Jun 2 2010 10:36am

Re-examining the old-school RPGs: Module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Generally I’ll be discussing individual RPGs rather than specific modules, but AD&D module S3 holds such an important position in RPG history that I think an exception is warranted. Particularly as it constitutes the “missing link” behind the two games I’ve discussed most recently, Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. Ironically, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was originally conceived as a marketing tactic: in the spring of 1976, with TSR putting the finishing touches on Metamorphosis, Gary Gygax was pondering the problem of how best to introduce that science fiction game to the growing legions of D&D fans. MA creator James Ward had already game-mastered scenarios in which D&D parties were swept through rips in the space-time fabric to the world of the starship Warden; Gygax reversed this, conceiving of a tournament adventure in which science fiction came to the world of Greyhawk.

But in so doing, he needed something more accessible than Rob Kunz’ infamous “machine level” in Castle Greyhawk, where high-tech inventions vied with sorcery as part of what's probably the largest dungeon ever made. Trying to “productize” Greyhawk would have been a titanic undertaking; even now, more than thirty years later, only the merest fragment of Castle Greyhawk has reached the marketplace. Gygax was looking for something more manageable—a single adventure that could be played out in classic tournament fashion.

And thus S3 was born (the S standing for special, denoting those modules not belonging to any larger series; S3’s predecessors being S1 Tomb of Horrors and S2 White Plume Mountain). Expedition centered on a lost starship crashlanding in the world of Greyhawk, creating one hell of a problem for the local barons when some of the creatures stored within it escaped and started terrorizing the surrounding countryside. The usual team of doughty adventurers were rounded up and sent to tackle the menace, only to stumble into a dungeon like nothing they’d ever seen. The robots and monsters of Expedition wreaked havoc in a series of brutal sessions, but Gygax had succeeded in his main objective: infusing the Origins II convention-goers with the techno-fantasy meme and priming the core D&D supporters for Metamorphosis Alpha.

Yet it was four more years before Expedition was released to the public at large. Gygax and his team had far too many other commitments—TSR was expanding beyond his wildest dreams, and it was all anyone could do to keep up. But in 1980, with Gamma World in the marketplace and needing all the support it could get, Gygax returned to his tournament notes and cranked out what became S3. It would be interesting to know what the thinking was in making Expedition one of the most lavishly illustrated adventures of all time (63 illustrations, 4 of those in full-color). Perhaps it was a recognition of how difficult DMs were going to find it to describe objects and locations that made no sense to the characters. Maybe TSR simply realized that if ever there was a module crying out to be illustrated with panache, it was this one. More likely, artist Erol Otus simply got inspired by the content and cranked out some of the most evocative drawings to ever grace a fantasy adventure.

Befitting its unique status in the D&D canon, Expedition was structured in an untraditional manner. There was no final “mega-monster” waiting at the end, though there were certainly more than one encounter that could have served that purpose in a lesser module—primary candidates being the intellect devourer prowling the maintenance levels, the mind-flayer wielding the laser pistol, or the froghemoth that was the stuff of nightmares. Though I think the encounter that everybody tends to remember is the “wolf-in-sheep’s clothing,” which looked like a tree stump with a rabbit-like creature sitting atop it. . . but of course was really a multi-tentacled monstrosity. 

For their pains in battling these creatures—and should they be able to correctly utilize the key-cards that granted access to various parts of the ship—parties stood to acquire all manner of technology; indeed, a third of the module is dedicated to discussing the various guns and armor littered throughout the ship. In theory there was a limit to how destabilizing any tech items taken out of the ship could be; without an industrial base to support them, all the powered-armor and weaponry would ultimately run out of charges reasonably quickly. But in practice, a lot of D&D campaigns were never the same after this, since S3 showed all of us just how much fun it could be to mix and match across RPGs/genres. All the more so as we were all high on Empire Strikes Back at the time. Within weeks after S3 had been unleashed, our fourth grade class found itself battling it out with Star Destroyers above the world of Greyhawk. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was well-named; there was no going back after you’d crossed ’em.

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy (The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and the just-released The Machinery of Light). More about the world of the early 22nd century at

Scott Taylor
1. izzylobo
Froghemoth for the win!

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was one of those modules that could seriously up-gun a party (at least for a time, until the power cells and grenades ran out) - more than one high-level character in various old-school games I participated in had an S3 laser pistol (or blaster) wrapped up in oilcloth in their backpack with a handful of half-charged cells, as a last-ditch "oh crap" weapon.

Of course, actually getting a hold of that stuff was more than half a challenge - groups that managed to legitimately loot any of the larger equipment sources (the Armory, etc.) certainly deserved their riches.

