Running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Screen shot 2010-12-07 at 7.07.45 PMAfter a significant break last year, I’m back in the swing of Dungeons & Dragons again. I’m playing on an online campaign through, and DMing two different tabletop campaigns. One group is running Curse of Strahd. In the other, we just finished Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I’ve wanted to run this module for years now, and finally I did! Here are some things I learned from the experience.

You Can’t Run It All

First of all, there’s just plain too much content in the crashed spaceship to get through in a reasonable time frame. Our group meets roughly once a month, for 3-4 hours each session. I knew I wanted to get through the adventure in three sessions, so I really had to prioritize things.

I read through the module, highlighting cool scenes and encounters as I went. I decided that the vegepygmies, police robots, both medical androids, the telepathic plant, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” plant, the froghemoth, and the mind flayer were must-run encounters. Everything else would either be ignored totally, found dead, or just described before running away from the party in fear.

But there were so many rooms! How was I to adequately and accurately describe them all? Well, I totally cheated, that’s how. I made copies of the maps for level 1, 3, and 4, and simply gave them to players when the time came. It made sense that there would be maps on the walls in such a big spacecraft, and it really sped things along.

Also, in the interests of expedience, I let the group find a red key card (which works on all locks) by the end of the first session. I realize all the backtracking and finding new cards was part of Gygax’s intentions when he wrote it, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I’d rather see my players do something epic than collect colored keys and backtrack all over the ship.

No Minis? No Problem

The second big take-away from running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is the lack of miniatures for most foes. I was able to find no official vegepygmy miniatures, so I decided to make some myself. As a backer of the first Reaper Bones Kickstarter, I had tons of unpainted minis available. I’ve got plenty of zombies and skeletons already, so the Bones zombies and skeletons could be repurposed as vegepgymies. It was quite simple and the results were great!

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I layed on a black basecoat, followed by a sloppy drybrush with dark green. Next was a lighter drybrush with a brighter green, followed by a heavy wash in brown ink. I knew I wanted to have some texture to the minis, so they wouldn’t simply appear to be green skeletons. The perfect texture was easy to find; I just opened up a couple of teabags. I also mixed in some green flock I had lying around, but you really wouldn’t need that.

Mixing a few drops of water into some plain old Elmer’s glue, I “painted” each mini liberally with the glue. Then I sprinkled my tea bag mix over each mini, and let it dry completely. I then mixed some more glue up, and applied it to the mini again, as I didn’t want pieces flaking off. Finally, I based them and sprayed them with a heavy coat of matte sealer. Very simple, and they look nice. The minis are great for vegepygmies, but also any plant-like humanoid, twig blight, moss man, whatever.

barrierpeaks_33On to the main event, then: the dread Froghemoth. I knew I wanted this fight to be the closer, and so a suitably epic miniature was needed. An official Froghemoth mini was produced in limited quantities, but I was unable to find one. There were some very expensive alternatives, but I’m cheap. The third Bones Kickstarter offered a Froghemoth as an addon. I backed it (late), and the anticipated delivery was last fall, well within my time frame. However, the delivery has been significantly delayed. As the day of the Froghemoth approached, I had no mini to use. Making one was my only remaining option.

I decided to hew closely to the actual illustration from the module instead of modern reinterpretations. I ordered this frog toy from Amazon, and used the tentacles of this octopus toy. This project would require heavy customizing, more than simple limb/weapon swaps and such I was used to. Prepping the frog was easy: just cut off the frog’s eyes and front feet. I used grey stuff to fill in the eye holes, smoothing out the head.

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Attaching the tentacles was tough. I drilled small holes in the leg stump/midsection and each tentacle, then pegged a small piece of dowel in between. (The process was similar to pinning a smaller miniature.) Multiple applications of grey stuff were required, the first to simply stick the pieces together, the rest to smooth it out. Time was short, so added one twisted eyestalk with eyes looking in every direction rather than three separate eyestalks. A simple mouth and tongue wrapped up the sculpting.

