Friday, 2 September 2016

a moonlit climb and broken necks

Prince Caspian: an amount of time has passed since the last campaign (or rather, as is always the way, different amounts of time in the real world and the game world) and the party has decided to do another one, but in the intervening time the DM has contracted Grand Ideas about incorporating Politics and Sweeping World Events and A Wider Story into the campaign. The players have not forewarned about this: they spend the first session getting back into the swing of dungeon exploration - the section in the ruins of Cair Paravel is as good a narration of environment assessment, party co-operation and treasure hunting as any ever written (and also showcases a perfect level of DM detail provision and PCs Drawing Clever Conclusions): it also has the delicious detail of the golden chess piece lost in the grass, which is borrowed from the Poetic Edda. The party's reward is a bunch of nice items, and there ended the first session: but before they could gather again next week, a 10,000 word PDF (with illustrations!) landed in their inboxes. Fuck.

There is some good stuff in the PDF, for sure: the escape from the castle is good, and so is the extraneous information about the True Nature of Stars - a good DM always knows the True Nature of Stars in their present campaign, and it is always different from the last campaign. Lewis knows this, and obligingly contradicts himself on the subject in Dawn Treader. But there is only the one protagonist for most of the PDF (i.e., Caspian), saddled with a half-dwarf mentor dude – basically fantasy's only half-dwarf ever - who is an infodumping DM standing even within the infodumpy PDF.

When an apparent party eventually does come together - Caspian, Trufflehunter the
badgerfolk (great WIS, terrible DEX), and two dwarves - it does so only at the very end, and then we’re back to the actual party with a classic hook whereby they must save one of those dwarves from being thrown over the side of a boat and drowned by two mooks. The rescued dwarf is the one who, in-game, relays the PDF to them. This is a great encounter, btw, a proper OSR problem: the thing you want to protect is in a boat with two enemies and a well-defined bit of interesting geography. The Pevensies trust to luck and archery but there are probably better solutions. (I would have Edmund and Peter pretend to also be on their way to drown Lucy and call the boat into the shore for air. Susan in the trees for covering ambush fire.)

This kind of thing – two guys bent on something wicked with a boat, four plucky children outmanoeuvring them – is very specifically Narnian, in that it doesn't feel like (pre-)Tolkeinian High Fantasy – Lewis had one foot in that and the other foot in British children's adventure stories. At times the Pevensies are basically the Famous Five, minus dog, dropped into Middle Earth, which is why the books are so adventurable: plucky bands of improvisers do clever things with the materials at hand. Swallows and Amazons and Five Catch More Working Class Ne'er-Do-Wells are tonally a million miles and many planes of existence from OSR D&D but action-wise, mechanically, they're really very close. The OSR problem ur-example that people throw around – there's a moat, get over it: it's full of crocodiles – would have the Pevensies rubbing their hands with glee. They would know at once they had come home to dear old Narnia.

Anyway, Prince Caspian the book continues in this adventuring vein for a while longer, until Prince Caspian the NPC shows up and spoils that. Before that, there's a wilderness encounter with a bear – the best kind of mundane wilderness encounter, as we all know, since bears are almost the only mundane animal that can take hits from 5 party members and keep coming for several rounds. The bear is then skinned and large parts of the rest of the book document it being progressively cooked and eaten, along with some apples obtained in the first session: this is the kind of campaign that tracks supplies. Then Lewis goes full on Lake Geneva basement and the party has a disagreement and a vote after the DM gave privileged information to one of them (Lucy's sure she saw Aslan): they vote and the 'wrong' side wins the vote and it's the best. Again, voting – rather than, say, just doing what Aragorn says – is so pleasingly amateurish, and as we know amateurism is the last refuge of the true adventurer.

That's more or less the last good bit, though – even the later chapter called 'Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance' is a bust as Prince Caspian the NPC and Aslan the DMNPC show up and railroad everyone while getting pissy about how little the players remember from the PDF. There's a bunch of mass combat that the party can't really affect sufficiently, and then at the other extreme a duel that Peter does alone against the Big Bad. Pshaw. The politics of literal gods leaves little space for adventuring pluck.

It's actually because of all the High Fantasy trappings – the mass battles, the dynastic politics - that Prince Caspian makes clear how un-Narnian it is. It's a DM's campaign of a book, filled with elaborate backstory and NPCs with hard-to-recall names like Prunaprismia. The sessions of proper wilderness adventuring intervene too rarely, good as they are. Presumably realising this, the pendulum swings a long way the other way in the next book...

Just so we're clear, Pauline Baines produced the only acceptable visualisations of Narnia ever. Ok?