Barrier Peaks Designer’s Notebook #3: The Future Was Then

OAR #3: Expedition to Barrier Peaks will be here before you know it. If you need any more excitement—on top of Michael Curtis’ first Designer’s Notebook entry, and his second Designer’s Notebook entry—we’ve got another one for you. And don’t forget, you can now pre-order OAR #3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks in our online store!

Barrier Peaks Designer’s Notebook #3

by Michael Curtis

The Future Was Then

Work began on the adventure that would become Expedition to the Barrier Peaks in 1976, more than forty years ago. Since that time, despite the speculations made by a bevy of science fiction novels, films, and TV shows, technology has advanced far beyond what people imagined in the middle of the 1970s. Our daily access to technological marvels today in many ways outstrips even the most forward-envisioning prophecies of sci-fi writers and dreamers. 

These technological advancements presented an interesting design problem when deciding to convert and expand Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as our third entry in the popular Original Adventures Reincarnated line for fifth edition. Barrier Peaks features over forty illustrated handouts intended to be shown to players to help the Dungeon Master describe what their fantasy counterparts are encountering. Many of these handouts include technological devices and environments adorned in sci-fi set dressing. 

As can be imaged, most of these science fiction elements are depicted as we imaged the future would look like in the 1970s. Computers are massive, clunky devices. Robots are hulking menaces equipped with metallic tentacles. The micronization of technology is nowhere to be found here. If you’ve ever watched the original Star Wars film and snickered a bit when the Death Star plans are stored on “data-tapes,” you get the idea that the future as envisioned then was profoundly different than what came to be.

When it was time to expand the adventure and to create new art for both the book and as player handouts, we were left pondering on how to do so. While keeping the 1970s vision of the future would remain true to the adventure as first published, how would the gamers of today—many who have been familiar with a world containing the internet and smartphones since birth—react when confronting the outdated technology of Barrier Peaks? Would the adventure, which is already a wild and, at times, zany scenario, become nothing more than a laughing stock? On the other hand, revising all the pre-existing technology and building on more modern concepts of the future strips the adventure of many of the beloved touchstones old school players expect when playing through this classic scenario. Plus, in a world where technological breakthroughs are coming faster and faster, anything we deemed as “futuristic” now, would only become outdated and just as laughable as the 1970s’ era tech in only a short time. 

Ultimately, we decided to not only keep the 1970s sci-fi vibe, but to expand on it with the new material. The reason for this was twofold. First, we wanted to remain true to the adventure as it was presented in its original form, allowing longtime players to come back and re-experience the adventure as they might have played through it in the 1970s and 1980s. People have fond memories of those clunky, duck-billed worker robots and the laser rifle that looks like an Erector Set capable of burning your enemies to a crisp. 

Secondly, yet perhaps more importantly, we realized that by keeping the future-retro we’d be perpetuating the adventure’s reputation for stumping the players just as much as their characters. The most demonstrative example of this that I can think of is the ship’s library. In this room, there are several microfilm readers and cabinets containing spools of microfilm (“data tapes” so to speak). In 1976, when Gary Gygax ran the module for the first time, I’m willing to bet that his players, after they pondered Gary’s descriptions a bit, would have been able to guess at these devices’ purpose. But imagine a group of young players encountering the same room today. How many of them—Dungeon Master included—will know what a microfilm reader is in the first place, let alone how to get it to work! Time and changes in technology have managed to do what all the flow charts and player handouts can’t—make retro technology just as mysterious as its futuristic counterpart. 

Having arrived at this decision, we were able to provide concrete art direction when commissioning new artwork for the expanded sections of the adventure. The artists were instructed to indulged in antiquated—by 21st century standards anyway—futurism and to make their works as retro as possible. In some cases, the artists outstripped expectations, improving on ideas presented in the expanded sections of the dungeon so much that we had to go back and make changes to the manuscript because their take on things was better than what was in the text. The resulting imagery has been amazing and the new material blends wonderfully with the imagery laid down by such TSR luminaries as Erol Otus, Diesel LaForce, and Jeff Dee. 

Players should be aware though that “clunky and funky,” as I like to call the science fiction tech of that era, doesn’t mean it’s something to be laughed at. We’ve introduced a number of new encounters that rival the original adventure in inscrutability and lethality. Players will have to use all their resources to make it out of the Barrier Peaks alive when OAR #3 hits the shelves. While the fifth edition of the original fantasy role-playing game may be a little more forgiving at times than its predecessors, a certain crashed starship isn’t. However, the rewards for defeating the dungeon and its guardians far outweigh those risks.

Do you have what it takes to fight the future?

Original Adventures Reincarnated #3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is now available for pre-order! We will keep you updated with more information soon!

Author: pandabrett

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