Tabletop RPG Review: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (Original Adventures Reincarnated)

Even as someone who was never a fan of any incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons, I knew about Expedition to the Barrier Peaks almost from the very first moment I got into the tabletop RPG hobby.  It was one of those legendary modules that was equally laughed at and lauded.  Taking your party of knights, thieves, and wizards out into the mountains to explore a crashed spaceship filled with robots and aliens?  What?!  But that kind of genre bending and blending was nothing unusual to early gamers.  The more rigid definitions of genre weren’t so rigid before the 1980s.  One of the many things that makes Dungeon Crawl Classics so much fun for me is that it harkens back to that time of Weird Fiction where wizards flew to alien worlds and fought robots, while dragons came down from the stars to menace glass and steel utopias.  So, that’s why this avowed D&D hater went and acquired the pretty fantastic hardcover edition of this old D&D module.

Goodman Games is truly one of the best companies out there in the tabletop roleplaying hobby.  They’re very community focused, they have a deep sense of reverence and irreverence for the hobby and its history.  They create quality product and they take chances.  You definitely get the feeling from them that they believe in and live by the idea that the rising tide lifts all ships.  The Original Adventures Reincarnated series is pretty special.  Each volume takes a classic Dungeons & Dragons module, gives it some added context with articles and interviews, reprints at least one version of the original, and then presents a new version specifically adapted and expanded, for the current (time of writing) Dungeons & Dragons 5eExpedition to the Barrier Peaks is the third in the series.

Inside you’ll find several short articles about the adventure and various folks’ memories of it.  There’s an interview with the module’s original map maker.  Then there’s the reprint of the original 1980 edition.  It’s a nice, clean copy and probably looks better than it ever did on its original release.  That is followed by a reprint of a later edition, which has a few tweaks and modifications, the biggest being corrections made to the player handouts.  That’s all cool, especially if you’re an RPG historian and interested in earlier editions of the game, what scenarios were like, etc.  And that takes up a little less than half the book.  The rest of the book is what I was interested in.

Michael Curtis and Tim Wadzinski basically rebuilt the scenario with the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons in mind, but also with modern readers in mind.  Easier to read fonts, more clearly written descriptions, etc.  The maps have been redone.  The handouts have been revisited and expanded.  There are guides for how to run this as a larger thing, with lead-in adventures and possible follow-ups.  I could easily see a few of the extra scenarios functioning just fine on their own, or as drop-in encounters for another campaign.  The dragon’s lair and the stone giant layer are both solid encounters you could use outside of this scenario, for sure.  There is also a whole new level to the dungeon, as well as multiple additional encounters for the original levels.  Lots to work with.

My plan is to use Expedition to the Barrier Peaks in a future game of Dungeon Crawl Classics.  I’ve recently done a bit of converting D&D 5e stuff over to DCC and it was not a problem, so I don’t think I’ll have any issue here.  There are things in the scenario I don’t like.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of “save or die” once you’re past the first couple levels.  Also, there’s a lot of mixed messages.  Like, you can’t find anything good if you don’t indiscriminately poke around everywhere.  Yet, if you poke around almost anywhere, you’ll likely find horrible death.  So either you rush through the whole module and try to keep your hands inside the cart at all times, or else you get poisoned, squashed, radiated, melted, or what have you.  And there’s little you can do about it.  It’s not a matter of being clever, either.  One container might contain a health potion, while the one next to it contains poison.  Or one works just fine the first time you use it, but the third time you use it, it kills you.  What?  And again, there’s no warning, no clue, no hint to figure out.  So, if I were to run this, even in the arbitrary philosophy of Dungeon Crawl Classics, I’d likely have to pepper the place with hints and clues that would let you figure some things out if you’re careful and you pay attention.  I don’t want to punish people for doing what they’re supposed to do…explore the dungeon.  Plus, there are plenty of horrifying deaths awaiting them without having to resort to dozens of little ‘gotcha’ moments.

Additionally, there’s the strange technology the PCs can find.  On the one hand, I understand why all the tech has fairly severe limitations.  It’s supposed to be old and possibly damaged, so the idea that it might not all function properly is fine.  However, a lot of the limitations in this case seem more along the lines of trying to maintain a certain level of play balance.  The items shouldn’t “break the game.”  You don’t want your barbarian running around with a functioning laser rifle, do you?  Well, to be honest…I do.  I say break the game wide open.  Blow it the hell up.  That’s why I want to run Dungeon Crawl Classics.  So, again, if I do end up using this, I’ll still have some tech be broken, some be on its last legs, and some have limited use.  But I’ll also be throwing in some tech that works, works well, and will keep working unless the PCs do something to screw it up.  

One of my common complaints about old D&D modules (and this actually goes for adventures from other games, even including Call of Cthulhu) is the weird variety of monsters and enemies jammed into odd and often small places.  A room full of goblins next to a cave of giants, next to a dragon, with a bunch of barbarians living in the room above that.  What?  How?  Why?  Well, in the case of this module, there’s a good reason for all the wild and weird critters being about.  I’d still likely drop a few and maybe add a few more.  I might expand the territory of the vegipigmies, and maybe even add in another faction or something.  There’s room within the module to tune things the way you want.  

This is a really excellent book that I think will be useful for a wide array of folks.  If you want to see some of the hobby’s evolution.  If you want to run your 5e players through a more “old school” style scenario.  If you are like me, and want to draw on some of the old for your new DCC game.  This is a great book to have in your collection.  I hope to acquire some of the other Original Adventures Reincarnated at some point.  Keep it up, Goodman Games.

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