Monday, 5 September 2016

as great an adventure as I have ever heard of

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favourite Narnia book most of the time. Certainly it is the most fun: from a D&D perspective, it is the campaign where, having done an ill-advised political thing previously, the DM goes to the other extreme for a travelling campaign with a thin premise and a series of disconnected but enjoyable sessions. Its other value, for our purposes, is that it takes a lengthy look at how to deal with a new player who isn’t really enjoying themselves.

The party this time has 5 players (if you have a 6th person maybe you could stat up Lord Drinian, knock yourself out) - 

  • Caspian, now King and the chief figure in the party
  • Edmund, stripped of traitorishness now and very vanilla, sadly
  • Lucy, now taking on a role as party healer
  • Reepicheep - mousefolk, crazy high dex and cha but no staying power
  • Eustace Scrubb (‘There was once a boy named Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it’)

Class is a problem here: no less than 3 of these PCs (Caspian, Edmund, Reepicheep) raise the problem of how to represent traditional fantasy knights with player classes. Are they fighters or paladins? For variety’s sake Caspian can be a paladin, Edmund a fighter and Reepicheep a bard (college of valour, duh - he needs to be a duellist, basically) but there are many configurations that would work.

Dawn Treader has, first and most obviously, an enormous amount to teach us on the subject of ships. To this day I know the difference between port and starboard only thanks to that book: a few weeks ago I ran an ‘explore the sunken pirate ship’ adventure for the birthday of one of my players and realised halfway through designing the ship that I was just subconsciously redrawing Pauline Baines’ beautiful diagram of the Dawn Treader. That drawing is basically the platonic ideal of a ship, and you could run an entire adventure with it very happily. I’ve never really run any extended ship-based combat or travel - though I’m aware it’s something people are constantly systematising and resystematising and squabbling about - but I would think that if you and your players have a decent knowledge of Dawn Treader you can’t really go very far wrong.

this is literally everything you ever need to know about boats

After the introductory stuff that gets the party together and teaches us how boats work, and the establishment of the flimsy ‘find the 7 lords’ premise which just functions as an instruction to sail around and land on stuff, Dawn Treader’s first session is an extremely classic, extremely great first-session ‘the party is captured by slavers!’ adventure, in which the players learn a lot about the society of the islands they have landed on by asking clever questions based on the small amount of information the DM has given them, and then effect a brilliant, largely bluffed storming of the slaver stronghold that uses tactical thinking to negate the numerical advantage of the NPCs. This is good adventuring and Caspian is revealed to be an impressive planner and taker of deception and persuasion checks.

It’s also abundantly clear during this session, though, that Eustace is not enjoying himself. He has a basic inability to get into the spirit of things - possibly he’s just sort of a dick generally, possibly he thinks he doesn’t like fantasy. Certainly he is uncomfortable saying he does. Lewis tells us too that he simply hasn’t read enough, either, and can’t draw on the stock of tropes many players can;

‘Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.’

To be fair to him, the rest of the party have played before, and he is in the unfortunate position of being the new kid on the block. Most of us have been Eustace. All of us have had a Eustace in the party. What the DM does with a Eustace is crucial: if the Eustace continues to be a Eustace and spoil things for himself and others, it is not the Eustace’s fault, it is the DM’s.

DM Lewis (‘Jack’, even though he was named Clive: he had some issues, did Lewis) deals with the problem front and centre in the next session by building an adventure entirely around Eustace. This is risky - if Eustace didn't play along then the whole thing would collapse, but bringing it to a crisis like this is still probably sensible, as it forces the issue: if it hadn’t worked it would have been quite easy to have a word with Eustace re: him not really enjoying it, and mutually agree to have him fall overboard at some point before the next session. But Eustace does enjoy it: he is gently guided by the DM into having an adventure by himself for a bit wherein he is transformed into a dragon (exciting! Eustace is immediately like 100x more powerful than everybody else!) and then into seeing why actually he doesn’t really want to be a dragon, he wants to be his character. Meanwhile he is also being spoonfed important plot information re: one of the missing seven lords, which he can then feed back to the rest of the party and feel important about. Then he is shown the power of proper party teamwork as he is undragoned, but only after he has also performed several useful tasks for the party and established his value: and then (not to get too deep into the allegories here, but) he submits to the arbitrary but benevolent rule of the DM, having seen its wisdom. This, friends, is a masterclass in dealing with awkward players, and with it dealt with the islandcrawling can commence.

The pure islandcrawling, the second half of the novel, is packed with good stuff, much of it good enough and flexible enough that you could pluck it off its islands and land it almost anywhere in a campaign. Several of these sessions foreground one or another player,
perhaps as compensation for the early foregrounding of Caspian and then of Eustace. Lucy - kind of always the DM’s favourite, to be honest - gets her day in the sun with the excellent Dufflepods session, which uses invisible NPCs to great effect and is both funny and deeply spooky, and does a clever job of creating fear in the party without really having a genuine villain. There’s a part where Lucy is creeping down the corridor of Coriakin’s house, heading for the spellbook, and she catches sight of her face in a strange, bearded mirror. Lewis says something beautiful about his not being a magician and therefore not knowing what the mirror is for, and it’s what every DM always wants to say when a player starts grilling them about a random background detail. Lucy’s eventual encounter with the spellbook is good too - the detail about it being possible to turn the pages forward but not back is maybe the first instance of that trope, and the offer of individual power at the price of achieving a party objective is always a fun thing to throw at a party once their dynamic has become a bit too stable. There is too here the not-very-gameable but always-quotable last impression of that spellbook, when its contents fade from Lucy’s memory like a dream:

‘And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book.’

There are further island excitements: Deathwater Isle, where the water turns everything to gold, is not exploited as much as you might think by the party (mine would dip almost
everything they could find in it and then offload the on some island merchant, spectacularly crashing the economy). Then it gets reeeeal mystical towards the end, and frankly this bit is not very gameable: but it is preceded by a seminar on adventuring philosophy itself, in the incident of the Dark Island. The Dark Island is a giant mass of sea-floating darkness in which nightmares become flesh: along with Charn and Tash, it’s one of the moments Lewis lets himself get gnarly. As a child, the fragments of horror the crew experience on it - the scissors, the gongs - used to give me real nightmares. But more relevant to our purposes, when it appears on the horizon, the party has a full on dispute about the point of adventuring. Everyone is all ‘fuck going there,’ and then Reepicheep pipes up:

‘But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that darkness?' asked Drinian.

‘Use?' replied Reepicheep. 'Use, Captain? If you mean by filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures. And here is as great an adventure as I have ever heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.’

Don’t try and tell me you have never had this conversation round the table. Don’t be a Drinian. Be a Reepicheep.