EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (1983)
E. Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 9 – 12
The second part in the highly unusual EX series, penned by the master of D&D, Gary Gygax himself, it either took me a while to grok this style of absurd D&D or he seems to have established a rhythm that for whatever reason, works better than the first attempt. EX1 was very experimental, with lots of bizarre set pieces, strange occurences and wacky NPCs, but at the same time there was something about it that made it not quite cohere. The Rabbit Archmage encounter is a good example. He pretends to be a statue and will use spells to escape…and then not much. There’s a rough polish to the Archmage’s house, some of his companions just attack etc. etc. Its good but it lacks a certain…polish?
By contrast EX2 is much more conventional, taking place in a mazed hex map in the forested lands beyond the Magic Mirror, but seems much more refined, as though it picked up where Dungeonland left off. Every encounter is new and refreshing and functions almost as a sort of mini-quest. The atmosphere of whimsical peril is sustained here also; Things are not what they seem! And danger lurks in every corner. Ever one to teach by example, Gygax illustrates how to use the myriad ridiculous NPCs to their fullest extent. Indeed if you are one of the unfortunates to have been saddled with a copy of Red & Pleasant Land and you have not yet cast it into the cleansing fires to burn away your secular sins, EX2 is a perfect illustration of how to handle a menagerie of quirky characters in a surrealist landscape so that they are wondrous, do not overstay their welcome and generate oh so important gameplay. But why would you, if Dungeonland and the Land Beyond the Magic Mirror can entertain in a fashion that is, frankly, superior?
Land Beyond the Magic Mirror is the logical follow up to Dungeonland, and is based on Carrol’s follow-up novel to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. As I am familiar with the contents of both novels only through osmosis, I am sure to miss the odd literary allusion, but most of it is recognizable; Tweedledee & Tweedledum, The Jabberwock, the Bandersnatch, ye Vorpal sworde, the Jub-jub bird and Humpty-dumpty. I could not, even after repeated inspection, locate the Tum-tum tree. The boxed text is back, but more restrained, flowing well and even, and carrying the GM through the encounters like a faithful hound.
As you enter this field of nearly one-half mile diameter, you see clouds of dust and flying vegetation coming from a spot near the center of the place. There two indeterminate creatures are engaged in a battle royal. Nearby stands an armored figure wearing a silvery crown. He is watching the battle, but as you come into the park he sees you and gestures to you to join him as spectators to the fray. However, just as he does so, the two monsters cease their struggle and walk calmly toward the crowned man. He, in turn, then waves them to him, as he reclines at ease beneath a tree.
The adventure opens in a low-key fashion, in the anachronistic house of the Archmage Murlynd, filled with all manner of wondrous bug collections, chemistry-lab equipment, stamps and books. There is something understated about the whole, the very careful concealment of treasure, the inclusion of little details that can be found for context’s sake alone as well as the friendly commandment by the Archmage to help yourself to what food you may, with the request that you don’t eat him out of the house, that makes this section work. There’s a talking clock, serious texts on horticulture and economy disguised by illusion (actually sports illustrated magazines and game rules). And then Gary puts a Groaning Spirit and a small magical armory in the attic. Ah, Gygax!
All of these encounters, moreso in EX1, exemplify what dynamic encounters should look like. A path leads through a giant flowerbed with talking flowers that begin hurling insults at you. You notice their petals are made of gold and their eyes are gemstones. What do you do? A gigantic knight on an iron horse comes from the bushes, asking you “Do you serve Whitfield or Rosewood? Speak quickly or prepare to withstand my onslaught!” A walrus with legs and a carpenter ask you to dive for pearls because they can’t enter the Sea because of a Geas. And it resolves in a way that is suprising and awesome, and DEADLY to the uninitiated.
The lack of weird set-pieces and a reliance on more straightforward encounters comes across as a breath of fresh air. The single set-piece, a chessboard puzzle, suffers the fate of all Chessboard puzzles, that of interrupting the game’s natural flow without fully utilizing the complexity and potential of chess. The conceit is good, a checkboard field, with the dark squares ringed by hedges, and the inhabitants of each square have to be defeated in order to pass, but compared to some of the other encounters in EX2 it is too straightforward.
