[Review] EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (AD&D 1e); Iterate

[Adventure]
EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (1983)

E. Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 9 – 12

The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Module EX2):  E. Gary Gygax: 9780880380256: Amazon.com: Books



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. ****


15 thoughts on “[Review] EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (AD&D 1e); Iterate

  1. Thank you for reviewing audience requests! Excited to see what you think of some of the to do list items!

    One of my favorites is seeing authors review RPG material and see comments and reactions to that in their work.

    For me, its reading your tomb of horrors and such reviews and seeing your lessons in the form of Palace OTUR! Commenting, learning, reacting, improving all the creative good stuff.

    Excited to see how you think on other to do list material and how that manifests in your pen

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I’m sure I’ll get around to them at some point, Jaquays especially. I think working with a consistent theme gives more direction to my process and improves the quality of my reviews. Looking at earlier adaptations before you tackle a module clearly inspired by a certain work of fiction gives the review more depth.

      I got much better at writing modules from reviewing the best stuff around and the time-sink of analysing each of them is prohibitive so this is indeed one of my big strengths.

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  2. I also like that you review stuff like this where critical analysis is nill and brief comments on rpg geek are untrustworthy or not helpful.

    3e adventure with adventure path text 400 pages reviewed by Ferretlover17383
    “Great hardcover! Campaign for years, high adventure, biggest complaint is the lack of consistent paper quality”

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  3. Another great review that also validates my own experience with these modules more than I expected.

    I bought EX1 as a kid – at age 10 I was already a devoted Gygax fanboi and was especially intrigue by the back-cover note that the module came from the Greyhawk Castle dungeons. I was expecting something quintessential with mazes and fiendish traps like a less linear Tomb of Horrors, and instead I got some weird Alice in Wonderland thing mostly set in a flower garden. I hated if for several reasons – one because it wasn’t what I wanted and expected, two because as an oh-so-sophisticated 10 year old Alice in Wonderland seemed like lame kid-stuff (I didn’t have anywhere near the perspective to recognize the twists Gygax had put on the material or the degree to which it was still really dangerous and wholly D&Dized), and three because it seemed really hard to run – as you noted in your review, the descriptions aren’t always clear about what’s actually going on as rooms change shape, doors lead to different places, etc. plus in several encounters Gygax provides generalized roleplaying instructions such as “If no character catches the initial smoke ring, the behir will continue to converse in a lazy and obtuse fashion,” or “His conversation will be strange indeed—asking riddles that have no answer, making inappropriate statements, asserting perverse logic, twisting questions, and so on” that I found less than helpful as a kid. Accordingly, I put that module away on the shelf unplayed and didn’t give it another thought for the next 20 or so years, and definitely didn’t buy the sequel (fool me once…).

    Therefore, I never saw EX2 until after the turn of the century, when I was in my late 20s and was filling in the holes in my D&D collection. And, lo and behold, when I read it I really liked it – it all seemed to flow so much better and make more sense and be much more effective than EX1. Unlike EX1, upon reading EX2 I really wanted to play it. At the time I put that difference in reaction down mostly to my different perspective when I was exposed to it, but this review makes me realize that there really is a stylistic difference between the two and that EX2 is more polished and conventional and better developed compared to EX1. This even carries through to the interior art – EX1 has moody, almost impressionistic art by Timothy Truman, while EX2 is illustrated in a totally straightforward and conventional style by Jim Holloway. I think these modules were published simultaneously by TSR, but even if they were Gygax must have written and put EX1 into development first.

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    1. Thank you. Glad to know my instincts were right on this one, since on paper I think EX1 is more ambitious. I concur that EX2 was probably designed after EX1, as all the obvious Alice in Wonderland references have already been ticked off, and Through the Looking Glass is bound to be less popular, albeit slightly.

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  4. (Initial Comment was too long, so I’ve split it up)

    Another note: Murlynd was the D&D character of Gary Gygax’s best friend and business partner Don Kaye, who died of a sudden heart attack in 1975, at age 30-something. While I have no proof that i’s true, I’ve always liked to think that Murlynd’s house as depicted in this module is a more-or-less accurate recreation of Don Kaye’s house and that the furniture, books, etc. are all personal tributes by Gary to his departed friend, which adds another layer of depth and a nice wistful personal touch, something that you definitely don’t see in other D&D modules. I suppose I could ask Rob Kuntz or Ernie Gygax if this theory is true, but I don’t really want to know – I like my version of the story better and would find “no, Gary just made all that stuff up for the module” deeply disappointing.

    Also, the room of technological marvels in Murlynd’s basement has always stood out as fun to me, because it sets up magic and technology as opposite poles on a continuum like matter and anti-matter – that D&D characters find technology horrifying and sick-making and that if they are so foolish as to take any of it with them its mere presence will drain and ruin their magic items. I suspect this is something Gary planned to do more with later (the whole notion of parallel earths existing at various points along that axis – his never-produced D&D movie screenplay reportedly involved traveling between multiple such worlds gathering mcguffins) but never got a chance to before getting the boot from TSR. As it is, these couple of paragraphs become the sole published official depiction of what was seemingly intended to be a fairly major aspect of the AD&D multiversal cosmology.

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    1. I’d keep that too, that’s a much better story.

      The technological stuff was an interesting idea, if underdeveloped, but it does seem to contradict the treatment of technology in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and its hard to reconcile the two. I’m more of a fan of having technology be lost or unavailable then having physical laws in place to enforce the status quo, it seems heavy-handed, but to each their own.

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  5. Last fun bit of trivia: the cover of EX1 depicts a scene from EX2 (the roc) and the cover of EX2 depicts a scene from EX1 (the hangman tree). I have no idea whether that was a screw-up by TSR’s production department or if they thought it was a funny in-joke.

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  6. Not to add to your ever-growing list of things to read but the Lewis Carroll stories really are worth reading, charming, erudite, and very light but still worth all of the hype in my opinion.

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    1. Jesus I just finished J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company which probably should be adapted into some sort of Unknown Armies scenario so I shall need time to recover from that. AiW seems a delightful bit of drollery that I gave as a gift to my ex some long way back but in my current configuration I am suited for devouring pondrous, heavy material, preferably with boreal, miltonian prose, that should be recited from atop black mountain crags with thundering, earth-shaking volume.

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      1. Well now I really need to hear you reading it with that mindset, you could definitely take a pretty lovecraftian horror direction if you wanted to put a lot of your own spin on that reading. There is definitely some ponderous heft that could be mined if you were of a mind to.

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  7. Another great review Prince. As you point out, there was a time when fun-house almost became the norm in D&D, which completely undermines the intended effect.

    Thanks for an insightful and entertaining read.

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    1. Thanks squeen. I don’t think there was ever a time when Funhouse became the norm during D&D’s official run, but its certainly worth pointing out that this style of adventuring was originally conceived as an exception, not the rule.

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  8. The Funhouse is a good place to stay in. The beds are warm and its got a tablesoccer in the basement.

    God bless this mess.

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  9. Another bit of trivia: the vorpal sword herein was the first recovered in Castle Greyhawk by Ernie Gygax’s PC Erac’s Cousin, and that PC was whisked away to the Abyss by EGG and RJK via Fraz’Urb-luu to get them out of the two swords out of the campaign 😉

    Allan.

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