don’t feel like the sheer lootability of this place was considered properly by the author (or another of other aspects of the place). Instead it’s very much “well, the jewellery is valuable.” This is very much plunking a spaceship into a fantasy world without thinking through what that actually means, and it shows.

    Also, despite your claims that Gygax was not intentionally malicious etc, the claim that a vial of truth drug is a chance for the DM to “sow some dissension” makes me suspect you have been more generous than he deserved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also, I feel like given the Intellect Devourer can speak any human language, it would be an obvious potential ally, evil or not. It is presumably smart enough to tell that new humans speaking a foreign language are from outside the ship, and that is logically going to interest the hell out of it. Did Gygax assume we would all get that on our own, or did he not think of it?

      Like many single-author products, I think this could have REALLY benefited from some proofreading by people who did not share the author’s assumptions.


    2. Letter answerer for Dragon Magazine.

      [Everything is worthless]

      I think that’s a smart decision to make in this adventure. D&D treasure is, like many things, not ‘realistic’, it doesn’t strive to simulate a medieval economy, and the value of its currency is based on finding large piles of gold in century-old tombs. It is not in the spirit of the game to run about with a cart full of goblin weapons and dungeon hardwood chairs and benches, so a degree of abstraction is made to disincentivize that.

      Consider this place. The players get trapped in an alien ship, with no possibility of rest, they have a limited window to escape and there is ample super-tech, alien jewelry and futuristic medicine to carry off. Indeed there are even instances when the innards of the robots can be pillaged for the gemstones involved in their ineffable operation. Who bothers with dusty plastic chairs or futuristic space weights? The wiring? Which is behind impenetrable hull metal? This is an unlikely path, and considering it or adding all that detail would have added what is essentially noise to an already dense and complex work.

      I would venture that the module’s purpose is not to introduce space technology into the fantasy world, but rather to briefly transport the characters into a space setting before dumping them back into a world of science fantasy. The limited use to which its technologies can be put, as well as the way the dungeon is sealed off from the outside world seems to point in this direction.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. [Malicious]

      A single instance of throwing a wrench in the player’s decision making strategies is hardly proof of sadistic evil. This is a tedious point, there are ample examples of Gygax’s GM style in module form, or firsthand testimony by the likes of Trent, to get an honest impression of what gaming with him was like.

      [Intellect Devourer]

      If this were a human being I would be inclined to agree, but its an evil nonhumanoid monster with psionic ability, its motivations or reactions might not be comparable to a human standard. It might not be curious, it might be reflexively aggressive and murderous. Its purpose is very clearly to be a murderous suprize for anyone exploring the layer between deck, and its initial response is to begin stalking and killing the PCs. If they somehow manage to establish communication, there’s nothing in the rules that says they cannot attempt to bargain with it and establish a short-lived alliance.


      This scenario has been playtested for years and years by multiple authors at conns since its initial inception in 1976. The points you bring up do not represent significant roadblocks.


      1. Re worthless stuff: I mean, it definitely is the way to do things in some permutations of the game. Hence swarms of hirelings etc. Indeed, many adventures drop in a statue worth some ridiculously large amount or what have you. I’ll grant you that wire looting may not be all that (I was thinking more of the various sections where exposed wiring is mentioned). But the adventure is weirdly fixated on gems. Like in the quarters, where it mentions how there are paintings but they’re worthless. Really? Far future space paintings have no value in a medieval setting?

        It’s perhaps not in the spirit of the game to do what you describe initially, but treasure recovery is a huge component of the game. Indeed, some have commented that the works that inspired D&D are notable for not having heroes who end up with the wealth of D&D heroes. This place is ripe for being mass-looted, at least on the upper levels. You want an expedition of cautious, avoiding instant death, think before they act heroes, you’re going to get some people who ponder about the value of that painting on the wall.

        Also, I’m not sure some of that stuff WOULDN’T be more valuable than the gems. Rubies are rare, yes. Futuristic magic space chair? Made of an unknown and possibly unbreakable metal? THAT’S a status symbol with some value to it. That’s basically a bejeweled throne, except no one can make another one like it. Character 13 even has a bag of holding. You can fit a lot of stuff through a 2-foot diameter hole.

