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Back in Black

“Science-Fantasy”  by Kenton Kilgore
This may be difficult for you younger gamers (and by “younger,” I mean less than 30 years old), to comprehend or believe, but once upon a time in gaming, “fantasy”—elves, goblins, and dragons—was one genre and “science fiction”—spaceships, laser guns, and aliens—was its own genre, and scarcely did the twain meet.  Every once in a while, a “fantasy” campaign would include an anachronism, like the adventure I’ll tell you about shortly, but for the vast majority of the time, games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons stuck to their genre and didn’t stray from it.

That’s one of the things that was so mind-blowing about Warhammer 40,000 when it debuted in 1987: 40K mixed fantasy and sci-fi elements to create a composite genre: “science-fantasy.”  If you’ve grown up with 40K, it’s no big deal: you always known Orks and Eldar, and you may have heard about Squats from older gamers.  But trust me and the other old farts who say that what Rogue Trader did was really groundbreaking. No one else (to my knowledge) had ever done elves (or orcs) with futuristic weapons.

"Elves in space? With laser guns? That's stupid!"

For my latest AD&D campaign, I wanted to shake up gaming for my little group in a similar way to how 40K had shaken up gaming for folks back then.  Because of the success of Lord of the Rings, the fantasy genre—in books, films, and games—is and has been, for many years, stuck in, for the most part, the mindset of elves, goblins, and dragons.  In the last few years, there have been more and more writers and game designers who aren’t doing the same-old, same-old, but the revisiting of Tolkien’s works persists decades after his death.  Even the Harry Potter books and movies, extraordinarily popular as they are, aren’t too far removed from LOTR: wizards of good and evil bent, magic swords, dragons, castles, giants, goblins, elves (of a sort)—the only thing missing from HP are hobbits.

This is not to say that I dislike Tolkien or Rowling and/or their works—far from it.  What I’m saying is that in creating this campaign, I’ve tried to move away—at least a little bit—from that style of “fantasy.”  Why?  Because it’s been done, and for me and my older players, it was done too well.  A long time ago, we did what we feel was the ultimate in typical, “Tolkienesque” fantasy in a campaign that ran for several years, before all the player-characters perished against a dragon.  After that, we were done with the “typical,” and tried different campaigns and settings, which were, alas, short-lived.

Hence the deliberately weird style of the current, “Lonelylands” campaign.  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the elements I’ve used to shake things up and to distinguish this campaign from those that came before is to introduce lots of anachronisms: marauding dinosaurs, a train from the American Old West, non-player characters aboard zeppelins, even a mimic that assumed the form of a payphone—and rang like said phone to attract the attention of the player characters. 

Player: "I answer the phone. What could possibly go wrong?"

All of that paled in comparison to what I did next.

The S.S. Expedition
To move forward with my new direction in gaming, I took a step back—a big step back.  The adventure Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was published in 1980, and I’ve had the module sitting in my AD&D collection for years.  I had never run it, though, but it seemed perfect for what I was trying to do.  A section of a crashed starship full of robots and technological treasures?  Perfect!

Like I did with Tomb of Horrors, I used the printed module as a springboard, substantially cutting it down so that we could play it in a single afternoon.  Neither I nor any of my current players have time for the eight and nine-hour gaming marathons we used to have back in the Dark Ages B.C. (Before Children), so we try to get everything done in a four-hour session. 

I started with the maps.  The original module has several very detailed floorplans, like so:


 Jesus Marimba, that’s a lot for a Dungeon Master to describe and for a party to explore, especially in a limited time.  And that’s just one floor level of out six (to be fair, most of the others aren’t that “busy”).  In my edited version of the adventure, I made the “S.S. Expedition” (yes, a deliberate nod to Star Trek) smaller and only four floors, like so:

The engineering level. The PCs learned that the blue rectangles represent machinery, the diamonds were elevators. At the center was the "power core"   

To further speed up play, I made sure that as soon as the player-characters entered the crashed starship, they found helpful floor diagrams mounted on the wall wherever they went: don’t all big vehicles and moderns buildings have them to help people inside get around?  Thus, instead of having to describe what PCs saw as they plodded along (“You’re in a corridor, about 10’ wide, and about 50 feet away is another, intersecting corridor running right and left…”), I could just give them a copy of the plan for the floor they were on and ask where they wanted to go.  Of course, copies I gave them wouldn’t have important details on them, such as were the “monsters” were….

