Monday, 19 September 2016

take the adventure that Aslan sends us

The Last Battle is where it all ends for Narnian campaigning (though not for this series: I don't want to get into the Reading Order Debate now but I'm doing The Horse and his Boy and The Magician's Nephew at some future point). As a book it's a strange and sad one, much given to provoking moody, nostalgic conversations in adults but possibly less appreciated by children. As a campaign manual it has a decent mid-section with an interestingly fluid part, and then a long oblique discussion of how to end a campaign from which there is much to learn...

The Last Battle is a book of three acts, really, the first of which is set-up and not very gameable but is good set-up, with a false prophet storyline and that excellent thing, a decoy villain whose ostensible henchman is the power behind the throne. The rest of the set-up,

though - Tirian and Jewel investigating and getting captured - is proto-adventure as there isn’t really a party yet, just the two of them: but it might be a 0th-level learning module for those playing Tirian and Jewel, since they’re the new ones. If so it’s a classic, walking the two of them through some easy-peasy plot set-up and simple combat and then getting them captured to create the conditions for the party proper to come together.

Or, at least, the 2nd incarnation of the party, if Tirian and Jewel are the first. The Last Battle is a campaign that makes the deeply debatable, but, let’s go with it) case for a snowballing and highly experimental party, viz -

  • Tirian, Last King of Narnia (fighter/paladin, as with the other male protagonists in the series)
  • Jewel the Unicorn, who totally is a PC but god knows how this works. But he talks and is sentient so that’s fine, and is a killing machine so that’s fine too
(Then they are joined by...)
  • Eustace Scrubb (fighter/paladin again)
  • Jill Pole (ranger or possibly straight-up rogue given how much emphasis is laid on her sneaking skills)
(And then by...)
  • Poggle (dwarf-as-class)
(And then by...)
  • Farsight the eagle, attempting to out-do whoever is playing Jewel in complexity.
There’s also Puzzle the mule who is plot-crucial, unlike the usual tragically expendable
adventurers’ mule, but who is a tag-along NPC rather than a PC in his own right. Puzzle is great though and a clever NPC addition: he and his lion skin are the key to undoing the enemy’s plans but he’s deeply pathetic and sympathetic and wants nothing more than to just take the skin off, and a good Dm would play him to the hilt as Eeyore until the party began to split over whether to take the damn skin off or just kill him. There’s no reason why you couldn’t turn a previously standard pack mule into this kind of NPC to mess with your overladen party, incidentally, as long as there’s a druid or something to do the interpreting.

Fuck yeah Tash

(Ultimately, the party is also joined by basically everybody who Lewis has ever DMed for: Peter, Edmund, Lucy, even Polly and Digory who did some kind of Spelljammer campaign with Lewis back in, god, must been 1994? Nobody can quite remember. They seem cool, though. But we’ll come back to that in a second.)

The amazing expanding party - maybe you could do Farsight as an animal companion to simplify things, I guess, but however you do it’s gonna be super-annoying to handle as a DM because he can see, like, everything, for miles, and can fly - goes through a fairly great adventure sequence in the middle of the book: as a foursome they wilderness-crawl to a fortified tower/storeroom and shake it down for equipment in the calm, methodical manner of a party that knows what’s up before conducting a sneaky rescue of the donkey in which various PCs act alarmingly but brilliantly on their own initiative to advance the plot beyond their reach. There’s then a classic disguise-deceive-ambush rescue of a column of dwarven slaves: but lo, the DM reveals that (most of) the dwarves are not even that pleased about being rescued and that it’s a Campaign of Moral Pessimism! Oh shit! There’s no baked-in victory here!

Like, there really isn’t. It’s at this point that The Last Battle becomes a campaign all about endings. How do you end a campaign? How do you end a world? Lewis has some really pretty radical thoughts on the subject.

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to be ending a campaign I’ve had running for a year: the long arc of the campaign is finally coming good, the PCs have walked all the way along the rocky ridge to discover at the end that it was a dragon’s spine all along (not literally), the apocalypse is here, or threatening to be. But as things are planned, the PCs will avert it. Hopefully - for the requisite drama - one or two of them will die in the process, but only one or two of them. Threads will be tied up and long-planted seeds will fruit, but it will not be definitive. Doors will be left open.

Lewis closes his doors, extremely literally. The remnants of the world pass through a door - the dragons and great wurms eating up the land just before they leave - and then it is no more. As noted, a bunch of his older players show back up for the last session. There’s very little real play in the last session - a magnificent battle but one which everyone knows is there to be lost, and which they all lose as heroically as possible, and then the winding up, as Aslan-Lewis-GM spills all manner of secrets that he kept mysterious during the campaign proper. (Yes, the god-stuff gets near unignorable here, but ignore it with me.)

I sort of wish I had the guts to leave a setting and a story fully behind like this: because it allows the opening up of new, more adventurous adventures, like the ones Aslan previews to the now-ex-players of the Narnia campaign as he introduces them to the richer world he has built. I have a dozen new campaign ideas in my head, but I know me and my players both will likely be dragged back to the relatively easy, flexible mainstream fantasy setting we’re in now, and the richer, deeper, weirder worlds remain easy to imagine playing on when you don’t have to actually work out how to play in them.
Or perhaps it’s all just a metaphor for how exciting it sounds when the DM tells you that next time you’ll be using those awesome-looking new 4th edition rules...