Friday, 23 September 2016

Do Talking Horses roll? Supposing they don't?

The Horse and his Boy is famously the most outlying Narnia book: it doesn’t happen in Narnia, it only tangentially involves children from earth, and one of its protagonists isn’t even human. As a campaign, it feels like the DM and two very experienced players got together to intentionally do something weird (only having two PCs being a classic sign that it’s just the hardcore types trying something strange) and discovered that actually it didn’t really work. So this is not going to be one of the longer or more insightful posts in this series.

One of the things that doesn’t especially work about it is the thinly different setting of Calormen and Tashbaan, which are a form of fantasy Arabia. Fantasy Arabia is traditionally the first port of call for an author or fantasy world trying to break out of its Eurocentrism. There are some sound historical reasons for this, to do with the fact that for most of the Middle Ages attempting to leave Europe generally meant either sailing an endless sea to your certain death or interacting with Islam, and obviously Orientalism (and Orientalism in gaming specifically) has been better and longer discussed elsewhere. Basically, though Narnia as a setting has many fans - and though many people like The Horse and his Boy a great deal - nobody has ever claimed that Calormen is a particularly deep or interesting setting, and everybody for the past 30-odd years at least has also agreed it’s a hella racist one.

In this sense The Horse and his Boy is reminiscent of many clunky Arabian Nights-y settings that The Last Battle - already covered - touches on the Calormenes again and uses them mostly as strawmen but does at least incarnate their demonic god Tash, who used to terrify me as a kid. The Horse and his Boy doesn’t even manage that, and much of the plot is spent trying to leave Calormen for more European parts, there to do lots of narration and action-reporting and political commentary and other things DMs tend to overdo. All this stuff muscles out most of the real adventuring, beyond a little bit of city capering and a crawl across a desert.
have been run over the years but it doesn’t really have anything to teach us. Everyone has a curly beard and dark eyes and is solemn and cunning and cruel and so on and so on.

What is interesting about The Horse and his Boy is, obviously, the horse, which is definitely a PC and also, obviously, a horse. Again, The Last Battle touches on the issue of animal protagonists/players but this is where Lewis gets most deeply into the idea, and where we learn its rewards and its limitations. A horse PC is an outlandish idea certainly, but I don’t think there’s a party anywhere in the world that doesn't have some experience with putting an animal in a PC or ally role for at least some of the time. Transformed druids, familiars, intelligent steeds: lately our warlock drank a potion that transformed him into 82 bees for half an hour of crucial game time. This stuff is fun and it hugely expands the potential of a party - I spend a lot of time trying to outdesign a druid whose wide range of transformation options make a lot of more basic imprisonment scenarios kind of pointless.

Nevertheless there are limits to how interesting those parts of the game can be - especially for all the party members who aren’t the druid or who don’t see through the familiar’s eyes. The game experience of someone transformed into an animal or mentally inhabiting one - even an intelligent one - is radically different, sometimes usefully so (flying up high to see something distant), sometimes not (trying to operate a door handle): but whether it’s functioning as a help or a hindrance it functions always and to an enormous extent as a distancer (see also: having a telepath in the party). It’s like constantly splitting the party even if they all stay in the same room: it experientally splits the party and prevents them from experiencing an adventure together which is, after all, what we’re all here for.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that The Horse and his Boy feels like a weird experiment, interesting in itself but not to be repeated, the kind of experiment that of necessity is conducted off to the side in an isolation chamber. You probably couldn’t have a Narnia book with three Pevensie protagonists on an equal footing with a wise talking horse: you probably couldn’t run a long, conventionally satisfying campaign for an elf, a dwarf, a human and a wise talking horse. But as an offbeat mini-campaign with a couple of people willing to play around, it makes for a worthwhile off-season experiment.