(My group was a little older when we first encountered S3, so there was less of a "let's see what a Fireball does against a TIE fighter!" factor - but trips off to Gamma World were in the offing, later that year).
Rajan Khanna
2. rajanyk
This brings back a lot of memories for me. I did have this one and I loved the illustrations. I can't recall if we played all the way through, though. It was a great concept, mindblowing at the time, really.

This and the original Ravenloft module stand out as two of the most memorable of the modules I played.

Wasn't there another module, though, that had illustrations as well that you were meant to show to the players?
Marc Rikmenspoel
3. Marc Rikmenspoel
Ah, after our past discussions, this was appropriate. I never actually played this, but I spent hours studying the artwork and locations. It had a big influence on my imagination. I wish I could have played with a group that included some blaster-armed adventurers!
Scott Taylor
4. izzylobo
rajanyk @ 2 -
Wasn't there another module, though, that had illustrations as well that you were meant to show to the players?

Several of the older modules had illustration/handout packets - off the top of my head; at least one edition of S1 - Tomb of Horrors, C1 - Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and C2 - Ghost Tower of Inverness all had illustration packets specifically designed to be used as hand-outs/illustrations for the players.

I'd have to check my archives to be certain about others - it was something done sporadically for several years in the late-70s to the early 80s, and sort of fell by the wayside as things progressed. Mostly it was used with the competition/harder modules, as I recall. Once the switchover to mostly perfect-bound and hardcover books, instead of staple-bound pamphlets had completed (Mid-80s?), that was the end of the practice, as far as I know.

It's too bad - while it was undoubtedly expensive (32 pages of artwork, yikes!) it went a long way towards giving players a sense of tone and atmosphere.
Marc Rikmenspoel
5. Stefan Jones
This was an interesting entry, because I never read *any* of the TSR modules back in the day.

Why? Because I played the games of, and later worked for, one of the competition, Fantasy Games Unlimited.

I was in a few D&D variant games in the late 70s, but the DMs were all fanatic worldbuilders; when Chivalry and Sorcery hit the shelves we switched over to that. Then I started writing for a bunch of FGU games.

It is interesting, now, reading fond reminiscences from folks online over times spent in the White Plume Mountain and other modules. Kind of like remembering old movies, but much more personal.

I intend on buying any of these I come across in thrift stores.
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
My experience is similar to Stefan's, although I didn't work for a rival gaming company. Our group started off with Warlock, which was a variant developed by some CalTech students, and we tended to think of TSR the way Mac and Linux fans think of Microsoft. (My attitude toward the company wasn't helped by the fact that they screwed me out of a couple of issues of S&T when they bought SPI. What little AD&D I played was also with a world builder, though he tended to blow up his world whenever we got to around 4th level.

And did you really play C&S, Stefan? As I remember the first edition, it was almost unplayable, because you had to practically live your character's life. But I suppose that's a discussion for another entry.
Marc Rikmenspoel
7. Stefan Jones
"we tended to think of TSR the way Mac and Linux fans think of Microsoft."

Oh yeah. There were a couple of TSR refugees, Bill Willingham (Fables!) and Jeff Dee, at the FGU office. They had stories. Like a bizarre effort to raise and refit a yacht sunken in Lake Geneva.

Yes, we played C&S. It was a lot of work, but not insurmountable. Heroic GM Rusty Young bore the brunt of the work filling in the gaps.
j p
8. sps49
This is a huge module; the only one I recall that was larger was the big setting of the World of Greyhawk (not a real module, of course).

It was a nice change of pace module. too.

There were a few others with player pics. I think the Hidden Shrine of Temoachan (?) was one. I have some still around.

ALso, someone published monster flash cards. I loved those, and always wanted more.
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
I ran a game for about 15 years, with a constant variety of players. Modules were fun for fill in the spot last minute games or to enhance your game. I don't remember this particular module but I have a few hundred around here. I still like to pick them up from used bookstores.
Rajan Khanna
10. rajanyk
@5 - A little off topic, but I remember FGU fondly for Villains & Vigilantes. Loved that game and played it a lot alongside D&D games.
Church Tucker
11. Church
This is the one module I remember distinctly, because it blew my little mind. "A *spaceship* in D&D?"
Paul Madison
12. pmadison
I have fond memories of playing this adventure with my friends and deciphering the alien language depicted throughout the player reference book. The code was a simple substitution cipher and I think the easiest clues were in the "Wheelie Sled" image.

Goodman Games published a 3rd edition homage to the Barrier Peaks called Dungeon Crawl Classics #36 - Talons of the Horned King

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