...Monsters such as these robots.

I kept the original background story from the module, that a plague aboard the ship killed the passengers.  I eliminated a lot of the monsters (I’m sorry, no vegepygmies in my version) and some of the robots, got rid of the whole “jungle-menagerie” level, and removed the more confusing technological items (no power armor).  I streamlined the keycard system: in the original, there was a rainbow of different-colored cards that would open certain doors but not others; I reduced them down to three.  I’m a big-time old-school AD&D fan, but some of the material released back then was obviously for folks who had way too much time on their hands.

What happens when you don't put your veggies in that crisper at the bottom of the fridge....

Like Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was originally intended for higher-level characters than the group I currently have, so I powered down a lot of the encounters, mostly with the robots (those police ‘droids are bad asses). Barrier Peaks also had lots of cool visual handouts to show the players, which my group particularly enjoys.

I tied in the adventure aboard the “S.S. Expedition” to the ongoing campaign by positing that this section of ruined spaceship had already been found by the goblins and hobgoblins of the Dog Skulls tribe that the party had tangled with on a few previous occasions.  The Dog Skulls had been trying to batter their way into the ship when the party arrived on the scene, and carnage soon ensued, with the party scoring another bloody victory.

Once inside the ship, the party was approached by the four githyanki warriors who had also previously clashed with, but this time, the Chaotic Evil Plane-Jumping Psionic Dickheads wanted no part of the PCs.  Instead, the gith warned them that they were hunting a mind flayer that was aboard, and that the party should stay out of their way if they didn’t want to get killed.  Sure enough, the party encountered said illithid, and killed it with some high-tech weaponry they had picked up along the way.

The Game That Went Out of Control
Speaking of high-tech weaponry, one of the items discovered was an Eldar power sword (yes, an Eldar sword) from Craftworld Alaitoc.  Obviously, this item was not in the original module, but was something I put in the adventure.  In AD&D terms, the power sword is a longsword that counts as a magic item for battling monsters that can only be hurt by magical weapons, and it adds +6 damage to each blow.  My wife’s ranger, Lassiel, claimed it.

The power sword had the Alaitoc symbol and this inscription along its blade

The party also picked up some other items, and here I am ashamed to admit that things went totally off the rails.  The party not only wound up with powerful laser weapons, but also lots of power discs—batteries, if you will—for them.  It’s one thing to let the PCs have some mega-weapons that work for a very short time and then never again: they can get their jollies vaporizing a few monsters and then that will be the end of that.  It’s quite another thing to give them toys that won’t piff out like fireworks, but keep on going for so long and so well that the PCs might ask, “What do we need swords for?”

My error was two-fold: in my hurry to get materials ready for the gaming session, I neglected to scale down what the various items could do, despite the fact that the module was originally written for higher-level characters (and thus, had more powerful monsters).  My second mistake was that during the game, I blurted out that the party had found some power discs, whereupon the players (being no dummies) then searched throughout the ship for more.  Stupid me, I didn’t see where that was going, and just rolled randomly in each section they searched through to see how many they had found.  Soon, they had quite a cache. 

A blaster pistol from the crashed spaceship of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

It was a cement-headed mistake from someone who should have known better.  When I first became a DM, I fell into the bad “Monty Haul” habit, wherein treasure—especially magical items—was plentiful, and each pile was bigger and better than the last.  For just one example of my noob stupidity back then, I let one of my players convince me to let his fighter have a girdle of storm giant strength, gauntlets of ogre power, and a hammer of thunderbolts, which turned his character into a mini-Thor and made giants in my campaign an endangered species.

This situation was almost as bad.  There are a number of ways to rectify a party getting uber-powered goodies they shouldn’t, but the direct and most honest way is to just fall on my (power) sword, admit to my players that I had screwed up, ramp down their goodies, and take away most of the power discs, all for the Greater Good of Game Balance.  Which is what I eventually needed to do.

Before I’d get the chance to do that, the campaign would come to a screeching halt.  Check back soon to find out what happened and why.        

More Black in Black

Posted February 2012

Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle