Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: EX1 Dungeonland

I was reminded about wanting to review EX1 Dungeonland by a comment Erik Tenkar made about EX1 and EX2 on his blog. I've run EX1 but not (that I recall) EX2, but I may take a look at EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror at some point as well.

For more reviews, please see my review page.

by E. Gary Gygax
32 pages plus a cover with maps inside
1983 TSR

Dungeonland is subtitled "An Adventure In A Wondrous Place For Character Levels 9-12." The introduction explains that this was original conceived of and executed as a Greyhawk Castle dungeon sub-level. In a nutshell, it's "D&D characters meet and kill characters from Alice in Wonderland." (Link to my favorite version)

When it comes to expectations, you can play off them with a twist, or you can serve them straight up. Dungeonland is mostly the latter. It is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, only with (almost) everything being a hostile monster encounter. No Alice, but all of the beings she encounters in the Lewis Carroll story show up and attempt to inflict violence on those they encounter. Mock turtle? Mock dragon-turtle. Cheshire Cat? Magical smilodon. Mad Hatter? Throws random lethal headgear like a warped Oddjob. Baby that becomes a pig? Wereboar. To quote the Afterword, "This module is not, by any stretch of the imagination, aimed at the player or DM who takes himself (and the game) too seriously."

Most of it is pretty obvious, and the only real cleverness is the original concept and how appropriately lethal the encounters are. But like I said, it's expectations served up with the twist being lethality. The adventure is straight-up hack-and-slash, much like G1-3 Against The Giants. Or a lot of early D&D and AD&D adventures, really - a place with monsters to kill, puzzles to solve, and treasure to find.

It features some interesting elements, including a miniaturized adventuring area, complete with a chance to get some tiny magic items to use in it (if you recognize the chance, that is.) You get to explore the gardens, woods, and houses of Wonderland, and deal with their now-lethal inhabitants. There are magical pools and fountains, beneficial and hostile plants, a senile arch-mage, odd distortions of space, and other things that make Dungeonland a really interesting environment. It's nonsensical but not illogical - more spurious logic than random nonsense. That makes it possible for the players to deal with the environment with some caution (they know it's all weird) yet for it to contain all sorts of oddness.

The module screams out for, and seems to expect, meta-gaming. Not the "I have 3 HP left!" kind but the "I read this book so I know the flamingos are for croquet!" kind. Like I said above, it's about playing on the expectations. It's Wonderland gone lethal and violence is an acceptable solution, and that's the core of it. You want the players to recognize things and use what they know, or it loses its charm, like a parody of something you'd never seen in the original.

The NPCs are detailed well enough that they are easy to play and the GM gets enough understanding of what they're for and what they'll do. There is even an in-context amusing Gygaxian admonition - "Play the King with an 18 intelligence, please!") Some of the Wonderland oddness is here, too - some foes can be fought, disengaged from, and then encountered in a friendly setting later - the past is the past in Dungeonland. Playing up that oddness is encouraged and (in my experience) a good idea.

There is one especially scripted bit - a encounter in the Palace with royalty and a trial that's going on. It's not a terrible railroad, in that it just makes the whole thing seem odd. The PCs have a chance to get caught up in something odd that isn't of their own making. Violence or roleplaying can solve this puzzle, too - the violence angle is just a little dangerous even for the levels of PCs involved.

Editing Later: I forgot to add that this was the first appearance of the executioner's hood and the hangman tree, both of which later appeared in Monster Manual II. It also marked the appearance of the hat of disguise and deck of illusions, both which made it into Unearthed Arcana.

War Stories

As modules go, this is pretty much straighforward hack-and-slash. Not a lot of depth.

But I found running it, the recognition the players bring to the table makes it a lot of fun. Rampaging through Wonderland, er, Dungeonland, killing off major characters they know at least a little bit since childhood, has a lot of good points. The baggage that Alice in Wonderland brings along with it, and the expectations the players bring to it, make for a fun adventure.

In other words, it reads like flat hack-and-slash but plays with a lot of enjoyment and some depth because of the source material. You don't necessarily need to add depth to a setting if the players bring their own depth.

At the time, the idea of going Gumby-like into a book but then fighting all of the characters must have seemed especially new and shiny. It was when I encountered EX1 as a teen, too.

I ran it back in the late 80s/early 90s for GURPS 1st edition(ish - 1st ed + house rules + GURPS Update). Instead of the module setup I had a friendly wizard they'd worked for before, Joachim Xavian, magically transport them to the land to complete some task (which might have just been, "Go see what's there.") We had a lot of very memorable moments. Amongst them was the samurai Harada Takashi fighting the white rabbit fist-to-paw in a karate battle on the Mad Hatter's table, a wizard dodging thrown hats (and earlier, dodging smoke rings), chopping up playing card soldiers, and the consequences of my cousin's halfling thief Darren telling the Cheshire Cat to, and I quote, "Bite me." He did. Hilarity ensued.

Overall, it was a great rampage through Alice's world.

How is it for GURPS?

I've run it for GURPS, and it was a blast. The oddness of the inhabitants is easy to model in GURPS (even in 1st edition, which was less flexible than 4th edition.) I'd run it again in a heartbeat, if I could only run it without warning again. My current group includes a veteran of the run 20+ years ago, though, and my players would probably see it coming. I'm more likely to do a variation on this theme than run it directly for that reason. But it was excellent.

Overall: It's a hack-and-slash traipse through Wonderland turned into a lethal dungeon. It's neither more nor less than that, but fun for all of that. Recommended if you like Alice in Wonderland and killing major literary characters with swords.


  1. I never played this or have I even read it. The review looks interesting. One thing that stands out is that this might have been a departure from original D&D adventures as it seems to have a theme and a gameworld concept with appropriate types of monsters. The same is sort of true of Ravenloft in the sense in that had more gameworld builing than the old school dungeon with monsters in the dungeon waiting to be slain. .

    1. It's certainly more gameworldy, but a good chunk of the monsters are standard types, with a number of unique variations added on.

  2. Sooner or later, I would run every D&D group in high school through EX1 and EX2... they were just really different from anything else out at the time! Some of my favorite modules. (TSR also did some "2001" modules for Star Frontiers that were pretty gonzo!)

    1. I said this over on G+:

      "For me it hits a sweet spot of silly enough to relax and enjoy it, lethal enough to make you concentrate on playing, but neither so silly you just groan as it makes jokes AT you (WG7 Castle Greyhawk) or so lethal you can't play it."

      That's pretty much it - fairly singularly adventures.


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