Characters frequently get whisked around the map via boats, giant rocs, secret passages and so on, which is a smart decision HERE. This is not a section where you are running a complicated expedition involving resource management, adverse weather effects, and careful timekeeping. GET TO THE ACTION. Even if its just straightforward combat the creatures are surprising and have unique abilities. Its easy to statt up a Jub Jub bird, yes, but who would think of giving it a feign death ability, so it leaps back up when the characters approach it, thinking it slain? Humpty dumpty sits atop a 100 foot wall, wide as the eye can see, insulting you, what the fuck do you do?
A trick that is underutilized in most of DnD (and the OSR!), that of putting some nonhostile but dangerous NPC in a place, and then loading him with clearly visible treasure, is used to spectacular effect here. What do you do? It is really no fun if the game consistently rewards you for being good boys and doing what the GM tells you without giving them the occasional risk/reward situation like this. This section, and probably the one preceding it, are an illustration of the proper use of these types of dynamic, interactive encounters. They are unpredictable but also written in a manner that will not condition the party in any particular direction, which requires subtlety. Being too trusting will result in doom as assuredly as always responding with violence will. Instead each situation must be weighed on its own merits, each move carefully deliberated.
The last encounter is a fitting piece de la resistance to the Land Beyond the Magic Mirror as a whole. A splendid palace, with two beautiful queens, and all manner of footmen and servants, having selected the characters to receive royal treatment anywhere in Whitfield and Roseveld therever after. If your players do not immediately get alarm bells at this dinner, you have been coddling them. The reveal is certain to be as chaotic and deadly as it is fucking awesome. Excellent.
Land Beyond the Magic Mirror tops it off with a voluminous appendix, introducing new spells not necessarily themed around Alice in Wonderland, but still very awesome (Murlynd’s Ogre & Murlynd’s Void, the highly awesome Phantom Steed and the Whispering Wind spell), some new creatures (The disturbing Eblis or pelican-men are my personal favorite) and some interesting new magic items that fit right in with the next of the DMG.
Part of the charm of Land Beyond the Magic Mirror is that it works equally well as a companion to EX1 as it does as a standalone adventure, in fact nothing in EX2 requires characters to have played, or even be aware of, EX1. Taken as a whole, the series is an interesting illustration of what a short expedition to an enchanted realm should look like; Wonderous, perilous, full of surprises, and filled to the brink with new creatures and treasure, where the rules are not quite the same, but not entirely abandoned either. A realm where Tweedlee and Tweedious are L 15 monks that can beat you to death or ask you to help them recover their possessions, or where you can trapped and drowned by giant clams. A realm of resentful vorpal swords, idiotic giant iron golem knights and all manner of strangeness.
The entire series merits a **** and deserves to be recognized as being exceptional in the annals of DnD, even if EX1 comes off to something of a rough start, but EX2 is simply delightful. Like any sweet, it tastes terrific when first indulged but will cause nausea if overindulged in. The level of 9-12 seems to have been the maturing point for D&D in Gygax’s conception; these are the levels at which you subject the players to truly formidable challenges, or else throw them some curveballs since they have now been fully immersed in the myriad possibilities of DnD. Beneath the silly trappings is an excellent, light-hearted and wonderfully lethal scenario.
Or as Gygax puts it:
The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror is a scenario designed for fun. It is different from the usual adventure—be it in the wilderness or beneath the ground. Beyond mere level of experience, the scenario calls for rational thinking, quick decision making, active imagination, and skillful play. If it is properly DMed, I am certain that all players with nominal skill will lose their characters—even with an overabundance of magical items to aid them. On the other hand, it is far too whimsical for those few enthusiasts who take the game quite seriously and want “realism” in their fantasy.
You tell em Gary. Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Throw it in your campaign. A palette cleanser that might kill your 10th level Wizard. Hell yes. ****