        The dungeon is a bit hard to get to, yes, but it’s perfectly possible to repeatedly enter and return (unless I missed something, which is very possible). The place can be stripped to the ground by the PCs if they’re sufficiently motivated. As a one-shot, it’s workable. As “an exciting insertion into your campaign and as a primer on how to combine “science” into your fantasy role-playing” I think it falters. You put this in a campaign as-is, it will NOT be the same afterward.

        There’s a lot of that…shallowness for lack of a better term. Same thing as with the Intellect Devourer. The occasional friendly androids – do they know anything about how the computers work? Even minimal knowledge is probably enough to get sensible reactions out of the computer, or at least avoid some of the more horrific results. How do those departing couatl leave, exactly? Instead we have random tables and plenty of things that kill you dead, quick.

        There’s lots of stuff like this – stuff where a bit of explanation might have made a deeper experience. It feels very shallow. Which as a convention one-shot is, again, fine. But that’s not what it is any more. God knows, Gygax’ll put plenty of details into monster tactics. The same attention on other elements would have been nice.

        As an aside, the stats on those sample characters do a lot to suggest that 3d6 in order is not as common as it is claimed to be. I see 4 stats below 10 in 90 rolls.

        Re maliciousness: it’s as much that clearly having a truth potion in the party will lead to discord. Like…would introducing a truth potion to your workplace lead to inevitable discord? Even with some chaotic evil people around (which is, of course, not guaranteed). Malice might not be the right word, but he definitely expects a high-conflict D&D with lots of semi-random lethality, and combat definitely seems emphasized over other interactions. I see how people ended up with the impression they did.


      2. For Simulated Knave:
        Have you not just suggested an exciting campaign expansion? That doesn’t suggest shallow to me, rather an interesting situation on which you can build.
        After the initial expedition, all sorts of political machinations might begin. If the interested parties in Geoff think there is an exploitable resource, will they let the PCs take everything they want without even a tithe? The pregens are far from a united bunch in any case.


      3. [Worthless]

        I think it’s a question of context in this case. S3 will not be a careful expedition because it will seal people in and then force them to explore if they want to survive. It will also likely end with the characters being ejected from the Space ship at the end, possessing only what they carried with them.

        R.e. the space chair problem, if this was an adventure in a cave with weird mutants and they would be worshipping an idol that was, say, a nonfunctioning but intact space suit, or their chieftain would wear an aluminum welding mask those things would count as precious objects de art certainly. But in an environment where you are likely to find Gravity belts, jet packs, power armor and Blaster rifles looting the more mundane furnishings becomes somewhat trivial. Some sort of mass looting rule would probably cover eventualities like these, but again, for a science fantasy romp, futuristic space jewelry and super-science suffices.

        As for an aluminum chair being more valuable, I guess it depends. Is it comfortable, does it look imposing, what is its coloration, what is the condition of the pillows etc.?


      4. [Science fantasy insertion]

        As a primer, i’d say it certainly works because it showcases how to model the attributes of technology, gives a wide plethora of technological threats and obstacles and plays around with a mechanic for figuring out unknown technologies. The wider sociological implications of introducing the technologies fall outside the scope of an innocent and delightful science fantasy romp surely?

        The impact of long term pillaging of The Warden would indeed be transformative but it should be noted there is no easy way to replace the power cells everything requires to run, the Power Armor cannot be recharged outside of the ship, so I would venture it would be little different from the characters finding and looting the hoard of a particularly affluent and powerful red dragon.


        I don’t think I quite agree, or rather, I don’t think we prioritize adventures the same. Maybe we don’t see the same obstacles. I see no reason not to assume the Androids would know how to operate the computer or other basic functions but much of the machinery of the ship has been damaged in the crash, and finding both an android AND a universal translator requires quite a bit of wandering around. As to how to Coatl escape, I don’t see how additional elaboration would greatly enhance the encounter.

