[Review] EX1 Dungeonland (AD&D 1e); The world’s first Artpunk module

[Adventure]
EX1 Dungeonland (1983)

Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 9 – 12

Dungeonland - Wikipedia



Great news gang. It turns out some hack fraud had already written a module for Red & Pleasant Land before it even came out! A little known OSR author by the name of E. Gary Gygax introduced such a venture in his original Castle Greyhawk campaign, and later published these works as two separate modules [1]. The context speaks volumes; Gygax takes great pains to note that this module diverges from what he would regard as a normal adventure and is mostly meant as a ‘light-hearted change of pace’ from the normal business of crawling dungeons and counting the hexes on the map, Artpunk wankers take note. The result is arguably Gygax’s most fantastical module; there is little attempt at verisimilitude. The characters fall through a shaft in the floor and arrive in the bizarre Dungeonland, an otherworldly realm with all manner of queer inhabitants.

EX1 is odd because in writing it Gygax deviates from some of his own principles. Gone is the meticulous trapmaker, whose intricate death-machines are lovingly coated in realistic wallpaper and painted with shapes that excite the imagination. Instead we see a Gygax out of his element, indulging in the decadent evocation *gasp* of wonder and imagination for his own sake, as well as developing a habit of rail-roading and boxed text that would come to rule over the hobby with iron-sheathed fists. Dungeonland is an entertaining if uneven hodgepodge of Alice-in-Wonderlandic? Set-pieces that provide a diverting backdrop against which your players may fool around and possibly get horribly murdered before they are dragged back into the cold stone halls of death that we have come to know and love.

The beginning is interesting and effective because the nature of the situation is not immediately revealed to the players. Gygax goes so far as to recommend you place this thing inside the covers of another module, surely a sleight that would not fool hardened 9th level veterans? You fall through a shaft, wherein tiny alcoves with model furniture are revealed. Clever players carrying a light source may elect to grab from them several items, the rest gets to suck it. The true nature of the place they are in will sink in over time, but once it does so, there are plenty of allusions, references and the odd nod to meta-gaming, in this EX1 retains its Gygaxian trappings.

Some of the Alice in Wonderland mutable-reality bits are implemented fairly effectively (one would say more effectively then in RaPL). The shrinking potion in EX1 does provide access to areas that are otherwise inaccessible, and equipment does not shrink so characters will be effectively naked. The tiny items snatched from the shaft now provide the only defence. Reality is somewhat elastic. A room alters if one’s attention is diverted, a room changes into a caterpillar or shrinks to crush characters to death if they do not act swiftly. Dungeonland is not without peril!

The boxed text is an unnecessary hindrance and your constant foe throughout the module. The dense, ultra-tight prose of G1 Gary has been replaced with verbose, almost flowery Gary and the transition is admittedly not a flattering one. It does not help that despite this voluminous body of text the reality transitions, which one would expect to require extra attention, are at times unclear, making it confusing where the players end up in what map.

Encounters are interesting because they have become what is almost an OSR standard; Nothing but Saturday Night Specials. There is no repetition of any creature or encounter, the degree of interactivity is much higher, and it is more often then not advisable to fight or co-operate instead of resorting to outright hostility, as in the case of, say, the Giant Dog. There is an element of Gygax’s fiendish trickery coupled with the whimsical absurdity. There is no guarantee that interacting with NPCs will be beneficial, and there are situations where doing so can actually prove detrimental (such as in the case of the Jack-in-the-Box, or the Chesire Smilodon) or where being an asshole is actually much more beneficial (in the case of the Duchess). This keeps players on their toes and guessing, the nature of the inhabitants of Dungeonland is not neccessarily identical to that of their parallels in the novel.

These DnDized Alicisms are interchanged with occasional weird flurries of DnDisms like monstrously poisonous mushrooms, hangman trees or the occasional carnivorous flora. There is a pleasant mutability, explained away by the existence of the L20 Archmage, the Rabbit who is the most formidable in this domain. Dragon turtles with Gorgon heads, Giant Griffons, Jack in the Pulpits preaching a creed of true neutrality. Size and shape are more mutable then the norm, but there is still an underlying method to the apparent madness. The rules of Dungeonland might not be sane but they are at least consistent!

There is an indication of a shrinking house that will crush all those inside with a (spacious) list of counter-measures but a count-down here in the manner of ToH would have been helpful I think. The entrance only disappears after 2 rounds. We are presumed to be able to arbitrate this at this point.