Next up: painting! I primed the creature using the gradient method. A heavy coat of dark gray, then a lesser coat of medium gray, and finally a burst or two of white for highlighting. I went with glazes of thinned paint over the gradient, which ended up looking great and saved me lots of time. The tentacles were tough to paint, with so many bits and bobs everywhere, but a coat of orange followed by a red drybrush ended up looking OK. Next, I washed it all with Nuln Oil, (from Games Workshop, the best wash IMO) and sealed it with matte spray.

Overall, I think the froghemoth turned out fine. If I’d had more time, I’d have used toothpick ends to make some gnarly teeth, and better sculpted the eyestalks and nostril-thingies. Still, my players thought it was pretty awesome when I dropped the froghemoth on the table, resting on a 5 inch square base.

What about that mind flayer? There are plenty of mind flayer minis out there, why not just use one? Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s clear that the mind flayer in this module is not your traditional robe-wearing squidhead. Second, I had a conversation with a player that led me to want to go in a different direction. We were discussing the new Ghost in the Shell movie, and I commented that they added a Robocop element to the story (a forgotten identity). My buddy responds “DUDE we’d better run into Robocop somewhere in this spaceship.” That’s when I decided that this particular mind flayer would be wearing power armor.

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I had a War Machine figure from an old game lying around, but a Heroclix Iron Man or even a 40K Space Marine would work fine. I spent $4 on a two pack of mind flayer minis from the new Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures series, and cut off one’s hands and head. Some grey stuff and a paint job later, and the mind flayer was done. When he showed up, my players named him Power-Cthulhu. If you think a mind flayer is tough on its own, add in some spells and power armor. You’ll thank me later.

The Big Finale

I knew I wanted to use the froghemoth as the centerpiece of the big final fight. KNowing how OP my group’s characters already were, before they found power armor and stun grenades, I knew I’d need to really crank up the challenge. I beefed up the froghemoth with Legendary Resistance and actions, similar to those of dragons. The wing attack was replaced by a RIBBIT power that dealt modest damage in an area, knocking foes prone if a save vs. Con was failed. The auto-damage dealt nicely with summon woodlands creatures shenanigans from the druid.

Even with these alterations, I knew the froghemoth would die quickly. So I went with a multi-stage fight where other residents of the spaceship, including Power-Cthulhu, made appearances.

Stage 1: Froghemoth fights alone, the mind flayer simply observes

Stage 2: Froghemoth is joined by charmed vegepygmy minions with 1 hit point (throwback to 4E). These were useful for disrupting concentration and blocking positions. They also burst spores upon death. In this stage, Power-Cthulhu hovers around, taking potshots at the party with the laser blaster in the armor.

Stage 3: Vegepymies all die. Froghemoth is nearly dead, so Power-Cthulhu steps it up, unleashing his spells and stun attack.

It was a tough fight. The rogue got swallowed by the mighty Froghemoth first, then the barbarian. It took all the 10th level party had to fell the beast. This was the closest the group has come to a player death since level 2. The casters had used up nearly all of their spells. And yet they still had a mind flayer arcanist with a laser blaster and 100 hp of power armor left to face.

Good thing for the group that Power-Cthulhu was ready to parlay. The froghemoth was blocking the only way out of the ship, you see. The froghemoth was too much for the kind flayer to handle alone, so he used the heroes to fight the beast for him. Power-Cthulhu offered a way to destroy the ship (to prevent an infestation of alien vegepygmyism) and directions to the exit if the party simply let him flee.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was an incredible experience. Sure, it’s over the top, almost Monty Haul with all the technology, and by far the weirdest adventure in the history of D&D. But it’s also a great deal of fun. Focusing on the highlights, making miniatures for key monsters, and tying it all together in a huge set piece finale will make your crawl through a fallen spaceship a memorable one.

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