        I just reread it. I think in terms of rewarding interaction I’d argue it is actually spectacularly well put together. Little details like removing the blaster penalty if you practice shooting in the game room or how screwing with the main computer will trigger a russet mold wildgrowth elsewhere in the runaway hydroponics bay but might allow you to activate the robots, or being able to make molotovs from the alcohol in the bar is all fine stuff. The encounters too are a delicate balance between hazard and reward, in terms of information, or aid against a common foe. I don’t think it would benefit greatly from a great deal of elaboration.


      5. [3d6 in order]

        3d6 in order is mostly an OSR meme, or it stems from a time when ability scores were less impactful (i.e. 0e DnD). From the 1e DMG p. 11.

        “As AD&D is an ongoing game of fantasy adventuring, it is important to allow participants to generate a viable character of the race and profession which he or she desires. While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have short life expectancy – which tends to discourage new players, as does having to make do with some character of a race and/or class which he or she really can’t or won’t identify with. Character generation, then, is a serious matter, and it is recommended that the following systems be used. Four alternatives are offered for player characters:”

        Then it goes into everything from 4d6 in order drop lowest, to roll 3d6 12 times and select a set from this to generate a viable character.

        Even RC uses a method where the net bonus of the ability scores must be at least +1.


        Ah okay. It is my opinion Combat in D&D should probably be more dominant then other interactions, especially if you consider the bulk of the rules are geared towards modelling it and the subject matter that it is trying to emulate, it is just that this is often dumbed down to the point where adventures are made that consist only of combat. This is as bad as having no combat at all! A delicate mix of interaction, problem-solving and lethal peril works best.

        I think peril, that is, dying from fiddling with unknown objects, is also a feature not a bug in oldschool games, it is just that people should have some way of discerning, even if it is only by intuition or divination, that they might get killed. Then again, they might get something good. This uncertainty or risk-reward mechanic is an important feature also.

        As for dying semi-randomly in a Gygax game, I think S3, like many of Gygax’s modules, rewards a lot of intelligent behaviors. It specifically presents a set of ‘rules’ to its alien environment, that, if figured out, drastically improve the character’s survival possibilities. It gives you ample rope to hang yourself with if you are incautious, by posting too many fucking robots in the Cell block, or by putting gemstones on the bottom of the observatory, it tries, very deliberately, to tempt you to overreach and then hits you back. This sort of design is why I keep coming back to Gary Gygax and why a lot of the newer stuff leaves me cold, because it no longer strives to excel at this component of the game.

        The impressions people ended up with are understandable, as AD&D was not always succesfull at conveying what it was supposed to be and not be about, and the rapid proliferation of a lot of styles muddied the waters even further. In this case I would argue they are incorrect.


      6. Mandachord
        Johnny Cope
        MW2 Plum Wine
        Arkham Bridge
        Pyre Light
        Temper Edge

        * * *

        Possibly. But first, I don’t think Gygax touches on the impact this would have on a campaign anywhere in the book (which kind of raises the question of whether he realized such impact, and the emphasis he places on jewels and weapons over other stuff makes me a bit skeptical). Second, handing me an idea and relying on me to figure out all the implications is not presenting me with an interesting campaign expansion. It’s presenting me with the IDEA for an interesting campaign expansion. Ideas are cheap. You can create good ideas with random tables. I’ve gotten ideas I turned into decent content based from people’s typoes. Execution is the hard bit.

        And the sample PCs, at least, are government agents representing higher powers to whom they owe stuff. They SHOULD be thinking big picture (and secreting some gems about their person for a rainy day). But in such a scenario you definitely want to bring back some pictures and obviously fancy stuff, if only so you can hide other stuff in your pack and not get asked about it.

        As a one-shot, it’s neat. As a change in a campaign, I would argue it’s a failure.

        Sealed in is relative, though. The door opens regularly, and appears to be going to do so indefinitely. This will be here forever, and indeed since the players are specifically there to end the problem should become much safer relatively quickly. If I’ve missed something where the ship seals itself, fair enough, but I looked through several times for such a note and can’t find it.

        You say it will likely end with the players being ejected from the spaceship via the cargo hold: why? Nothing requires that. It is at least theoretically possible for the players to win a fight with the worker robots. The worker robots may not even be functional by the time the players get to the cargo hold. They can also just…go back in the top. That’s the last encounter in the module, it’s clearly one relied on as happening in a lot of ways, but nothing requires it and there are definitely other ways to deal with the issue of departing. Indeed, the 6th level is sealed – there’s every possibility a party will never make it there.

        Re the chair: looking imposing I’ll grant you, but comfort is hardly relevant to displays of power. I’m told the English coronation regalia is mostly phenomenally uncomfortable, for example.

        Re science fantasy insert: hey, as a primer on how to do one-shot change of paces I think it’s actually quite solid. And as I have conceded, as a one-shot (which I think a romp can fairly be described as) it’s nice (though not to my aesthetic tastes, but that has more to do with my preferences in sci-fi vs those of Gygax’s era). But integrating it into a campaign will either take some work to limit the impact (which, tbf, can just be the ship blowing up/taking off again) or be a very large impact indeed.

        The power armour can’t be recharged at all, per the note in its entry (unless I missed something) since there are no chargers in this segment of the ship (which is weird, given that there ARE suits awaiting repair). That said, I don’t see anything that says how you actually run it out of power, unless that “continuous operation for periods of as long as eight hours” thing is meant to refer to that. But then why talk about how you can recharge the eight-hour air supply? And does the recharging of the anti-grav refer to self-recharging or recharging at a recharger? Then again, given the antigrav allows floating up or down 2 INCHES a round, I’m not sure the editing was up to snuff on this part. If it is infinitely self-recharging, that’s obviously a bigger deal than otherwise.

        The long-term impact is, I think, more likely from the stuff Gygax dismisses, though. What happens when they DO figure out a way to get impossibly-strong-far-future-hull metal to be used as shields? Stuff like that. I don’t expect something exhaustive, but a half page to a page would have made sense. I think there’s more space on how the Intellect Devourer got there than on what this will do to the game world.

        Re shallow:
        That’s hardly the limit of the questions, though. What happens to the waiting men at arms if you have the worker robots dump a bulette or three out the cargo hold from the computer? I agree that finding a functioning Android is tricky, but it’s not impossible, and there are other ways to potentially get that information. There’s the library. There’s the diary, also on deck 6. Hell, I’d assume the dials are labeled (again, not discussed by the module), meaning even if you just get a translation device or comprehend languages you should have SOME control over what happens.

        I also admire the interactivity of areas, though I think having death traps appear because you tried to fix the problem the adventure asks you to fix is…well, it’s the bad kind of traditional Gygaxian. Even more interactivity would be even better, and I would suggest some kind of “module with multiple interactions” as one of your contest challenges.

        Re the coatl it’s more why are they escaping if so many other things are “trapped by shielding.” Also, I believe coatl are intelligent in that edition, so the lack of interaction is a bit surprising.

        Again, this is a module that dedicates a LOT of space to how the Intellect Devourer got where it is. Or allows you to make the sparring robots fight each other by suggesting karate is inferior to boxing (which is, admittedly, funny as hell to anyone who remembers what people were like about karate in the 90s and prior). Basically, I don’t think much was actually done to clean it up from being a con one-shot. Those are allowed to be shallow, but this isn’t supposed to be one any more.

        The goal of the mission is more or less “stop the robots from releasing nasty monsters.” Well, not just that, but that’d do most of it. That requires interacting with the computer to succeed. Given that, there’s surprisingly little to help you do so in a non-random fashion. There’s almost more space on interacting with the lake.

        Yes, these are gaps the DM can fill in. But that goes for any gap, and I think your glowing praise of its craftsmanship is a bit excessive. I’m not saying it’s a bad module. It just doesn’t deal with a lot of things I think it should have dealt with. Which is fine for a con one-shot, but that’s not what it’s claiming to be. It is good. It is not as polished as it should be, and I think if it were a bit more polished it would be more usable, easier to fit into stuff, and probably a lot more fun to play through as something other than a one-shot.

        That said, I agree with whoever said he wished he’d been there when this first got run, because it would have been something. It would have.

        Re 3d6, Gygax’s DMing style and how D&D developed: indeed.

