Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Big damn heroes, sir!
Ain’t we just?
Comic Book Adventurers
The Last War is the most important historical event in the Eberron campaign setting. It sets the stage for the geo-political situation in Khorvaire, lays groundwork for the introduction of the many secret societies and conspiracies that control the world, and provides players with easy plot hooks to base their character concepts around. An entire game supplement, The Forge of War, details the events of the hundred year conflict in minute detail and the anthology Tales of The Last War provides some stories of some characters’ adventurers during its waning days. There is a wealth of information on who took part in each battle, how many troops they had, and even some famous adventuring parties in both books. In spite of this fact, there is a dearth of art showing these battles; thus describing the war to other gamers can be tricky.
The art of the original Eberron Campaign Setting book comes straight out of comics. Since Eberron is about larger than life characters taking over-the-top actions, comparisons to comic book heroes, who often find themselves in the same situations are quite apt. The Players can be Batman in Sharn. They can be a manga inspired ronin like Ogami Ittou from Sarlona. They can be alienated mutants with grudges against society anywhere in Eberron. They hit harder, fly faster, and are just better than the world’s average inhabitants. They have the best weapons too. Of course, they can take on hundreds of nameless warriors in a single sitting. They can shake down Sharnite thugs before lunchtime. Naturally, they’d end up in hyper-stylized action sequences when the shit hits the fan.
Most of the art, however, keeps to the post-war period where most of the game’s action takes place. There is, however, one exception in which we are given a glimpse of a battle during the latter part of the war. The combatants are bathed in a sickly red light as they stare each other down. One side, in the top interior panel, square-jawed, metallic warforged stare down their opponents in the lower interior panel, wretched Karnnathi zombies. Finally, we see the warforged cut down the zombies in a way that is reminiscent to the battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance in the film Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. With a flick of their wrists, the zombies are cut in half. This piece is lacking.
While the art does provide a bit of information about who is fighting whom in the Last War, it is overly focused on warforged and zombies, the common soldiers of the war. There is very little place for the insanity of an adventuring party, clad in magical armor and piloting an airship, would bring to this battle. We see the massive numbers of the common soldier, be it living construct or intelligent undead. We see the effects of the many spells used in the war on the environment, creating a blood red sky, but not the casters who did it. There is no one individual who stands out in this battle, unlike the heroic scenes in the rest of book. The Player Character is neither a nameless warforged nor unknown Karnnathi zombie. There are no heroes.
Big Damn Heroes of the Last War
In war films, the common soldier is the everyman in extraordinary circumstances. He begins naïve to the brutality that he will inevitably come up against in his travels; slowly he comes to rely on his fellow soldiers, sharing his experiences of home with them. They fight for one another, bonding and building a brotherhood out of shared duty. He does everything the audience would expect of him, rising to occasional heroism after a heroic speech and valiantly dying for his country. He is Captain Miller, Staff Sergeant Eversmann, and more recently, Staff Sergeant Nantz.
The Player Characters aren’t everymen. The everymen of the Last War are quite dead- or in the least horribly maimed. This is not to disparage their sacrifice, but the Player Characters in Eberron rarely represent the common man. If their characters began that way, through the course of their backstories and the nature of the Player, the PC becomes something extraordinary. They rise above the battlefield.
There are two war films out in theaters today. The first is Battle: Los Angeles, which is referenced above. The second is Zack Snyder’s new film Sucker Punch. Battle: Los Angeles follows the common soldier through a fantastic battlefield in which he faces off against faceless aliens bent on stealing Earth’s water. The everyman is embodied in the square-jawed Aaron Eckhart. Sucker Punch takes the viewer to multiple fantastic battlefields, each a psychological extension of its heroes. Our heroes are the imprisoned girls of Lennox House, a sanitarium circa the 1950’s. Battle: Los Angeles is a standard war film with a science fiction premise, while Sucker Punch is a fantasy film that twists the imagery of war films.
In Battle: Los Angeles, we see everyday Marines fighting in an LA warped by an alien invasion. The world doesn’t begin extraordinary; neither do the movie’s protagonists. In the opening scenes we see Staff Sargeant Nantz’s soldiers playing games, worrying about their weddings, drinking, and training. They have families, friends, and lovers. What changes for these men, who do act heroically throughout the film, is their environment. Evil aliens in their flying saucers invade Earth, wreaking destruction and mayhem with their advanced robotics and railguns. Throughout the film, the everyman is reacting to fantastic circumstances, elevating his actions to something extraordinary. In one scene, Nantz blows up a drone by attracting it to a gas station with his radio, which the drones are programmed to attack. When he returns to his squad, he greeted with clapping and likened to cinema legend John Wayne. Yet, Nantz is just a common soldier hours from retirement, who is forced back into the line of duty. The importance of the everyman on the fantastic battlefield is reinforced when one of the civilians the soldiers are protecting picks up a machine gun, attempting to kill the invaders before sacrificing himself to protect his son and country. These characters are elevated from ordinary to extraordinary because of their environment. In a way, their actions provide an excellent explanation for how an NPC in Eberron can be heroic, but they aren’t inspirational fodder for Players.
Sucker Punch isn’t a traditional war film. It uses the imagery of war films to convey the protagonists’ fight against imprisonment. The “war” the Lennox House girls are fighting is against concepts like corruption embodied in the skeevy staff of the sanitarium. In their dreams, the Lennox House girls are Big Damn Heroes! Zack Snyder’s use of quick cuts, slow motion, and detailed cinematography, honed from his other comic book movies, 300 and Watchmen, allowing him to present each girl as a comic book hero. During the World War sequence, we see Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) cut through hordes of German zombies, eventually saving her sister Rocket (Jena Malone). In the dragon sequence, Amber (Jamie Chung) banks and weaves between two support beams holding the bridge to the castle up. Her canny flying traps the creature, allowing Babydoll (Emily Browning) to slay it. The hyper-stylized action puts the heroes at the forefront of the scene, recalling the earlier comic art in the Eberron Campaign Setting book. They overshadow the everyman, because they’re just that cool. Jon Hamm, the most Aaron Eckhart-like character in the film, is ominously called the High Roller, who seeks to steal Babydoll’s body, brain, and soul with a lobotomy (and heavily metaphorical rape). He’s a parody of the everyman. When we see him in the sanitarium at the end of the film, he shows misgivings about operating on the girl, but he certainly doesn’t excel under his circumstances, lobotomizing Babydoll anyway! The Lennox House girls, on the other hand, are a Dungeons and Dragons adventuring party in all of their silliness, because they create the environments they exist in, dominating the battlefield with their willpower.
The Big Damn Heroes of the Last War don’t lead troops into battle. They’re in airships, free-falling unto hordes of zombies, slicing them with their magical weapons. They’re blasting warforged with their wands. They’re given quick and dirty objectives with few rules to impede their goals. They’re stand above the rank-and-file soldier. When they do join the common man, they instill awe amongst the ranks. In the end, the PC adventuring party in the Last War gets to slay the dragon and keep all the glory, becoming paragons or pariahs on the fantastic battlefield.