Tuesday, 30 August 2016

either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change in our fortunes

When you were a kid and (I hope) read children’s fantasy for the first time, what was the first adventure/campaign-style book that made an impression on you? When was the first time you read, unwittingly, through a campaign? What is the book that, when you first discovered D&D, part of your brain - whether you said so around the table or not - looked back at as you realised you could reinhabit the feeling of those books?

The accepted answer to this question, the children’s book supposedly most influential on the way roleplaying games work, is The Hobbit, and indeed there are good historical reasons for citing this, but only as LOTR’s younger cousin. We all know that a 14-person party, plus one wizard who can’t make most of the sessions, is not a feasible party, and then at the end a fucking NPC slays the dragon and you have to do a bunch of fiddly mass combat. Nah. The first book you read about a D&D campaign - probably before The Hobbit anyway - was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. You know this to be true. 

It's a perfect potted intro campaign, with intro meaning 'far from perfect', but Pauline Baynes went and mapped it for you so quit complaining. It’s a 4 person party, as run by a sloppy DM who plays favourites, but everybody has fun in the end:

  • Peter - Fighter or Paladin. Insufferable, but does most of the talking. Spotlight-grabbing player.
  • Marching order is important. The Pevensies
    know this instinctively.
    Edmund - Rogue. Weirdly overdone ‘betrayal storyline’ forced on him by DM at one point (possibly he went on holiday and was run as an NPC for a month?).
  • Susan - Ranger. Most competent party member, killing machine, natural leader, DM doesn’t like her.
  • Lucy - Rogue? Wizard? Specialist? Really Lucy is Zak’s Alice, the adventure-dynamo class, made of curiosity and luck and obviously the DM’s favourite.

It has a tutorial module where a faun teaches Lucy (probably the only new player) how to
have encounters and interact with NPCs while also throwing her a bunch of setting information she can reveal to the rest of the party as she chooses; a handy equipment gift of fur coats at the beginning; a twist to the set-up when Mr Tumnus’ house is found raided; some hexcrawling while Edmund takes a few weeks off and the world-warping Big Bad is introduced; an encounter with major NPCs at the well-mapped Stone Table location (before which the DM rewards the party with half a dozen rolls on a treasure table) which sets up a lot of wider universe stuff; a rogue-stuff mission into the major enemy dungeon followed by a big combat encounter; and then good hooks for another campaign for those who can make it back.

You could reskin this in seconds, add in a little leeway for different player decisions, and go off to the races and your players will never notice. Like, for example:

  • Everything’s Himalayan, Tumnus as quasi-Buddhist yakman, Big Bad is an evil sun spirit who melts the glaciers, Aslan as yeti-saint who agrees to be sacrificed by drowning in a mountain lake.
  • Thaumo-industrial archipelago civilization, evil Luddite wizard trying to raise the sea and drown it, Tumnus as clockwork techno-sprite, Aslan as half-dragon artificer genius. The statues are all rundown clockmen awaiting daring rewinding
  • Dark Ages Ireland, Jadis/Morrigan is slaying all the cattle. Tumnus is a non-annoying leprechaun, Aslan is Mannanan mac Lir, all the dungeons are mound-and-passage tombs, the Stone Table is at Newgrange.
  • Post-apoc wasteland-crawl for a bunch of characters whose plane crashed travelling between other, safer place. Out here the White Witch has Immortan Joe-like control of water sources and Aslan is the name of a decentralised resistance movement. Tumnus is a revolting mutant teaching A Lesson About Tolerance.
  • If your players are fantasy-illiterate, just replay the book and see if they notice.

Narniaphobes take note, the fact that Aslan is here reworked as several entities with varying levels of in-campaign religious significance is a clue that the Jesus stuff really doesn’t matter and can be neatly surgically excised. I’m sure you can do better than those 4, though, or you can just cherrypick scenes - sneaking around the castle of petrified statues reviving them is especially good.

Not to return to the Jesus stuff when we don’t really need to, but quite a lot of continuing to love Narnia as an adult is about trying to pull away from that stuff and recover the proper, adventurous joy of the books - which is the part that first grabs you as a kid and you couldn’t care less what an allegory is. There’s loads of writing on the subject - this is good - but one of the very best ways would be to remake the whole thing as a campaign, wherein - even allowing for the overarching plot - your players can make their own meaning. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t even the only Narnia book that would make a good campaign, though - they actually all would, in different ways. LWW is the most conventional campaign, one for first-timers, but the others are more offbeat and fertile and provocative - they have more weird and cherrypickable ideas and settings and NPCs. So much so I’m gonna do a post on each. Stay tuned.

PS We do not talk about the movies.Even Tilda. We can talk about the BBC stuff, tho, but skeptically.