        Re combat: I concur it should be a large part of the game. I think my thoughts on it might be well summarized by a book I read recently. One of the characters comments that he never plays chess, because if he played chess the way he fights battles he’d arrange for the enemy’s pieces to be ambushed and slaughtered on the way to the chessboard. The threat of combat, and combat well avoided, and finding and making use of allies are all critical, and the game poorer when they are left out. Sword and sorcery has plenty of straight-up-brawls, but plenty of ambushes and sneaking as well.

        Re peril: indeed. I think there absolutely has to be some way of knowing, because otherwise it’s not fair. An unpredictable, unavoidable deathtrap is more a punishment than a game. I find a lot of Gygax’s stuff gives insufficient warnings for a lot of the more lethal outcomes. Or puts them on things you are forced to interact with, or gives you little or no way to tell what is and isn’t safe.

        Taking the computer as an example, you currently just roll to interact with it. Some rolls are good, some are bad, some are mixed. There is little or no control. More knowledge of the ship’s systems does not help. More experience of the technology doesn’t either. What type of control you manipulate is irrelevant to the result you get. Understanding the language doesn’t even matter. You don’t seem to be able to control the viewscreen at all, and exactly which parts of the ship it shows and in what level of detail isn’t clear. The only concession to sense or good judgement on the part of the party is that doing the same thing twice gets the same result.

        A dragon in a cave is one level of peril. A dragon in a cave with a sign saying “Go away” in Draconic is another. And a dragon in a cave with a sign saying “Go away” in Common is still another. I feel like Gygax does the first, and I prefer the second. Only if you somehow had to interact with the dragon.

        Were you as shocked as I was at the “nope, the plague is gone” handwave in the lab. Like…seriously, how is there not the possibility of getting the plague from samples the robot is using in the lab? Or at LEAST hinting that you should let the players think that? The one place I expect him to possibly try to murder everyone, and it’s passed up.


      7. *Sigh* Ignore the list of Mandachord songs for Warframe that I’m trying to do.

        I even knew I was going to do that if I used the same document to type my reply. Ah well.


      8. For Simulated Knave:
        Are you judging S3 by criteria it never claimed to satisfy? In the old days, modules were supposed to be what the name suggests, an add-on to your campaign world. Yes, you might be running Greyhawk, but it was your (and your players’) Greyhawk; what happened next was up to you. The ship is certainly good for one fun visit; there are interesting possibilities concerning follow-ups, with much depending on the outcome of the first foray. Maybe state sanctioned (or licenced) salvage begins; or possibly the threat of tough/alien monsters, or russet mold, causes a great big wall (with ditch) to be constructed. Perhaps a lucrative illegal trade in alien artifacts begins. Maybe half a page could have outlined possibilities, but isn’t logical development of the campaign world due to PC actions the job of the referee?


    4. You might like Graphite Prime’s “Date of Expiration”, where this sort of looting is likely. However it does draw unwelcome attention, and I’d adjudicate S3 in exactly the same way if PCs start stripping out the wiring. And if they restrict themselves to a few plastic chairs, the authorities in Geoff might ask why they did not attempt to complete their mission, rather than stock the first IKEA outdoor furniture store.


  6. It is good that you have grounded your reviews now in the old 1970s soil which allows plebs to learn your attitude to AD&D. This approach is most unlike the other OSR reviewer whose name I forget just this moment. For example, it is traditional for ambitious film reviewers to boldly present their controversial views on Film Canon so that their views may be ignored or acceded to according to the readers wits … in future.

    For some years the only modules I have been curious about are the Islandia Modules. Too expensive for my distaste.

    It would be to your credit to acquire first, and review these mysterious rare works. They may be worthy of their reputation and cost, or not. But that is your *only function* you and what’s his face?

    The Curse of Hareth
    Plague of Terror
    Brotherhood of the Bolt



  7. Any DM thinking of running Barrier Peaks should immediately stop and read Brian Aldiss’ novel Non-Stop.

    The final handful of pages of that book are the immediate setup.

    Also, how is Tech Chart IV: Complex Lethal Items not yet a morale patch?

    I mean, do you even Gustaf, bro!?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s