Saturday, 10 September 2016

stand by the play-world

The Silver Chair is one of the more off-kilter Narnia books and probably the consensus weakest: it has no Pevensies, no strong through-line and lots of futzing around. It’s weirdly moody, sort of children’s Gothic in places, and slightly nasty in other places. All of this makes it a less satisfying book than the others, but weird atmosphere and disconnected episodes can a great adventure make.

The party this time is down to three, with that strange triad dynamic three-person parties have, where there’s always someone the odd one out. In this instance it's definitely Puddleglum. We've got -
  • Eustace Scrubb, returning from his previous adventure, now some sort of fighter I guess
  • Jill Pole, a rogue coming into her own
  • Puddleglum, some weird homebrew race-class, overly heavily roleplayed

It's not the most inspiring party, and it takes a while for it to even get to the good adventuring, in which intervening time the terms of the campaign are clunkily set up with the announcement of Four Signposts, vague enough that the DM can jam them into whichever session they please to force the pace, and a somewhat better hook about a missing heir to the throne, along with the whole Marshwiggle thing which in many ways feels distinctly Ewok. Puddleglum is fun in his way but Lewis generally steers clear of non-human PCs for a reason, and Puddleglum even more than Reepicheep seems to dedicated to playing up a handful of characteristics until it becomes irritating.

But when the story finally starts going and they get to the good stuff, it's really good. After a little wilderness wandering and some ruin-crawling, wherein the party fails to take several DM-dropped hints, they comes to the avoidable but fun dungeon of Harfang, the castle of the giants, which is the template for many subsequent scale-based adventures, filled with tables 20ft off the ground and cooking pots with sheer sides. I think most people have done a version of this adventure at one time or another: it's irresistible. But it also tends towards goofiness, even cartoonishness – Harfang is gothicky and scary when you're a kid but not so much rereading now – which warns people off it. I've only ever run an adventure of the 'giant's castle, everything triple normal size' for a special silly birthday session, wherein players had to collect giant-style ingredients (cockatrice eggs, minotaur milk) to make a giant prince's birthday cake. It was excellent but it was only excusable as a dream sequence.

D&D's other, serious way of running civilized, society-having giants – to make them mythic and quasi-divine and put them in a kind of Valhalla (it's usually Nordic-themed) – actually also has a Harfang-y vibe, though that's because both Lewis and Gary were drawing on the Jotun of Norse myth. But this portentous, palaces-in-the-clouds approach is difficult to pull off because there's ultimately no getting away from the fact that even if they're all very solemn and Odin-like, their chairs are still DC15 to climb for your PCs, and their cutlery still makes for amusing two-handed weapons. What is to be done? Mostly, using giants as just very large orcs for mid-level parties, seems to be the answer. But throw your players in a cooking pot once in a while.

(Bonus information: 'Harfang' is an old term for a male snowy owl.)

The novel itself, though, pulls away pretty quickly from fun adventures in scale and gets a great deal darker – and here you get the the feeling that DM Lewis himself wasn't quite sure about Harfang's tone but that in Underland he can truly commit to the grimdark campaign he was aiming for. Underland offers the party a long caverncrawl towards their true objective, with the sense that the PCs are supposed to be ruthlessly cutting down the sad mooks known as Earthmen, who, like troglodytes and grimlocks and other lank-haired underground goblin stand-ins, are an uninspiring bunch. The party largely bypasses them through swift talking, which is a smart move, and comes to through further slightly overdone signposting to the Big Bad and her thrall, the object of their quest – where, once again, smooth talking and clever absorption of environmental clues helps them along. In the end they're given a massive DM nudge – the 'name of Aslan' – to get them to understand what needs doing. This bit itself is some bad DMing – the only way to destroy the titular chair seems to be to free the relevant NPC, whereas any decent party would sniff around for loopholes and hopefully be offered them. There is then some further smooth talking from Puddleglum, who defeats the Big Bad with a Christian filibuster nevertheless relevant to our purposes as well -

We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world.

At this point everything then switches gear again, for the optimistic or at least the wondrous, rather than the bleak: through the medium of a high-speed caverncrawl chase Lewis offers the party a shift from bleak Underdark-style Underland to the much more unique Bism, the Under-Underland of Narnia and home of some of Lewis' most vivid and memorable writing, where gemstones grow like ripe fruit and glow with internal light, and are harvested and eaten. The shift is another way in which The Silver Chair doesn't really work as a novel - especially since the party boringly decides to go down there, perhaps not realising that they can just load up on gems and crash the surface economy with them later. With this refusal to take the bait, the novel wanders off into heavy-handed, long-winded mysticism of the kind that does indeed doom it to be the weakest of the 7.

But Bism, brief as its appearance is, is interesting and a road not much taken by D&D, as well as by Lewis' party. Sure, the Underdark has theoretically wealthy and opulent drow cities and dragon lairs and the occasional subterranean treasure trove: but the vision of the underside of the world as more (and differently) fertile than the one aboveground where the party comes from is rare and strange and charming. Faerun, more than Narnia, is full of bands of people hurling themselves down holes in the ground for personal gain, and the RPG blogosphere is full of people worrying about what kind of society would lead to this happening when anything pseudo-medieval should, logically, be a land Merry England agriculture and gradual production of illuminated manuscripts. Bism is a plausible answer: make the underside of the world not just a place dotted with occasional motherlodes but inherently, overabundantly rich and strange. Dangerous too, obviously, but dangerous in its profusion, an underground jungle rather than a barren cavern.

Next time: it all gets very sad and serious indeed.