Review of AD&D adventure EX2: Through the Magic Mirror

One thing was certain, that the rules of naturalistic adventure writing had nothing to do with it: — it was Gary Gygax’s desire to do an adventure based on Lewis Carroll’s works, and Lewis Carroll’s best writing came from taking ideas found in his (and our) world and twisting them to be amusing and possibly satirical. And, when Gary Gygax became involved you got an adventure in the full fun-house tradition; little would make sense in the “real” world, but the stuff of fun and enjoyable adventures for a group of players wanting to be challenged in AD&D. And so, you got Carroll through the lens of Gygax, twisted to become amusing – and dangerous – in an AD&D adventure.

Carroll’s second tale about Alice is built around the construct of a chess match; all the moves of Alice and the characters she meets work within that framework. Gygax faced rather a problem when designing this adventure; although AD&D was not averse to chessboard-puzzles, to do the entire adventure on a chess board would prove very difficult, especially as we only see what Alice meets on her journey and not every other piece on the board. His solution was to include one chessboard encounter, and to fill the rest of the adventure with encounters inspired from the book.

Another problem Gygax faced was deciding how to get the characters into the adventure. As the title of the piece indicates, going through a magic mirror is the primary method – that works well (and the mirror leads into the Magic Mirror house in the adventure). However, Gygax also provided a method for reaching this area directly from the end of EX1: Dungeonland; if the characters chase the Knave, they’ll end up in the garden of that house. Most of the adventure is set in the wilderness, although the thickness of the forest likely precludes travel except along the trails, making this adventure another example of the “wilderness as dungeon” method.

The Magic Mirror house gains considerable attention, and is notable as a dwelling place of the learned Dr. D.R. Murlynd. The house is an area I find extremely enjoyable to run, as it appears as a modern house with all the conveniences (including an electrical generator in the basement – powered by a lightning quasi-elemental, of course!) It is not full of dangers, although there are one or two monsters that can be fought, but instead provides an opportunity for the DM and players to explore a whimsical setting. I wonder how many elements of the house came from Gygax’s own; certainly it is well-stocked with gaming equipment, including a sand table. The last time I ran it, the players found copies of the D&D rulebooks and, running with the joke, went searching for the mystical d20 that could “slay dragons”.

Murlynd appears as a hero-deity in the 1983 Greyhawk book, and was the character played by Gary Gygax’s friend, and co-founder of TSR, Don Kaye, who died unexpectedly in January 1975. The death of Don Kaye would have significant ramifications for the history of TSR and D&D; if he had lived, the Blumes would have never had controlling interest in the company (initially it was split three ways between Blume, Gygax and Kaye, but Blume’s father bought Kaye’s shares after his death). A few magic items and spells named for Murlynd would later see print in 1985’s Unearthed Arcana.

As an adventure, Through the Magic Mirror feels a lot more straightforward and deadly than Dungeonland. This is partly because there are fewer opportunities for role-playing. Beasts from the Jabberwocky poem can be found in the woods (including the Jabberwock) and they function as straight monsters to be killed. Other encounters are tricks for the players: the monster might appear helpful, but is actually trying to kill them.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee make appearances as “T.Dium” and “T.Deeous”, and are pretty much the closest the adventure gets to having allies of the players; at least they can be bargained with. That the Walrus and the Carpenter try to deceive the players into gaining pearls for them (from giant oysters, naturally) is simply to be expected. A large part of the joy of the adventure comes from recognising Gygax’s inspiration for each encounter and how he’s recast it to make it work for the game.

However, there’s no great plan here. The encounters mostly stand by themselves. A great combat in the Mad Feast hall, a particularly dangerous place, may close out the adventure, but overall the adventure is basically find some strange monsters, kill them, and take their unusual loot. Five new magical items are presented in this book, along with five new monsters and six new spells. It’s not a complicated structure, but a few encounters are quite memorable; others are merely simple combats.

So the structure of Through the Looking-Glass is lost in this adventure. Following the trails allows the players to encounter the situations in roughly the same order as the book (this is complicated by the book having several tales within tales), but a few key encounters Alice has are lost – particularly with the Red and White Queens. Yes, both turn up in the final encounter in the Mad Feast Hall, but there’s no foreshadowing of that final encounter. I feel it’s a major weakness of the adventure; if the group were told that they would become Queens (and Kings) when they reach the end of the woods (as Alice is told by the Red Queen at the start of the book), then they’d have more of a goal than just wandering around.

The maps and art are adequate but no more; once again we’ve got a lot of art by Jim Holloway (with one piece by Larry Elmore). Holloway is pretty good when not drawing people, but his humorous, cartoony style is far too obvious for an adventure that should be more subtle.

I still very much enjoy parts of this adventure, but I do feel that it’s the lesser brother of Dungeonland. You can definitely have fun with it, but it’s an adventure that is not greater than the sum of its parts.

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