It is interesting to see that despite the apparent lunacy of the encounters, Gygax will resort to the framework of AD&D wherever possible. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are high level monks, the White Rabbit a L20 polymorphed (senile) Archmage, and the caterpillar a polymorphed Behir. But the disguise is usually subtle and the framework gives a type of grounding, rather then an excuse for laziness. The hatter does indeed throw enchanted hats, the Smilodon Cat vanishes or turns invisible, and the Catterpillar Behir puffs enchanted clouds of smoke!

Despite the trappings of deadly silliness, Gygax does not abandon his design precepts altogether. Treasure is sparse, but as in most of his modules, it must always be earned, and is often concealed, inaccessible without a solution (as in the case of the miniature treasure, which must somehow be transformed into regular size), or guarded and guarded quite formidably, in the case of the Giant Lobsters in the Grotto. You are most certainly still playing DnD, and more importantly, Gygax’s DnD, and thus the module remains geared more to Wolves then Sheep. One will guffaw more then in your average encounter, but the element of reward, or peril, or possible boon is firmly embedded within each encounter. They have, take note, a point!

Yet for all the creativity on display, this module lacks the punch of Gygax’s other work precisely because, it is all so aery and light-hearted and silly. The mind never settles into a normal rhythm so fine pieces are firmly outlined against a more mundane backdrop. The effect here is disorienting and diverting at the same time, which is precisely what it is meant to evoke.

The last section is the least Gygaxian of all, and amounts to what is almost a railroad for these times. The characters are led into a palace, room keys are missing (good! You don’t need them for this! And they are essentially framed by the Jack of Courland over Pie Theft (in actuality, extremely precious replicas of pies) via pick Pocket rolls. This amounts to what is surely blasphemy, and it is almost inconceivable the Jack is ever brought to justice for his pernicious pie theft.  

What is one to say of this strange entry in the Codex Gygaxis? Dungeonland remains an oddity, seldom talked about, not often remembered, but probably perfectly fine for what it is, a session or two of silly fun to break up the more heady dungeon-crawling fare that makes up the bulk of Good DnD ™. Despite the at times clunky presentation and the occasional railroadery interaction, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and underneath the charming patina of Wonderland is a surprisingly solid adventure, a little easier then Gygax’s normal S+ assholishness but still deadlier then the average bear. The plethora of banned spells to prevent the players from coloring outside the lines could have been circumvented by just lowering the level, but this was part of Gygax’s home campaign, so this can all be forgiven. Dump it in your Castle Greyhawk recreation (if you have a Gary Gygax waifu pillow) or in your own megadungeon (if you have a David Hargrave waifu pillow).

***

[1] The only other such official publication would be the contentious Isle of the Ape. Regrettably, the full Castle Greyhawk would never see the light of day.


5 thoughts on “[Review] EX1 Dungeonland (AD&D 1e); The world’s first Artpunk module

  1. Thanks for taking requests! This assessment is totally fair. The scripted ending (including the fake map) is definitely the worst part and leaves a bad taste on the rest of the stuff which, for all of its surface-level whimsy, is still pretty solidly grounded in Gygax-style D&D – anybody who thinks they can let their guard down because this is a “joke” module is likely to end up with a dead character. I wonder if with less boxed text he would’ve had room to allow for more non-linear sandbox-style exploration (including an actual map of the castle dungeons) but maybe it wouldn’t have been worth the effort – after a session or two the premise would probably grow stale, and Gary surely knew that, which is why he kept it shot and sweet rather than pretending it’s suitable as an entire campaign setting.

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    1. I cleaned up my review so it flows better and added a few extra notes.

      That was my takeaway. I remember EX2 vaguely so I am interested to see how well it holds up. Its probably wise of Gygax that he does provide a method of leaving Dungeon Land at any time.

      I ordered John Luis Borges so I am curious.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have always been contemptuous of the module *format*, but not the *content*.

    Geoffrey recently posted some excerpts of Gygax’s module prose to show how superior it was to his novels. The only things I read in Gygax’s modules are his introductions, his novel rules which usually are excellent procedures, and his grandstanding descriptions of beings and locations.

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    1. Interesting. Can you conceive of an alternate format to the module?

      Something like Wiegel’s Broken Castle, a limited area with fleshed out towns, adventuring locations, organizations and fantastical inhabitants, with more elaborate interconnections would seem to be a solution.

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