Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Retrospective: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror

My reading of White Dwarf #4 this week reminded me first of Gary Gygax's Dungeonland (which was the subject of a previous retrospective) and then of its sequel – companion? – The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (hereafter Magic Mirror). Like Dungeonland, this module was first published in 1983, at the start of a period during which Gary Gygax was extraordinarily prolific, creating a number of very remarkable, if flawed, products for AD&D. Unlike Dungeonland, whose interior artwork was inappropriately provided by Timothy Truman, Magic Mirror is almost entirely illustrated by the late, great Jim Holloway, whose darkly humorous style is perfect for an adventure module of this sort.

Much as I love Dungeonland, I've always preferred Magic Mirror. There are a couple of reasons why this is so, starting with the aforementioned Holloway artwork. Lewis Carroll's stories of Wonderland are famously weird, filled with characters and situations that are equal parts scary and humorous. In my opinion, Holloway manages to thread the needle between these two poles in exactly the right fashion. The result is a better complementarity between word and pictures than in Dungeonland. 

More important than the module's esthetics – vital though that is! – is its specific content. What specific content, you might ask? The first thing that immediately comes to mind is the wooden house of Murlynd. Murlynd is not a character from Carroll's stories but rather from the early days of Gygax's own Greyhawk campaign. A creation of Gygax's closest friend, Don Kaye, Murlynd is a magic-user but one whose adventures took him to the Old West, hence the reason that he's often depicted dressed as a cowboy, complete with firearms.

For reasons I cannot fully articulate, I've always found characters like Murlynd strangely compelling. I suppose it's the way that he represents an older understanding of fantasy, one that's not bound by the narrow definitions that we tend to accept nowadays. I've long admitted that I used to struggle with this wilder kind of fantasy. Yet, even as I was struggling with it, some part of me must have recognized that there was something liberating and, above all, fun about this approach to fantasy and Murlynd in his Stetson is fun – or so I think. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed Murlynd's house, filled with anachronistic items from throughout time and space, as well as a talking grandfather clock, a lightning quasi-elemental, and "the Witch-Ghost" in the attic, among other oddities. 

Of course, there are other equally notable elements of the module. For example, there's the Garden of Colossal Flowers, filled with vain, silly, and rude plants with humanoid faces; the Chessboard Fields that the characters can only cross by playing a violent version of the game; all the creatures mentioned in Jabberwocky; Humpty Dumpty; and the manor house that includes the Mad Feast Hall. Like Carroll's stories, Magic Mirror is equal parts funny and dangerous, but, above all, it's weird and whimsical. I think that's what made such an impression on me when I first read it nearly four decades ago. The module taught me that I didn't need to be such a stick in the mud about fantasy. I could cut loose from time to time and lean into the wild and woolly aspect of the genre. Whether the lessons I learned truly had anything to do with The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror or not, I feel a certain gratitude toward it and to Gary Gygax for broadening my vision of fantasy.


  1. I agree whole heartedly with you about the artwork - I obtained a copy of EX2 before EX1, and it was a let down to see the art in EX1. It is the same for me with modules X4 and X5 - I greatly prefer the artwork in X4, and I don't like the change when the modules are connected.

    EX2 is a great example of how role playing D&D can be silly while retaining the foundation. I like how Gygax mentions in the introductions that he threw these quasi planes into his game while they were adventuring in Castle Greyhawk, as a way for them to "cleanse the palate" (my words, not his).

  2. IIRC these were written by Gygax during the Hollywood years.

    1. Almost. They were the last things he wrote pre-Hollywood (spring of ‘83). AFAICT the only things he actually wrote while in Hollywood were the first two Gord novels (with the finishing touches on Unearthed Arcana and T1-4 and the writing for WG6 done after his return to Lake Geneva in the fall of 1984).

  3. I always appreciated the covers are serious and not whimsical.

    I ran these both a few times back when I was a kid and we played them like any other module and never treated them like jokes or one offs

  4. I think a lot of this comes down to the expectations players and DMs have coming in. I love funhouses, and old school ones are the best, but you need to accept and EXPECT to lose a ton of characters. the point is no longer to make it to 10th level and get a castle. it is to go as far as possible, and then die with style, making everyone laugh.

    I ran Castle Amber recently, and just had a stack of 20 or so (might have been 30) henchmen ready to drop in as PCs when needed. we went through all of them. it was great. but I noticed that one player was miffed. despite my warnings about the content, and how uneven it was, and the stack of npc/pc sheets ready to swap in, he thought he was working on a real, lasting character. He had fun eventually, but it requires a looseness of play that isn't there for everyone.


  5. The rude flowers are one of my favorite encounter areas of all time. It's worth citing the full text:

    "These flowers are vain, silly, and rude. Whenever anyone approaches within 10' or less, the flowers in the bed will turn their faces towards the creature and demand to know why he or she is there, make disparaging remarks about the individual's appearance, insult his or her intelligence, and so on. Play this to the hilt, and be as irritating as possible to the players so that they will have their characters react with as much anger as possible. These flowers will also demand that characters leave, claim that their odor is offensive, and bait them by stating boldly that one step onto their beds will not be tolerated. Any move that puts a character into the 'bed' area -- a distance of 5' or so from any given flower -- will bring a chorus of immediate shrieks and screams from all the flowers. This cacophony will be interspersed with shrill insults, raucous vulgarity, and rude noises directed at the transgressors."