Saturday, 1 October 2016

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger

So, the last of the Narnia posts, which is about the first of the Narnia books, although it also isn't the first of the Narnia books: The Magician's Nephew. There are strong views on when you should read The Magician's Nephew but nobody suggests it should be read last – there are chunks of The Last Battle, at very least, that only make sense if you've read it. Really you can read it anytime after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before The Last Battle. But enough. What is it like as a campaign, as part of Lewis' ongoing exploration of party dynamics and exploration methods?

The Magician's Nephew is basically an ambitious spin-off campaign from the ongoing Narnia setting whereby DM Lewis and a couple of players decide to get multiversal: and like a lot of multiversal campaigns, the upshot is a tonally inconsistent campaign which takes on completely different forms as it hops between worlds. That does not change the fact, though, that there is a lot of good stuff in The Magician's Nephew.

To start with – as is common in most Narnian campaigns – there's an intro module wherein the party learns the structures of adventuring. The party this time has just two members, both of them more or less without class (at least at this stage) – Digory (the brave one) and Polly (the clever one), starting on their home plane of Earth with some aimless sneaking around attics. While it's all very low-stakes (until suddenly it isn't), it's also – as with so much of Lewis' narration – wonderfully adventure-minded, with careful thinking and mental mapping of the ways different buildings connect to each other and probing of the spaces that must, therefore, exist and be explorable, and then careful sneaking between them. This is - once again - why I stand by the 'DM Lewis' conceit of these posts as actually being something more than a conceit. The way Lewis constructs his characters' dilemmas and solutions is beautifully, nakedly gameable.

Having proved, then, that they get how adventuring works, they're then rewarded with the beginning of the real adventure, via the magic rings that let them travel between worlds. These are a fine old adventuring McGuffin, almost as fine as Tolkein's magic Ring of Plot Creation: but actually there is also a bit more to them that that, because of the way the mechanism of travel is set up. First, there's the trick of the double rings, one outbound and one for return, which allow for shenanigans when a PC only has hold of one or another of the rings. Secondly, there's the staging point for magical travel, the Wood Between the Worlds – one of the finest phrases ever written. The wood is a beautiful structure for laying out the options of planar travel to the party while also making them take responsibility for them: Digory and Polly have to keep track of where they're going via markings and maps or else they face being lost in the multiverse forever. Such loss is, of course, the horror lurking behind all campaigns of this kind, and the moment when Polly saves Digory from losing himself in an infinity of unknowable planes is genuinely chilling.

Adventure, in a single image
Just as chilling, though, is the plane they do end up in: Charn. Charn is a desolate ruincrawl of a plane, and shows how plane-hopping campaigns can take advantage of this kind of one-note setting. If it was an enormous, plot-crucial dungeon in a single-plane campaign then the players could justly complain that a dungeon of pure uninhabited ruins is dull, but when hopping between planes it's the kind of dizzyingly large and strange setting that makes plane-travel worthwhile. And at the centre of it all, a reward for the party's careful exploration, is the plot-seed for the rest of the campaign, in the form of a classic 'Do not touch: exciting adventures will result' trap. Polly and Digory even have the conversation your players have had dozens of times, where one of them points out what an obvious trap it is and the other says yes, that's why they should do it – why they should check out the open tomb or pick up the frost-covered helmet or, in this case, ring the bell with the hammer provided. Obviously Digory rings the bell. Digory is old-school. But who of us is not old-school before poetry like this? -

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

What follows covers three planes – Charn, London and Narnia – and shows how it's possible to tie a campaign like this together even while each plane retains different moods and modes. Charn continues to be a bleak, high fantasy ruin-world of extreme and constant danger, but now they themselves have awoken that danger in the form of Jadis the witch-queen: London is an amazing romp of Edwardian satire and running combat against an undefeatable enemy who the children nevertheless outplay and outfox constantly, like 1st
level characters outgaming a dragon: Narnia is a wilderness crawl in which everything is suddenly wonderful, less a campaign stage itself and more a reward for having fully fooled the witch. As with other Narnia campaigns this last section is inventive but not very satisfying as a game: once again Lewis the DM seems to have ended things with a long and quite superfluous email to his playgroup about all the complex backstory stuff they didn't get because they – justifiably– didn't care enough.

The Magician's Nephew is not the most nor the least satisfactory Narnian book, and the same is true of it as a campaign. But the dark, inventive joy of the plane-hopping is magnificent, and it reveals something about multiplanar campaigns that runs against the received wisdom on them. Traditionally, campaigns where the party gets to travel between planes at will are one of the answers to the 'what do you do with a party that's too high-level to easily challenge anymore?' question: you send them somewhere where the lowliest civilian is a 9th level genie or an ageless reality-warping monk or an embodiment of fire itself or a literal devil. Other planes are just like our only the challenge rating is adjusted massively upward.

Polly and Digory's adventures show that this needn't be the case: their multiplanar adventures kick off about 10 minutes after they first learned how to take a Stealth check and just keep going. They have to find their feet in several dimensions in quick succession: and they turn out to be great at it, because they're old-school and smart about when to engage and whento back off and if you put a magic ring in their hand and a plane of post-nuclear desolation at their feet they'll seek out the first 20th-level witch-queen they can find and fuck with her, because that's how they get their Wednesday night kicks. The Magician's Nephew is a template for doing a plane-hopping campaign right off the bat: the ultimate form of the players-as-intruders-in-the-halls-of-the-gods campaign. You could have those people at work who want to try out D&D kill some goblins and break out of prison, or you could show them this. Make your choice, adventurous stranger.